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Worth the Risk

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Noctis doesn't have dinner with his father very often, these days. They're both too busy.

Regis is always buried in meetings with strategists and advisors, and Noct's in his own apartment, more often than not, studying up on Ignis' notes or recovering from a shift at his new part-time job or doing his best to keep from thinking about the magic that's eating his father alive. Every time Noct sees him, his hair's a little more grey. Every time Noct sees him, he's leaning more on that damn cane.

It's a visceral reminder of how his own life is going to be, chipped away as he pours himself into the Crystal and the Wall and taking care of the city. But that's years from now, yet. That's down the road and around the bend, and Noct's happy to keep it that way.

For now, he has other things on his mind.

"Hey dad," he starts. "I've been thinking."

And Noct's father, doubtless sure he's hilarious, fakes a look of surprise. "Have you? Will wonders never cease."

The table's a long one, and there's fully ten feet of space between them, so Noct makes sure to roll his eyes hard enough that his father can see, even from a distance. In retaliation, he deliberately picks a piece of spinach away from his fish and scrapes it to the edge of the plate.

"Quite a bit," says Noct, pointedly, and ignores his father's smile. "About the empty position in my Crownsguard."

That draws Regis up short. His eyebrows climb, mildly surprised, toward his hairline. "You've a request?"

Noctis has more than a request. He has his heart set on someone.

He cuts the fish with the edge of his fork – considers the resulting mouthful for a minute. He chews and swallows, and looks back up at his father, carefully gauging.

"Prompto Argentum."

Regis' face doesn't give too much away, but Noct can see the initial surprise, and then the indulgent amusement. He waits for it to smooth out into actual consideration, but that never happens.

"Noctis," says his father. "I know you wish your friend to be by your side in all things. But there are certain standards a Crownsguard is held to, and they are not easy to fulfill."

Noctis knows.

He knows that a Crownsguard must be dedicated, but Noctis knows no one more dedicated than Prompto, that once shy and pudgy boy who rebuilt himself from the ground up on will alone.

He knows that a Crownsguard must be capable in a fight, and it's true that Prompto will need training. But Noctis has seen him in the arcade, taking down digital zombies – seen him at the carnival, pinpointing row after row of wooden targets to win a prize. He's seen the way Prompto lines up his target and tracks it: one shot, one hit, every time. Put a bow in the boy's hands, or a crossbow. Hell, break with tradition and give him a gun. There won't ever be a finer marksman.

He knows that a Crownsguard must be loyal, and Noctis doesn't think he's ever known anyone more loyal than Prompto. Yes, he has retainers. Yes, Ignis and Gladio would lay down their lives for him. But Prompto – Prompto chose him. Prompto spotted the island of lonely self-sufficiency Noct had become, and he built a bridge, and he walked across the water to stay.

But Noctis has never been good with words. The important ones stick in his throat when he needs them, or tangle with his tongue. He feels his cheeks start to grow warm, and he spears another bit of fish.

"He'd be good at it," is all Noct manages to get out.

His father hums thoughtfully. "I'll think it over," he says at last, diplomatically, in a tone that Noctis knows means he won't actually think it over. "And in the meantime, why don't you consider a few other possibilities, just in case?"

Noctis fishes out another piece of spinach and leaves it stranded there on the side of his plate.

 


 

He goes to Gladio next, and in retrospect, that's probably a mistake.

Noct realizes this at around the time Gladio bursts out laughing – great, loud booming laughter that echoes through the training room. He laughs until he's bent over with it, and when at last he straightens, he says, "You've got to be kidding me. I could bend him over my knee and snap him in two."

Noctis narrows his eyes. "You could snap a full-grown garula in two. That says more about you than it does about him."

"The kid's a stick, Noct. I'll bet you a week's wages he's never worked out a day in his life." Gladio's leaning on his sword now, casual and easy. Once, their training sessions were all business, hard hits and harder lessons. Now they break sometimes, in between rounds. Usually Noctis appreciates the conversation. Today, it seems, is not going to be one of those days.

"He runs five miles every morning," Noct says, stiffly.

