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When his phone rang, and his dad's number popped up on the caller ID, Gladio was a bit distracted.

Gladio slung his backpack over his shoulder, discarding the sweaty gym towel in his hand with a grimace. He'd pushed himself pretty hard this session. He was ready to go home, take a shower, and chill for the rest of the night. Solitude beckoned.

The phone in his hand screamed, mocking him. He scowled at the glowing display. It was only seven-thirty, and Clarus was supposed to be at the banquet. Why was he calling now, the absolute instant Gladio did not want to talk to anyone?

Swallowing his irritation, Gladio swiped the green phone icon that would answer the call, instead of the red 'fuck off' button, like he really wanted to.

"Yeah?"

Gladio swore he could hear the raised eyebrow in Clarus' voice. "Bad time, Gladiolus?"

Full name usage was reserved for formal events. Also, for when he was in huge trouble.

Gladio absolutely, one-hundred percent did not gulp. That being said, his response was a lot more tame than his greeting had been. "No. Sorry, I just finished training. What's up? Did the dignitaries get bored already?"

His father sighed. "If only. We had a...situation."

Any weariness Gladio felt was promptly forgotten. Something was wrong. It wasn't like Clarus to be cryptic.

Then it hit him.

His stomach dropped. There was only one reason his dad would be calling him immediately after a 'situation' at a big formal event. A formal event that had inexplicably ended two hours early.

An event where Noctis had been in attendance - without his Shield.

Shit.

Gladio snatched his keys from the bench next to the lockers and took off running. Damn it. The one day he hadn't used the Citadel's training rooms.

"I'll be there in ten minutes." Five if he didn't care who he hit; he didn't, but his dad didn't have to know that. "What happened? Where's Noct, is he all right?"

"A bit shaken, but yes, he's fine. Cuts and bruises. Nothing severe. Details will have to wait until you get here."

All Gladio heard was 'cuts and bruises.' As he ran back to his vehicle, phone still in hand, he tried to banish all the horrible thoughts from his mind. He slammed the door of the car and peeled out of his parking space. Also, he made the executive decision that stop signs and speed limits were no longer a thing.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Gladio was taken aback to hear a note of amusement in his father's response. "The prince would also like you to know that speeding is against the law, and highly frowned upon."

Something in his chest loosened. Despite everything, Gladio chuckled- a chuckle that definitely was not weak with relief. "He must be fine if he's running his mouth."

"Meet us at the infirmary. And, Gladio?"

"Yeah?"

Clarus' voice was stern. "Please be careful. Don't endanger yourself and others. We have it handled. Noctis is fine. I give you my word."

Gladio glanced down at the speedometer and scowled. He pressed his foot down harder. The needle climbed to seventy-five miles-per-hour. His father didn't have to know that either. "Yeah, yeah, sure."

"Gladiolus..."

"Yup, slowing down. Don't worry about it. Love you, bye."

Gladio hung the phone up and dropped it in the cup holder next to him. He was going to hear it for that later, but right now it didn't matter. Right now, he needed to see Noct in the flesh.

He needed to gauge just how much he'd fucked up not being there tonight.

It was a miracle he didn't get stopped by traffic control on the way. Gladio blew every stoplight he came across, and still it took an eternity to get to the Citadel.

Exactly one eternity later, however, he did arrive at his destination. He swung into his reserved parking spot and jogged up to the entrance, taking the steps two at a time.

The Crownsguard had been told to expect him. Gladio didn't even have to flash his badge to make entry; lucky for him, because he hadn't grabbed it. Though, he pitied the poor son-of-a-bitch who denied the crown prince's Shield entry right now.

Security was tight – on his way to the infirmary, Gladio noticed more glaives among the guards than normal. Something really shitty must have happened.

Finally, Gladio was nodding at the two glaives in front of the infirmary.

Glaives here too. Great. Cool. Whatever happened was definitely no big deal.

Clarus stood waiting for him when he stepped through the doors. He narrowed his eyes when he caught sight of Gladio. Pulling out his phone, Clarus angled the display so Gladio could see the time. Exactly five minutes had passed since he'd hung up on his dad.

That had to be a personal record. Judging from the disgruntled look his dad was shooting him, Gladio guessed he agreed.

"How many stoplights did you run, exactly?"

Gladio was utterly unapologetic. "All of them. Where's Noct?"

Clarus sighed, running a hand over his face. "Fine, just as he was before you broke every traffic ordinance in the city."

