The bone in Noctis’s leg has broken again. It was only a matter of time before this happened, before the pressure and movement took the old, poorly-healed injury and made it fracture all over again. A nurse—or someone who used to be a nurse in a time when that title meant something—had even warned him about this explicitly, saying that without proper treatment it was only going to get worse, that repeated fractures were not only possible, but likely. The best she’d been able to do for him was fashion a rudimentary splint and pass along a handful of painkillers to get him through the worst of it.
There’s nothing they can do for it now. Noctis knows that. He can tell Ignis knows, too, from the grim line of his mouth, his hunched, tense shoulders. And that means it’s bad enough that a person can tell, without seeing, how dire it is. Maybe it’s Noctis’s ragged breathing that gives it away, or the persistent tremors racking his body, or the cold sweat plastering his bangs to his forehead as Ignis pets his hair soothingly. Maybe it’s the pathetic way he says, “It hurts.”
“We shouldn’t stay long,” says Ignis, tone gentle and penitent. He’s kneeling beside Noctis, who’s laid out on a clear bit of floor in an abandoned storefront, propped up against the end of a shelf. “Night will fall soon.”
Noctis shakes his head in vehement refusal. Just the thought of getting back up and trying to hobble along through the debris is nauseating. “I can’t, Iggy,” he says wretchedly.
Ignis doesn’t say anything for a moment. He has that look on his face, lips pursed and good eye narrowed, that says he’s planning something, weighing his options and odds. The way he pushes sweat-soaked hair back from Noctis’s face is as absent as it is tender.
“I’ll be okay here,” says Noctis. He swallows, struggling to keep his voice even, to avoid betraying his fear. “Just—help me get upstairs, then you—you can go find somewhere to stay for the night. I can hold out till—”
“No,” Ignis interrupts. “Not another word.”
“But you’re right,” says Noctis, “we’re running out of daylight here. You could still—”
“I’ve already said that I don’t intend to survive without you,” says Ignis, firm and fierce and brooking no argument.
Shameful relief floods through Noctis at that. As desperately as he wants Ignis to go on and save himself, the thought of being left alone and defenseless in his current state is terrifying beyond articulation. If Ignis left him here, they both know the chances of them being reunited again are next to zero.
He reaches out weakly, tiredly, and the back of his hand bumps against Ignis’s knee. “Thanks,” he says, not quite crying but feeling something close to it pressing just behind his eyes.
Ignis finds his hand, grasps it in one of his own, then both, squeezing in silent assurance. Then he leans down and presses his lips to Noctis’s filthy, sweaty brow, and murmurs, “Always.”
The temporary solution: They move all their supplies into Noctis’s pack, and Ignis will carry both it and him. It’s a poor idea, as he’ll be slowed down by the added weight and increased need for caution. The hazards of all the rubble and detritus were no less for him before than they were for Noctis, and now, without a hand free for his folding cane, he’ll be at even more of a disadvantage. Noctis will have to guide him verbally through the urban ruins. But it’s all they can do at this point, short of hoping for a miracle.
It’s a rough start. A jolt of pain surges up Noctis’s leg when he tries to bend it, and he doesn’t quite manage to hold back his whimper. But it’s going to hurt no matter what, he knows. He sucks in harsh breaths through his teeth as they work together to get him hoisted up on Ignis’s back. After he’s gotten his arms around Ignis’s neck and feels the secure grip on the backs of his thighs, he bites down on the collar of Ignis’s shirt to muffle an oncoming cry.
“Can you manage, Noct?” Ignis asks, and Noctis appreciates that he isn’t wasting time with Are you alright?
“Yeah,” Noctis grits out. “I’ll get used to it. What about you?”
“Easier than I expected,” says Ignis. It might be a lie, knowing him, but there’s no way of knowing, no point in calling him out on it regardless.
They set off, clumsily at first, into the streets. Noctis quickly learns to divide his attention between the ground in front of them and what lies in the distance, warning Ignis about cracks in the pavement and reading the signs spray-painted onto the sides of buildings and vehicles. A drawing of a longbow with a nocked arrow pointing upward indicates a weapon stash, but they can’t afford the detour. Noctis makes a mental note of the intersection, the name of the hotel.
