Regis Lucis Caelum pursed his lips, gripping the arms of his chair. He watched as Noctis bumped fists with Gladiolus before approaching the edge of the arena, shifting back and forth on the balls of his feet.
The annual Kingsglaive/Crownsguard exhibition matches were about to begin. Regis had established them over a decade ago as a way to bridge the gap between Glaive and Crownsguard, pitting them against beasts in various single and co-op matches. These contests, while perhaps a bit barbaric in nature, served as a surprisingly productive way for both organizations to blow off steam and foster some level of camaraderie with each other. And, if it helped with the slight population control problems the beasts had just outside city limits, that was an added bonus.
Regis admitted he enjoyed the matches. He'd even participated in ceremonial matches, a few times in his younger years.
This year it was Noct's turn to showcase his prowess.
The king pushed himself to his feet, approaching the edge of the arena. His son met him halfway.
"Take care not to overextend yourself."
Noctis nodded indulgently. "Okay."
"If the fight becomes too much, bow out gracefully. These matches are hardly to the death. Be smart. Sometimes tactical retreats-"
"…are your friend. Yeah, I know." The prince rolled his eyes.
"I'm serious, Noctis. A little pride isn't worth a fatal wound."
"Getting maimed wasn't fun the first time. I'm not planning on doing it again."
Regis narrowed his eyes, unamused.
Noctis winced. "Too far?"
"Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood. Don't worry so much, okay?"
Regis clenched his jaw. He knew he was being irrational. Gladiolus swore up and down that Noct was ready – Clarus seemed pleased with his progress in training. Even Cor had no complaints. And yet, when his advisers had brought up the possibility of Noct opening the games this year, Regis was ashamed to admit he'd fought against it, tooth and nail.
Of course, this just had to be the time Noctis was completely on board with an idea raised by the council. And when faced with the glowing reports of everyone who'd ever seen him fight, Regis could hardly object.
Noctis sighed. "Look. Do you trust me?"
Regis was wholly unfamiliar with this young man – with the warrior he saw—gazing back at him. There was tempered steel hidden there, lurking behind the blue of his eyes. He recognized himself in the determined set of Noct's jaw. He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he reached out in spite of it, taking his son's hands. "You know I do."
Noctis was eighteen – hardly a little boy anymore. He'd been in combat training for the better part of a decade. And yet, this unease; this gnawing, aching dread, wouldn't leave Regis. He shook himself, taking a steadying breath.
His apprehension wasn't about Noct's prowess in battle so much as the lingering shadow the Marilith left behind. Regis still revisited that night in his darkest moments – still woke gasping for breath, Noct's name on his lips. Sometimes he could even smell the blood staining the front of his raiment - could feel his own thundering footsteps as he raced through the Citadel halls, begging the Gods not to let his child die.
And on other nights, more vulnerable nights, begging them not to push the Chosen's cruel fate upon him. Perhaps it was easier not to acknowledge the prophecy if Regis refused to acknowledge his boy becoming a man.
Noctis didn't seem to understand the source of his father's worry. There was clear frustration in the grim line of his brow. "Then trust me. I can do this."
These insecurities were hardly Noct's burden. It wasn't fair to doubt his capabilities, particularly when there was no logical reason to do so. If Regis continued to undermine his confidence on the battlefield, the young man would take that as some sort of personal failing.
Regis couldn't let that happen. He cupped Noct's cheek. "Don't misunderstand, Noctis. I'm your father. I'll always worry, but that is not a reflection on your capabilities. I have the utmost confidence in you. Please don't ever doubt that."
Thankfully, his words seemed to reassure Noctis. He smiled tentatively. To Regis' surprised delight, his son leaned forward, hugging him around the waist. "Thanks."
Hugs from Noct, of his own volition, were few and far between. Regis grinned in spite of himself. "What's this, now? Be still, my heart."
Noctis groaned. "Don't make it weird, Dad."
Regis chuckled. With great reluctance, he released Noctis, holding his gaze for a few seconds more. "I want you back in one piece."
"No, I know. I'll be careful."
