Prompto leaned his forearms against the cold wrought iron railing of his balcony to keep his camera still enough for a shot of the nighttime skyline. It wouldn't be perfectly clear for how low he'd dialed down the shutter speed, not without a tripod, but he was nothing if not a steady shot.
But when the knife came winging through the rails and ricocheted off the brick wall behind him, he yelped and almost dropped the camera to the pavement 12 stories below.
He managed to fumble for the strap in time — stupid, shoulda had it wrapped around his wrist to begin with, damn thing had cost more than two months' worth of his Crownsguard salary — and Noct was still smirking, knife in hand, when Prompto wheeled to face his friend.
“Dude, so not cool.”
“A little cool,” Noct said, smug.
“It’s only cool until you make me drop my camera, because then I’m pushing you after it.”
Noct just threw back his head and laughed. He always got a buzz off doing this kind of thing. Never seemed to think he might go splat on the pavement.
The truth was: of course it was cool. Noct could warp around the city at night like some kind of real-life, web-free Spiderman. The best part? Gladio actually let him, figuring the benefit of practice outweighed the risk.
And so Noct tended to materialize on the balcony of Prompto’s apartment at random hours of the night. It made him grateful he’d picked it for the short commute to the Crownsguard’s training grounds at the Citadel. He’d been expecting Noct this time, but he also tended to leave the sliding glass door unlocked; occasionally, he’d come home to his best friend napping on his sofa.
Come to think of it, Prompto couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Noct in broad daylight.
They were both busy, yeah, but Noct was . . . he didn’t even know what to call it. He’d recently helped Noct hack back into his own calendar (Ignis had locked him out after too many meetings had conveniently “disappeared”) and it had been stressful just to look at. It wasn’t even that he was busy all day; it was the manic overlapping of squares, three things somehow happening at once, the ten-minute phone calls scheduled during car rides and also, yeah, Noct was busy all day from an ungodsly hour of the morning until a time that suggested he was often fleeing directly to Prompto’s afterward.
All that for a guy whose favorite pastime was fishing like a grandpa and who’d happily sit on a couch, unmoving, for six hours of quality stare-at-the-ceiling time.
“Hey, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but they’re bringing in a new Crownsguard class two months early,” Noct said, leaning against the balcony with him. “It’ll get approved next week.”
Prompto groaned. “You know I have zero poker face. Everyone’s complaining about how there’s not enough of us all the time, and it’s gonna be suspicious if I don’t bitch, too.”
Noct’s lip twitched up, and Prompto would swear he could see a montage of Prompto failing to lie convincingly playing in Noct’s mind. He flicked him upside the head to stop it short.
Then Noct’s phone rang, and when Noct glanced at the caller ID, it was his turn to almost drop an expensive electronic to its early death. But he recovered the fumble and answered the call with a grin of disbelief. “Luna?! How did you —”
That was surprising. Phone calls between here and Tenebrae were unreliable and costly on the off chance they actually worked. In theory, the telecommunications should work just fine, but the Wall over Insomnia and whatever the Empire had going on closer to Tenebrae interfered. Hell, it was why Noct and Luna communicated via magic dog, rather than texting.
Prompto jerked his thumb towards the door and mouthed “Should I go?” because after all, Noct hadn’t actually spoken to Lunafreya since they’d been engaged. But either Noct didn’t understand or didn’t care about privacy, because he followed Prompto inside.
Prompto puttered into the kitchen, threw some popcorn kernels in the air popper and tried not to eavesdrop, but it was hard with how small his place was.
“Uh-huh. Yeah, that’s not good . . . Well, it won’t be easy, but if you think . . . Mmhmm . . . So what’s the plan?” After that, a long silence on Noct’s end. Prompto could faintly hear Lunafreya’s voice through the receiver.
“Oh!” Noct said, looking up at Prompto for some inconceivable reason. “Yeah, actually, I do, and he’s here. Let me put him on speaker.”
He pointed to himself and mouthed “Me?!”
“Yes, you,” Noct said, rolling his eyes and motioning for him to come over.
Prompto wobbled to the couch as Noct hit the speaker-phone button.
“Prompto! It’s nice to finally get to speak with you.” The call quality was scratchy, but he still got a thrill out of hearing the voice on the other end.
“Ahaha, yeah, backatcha!” Prompto said, voice an octave above the usual. Shoot, he’d just backatcha-ed the head of organized religion in Eos. “I mean, it’s an honor, Lady Lunafreya, and uh, congratulations.”