The remains of Insomnia are like a skeleton, a carcass, riddled with little indications that life used to thrive here but does no longer. The buildings that haven’t been broken open by looters are barren, and the only sounds echoing through the former metropolis are bird calls. It never stops feeling unsettling and wrong, walking through empty street after empty street, descending further into the graveyard his home has become.
Ignis, despite his lack of vision, has a perception of light that’s almost impossibly acute. He’s aware of the approaching dusk without Noctis having to say anything, and there’s a quiet urgency in his voice as he asks whether there’s any sign of a haven nearby.
“Not since the one a couple blocks back,” says Noctis, just as tense. The symbol had been violently crossed out. More often than not, it means a place has been compromised, no longer safe to seek refuge in. “We could turn at the next intersection. Fourteenth might have something.”
“That’s deeper into the commercial district,” says Ignis. “I don’t know that we’d—”
“Slab of concrete, ten feet ahead,” Noctis cuts in.
“Not sure. Go left. Wider,” Noctis adds as Ignis alters his course. “There. Now keep going straight, it’s all clear.”
“As I was saying,” says Ignis, “we haven’t had much luck with businesses so far.”
“Well, maybe it’s time for our luck to turn around.” It’s a more optimistic sentiment than Noctis really feels.
Ignis goes quiet. After a few seconds, he says, “We have half an hour at best. It’s your call, Noct.”
“My call?” Panic seizes Noctis immediately. He doesn’t want to be responsible for something happening to them, just because he got impatient and decided to change course.
“You’re our navigator,” says Ignis. Then, “I don’t know the right path any better than you do.”
Noctis curses. The road ahead doesn’t hold any answers. Then they reach the intersection, and he peers down in either direction, but comes up empty there, too. He takes in an anxious breath and holds it for just a second.
“Left, turn left,” he says.
Ignis turns and starts down a new road, showing none of the hesitation Noctis feels. “Cars?”
“Parked on the side,” says Noctis. “Middle’s clear.”
“And are there any signs you can see?”
“Um.” Noctis looks around. “Food cache. That’s it so far.”
Minutes pass. Ignis is walking faster now, spurred on by necessity and the assurance of a clear road. At this point Noctis is almost sick with anxiety. He tries to keep from tightening his grip on Ignis, but it’s an uphill battle against his instincts, all of which are telling him to panic. Then he spots something that makes his heart skip.
“Someone marked a truck ahead,” he says. “Keys inside.”
“Armored, looks like,” Noctis clarifies. “It’s parked outside a bank. Do you think—”
“Worth investigating,” says Ignis.
As the green padlock symbol painted on the windshield had promised, there’s a ring of keys dangling from the ignition, and with the driver’s side window down, Noctis manages to angle his arm just right to unlock the door. Then it’s Ignis who opens the door and retrieves the keys, handing them off to Noctis.
“How does the outside look?” asks Ignis.
“Everything’s intact,” says Noctis. “Just a flat tire.”
“Lucky thing we won’t be driving it, then.”
Noctis hums. “Here, I wanna see the back.”
The back door to the vehicle is firmly shut, with no obvious way of opening or unlocking it. Ignis leans in and puts an ear to it for a moment, then shakes his head. “If there’s anything or anyone inside, either they aren’t making a sound or the metal’s too thick to tell,” he says.
“That’s comforting,” Noctis mutters. “We could try the side door. Think that had a lock.”
It does, though it takes a few attempts to find the proper key for it. Ignis takes hold of the handle and pauses.
“Be ready,” he murmurs.
“Right,” Noctis replies. Not, of course, that there’s much he can do if things go south; he can’t hope to defend himself or Ignis when he can’t even stand on his own.
Ignis opens the door, pauses again, and lifts a foot to plant it just a bit unsteadily on the floor of the truck. He gets a hand on the sturdy rail beside the door so quickly it’s like he already knew it was there. Then, with what Noctis can only imagine is a great effort, Ignis hunches down and gets them both inside the truck, Noctis scrambling to twist around and pull the door shut behind them.
With the windows painted over from the outside, it’s dark. So dark that Noctis has to dig through his pockets for a small, barely functioning flashlight, which flickers worryingly every time he turns it on. He gives the back of the vehicle a quick sweep before telling Ignis, “Looks empty. Like, completely empty.”
“You’re certain?” asks Ignis.
“I mean, there’s a seat right here—” Noctis reaches forward and taps the cushion to indicate where it is. “But I don’t see anything else. Just clean and empty. We might be the first people who’ve used it since it was marked.”
