“I understand the desire for privacy,” Ignis starts, gloved hands sliding over the rich black leather of the steering wheel as the Regalia gracefully turns and slows to a stop at an overlook, gravel crunching underneath her wheels. “But I’m beginning to think you lot are just looking for excuses to eat in the car at this point.”
“Who needs excuses?” Noctis says. He’s half in the front seat, half leaned over the back to reach for the food in Prompto’s lap. He shoots a grin in Ignis’ direction. “Even you have to admit everything about eating in the car is better than eating at that, er, rustic diner.”
“Totally!” Prompto chimes in. He’s loud enough that it’s easy to hear him over the rustling of the greasy paper bag as he starts to separate everyone’s orders. “It’s quiet. Well, uh, quieter. Less grungy. And it’s clean!”
“Not for long,” Ignis mumbles, but accepts his oily cheeseburger with grace and poise.
“And it’s just us,” Gladio adds. “So it’s not like Prince Picky or his loose-lipped friend can get us in any trouble.”
“Y-yeah!” Prompto’s eyes flick away in some combination of bashfulness and guilt as he hands Gladio his food. It had been his fault they had to leave the last diner before anyone had eaten their fill. “No way I can blow our cover out here. And take a look at that sky! The day’s just way too beautiful to eat inside!”
He leans past Gladio to gesture out over the side of the Regalia for emphasis and Noctis follows his arm past the steel rail of the overlook to find that he’s right.
It’s a beautiful day.
Soft, rolling hills stretch to the horizon. A lush, monotonous wave of greens and browns only broken by the occasional patch of trees like the one mercifully shading them from the noontime sun. The hood of the Regalia glimmers with the dappled light falling through the leaves above them that sway with a gentle wind. Noctis takes a deep breath of fresh air and relaxes into his seat, the cool leather a familiar comfort against a landscape that is both picturesque and surreal.
They’re nowhere in particular and it’s a beautiful day.
“Aw, c’mon Iggy,” he hears Gladio tease around a mouthful of food. “Just think of it like it’s a picnic.”
“A picnic where the blanket is the leather of an expensive, custom-made car.” The dubious curve of Ignis’ raised brow is audible. “Certainly.”
“So,” Noctis says with a grin around a handful of greasy fries that he’s shoved into his mouth. “A pretty standard picnic.”
“Standard for who?” Prompto scoffs, incredulous wonder in his tone even though he seems perfectly comfortable uncapping his milkshake as it balances precariously on the car seat to swipe a couple of fries over the top. “Royalty?”
He gives Noctis a conspiratory wiggle of his eyebrows as he says it and Noctis laughs even though that’s exactly who he had in mind when he’d said it.
When his father used to tell him about all the great adventures he had beyond the wall, Noctis imagined moments like this one. The ones in between. The ones where his father and his friends got to be just that, just a group of friends. The ones he was told in that sly, conspiratory whisper even though the misdeeds and misadventures were so long past that any evidence must have been washed away by time or a frustrated mechanic. The ones where his burden and his station were just an afterthought, a footnote.
The ones where they were young men enjoying each other’s company in strange new places, carried there together by the one piece of home they’d brought with them and made for themselves, so familiar that they’d forgotten what an unfamiliar luxury a car like the Regalia must seem.
So Noctis laughs, half at Prompto, half in a nostalgic kind of delight at this moment he’s living that he once imagined, that he’s already committing to memory.
“You forget your company, Prompto. If you’ll remember, Noctis is a prince,” is Ignis’ dry response, with a pointed look to Noctis as he’s taking a big, unflattering bite of his cheeseburger. “Or so I’ve heard.”
The quirk in his lips suggests that Prompto is preparing something smart to say, but his eyes brighten in delight as they flick over Noctis.
“Well, it’s easy to-” he starts, only just barely managing the words around the laugh bubbling up in his throat. “It’s easy to forget when he’s dripping ketchup all over himself like that!”
“Dude!” Noctis hisses, at Prompto and at himself as he looks down to find that Prompto’s observation is unfortunately correct.
Some unholy combination of ketchup and burger grease drips from a tear in the aluminum, leaving an ugly, oily stain on his shirt. Noctis makes a noise of disgust and cups his burger to stem the flow and realizes his mistake as the liquid starts to pool in the palm of his hand. Prompto giggles on.
“You could at least hand me a napkin,” Noctis grumbles.
To his credit, Prompto starts searching for one right away, picking up the bag he’d discarded to the floor.
“Oh man,” Prompto says, tone only just apologetic. “Fresh out. You can thank Gladio.”
Noctis grumbles some half-hearted complaint and switches the burger to his already greasy hand to dangle it outside the Regalia, where it can drip harmlessly over the dirt. He tries to ignore the raised eyebrow Ignis gives him as he digs around in the pockets and crevices of the car in the hopes of finding a napkin or - if nothing else - some brochure he could use to clean up until they reached the next gas station.