Gladio gazed steadily back at his father. He would never apologize for making Noctis priority number one. Clarus - of all people - should understand that.

"Not what I asked, Dad. Where is he?"

Clarus shook his head, exasperated. He took in Gladio's disheveled appearance, eyes softening.

"I know I was vague over the phone. I didn't mean to cause you undue worry. One of the glaives guarding the banquet went rogue. He has been detained. As for the rest, I'm sure the prince is eager to regale you with the details." Clarus paused, his voice softening. "That dagger Noctis was carrying probably saved his life. He tells us we have you to thank for that."

Gladio jolted. He'd just fought with Noct earlier today about carrying the fucking thing, at least until he'd mastered armiger magic.

The little shit blew him off.

"It's just dinner, Gladio. Chill. The only thing I'm dying of tonight is boredom."

Everything he threw at Noct seemed to bounce right off. In one ear, out the other, gone forever. Completely blasé about his own safety. Seemingly oblivious to how big a target he really was. Gladio ended up storming off in a huff.

Noctis went off to that stupid banquet. Gladio found a poor, helpless punching bag to victimize, and all was right with the world.

Another argument for the books. Another aggravating assault on Noct's nonexistent sense of self-preservation. It wasn't the first time. It wouldn't be the last. Gladio had been convinced of that, just as he'd been convinced Noct would leave the weapon at home out of spite.

Apparently, Gladio needed to give his charge more credit.

The color drained from his face. If he hadn't chosen today to push this particular lecture, Gladio might be on his way to the morgue right now.

He didn't even try to suppress a shudder.

Shit.

Fuck.

Clarus must have seen the pending existential crisis overtake his expression. He placed both hands on Gladio's shoulders, squeezing lightly.

"Noctis kept a level head and got himself out of a grim situation. I was impressed. You've done well with him, Gladio."

Gladio tried not to be obvious about how much he glowed under the praise.

"Thanks, Dad."

The two men walked together down a long, narrow hallway to a private examination room. A pair of Crownsguard stood watch at the entrance.

Gladio stared. He genuinely considered commenting on the importance of posting guards at every doorway in the Citadel whenever 'nothing severe,' happened, but Clarus had one hell of a back-hand, and he'd tried his luck enough for one night.

After they entered, Gladio's eyes instantly sought out his charge. He caught a glimpse of the king and a doctor, also in the room, but he didn't care. They may as well have been stage props at this point.

Noctis sat on a gurney in the exam room, suit jacket haphazardly thrown across the back of a chair. His shirt was unbuttoned enough that Gladio could see his chest was unmarred. There was a disquieting stain of blood around the collar though – much more than he was comfortable with.

Gladio also noticed instantly that his hands were lying motionless in his lap, mostly because that was so fucking weird. Noct was always doing something with his hands. Messing with his phone, tapping his fingers against a counter top - something.

Now they were heavily bandaged and still; the wrongness of it tasted like ashes upon his tongue.

Gladio's eyes narrowed murderously. More bandages, wrapped around Noct's throat. His right cheek bone was red and swollen. Perhaps even more unsettling, however, were the angry red finger marks peppering his jaw. They were already taking on several ugly shades of black and purple. Gladio could make out a clear thumb print on the left side of his chin and three fingers imprinted on the right, fanning out against his cheek.

Someone had gripped Noctis' jaw hard enough to rip it off. The bruises stood out against his pale skin, mocking Gladio with their existence, and he wanted to find the shit-stain who left those marks - rip his jaw off for real.

The doctor was speaking.

"I don't see any reason to keep you. I'm going to put you on a regimen of antibiotics, make sure you finish them. That throat wound will be nasty if it gets infected. Take it easy for a week or two, Your Highness, and you'll be fine. I'll also send you off with an anti-inflammatory. Let me know if the pain is too much, and I'll give you something stronger."

Noctis nodded. "Okay. Thank you." His eyes were over-bright and a little red around the edges.

Oh, no.

Gladio looked closer. Then promptly thanked every God in existence that Noctis wasn't crying. He might literally beat the living shit out of someone if tears entered the equation.

The prince just looked utterly wrecked, like he needed to sleep for a week. That, Gladio could deal with.

Clarus stepped out to take a phone call while King Regis spoke with the doctor, leaving Gladio and Noctis alone to their own devices. Gladio swallowed past the lump in his throat, sitting down beside his charge on the bench.

"You look like shit."

Noct scoffed, eyeing Gladio's rumpled gym shorts and sweat-stained tank top. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. "You smell like shit."