"Not a workout till it involves weights." Gladio snorts, lifts one massive shoulder in an off-handed shrug. "What good's running gonna do him in the Crownsguard, anyway? Get him farther away from the action? He's got to keep you safe, not himself."

"I know what the Crownsguard does," Noctis snaps, a bit too sharply. He's angry on Prompto's behalf – frustrated that Gladio can't see the same potential he does. He'd thought that his Shield would see the benefit of his guards having different proficiencies. There's strength in variety, isn't there? Being prepared for all possible outcomes?

Instead, he's listening to his best friend get picked apart.

Gladio, as always, is unbothered when Noct gets worked up. "I hit a nerve?" He hefts his sword back up over one shoulder, like it weighs nothing at all. "You gonna do something about it, princess?" 

He smirks at Noctis, outright smirks, and Noct knows damn well what he's doing. He knows this is going to segue into some lesson about using his emotions in battle – but he can't stop the wave of heat that cuts through him, righteous and offended. 

"Damn straight I am," says Noctis, and he launches himself into the next sparring round without another word of warning.

 


 

 

He broaches the subject with Ignis while he's standing in Noct's kitchen, making an omelette with crab meat and savory mushroom sauce.

And Ignis, at least, doesn't laugh. 

He has a diplomat's face, though, so it's hard to say what he's thinking. It could be thoughtful consideration, or mild disappointment. He could just be wondering whether he ought to add another teaspoon of paprika to the sauce.

"Well?" Noctis says, at last, when Ignis continues to whisk together the egg and the cream without weighing in on the subject.

"Well," says Ignis. "It sounds as though you've given the matter a good deal of thought already."

Noctis sighs and leans against the counter with both his elbows. "Aren't you supposed to be my advisor?"

Ignis taps the fork on the edge of the bowl. A yolky mix drips down into what waits below, viscous and gooey. "I take it that means you'd like advice."

Noctis huffs a sigh. "I'm asking, aren't I?" But he hasn't yet, not really, and Ignis is a stickler for detail, so he says: "Lay it on me, Specs. Make with the advising."

Ignis pours the egg mixture into the hot pan, and it crackles when it hits. "Very well." He rolls the pan, to spread the egg – seems to think for a minute. "Logistically, it will be difficult. Prompto's a commoner, and Crownsguard is traditionally a position reserved for nobility. That's not to say it's impossible, or even historically unprecedented. The Rogue's entire Crownsguard was comprised of citizens of lower birth, much to the chagrin of her court. However, it does mean potential difficulty for him."

Ignis begins laying rice into the omelette – slides the spatula gently beneath one half of the egg. "Then there's the issue of training. To the best of my knowledge, Prompto has no combat experience. Again, this is nothing that can't be overcome. But it is a further hardship on him – and on yourself."

Ignis flips up the flap of egg over the surface of the rice – pours the sauce out into the pan. It sizzles when it hits, the smell savory and appealing. "Finally," he says, and his eyes slide up to Noct's face, "I know you care for him a great deal, and he for you." Into the pan go a sprinkle of salt and a dash of pepper. "But will does not always equal ability, however much he wishes to see you protected."

Noct watches as Ignis transfers the omelette onto a plate. He watches as a sprig of parsley joins the crab meat on top, as garnish.

He says, "You don't think he'd be any good."

Ignis makes a soft, considering sound. "I think he would try very hard," he decides at last, "and might not live up to his own expectations."

Noctis stares at him over the top of the omelette. "You're wrong."

Ignis hands him a fork, unperturbed. "You're welcome to think what you will. As king, you'll be expected to accept or discard my advice and everyone else's with a judicious amount of common sense." He turns to the dishes. "Consider this practice."

Noctis thinks about that for a long time, while he eats his omelette. He's still thinking about it when he sees Ignis to the door and says good night.

 


 

It's a beautiful day for a parade.

Up above the buildings that surround Insomnia's main thoroughfare, the sky's so blue it hurts to look at, a narrow strip of brilliance peeking out between man-made forms. The sight catches in the steel and glass – reflects back, all the way down the sleek towers, in swatches of sapphire and glimpses of puffy white cloud.