“Thank you, Prompto. Just Lunafreya’s fine. I actually have a problem you might be able to help with. Noctis says you’re tech-savvy?”
He laughed self-deprecatingly. “I mean, define tech. And savvy.”
Lunafreya made a considering noise. “Let’s say . . . given detailed but outdated schematics of a security system, would you be able to bypass controls and unlock a specific door? Oh, and cut out or loop security camera feeds for targeted areas of that facility?”
“Uhm, that’s really specific, but probably.” Yeah. Definitely. “Uh, why?”
“Excellent! Noctis will fill you in. I know I can count on you, Prompto.”
“O-of course, Lady Lunafreya. Lunafreya. Anything.”
“Take care, both of you. Noctis, we’ll have to make the rest of the arrangements via the usual method, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get this line again.”
“Sounds good,” Noct said, voice soft and fond. “Take care, okay, Luna?”
“I’ll see you so soon,” she answered.
Noct didn’t hang up. He waited until the call disconnected the next moment to put the phone away.
“Uhm, buddy? What did I just agree to?”
Noct cracked his knuckles and leaned back on the couch with a wolfish grin. “An adventure.”
“Ignis, Gladio! Just who we were hoping to see,” Noctis said with uncharacteristic cheer as he waltzed into the private training room, Prompto at his heels.
Ignis rolled his eyes even as he dodged Gladio’s broadsword and went in for a quick strike to the side. Gladio was too quick, dancing back out of reach while somehow also swinging that giant meat cleaver downward. This time, Ignis had to block despite the jolt it sent through his shoulders as he held back the heavy weight with his lance.
“What do you need, Noct?” Gladio asked as he broke the block and circled around. Ignis followed suit, keeping himself low and ready to take advantage of Gladio’s next strike.
“Just came to watch you guys train.”
“You expect us to believe that?” Ignis asked, deftly avoiding Gladio’s swing and trying to get in close with the daggers he’d just swapped to.
“Why wouldn’t you?” Prompto laughed, nervously. “Not like it’s weird or anything for us to come watch you, uh, sparring at 7:30 in the morning. Totally usual.”
“’Cept it’s never happened before.” Gladio was dodging, dodging, and maybe if Ignis swapped to the polearm for extra reach at the last second he could get a hit in . . .
Noct groaned. “Prompto, never play poker.”
“Well, then, spit it OUT,” Ignis said, bringing the polearm crashing down towards Gladio on the last word. At the last possible moment, Gladio ducked slightly to the side with his greatsword angled awkwardly to stop the blow. They struggled ungracefully for a tense minute, then both nodded and sent the weapons back into to the armiger.
Gladio loped off to grab a towel and water bottle; Ignis crossed his arms and leaned against the wall to survey the Prince and his friend.
“Luna called,” Noct said.
That was unexpected. He hadn’t even known it possible. “Did she, now? About the wedding?”
“Not exactly,” Noct said as Gladio joined their circle with a towel around his neck. “Actually about . . . an engagement party. In Gralea. Thrown by the Empire.”
Gladio laughed. “No way. They really thought anyone would buy that?”
“Is the Empire not known for its slammin’ parties?” Prompto asked.
But Ignis was studying Noct’s face, and he knew his tells. “Astrals above. You want to go. Please tell me it’s for a reason I can dismiss out of hand without wasting my time seriously considering such reckless idiocy.”
“Luna was calling in a favor,” Noct said, spreading his hands wide. “She needs help.”
“Go on,” Ignis sighed.
“Luna has moles in the Empire, and they’ve found the lost Trident of the Oracle. Aldercapt is keeping it in Zegnautus Keep.”
“So they stole it all those years ago, when they attacked Tenebrae?” Gladio asked, expression darkening.
“Yeah,” Noct said, hand balling into a fist. Ignis knew those memories were the source of years of nightmares. “And Luna needs it. Not just to strengthen her healing. It’s part of the ritual for forging covenants with the gods, and they won’t listen to her without it.”
“And how would you be able to help, Noct?” Ignis asked.
Noct crossed his arms and leaned forward with a smile. “We’re going to steal it back.”
“We, huh,” Gladio observed.
“Luna has a plan, and it’s a good one,” Noct said. “But she needs help. Specifically, she needs someone who can thwart Imperial security without being obvious about it —”
“You’re bringing Prompto into this.” Ignis kept his voice flat.