“Entirely possible,” says Ignis. “And it seems secure?”
“I think so.” Noctis looks around a bit more, pointing his light this way and that. “Looks like they painted over the window to the cabin, too.”
“The daemons will still catch our scent,” Ignis says grimly.
Noctis huffs. “They can smell us all they want. Unless they’ve gotten strong enough to tear through steel, we should be fine.” Or, he wants to joke, if they’ve learned to use shotguns, but it doesn’t feel especially funny right now.
“Yes.” A pause. “We should get settled while we can.”
There’s no hope of a sound sleep in a place like this, where the daemons can so easily track them down, so they don’t bother stretching out to try to get comfortable. Instead, Ignis gets them situated against the metal wall separating the cabin from the back of the truck, with his own back to the partition and Noctis settled between his legs, leaning back into him. The intimacy of it is undermined somewhat by the icy dread weighing heavily in Noctis’s gut. The only upside to his debilitating fear is that it’s made his body forget, for a time, just how badly his leg hurts. The pain’s just a dull throb, hardly even noticeable through the dizzying rush of adrenaline. He keeps shaking, even as Ignis winds his arms protectively around him.
Noctis chokes out, “How are you so calm right now, Specs?” The nickname drops out of habit. Ignis hasn’t worn anything like glasses in years, but he’s been Specs nearly as long as he’s been Iggy, and nothing will change that. Especially not after Ignis confessed once, months after the accident, that he sort of missed the title, because Noctis had always called him that to give him a hard time, and he said he’d grown fond of it in spite of himself. So the name’s stuck even now. More often than not, Noctis finds himself using it when he’s feeling particularly childish, which he supposes he does right now: small and frightened and vulnerable, hopeless and helpless.
Ignis hums. “Do I seem calm? To be perfectly honest, I’m terrified.”
The strong hands that rub Noctis’s arms comfortingly are steady, as is the voice at his ear. But Ignis says, “There’s a level of fear beyond which you can scarcely feel a thing. I reached that point well before we found the truck.”
“What—are you afraid of?” Noctis asks, flinching bodily at the sudden shriek piercing the quiet evening, the call of one daemon to the others to signal that they’ve caught the scent of prey. It’s a long way off still, maybe a hundred yards. “Dying?”
Another shriek, this time closer. Fifty feet, max. Ignis’s hold around Noctis tightens.
“I’ve only feared one thing for some time now,” Ignis says quietly, “and it isn’t that.”
It doesn’t take long for a group of daemons to pinpoint their location and swarm the truck. They pound on the exterior, launch themselves against the sides of it, claw fruitlessly at the metal, letting out their terrible screeches and howls all the while. The truck just rocks slightly from time to time, jostled, remaining steadfast and impenetrable. But it doesn’t stop Noctis’s heart from thudding with wild panic, even as Ignis pulls him in close and makes a cage around him.
After a time, the terror gives way to exhaustion. He has a headache from the noise, and his knuckles are painfully stiff from clutching desperately at Ignis’s sleeves. And now his injured leg, too, is making itself known again, aching exponentially more by the second. It’s such a miserable situation that Noctis lets out a weak laugh that devolves at once into a sob.
“Does it hurt?” Ignis asks, audible over the clamor only because he’s so close to Noctis’s ear.
Noctis nods, swallows. “Mmhm.”
“I wish there was something I could do,” says Ignis. Regretfully, like he really believes he hasn’t done enough for Noctis, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Ignis.” Noctis turns, shifts, and his temple comes to rest against Ignis’s cheek. They’re both worn out and filthy and they’ve been pushed well beyond their limits, but for Ignis it’s different. He’s been running himself ragged as long as Noctis has known him. And this world they’re in now—it isn’t kind to people who are self-sacrificing; just lets them keep giving more and more up, sometimes for no reason. It would bleed Ignis dry if he thought there was a good reason to let it. Noctis says, “You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t.”
Ignis stays silent. The only sounds are the horrors outside and Noctis’s own labored breathing.
“And you know,” says Noctis, willing himself to ignore the twinge just below his knee, “should go without saying, but I don’t really plan on surviving without you, either.”
There’s another few seconds where Ignis’s silence stretches on. Then he says thickly, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and then he adds something else, something that’s not a secret but, in this moment, feels like one. He curls around Noctis, and just this once it doesn’t feel like a gesture of protection, but of helplessness.