The weather's perfect, chill and crisp, just on the edge of spring. It seems like the whole city's turned out for this day, the celebration of the equinox. 

Noct's not even trapped at the far end of the parade route, up on a raised platform with his father, the way he is most years. More and more lately, Regis has seemed inclined to let him venture out on his own – something to do, Noct suspects, with how the people perceive a prince they can see among them every day, sharing their lives. 

But for Noctis, who needs to get away from the crush of his own station sometimes, the reason is almost beside the point. He's more interested in the end result.

And the end result is that they're packed in by a family of seven on one side and a group of burly construction guys on lunch break on the other. There are Citadel guards in plainclothes here and there in the crowd, certainly – Noctis can spot three without even trying – but for once, they're not breathing down Noct's neck.

It's nice. 

He's sitting on the curb, legs stretched in front of him; Prompto's pressed up against his side, solid and warm, a stick of cotton candy in one hand and his camera in the other. It's an absolute mystery to Noct how he's managed to get this far without turning his most treasured possession into a sticky pink mess, but somehow the camera's still gleaming, even though Prompto's got a smear of cotton candy stuck to his lower lip, apparently unnoticed.

"Hey, Noct," he says, and swings the camera back around. "You're on candid camera."

Noctis smiles at him, amused and a little exasperated. "Is it candid if you warn me?"

Prompto presses the button; the shutter clicks. "Dude, whatever. It's a good shot."

"You're missing the float," says Noct, and Prompto takes another picture of him instead, as if to be contrary.

"Every good photographer knows you need reaction shots, too," he says, trying very hard to sound professional. The effect's ruined completely when he turns back around and sees the Leviathan float coming around the corner. "Holy crap, look at that thing."

He swings the camera around, and there's a flurry of clicks.

Noctis doesn't especially blame him. It's a great float. 

The body's done up in glistening plates of blue metal, to look like scales. There's a fountain behind the Hydraen's serpentine body, spraying a fine sheet of water that glitters and twists and catches the sun. Walking alongside her, on either end, are men and women in blue and grey, cowls down to obscure their faces. Their feet move to a low trill of flutes, eerie and borderline discordant, and their dance moves seem more snakelike than human.

It's captivating. Prompto's probably going to have thirty-eight photos of it for them to relive the experience, in vivid detail, later on.

But Prompto's not taking pictures anymore, Noct realizes. The camera's stopped.

And when Noctis looks over to see what the matter is, Prompto's just staring through the view-finder, head angled up. He's gone absolutely sheet-white – looks like he might pass out. He says, "Noct," very softly, like it's a plea.

Then the world explodes, and something slams into Noctis with the force of a subway train, and everything goes dark.

 


 

When Noctis comes to, he breathes in and tastes smoke.

His head's throbbing, sharp pain centered near the temple. There are hands on him, digging into the space beneath his armpits hard enough to hurt, and Noct's ankles are dragging along the ground. In the distance, he can hear people screaming.

Noctis opens his eyes to Prompto's face, upside-down, streaked with a trail of blood snaking its languid way down from the scalp. As Noct watches, a drop peels away and falls toward the ground. Prompto still has the smear of cotton candy at the corner of his mouth.

"Oh, thank the Six," says Prompto, when he sees that Noct's eyes are open. "Up you go, buddy. We can't stay here."

Noctis sits up, uncertainly. His head feels like an egg that got dropped on the freeway. 

There's a burst of noise from somewhere nearby, like someone's setting off firecrackers, and Prompto flinches. "Up," he says, and hauls Noct toward his feet. "We gotta go."

It's like a scene from an action movie, the kind he watches pressed up against Prompto on the couch late at night. Only here and now, it's after the hero's blown through, on his way to save the day. Here and now, there's only the aftermath: the crackle of the Leviathan float, now on fire, fountain a subdued trickle on the pavement; empty streets and the distant sounds of panic from half a block away; crumpled bodies on the ground, mounds of clothing that are frightfully still. Noctis recognizes the Citadel guards among them, faces grey and motionless.