“ . . . and a wall of muscle to keep the steel in check,” he said, nodding to Gladio. “As well as someone who can help navigate the fraught diplomatic atmosphere.”
That would be himself, Ignis supposed. He couldn’t deny being flattered the Lady Lunafreya would think of him. But risking his own life was much different than what Noctis was proposing. “Just what will you be doing, pray tell?”
“Looking pretty.” He flashed a smile that Ignis had to admit would at least qualify as as “rather dashing.” Lady Lunafreya always brought out the unexpected in Noctis.
“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard—” Gladio started.
“—it was Luna’s idea, you’re not allowed to say that,” Noct interjected.
“—stealing from the Empire? While we’re supposed to be in a cease-fire before a peace treaty?”
“If we get caught stealing something they stole from Luna, and which they’ve been lying for years about having,” Noct said, see-sawing his hand in an it’s iffy gesture, “I mean, it won’t be pretty, but I don’t think it would tank the agreement. And" — he held up a single finger — "we won’t get caught.”
"Noctis, I have no idea what's gotten into the Oracle, but this cannot work," Ignis said. His patience had been rubbed short by a long day at the end of a long week at the end of a long year at the end of a long decade. "There would be no way to guarantee your security, the travel involved is extensive, and, above all, there is no way I can convince your father to even send you in the first place."
Prompto opened his mouth to say something, but Noctis cut him off with a sharp glare, then turned to Ignis, looking . . . disappointed.
"I know it’s a long shot," Noct said slowly.
Ignis sighed. Let his edges soften. "I know you would like to help Lady Lunafreya and to see her before he wedding, I'm sure. But there's little we can do without your father's permission."
"What else is new?" Noct said, almost succeeding at keeping the bitterness out of his voice. It was an old, familiar wound, and there was an awkward pause around the conversational sore spot until Noct looked back up at Ignis with a spark of determination in his eyes. "What if I can convince Dad?"
Gladio snorted. "Then I'll challenge Shiva to a snowball fight."
"I'm serious," Noct whined, wheeling on Gladio, but then his jaw tightened and his back straightened. "If I can get the King to send us to Gralea — and yes, Iggy, knowing what we're planning — would that convince you?"
Ignis let out a long breath. He privately agreed with Gladio about the chances of that happening, but he supposed there was no harm in letting King Regis be the bad guy on this one. "If the King wishes to send you, then of course I shall help however I can."
Noct turned to Gladio next.
"I go where you go," Gladio shrugged.
"Great," Noct said, suddenly cheerful again. "Because I just talked to him and he's sending us. We leave Tuesday." He threaded his arm through Prompto’s elbow and yanked him out the room with a wave behind him.
Ignis was pretty sure his jaw would have hit the floor had he not carefully trained out such reactions years ago.
“Damn,” Gladio said, rubbing his jaw. “Guess we know who won this sparring match."
Ignis pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can only hope we don't have cause to regret it, but that seems optimistic to the point of foolishness."
Every second that passed took them closer into the heart of the Empire, and it was giving Gladio a godsdamn headache just to think about.
The train rocked gently over the tracks as it sped them towards Gralea. They were the only ones in the dining car; even the barman had packed it up and gone to bed. It was still warmly lit and cozy, despite the chill seeping through the window at Gladio's elbow.
Noct took out the red leather notebook he shared with Lady Lunafreya, flipped through it, and laid it on top of the table for them all to look at.
"Not really interested in your love notes, Prince Charmless," he teased.
Noct rolled his eyes. “This is a map of Zegnautus Keep.”
Ignis snatched it up to study. “The level of detail . . . Lady Lunafreya must have informants in high places within the Empire.”
“’Course she does,” Noct said. “People love her. And she’s the Oracle for everyone, including Imperial citizens. But it would be better if we don’t make it obvious she’s got spies.”
“Lord Ravus?” Ignis asked quietly.
Noct sucked his teeth and shook his head. Ravus was a sore spot.
“Will he be there?” Gladio asked.
“Nah, Luna made sure of it,” Noct said. “Didn’t want suspicion falling on him.”
“How does the Oracle’s big brother end up in the Imperial army, anyway?” Prompto asked.
Ignis launched into an explanation, but Gladio tuned it out and swiped the notebook from Ignis to look it over.
The map was hand-drawn on graph paper with the scale noted at the bottom. It wasn’t the entire Keep — the floating fortress was massive (and someone please remind him why he was escorting the Crown Prince into its jaws) — but it showed two areas in detail.