"Fuck off." Gladio scowled, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He glanced sidelong at Noctis. "You okay?"

Noctis rubbed the back of his head, grimacing. "Yeah. It looks a lot worse than it is."

"What the hell happened, Noct?"

Noctis sighed. "One of the glaives kind of lost his mind, I guess."

For the next few minutes, Noctis went on to describe - in detail - the events of the evening. It was harder to listen to than Gladio ever thought possible, though he was fiercely proud of Noct. It was gratifying to know that so much of what he was teaching him had sunken in.

Noctis sounded weirdly pitying of his attacker. Once the tale was finished, though, Gladio couldn't have been less sympathetic.

In fact, his blood boiled. He narrowed his eyes, teeth clenched.

"What, he lost somebody, so it's okay for him to slaughter a teenager at a dinner party? Fuck that noise."

Noctis averted his eyes. "Yeah. I know, but..."

Gladio clenched his fist, slamming it down on the countertop. Noctis flinched, gazing up at him with wide eyes.

"No, Noct. Don't feel sorry for that fuck-stick. So his pregnant wife died. Yeah, that sucks. Find a therapist and get a grip."

Gladio nearly jumped when King Regis appeared at his elbow. Somehow, he'd completely forgotten the man was even here.

Absently, he wondered if using the phrase 'fuck-stick' in His Majesty's presence constituted some form of treason, but Regis could prosecute him after he beat the fuck out of this glaive. This 'special snowflake,' who thought great personal tragedy justified him playing god. With the life of the Crown Prince of Lucis, no less.

Gladio clenched his lips tightly together, squeezing his eyes shut for a brief moment. The rage was a bloodthirsty beast thrumming through his veins: one that badly resented being contained. The Shield began to pace, stomping a path in front of Noctis. Honestly, he wouldn't have been surprised to see the tile wearing down beneath his feet.

"Look. I know you wanna have sympathy for the guy, but this is no time to be a bleeding heart, Noct. He tried to kill you."

Noctis rolled his eyes. "I know. I was there, remember? If my heart were actually bleeding for real, I might reconsider, but it's not. I'm fine."

Gladio stared daggers at his friend. For a few long moments, he thought his voice had fled his body in shocked disbelief. When he managed to find it again, it exploded out in one breath. "You wouldn't be considering anything, you'd be dead!"

Noctis frowned. "But I'm not dead, Gladio. I'm okay."

Gladio's head reached up, massaging his temple. "That doesn't mean the crime is okay, Noctis. It's not. It's not okay at all!"

His charge picked at the fabric of his dress pants. At least, he did for a moment - before he realized his hands were shredded, and it hurt.

And Gladio wanted to break one very specific glaive's face. On a spiritual level.

Noctis' voice was soft. He looked down at his lap, hands resting against his thighs.

"I know what Gideon did. I just can't bring myself to condemn him. He was so desperate, you know? He didn't want money, power, or anything my dad offered him. He just...wanted somebody to hurt as much as he did. Is that so wrong?"

Gladio's mouth dropped open. He screamed his reply, visibly startling Noct. "Yes! Yes, it is!"

There was a veiled threat in King Regis' words when he finally chimed in. Something dark hid there, lurking behind the green of his eyes. "Gladiolus is right, Noctis. He planned to murder you in front of me tonight. His reasons are no longer relevant."

Gladio threw up his hands. "Thank you!" Finally, somebody who understood the gravity of the situation. "Your Majesty."

Right, the King. Oops.

Regis waved him off. "No need to stand on ceremony."

Gladio sighed, running a hand through his hair. "How premeditated was this? Do we know?"

Clarus slipped back into the room. He slid his phone into his pocket, shooting Regis a quick glance as he approached the three of them.

"Premeditated enough that he switched shifts with another glaive so he'd be at that banquet tonight. Cor is combing through the roster with Drautos as we speak. Whether or not he planned out his demands, or lack thereof, is a matter for debate. Either way, he never planned to leave without incident."

Gladio knew what was coming the moment it happened– felt his control snap like a rope, pulled too taut. His breath quickened.

For the first time, he knew exactly what tunnel vision was.

All he saw were Noct's wounded hands. The heavy bandages, stark-white around his throat. The blood, saturating his shirt collar. All he knew was the way the king's eyes lingered on Noct's face - as if he were afraid he might never see it again.

Gladio's entire world narrowed to a pin-point. It narrowed to a patch-work of black, blue, and those fucking awful bruises.

