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Nox

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     It started with reports of Niflheim bases in Lucis suddenly going up in flames one by one, all torn apart as if by some contained natural disaster. Theories dotted the news reports and images of the destruction consumed the news channels. But none of that really mattered to Cid anymore. He had retired from the war, from worrying about the war, years ago —and maybe if he told himself that enough he’d stop caring, stop looking toward Insomnia and wondering—. So he did his best to keep his ear to the ground for news of trouble coming his way, but otherwise ignored the theories and the rumors —wrath the Astrals, new Nif super weapon gone wrong, a new weapon from Lucis—. It wasn’t his business anymore. Wasn’t his problem.

     But that’s what he’d said to himself the first time an idiot prince and his entourage had wheezed in, pushing the beautiful car they had so badly mistreated into his tiny, then-unknown gas and repair station. So really, he should have expected life to laugh in his face and drop trouble right in his lap in the form of a too-thin teenager skulking around Takka’s place looking to grab some Hunts, his cheeks just a touch too hollow to be healthy. Cid took one look at the sharp blue eyes the same color as armiger magic, the shaggy black hair tied back in a sloppy tail, the high cheekbones and long fingers —more like a piano player’s than a fighter’s, meant for more delicate work than carving up monsters— fiddling with the tattered hem of his shirt and swore.

     He’d always warned Reggie that his “nights out”, however infrequent they were, would someday come back to bite. He just hadn’t expected it to come bite Cid first —he should have though, should have known better than to think that Reggie’s mishaps wouldn’t spill over into Cid’s life, not since that first time he’d realized that if they’d need a mechanic to come along if they were ever going to survive to Altissia—.

     The boy startled at the sound of Cid’s cursing, backed away with a flicker of borderline panic on his face, like he was ready to bolt the moment Cid did anything more than curse and Cid’s tirade trailed off with a sigh. He looked the fidgeting kid up and down and struggled not to curse again. The kid’s clothes were too large on his frame, once high quality but now worn and so scruffy they’d probably come out of a giveaway bin, he had a pair of battered kukri with coeurl teeth dangling from them strapped to the small of his back as his only weapons, and he was definitely too small to be wandering around on his own. Cid wouldn’t peg the boy’s age over fifteen. Probably thirteen, if he was being optimistic over the kid’s weight and health.

     Cid rubbed a hand over his face, aware that the kid was about five seconds from bolting, and grumbled, “Settle down, boy. Ah don’t bite.”

     The boy stilled, but his shoulders were still rigid. Cid lowered his hand and came to a snap decision, “Ah ain’t gonna ask where yer parents are or why yer looking to get yer fool self killed takin’ on Hunts. But Ah do want to know yer name.”

     Blue eyes assessed him for some kind of trap, wild and wary in a way that made the father and grandfather in Cid’s heart hurt, “…Nox.”

     Cid narrowed his eyes, “No last names where ya come from, boy?” The question might be too much, the boy might bolt rather than answer, but assuming the boy still used his mother’s name … Cid needed to know which of Regis’s “nights out” had created this situation.

     A look of blank surprise and panic flickered over the boy’s face and the floor suddenly seemed very interesting to the kid, “Uh… It’s-, I-,” the boy glanced up at him in search of mercy, Cid just raised an eyebrow and channeled every ounce of stern parental impatience he’d learned from raising Mid —and Cor and Clarus and Regis for all the idiots would deny it—. The kid crumbled under his look, “Izunia,” the boy blurted, “It’s Izunia.” Takka made a strangled noise and a moment later the kid looked like he’d just admitted to the mass murder of puppies. Cid suddenly felt very glad that the place was empty save for himself and Takka at this hour of the morning. Because of course it would be Izunia. Of course it would. Of course Reggie had somehow found an unknown relative of the Chancellor of Niflheim to have a fling with. Because it had to have been an actual relative, the kid wouldn’t look like he wanted to gag himself and jump off a cliff if it was just a coincidence.

     Cid needed a drink.

     But first, he need to keep Reggie’s kid from running off into the wilderness like a scared chocobo, “Ya came here lookin’ for work, boy?”

     The kid paused in his frantic inching for the exit, no doubt startled by the question rather than profanities and accusations, “Um… yes. A- I came to pick up a Hunt.”

     Cid snorted, “With those scrawny arms of yers? Ya’d be a toothpick for the first thing ya came across that was bigger than a rat.” Panic faded in favor of an insulted expression and Cid waved the kid toward the back door, “Come with me, Ah could use an extra pair of hands in the garage.”

     Cid took several steps toward the door, then looked over his shoulder at where Nox was still standing with a baffled expression, “Well? Ya want work or not?”

     “…I’m not much of a mechanic.”

     Cid snorted, “Don’t have to be. Ya just gotta lift stuff and put it down where Ah tell ya. Maybe sweep out the garage too, if ya think ya can handle a broom.”

     After a long moment of incredulous staring, the too-small boy with Reggie’s features and the Niflheim Chancellor’s last name shuffled after him. Cid gave a single look at Takka as they left, stern and dark, and the man nodded hastily. Takka wouldn’t say a word about the boy’s last name, or his likeness to the king. He was reliable like that, never gossiped about other people behind their backs, especially over things they couldn’t help.

     Cid led the way to the garage and immediately put the boy to work with any number of odd jobs that cropped up in the dusty, busy repair and gas station. Usually Mid handled those chores in between helping him with actual repair work, but he had yet to return from his morning hike with Cindy and it gave Cid a perfect excuse to keep the boy around —better than letting him hare off into the wilderness with only those two kukri and untrained magic to protect him—. The boy kept throwing him wary, confused looks for the first half hour, like he expected Cid to interrogate him over his missing parents or maybe kick him out into the street for his last name. But after awhile of Cid only giving instructions and gruff small talk, the tense line of the boy’s shoulders began to ease.

     For a scrawny kid, Nox was strong. He lifted and moved and rotated things under Cid’s instruction without complaint or hesitation and had no issues with menial labor like sweeping floors and washing car windows. Cid still watched him carefully throughout the morning, trying to put together clues of the boy’s history and temperament from the way he moved and spoke and acted.

     The clues weren’t pretty.

     Nox was far too mature and well spoken for his age —thirteen years old, Cid managed to conclude after a few questions in between chores— and definitely wasn’t any kind of pampered princeling. Or whatever the Niflheim Chancellor equivalent would be for that. Nox knew about traveling on foot and finding Havens and he had no qualms with physical labor even though Cid had realized the boy had some kind of old injury about an hour ago —the limp was slight, but obvious if one was looking for it, so were the brief moments where the boy paused to breathe in the measured way of someone trying to ignore their pain—. He was wearing long sleeves in the middle of Leide summer —hiding scars, a classic tactic— and every scrap of weight on the boy was pure muscle. Cid could also see the callouses on those slender fingers that came from countless fights and the handling of weapons. Nox didn’t seem to notice how ill-fitting his clothes were —adult clothes on an underweight thirteen year old did not a good fit make—, just compensated for baggy fabric with idle twitches of his shoulders or quick tugs of his hands in between tasks with an idle efficiency that spoke of practice.

     If Cid were to guess, he’d say that Nox had been forced to handle himself without adult help for a long time, and it made him want to grab his spear off its rack for the first time in a decade and kill something. No child that age should be that skittish or that self-sufficient, like adult help was an occasional treat and not a given fact. No child should watch an adult’s every move like it might herald an attack and instinctively check every corner for possible exits or weapons like a soldier in the heart of enemy territory. Especially not Reggie’s boy. It reminded him far, far too much of Cor at that age.

     At least the boy wasn’t as hair-trigger violent and snarly as Cor had been.

     Mid and Cindy returned while Nox was sweeping out the garage. Mid took one look at Cid’s expression and the stranger doing all his usual chores and frowned, but Cindy was already bounding over to the boy with all the enthusiasm of a stampeding Dualhorn, “Well, howdy there! Ya must be new to the area, ‘cause Ah don’t recognize ya! Ah’m Cindy, ya been helping out my Paw-Paw, I see.”

     Nox had frozen like an spiracorn in the headlights after the first word out of Cindy’s mouth and was staring at her outstretched hand like it might strangle him. Cid would have found it funny if he hadn’t suspected that was a legitimate worry in the boy’s mind. Blue eyes blinked twice, then he reached out and tentatively shook Cindy’s hand, “Uh-. Yeah. He wouldn’t let me take a Hunt for money, so I’m-. Working here for today, I guess.”

     Cindy’s grin grew, “Well, good! Pa always says he an’ Paw-Paw could use another hand ‘round here. Ya got a name, stranger? Or do Ah gotta guess?”

     The boy ducked his head, “N-nox. Call me Nox.”

     “No last names where ya come from?” 

     Cindy meant it as a joke, but Cid saw the boy’s eyes widen in panic and glance frantically over at Cid. It almost looked like a silent plea for help and for that reason alone Cid took pity on him, “Don’t nag the boy, Cindy, he’s got work to do an’ ya got schoolwork.”

     Cindy rolled her eyes at him, every inch the entitled grandchild —almost enough to make Cid regret spoiling her … almost—, “Paw-Paw, it’s summertime!”

     “Ya got that summer project ya were whinin’ about the other day, don’t ya?” Cindy pouted at him and Cid shooed her off toward Takka’s restaurant, “Git. Go do yer work or yer Ma will tan Mid’s hide and mine.” Cindy bounded off with one final wave to Nox, who returned it shyly before turning wary eyes on Mid.

     Mid returned the wary gaze with a much more level one that almost hid his shock and worry. Because unlike Cindy and Takka, Mid had personally met Regis a few times before and he could spot the Lucis Caelum blue eyes, black hair, and high cheekbones almost as easily as Cid could, “Pa…”

     Cid narrowed his eyes, “Oh, he don’t bite. An’ he won’t bother Cindy none either, so git going. That delivery truck ain’t gonna fix itself.” We’ll talk later, but don’t you dare scare this boy off.

     Mid accepted the warning for what it was and ducked further into the garage with a friendly nod of his head. Despite the lack of confrontation —that would come later, Cid was sure— Nox was wound up like a spring all over again, giving wide berths to anywhere Mid happened to be as they worked until Cid gave in and shooed the boy off to go help in the convenience store instead. Once Nox had fled out of earshot, Mid put his tools down and raised his head out from under the hood of the truck he was fixing, “Care to explain the stray, Pa?”

     Cid straightened up from his own work with a groan, “Ain’t nothing to say. Kid blew in this morning lookin’ for a Hunt. Like Ah was gonna let a twig like him go out and get himself killed. So Ah gave him some busywork to do ‘round here instead.”

     Mid sighed, like Cid was being difficult somehow, “He looks just like the king, Pa. Don’t ya think ya should … call somebody?”

     Cid gave a sharp glare, “Ah ain’t calling a soul and ya better not either, hear me, Mid? Not. A. Soul.” The ferocity of his words took his son by surprise and Cid took a moment to breathe before he lowered his voice and continued, “That boy is one wrong word away from running for the hills an’ never looking back, Mid. If what Ah think his life has been like up ‘till now is true, then Ah can’t even blame him. But if Ah try to call Reggie or anyone else about that boy … he’ll bolt. Worse, he’ll bolt and Reggie will chase after him until someone either ends up hurt or lost or dead.”

     Cid grabbed a tool and resumed working with an agitated energy he would much rather have used to pound in a few Nif skulls —especially the Chancellor’s, because he highly doubted the man was unaware of his illegitimate relation born of Lucian royal blood running around, doubted that Nox’s obviously parentless existence was a coincidence either—, “Ah want to call Reggie about the boy, Ah do. But if Ah do that, he’ll run and there won’t be a thing Ah or anyone else can do to keep him safe.”

     Mid mulled over that for a while, long enough for them both to peak out of the garage and spot Cindy bugging Nox again as he took out trash bags. Her bright smile seemed to befuddle the thirteen year old almost as much as being spoken to in the first place. Mid flipped a wrench idly in his hands as he broke the silence, “Ya really think he’s been treated that bad?”

     “His last name’s Izunia.” Mid sucked in a sharp breath and Cid met his son’s startled gaze evenly, “That ain’t a coincidence either. Not from the way the boy’s actin’. So yes, I think he’s been treated that bad.”

     They both looked over at Nox’s back disappearing into the store again, Cindy on his heels chatting away like the boy was a long lost relative, “So…” drawled Mid as he tugged a hand through his hair, “what’re ya gonna do?”

     Cid didn’t know. He couldn’t just let the boy wander off and get himself killed, but he couldn’t force the boy to stay —physically as well as morally, Cid knew exactly how Lucis Caelum magic reacted when someone tried to force a Lucis Caelum into staying against his will—. He couldn’t call Reggie without setting off a train wreck of lethal proportions and then there was the entire “related to the Niflheim Chancellor” disaster just waiting in the wings that Cid could do literally nothing about.

     Cid needed a drink. But he couldn’t do that either because he needed to be sober to deal with this —and he wasn’t allowed to drink when Cindy was in Hammerhead, it was one of the rules Mid’s ex-wife had set when they parted, amiable terms of divorce or no—.

     He sighed heavily, “Ah’ll try to talk him into sticking around, Ah guess. Not much else Ah can do.” Maybe if he got the kid to stay, got him used to Cid’s presence, then Cid could broach the whole “I know your father, can I tell him you exist or will you warp off into the distance the moment I try” topic. Mid made a sympathetic noise, no doubt sensing his father’s line of thought, and they both went back to work.

     To Cid’s surprise, the kid stuck around with only minimal coaxing. He blamed Takka’s good food, a warm bed, and Cindy’s forceful personality —the girl had decided Nox was her new friend and there was no turning the girl aside once she made up her mind—. Considering Nox acted like he hadn’t had a decent meal or sleep in days and a friendly face without a hundred strings attached in far longer, it was probably the best bribery combination Cid could have asked for. That didn’t mean the boy stopped being skittish, Astrals no. The boy was easier to spook than a spiracorn, and not in the ways a boy his age should spook. He would tolerate touch despite his obvious dislike of it, but touches without warning or from behind sent him jolting away like he expected a knife to the throat. Shouting —even if it was not directed at him, even if it was halfway across Hammerhead— made him go loose in the same way Reggie had when he was preparing to warp away from danger.