Noctis squeezes his eyes shut. The beasts outside continue their unrelenting assault. “I know, Iggy,” he says quietly. “Me too.”
A haven they stumble across just a week later is tucked away in a bookstore, of all places, a maze of shelves slotted together to form barricades at the break room in the back. And unlike every other place they’ve stumbled across lately, it’s already occupied. They come to this realization a moment too late.
“Don’t move,” someone barks out shrilly. Noctis almost turns reflexively toward the source of the voice, but freezes at a clicking sound that could very easily be a pistol’s safety being switched off. Ignis had been right about the quiet, he thinks; it had seemed just a bit too tranquil, like somewhere frozen in time. The absence of wildlife in a place this large usually means something.
“We’re not looking for trouble,” says Noctis. The stranger hasn’t told them to put their hands in the air, which is lucky, because if he lets go of Ignis’s arm or his makeshift crutch there’s going to be nothing keeping him vertical anymore.
“Yeah? Scavengers never are,” says the stranger, voice tense and shaking. “All they want’s an easy target.”
“Do we honestly look like scavengers to you?” asks Ignis, sounding more exasperated than worried. “Goodness’ sake. I’m blind and he’s only got one working leg, in case it escaped your attention.”
“What, I’m just supposed to take your word for it that you’re blind?”
“Well, you could always try throwing something at me to test it,” Ignis replies dryly.
A beat. Noctis wonders for a second if the stranger really is going to circle around to lob something at Ignis’s head. Then: “No, ’cause if you’re telling the truth I’ll just look like an asshole for, y’know, throwing a shoe at you.”
“If it’ll make you feel better, you can interrogate us about our background and what we’re doing here all you want,” says Noctis, “but—can I sit down first? He wasn’t kidding about the leg.”
“Yeah. Shit. Okay.”
The stranger’s name is Prompto. He’s a skittish thing, small and gaunt and jumpy, baby-faced. Maybe younger than Noctis but maybe not. The pistol he’d aimed at them only has one bullet left in it. He says he’s never shot a human.
He has a dog, too, a little white thing that comes darting out of the shadows once they’ve all sat down on the dusty furniture. Pryna, he calls her. She’s not much of a guard dog, instead choosing to hide at the first sign of danger. But she’s good company, Prompto insists. Good at catching small animals for them to eat, too.
“Is it just you and Pryna, then?” asks Ignis. He’s been patting and scratching along her muzzle, and for his trouble he’s gotten nothing but dog slobber all over his hand.
“Kinda,” says Prompto. “For now, at least. We, uh—we had a group, but we had to… split up.”
“Something happen?” asks Noctis.
Prompto already looked anxious, but Noctis can see his discomfort mounting even still. He flinches, breaking eye contact with Noctis and scratching his arm nervously. In the tense silence Ignis’s foot touches the ankle of Noctis’s good leg, and Noctis knocks back against it. It’s the closest they can get to trading glances.
Clearing his throat, Prompto says, “They wanted to fight back and clear out the daemons. I didn’t. They said—if I didn’t wanna join them, we could meet up in a month at the convention center outpost downtown.”
Ignis draws in a sharp breath. This time, Noctis makes contact in something closer to a kick than a light nudge, to stand in for the panicked look he wishes he could send Ignis’s way.
“What?” Prompto frowns.
“Have you been to the outpost yet?” asks Ignis, carefully neutral. He’s stopped petting Pryna, who’s whining and pushing her nose at his hand.
“Yeah, but not for a little while,” says Prompto. His frown deepens in confusion. “We stayed there for a couple weeks in the winter. Why?”
Noctis can’t meet his eye as he says, “Prompto, it got overrun back in March. The militia had to purge it. There’s nothing there anymore.”
The noise Prompto lets out is nearly a gasp, but cuts off halfway, abrupt and anguished. When Noctis finally dares a glance he sees an absolutely stricken look haunting Prompto’s face. Eyes terribly round. Parted lips moving silently. Color drained so his freckles look oddly stark on his skin.
“I was—four days,” Prompto croaks, giving both of them a desperate, pleading look. “Just—four, and I—I have to—where do I go?”
“Did you have a contingency plan?” asks Ignis. Pryna’s stopped begging for attention and flopped down on the floor by his feet in resignation. “Any other place you could meet?”