Noctis looked genuinely worried now, sensing the shift in his Shield. He held both hands out in front of him, in a manner he probably hoped was placating.

"Chill, Gladio. Why are you so mad?"

"Why am I-" Gladio cut himself off. Paused. Threaded his fingers through his hair, and laughed. He knew he was hysterical. He also knew he didn't fucking care.

Clarus' eyes were sharp, his expression harsh. "You need to calm down."

Gladio would not be deterred. He locked eyes with Clarus. A battle of wills, then.

So be it.

"I'll be calm when that fucker is dead."

Clarus placed himself between Gladio and the others, drawing himself up to his full height. "That is not for you to decide."

"Well, maybe it god damn should be!"

His father stepped closer. Their noses were nearly pressed together, a clear warning in Clarus' gaze. After years of training with the man, Gladio knew precisely how to read that look. He also knew his father had no desire to take him down, but that he would. Without a moment's hesitation.

Clarus addressed the room, still without looking away. "My son is severely confused. Excuse us for a moment." He gripped Gladio's shoulders, spinning him roughly around and pushing him bodily from the room. Noct's eyes followed them, face drawn with concern.

Gladio ripped away from his father's grip the moment the door closed, pacing down the hall like a caged animal.

"Why am I so mad? He could have died. I could have been zipping him up in a body bag, and he wants to know why I'm mad. I don't know, Dad, maybe you can tell us. 'Cuts and bruises. Nothing severe,' right?"

Clarus followed him down the hall. He raised an eyebrow, arms clasped behind his back.

"Gladiolus, you are out of line."

Gladio's laughter was shrill. "How can you be so calm? I wasn't there for Noct, and he got hurt. I failed him!"

Clarus scoffed, eyes hard. "Don't be foolish. This is not the first time someone has wounded him, nor will it be the last."

Gladio threw his hands up, incredulous. "I can't believe what I'm hearing. How can you-"

"We are Shields, Gladiolus. Fine weapons, yes, but not unbreakable. You cannot blame yourself for every ill that befalls him."

"Can't I?" Gladio gestured wildly back toward the room. "Look at his face, am I supposed to be okay with that pulverized mess?"

Exasperation bled into Clarus' words. "This is not about what you're okay with, Gladiolus. That boy in there, whom you swore an oath to? He is your life now. Your bond, in victory and defeat. That does not change the moment you become disillusioned by one incident gone awry."

Some of his bluster faded just a little, but Gladio wasn't finished yet. "That glaive needs to be punished. I can't just stand by and do nothing."

"You can and you will, if you care about Noctis at all."

Gladio blinked. He shook his head, eyes narrowed with confusion. "I don't understand."

"That glaive is one man. One, among the legions who would see your prince dead. But yes, you're right. Throw your life away to take his. I'm sure Noctis will manage when he's king, and his Shield is behind bars because he just couldn't wait for the courts to handle one petty assailant."

Gladio's mouth had gone dry, his determination billowing from his lips with a defeated breath. Try as he might, he couldn't form a response. Sputtering, he stopped at the end of the hallway with his back against the wall. He slid down it, resting his forehead on his knees.

Clarus sat heavily beside him. He sighed, and for the first time all night, his father actually looked rattled. For Gladio, who had only seen that a handful of times in his entire life, it was beyond jarring.

"At that banquet tonight, I watched a boy I helped raise scramble to save his own life, with two of his greatest protectors in the same room. Noctis could have died on my watch, right in front of my best friend's eyes. I was powerless. Do you blame me for that?"

Gladio jerked back as if he'd been slapped. He raised his head, gazing sidelong at his father in shock.

"What? No, why would I..."

Gladio paused.

Then it hit him: like the worst bucket of cold water in history.

Damn it.

Gladio wanted to hold onto the rage slipping between his fingers. Instead, he just felt tired. Tired, and maybe a little stupid.

"That's not fair. I hate you sometimes, you know that?"

Clarus chuckled. "But you see my point. Even if you had been there tonight, it would have changed little. You'd have been as much at the mercy of that blade as we were."

Gladio wanted to protest. Wanted to pretend his eyes weren't burning, that he wasn't holding back tears. He blinked hard, banishing them back to wherever the fuck they came from. "I just wanna do this right. I wanna keep him safe."

Clarus stood, with minor difficulty. He extended a hand toward Gladio. "I know you do."