"The hell happened?" he says, voice sounding dazed even to his own ears.

"Something blew up," says Prompto. "And these guys had guns, and can we please not stick around for round two?" 

Prompto's voice is jagged, about an octave too high with stress. He's scanning the street like he expects the sky to come crashing down, eyes flickering over the wreckage. All at once, something catches his gaze, somewhere out near where one of the Citadel guards went down.

Noct follows his line of sight.

The guard had his sword drawn; it's still in his hand. It even got some use, because there's a guy in a black mask right next to him, run through.

Prompto doesn't go for the sword. He goes for the gun in the masked guy's hand – a quick scramble of limbs there and back, and he's standing beside Noct again. 

Just the sight of the weapon there in Prompto's hand kicks Noctis into gear like nothing else has. He staggers into motion, lets his friend close wiry fingers around his wrist and tug him, urgently, toward an empty alleyway.

It takes him a second to realize, with everything else going on, how weird Prompto's grip on his arm is. It feels like he's not holding on very tight, and Noct spares a brief glance down to see what's up. The sight shakes him. The last three fingers on Prompto's left hand are huge and swollen, so big you can't even really see the shape of the bone underneath the skin. There's a deep, bloody gouge in the meaty area between his thumb and his forefinger, and he's missing a fingernail.

Noctis hisses a breath in. "Prompto, your hand."

"Yeah," says Prompto, voice kind of rough. "Tell me about it."

Prompto pulls him into the alleyway, and Noct's about to ask what the hell happened, when the sound of voices reach their ears.

Prompto goes stiff and silent, eyes huge. He presses a finger over his own lips and shakes his head, and Noct can see which way the wind's blowing. He nods, a bit shaky, and closes his mouth on the words.

They can't make out much of what the men are saying. Noctis catches maybe one word in ten, vague references to a plan, and carrying out a second stage. They're too busy sneaking to eavesdrop – an art perfected in kinder times, when all they really wanted to avoid was Ignis catching them filching cake at midnight.

They could probably make it out the other end of the alley and rejoin the crowd a block down, Noct thinks. His father will have guards mobilized by now. The safer course of action, though, is to take cover and let someone come to him. Noctis remembers drilling with Gladio for worst case scenarios.

So he rocks back on his heels, resisting Prompto's pulling fingers. He jerks a thumb toward the building they're walking past: an all-glass front, sleek and modern, with mannequins in smart spring fashions. The place is deserted right now, cleared out in the panic, probably, but it'll be easy to hole up in a back hallway and text his dad.

After a beat, Prompto nods, and Noct goes for the side door that's facing them. He's got it open all of about two inches before the alarm starts blaring, too loud in his shocked ears. It sounds like some wailing birdbeast, raucous and deadly.

Clear as day, Noctis hears one of the men say, "What the hell is that?" and then footsteps are coming closer.

Prompto shoves him through the door just as a burst of gunfire explodes behind them – staggers, gets to his feet, and hauls Noct up, too. 

"Go," he says, anxiously. "Go, go." He's urging Noct toward the back of the store, and it takes Noctis a moment to catch sight of the maintenance hallway he has in mind. Then they're both running, footfalls echoing on the tile. Behind them, the glass side of the storefront bursts open. In front of them, the gleaming mannequins in their airy floral print are riddled with bullets.

Something hits Noctis from behind, hard, and he goes down. It takes him a minute to realize that the something is Prompto, the warm weight of him pressing Noct down to the polished marble floor.

Prompto makes a soft sound, something like a whimper. Then he leans in so that his lips are almost touching the shell of Noct's ear. "Keep going."

They crawl, stomachs pressed to the floor. Behind them, the man's voice sounds like the opening to a horror movie. "C'mon boys," he says, in a slow Leiden drawl, "Don't ya'll want to come out and play?"