     Cid just about killed something the day a truck backfired as it drove by the station. Nox had jolted at the sound, dropping behind the nearest large object with unseeing eyes, clutching his kukri in shaking hands like he expected bullets to start flying any second —like the bullets were already flying, whizzing by his skin in too-vivid memories Cid knew all too well—. Nox had stopped cringing within minutes, but his shoulders had stayed tight and his eyes half-vacant for the rest of the day —Cid was glad it was Cindy’s week to be with her mother, for all Nox seemed to find the girl’s chatter endearing, that would not have been the day for it—.

     To Cid’s frustration, the kid didn’t stick around all the time. He was still too wary for that. Nox would wander off into the distance for anywhere from two days to three weeks without explanation, coming back exhausted and shaking and hiding bloody scraps of bandages under his baggy clothes. Cid pretended not to notice how the boy’s disappearances always preceded the news of another Imperial base or outpost or depot going up in flames. How the boy spent hours taking a cold shower in the caravan only to still smell faintly of ozone and smoke when he shuffled out.

     A large part of Cid —the father in him, the friend of Reggie, the part that remembered spending too many hours helping Weskham put Cor back together— wanted to tie the kid to a chair and keep him there until he stopped his one-boy crusade against the Empire. The rest of him knew that would only ruin any chance he had of getting the boy to stop —getting the boy to Reggie and the safety of Insomnia’s Wall—. So he grit his teeth, pretended he didn’t see, made sure to keep the caravan’s first aid kit overfilled with potions and bandages and pain medications, and mentally thanked the Astrals for Axis Arra, the teenage Hunter that started blowing into Hammerhead with Nox on occasion —even if the boy was just as bloody and wary and scarred as Nox, clearly just as dedicated to Nox’s crusade—. It was a horrible situation, but at least it meant Nox wasn’t always alone out there, that he had someone to watch his back.

     Under his frustration and worry, Cid hoped that someday the boy would be willing to sit down and give him a list of names. Because Cid had a spear that had been clean of blood for far too long and he knew Reggie —and Clarus and Cor— had an entire arsenal of swords suffering from the same problem.

 

 

 


 

 

     Cid was a lot more … fatherly than Nox had ever imagined. It was weird. He wasn’t touchy feely, was still the same snappy, gruff, opinionated grease monkey he had always been. But he also … cared. A lot more openly than he had back when Nox was a prince who looked “like they took his old man and kicked the dignity out of him”. He always made sure Takka fed Nox when Nox was around —not that Takka needed the encouragement—, always tried to keep him away from Hunts in favor of easy odd jobs, and the caravan first aid kit was always far more well stocked than it had ever been in Nox’s old timeline. All things that Cid did without prompting for Nox but had never done for Noctis.

     Of course, that might have been because Nox was a lot smaller than Noctis had been —stupid de-aging weirdness, he was glad he wasn’t six again, but why was he thirteen? Why couldn’t he have stayed thirty if he was going to be a separate entity from his past self?—, and Nox was almost always alone when he drifted into Hammerhead for a meal and a bed and menial labor that didn’t require much thinking on his part —Axis didn’t count, his presence seemed to stress Cid out even more—. But it wasn’t like he could drag his “dear Uncle” into a Lucian repair station in the middle of nowhere without a good reason.

     A good reason he didn’t have. Because even if watching Cid try to kick the tar out of Ardyn was a tempting reason —Nox had yet to forgive blurting out that his last name was “Izunia” of all things, it was all Ardyn’s fault with his lyrical dramatics over “cover stories” and “trust your dear Uncle on this won’t you?”—, it wasn’t a good one. So Nox had to refrain from hauling his purified and reformed great-to-the-umpteenth-power-uncle with him to Hammerhead after their raids on Imperial holdings.

     Which meant Cid probably thought he was an abandoned kid running around without any adult supervision or survival instinct and that was why the gruff old man kept trying to make him stick around. At least … Nox hoped that was why Cid kept trying to make him stick around. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if Cid was trying to keep him in one spot long enough to call Regis about an “illegitimate son” —he did know what he’d do, run for the hills and cry his heart out onto Ardyn’s shoulder later, and didn’t that say a lot about how much their relationship had changed since they first met—.

     He wasn’t ready to see his dad again.

     He didn’t think he’d ever be ready.

     Knowing from afar that his father was alive and healthy —that his dad had survived this time— would be enough —no it wouldn’t, but Nox didn’t think he’d be able to emotionally survive the alternatives—.

     But for all the danger visiting Hammerhead presented to his sanity and his cover, Nox found himself going back anytime he could. It was … it was good. To see some of the faces of people he had started this impossible quest for. Good to hear their voices and see them alive and healthy and whole, even if they would never know him like he knew them —even if Cindy was a tiny, chatty twelve year old with a living father and not the cheerful, chatty adult mechanic in his memories, even if Cid looked at him like he wanted to wrap Nox in bubble wrap and never let go—.

     So of course, something had to go wrong.

     Of course he forgot that Cindy’s parents died.

     He knew the moment he stepped into Hammerhead that something was wrong. After almost a year of flitting in and out Hammerhead for a safe hiding place and food and non-Uncle-or-Axis company, he could tell that the air was too quiet to be natural. The usual bustle and chatter of travelers and shopkeepers was missing, and there were no sounds of repairs coming from the garage. It was a sunny midday with no recent bad weather or abnormal monster trouble, so there was no reason for the stillness. The solemnity. At least until he tentatively stuck his head in the convenience store and spotted the black shrouded picture of Mid and a woman that had to be Melba hanging on the wall behind the counter. Even in the heat of the desert day, Nox felt very cold as he ducked back out and fled to the nearest dark corner to fight with his breathing.

     It wasn’t his fault —it was, it had to be, what was the point of time-traveling if you couldn’t save two people—. He hadn’t even known when they died in the first timeline, there was nothing he could have done to prepare for it —he could have done something, stayed closer, warned Mid, something—. He had known that Cindy was orphaned and yet he hadn’t even tried to save them-.

     “Boy?” Someone’s voice echoed over his head from far-away-too-close-distant-near-too-near-get-away and Nox recoiled, steel in his hands as he whimpered past the constriction in his lungs and the tugging, swirling voices in his head —old voices, dead voices, voices of kings and queens who had long since passed yet remained imprinted in the magic they had added to the Crystal, the magic the Crystal had poured like lava into his veins all those years ago—.

     There was another voice talking, one that wasn’t the Old Kings in his head but sounded distantly familiar anyway —friendly? Not friendly? He couldn’t tell, it was too far away but also too close and he couldn’t think—. He caught a few words from the new voice, things like “breathe” and “it’s okay” and “Nox” —Nox? Who was Nox? He was Noctis-Oracle-Rogue-Noctis-Fierce-Wanderer-Noctis-Somnus-Somnus-Noctis—. He latched onto the instructions to breathe, struggled to match the rhythm he could faintly hear being counted out for him by a familiar-friendly-gruff voice —the voice was close enough to recognize it a bit, to know that he trusted that voice, that voice wouldn’t hurt him, that voice had never hurt him—.

     Reality crept back in as his breathing evened out and his sense of self steadied back to Noctis, then morphed back into Nox. He cracked his eyes open, wondered dully when they had closed, and saw Cid standing a few feet away —safe distance away in case he lashed out, smart man— with a concerned scowl, “There we go, nice and easy like that. Ya back with me, boy?”

     “…I’m sorry,” Nox croaked past his tight throat, “I’m so sorry.”

     Cid stared at him without understanding, “What ya got to be sorry for, boy? Everybody has attacks sometimes, specially when they’ve been on their own at yer age.”

     Nox shook his head, shame trying to smother his words even as it dragged them into the open air, “Mid-. Mid and Melba, I-. I should’ve been here. I should’ve-. I’m so sorry.”

     Cid’s jaw went tight with anger and Nox forced his limbs to still —he would take the shouting, he would even take blows, he deserved it, he deserved worse—, “Don’t ya dare.” Cid stalked closer, froze at something he saw in Nox’s face, but still loomed over him as he snarled, “Don’t ya dare blame yerself for what happened to Mid an’ Melba.” Nox opened his mouth weakly and Cid cut him off with a grieving ferocity Nox hadn’t seen since he’d been Prince Noctis, “Ya couldn’t have known what was gonna happen and ya couldn’t have helped even if ya had. It was their fool decision to be out on the roads that late without the proper tools to stay safe an’ nobody else’s.”

     Nox straightened up out of his corner —when had he gotten into the garage? Had he fled here after seeing the picture?—, “I could have helped-. I should have-.”

     “Should have nothing. Yer a kid with pair of banged up old knives and twig arms. Mid and Melba were adults who had lived here all their lives. They knew they was being stupid the moment they got in that car and there wasn’t a thing ya could have done to stop them-.”

     The power in Nox’s bones —so much power, too much power yet what good was it if he couldn’t use it to protect people he cared about— burned and snarled and pushed against his skin. Rose up like a noose around his neck and sank like hooks into his vocal cords as he roared, “I should have stopped them! I should have gone with them! I should have done something to save them!”

     Heat spilled across his tongue like fire and silk, rippled out past his teeth like ozone and thunder and he knew even before the garage windows all cracked and the toolboxes crashed down from their shelves that he had messed up.

     The silence was the loudest thing Nox had ever heard in his life. Either lives. Even Cerberus’s howls and Titan’s booming, scraping voice in his head had never been that loud.

     Nox watched Cid look slowly around at the cracked windows and scattered tools with his heart in his stomach. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that why did I do that how-could-I-lose-control-like-that-. Cid looked back at Nox and something inside him broke.

     He knows.

     If he hadn’t known before now about Nox’s magic, if, by some miracle Cid had never looked at Nox and seen the similarities to the picture of young Regis sitting in his office still, this clinched it. There was no mistaking this. No mistaking how Noctis’s magic had jerked out from his skin and caused this damage.

     Nox tensed to run —he couldn’t stay, not when Mid and Melba were his fault and now Cid knew about his magic and would call Regis and Nox couldn’t handle seeing his dad, not now maybe not ever— and Cid was suddenly across the distance between them faster than Nox would have thought possible for a man his age. Nox froze at the sensation of arms wrapped strong as steel around his shoulders, a calloused but gentle hand pushing his head down against Cid’s chest.

     The garage was still very, very quiet. The silence just made Nox’s own breaths seem louder as he shook in Cid’s grasp and tried not to sob. Slow fingers gently petted his hair, trying to sooth the knots in his shoulders without letting go of him, “It’s okay, Nox.” Cid’s voice sounded very rough in his ear, rough and wet —Nox’s fault-all-his-fault— as he murmured, “Yer not the first to crack my windows and send my tools flying with a bit of magic. Ain’t nothing a little work and some crack sealant can’t fix. It’s a’right.”

     Not even a moment of shock over his magic. Not even a flicker of surprise. Nox shuddered, but didn’t fight Cid’s hold, “…How long have you known?”

     Cid’s hug tightened a bit, like he was afraid Nox would try to bolt, “Since Ah first laid eyes on ya. Ain’t no mistaking those eyes and cheekbones, even as scrawny as ya are.”

     Nox pressed his face deeper into Cid’s jacket and tried to pretend he wasn’t crying, “Don’t tell him.” The fingers running through his hair paused and Nox reached up to clutch leather, “Please. Don’t tell d- don’t tell the king about me. Don’t send me away to him. Please.”

     A deep, tired sigh, “He won’t hurt ya. Reggie wouldn’t hurt his own kid. He’d take care of ya, love ya like a father should.”

     Nox was shaking so hard he was surprised he wasn’t falling apart, “Don’t. Don’t, I can’t-. Promise me you won’t call him. Please, Cid.”

     “Boy…”

     A sob ripped free of his throat and he clutched tighter to leather, “Promise me, Cid. Please.”

     The fingers in his hair went tight, then Cid sighed, old and sad and tired, “If it means ya’ll keep comin’ around, then a’right. Ah promise.” Nox nodded gratefully into Cid’s chest and pretended not to feel the tiny splashes of tears dripping onto his head.

     Despite his deep-rooted terror that Cid would find a loophole in his promise and tell Regis about him —illogical terror, Cid had known for months now and never said a word, he wasn’t going to break his promise by starting now—, Nox stayed in Hammerhead. He lurked around the garage and store, helping out with his usual odd jobs, picking up the slack that came from everyone else’s grieving. He could barely bring himself to talk to Cid, his guilt was still wrapped too tight around his throat, and for all that Cid was kind to him, Cid was still grieving himself and needed a lot of time alone. Nox found himself falling into Cindy’s orbit instead, the orphaned girl who was going to grow up into a cheerful grease monkey of a woman but right now spent most of her time huddled against Nox’s side, crying into his shoulder while he rubbed her back and tried not to be smothered with his guilt.

     Nox forgot all about his intended plans for the month, abandoned those plans in favor of staying in Hammerhead and trying to ease the fallout of Mid’s and Melba’s death. Trying to make sure Cindy remembered to eat and sleep, trying to keep Cid from spending too much time staring into space by himself, trying to make sure Takka had all the supplies he needed to hold Hammerhead’s restaurant together in the wake of tragedy —Takka had stared the first time Nox shuffled to the back of the restaurant with a dualhorn corpse dragging behind him, proof that Nox could actually hunt no matter what Cid said—.