Gladio took his hand, allowing Clarus to pull him to his feet. He read in the solemn line of his father's brow that he understood. Honestly, he'd never felt closer to him. Despite the fact that he'd kind of wanted to punch him in the face a moment ago.

Clarus reached out, cupping Gladio's cheek. "I know how you feel. What's important for you to remember, my son, is that your king will take hits, but he'd take a lot more if you weren't around to deflect the worst of it. Dwell on it every time someone bloodies him, and you'll have a hell of a life."

Gladio scowled. Getting all banged up was fine with him. That was his job. Noct, though – he was supposed to stay safe, protected, far from harm behind his human meat shield. Not bruised, beaten, and nursing wounds. A fifteen-year-old, living, breathing target for misery. Sure, Gladio had been training Noctis into the best killing machine he possibly could, but he still didn't want his friend to get hurt. Was that so awful?

"This sucks." Gladio leaned into his father's touch, allowing himself that small measure of comfort. He closed his eyes, taking a calming breath. "Does it get any easier?"

Clarus smiled. It was a twisted, bitter thing, calling more attention to the worry lines carved into his face – the cold hands of time Gladio had never really paid any attention to. The resolve in his father's gaze never wavered, but his eyes were sad.

"I'll let you know."

A cold chunk of ice settled into the pit of his stomach.

Gladio wasn't sure he'd ever be rid of it again.


When they finally reentered the room, Regis and Noctis appeared to be deep in discussion. Both looked up when Clarus and Gladio entered. Noct's lips were pursed, brows drawn together in disgruntlement. It might have been funny, if Gladio wasn't still so salty about everything.

Regis clasped his hands together.

"Clarus! Just the man I wanted to see." The king glanced down at a wrist-watch Gladio was positive was imaginary. "Would you look at the time? It's time to go. We have to go do that thing. It should take just long enough for the boys to talk."

Clarus didn't even try to hide a snicker. Before he could usher Regis out of the room, however, the king paused, drawing Noctis into a heartfelt embrace. "Something actually does require my attention, I'm afraid, but I'll come to you later, all right? Let Gladio take you back to your chambers. I don't want you leaving the Citadel tonight."

Noctis nodded, resting his head on Regis' shoulder. "Okay."

Regis pressed a kiss to the top of Noct's head. He held his son close, fixing Gladio with an expression so stern, it would have instilled the fear of God into the Infernal himself.

"You'll ensure an escort."

It wasn't a question.

And because Gladio valued his life, he answered with an affirmative. "Of course, Your Majesty."

Regis released his son, slapping Gladio's shoulder jovially. "Good lad. Look after him for me."

Clarus clasped Noctis' shoulder, giving Gladio a very pointed stare before ushering Regis out of the room.

Gladio crossed his arms over his chest. It was his turn to avoid Noct's gaze.

"...sorry you had to see that."

Noctis approached him, stopping just a few inches away. He reached out a hand, pulling back just shy of touching Gladio's arm.

Gladio dragged his eyes up to meet Noctis', feeling his gaze darken when he caught site of the stupid bruises again.

Noct seemed to notice where his eyes lingered. He reached up, stroking his jaw. "It's these, isn't it?"

Gladio averted his eyes. "You really do look like shit."

Noctis frowned. "Gladio..."

"Look, Noct. I'm your Shield. It's my job to protect you, and I couldn't this time."

Noctis shook his head. "No. You can't put that on yourself. You weren't there. I was – and I handled it."

"That's the point. I wasn't there. And yeah. If I had been, it probably wouldn't have changed anything, but it doesn't matter. I took an oath, Noct. And I need to do better. Even if it means I have to push to be at those stupid banquets." Gladio sank into a chair with a huff, resting his chin in his hand. Noctis wordlessly took the one beside him.

"Were you that worried about me?"

Gladio rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, you big dummy. That's not even a question."

Noctis hunched in his seat, wrapping his arms around his stomach.

His body language said everything words didn't. And Gladio, for all of his anger and bluster, could deny the boy nothing. He moved his chair closer to Noctis, hoping the prince would take that for the silent invitation it was.

He did. Noctis sidled over, leaning his head on Gladio's shoulder.

"Were you scared?"

Noctis huffed, almost seemed to shrink against Gladio's side. "Yeah. I really thought that glaive was gonna kill me."

"Well for what it's worth...you did good. I'm proud of you."

Noct buried his face in his shoulder. His voice shook. "Thanks."

For a few minutes, they were silent. When Noctis' breath hitched suspiciously, however, Gladio jerked, glancing down at his charge sharply.