First, the Imperial Throne Room and its vicinity, where the engagement gala would be held. The throne room was flanked by a ballroom on one side and a dining room on the other. Guests would be received into the throne room, and the party would flow between the three areas. Unlike the Citadel, there were no smaller receiving rooms or antechambers surrounding the party. The clear sightlines would make his job as a Shield easier; it would make the job of sneaking around much harder.
The map also showed the area of the facility where the Oracle’s Trident was being held, according to Lunafreya’s informant. Luckily, it was on the same level as the throne room, through a series of locked doors that would make getting though a nightmare. It seemed like the Empire had wanted to maximize the Trident’s security while also keeping it close to Aldercapt’s throne room.
Gladio sat back and scrubbed his face with his hand. There was just so much that could go wrong here.
The Empire had sent them the guest list as a courtesy; it was nearly 300 names long, with so many red flags pinging back through their database (war crimes, double agents, suspected double agents that were just now being confirmed, unsuspected double agents who would have been immediately arrested had they not been safely ensconced in the Empire) that they’d eventually chalked it up to yep, it’s a fucking den of vipers, we knew that.
Of course, Ignis then took the list and began compiling dirty secrets, weak links, and a web of known alliances.
Unfortunately, the Oracle’s Trident really was one of three objects on Eos that would be worth even attempting this insanity for; the Ring of the Lucii and the Crystal would be the other two, though Gladio knew that if the Empire ever had either of those, they would be in a much different kind of trouble.
Ignis had trailed off, leaving Prompto looking simultaneously bored and shell-shocked, so Gladio cleared his throat.
“Don’t you think it’s time to fill us all in on the plan, Princess?”
“You’re going to have to abandon that nickname once Lady Lunafreya is around, Gladio,” Ignis chided.
“Fine. Prince Charmless. Lay it on us.”
“The only thing we need to do before the party is get Prompto access to a security terminal in order to hack in,” Noct said, and Prompto saluted.
“He’ll do this under the pretense of escorting Luna to a meeting with Emperor Aldercapt,” Ignis continued.
“Will you be at that meeting?” Gladio asked Noct.
“No. The Empire has arranged our schedules so that Luna and I won’t be able to see each other before the gala itself — and they’re escorting the four of us out directly afterward.”
“Almost seems like they suspect you of plotting something,” Ignis commented wryly.
“Don’t think anyone trusts anyone else here,” Gladio said. “Should make for a great party.”
“We’ll go for the Trident during the gala, obviously,” Noct continued.
“When security is craziest?” Gladio raised an eyebrow.
“But also when it’s stretched the thinnest,” Ignis noted.
“Luna and I will be the diversion,” Noct continued. “She’s got something up her sleeve. A speech or something, to hold everyone’s attention. And since Ignis will have been working the room all night, it will be least noticeable when he slips away to grab the Trident, stash it in the armiger, and go.”
“The notes say the trident’s behind bars,” Prompto said. “I can’t do anything about those, it's an old-school lock — you got a plan, Iggy?”
“Indeed,” Ignis said, but declined to elaborate.
“And I’m the backup muscle in case things go wrong?” Gladio asked.
“That, and we’ve gotta make sure no one else tries something that will interrupt us,” Noct said. “Someone trying to kill me would get everything locked back down pretty quick.”
“I might be able to override that,” Prompto said, biting his bottom lip. “But I’m not gonna be sure until I can actually get in.”
“Let’s not plan on it, then,” Ignis said.
“Continue my perfect streak of not letting Noct get assassinated,” Gladio summarized. “Got it.”
“Is there a back-out plan?” Prompto asked. “If something goes wrong and we need to call it quits?”
Noct shook his head, lips pursed. “It’s kind of now or never. After the treaty, we’ll lose any leverage for smoothing things over. And they've have had their hands on Luna’s Trident for way too long already.”
“All in, then?” Ignis asked, smooth and calm. Guy could fret like a mother hen over Noct’s vegetable intake but stare death in the face without breaking a sweat.
“All in,” Noct confirmed, rising to stand. “Now let’s get some sleep before we get there.”
Gralea Station’s underground platforms were cold, dark, loud, and hazy with pungent diesel fumes. Ingis was glad for the thick wool of the Kingsglaive uniforms they wore (except for Noctis, for whom he’d selected a black three-piece suit accented by a sylleblossom-blue pocket square, in a nod to his betrothed).