     He stayed in Hammerhead three months, only leaving to hunt up some supplies for Takka once in a while, never straying more than a day’s trek away. Cid was already beginning to haul himself out of his silent grieving —not stopping it, just … getting better at functioning, at putting on a professional mask and working in the garage again— and Cindy began doing more than huddle up against Nox and cry. Work trickled back in as people, who had stayed away for the most part out of respect, began to return now that the formal time of mourning had passed. Nox still stayed, hunting and working odd jobs and helping Cindy to help Cid in the garage —she wanted to learn as a distraction, Nox could tell, and Cid needed a student for the same reasons—.

     Four months and it was the longest time Nox had spent in one place since he had become Nox instead of Noctis. Four months and he was just wondering if he could dare return to his mission … when his mission came around to find him in the form of his uncle sweeping into Hammerhead in all his hatted, flamboyant glory. Said uncle swept Nox up in a hug right there in front of Cid with a gleeful cry of, “Dearest Nephew!”

     Ah.

     Nox had forgotten to inform Ardyn of his sudden vacation from blowing up Nif bases hadn’t he?

     Nox let himself but hugged and spun in circles with his face mushed to the thick fabric of Ardyn’s latest tacky overcoat and pretended not to relax into the touch of his fellow time-traveller and relative, “Uncle,” he mumbled into Ardyn’s shoulder, “I need to breathe.”

     Ardyn stopped spinning around and set Nox down on his feet, his hands moving to clasp Nox’s shoulders instead as he visually inspected Nox like one would a wayward pet cat, “But Nephew Mine I’ve been worried to utter distraction about you! Four months! Four months and not a single word! You were supposed to meet with me a month ago and again three months before that!” Ardyn rested a hand on Nox’s cheek and there was genuine worry in his blue eyes as his voice softened from its dramatics to murmur, “I thought something had happened to you.”

     Nox leaned briefly into Ardyn’s touch in silent reassurance, “I’m fine, Uncle. I just … had to help out here for a while.” He swallowed past the guilt knotted in his throat and whispered, “Cindy’s parents died.” I should have stopped it.

     Ardyn’s gaze turned sympathetic. He knew about Cindy and everything the woman had done for Nox back when he was Noctis, knew that Nox was blaming himself for not remembering why Cindy lived with her grandfather in that future until it was too late —they had done a lot of sharing like that, swapping stories about the people and events in their lives, not much else to do when stuck in the Void with only a long-lost relative come former enemy for company—, “…Ah…”

     Nox’s gaze dropped shamefully to the ground, snapped back up when Ardyn tugged lightly on his low ponytail in gentle reproof, “None of that, Dear Nephew. What is done is done. You cannot fix everything wrong in the world.” Nox glowered, Ardyn tugged a little more firmly, “Even the Astrals cannot foresee and prevent everything Nephew, do not hold yourself to such impossible standards.” Like I once held myself. Nox nodded grudgingly and Ardyn plopped his battered, atrocious old hat onto Nox’s head before slinging an arm around Nox’s shoulders, “There now! How about you show your dear old uncle around this place that has captured your interest and affection so, hmm? I’m sure it must be quite interesting!”

     Nox adjusted the hat on his head with a scowl, but didn’t remove it, Ardyn would just put it back on his head every time for the annoyance of it, “Only if you like broken down old cars. Takka’s food is pretty good though-.”

     Boy.” Ardyn and Nox both looked over at the low snarl, and Nox cringed a little further into Ardyn’s grip a moment later. Wonder if it’s too late to run. It probably was. Because Cid was stalking toward them like a man on the warpath, the wrench in his hand half raised like an instrument of judgement. At Nox’s visible cringe, Cid slowed to a stop, fingers flexing on the wrench and his jaw tight, eyes never leaving Ardyn, “Nox,” he started again in a slightly softer but still murderous voice, “is that who Ah think it is?”

     Oh no. Nox had almost forgotten that he’d told Cid his last name was Izunia all those months ago —over a year now and Cid had clearly not forgotten it—. Nox opened his mouth, scrabbling for an excuse that wouldn’t get anyone —Ardyn— murdered via wrench. Ardyn’s grip tightened around his shoulders as he turned toward Cid and interrupted before Nox could even try to save his skin, “Good day, you must be Cid Sophiar. My nephew has spoken of you quite fondly this past year or so.” Nox hid his face in that stupid old hat, but could still picture the lazy, foxy smile on his uncle’s face, “I am Ardyn Izunia. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

     There was a long silence, tense as a wire pulled too tight, and Nox kept his face hidden in the stupid hat as he reached out a blind hand to angrily swat Ardyn’s chest, “You Astrals-d*mned showboating idiot.”

     He felt more than heard Ardyn’s nervous chuckle, the tiny prickle of Ardyn’s magic against his senses that did more to tell him how terrifying Cid looked than anything else, “Dear Nephew, I’m hurt. How can you call your poor uncle such things?”

     Nox dared to lower the hat from his face and glare up at the man who had once been his most hated enemy and was now —somehow, for reasons still lost on the both of them— his closest family, “Because you are. Anyone else with a brain cell would know better than to announce his name in the middle of a Lucian parking lot when he’s the famed Chancellor of Niflheim.”

     “Ah, but how does anyone know that I am that Chancellor? There are a lot of people in the world, Nephew. Perhaps I am just someone who happens to share the name of the Chancellor.”

     “Both names.”

     Ardyn’s grin had grown to truly mischievous proportions, “You never know, it could happen.”

     Nox sighed to the sky and shifted to face Cid, who was watching their interactions like he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not, “Can we … take this somewhere private? And can you promise not to murder my uncle? He’s the only one I’ve got and I don’t want him to drop dead. Actually-,” Nox turned his head to finally acknowledge the other two who had wandered in alongside Ardyn and who had been standing there staring for several minutes, “Dave? Axis? Can you two please go ask Takka to make something for lunch for two people? Make sure one of the lunches is something soft enough for a stomach that hasn’t eaten for a week or more.”

     Dave Auburnbrie, the hunter Ardyn and Nox had met not long after their arrival in the past, looked like he was regretting ever meeting them. Nox didn’t worry about that, he looked like that a lot when they were involved. Ardyn and Nox were both walking disasters in roughly human shapes, a phenomenon that only got worse when they were together, and Dave had seen the fallout multiple times since first finding them halfway passed out and disorientated by the side of the road over a year ago, wondering how they were both alive and why the sun was suddenly a thing after an unknown eternity in the blue of the Void.

     Axis Arra, the teenage Galahdian Hunter Nox had run into more than a few times and ended up accidentally recruiting on his mission to make Niflheim’s job harder on the other hand —had accidentally befriended and maybe been adopted by—, looked two steps away from smacking their heads together. Or laughing at their misery. Hard to tell with him. Unlike Dave, Axis wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by Ardyn casually announcing his status as Chancellor of the enemy —mostly because he’d already figured it out within weeks of meeting Ardyn—. At Nox’s sad look, Dave sighed and nodded, “We’ll go do that. Unflavored daggerquil soup for yer uncle again?”

     “That or a watered down dualhorn soup, Takka should have enough supplies to whip it up. Thank you, Dave.”

     Dave waved a hand, cringing subtly away from Cid’s baffled glare, “No problem, kiddo.”

     Axis snorted softly and shook his head, “One last meal coming up.” Nox made a rude Galahdian gesture he’d learned from Axis, who returned it without hesitation until Dave sighed, grabbed him by the collar and led him away.

     As Dave and Axis walked away and Nox began dragging his uncle by the arm toward Cid’s office —Cid following behind with his wrench and an increasingly mystified expression—, Ardyn protested, “As kind as your forethought is, Dear Nephew, I’m not hungry.”

     “When was the last time you ate?” Nox fired back without hesitation.

     The telling silence lasted until they were at the door to Cid’s office, “What day is it?”

     Nox stopped. Leaned his head against the wood of the door he’d been about to open and sighed out, “Wednesday.”

     “The fourth? Well then, I had a bite to eat just yesterday-.”

     Nox quietly debated beating his head against the door, then decided against it. He had enough mental issues as it was without adding physical brain damage to the list, “It’s the eleventh, Uncle. Not the fourth.” Honestly, sometimes Nox wondered why he ever let Ardyn out of his sight. Ever since being purified and accidentally time-traveling with Noctis, the man had sucked at self care. Two thousand years of never needing to eat or sleep thanks to the starscourge had made Ardyn utterly incompetent at remembering to do those things more often than every few days —or a week, longer if he hadn’t been at risk of passing out when nine or more days rolled around—. Even Nox remembered to eat something at least once a day and tried to sleep a few hours every night —in the back of his mind where his memories of Ignis lurked, he knew full well that was still terrible self care, but at least he wasn’t as bad as Ardyn—.

     Cid made a strangled noise behind them and Nox hurried them into the office before the man could start shouting and alert every passerby in Hammerhead to the issues at hand. Cid slammed the door shut behind them but didn’t lock it, just stood between Ardyn and the door and pointed his wrench at the man while glaring at Nox, “This, is the Chancellor of Niflheim.”

     Nox shifted into a more comfortable position under Ardyn’s arm and fiddled with the stupid hat in his hands rather than look at the angry mechanic, “Sad, isn’t it? But yeah, this is him. I know he already announced himself in the parking lot, but … Cid, this is Ardyn, my uncle. Uncle, this is Cid, the guy who’s been giving me odd jobs here at Hammerhead when I’m not traveling.” Nox risked a glance up at Cid, “Please don’t hit him on the head with that thing. He has enough issues as it is.”

     “So disrespectful to your poor uncle,” Ardyn stage whispered. Nox elbowed him hard in the side then grunted as he got his hair tousled in revenge. A tiny, totally mature nudging war happened right there in front of Cid’s desk while the man stared at them and very slowly lost the murderous tension in his shoulders in favor of open confusion. Nox supposed it was a little strange to have the Chancellor of your most hated enemy nation losing a play fight with a fourteen year old in the office of a garage in the middle of Lucis. But Nox wasn’t about to let Ardyn win —the man always gloated by tickling and Nox had his dignity to defend—, and if Cid was confused then he wasn’t murderous and that counted as a win in Nox’s book.

 

 

 


 

 

     Cid was half-convinced he was dreaming this up. But then, it was so against everything he had ever assumed about Nox’s past that he didn’t think he could have dreamed it up. Astrals help him, he also didn’t think it was an act. Nox was a terrible liar, especially with his body language, and there was no way the boy was faking how relaxed the presence of his uncle made him. The uncle that Cid had been convinced had abandoned Nox somewhere and abused him beforehand.

     Cid had pictured a lot of things about the Chancellor of Niflheim based off of his few public appearances and Nox’s tells. He had expected a man of snakelike poise and cunning, with poisoned words and a predatory smile and a brutal hand toward the half-Lucian nephew he had not wanted. Cid had expected a monster in human skin that, if he ever dared appear, would come with guards and magitek units and abusive authority to retrieve a runaway nephew so that the boy’s magic could be exploited by the Empire.

     He had not, in any way, expected a flamboyant, cheerful man wearing far too many layers of old fashioned, vaguely tacky clothes in the middle of a desert to be entirely sane. He had not expected the man to come drifting in with Dave —who Cid knew was a good judge of character— and practically run to pick up his scrawny nephew and spin him around in a relieved hug. Most of all, Cid had never expected Nox to react to Ardyn’s arrival the way he had. With relief and good-natured indulgence, accepting the spinning hug like it was a matter of course, leaning into all the touches that followed like they were welcomed and cherished rather than unwanted things to be tolerated like he did with almost everyone else. Without the automatic rage that had burned in him, Cid could already look back on the memory and see the genuine concern lining the Chancellor’s face as he talked to Nox and lightly tugged on the boy’s hair when the younger seemed at risk of getting lost in his own head.

     There were no signs of the abuse and anger and terror Cid had expected. Not in the goodnatured teasing and the casual touches, not in the way Nox subtly moved to defend Ardyn from Cid or shied into Ardyn’s side when Cid had approached with the wrench. Nox had even asked Dave and Axis to get his uncle food without a single hint from the older man or any sign Cid could discern that it was a bribe to stave off violence.

     Then he learned through the overheard conversation that the Chancellor of Niflheim, supposed military and political savant … had forgotten to eat for a week. That he forgot often enough that Nox hadn’t even thought to order his uncle anything other than food that would be good for a long-deprived stomach.

     Staring blankly at the nudging war devolving into a tickle fight right in his office, Cid wondered idly if he had gone crazy. Then he straightened up and rapped his wrench against the doorframe to gain their attention, “A’right. Ah think ya two have some explaining to do.” Both of them froze and watched him with identically guilty expressions, then glanced at each other like the other would somehow know what to say.

     Then the Chancellor smiled a winning —nervous— smile and Cid, “Well, you see, it’s quite a story.”

     Nox stiffened, “Uncle, don’t you dare-.”

     “Hush, Nephew Mine,” the Chancellor patted a protesting Nox’s head with a gentle hand, “I won’t embarrass you too badly. Now, am I safe in assuming that Sophiar here is aware of your father’s identity?”

     Cid raised an eyebrow, “Reggie. Ah always told him those wild nights of his would bite him in the butt someday.”

     The supposedly terrifying Chancellor of Niflheim effortlessly caught his squawking nephew in a loose headlock as he continued, “Perfect. Then you already know how the story begins, so we can skip over that bit. Unfortunately, Nox’s mother, Astral’s safeguard her soul, was ... never the picture of health. Nox was very young when she passed on. Her husband looked after him for a time, but after he, too, passed away…”

     Izunia hesitated, his headlock shifting almost unconsciously into a loose hug, Cid filled in the blank, “He fell into yer care instead.”

     “Yes.” Izunia’s face darkened, “And I was horrid.”

     Nox squirmed and slapped his uncle’s chest, “Uncle, no-.”

     Izunia’s lips twisted into a bitter expression, “It’s the truth, Nephew, and I do believe Sophiar has earned that much at least for taking such good care of you during your time here.” Letting go of his nephew, Izunia pinned Cid in place with a twisted, broken smile that was almost unnatural in its hate and there, there was the monster Cid had expected to see. The burning, venomous loathing in blue eyes and sneering lips that promised knife-like words … all directed at Izunia himself, “I abused him. Horribly. Physically and emotionally. I make no excuse for it whatsoever-.”