"You'd better." Regis patted his shoulder, ushering him back toward the edge of the arena. He limped over and took his seat beside Clarus just as Gladiolus appeared at Noctis' side, whispering last minute advice in his ear.
Clarus glanced at him sidelong as they watched their children, clearly amused and a touch exasperated. "You're overreacting, Regis. They're sabertusks, not behemoths."
Regis pasted on a diplomatic smile for the crowd. "Of course, Clarus. You must be right. I'm just putting my child in an arena full of killer, monster dogs. Why should I be worried? What could go wrong?"
Regis clenched his teeth as Noctis strode toward the center of the arena. The crowd roared. The people loved their prince—his adoring public had gone into a frenzy when it was announced he'd be opening the games this year.
All the unease Noctis typically displayed at social gatherings had evaporated. His son was clearly enjoying himself, grinning as he waved to the crowd. He conjured his Engine Blade, tossing the sword from one hand to another with a flourish.
Gladiolus took his seat on Regis' other side. The younger Amicitia smirked, shaking his head with an expression that could only be called fond. "Psh. What a show-off."
An announcer came on over the loud speakers – Regis listened with half an ear, quite a bit more concerned with the metal doors surrounding the arena, where the beasts would enter. Already, the sabertusks were growling and gnashing their teeth, making a legitimate effort at ripping the bars off their cages.
Images of Noctis between those jaws rose unbidden in his mind. Regis clamped down on them, banished them before they went further.
Before they could morph into a little boy, covered in blood.
Oh, Shiva. What possessed me to allow this?
Clarus leaned in close. "There's no Marilith here. You can't wrap him in swaddling forever."
His Shield may as well have punched him in the gut. Regis swallowed down a dozen scathing replies like the bitter pills they were. His friend's words weren't wrong, but he was in no mood to hear them.
The glaives on guard duty were raising a shield around the center of the arena – a countermeasure to protect the crowd, should any spells or miss-thrown weapons flash toward them. Noctis sunk into a crouch, exchanging his sword for a couple of daggers. The prince motioned upward with a flick of his wrist—a signal that he wanted the beasts released from their prison.
Regis leaned forward in his seat, eyes locked onto the arena. His stomach churned as the grates surrounding the epicenter rose with a metallic groan. No one had time to blink before the five beasts sprung toward Noctis, screeching. Sabertusks generally worked in groups, and this situation was no different.
They stopped a foot away, circling Noctis, biding their time. The prince seemed content to follow their lead. Piercing blue eyes tracked their movements, daggers held at the ready. After what seemed to Regis an eternity, the largest of the group pounced. This one was clearly an alpha. The others deferred to it.
The alpha moved on Noctis with the others close behind, springing at him from all directions. Noctis waited until the last possible second to shift, tossing one of his daggers into the air and warping to it in a flash of blue light. The pack continued moving toward each other even after the prince had disappeared. Noctis would need to make use of their confusion, and he'd need to do it fast.
The young man didn't miss a beat. He'd barely materialized before he was moving again, hurling his weapon at the alpha.
It was the right decision. Taking the leader out might incapacitate its fellows, at least for a moment. His dagger struck true, embedding into the flesh between the alpha's shoulder blades. Noctis warped, taking hold of the hilt and using it for leverage as he raised his other dagger, slashing its throat in one smooth motion. Quickly, as not to be caught by the others, Noctis yanked the dagger from the dying beast. He placed a palm on top of its head and pushed off, landing smoothly on his feet a safe distance from the group.
The alpha went down, spraying blood in its wake. Gladiolus whooped from beside Regis. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Nice, Noct! Don't lose your momentum!"
Noctis smirked. The other sabertusks whirled on him, shrieking, skirting around the corpse of their leader. They seemed almost indecisive for a moment before they sprung again at their prey. This time, their movements were much less coordinated. They came at him simultaneously; so quickly, two of them slammed into each other instead of the prince.
The other two were free to attack unmolested. They closed in on Noctis. The prince dismissed his daggers and summoned a shield, knocking both sabertusks away with one sweeping motion. One seemed dazed enough to pause in its assault, disoriented, but the other released a savage roar, whirling on Noctis so quickly it swept him off his feet.