“No, because the outpost was supposed to be there.” Prompto buries his face in his hands. “Shit. Shit.” Then he looks up again suddenly, wide eyes fixed on Noctis. “Are you sure? Did you see for your—”
“We were there,” says Ignis. “It’s gone.”
“Shit,” Prompto says again. “I’m—what happened?”
Ignis’s hand finds Noctis’s and gives a gentle squeeze. He says equally as gently, “Noct?”
One breath in, then out. Noctis licks his lips, squeezes Ignis’s hand in return. “One of the guards,” he says, “she—everyone thinks you need to get bitten to turn, but it’s open wounds, too. Mouth. Eyes. Anywhere it can get in your bloodstream. And it takes a day or two for the signs to show, so no one realized at first.”
“So the guard, she—she just turned and started attacking people,” Prompto guesses.
But Noctis shakes his head. “She figured out what happened and left so she wouldn’t hurt anyone. There was a note in her locker and everything. It’s kinda—I mean, it’s funny, when you think about it. Or not funny, but—when she snuck out, there was a gap in the security, I guess. A hole in the fence or something. We never really figured out the details. Everything happened too fast.”
“A hole,” Prompto echoes. Two horrified syllables.
“We heard them coming before we saw them,” says Noctis. The memory of it is so vivid still that he barely needs to think at all for it to come right to the forefront of his mind, the images and sounds. “All the shrieking. There were—I dunno. Dozens. Too many.” He’s only distantly aware of Ignis’s lips against the back of his hand. It helps ground him a bit, keeps him more in the present, away from those terrible sounds resonating in his head. “We had to hurry and evacuate, but it was a fucking mess. Everyone was going in different directions. My leg got fucked up. I don’t… really wanna get into that,” he adds, grimacing.
“Oh.” Prompto sounds as small as Noctis feels.
“Yeah, so. No outpost.”
“Guess not,” says Prompto. Then, “Sorry. That’s… fucking awful, dude.”
“Could’ve been worse.” Noctis shrugs. “I wasn’t alone, at least.”
“He had the happy task of dragging me to safety,” says Ignis, “which I thought he carried out incredibly well for someone with a fractured tibia.”
Huffing, Noctis says, “Yeah, you seemed really impressed when you were lecturing me about ‘neglecting my injuries’ or whatever.”
“It was both admirable and stupid,” says Ignis.
“Whatever,” Noctis says again, not annoyed but not not annoyed. “Anyway, we’ve had to stay on the move since then. Almost every place we’ve come across has been picked clean.”
“Yeah, same here,” says Prompto. “Lot of empty caches. There’s still some food left in here, though, way in the back. You guys can help yourselves, if you want.”
“Yeah?” says Noctis. “What about you?”
“Oh, I…” Prompto bites his lip. “I’m… not really sure. I was supposed to leave tomorrow, so I’d have time to… yeah. Guess I need a change of plans, huh?” His smile is brittle and falls apart quickly.
“Iggy,” Noctis murmurs.
Ignis sighs. “You can join us if you like, Prompto, though it won’t solve the scarcity problem.”
Prompto perks up immediately. “Really?”
“Long as you don’t mind us slowing you down,” says Noctis, managing a crooked smile.
“No problem! I could scout ahead with Pryna. She’s good at finding things that people miss, too.” Prompto’s grin now is genuine and full of hope and boyish enthusiasm. “And I’m a pretty good shot, if we find more guns or ammo.”
“Consider yourself hired, then,” says Ignis. Noctis can hear, more than see, that he’s smiling just a bit, too. “Before we decide anything else, could you point us toward the food?”
The cooking ends up falling on Ignis, whose culinary talents pre-apocalypse have translated to an incomparable ability to make canned food almost appetizing. Prompto helps him get situated, lights the fire pit outside, then seems positively affronted when Ignis shoos him away, gaping indignantly.
Noctis can’t help but laugh as Prompto plops down next to him in a huff. They’re on the stairs at the front of the shop, where Noctis can position his leg at an angle where it hurts just a bit less. Ignoring it is a continuous choice he makes. If it’s going to heal, it will; if not, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.
“He’s a little bit of a control freak,” he says. “You get used to it.”
“Guess so,” says Prompto. He glances sidelong. “How long have you two…?” He lets the question trail off, but the intent is obvious.