     Well you should!” Nox interrupted with a snarl and a ripple of magic that made Cid’s office shelves tremble and his teeth hurt from unseen pressure, “You should! None of that was your fault!”

     Izunia fixed flat eyes on his nephew, the venom fading into something dark and old and tired, “I’m very certain it was not the local voretooth pack that locked you in a maze with malfunctioning, murderous magitek units and without any food or water for four days, Nephew.”

     Nox looked the closest to hitting something in frustration that Cid had ever seen him and Cid had no time to process Izunia’s biting comment and get enraged before Nox was yelling, “You were mentally ill! You couldn’t differentiate me from that- that- snake that broke you in the first place! You needed help and medicine and all that filthy scientist did was throw you into a stressful political position to see what would happen! You were in no mental state to help anyone, not even yourself! Let alone me!”

     Izunia bared his teeth and Cid, to his slow-dawning horror, sensed an old argument unfolding in his office, “That does not excuse my actions. I caused you physical and emotional harm-.”

     “Because you were suffering PTSD-fueled visual and auditory hallucinations every time we were in the same room for more than ten minutes and that filthy scientist kept egging you on and making you worse every time you started to stabilize-.”

     “I should have had more self control-.”

     “You taught me how to survive and kept me out of Niflheim’s clutches-!”

     “My actions were unforgivable no matter the circumstances behind them-!”

     “Well too bad because I forgave you years ago so suck it up and stop beating yourself up over it-!”

     “You can’t just-!”

     Cid put his fingers to his lips and whistled, shrill and loud. The argument slammed to a halt as both Izunias slapped their hands over their ears and looked at him in surprise, like they’d genuinely forgotten he was there. Cid took a deep breath and tried to sort through all the bombshells that argument had contained, “A’right. There’s a story here, and it’s obvious Ah can’t let the two of ya tell it yerselves or else ya’ll just start fighting again. So. Ya,” he pointed at Nox, “were given to yer uncle after yer mother’s husband died, but ya,” he pointed at Ardyn, “were mentally ill, with a condition that was being aggravated by some … Nif scientist so ya,” he pointed back at Nox, “ended up bearing the brunt of yer,” point at Izunia, “mental illness.”

     “That does not excuse-.”

     “Just answer yes or no, Izunia.”

     Izunia’s lips thinned with anger before he relented, “Yes.”

     Cid pointed at Nox, “So what happened next?” Izunia opened his mouth, then shut it when Cid raised his wrench warningly.

     Nox bared his teeth at the floor, agitation stirring his magic and turning his eyes an eerie blood red —strong kid, Reggie had only ever changed eye color when he overstrained himself fighting with his full armiger—, “We had a … fight and then realized that the situation was untenable the way it was. Stuff got broken, a lot of nasty words were thrown on both sides, and I … kinda set him on fire a few times with my magic. Then we started trying to figure out how to fix things. I got Uncle some real help, not like that filthy scientist -may he burn on a pyre forever-, and Uncle and I did a lot of crying and had a lot arguments over everything that happened during my first year in his care and came to an understanding. And it was just the first year, and that was a long time ago. So we’re fine.”

     Izunia had lost his anger during Nox’s ramble and now just looked very old and tired, letting Nox lean into his side like they were the only pillar the other could rely on —and wasn’t that at odds with their story—. When Nox went quiet, Izunia pointed out blandly, “We forget to eat and sleep on a regular basis and our nightmares are things of legend, Nephew.”

     Nox huffed and plopped the ratty hat in his hands back on his uncle’s head, “Fine with each other then. Sleep is for the weak anyway.”

     Izunia opened his mouth, probably to snap out something else that was sarcastic, but Cid held up a hand and the man went quiet, “Nox,” Cid said with as much patience as he could, “go and get that food off Dave and Axis, Takka should be done makin’ it by now an’ ya might as well save them the trip.”

     “But-.”

     Cid opened the door and firmly gestured, “Git, boy. Ah won’t touch yer uncle while yer gone.”

     Nox sent his uncle a worried look, but obediently ducked out of the office. Cid shut the door and turned back to Izunia, “Yer not what I was expecting.”

     Izunia grinned, lazy and false, “That is the general consensus of those who meet me, yes.”

     “How were ya able to hold down the Chancellor’s position if ya were hallucinating and mentally twisted up?”

     Izunia’s smile dropped and blue eyes went cold and solemn, “Even a mad dog can be cunning, Mister Sophiar. Further, the position of Chancellor has been vacant for the past five hundred years because by the time I was given it, it had become an empty title. There is very little for me to do, officially, other than pop in and stir up the other departments and spy on the nobility during parties. Why do you think Niflheim has yet to worry over my prolonged absences? I am hardly necessary to their function, no matter how much influence I wield. All I’ve really had to do the past few years is hold myself together long enough for a few speeches and lurk in the corners of a few parties. As for the hallucinations … they were not constant. They were…” Izunia grimaced, “triggered. By a few things, but most relevant on that list was Nox.”

     Cid stamped down hard on the urge to yell, kept his voice calm and neutral, “Explain that.”

     Izunia’s gaze dropped away, then flickered up to Cid’s again, “I don’t suppose I can just say that his … physical features and magic did not inspire fond memories and leave it at that?”

     Anger churned in his gut, “If ya got a problem with Reggie and took it out on that boy-.”

     The tiniest flicker of surprise in blue eyes, so brief but obvious that it looked genuine, and Izunia shook his head, “No. No, never. I bear no ill will toward the current king of Lucis. No, my … issues with Nox’s paternal line are from an … older generation than that.”

     Anger twisted into realization and fury directed at someone else entirely as a new suspicion formed, but his next question was interrupted by Nox’s return. Cid opened the door for Nox and let him set the tray of food he was carrying on the desk. Nox firmly put the steaming bowl of soup and a spoon near Izunia’s elbow, “Eat.” Izunia made an amused noise and Nox growled like a disgruntled cat, his magic vibrating through his vocal cords to give it a bass note —Reggie had never used his magic that casually, Cid wondered briefly if it had something to do with Nox being raised outside all of the Lucis Caelum traditions—, “You can make Cid unrightfully hate your guts later. Eat.” Izunia obediently took the bowl and spoon and began lightly sipping on it with an amused expression. Nox turned to Cid, “Now, what have you two been talking about while you got rid of me?”

     “Nothing of note, Nephew Mine-.”

     “Liar.”

     Cid cut off the argument before it could get started, “Which ‘older generation’ do ya got a problem with and why?” One so bad you apparently had triggered flashbacks and hallucinations every time you saw your nephew.

     Nox paused in the middle of biting his sandwich and stared at Izunia while the latter fidgeted with his spoon, his blue eyes darkening with an unspoken warning, “…I would prefer to leave that in the past, Mister Sophiar.”

     Cid’s fingers tightened on his wrench, “Well tough. Ya’ve hurt Reggie’s boy and Ah need to know why.”

     Izunia eyed his soup like it would answer Cid for him, then glanced at his nephew. Almost like he was … asking for permission. Nox shrugged helplessly and Izunia sighed, “I will not name him. I have done enough disrespecting the dead, I think. However, the last time I encountered one of Lucis Caelum blood, I was … repeatedly and badly injured.” Izunia chewed his cheek, weighing his words with too much care for Cid’s tastes before admitting, “My own line has always been … odd. Odd abilities, outlier talents. For that reason I was used, and when my use had ended, when I refused to submit, I was … punished.” A bitter snort, “Not that I expect you to believe an enemy politician’s story of woe over the grand accounts of your country’s ‘noble’ kings.”

     Izunia was right. Cid wouldn’t have. If he hadn’t already seen first hand what happened when a Lucis Caelum let their power go to their head —there were many people Cid planned to punch when he got to the afterlife, but Reggie’s father was right at the top of that list—. That experience said that Izunia’s story wasn’t as impossible as most people would think —not as impossible as Cid wanted it to be—, “Got any proof?”

     Izunia considered Cid for several seconds, the intensity of his blue eyes reminded Cid of Nox when the boy was struggling to make a decision on whether to trust someone or not. Then the man sighed, set aside his bowl, and began shedding his many layers of clothing. Nox made a strangled, worried noise, but Izunia hushed him with a look. It took a surprisingly short time for the man to peel off the last of his shirts, and Cid instantly wished he hadn’t.

     There were so. Many. Scars.

     More scars than a human should have to bear. Deeper and more brutal than he’d thought a human could survive. Izunia held out his arms with a bitter smile and spun in a slow circle so Cid could see every inch of scarring on his torso. The whip scars, the sword wounds, the ripples of healed over burns, the messy knots of scar tissue where it looked like someone had stabbed Izunia with meathooks and then ripped them out after the skin had started to heal over the hooks. Izunia came to a stop facing Cid once more and Cid found his gaze latching onto the proof that the other marks of torture had not been done by some random third party.

     Sitting over Izunia’s heart in raised, ugly lines that still burned with the unnatural blue only a weapon infused with Lucis Caelum magic could leave, was a brand of the royal crest. The winged skull seemed to leer at Cid from Izunia’s too-pale skin, the magic circles still glittering a sickeningly vibrant blue from where they had been seared into place.

     Cid took a deep breath to keep from unleashing every blistering curse sitting on his tongue. He sat on the desire to somehow resurrect King Mors —and it had to be King Mors, he was the only other Lucis Caelum that would have been alive at the same time as Izunia, and certainly the only one cruel enough to do something like this no matter how fondly Regis remembered his father— in favor of scrubbing a tired hand over his face, “A’right. Ah believe ya.” He also couldn’t be angry at Izunia for having flashbacks or hallucinations around Nox’s magic when the boy had first been in his care, it was honestly a miracle that Izunia could stand to be around Nox now.

     Izunia shrugged on all his layers of tacky clothing, picked up his soup again and let Nox lean supportively against him, “So,” Izunia asked softly, “what now, Cid Sophiar? Will you tell me to leave and never return? Or will you banish us both from your presence?”

     …Cid was too old for this nonsense. Setting his wrench carelessly on a filing cabinet, Cid sat down in the nearest chair and tried not to feel the aching of his bones —the ache that came on days when storms rolled in, but also haunted him on the days he woke up with memories of war behind his eyes and the aftertaste of remembered blood on his tongue—, “Cut the dramatics. Ah ain’t gonna run either of ya off.” The two exchanged another speaking look and Cid continued, “It’s clear Nox trusts an’ loves ya, an’ Ah’d have to be blind not to see that ya love him in return despite everything ya’ve told me. S’long as it stays that way, Ah ain’t got any problems with ya sticking around. But ya’d better not cause any trouble for Reggie. Everything his old man did is on Mors’ shoulders. Not Reggie’s, not Nox’s, and not Reggie’s littlest brat either.”

     Izunia looked genuinely surprised, then recovered and dipped his head in gratitude, “I … thank you, Mister Sophiar.”

     “Cid. ‘Mister Sophiar’ was my old man.”

     Izunia blinked twice, then smiled, warm and tentative and genuine and suddenly all Cid could see was Nox in his earliest days staying in Hammerhead. Just as cautious, just as surprised and grateful and happy and Astrals it physically hurt to see the resemblance there. The way Izunia tilted his head in the same shy way as his nephew, the way the smile —the real one, not those fake things he’d been using so far— was all teeth like a child’s, the way blue eyes dropped to the floor in something akin to grateful submission, “Cid,” Izunia rumbled softly and somehow Cid’s own name sounded like a “thank you”, “if that is the case, then please, call me Ardyn.”

     Cid grunted and let the subject change to lighter topics, watched as Nox devoured his sandwich while Ardyn —who was even more underweight than Nox— sipped his soup until he seemed too full to continue —only two thirds of a single bowl, Astrals, the man needed a keeper to make sure he fed himself didn’t he—. Cid learned through their idle chatter and bickering that Nox had, in fact, been wandering the countryside since he was thirteen. Usually with his Uncle —who never went into settled locations for fear of being recognized— but also sometimes either Axis or by himself and that Ardyn saw nothing wrong with that fact because when he’d been thirteen he’d been doing the exact same thing.

     They had also apparently taken up the “hobby” of blowing up Imperial bases in Lucis because Nox believed it was just and Ardyn couldn’t care less that he was the Chancellor of the people who owned those bases. “Bonding time” with his nephew in the form of tearing apart Nif bases was a higher priority than helping run an empire apparently. Cid sat on the urge to strangle them both, just bullied them into agreeing to come around and stay more often, and to call him if they ever needed anything —which led to the awkward discussion of how Ardyn didn’t even have a phone—.

     That was, somehow, that. At least for a while. Nox and Ardyn would wander off into the countryside for a while, frantic news reports of torn apart munition depots or bases would crop up, then a few days later the two would amble back into Hammerhead, sometimes dragging the bundle of sarcasm and quiet anger that was Nox’s friend Axis, easily bickering over everything and nothing while Cid checked them over for injuries and tried to get them to actually put on weight —stick thin morons, the lot of them—. Sometimes Ardyn wandered off without Nox, off to do something to keep the Empire from realizing their own Chancellor was gleefully ruining their efforts to conquer Lucis.

     Sometimes the two would stay for weeks on end, helping out with odd jobs and being hopelessly wrapped around Cindy’s little fingers —Ardyn adored the spunky girl who had taken to calling him Uncle, would sit and let her ramble about car parts and repairs for hours even though Cid could tell all of it went over the man’s head—. Sometimes it was Nox that would wander off for unexplained reasons, leaving Ardyn to hide his worried fretting under playful melodrama that fooled everyone but Cid and Cindy —After one particularly long absence, Nox let Cindy get his ears pierced, just so she could fuss over what earrings he would wear every week—. Sometimes Nox didn’t so much amble back to Hammerhead as he was dragged by a quietly cursing Axis —who had also dragged Ardyn back more than once, though not as often as he did Nox—. Cid appreciated having an ally in his goal of keeping the two Izunias alive, though it would have helped his blood pressure if that ally wasn’t also an underweight, reckless teenager who spent most of his time wandering the wilds trying to feed his family —Axis admitted once that he was married and had children already at his age and that he took Hunts to provide for them, Cid had wanted to hit someone—.