Regis' breath caught. The beast had Noctis pinned to the ground. And his arm...oh, Gods.
His arm was inside of its mouth.
Regis was having a stroke - he was convinced of that. His heart was pounding, his limbs were numb, and it took every ounce of kingly restraint he had not to cry out.
The prince was forcibly holding the sabertusk's jaw open with one arm braced vertically inside of it. His hand pushed against the roof of its mouth, his elbow in the gap between two jagged teeth on its lower jaw. The only thing saving the appendage from being torn to shreds was the thick leather gauntlet he'd, surprisingly, consented to wearing.
The king surged to his feet. Before he could stand entirely, however, a hand shot out and closed around his arm, stopping him dead in his tracks.
"Wait, hold on." Gladio's eyes were intense, but he made no move to rise from his chair. Regis knew how dedicated the young man was to Noctis—he would stand between his son and the flames of hell, if need be. And yet, he was silent. Watchful, certainly, but calm as the wind before a storm. "He's got this."
Regis settled with great reluctance, gripping the arm of his chair like a vice. His hands were tied. Noctis wouldn't thank him for interfering with the match now, no matter what the results ended up being. He was quite certain the young man would rather lose that arm the sabertusk was trying so hard to crush.
He needn't have worried. Noctis, still holding the sabertusk's jaw open, lashed out with his other hand, fist connecting with its jaw. As he punched it, he jerked his other arm from between its jaws with a strained grunt, using the momentum to push himself sideways. He rolled out from under the beast, pulling a dagger from the armiger. Noctis threw it just as another sabertusk grabbed for his leg, its teeth missing him by centimeters.
But miss it did. Noctis disappeared in a trail of blue light.
Regis breathed an entirely too loud sigh of relief.
Noctis was done fooling around. He'd thrown his dagger to the top of a pillar. Dangling from it, he pulled a flask from the armiger and aimed it at the pacing group of beasts. With a flick of his wrist, the flask was soaring down to strike the ground.
A whirlwind of ice engulfed the beasts. They shrieked as it struck them, the shield surrounding the arena flickering and flashing as it caught flying chunks of ice. Even in spite of its protection, the temperature dropped by several degrees.
Sabertusks were weak against ice. Noctis had done his homework.
When the dust cleared and the ice settled, the beasts were writhing on the ground, limbs partially frozen. Regis suspected he had at least a minute or two before they thawed enough to move normally. Noctis didn't waste a moment of that time. He threw his dagger again, this time at the ground. He landed steadily on his feet and sprung at the closest sabertusk – it had been knocked prone, and was having trouble regaining its footing.
Noctis landed on its back and, with some difficulty, thrust his blade deep into the beast's skull. He twisted the hilt and yanked it out with a cry, rolling backward and springing up into a crouch.
The prince looked winded now, but he didn't stop there. One of the sabertusks had managed to get itself up, and rose on its hind legs to strike at Noctis. He sidestepped with ease and grabbed its tail, swinging it bodily into the nearest pillar.
The sabertusk shrieked, but gained new fervor as the ice thawed more. It flicked its tail forcibly out of Noct's grip, who cried out, springing backward to cradle his wrist against his chest.
The prince only paused for a moment, but it was enough of a delay for the beast. It swung its head around, managing to catch Noctis with one of the long tusks protruding from the side of its mouth. The tusk hooked under the leathers he wore, tearing through them and leaving a thin line of blood streaking down the side of his abdomen.
The tusk caught Noct on the cheek in its upswing, snapping his head back. Droplets of blood accompanied it, spraying the ground.
It didn't look bad, but Regis tensed, wincing. The sabertusk had drawn blood, and with it, the violent fervor of the others increased. The three beasts roared, shattering what remained of Noct's blizzard spell, clinging to their flesh. The ice had sapped much of their energy, but they were still standing.
Noct's wrist was a problem. He still had a range of motion, but he was favoring it heavily. He exchanged his dagger for a sword and shifted the blade to his other hand, but he pressed onward, going for the beast he'd swung into the pillar. It appeared staggered – shaking its head dazedly from side to side.