An uncomfortable heat crawls over Noctis’s skin. “We’re not,” he says. “I mean—we are, but not like—it’s complicated.”
“Uh.” Prompto’s eyebrows are raised in understandable skepticism. “If it’s so complicated you can’t even say if you’re together or not, maybe you guys should talk about that, dude.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Noctis mumbles. “We know how we feel, we just never bothered making it a… thing.”
“Oh my god,” says Prompto. “The world has literally ended, and you can’t even tell some guy you wanna kiss him.”
“He already knows.”
“Uh-huh. Sure he does, buddy.”
“Look, we already—” No, he decides that’s none of Prompto’s business. “He knows. I promise.”
Noctis sighs. “Fuck off, Prompto.”
They have more important things to worry about, and it’s so trivial, so unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it bothers Noctis the entire rest of the day. He thinks about it while they eat, while they clean up after themselves, while they set to work fortifying the store.
The thing is, he knows Ignis knows how he feels. And he knows how Ignis feels, too, beyond a shadow of a doubt. They’ve acknowledged it, explicitly and otherwise. And despite Prompto’s assumptions, they’ve kissed before, on more than one occasion, though not for some time now. Once, months ago, they went well beyond kissing, though it’s never been repeated, never come up again. A lack of time and safety and energy will do that.
But despite all of that—all their intimate moments, soft touches, expressions of devotion—Noctis doesn’t know if they’ve ever shown affection for the sake of it. It’s a matter of comfort, usually. They’ve never held hands just because, never shared a casual, unthinking kiss on the mouth or cheek. Even when they fucked it was tense, hurried, fearful. It’s hard to say something like this is a relationship, regardless of how they feel about each other. Hard to say there’s a sense of desire separate from all the need.
The three of them have the luxury of getting to sleep before sundown, so they do, laying out a haphazard array of sleeping bags after they’ve ensured the barricades are all in place. Prompto hasn’t been bothered here yet—the daemons don’t often waste their energy on hard-to-reach places, where the smell of their would-be prey is too faint, too distant—but there’s no reason to leave these things to chance. Noctis is all jitters as they start to get settled, though, and he knows it has nothing to do with the approaching night.
After Ignis, saint that he is, helps lower Noctis down to his own sleeping space and—so very gingerly—prop his leg up, he starts to pull away. Panicking suddenly, Noctis grabs his arm and blurts, “Wait.”
Ignis’s expression moves straight to concern. “Something wrong?”
“No,” says Noctis, wincing at his lack of eloquence and tact. He lets go of Ignis’s arm quickly. “I just wanted to ask if you’d… sleep next to me.”
“Is that not what I was doing?” asks Ignis, nonplussed, tilting his head just a bit to indicate his sleeping bag right beside Noctis’s.
“Not like that,” Noctis mumbles. He can feel a flush rising to his cheeks and the tips of his ears.
He sees the moment that comprehension dawns on Ignis, which makes it even more embarrassing, somehow. So does the barely-suppressed smile on Ignis’s face, and the little, “Ah.”
“You know what, never mind,” says Noctis. “Just—I’m going to sleep. Do what you want.”
He lies back, closes his eyes, and pretends not to hear the sound of Ignis sliding his sleeping bag closer, or notice the unmistakable heat of Ignis’s body directly beside him. He makes a point of calling out, “Night, Prompto,” to which he hears a lazy, half-grumbled response.
Ignis chuckles, and by this point Noctis is embarrassed enough by his own ridiculous behavior to bristle slightly. Then he hears a whisper of, “You’re acting rather odd.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Noctis replies just as lowly. “Just go to sleep, Specs.”
“Hmm.” And with just that, that thoughtful noise, Noctis can tell Ignis is observing him in that unfathomable way he does, piecing together bits of evidence from signals Noctis isn’t even aware he’s broadcasting. Then Ignis says, “Feeling a bit possessive, are we?”
“What? No,” Noctis hisses.
Noctis opens his eyes to glare petulantly at Ignis, who’s lying on his side, amusement dancing over his features. “It’s not like that,” says Noctis. “Don’t be weird.”
“I’m the one being weird.”
“Shut up.” Then, “I mean it.”
Ignis hums, but says nothing. Noctis doesn’t care for the knowing curl of his lips at all.
“Okay, night,” Noctis murmurs grudgingly.
“Noct,” says Ignis.