     Cid wasn’t surprised that by the time Nox turned fifteen, half the population of Leide and at least eighty percent of the Hunters thought of Nox and Ardyn as “Cid’s boys” —though the Hunters also added Axis to that moniker—. Some, who didn’t know Nox’s and Ardyn’s real surname, even went so far as to call the two “Sophiar”. Cid just grumbled half-heartedly after the first time it happened and Ardyn had smiled that false, nervous thing he only used when he thought something was going to upset Cid —Astrals, he really was these two’s caretaker wasn’t he? Even Ardyn, astoundingly cunning idiot he was—.

     Cid should have known better than to settle into the routine of it all. To get comfortable. Trouble always found Lucis Caelums, and that trait only seemed to double when the Izunias were involved. It was during one of Ardyn’s solo disappearances, with a twitchy Nox suddenly grabbing his things and marching off into the wilderness with a vague excuse of “looking for something” that made no sense and wouldn’t have flown with Cid. Which was why Nox only let Takka see him traipsing off.

     The first sign that something was going to go wrong was when Cindy came to him, cradling one of Nox’s pistols in her hands and a worried frown on her face, “Paw-Paw, Ah found this in the livin’ room. He must’ve forgot to put it away when he was done cleanin’ it.” Cid had taken the pistol from her hand with a sudden feeling of dread, because the kid was incredibly good with armiger, and for all his quirks and bouts of forgetfulness, he had never failed to return a weapon to his armiger after he’d cleaned it.

     Cid had shaken his head and reassured her with a gruff, “He’s never been much of a marksman anyhow. He’ll be fine with all them swords of his.” Cindy had walked away with a relieved expression, and Cid had rolled the gun over in his hands a few times before putting it in the back room where the medical supplies and spare cot were —just in case this was some kind of backup plan, just in case Nox could, somehow, warp however many miles it took to one of his weapons and had left it as an emergency exit—.

     The next sign that something was going to go sideways and hard south was when Ardyn returned early that evening from playing Chancellor, barely listened to Cindy’s report on Nox’s activities —and “forgotten” gun— before running to check the calendar. Whatever Ardyn saw in the little boxes of numbered dates wasn’t good, because the man spent the rest of the evening pacing back and forth, abandoning his hand and shedding most of his shirts like the air was suddenly too warm —even though it was one of the coolest days of the month, even though his many layers had never bothered the man before—.

     Cid cornered Ardyn as night fell with no sign of Nox’s return or of Ardyn calming, “What’s he doin’ out there? Ya wouldn’t be all twisted up like this without a good reason. Spit it out.”

     Ardyn stopped and ran a hand through his hair with a tight expression Cid had never seen on the man —Ardyn usually hid his fears behind laughter and flirting and melodramatic masks, didn’t wear them on every inch of exposed scars and tugged hair like this—. He glanced out the nearest window, at the dark night sky above, then slumped just a bit, “We’ve been trying to prevent this.”

     Cid felt his skin crawl, “Prevent what?”

     Ardyn took a deep breath and resumed pacing, paused only long enough to check that they were alone before he continued, “There is a reason Nox and I have been attacking Imperial installations on the Lucian continent with extra vigor of late. We have been hearing … rumors that someone in the Niflheim hierarchy is planning a targeted attack. Just rumors, mind you, there is nothing in the official channels that indicate a plan of any kind. I have been trying to pinpoint who is organizing this supposed attack, but … there is only so much I can overhear at parties and gain through bribes. We had hoped that if they were busy repairing and reestablishing bases, any such plans would be canceled. However … there is no assurance our idea worked. I can only presume that Nox left to go confirm the plan’s nonexistence, or its failure if it does exist and that,” Ardyn grimaced and flexed his hands, “that worries me.”

     It worried Cid too. There wasn’t much that set Ardyn on edge —nothing compared to the stress of clawing his way back to sanity Cid supposed—, and he had never worried about Nox wandering off alone before. “What attack?” Ardyn looked away with a grimace and Cid grabbed the man’s forearm —bare, stripped of all but a single, short-sleeved shirt and that was alarming too—, “Ardyn Izunia, ya tell me what’s going on, right now.”

     Ardyn breathed, visibly struggled to not shake off Cid’s grip. Then he sagged into the touch with a weak, “An assassination attempt upon the Lucian royal family. Someone in Lucis leaked that the king was planning a day trip to Galdin Quay with his young son and minimal guard. The last I heard … the rumors indicated the use of a high-level daemon planted on the highway ahead of the caravan as they return to Insomnia. It would be untraceable back to the Empire, and it could do untold damage before it was killed or run off.” Blue eyes rose to meet Cid’s horrified gaze as he drove the final nail home, “According to all previous intelligence, intelligence I tried to destroy or obscure wherever I found it, Lucian protection protocols are to separate the king and his heir and place the prince’s vehicle near the front of the line, so that he will enter the safety of Insomnia first.”

     If this plan is real, went unspoken in the brittle silence, Regis’s son will be the first to die.

     Cid lunged for the phone in his office, cursing loudly even as he dragged Ardyn along with him by the forearm, “Why didn’t ya say something earlier?”

     Ardyn sounded genuinely ashamed of himself as he watched Cid frantically punch in the numbers to Regis’s personal cellphone, “I forgot what this month was. I did not realize the date was already upon us.” Ardyn stared at the floor and sagged, like he was carrying too heavy a weight on his shoulders, “I am sorry, Cid.”

     Cid cursed some more as the phone rang-rang-rang, but it wasn’t toward Ardyn. He couldn’t get angry at Ardyn because he knew Ardyn wasn’t lying. He’d know the man for almost a year, and the ability of Nox’s uncle —and Nox to a lesser extent— to lose track of time was almost staggering. The man could forget days, weeks, even months if he didn’t check a calendar every single day, and even then he tended to slip. Whatever treatment he had been on to repair whatever King Mors had done to his mind, Ardyn’s sense of time seemed to be genuinely broken when it came to anything longer than hours —the man could remember hours down to the second, but ask him to name the numerical date or say how many days it would be to reach a numerical date and that grip on time became as slippery as a rain-soaked bar of soap—. Cid didn’t doubt that Ardyn had completely failed to realize that tonight was the date of the supposed attack until word of Nox’s actions had made him check the calendar and remember.

     Regis finally picked up and Cid could hear the muffled rumble of a car engine in the background, confirming his fear, “…Cid?”

     “Reggie, where are ya?”

     Regis still sounded flummoxed that Cid was calling —Cid rarely called first, even before their huge fight all those years ago, he always let people call him rather than the other way around unless he absolutely had to—, “Driving back to Insomnia, I took Noctis down to the Quay for the day.”

     Ardyn watched Cid with heartsick eyes as Cid’s hand went white-knuckled on the phone, “Reggie, ya need to rearrange yer caravan. Put Noctis behind yer vehicle until ya reach Insomnia.”

     “Cid-?”

     Now, Regis! Yer boy could be dead if ya don’t-!” Cid heard the screech of tires and the static-muffled racket of someone yelling. Regis started shouting orders and demanding reports and Cid dropped the phone from nerveless fingers as the line went dead.

     Too late. Too late-too-late-too-late-. Ardyn shook him out of his thoughts, a glint of steel in the younger man’s expression that rarely showed itself, “Cid. We need to prepare the medical supplies. Nox might be returning at any moment with Noctis and either of them might have severe injuries-.”

     They both felt the “pop-snap” of magic rattle through their teeth just as much as they heard the heavy impact of something crashing to the floor of the spare room. They ran before they had fully registered the sound. Cid somehow got there first, flung open the door to the spare room and charged straight into the scene of a nightmare.

     Blood was everywhere, smearing a path across the floor from where Nox had bounced off the shelf on which his pistol lay and rolled across the floor. The copper stench of blood and the ozone-tang of magic dragged every Astral-d*mned nightmare of the war out of his subconscious, but Cid didn’t —couldn’t— let that stop him from dropping to his knees at Nox’s side and trying to determine where the blood was coming from. He peeled Nox out of his protective curl, the boy unconscious and already feverish hot from sudden magical exhaustion —how many miles had he warped to get here? Let alone with a passenger—. Nox had a shallow gash on his chest that looked like it was from either a blade or a piece of debris —nothing a potion or two wouldn’t fix, the magical exhaustion was more worrying—, which meant the blood smeared all over Cid’s floor was from.

     Prince Noctis.

     Oh Astrals.

     Nox had been wrapped protectively around the boy when they warped in, but now that Cid could see the boy —still conscious, still conscious even if he was silent from shock how in the nine grand dungeons— he could tell that nothing he had on hand was going to be enough to help with this. Prince Noctis’s lower back was shredded, either from blades or long claws it didn’t matter, what mattered was Cid could see bone peaking through the bloody ribbons of skin and muscle —the boy was eight, Astrals—.

     Hammerhead’s store was out of elixirs, he remembered hearing the manager complain about the late shipment, and even every potion they had on hand would only slow the bleeding of a wound this deep at best. Prince Noctis needed a hospital, a good hospital, but Insomnia was at least an hour away, two considering the traffic —if the road was even open considering the attack had been on the highway— and by that point the boy would either be dead or permanently crippled-.

     “Cid, get out of my way.” Cid jolted, startled out of his frantic thoughts by a commanding rumble from the doorway, leaned back instinctively as Ardyn unfroze from where he’d been staring in horror in the doorway and strode in. The easygoing, melodramatic man Cid had come to know was gone, stripped away like the shirt Ardyn flicked over his head and threw over his shoulder out the door, leaving his torso bare and on display as he knelt down next to Cid and began peeling away layers of Prince Noctis’s shredded shirt.

     “What are ya doing?” Cid snarled, furious but not at Ardyn —at the situation, at his own helplessness—.

     Ardyn glanced up at Cid as he carefully pulled Noctis’s head and shoulders onto his lap, hushing the shellshocked whimper of pain that the movement sparked as he laid his hands on the shredded mess of a wound. There was terror lurking underneath the calm of Ardyn’s gaze, a dark kind of dread acceptance as he answered, “What I am meant to do.” Ardyn looked back down at the wound, ignoring Cid entirely as Ardyn-.

     Glowed.

     Soft gold with sparks of scarlet, like Oracle magic but also not. It trailed down Ardyn’s hands and settled into Prince Noctis’s wounds, then pulled back and up into Ardyn as the man breathed with forced evenness and whispered soothing nothings to the boy he was … treating. Curing. Cid stared in relief and dawning horror both as Prince Noctis gratefully passed out in Ardyn’s lap, lulled to unconsciousness by the sudden lack of pain and Ardyn’s continuous stream of soothing chatter —some kind of story, a fairy tale or bedtime story Cid had never heard before—. Ardyn kept talking as the almost mortal wound stitched itself back together under his fingers. He kept crooning poetic lines of dialogue, soft as a lullaby, as skin regrew over healed muscles, leaving barely a scar behind.

     He kept talking, comforting an unconscious little boy as his hands shook from pain and his back shredded steadily open, the wounds forming and deepening on his own back even as they steadily closed and healed over on Prince Noctis’s.

     Ardyn listed dangerously to one side, his back muscles suddenly too torn apart to support his weight and Cid caught him by the shoulders with a cursing hiss, “Ardyn-!”

     “I’m fine,” Ardyn hissed back tightly, “I’m fine.”

     “Yer back-!”

     “Give it a moment,” Ardyn’s voice began to crack as he spoke, pain and visceral, all-consuming fear in his eyes and tone as he pressed his face against Cid’s shoulder and visibly forced himself to breathe, “it will heal. Just … give me a moment.”

     Cid watched, with a twisting mix of gratitude and relief and horror as Ardyn’s back did just that. As it regrew torn muscles and sealed over with new skin in a flare of gold and scarlet sparks, turning what was a minutes old —impossible— wound into aged, ugly scar tissue before Cid’s very eyes.

     And now Cid knew what King Mors would have wanted with Ardyn —why Mors would have branded Ardyn like a possession—. Now Cid knew why Ardyn had scars from wounds no human should have been able to survive.

     How many of the mortal injuries littering Ardyn’s torso were Ardyn’s and how many were leftovers from him taking another’s mortal wound onto himself and healing it that way?

     Cid didn’t think he ever wanted to know —didn’t think it mattered, because pain was pain and scars were scars, whether Ardyn had been the one struck by the blade or not—.

     Ardyn slumped over into Cid’s grip, boneless and shaking like a leaf as his composure began to crack apart like glass, “Is Noctis…?”

     Cid pulled out one of his clean rags from his pockets and wiped away what blood he could from Prince Noctis’s back, double-checking what he already knew he would find, “Healed. Barely a mark left on him.”

     Ardyn shuddered with something that might have been relief, but really seemed to be more like panic. Ardyn’s breath hitched and Cid could almost feel the terror and flashbacks flooding in now that there was no longer a young life in the balance, relying on the use of a Ardyn’s magic. Magic that Cid doubted he’d touched for years —that he doubted had any pleasant memories considering Ardyn’s own commentary on his mental state when they first met and Astrals didn’t this just explain too much?—. Cid carefully wrapped his arms tighter around Ardyn’s shoulders, anchoring the man to reality as best he could as the man who had smiled at every adversity and struggle Cid had seen him face broke down and silently cried from using his own magic.