Noctis kind of does, actually. He wonders what the man would think if he warped halfway across the floor and sheathed his engine blade in the bastard's skull. But whatever kind of gun he has, it fires a lot faster than the ones stored in the Lucian armory. Nif-make, maybe. He's not sure he could get there and take the man down before getting a chest full of bullets for his trouble. That's not even considering the fact that he doesn't know how many more guys there are out front waiting, also armed.

So they keep going, under tables, behind displays for frilly socks and business-glossy footwear. They keep going until the edge of the hallway, where the displays – and their cover – give out.

They lie there, frozen, for an endless moment. Noctis glances over to see that Prompto's fumbling with the gun he picked up earlier – pulls back the hammer with his clumsy, injured hand.

"Get ready," he mouths.

Noctis doesn't even know how he's sighting, for half an instant. Then he catches a glimpse of the man's legs, from the knee down, in the angled mirror beside the shoe display. Prompto squints one eye shut. He pulls the trigger.

There's a bellow of pain, and in the reflection, the man's kneecap explodes in a shower of red.

As one, the pair of them scramble to their feet. As one, they bolt into the closet marked "Maintenance" and slam the door closed behind them.

From outside, there's a burst of more gunfire, loud and close. "You pricks," the man calls, voice shrill and hysterical with pain. "I'll fucking end you! You hear me?"

Prompto's breathing is too fast beside him, practically hyperventilating. He's already yanking at the metal shelving lined up in the corner.

"Help me," he hisses, and Noct gets up to help him.

The shelf doesn't budge – just sits there, completely immobile, like some monument to futility. They scrabble at it, helplessly, for a long moment. Noctis has time to think that he shouldn't have shirked Gladio's excruciating arm weight regimen so many times. 

Then Prompto gets down on the floor and braces his back against the wall. He shoves with his legs, and the shelf goes down in a crash, blocking the door, spilling metal repair parts everywhere.

"One more," Prompto pants, and they move to the next one – strain and struggle and wrestle it down beside the first. 

They're heavy shelves, Noct thinks, a little desperately. Sturdy. There's no way anyone's getting in here.

Outside, the cursing has died down. There's conversation, half calm, half hysterical, too far away to hear.

Then silence follows, a long, thick minute of it. The doorknob turns, practically slow-motion, and the door eases in – stops abruptly, when it hits the shelves. It closes, then opens again. The shelves don't so much as shift.

Prompto's mangled hand paws ineffectually at Noct's arm – manages to find a grip and pull him down, so that the both of them are crouching behind the metal shelving.

"Son of a bitch," says the man outside, and the world explodes into gunfire.

It cuts through the door above their heads, a hail of bullets, deafening and all-consuming. The shots embed in the wall behind them; at their backs, they can hear the bullets hammering on the thick metal of the shelves.

Noctis turns wide eyes to Prompto. His best friend is drawn and exhausted, but there's a look on his face Noct's never seen there before. His lips are pressed into a bloodless line, and he's fumbling with the gun again, clumsy. His half-crushed hand is turning purple.

Prompto's shaking when he lifts the weapon – gets it just high enough, only the barrel poking out above the cover provided by the shelves.

Then Prompto pulls the trigger, and the gunfire from outside stutters. There's a howl of pain, and Prompto pulls the trigger again. They hear the impact, something heavy hitting the floor.

In the distance, someone calls out. There's an answering reply, too far away to make sense of. A minute stretches into two, then three. Silence reigns.

Noctis takes a steadying breath in, and then another. He feels some of the tension ease from his body, all shivery relief. He reaches out, instinctively, to take Prompto's hand.

It still has the gun in it; his fingers are locked tight, white-knuckled, like he's scared to let it go. That's not what draws Noct up short, though.

It's how cold Prompto is to the touch, like he's been out running for two hours in winter without gloves on.

Noctis turns, frowning, to look him over – takes in the unnatural pale of his best friend's face. Then his brain catches up with his eyes, and he registers the puddle of red that's spreading out on the floor, dark and slick and way, way too big.

"Prompto?" Noct says, and his voice sounds shaken, even to his own ears. "Hey – Prom?"

"Huh?" Prompto blinks over at him, expression distant. He looks like a boy who's been woken from sleep, bleary and half-aware.