“Would you mind if I kissed you goodnight?”
“Go ahead,” says Noctis.
When he says that, it’s with the expectation of a chaste peck on the cheek or forehead, the sort of kiss he’s grown accustomed to these days. He doesn’t anticipate lips pressing against his own, doesn’t expect it to deepen the way it does. Or to keep going. And going. And—
“What was that?” he asks, breathless, pushing Ignis back by the shoulders but also, maybe, keeping him from pulling back.
Ignis’s good eye, sightless but open, seems to drift very intentionally down toward Noctis’s mouth. He says, “One of us was feeling possessive after all, I suppose.” And as if nothing had happened at all, he pulls away, and Noctis lets him, watching as Ignis makes himself at home just beside him, expression dizzyingly satisfied.
Gladiolus doesn’t talk much. Which is an understatement, really—he barely says a thing apart from yeah and no. With time he adds thanks to his vocabulary, though only after a sharp reprimand from Ignis.
It’s a slow process. They cross paths with him and his sister three times in as many weeks, Iris lightheartedly accusing the men of following them. Gladiolus is markedly less friendly, peering at each of their group in silent distrust, forming a shield between them and his sister. Noctis doesn’t blame the guy; Iris is young—Noctis doesn’t know how young, exactly—and heavily pregnant. The hawk-like stare is understandable. Never mind that two of them are both disabled and gay.
The fourth time they see him, he’s practically dead on his feet, swaying on the spot as he clutches a bloodied, mangled raccoon in his hands on the outskirts of a wooded city park. He’s alone.
They don’t ask the towering, near-wordless man if he wants to join them, so much as just drag him sternly along and force him to let himself be looked after. He doesn’t explain what happened, what he’s doing, where his sister is, so they assume the worst. Hard not to. Foolish, even.
Whatever else he may be, though—whatever’s happened to him—Gladiolus takes on the role of protector so swiftly and naturally it’s like he’s been doing it all along. He investigates everything Pryna finds before the rest of them, surveys rooms and buildings ahead of the group, and at the first sign of trouble he puts himself directly between the danger and Noctis, or else moves Noctis and his chair quickly out of harm’s way. There are things about his methods and the way he take charge that make them wonder if he isn’t former military, or at least former militia, but it’s just another mystery to add to the pile.
He’s also, as it happens, not a bad fishing partner.
“Stop giving me that look,” says Noctis. “I’m not trying to intentionally sabotage dinner by catching shitty fish.”
Gladiolus just raises his bushy eyebrows, unimpressed. He’s gutted the carps Noctis caught already—not that it took long, given how small they’ve been. He makes a get on with it gesture, and Noctis huffs, casting his line once again.
The next thing that takes the bait is a large bass, fat and feisty. Reeling it in is a grueling task, but Noctis manages it, with Gladiolus helping to wrangle it out of the water afterward. The two of them trade triumphant grins that don’t fade until Gladiolus’s knife blade punctures the space just behind the fish’s eye, sinking into its brain.
Afterward, Gladiolus ruffles Noctis’s hair with a hand still dripping with river water. Noctis bats him away with an exaggerated scowl. He grew up an only child, but in moments like this he thinks this is what having an older brother might have been like. Someone who cares but has no qualms with hassling him, no interest in unnecessary coddling. It’s not like Prompto’s easy, freely-given friendship, or Ignis’s fierce devotion. Gladiolus cares, but also, Noctis is certain, doesn’t especially give a shit.
They eat well, and over dinner Prompto makes ambitious plans for his next scouting venture, marking up the little city map lightly in pencil as he explains the route to the rest of them. Pryna steals bits of fish from Ignis’s plate while he graciously pretends not to notice. Then they pack up their supplies, reset their traps, and barricade themselves in the shell of an old gun store where they’ve been camping out the past couple of weeks. It’s on the smaller side, and all its supplies had been cleaned out well before they got here, but it’s easy to secure and the location is convenient, within walking distance of the waterfront and a once-populous section of the city, waiting to be explored. Not home, but the closest they’ve found to one for a while.
That night, as with many nights, they’re all woken with a jolt by Gladiolus’s soul-tearing screams piercing through the silence.