Noctis waited for it to rear up, then thrust his sword deep into its chest. He brought his other arm up to grip the hilt, face twisting in pain, but he pressed on and dragged his blade downward, splitting the beast in two. He yanked the blade out and phased through a sabertusk lunging at his back, coming out behind it unscathed.
The beast went down, guts spilling in a grotesque pool on the ground.
Three down. Two more to go.
Regis was beginning to understand Gladio's confidence in him. Noctis definitely had his attention, based on more than fear for his well-being this time. He leaned forward in his seat, chin in his hand. The father in him was still very much horrified, but the warrior was intrigued.
Noctis watched the remaining two sabertusks with a keen eye, gaze shifting from one to the next. He was bleeding sluggishly from the wound on his side, wrist no doubt throbbing. His cheek was split where the tusk caught him, but he never wavered. He merely smirked, spat a mouthful of blood on the ground – and lunged.
The boy was a force of nature. His body phased, weaving between the beasts this way and that. Regis understood what he was doing. Noctis meant to confuse them, throw them off balance with his after-image. It was a clever move, though he'd have to be careful. Stasis would ruin everything.
The sabertusks whirled, slashing the air with their claws in clear frustration. One caught its fellow in the chest with a sweep, and it roared, pained. It turned on its compatriot, snapping its jaws at open air, where the other beast's head had been.
Noctis ceased phasing, planting his feet as he spun to a stop. The sabertusks turned on him, dizzy and furious.
The prince cocked his head, crooking his finger. He beckoned them toward him, lips twisted upward in that cocky smirk again. The beasts didn't disappoint. They lunged forward. Noctis conjured a shield to block their assault with his right arm. One sabertusk slammed into it, still dazed and disoriented. Its fellow was a few breaths behind, off-balance from Noct's phasing stunt.
Noctis raised his left arm toward the other beast, hand outstretched. With finesse Regis thought him incapable of, the prince conjured the most perfectly formed icicle he'd ever seen.
Regis' breath caught.
He's been practicing.
Noctis was a gifted mage in his own right, but he was all grand explosions and flashy shows of power. Controlled bursts just didn't come naturally to him. This spell, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. As wide and as long as a man's arm, the icicle hovered before his palm. It caught the sunlight, casting glittering, rainbow prisms upon the ground.
The beast's mouth was stretched wide. It couldn't have halted its stride now even if it wanted to; too much forward momentum. Noctis had the perfect shot. He flicked his wrist and the icicle went flying, entering the beast's mouth and exiting out the back of its head. It embedded into a pillar, impaling the beast. The sabertusk was dead on impact.
Regis found himself on his feet with the rest of the crowd. "Beautiful!"
Gladio leaned toward Regis with a lopsided grin. "He's been working on that for months."
Regis shook his head, dumbfounded. He did recall Noctis ending up in the infirmary with mild frost-bite a month ago. He hadn't though much of the incident at the time, and aside from a particularly stern lecture about minding his limits, he'd been content to leave him to his own devices. Now Regis understood just how hard Noctis must have trained for this moment.
A smile touched his lips. Fatherly concern and a warrior's respect warred with each other for dominance in Regis' psyche. In the end, he just wound up extremely proud of Noct.
Clarus looked smug. He merely stared as Regis took his seat again, letting the silence stretch on for a few seconds before speaking. "Apologies, Majesty. What was that you said earlier about killer, monster dogs?"
Regis couldn't help an answering smile. "Oh, shut up."
While his adoring crowd cheered on, Noctis thrust the last beast backward with his shield. The two faced off, circling each other.
Noctis was breathing heavily, but his eyes hadn't lost a hint of their focus. After a tense few moments, the sabertusk stumbled, fatigued. It was bleeding sluggishly from a few wounds, which seemed to be taking their toll.
That little stumble was all Noctis needed. He lunged forward, grabbing its shoulders, and pushing himself onto its back. He pulled a dagger from the armiger and buried it in the creature's skull to the hilt.
It sunk to its knees. With one final shriek, it fell face down into the dirt.