     Cid was never more grateful for Mindy making him carry around a cell phone before she died, even if he always preferred the land line and the cell only had hers, Mid’s, Regis’s, and later on Cindy’s numbers in it than the moment he was able to hold Ardyn tight and yet still call Cindy to come to the back room with potions. Because Nox still needed treatment for the gash on his front, but if Cid let go of Ardyn now, he was pretty sure the man would shatter into too many tiny pieces to fix —Ardyn had already put himself together once for the sake of his nephew, Cid didn’t want to test if the man could do it again—.

     He felt bad for Cindy, his precious fourteen year old granddaughter who shouldn’t have ever had to see something as bad as what she ran in on after answering his summons. True, she had helped him in treating the Hunters that passed through with injuries from Hunts gone wrong, but none of those had been as bloody. None of those had involved the people she considered her surrogate uncle and her best friend. Cid grunted an apology to her as she picked her way through the blood smears and crushed first one potion, then two against Nox’s chest. Cindy shook her head, pale but stubborn, pressed her hand against Nox’s forehead, “He’s burnin’ up, Paw-Paw.”

     “Magic exhaustion,” grunted Cid quietly as he ignored his stiff old bones and lightly rocked Ardyn back and forth, “He warped all the way here from just outside Insomnia. He’ll be fine in a few days.” Cindy looked at Ardyn in worry, Cid shook his head, “Not now, Cindy.”

     “Paw-Paw-.”

     “Not. Now.”

     Cindy bit her lip, glanced at the last person in their blood-covered group, did a double take, looking between Nox and Prince Noctis with wide eyes, “Is that-?”

     “Yep.”

     Cindy exhaled slowly, still too pale —too young—, “Ah thought … Ah knew the prince was his little brother but Ah thought-. They’d look different, ya know? They’re only half-brothers.”

     “They take after Reggie, the both of ‘em.”

     Cindy fidgeted with her hands, picked her way out of the blood, “Nox … he went to go save the prince, didn’t he? When he ran off earlier?”

     Cid nodded, took a deep breath, then refocused on Ardyn, “Ardyn? Can ya hear me? Ardyn?”

     The man in his arms shivered a few times, inhaled deeply, didn’t raise his face from Cid’s wet shoulder as he answered hoarsely, “Cid…?”

     “It’s me. Yer in Hammerhead. Can ya stand or do ya need Takka to carry ya to bed?”

     Ardyn seemed to consider, sighed, “I won’t sleep. Can’t sleep. Why would a monster need sleep?”

     Cindy was suddenly there, fearlessly taking a red-coated hand in hers, ignoring Ardyn’s startled flinch as she said, “Yer not a monster. Yer my Uncle, and ya just saved the prince’s life somehow. Ain’t that right, Paw-Paw?”

     Cid nodded —didn’t ask how Cindy had figured out Ardyn’s role in all this— and Cindy continued talking, somehow drawing Ardyn’s face out from Cid’s shoulder with her words, “Ya did good, Uncle. But ya look exhausted. Everybody needs sleep. Ah’ll help put- put Prince Noctis to bed, but ya need to sleep too. Please? For me?”

     Somehow, with Cindy’s help, Cid managed to herd Ardyn to a proper bed —the cot was closer but considering all the blood and magic lingering in the room … not a good idea—, roused Takka long enough to help haul Nox into bed with his uncle —since there was no way the man was going to rest without being able to check on Nox every time he woke up—, tucked Prince Noctis into his own bed —not like Cid was going to sleep tonight anyway—, and comfort Cindy while Takka took the initiative to mop the blood off the floor.

     It took hours for Cid to remember the phone he’d left dangling off the hook and return it to its cradle, after which he spent the rest of the night nursing a drink that could probably burn through the floor, let alone his liver, as he waited for the sunrise. He should call Regis. He should. The man would be frantic over the whereabouts of his son, especially if there was evidence of the injury on-site with no sign of where Prince Noctis had gone.

     “Please,” echoed in his head as he watched the sun rise over the mountains, “Don’t tell D- don’t tell the king about me. Don’t send me away to him. Please.”

     Don’t . Don’t, I can’t-. Promise me you won’t call him. Please, Cid. Promise me .”

     Cid growled at the desert, rubbed a hand over his face, “Pushy Lucis Caelums. Tryin’ to make me choose which promise to keep.” He reached into his pocket for the dreaded cellphone again, toyed with it for a long time. He should call Reggie. He owed it to his friend and fellow father. But if he did that, then no matter what excuse he made, Regis would come to Hammerhead personally. He would find either Nox or Ardyn or both and that … that would end badly.

     The cellphone came to life in Cid’s hand, screen lighting up with the name “Reggie”. Cid sighed heavily, sorry, Nox. It looks like the decision has been taken out of my hands.

     He hit the answer button with more force than necessary and held it up to his ear, “Reggie.”

     “You knew about the attack.” There was a tension in Regis’s voice. A wavering viper’s nest of emotions that Cid could hear trying to bubble over. He knew it didn’t look good, that only Regis’s trust in Cid was keeping Regis’s anger and automatic suspicion at bay —a call right from an old friend who he had fought with and not spoken to in years right before an attack? Sounded like the setup to a bad movie—.

     Cid answered honestly, “Ah didn’t know for sure. Found out that it might happen less than a minute ‘fore Ah called ya. But it was just a rumor, Ah was hoping it wouldn’t actually happen.”

     “…How?”

     Cid winced at the horizon, “Got a drifter that comes in sometimes, he’s got contacts in Niflheim. He picked up the rumor but couldn’t confirm it. Blew into Hammerhead yesterday and told me about it right before Ah called you.” None of that was a lie, it just carefully wasn’t mentioning that his drifter part-timed as Niflheim’s Chancellor.

     Regis’s breath was ragged over the phone, “Did your … drifter tell you where my son is now?”

     “Nope. He didn’t have to.” Cid could hear Regis stop breathing entirely, sighed to himself and mentally apologized to Nox and Ardyn as he said, “He’s here, Reggie. Yer son is in Hammerhead. He’s okay. He’s sleeping in my bed, not a scratch on him.”

     Regis’s sob of relief was muffled, either by the phone or his hand, Cid couldn’t tell, “You- how-. Never mind. I’ll be there in an hour.” Regis hung up without waiting for a response and Cid eyed his cellphone moodily before heaving himself out of his chair. He had a disaster to prepare for.

     Regis kept to his word and arrived exactly one hour after hanging up, screeching into Hammerhead’s parking lot in the Regalia with a fleet of Crownsguard vehicles as his backup. Cid stood at the entrance to the garage and waited for Regis to almost fling himself out of the car, kingly dignity abandoned, and stride over to Cid as quickly as his bad leg would allow, “Where is he?”

     Cid glanced over Regis’s shoulder to check that Clarus and Cor were catching up —that they were still alive after whatever had happened on that highway— before turning and making for his house, “This way. Ah put him in my room. It’s quiet up there.”

     The plan was to show Regis his youngest son and … improvise on explaining how he’d gotten there —Cid had given his word not to tell Regis about Nox, but he also … very much didn’t want to lie to his friend and king—. The plan was definitely to keep Ardyn out of the picture as much as possible, for Ardyn’s sanity as well as Cid’s, because Cid didn’t want to have to explain why his “drifter” was also the Chancellor of Niflheim.

     Regis almost collapsed by Noctis’s bedside when Cid let him in. Pulled back the covers and ran shaking hands over his sleeping son’s face and arms like the boy would disappear into mist if he let go. Clarus and Cor crowded at the foot of the bed, staring at their crown prince sleeping in an oversized shirt, no sign of whatever horrors they had expected. Cid murmured into the frenzied silence, “He ain’t hurt. Just exhausted is all. Ya should let him sleep.”

     Regis slumped, hands clutching Noctis’s, “I thought- Astrals I thought-.”

     Cor was pale as he gingerly reached out and laid a hand on Noctis’s forehead, “There was … a great deal of blood at the site of the attack. His nanny was torn in two. He was completely unharmed?” Cor glanced over at Cid, skeptical and wary of some unknown catch to the miraculous return of Regis’s son.

     Cid hesitated. Thought of the blood and magic and ozone stench, the sight of Ardyn’s back shredding open to heal the grandchild of the man who had broken Ardyn to pieces. Cid glanced down at Noctis and hedged, “He’s a’right now.”

     Regis’s head snapped up, “Now. He wasn’t when he arrived here.” Cid scowled and Regis’s voice shifted from that of a worried father and friend to that of a king, “Cid.”

     “His back. Whatever attacked him got his back. But he’s healed now. Just needs rest.”

     Regis gingerly rolled his son over, pulled up the oversized shirt to reveal the large but incredibly faint scars. All three men looked sick at the sight of it, “How deep was it,” growled Cor, hand flexing on his sword.

     “…Ah saw bone.”

     Regis shuddered, “How many elixirs did this take to heal?”

     “It doesn’t matter, Reggie. Ya don’t owe me a thing.” Regis glanced at him suspiciously, but let the matter slide.

     Only to immediately pick up the one Cid wanted him to ask about least, “Who brought him here? He was gone by the time I got there, but that was the space of minutes. Why take him here?”

     Cid couldn’t answer that. Not without breaking his promise or bald-faced lying. He locked his jaw. Regis stared at him with wide eyes for just a moment before straightening up-.

     And leaving the room, Clarus and Cor on his heels.

     Cid figured out where Regis was going five seconds too late to stop him from storming down the stairs and flinging open the door to the guest room —should’ve known Regis would know to check the guest room, should have known—. Cid caught a glimpse over the other mens’ shoulders of Ardyn sitting up in bed, startled awake by the sound, all his scars on display and his face clear to see. Regis jerked backward, sword dropping into his hand —because of course Regis recognized the Chancellor of Niflheim at a glance, of course he did— and half raised it in alarm before everything went to Ifrit’s Pyre.

     And by that, Cid meant that Nox lurched halfway out of bed, eyes blazing the color of blood as his magic surged defensively outward against the unexpected intrusion and hostile magic, a rain of gleaming blades surging out of his armiger and toward the door even as his magic bowled over Regis, Clarus, and Cor enough for the blades to miss them —Cid didn’t flinch when the blades turned aside when they got too close to him, like Nox subconsciously knew not to harm him, trusted him and marked him as a non-threat—. A second later, Nox’s eyes rolled up into his head and he slumped back onto the mattress, too exhausted to truly wake up.

     There were ten seconds of frozen shock that Cid took full advantage of in the wake of the sudden flare of magic and fury and blades. Cid forced his way to the front, between the door to the guest room and his stunned king, “Ah think,” growled Cid softly, “ya’ll need to go back to Noctis’s room an’ sit down.”

     Regis pulled his gaze away from the teenager passed out on the same bed as the bleary-eyed Chancellor of Niflheim and stared at Cid like his entire world had just collapsed. Cid didn’t budge, just crossed his arms over his chest, “It’s yer youngest son’s bedside or tha kitchen, Regis. Pick one.”

     With a slight strangled noise at the “youngest son” comment, Regis staggered back, let himself be herded back upstairs to Cid’s room where Prince Noctis was still peacefully sleeping. Regis sagged down onto the end of the bed, white as the sheets, while Cor leaned against the wall with a pale, paranoid expression and Clarus sank down heavily into the chair nearest Regis. Cid claimed the other chair, glad he’d thought to put a spare in the room for when Regis showed up.

     Cor spoke first, his voice too neutral to be anything but accusing, “That was the Chancellor of Niflheim.”

     Cid struggled not to clench his teeth, “Yep. He drifts in here a lot. Likes Takka’s soup, don’t mind none when Cindy talks his ear off about cars. He’s the one who warned me yer boy might be in danger.”

     Cor glanced angrily at the doorway, like he wanted to storm back downstairs and shake answers out of Ardyn, “And you never thought to tell His Majesty that a high-ranking political enemy was visiting you?”

     Cid glared at the man he could still remember taking over his knee for one dumb teenage stunt too many, “He ain’t no trouble and he looks for no trouble. Ah wasn’t gonna turn him in when he ain’t done any harm.”

     Cor’s glare switched to Cid and his voice started to rise, heedless of the sleeping boy on the bed, “Niflheim just attempted to assassinate Regis and Noctis-!”

     Cid’s hand itched for his wrench, “Ardyn tried to warn me about that! He’s been trying to track down the source of that plan and put a stop to it for months now!”

     Clarus snorted, eyes jaded under his shock, “And why would the Chancellor of Niflheim bother to do that?”

     “Because,” murmured Ardyn as he listed against the doorway, every movement exhausted, “I may not care for Lucis, but I do care for my nephew, and he did not wish to see his blood father and half-brother murdered.” Cor froze in the middle of drawing his sword, Clarus bolted out of the chair and put himself between Regis and Ardyn as if the faintly trembling man was any sort of threat.

     Cid heaved himself out of the chair as the three men froze again, their eyes fixed on Ardyn’s bare torso —on his brand, gleaming faintly with Lucis Caelum magic, burned into his skin overtop countless mortal scars—. Cid firmly put himself between them and Ardyn, rested a hand on Ardyn’s shoulder, “Ya should go back to bed. Ya don’t need to do this.”

     Blue eyes blinked at him warmly before Ardyn shakily pushed past him, “I know. But it … would be inconsiderate to you, who has done so much for my nephew and myself, to leave you to bear this fallout alone.”

     “Ardyn…”

     “It’s alright, Cid.” Ardyn straightened up, unflinching at his own bare skin in the presence of a Lucis Caelum as Regis pushed past Clarus so that they were face to face, “King Regis is not like his predecessor.” Ardyn’s gaze shifted to Regis and hardened, his expression sliding into a weaker form of the cunning mask he’d first worn when Cid met him, “Your Majesty. An honor to finally meet the father of my nephew, face to face. I believe you saw him earlier. When you drew a sword in his room.”