"Oh," says Noctis, faintly. "Oh, sweet Six."

He remembers, dimly, the feel of Prompto shoving him down, all warm weight. He remembers the noise Prompto made just after, a soft sort of whimper. He'd thought it was fear – realizes, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, that it was the sound someone makes when they're trying to keep quiet after getting shot in the back.

And now Prompto's bleeding –  has been bleeding, for quite some time – and Noct has nothing. Nothing that will help. No spells to close the wound, no energy drinks that his magic can transform into a life-giving potion. 

He knows first aid –  a precautionary measure Ignis wouldn't let him talk his way out of – but he's practiced for minor wounds, not bullet holes. Not for his best friend down on the floor, bleeding out in a maintenance closet.

Ignis' voice, calm and level, drifts into Noct's mind: put pressure on the wound.

But before that, he has something else he needs to do.

His fingers fumble his phone – almost drop it. He taps out a message: 1st fl 6 astrals dept st hurry.

Then he hits send, and reaches out to help.

 


 

The footage is grainy – black and white.

It shows the street from a bird's eye view, at an odd angle. Away down in the lower left, the thick metal pole supporting the traffic light the camera's attached to is a permanent fixture.

By the time the timestamp in the corner reads 9:45 am, the first of the parade crowd has begun to gather. People spread towels on the ground and set up folding chairs. 

At 10:30, the prince and his companion appear to stake their claim on the curb – two slim figures, one with dark hair and one with pale. By five till eleven, there's no free space left. The sidewalk is a black sea of people.

The parade rolls into view at ten past noon. The surge of excitement in the crowd is a visible ripple. The prince's companion, just a dot in the crowd, has both hands full, though the footage is too indistinct to tell what he's holding.

The floats drift by. Shiva passes, and the Dread Behemoth. Someone in the crowd is blowing bubbles; they float up into the frame, nearer and nearer, before popping.

The Leviathan float rounds the corner at 12:56 pm. A minute and a half later, perhaps forty feet from where the prince is seated on the curbside, it bursts into flame. 

The explosion billows outward. It catches the front four rows of people directly across from the float; spectators are lifted, bodily, and flung like debris.

But there is plenty of debris, too. A piece of it catches the prince, and he goes down.

The crowd ripples; it surges. As one, thousands of people move away from the burning float. In the street, a guardsman draws a sword against a man in a black mask. He runs the masked man through – jerks, and then goes down himself.

The prince's companion disappears beneath the surging mass of bodies.

More men in black masks arrive. They speak among themselves, lift the guns in their hands. The people in the back of the crowd fall, and fall, and fall, in waves, and the masked men move out of frame to follow.

The prince and his companion don't reappear until six minutes later, when the street is mostly clear. They're up against an electrical box now, a few feet from their initial position – on the far side, away from the direction the crowd was flowing. The figure with dark hair is still down. The other boy is on top of him, braced over his torso.

Gingerly, the prince's companion gets to his feet. He bends, hooks his hands beneath the armpits of the fallen figure, and begins to pull.

They disappear from the frame.

Three long minutes pass – then the boy with pale hair returns, just for an instant, to claim the dead man's gun.

The video cuts out; there are a few seconds of static.

When the footage resumes, it's clearer: blurry color, showing the interior of the Seven Astrals department store. The shoppers are gone already, evacuated as soon as the explosion hit outside. Now there are only folded clothes and lifeless mannequins. 

Right up until the side door opens, and the two slim figures from outside appear. 

They're running, a frantic flat-out sprint. The blond still has the gun in his hand.

The windows on the side shatter in, fragments of glass that splash into frame. A masked man climbs into the store through the remnants of the display window.

As the man makes to raise his gun, the blond glances behind him, perhaps to gauge distance. The video is clear enough to capture the wide-eyed panic that streaks across his face, but he doesn't hit the floor. He takes two more desperate steps and flings himself onto the prince, instead.

Red circles bloom across his back like flowers as he goes down.

For several long minutes, there is no motion but that of the masked man searching.