Noctis fights to steady his breath while his heart rate comes back down from the breakneck speed it hit when he woke up. He buries his face in Ignis’s shirt while Ignis rubs his back in soothing, tired circles. This has happened enough times that he should be used to it, maybe, but the wails of pure, genuine terror are too close to the ones floating in his memories, the ones that make him break out in a feverish sweat and thrash around frantically some nights, coming to only when Ignis pins him down to keep him from hurting himself.
(Ignis, he knows, isn’t immune things like this either. Every so often, Noctis is woken by Ignis’s half-conscious panic, chest heaving and hands grasping deliriously at Noctis. He always calms once he’s confirmed Noctis is there and alive and—to whatever extent the word means anything—unharmed. They’re all fighting something.)
Nearby, Prompto’s already up and murmuring nonsense reassurances to Gladiolus. Pryna’s probably there, too, licking his face or curling against his chest. The pair of them, boy and dog, are good for situations like this, ready to offer up comfort and support without even being asked. So the sound of Prompto’s voice doesn’t surprise Noctis at all—what throws him is the low grumble of Gladiolus’s reply.
Straining, he hears the tail end of a comment from Prompto, something about looking, then catches Gladiolus’s response in the heavy air: “She’s fine. I don’t wanna screw things up for her.”
“Okay,” Prompto relents softly. “I get it.”
Whatever—whomever—they’re talking about, Noctis doesn’t think he’s meant to overhear. His suspicion is confirmed when Ignis whispers, “Go back to sleep, Noct.”
“You go to sleep,” Noctis answers ridiculously, already in the process of doing just that anyway.
They don’t talk about any of it in the morning. They never do. Everyone sets to work on their tasks for the day—Prompto and Pryna scouting for supplies and new havens, Gladiolus checking the animal traps first and daemon ones second, Ignis and Noctis continuing the slow process of fixing up an old houseboat that Ignis is sure will eventually, someday, be a functioning, livable space—with the understanding that they’ll regroup later in the afternoon to eat. There’s some comfort in the predictability of routine.
While they’re in the middle of tinkering with the gas stove on the boat, Ignis says, “I suspect Prompto’s met someone he isn’t telling us about.”
Noctis fumbles with the screwdriver in his hand, nearly dropping it, then does drop it, cursing under his breath. “What makes you say that?” he asks as Ignis hands the tool back to him.
“Call it intuition,” says Ignis. “That, and he was a touch evasive when I asked where he happened to find an untouched 713 cabernet.”
“So he’s been trading, you think?” asks Noctis.
“For frivolous luxuries? I highly doubt it,” says Ignis. “A gift, more likely.”
Noctis frowns. “Who gives someone wine in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? It’s not even useful.”
To his confusion, Ignis chuckles. “Noct,” he says, “Prompto is being courted.”
“What? Oh.” Now Noctis is even more confused. “Why? Wait—that sounds mean. I just meant—who has time for that, you know? Just say you’re interested and get it over with.”
“I think it’s charming,” says Ignis. “It’s nice to see the end of the world hasn’t utterly killed romance.”
“I guess,” says Noctis, squinting at patches of seawater rust. A swell of discontent is blooming steadily inside of him. He finds himself saying, “Hey, Iggy?”
The question at the tip of Noctis’s tongue had been What are the chances of Prompto running off with some mysterious stranger and leaving us forever? but in his mind it quickly spirals into, Or Gladio going back to wherever Iris is? What if something happens to either or both of them and then it’s just you and me again? What then, Ignis? Could we make it on our own, or would we go back to running from haven to haven, barely beating the sunset every night? He doesn’t want the answer to any of those, and he doesn’t think Ignis would be entirely honest in his reply, either. And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway; they live together or die together. That’s always been the plan.
“What if we can’t get this shitty boat working?” he asks instead. He knocks the side of his fist against the rundown cabinet for emphasis, and the wood has a dull, hollow ring to it.
“We’ll move on and try to look for something else,” says Ignis, matter-of-fact and unflappable. “Until then, no harm in trying.”
“Yeah,” says Noctis, “I guess you’re right.” Then he leans in and touches his lips to Ignis’s, slotting their mouths together and eliciting the faintest noise of surprise.
“What brought that on?” Ignis asks after, pleasantly bemused, smiling very slightly in a way that makes him almost too beautiful to look at.
“Nothing,” says Noctis. “Just wanted to.”
Ignis pats him fondly on the cheek, and they get back to work on the stupid stove, which is probably never going to work. And that’s fine. Even if it doesn’t, they can keep looking.