     If it weren’t for just how much of a mess the entire situation was, Cid would have laughed out loud at the look on Regis’s face as Clarus and Cor both turned to stare at their king.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

     It had been a … long time since Nox had experienced the unmistakable signs of waking up from magic exhaustion. It used to happen all the time, during the road trip. Long Hunts against unexpectedly tough monsters, days-long dungeon crawls, Nif ambushes … all of those had worked together to drain his magic reserves and leave him achingly tired for days on end —there was a reason he’d slept in the car all the time and it hadn’t just been his natural tendency to nap—. But after being pulled into the Crystal —forced to live-breathe-die-see a hundred lifetimes— and then time-traveling with Ardyn, Nox hadn’t been entirely certain he could suffer magical exhaustion anymore. Physical exhaustion, yes, all the time. That had been the norm for him since he was eight and dull pain became an eternal part of his lower back and hips. But his magic reserves never seemed to run out here in the past, not to the point he passed out from the lack of it.

     Until now apparently.

     Nox concentrated on the rise and fall of his own chest, mentally searching for noticeable injuries and the memory of how he had wound up so exhausted. He couldn’t feel any abnormal spikes of pain, and the memories soon trickled back. Remembering what the date was. Trekking out alone into the wilderness to scope out the highway and pray that his and Ardyn’s sabotage had been enough to cancel that plan. Realizing that it hadn’t when he saw the looming shadow near the highway, just ahead of the caravan of royal vehicles carrying his younger self, his father, and a light guard —all the vehicles spaced out by a good margin, so that if trouble struck, the other vehicles would have time to either split up or rearrange, a good tactic on paper that had gotten Nox his scars and chronic pain—.

     Warping frantically the last half mile it took to reach the place where his younger self was already falling to the ground beneath his nanny’s body, blood flying everywhere.

     Crashing headlong into that Astrals-d*mned Marilith with every weapon in his armiger to drive it back before it could make the final blow —had it been this close when his father rescued him? Where was his father anyway?—.

     Realizing that he didn’t have the time to kill the Marilith and save Noctis’s life —he didn’t know why his father was delayed, he didn’t remember if this was normal, couldn’t risk it if it wasn’t—, and instead whirling and pulling the trembling eight year old out from under the body of the woman who had protected him to the end —it haunted him sometimes, that after so many years he couldn’t quite remember her name, couldn’t remember her voice despite everything she’d done for him—.

     Reaching out to the pistol he’d left in Hammerhead just in case, wrapping mental fingers around the weapon that was miles upon miles away, much farther than any warp he’d tried to make before, and pulling.

     The pain of the impact, the clawing jolt of dropping from near full magic reserves to stasis, and then … nothing.

     Astrals he hoped Cid had gotten there with elixirs in time.

     Nox exhaled a low groan and flopped an arm over his face, rubbed one hand on the sheets that felt more like clouds than fabric before the reality of that sensation caught him and he pulled his arm away from his face to blink at the ceiling. Which was … a lot farther away from his face than it should have been. Also black and decorated with silver scrollwork rather than being entirely comprised of slightly dingy white paint that was faded from desert heat. There was a supreme moment of confusion, a disjointed second where the usual, identifiable split between reality and memory collapsed in on itself and made him Noctis-child-teen-adult-prince-and-pampered before everything snapped horrifyingly clear and Nox sat up with a gasp.

     Spacious bedchamber, big enough to fit at least two of the ratty caravans that had been his homes outside Hammerhead and Havens for two years now —longer if he counted the road trip—. Sprawling king-sized bed with silk sheets of royal blue and black, a canopy over the bed embroidered with nebulas. Nightstand and other furniture made of dark mahogany and decorated with scrollwork of silver. Afternoon sunlight streaming in through the massive, bulletproof-glass double doors that led to a wide balcony. A room fit for royalty, done in the colors of the Lucis Caelum line.

     He was in the Citadel.

     He was in the Citadel.

     Nox whipped off the sheets and slid to the plush carpet with the soundlessness of both a prince who knew how to not attract servants and a desperate soldier in enemy territory. Glanced down at himself and his silk pajamas —someone had undressed him someone-had-seen-his-scars— before lunging for the massive walk-in closet. None of his own, familiar clothes were there. Just rows upon rows of pristine black leathers and blue cottons —Nox was going to be sick—. He forced himself into what looked like the most practical of the shirts and pants, snagged a leather jacket that looked like his old favorite from the road trip was wasn’t —that jacket had gotten destroyed in Gralea, and before that had smelled like deserts-forests-Ignis-Gladio-Prompto-home rather than the soulless fruity soaps used by the royal launderers— and slung it hastily over his shaking shoulders before making for the balcony window —the front door would be guarded but the balcony might not for privacy’s sake—.

     He unlatched the doors with shaking hands —had to get-out-get-out-get-out—, pushed them open and barely had the sense to close them behind him —don’t leave a security breach, don’t leave a way for assassin to get in— before he was running for the balcony railing. Nox already had one leg thrown over the side and was mentally reaching for one of his blades to warp —his reserves were still on the low side, but low for him was high for everyone else— when there was an alarmed curse from his right and someone said, “Whoa-whoa-whoa- hey! Hey kid!”

     Nox twisted toward the sound on instinct, slid his feet so that he was now crouched on the railing, ready to spring forward or back to escape rather than stuck with one leg over each side. The owner of the voice turned out to be a Kingsglaive, blue eyed and black haired, only about twenty if Nox didn’t miss his guess, with several ratty Galahdian braids woven in her hair —Clan Ulric of Undaunted Loyalty whispered the part of his head that sounded like Axis, the part that drank in whatever bits of culture his friend saw fit to pass on, blooded Huntress of the Loyal Path, Last of her Kin, Indebted to Another—. The glaive slid over the railing onto the balcony from where she’d been keeping watch on the one next to Nox’s, took a step forward and then froze with her hands raised placatingly when Nox leaned back over empty space.

     The glaive’s gaze flickered worriedly over Nox’s crouched form as she took a slow step back, “Easy. No one’s going to hurt you here. Let’s not do anything dumb, yeah?” Her blue eyes caught on the single braid in Nox’s mid-back length hair, the one Nox had let Axis put in despite not being Galahdian himself, “Arra,” the glaive whispered, something confused and angry flickering through her gaze before she focused on Nox’s face, “you’re Clan Arra, right? I’m Nyx. Nyx of Clan Ulric.”

     Nox swallowed hard, tried to respond past his panic and the intense flashes of intuition-recognition-knowing pulling at him from his magic. It was rare that he got flashes of memory from the Crystal anymore. He’d learned how to lock away the memories that weren’t his during that endless walk in the Void with Ardyn as they traversed time. But sometimes it still rose up, so strong he could almost taste the debris and blood in the air as he saw older blue eyes in a tightly worried face and heard-.

     “This is not a command from a king to his glaive this is a plea from one person to another. Please, Nyx Ulric, see Lunafreya safely to Altissia.”

     This was one of the last people to have seen Nox’s father alive in the old timeline.

     Nox struggled to get enough air to breathe, tensed even further somehow when Ulric made a low noise of concern and inched a fraction closer. He could see the woman’s lips moving but it took several seconds to push back the sounds in his head —“You’re a slave to the past-!” “Rule well, Young King.”— enough to actually hear what she was really saying, “-breathe, that’s it, just breathe. You’re okay. No one’s going to hurt you here, Arra. Just … just calm down.”

     Nox swallowed the glass in his throat enough to rasp, “N-not. Not Arra. My f-friend … he put it in.”

     Nyx flashed what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile, “That makes you an Arra, kid. Now please, can you just- can you just come down from there? That’s a long fall that you don’t need to take.” Nox clenched his fingers on the railing, but didn’t come down. Nyx exhaled slowly and held out one hand, “Please, kid.”

     Nox shook his head, paralyzed between wanting to jump and warp away and knowing that if he did, Nyx Ulric would chase after him —be able to keep up with him—, “Please,” Nox whispered in return, “let me go. Please, I can’t-.”

     The balcony doors swept open behind Nyx, but before Nox’s nerve could break and send him plummeting over the side he saw red-violet hair and worried blue eyes, “Nephew.”

     Nox gaped as Nyx Ulric reluctantly stepped aside and let Ardyn sweep onto the balcony, “Uncle…? You- how are you here?”

     Ardyn reached out and gently took Nox by the elbow, guided him off the railing and onto the safety of the balcony floor, “I was there the night you warped in with Noctis. When it became clear that His Majesty was not content to let you stay in Hammerhead now that he knew of your existence, I came along.” Nox wheezed at the confirmation of his worst fear —his father knew about him, his father would want to come see him Nox-couldn’t-couldn’t-couldn’t—, then stilled as he was pulled gently into Ardyn’s embrace. Ardyn rested his chin on Nox’s head and hummed soothingly, “It will be alright, Nox. You will be alright. Cid is here -he did not break his promise by the way, Regis broke into the guest room and you subconsciously used magic to fend off his unexpected intrusion- and I have it on Cid’s good word that we will both be permitted to leave at any time … after you meet the king at least once.”

     Nox whined helplessly into Ardyn’s shoulder, trying to calm down, or explain that he couldn’t see his father, or that he’d rather they both run away now. Ardyn’s clothes weren’t his usual ones, too thin, not enough layers and made out of silks rather than more humble weaves —guest clothes, just like Nox, it didn’t help his anxiety—. They didn’t smell like him and it made Nox’s skin crawl. Ardyn gently pulled Nox away, lifted his chin so they were locking gazes, “Nephew,” murmured Ardyn gently, “you can do this. You will do this, and you will survive just fine.”

     “Ardyn-.”

     “You are stronger than this Nox. Stronger than you think you are. Furthermore,” Ardyn tugged a strand of Nox’s hair, sad and understanding but firm, “You need to see your father.” Ardyn cut off Nox’s protest with a soft noise, pressed his forehead against Nox’s in silent reassurance and admonition both, “You need to see him. Just once. After that, we can leave if you truly desire.”

     Nox breathed in, let his uncle’s words ground him and hold him in place no matter how much he wanted to run and never look back, “Just once,” he rasped.

     Ardyn pulled back with a sharp nod, shifted to tuck Nox against his side, one arm draped over Nox’s shoulders to both anchor him and keep him from running away. At some point in Ardyn’s soothing, he must have guided Nox back inside because they were no longer on the balcony and a quick glance over his shoulder revealed the doors locked and a vaguely conflicted looking Nyx standing inside the suite to better cut off that escape route. Nox sighed shakily —tried not to feel like his entire soul was going to fall apart from dread—, flinched as the door opened. It was only Cid. Cid took one look at the room and the occupants, frowned and looked at Ardyn. Ardyn nodded and Cid poked his head out the door to murmur gruffly, “He’s awake a’right. Ya can come in, but take it slow and keep quiet. No yellin’ or bossin’, ya hear?”

     There were low murmurs of agreement from three voices Nox had never thought he’d hear again beyond speeches piped through battered radios and his gaze locked onto the plush carpet without his conscious intent. No matter what he told himself, he couldn’t get his eyes to look up as he heard three sets of feet stride in behind Cid’s and the suite door click shut. There was a long, awkward pause during which Nox tried to breathe past the glass in his throat and Ardyn radiated a sympathetic sort of understanding. Cid came to a stop on Nox’s other side —the smell of car oil and engine grease was unmistakable in the perfumed suite— and a calloused hand gently tugged on his hair, just enough to claim attention, “Kid. This is yer dad and his two best friends.”

     Nox made a noise that might have been agreement and might have been a sob. Ardyn’s arm squeezed and Nox thought he heard someone’s breath hitch in front of him. Cid lowered his hand and the silence crept back in until Ardyn broke it, “Nox,” he spoke gently, but there was steel in his voice that meant Nox wasn’t getting out of his next words, “Look up and say hello to Clarus Amicitia, Cor Leonis, and your father, Regis Lucis Caelum.”

     Nox managed to drag his eyes up from the carpet at his feet to the polished black shoes of the three men in question, but nothing seemed capable of dragging his gaze up the rest of the way, “…’llo.”

     Astrals he felt like he was five again. Unbearably shy and unable to form proper sentences. He tried to kill that thought a moment later because it brought up memories of his father letting him hide behind his legs, always petting his hair and coaxing him forward, making him brave with his reassuring presence —a presence he wouldn’t have anymore, because Nox’s father was dead and the man wearing his face was a stranger Nox had saved and while Nox didn’t regret that it still hurt so much—.

     “Nox,” said one of the three men in front of him gently and Nox stopped breathing altogether. His name. His new name from the lips of the stranger who was his father —but not his father, not the man who desperately bid him goodbye on those steps, who wanted to be Noctis’s dad in his last moments rather than his king—, warm but firm just like all of Nox’s countless boyhood memories-.

     “Nox,” said King Regis a second time, “please look at me.” Not quite an order, as king he could have made it one, as a father he could have insisted. Instead, Nox heard a quiet edge of pleading under the calm, a slight desperation that was too much like that last day on the steps-.

     Nox looked up, bracing himself for the sight of his own father watching him like he was a stranger.

     Blue eyes caught his and Nox felt sucker punched by the sheer warmth in them. The ocean-depth love that felt so, so natural to see but shouldn’t have because he was a stranger. Worse than a stranger, he was someone that his father and everyone else in this time assumed was living proof of a massive mistake on Regis’s part. Regis should have been … regretful. Or wary. Or at the very least neutral towards him. He should have been a stranger wearing the face of someone Nox loved and instead…

     All Nox saw was his dad looking back at him. Staring at him like he was the most precious thing in the world.

 

 

 


 

 

 

     Regis wanted to hurt someone. Or himself. Or stride the rest of the short distance between himself and the son he hadn’t known he’d had until three days ago and hold him tight because-. Because-. This was his son. This was a son he had failed oh so badly and he could see it. In the way the boy who had —by all accounts— run off into the night without hesitation to fight a Marilith to protect family that didn’t even know he existed was all but cowering against his uncle’s side. In fear of Regis. Regis’s reaction. Regis’s thoughts. The boy who had risked life and limb, done the impossible by traversing almost seventy miles in a single warp and payed for it with four days of unconsciousness and fevers … was scared of Regis.