Then a spray of blood erupts from the man's leg, and he crumples to the floor, clutching it. He drops the gun, and the two boys reappear, right at the edge of the screen, for just long enough to run off it.

An instant later, another masked man enters from the side door. He bends briefly by his downed companion, then stalks after the boys, disappearing out of frame.

He doesn't come back.

 


 

Regis has seen the surveillance video four times.

He's traced the actions of the blond boy on the screen: terrified, and unpracticed, and brave.

It's hard to match that boy with the one who trailed along behind Noctis at the Citadel last year, all flustered blushes and stuttered words, petrified of making a poor impression. It's hard to match him with the photographs his son has up on the wall in his room: a wide, guileless grin and a casual arm slung around his friend's shoulder.

It's hard to match him to the boy lying in the hospital bed, near as pale as the sheets beneath him.

Regis has stopped by twice already – made time for this, in an endless sea of meetings and investigation briefings. It's a scandal, that the Empire was able to bribe Lucian citizens to carry out this attack. It's going to call for new security protocols. Close to three hundred people are dead, and it's his duty as king to see that it doesn't happen again.

Still. This is personal, and whatever else the demands on his time might be, Regis will not be kept from the side of the boy who saved his son.

The sight's a sobering one, a too-still face with the only splotch of color granted by the freckles. The boy's hair seems deflated, limp and mussed, and his left arm is elevated, wrapped in a thick, white cast.

Regis has seen the list of damage, printed in black and white on an impersonal clipboard: eleven broken bones in that hand alone; two cracked ribs; extensive bruising along the torso and left leg; a minor concussion; a scalp injury requiring fifteen stitches; two gunshot wounds.

He's seen the list of damage for his son, too: somehow, miraculously, only minor bruising and the impact wound from the debris that knocked him out.

Regis knows exactly who to thank for that.

He catches the eye of the nurse on duty on his way in – asks the question that's become routine. "His parents?"

The woman presses her lips into a thin line. "We still can't get ahold of the mother, Your Majesty. The father says he won't be able to make it back from Accordo for at least two weeks."

Two weeks. Something inside Regis recoils at the thought – counters the notion with the image of Noctis lying somewhere, half dead, and no one beside him. 

All things considered, he does a remarkably good job of masking the twin tendrils of grief and anger that sprout beneath his skin.

"I see," Regis says, stiffly. 

The nurse fixes him with a sympathetic look. "Your son was here until about –" She checks the wall clock. "— half an hour ago. We finally chased him out to get some rest."

This isn't news to Regis. He's been receiving hourly updates on Noctis' status since the incident. Already the boy is chafing under the restriction, three days in, but Regis needs this for awhile longer, yet. For himself.

"Thank you," he says. "And the progress here?"

"Hopeful," says the nurse. "After the surgery to remove the bullets, we applied potions to help with the bruising and tissue damage. He'll need an elixir to get back on his feet, but the bones in his hand need to set a little longer first. If we rush it and they don't heal straight, he might not use that hand again."

Regis nods. It's good news – better than he'd feared. He knows all too well how helpless the magic of his ancestors is in the face of damaged bone. He has nightmares still, sometimes, that the healers in Tenebrae were unable to save his son.

"I'd like to see him," Regis says.

The nurse looks Regis over, considering. "Just don't disturb him," she says. "He needs to rest. And if he does wake up, bear in mind that he's under the effects of powerful pain medication. He won't be in any proper state to pay due respects."

Regis feels the corner of his mouth creep upward, at this woman whose care for her patients gives her the confidence to issue orders to the king. "Of course," he says, and lets himself into the room.

It's quiet here, but for the hum of the machinery and the beep of the device that tracks the boy's heart. Regis walks to the chair beside the bed, curved black plastic. There on the table nearby is an empty can of Noctis' favorite soda, proof that his son has been and gone.

For a long moment, Regis only sits there, watching the boy's face. He seems very young, framed by the stark white of the hospital pillow. He is very young, Regis reminds himself: barely seventeen.

Carefully, Regis reaches out to take Prompto's hand.