It was only for a moment - before the prince stifled it again - but Gladio heard it. He was sure.

It was more telling than anything else he'd seen tonight.

And when Gladio swallowed his pride – when he reached out to thread their fingers together, he almost managed to convince himself it was entirely for Noct's benefit

Noctis covered his mouth with his other hand. He covered his mouth, but a small, strangled, heartbreaking noise escaped anyway.

And with it, Gladio's heart dropped through the floor.

Oh, no.

Oh, God.

His worst fears were realized.

The tears had come, and Gladio was left to pick up the pieces.

Gladio tugged him to his feet, steering them gently toward the gurney so Noct could burrow closer. The prince wasted no time, wrapping both arms around him and clutching as if his life depended on it.

Noctis pulled away after a moment or two, face drawn with shame. He moved to flee across the room, but Gladio was having none of that bullshit. The Shield pulled him back. Wrapped his arms around him and wouldn't let go.

"Nope. Where the fuck do you think you're going?"

Noctis stiffened, for all that Gladio could feel the tears soaking into his shirt. "I'm alive. It's over. It's okay now."

Gladio rested his chin on top of Noctis' head. "Stop that. You don't have to be strong. I'll do it for you. Just this once, okay?"

Noctis melted. There wasn't ever much resistance to begin with. Nevertheless, he rasped through what must have been the most heartbreaking apology Gladio had ever heard.

"Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."

Gladio raised his eyes to the ceiling, swallowing hard past the lump in his throat. He threaded his fingers through Noct's hair, stroking gently.

"I've got you, Noct."

If anything, the intensity of his cries only worsened. As if Noctis had been trying – with every scrap of strength – to hold back, even while he broke apart at the seams. He stopped resisting. Collapsed entirely and messily into his Shield's embrace.

Gladio was there to cushion his fall.

"It's okay. You're okay."

Noctis cried. Sobbed until he gasped – until his chest heaved, and his breath hitched so badly, it sounded painful. Gladio wanted to die - he wanted to die, but he didn't let go. Instead, he held Noct through the tears. Stroked his hair until the sobs quieted, and he collapsed against him, boneless.

Some minutes later, Noctis spoke. So quietly, his Shield barely heard him. "Gladio?"

He rested his cheek on top of Noct's head. "Hmm?"

The prince's breath caught. "I almost died."

Gladio's arms tightened around him. "Yeah. Yeah, you did."

Noctis was silent. Aside from the occasional stuttering breath, he seemed to be calming down. A few moments later, the boy chuckled. It was watery, and fucking tore Gladio's heart out, but he'd take what he could get.

"You were right about the dagger."

This time it was Gladio's turn to laugh. "Yeah, no shit."

Noctis buried his face in Gladio's chest again. "I thought I was fine. I really did," he sniffled, voice breaking on the last word.

"You almost died. You're allowed to be freaked out."

Noctis pushed himself up. Gladio released him with a little reluctance, one hand on Noct's shoulder to steady him. The prince rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, tear streaks standing out against his pale face. "God, I'm glad my dad's not here. He was pissed in the dining room, Gladio. He was so scary. If he sees me like this, he will literally kill the guy."

Gladio kept his tone light, stayed close enough that their thighs were pressed together. "There's still time. You look pretty pathetic."

Noctis laughed. This time, it sounded a little more genuine. "Shut up." The boy sighed, picking at his bloody collar. "Man, Iggy's gonna kill me. He just got done lecturing me about taking care of my silks."

Gladio winced. He spared a moment of pity for Ignis, who was going to be completely beside himself, and about a whole lot more than Noctis' shirt. Poor man had picked the absolute worst night to go hunting for rare cooking herbs, in an area of the outskirts so remote, cell service didn't come through.

He shot off a quick text, assuring Ignis that Noctis had not, in fact, been gutted, and hoped it might calm him more than however many missed calls he had from the leading members of government.

"Come on, you look beat. Let's get out of here."

A few quick phone calls and rearranged guard rotations later, Gladio had the escort he'd promised the king. And as they made their way toward the living areas of the palace – Noctis leaning heavily against his side – a thought occurred to him.

For every hit he took, Gladio would take two. For every tear he shed, he'd pay it back tenfold. Gladio's oath called for him to protect his charge from harm, but he'd been looking at this all wrong. Noctis wasn't just a charge whom he'd sworn an oath to.

He was his friend.

And it occurred to Gladio that maybe – just maybe - being his Shield wasn't just about fighting.