He finds something that will only just work as he pops open the glove compartment: a paper bag, one of a few that have been there since the start of the trip. He figures one of his father’s attendants put them there as a precaution for the worst case scenario of a bumpy road or car sickness.
Always thorough, he muses as he moves to take one, palm flat. He pauses when he feels something brush against his knuckles in the cramped space of the glove compartment, different from the smooth material of the interior of the car. He’d ignore it usually, but it’s a lazy day and he’s curious, so he flips his hand over to run his fingertips over that stretch of the compartment.
He feels it immediately, a stark contrast against the material surrounding it. It’s the sensation of something papery thin and starting to peel with just the faintest tackiness of old adhesive. He might have mistaken it for a fading tag or decaying tape - long-forgotten from some repair or cleaning - if he didn’t already know what it is.
It’s a sticker.
A picture of a cactuar, colored green and holding two pink flowers. He knows the shape by heart, even though the memory of it is as faded as the colors must be.
He’d put it there, when he was old enough to understand that he and his father were different from ordinary people but young enough to still be vocal about when he was bored.
He doesn’t remember the exact circumstances that brought him to that moment, to the gas station in the city where his father had left him alone in the car and returned with a few packets of stickers and a coloring book. He only remembers the moments after, the low hum of the engine and the shifting lights of the city illuminating the scene as Noctis played in the passenger’s seat, a rare treat and one of many reasons he cherished every drive in the Regalia.
Another reason being the warm smile his father gave him, only him, while they drove together as just a father and son, no guards or advisors or responsibilities between them. Now that he’s older, he knows that there had always been guards around them by necessity, but they were in separate cars that he couldn’t see when he was still too small to look over the dashboard.
And they might as well have not existed that evening when his father laughed as Noctis pressed stickers on the interior of the Regalia wherever he could reach.
“Hold on,” he’d said before clicking open the glove compartment. “Why don’t you put one in there?”
Noctis remembers giving his father an incredulous look and how he’d laughed again.
“They might remove the ones on the outside when they clean the car, but they won’t look in there,” he’d explained. There was a sparkle in his eye when he leaned in and continued, “It’ll be our secret.”
And Noctis, delighted at any opportunity to share something with his father that would last, that he could remember later on when he was a lonely prince and his father was a busy king, had grinned and selected one sticker to put in the glove compartment. It hadn’t mattered what it was when he’d picked it, but he remembers seeing the bold lines and colorful flowers as he leaned forward to place it as far back as he could.
“-is? Noct?” he hears Prompto say as if from far away at first, but the sound of his voice is clear and in focus again when he asks, “You, uh, you ok there buddy?”
“Hm?” is the only answer he can muster, fingers still resting on the sticker. He clears his throat as both a cover and an effort to bring himself back to the moment and retrieves the paper bag he’d been reaching for. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”
And it’s not quite a lie, but it’s not quite the truth, either. He finds his appetite is mostly gone as he wraps the burger, still dripping lazily onto the pavement, and returns it to his lap.
“You sure?” Gladio pushes, leaning over to get a good look at his face. Noctis can see Ignis turned in his seat towards him as well. “You were kind of out of it for a second.”
“I guess I was,” he answers and tries to ignore the concern he can feel coming from the three of them. “Must have been the heat.”
He can tell he’s not being very convincing, but Prompto has always been good at telling when Noctis needed space from a conversation and comes to his rescue.
“Speaking of which,” he starts, quick and deliberate, before Ignis or Gladio can get a word in. “Since it’s been warmer lately, I think we should try going to the beach again!”
“He’s got a point,” Gladio murmurs in agreement. “Last time we took a trip to Galdin, it was thundering out. Couldn’t have enjoyed a dip in the ocean even if we wanted to.”
“If there was even a situation where I would want to. Sand has a tendency to… get into things,” Ignis points out with a poorly concealed shudder.
Prompto laughs and says something else, but Noctis doesn’t process it completely as he lets himself fall back into the bittersweet nostalgia of a memory that was only his. He just smiles and watches them talk, young and bright and lively, a group of friends reveling in each other’s company. This moment, however overwhelming it is, isn’t one he wants to leave behind.
And he knows this isn’t over, either. He knows someone will bring up his behavior when it’s quieter and darker, when they feel more vulnerable and the heavier words come more easily. And he doesn’t know if he’ll have an answer for them then, but Prompto’s bought him time and time is as precious a resource as any.
After all, it’s a beautiful day.
The air smells fresh and warm with the sun’s bright rays. The wind has a voice as it rustles quietly through the trees, streams along the side of the car, through his hair. Noctis takes another deep breath and relaxes into his seat, the cool leather a familiar comfort against a landscape that is both picturesque and surreal.
It’s a beautiful day, but it isn’t one that will last forever.
Not unless he tries. Not unless he carries it with him.
“A king pushes onward always, accepting the consequences and never looking back.”
They were words he’d heard secondhand, the memory faded like the colors of the sticker but still sharp in other ways. He runs his fingers along the sticker one more time, feels the carbuncle charm in his pocket.
Just this once looking back would have to be fine.
Just this once.