It's small and slender – a boy's hand, still. Perhaps one day it will be larger, calloused with work, but for right now, it feels fragile in Regis' grip. He can see the lines of the bones beneath the skin. It's delicate, like it should belong to a pianist, or an artist. 

Regis tries not to imagine the opposite hand, crushed under the feet of a panicked crowd, a casualty as the boy wrestles Noctis to safety. The image comes to him anyway, and Regis closes his eyes.

"I owe you an apology," he says, gravely, "for thinking you less than you are."

His thumb strokes along the curve of the boy's wrist for a moment, in silence.

"I owe you far more than an apology," he admits at last.

He means to keep speaking – means to add more. But beside him, there's a small noise, pain and confusion, and when he opens his eyes, he finds that Prompto's staring up at him. It's a puzzled look, drawn brows and a dubious frown.

"Think you got the wrong room," says Prompto, words slurring together. "Noct's – Noct's on the couch." He pauses, seems to think that through. "Is he?" 

Prompto frowns harder, evidently fighting through the effects of the medication to evaluate his own words. Suddenly, memory lights up his expression and he sits bolt upright. He's scrambling to move – halfway off the bed. Regis puts a restraining arm gently across his chest.

"No," Prompto pants. "Wait, you don't – where's Noct?"

"Safe," says Regis, gently. "Calm yourself. He's safe." The wiry form goes lax, chest heaving; Prompto's eyes slip shut, as though in relief.

Regis takes his hand again, carefully. "You saw to that."

Prompto's eyes slit open again, dazed. His gaze tracks to the hand on his own, then to Regis' face. Whatever drugs they've given him must be strong, because he says, "What're you doing here?"

"I came to say thank you," Regis tells him. "But perhaps we should keep that until you've recovered a bit. Hm?"

"Yeah," says Prompto. "Yeah, sure. I'll get right on that."

His eyes are drooping closed already; his head nods, then jerks up again, like a puppy struggling not to fall asleep. Then he's gone, down and out, chin tipped up so that his neck makes a vulnerable line there against the backdrop of the hospital sheets.

Regis feels a surge of affection for the boy, sudden and thick. He squeezes the hand still in his own.

He ought to go – but he stays instead, for most of an hour, until a text from his advisor reminds him that there's a meeting he can't miss.

 


 

Noct's father comes to him first, somber and grave.

He says that he's been a poor judge of character – asks that Noct extend an invitation for Prompto to dine with them, when he's fully recovered. 

He says that he can think of no one he would trust more to serve on Noctis' Crownsguard.

Gladio is next, on the day they resume training. 

He's all gruff words and intent instruction. They go over moves to take down a firing gunman at a distance. 

And when they're finished he admits, offhandedly casual, that maybe the kid's a little bit badass, after all.

Ignis waits until the next time he's standing in Noct's apartment, dicing ham.

Then he announces, in his precise and considering way, that he would like to revise his recommendation regarding the vacant spot on Noct's Crownsguard.

"Yeah," Noct tells him, and steals a cube of ham. "I figured."

 


 

Prompto's nineteen before Noct asks him for real. 

It's taken him that long, to come to terms with the memory of his best friend lying on the floor, paper pale, ground beneath him slick with blood.

Prompto's sure he's joking, at first – laughs until Noct goes stiff and stubborn and takes Prompto's hand in his own.

"I mean it," Noct says. "Whatever happens, I want you there with me."

That stops Prompto from laughing, though his face does go a curious shade of red.

They hold the ceremony on the steps of the Citadel, as tradition dictates. The sky's so blue it hurts to look at, swatches of sapphire and glimpses of puffy white cloud.

Prompto goes to one knee, and bows his head, and Noct looks down at his carefully gelled hair and thinks fondly about how much time he spent, fussing to make sure it looked just right for this moment.

Chest full, throat tight, Noctis takes a step down, so that he can reach Prompto's outstretched hands.

And Noctis Lucis Caelum, crown prince and hope of a nation, places a gun on his best friend's open palms. 

When Prompto curls his fingers around it to accept the gift, he swears his life in service.