Noctis remained perched on its back. The prince allowed himself a moment to catch his breath before he grabbed the hilt of the dagger, wrenching it from the sabertusk's skull with a guttural groan. He sprung to his feet, dismissing the dagger and sinking into a mock bow.
"Winner: His Highness Prince Noctis!" The announcer's voice trilled from the speakers. Noctis grinned, straightening from his bow and leveling another one, this time directly toward the royal box—toward Regis.
The crowd went wild. Every soul in the stadium surged to their feet, Regis included. With a spring in his step, the prince exited the arena. He ignored the distraught medics trailing after him in favor of sauntering back toward his father.
Noctis was grinning from ear to ear. He was covered in dirt and blood, hair spiked with sweat, but he was the most beautiful sight in the world to Regis. The prince spread his arms wide. "See? No problem."
Gladio bumped fists with him, wrapping an arm around Noct's shoulders. "Good job, kid! Your footwork was solid. That bit with the tail was sloppy, though. It could have ripped your arm off. Be more careful next time, yeah?"
Noctis scoffed as his Shield ruffled his hair. "Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Gladio."
Regis shook his head, a breathless laugh falling from his lips. He closed the distance, clasping Noctis' uninjured arm. "Well done, Noct. Well done indeed."
Noct's eyes sparkled. "Did you see?"
Regis frowned. He'd seen a great many things, most of which he was certain shaved a few more years off his life. Before he could ask, however, Gladio rolled his eyes and filled in the blanks. "He means that ice spell he designed specifically to impress you."
Noctis stomped on his Shield's foot. His cheeks flushed pink. "Shut up!"
"Consider that a success. I am impressed, Noctis." He shook his head, incredulous. "Truly. I was beside myself, watching you out there. I'm not sure what sort of father I would be otherwise, but I needn't have bothered. I'm not sure when you became such an accomplished warrior behind my back, but clearly I'm the last to know."
The radiant smile Noctis gifted him with made every second of terror worth it.
He pressed his forehead against Noctis', heedless of the sweat and grime clinging to him like a mantle. "You should have your wounds seen to." Regis wrinkled his nose. "A shower wouldn't be remiss either."
"But I wanna watch the matches," Noct whined, lower lip in a pout. Regis' grin widened. His 'little' boy was still in there somewhere.
"They'll have to clear the beasts first and prepare the ring. You've got time."
Noctis sighed, but nodded his acceptance. "Okay, fine."
Regis took pity on the poor medics, still hovering just outside their group. He waved a hand, giving them permission to approach Noctis. "Mind your manners and listen to the doctors. Go get cleaned up, then come back. I'm not going anywhere, and neither is the tournament."
Gladio fell into step just behind Noct's right shoulder, medics struggling to keep up with the long, loping strides of two young men who would rather be going anywhere else. The group exited the arena towards the infirmary set up for combatants. Noctis looked back once at his father before disappearing behind a corner.
Regis took his seat once more. He sighed, meeting his Shield's poorly concealed glee head on. "Go on, then. Get it over with."
Clarus' grin only widened. He reached for two glasses, pouring wine into both before handing one off to Regis. "I'm sure I haven't the foggiest idea what you mean."
Regis scoffed. "What, no 'I told you so?'"
"Don't put words in my mouth. You said it, not me."
Regis took one look at the mirth on his Shield's face, and threw his wine at him.
"Your lips are moving, but all I hear is, 'treason.'"
The occasions when Regis could get Clarus to laugh were fewer than Noctis' hugs, particularly in public. Therefore, the chuckle he got this time felt like a victory. Regis answered with a smile of his own, settling back into his chair with a lighter heart.
He'd always worry about Noctis. About the prophecy and the cruel fate the Gods would push upon him. It was hard for Regis to reconcile the boy he knew with the king he'd caught glimpses of today, even now. And yet it was there in that keen, blue-eyed gaze. A very small corner of what he'd be capable of in the long run, but a disquieting glimpse nonetheless. Disquieting, and so bittersweet, it crushed his heart like a vice.
Regis straightened, blinking back the mistiness in his vision. No matter what the future held, he knew now that the Chosen King stood ready, and the world would shake before him: man, and beast.