     Not just scared, but confused. Regis could see it in the way his forehead crinkled when Regis smiled at him, a confused little wrinkle forming between his eyebrows like Noctis did when confounded by something. This boy who was Regis’s son, who should have grown up pampered and adored, was utterly taken aback by the sight of Regis smiling at him. Like he had … expected something else. Who knew what else —Regis could guess, considering what Cid had told him and Izunia had carefully not told him and the doctors in the Citadel infirmary had all but wailed to the skies—.

     Instead of indulging in any of his desired reactions, Regis forced his shoulders to stay relaxed and welcoming and pretended he wasn’t leaning subtly into Clarus just to stay standing beneath the force of his own guilt as he murmured, “Nox Izunia. My name is Regis Lucis Caelum, and I am … so very overjoyed to meet you.”

     He saw Nox swallow and blink with over-bright eyes, “Uh … Uh.” A helpless glance up at his uncle, slightly wild and panicky. The Chancellor of Niflheim who apparently spent his off time helping his teenage —fifteen years old— nephew blow up bases belonging to his own empire smiled down at him reassuringly. Tilted his head meaningfully in Regis’s direction. Nox glanced back at Regis, licked his lips and rasped like every word was a struggle to pull free, “S- same? D- Y- Your Majesty.”

     “Please,” murmured Regis past the forming lump in his own throat, “call me Regis. You are my son. There is no need for formalities between us-,” he saw Nox’s expression begin to lock down and added hastily, “unless they make you more comfortable.”

     “I…” Nox licked his lips again, closed his eyes like he was physically in pain and then opened them again with the weakest —most false— smile Regis had ever seen, “Regis. Regis works.” Regis tried to smile back, but Nox’s gaze faltered again and awkward silence lingered. Nox opened his mouth to speak again and somehow Regis knew the boy was about to insist he and his uncle leave and never return, never have anything to do with Regis —and that Regis would have to agree no matter how it hurt his heart or how it was against national security because he couldn’t imprison his own son—.

     Then the door behind them slammed open and Regis’s youngest son barreled into the room, heedless of the frantic protests of the Crownsguard who had been set to guard the entrance, “Your Highness, you aren’t allowed-!”

     Noctis all but sprinted past Regis’s legs before he could catch him, flung himself forward with all his eight year old strength and weight and crashed into Nox’s waist with enough momentum to almost topple the other boy over —would have toppled him over if his uncle hadn’t supported the both of them—. Nox looked like the breath had been knocked out of him for more than one reason as he stared down at the younger half-sibling clinging to him. Noctis looked up and Regis didn’t need to see Noctis’s smile to know it was there, “You’re finally awake! You’ve been asleep forever!”

     Nox gave the faintest of twitches, from Noctis’s presence or his words Regis couldn’t tell, made a faintly garbled noise that might have been an attempted response. Noctis seemed to take it as such and continued to babble, “I never knew I had a big brother! But then you came and you saved me from that daemon and Cid said you warped all the way to Hammerhead to keep me safe! Dad says he didn’t know about you, which … I don’t understand but that’s okay, we know about you now and that means you get to live here with us, right?” Noctis paused, seemed to finally pick up on the rigid stillness in Nox’s body that was starting to really worry Regis, tilted his head to one side, “You … you are gonna stay … right? I’ve never had a big brother before and I- I…” Noctis buried his face in Nox’s waist and Nox looked utterly devastated. Like he’d just been given a death sentence rather than been hugged by his little half-sibling —and was being near other Lucis Caelums that bad? That horrible? That he wouldn’t even give them a chance?—.

     With robotic stiffness, Nox looked up at his uncle, “He’s … he’s moving. How is he-?” Oh. Right, Nox had warped Noctis away from the daemon and would have seen the- seen Noctis’s injuries —Regis tried not to let a bubble of hope rise in his chest, that Nox’s stiffness and confusion was just from seeing Noctis up and about—. Izunia looked away, not meeting his nephew’s gaze and Nox pried Noctis loose so he could turn and hiss at his uncle, “Uncle you-!”

     “Had what was necessary to heal him on my person. Really, Nephew Mine, it was no trouble.” Nox looked about to push the issue, something angry and fragile in his gaze that Regis couldn’t comprehend —surely Nox, who had risked life and limb to save his half-sibling wasn’t begrudging his uncle using a few hi-elixirs on Noctis despite their expense?—, but then Izunia raised a hand and repeated, “Nephew. It was fine.” His voice softened, “It was a small price to pay to see young Noctis healthy and whole.”

     Nox exhaled slowly, muttering something too low for Regis to hear before blinking cautiously down at his younger half-sibling. Noctis’s shoulders were hunched now, and Regis ached for both his sons as Noctis whispered, “I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong? Are you … mad at me now?”

     Nox blinked again, visibly shook himself and slowly crouched down to be on Noctis’s level to rasp, “No, I’m-. I’m not mad. I’m just … I’m having a little trouble taking everything in. That’s all.”

     Noctis’s head tilted shyly and his voice quavered as he fidgeted with his shirt hem, “So … you’ll stay right?”

     Nox grimaced, dropped his gaze to avoid everyone in the room, “I- I don’t belong here, kiddo.”

     Regis focused on keeping a calm facade despite how that admission —that belief, sad but rock solid— stabbed at him. Noctis shook his head, impulsively reached out and snatched up one of Nox’s hands in both of his, “You do! You’re my brother! You do belong here! Please don’t go! Please don’t…” Noctis’s voice wobbled, “Please don’t leave us…”

     Nox looked like he was torn between bursting into tears and flinging Noctis away from his person, “…Us?”

     “Dad and me! I know you don’t really … I know we just met, but we’re family, and I know Dad doesn’t want you to go either! Please stay! Family- Ignis says family always stays together, so you should … you have to stay. Please?”

     Nox closed his eyes in something that looked like defeat, his shoulders sagging under some weight Regis couldn’t begin to describe. He found himself taking a half step forward, hand reaching out to comfort even though he knew it wouldn’t be accepted. Instead, Izunia’s hand came to rest on the back of Nox’s neck in silent support, and a moment later the man was crouching down to whisper something in Nox’s ear, mouth turned away from anyone who might observe.

     Nox listened, then opened his eyes. He looked so very tired. Just like a soldier who had been on the front for too long and just wanted to sleep without fear of the bombs or daemons or magitek units coming in the night —Astrals, the boy was fifteen, he shouldn’t look like this, not over getting to know the other side of his family, no matter who his uncle was—. “Alright,” Nox whispered. He shifted his hand in Noctis’s grip so that he was holding his half-sibling’s hand just as much as Noctis was clutching his, “I’ll stay. For a while anyway.” Noctis cheered and flung himself forward in a hug that Nox caught and accepted with stiff grace. He then glanced at his uncle for a moment, glanced back at the boy in his arms, patted Noctis’s head with a sigh and a gentle, “It’s nice to meet you … Noctis.”

     Regis felt a little bit of the horrible pressure on his heart ease as the realization that Nox was agreeing to stay —for a time at least— sank in. Noctis, in all his young, shy enthusiasm had convinced his half-sibling to stay when anything Regis might have said could not. Regis dared to come closer, forced his bad leg to kneel down next to his two sons. Noctis twisted around to smile at him, “He’s gonna stay Dad! I have a big brother!”

     Regis smiled down at his youngest —youngest where just a few days ago he had thought Noctis was his only—, glanced up at Nox to ensure the teenager knew Regis was being sincere, “I can see that, Noctis, and I am-,” Regis’s voice cracked briefly, Nox’s eyes widened, “I am so very, very glad.”

     Nox swallowed hard, leaned subtly into his uncle’s touch, looking overwhelmed and lost and about to cry.

     Then the man in question used his free hand to take off the atrocious hat he was always wearing and plop it onto Noctis’s head. When the boy startled and blinked up at him, Izunia smiled, bright and almost childish. In that moment, he looked nothing like the dangerous, broken man covered in scars that Regis had first met —nothing like the sashaying, venom-tongued politician his spies had reported over the years—, “Hello there, Noctis. I am Ardyn Izunia, your new uncle!”

     Nox’s tension slid out of his shoulders in an raspy, groaning laugh as he pinched the bridge of his nose, “Uncle, no. It doesn’t work like that.”

    Izunia sniffed imperiously at his nephew, then resumed beaming down at Noctis, “Uncle, yes. As the eldest Izunia in the room and Chancellor of Niflheim, I declare that it works exactly like this. He shall be my second nephew and you cannot tell me otherwise.”

     Regis opened his mouth to protest that —tolerating the man’s presence out of gratitude for helping Noctis and acknowledgement of the man’s relation to Nox was one thing, but this— when Noctis adjusted the hat on his head and beamed up Izunia, “I can really call you uncle?”

     Izunia put a hand to his chest, “But of course, Your Highness! I would be honored!”

     Nox started groan laughing into his hand as Noctis twisted around to look up at Regis, eyes sparkling under the lopsided, ugly hat still perched on his head, “Dad! I have a big brother and an uncle now!”

     Just off to the side, Regis could hear Cid wheezing, the man wasn’t even trying to hide his cackles and the “serves ya right, Reggie!” that he kept gasping out in between bouts of laughter. With a sinking feeling, Regis realized that he couldn’t bring himself to crush Noctis’s joy over having two new relatives instead of one. At least, not before he had an actual reason to beyond Izunia’s political position —and his scars, because some part of Regis still worried whether or not Izunia would try to get revenge on Noctis for Mors’ crimes—. Hiding his unease over Izunia, Regis managed to muster up a smile for his youngest son, “I can see that, Noctis.”

     Noctis was almost vibrating as he reached out and clasped one of Regis’s hands and then one of Nox’s, “He’s gonna stay, Dad! He’s gonna stay and I’m gonna have a big brother! Isn’t that great?”

     Regis felt his smile turn genuine as he glanced sidelong at Nox, who was beginning to look uncomfortable again, “It is wonderful.” He tilted his head so that he could catch Nox’s gaze, made a point to hold it as he murmured, “Thank you, Nox. For agreeing to stay. That means more to me than you will ever know.”

     The tears that had been hovering in Nox’s eyes finally spilled over, one by one in a very slow parade as he sniffed. Regis worried for a moment that he’d pushed too far with his words, that his skittish eldest was too overwhelmed by everything. Then Nox gave his uncle —and his uncle’s big smile— the briefest of looks and … reached out very slowly to take Regis’s hand with the one Noctis wasn’t holding. Magic rippled between them, humming through the callouses on their skin —callouses of hard labor and years of fighting and the mere thought was making it a struggle not to cry himself—, cautiously reaching out to probe his.

     His own magic reached out in greeting, restrained and gentle, and something in Regis’s soul shuddered with emotion as Nox’s magic suddenly reached out and slid into place in his soul. There was a brief rush of power, the sensation of staring into the heart of a twisting, howling ocean —his son’s magic was so strong it was staggering—. Then, as quickly as it had surged, it receded, leaving only soft tendrils of emotion. There was relief, and hope, fear and grief so deep they both seemed ageless, but under it all, strongest of all those emotions was…

     Love.

     Regis heard Clarus give a faint noise of alarm and felt Cid’s hand come to rest on his back, but Regis couldn’t bring himself to care about that. About the tears slipping down his face despite the smile pulling at his cheeks because … because…

     His eldest son loved him. Loved him and Noctis both so deeply it was breathtaking. Staggering. Underneath the fear of rejection and disappointment, underneath the grief Regis could not name or fully understand, Nox’s love was sprawling and endless. It was like that very first night outside of Insomnia, on that road trip when he was just shy of twenty years old. Truly outside it, miles away from any light but the faint glow of the Haven beneath his back, looking up into the night sky and seeing just how vast the heavens were. Just how bright it was, carpeted with millions upon millions of stars. He remembered how small it made him feel, how breathless it had left him in a way only holding Noctis for the first time had ever replicated.

     He couldn’t fathom it. Nox was a stranger. His eldest son had never even met him before today, never met Noctis before a few nights ago when Nox had risked everything to save the little half-sibling who hadn’t even known his name. Nox had been so scared of Regis —was still scared, was terrified out of his mind that Regis would reject him and throw him away— and yet Nox loved them. As deep as the ocean and as expansive as the starscape over the desert sands of Leide, woven so thoroughly into his being that Regis didn’t think Nox could even conceive feeling anything else for them.

     His eldest son had been lost all his life, had lost both his mother and the man who should have been his father but wasn’t to death, had almost lost his uncle to whatever madness and torment Mors had put him through before Nox ever came into the picture. His eldest had … so many reasons to hate them, or at least be neutral to them. Especially to Regis himself, the man who had failed him, who hadn’t even known he’d existed and yet-.

     Nox loved him.

     Regis tried to find something to say, something to explain to his long-lost child just how deeply knowing that affected him, how much he already loved his son in return. He struggled for something, anything-. For a moment it felt like there was something on the tip of his tongue, something more dream than memory, more magic than thought. But those words were too heavy for him to consciously catch, too painful for him to put into voice for reasons he couldn’t grasp. Instead he opened his magic to Nox and Noctis both, reached out and let his sons feel just how much he loved them in return —loved them equally, no matter how recently he had learned of the eldest—.

     By this point, the only Lucis Caelum in the room not crying was Noctis, but that was okay. That was okay because Nox was smiling and his fear was melting away and Regis-.

     Regis had another son. He had another son, who was already so strong and brave and loving and kind —strong enough to endure, kind and brave enough to risk everything for a child he could have been jealous of instead—. His eldest son was going to stay in the Citadel with them, going to let Regis get to know him even though he had every right to run and never look back.

     For that, Regis would cry a hundred tears.

 

 


 

 

     “I’m home. I walked tall … and though it took me a while … I’m finally ready. I love you all. Luna. Guys. … Dad.”

 

     “My dearest son, I am so very proud of you, and you have walked tall. Welcome home , Noctis.”