As soon as they stepped off, they were met by a weasel-faced man with slicked-back black hair and Imperial robes. He was flanked by two guards, who were in turn flanked by at least half a dozen plainclothes guards pretending to be waiting for the next train, but who very obviously trailed along after them when the man made a right this way gesture.
The noise died down when they walked past the front of the train, off the platform, and into the station proper.
“Welcome to Gralea, Your Highness,” the man said with a bow to Noctis that was pointedly only just very barely deep enough. “I am Ambassador Klaudio Scala. Emperor Aldercapt sends his greetings and will meet you at the Keep. We have cars waiting, if you are all ready?”
“Thank you, Ambassador Scala,” Noct said with an exactingly proper bow, hand over heart. They’d gone back and forth about whether he should play the devil-may-care wayward prince role or go with a more reserved, proper façade. In the end, the latter had won out; they were trying to deflect attention, not draw it, at least for now.
Ignis followed Noct into the waiting car, and Prompto and Gladio sat in the row behind them. To Ignis’s relief, Scala sat up front with the driver, rather than crowding next to the Prince.
From the front seat, Scala kept up a running commentary of the city as they drove. It was a big city, though the buildings, in Ignis’s opinion, lacked the beauty, grandeur, and scale of Insomnia. There was a lot of steel, a lot of right angles, not a lot of green space.
But the might of the Empire wasn’t in its architecture. No, it was more accurately represented by the soaring Keep they were nearing, docked at the top of a soaring central elevator. Termed a “megafortress” and powered by magitek, it could reportedly fly — which seemed even more remarkable now that he was witnessing the way it hovered over so much of the gray Gralean skyline in person.
“Fucking ominous,” Gladio muttered quietly, and Prompto stifled a nervous laugh with a sharp cough. Ignis shot a glare back at them; the stakes were too high to risk petty offense.
Even if Gladio was absolutely right. When the car took a turn towards an underground garage at the base of the Keep, Ignis’s stomach dipped along with the road as darkness swallowed them.
They were in the belly of the beast.
Prompto stood outside the door to the room where Lady Lunafreya was staying feeling a peculiar kind of nausea he’d only had the misfortune of experiencing twice before in his life. It an overwhelming fear of failure, mixed with the sickening certainty that success would also change his life forever.
The most recent time, two years ago, he'd been standing outside the doors to the Citadel training room where his entrance exam for Crownsguard training was about to begin.
The time before that, he’d been about to introduce himself to Noct.
He lifted his hand to knock on the steel door, which was painted blue to match the damask wallpaper of the hallway. It opened before he could.
He was face to face with Lady Lunafreya, but before his heart could even skip the requisite beat required by how ridiculously beautiful she was, it instead stopped completely because of the dude behind her: a tall, imposing man with rust-red hair and a fedora. No one was supposed to be here.
Prompto stepped back quickly with a bow. "Lady Lunafreya! I'm here to escort you to—”
"That will not be necessary, my dear boy," the man said with a sneer. He stepped forward, which caused Lady Lunafreya to step forward, which meant Prompto had to awkwardly jump backwards and out of the way. "Emperor Aldercapt personally requested I escort our esteemed guest to meet him."
Prompto opened his mouth. He tried to think of something to say, anything, that would get this man to just buzz off. He could feel himself reddening just thinking about lying.
It wasn’t that he was a bad liar. Opposite, actually. He’d had a lot of practice making excuses for his parents not being there. For keeping his wrist covered at all times. For concealing what little he knew of where he’d actually come from.
But as soon as someone else knew the truth, as soon as someone who knew was watching him and waiting for the lie . . .
Well, then, it wasn’t lying; it was performing, and he couldn’t keep a straight face to save his own life.
Before he could try anyway, Lady Lunafreya caught his eye with a subtle shake of her head. "It's quite alright, Prompto. Please go back and tell Prince Noctis I will see him this evening. Chancellor Izunia will escort me."
He just stared for a moment, then flushed red and bowed. "O-of course. Your Highness."
"Good man," the Chancellor said with a nod and a smile, and then he led Lunafreya down the hall and out.
Prompto wavered a moment, wondering if he should wait and sneak out to find a security terminal on his own once the coast was clear.
The problem was, he couldn't really be sure the coast was clear, he'd lost his lookout and alibi, and . . . he didn't think it was in his head, the subtle way she'd stressed "Please go back."
So back he went, though no one was happy to see him in the doorframe of Noct's suite.
He pulled the heavy door shut behind him, then turned to his friends. Ignis’s hands were still up at Noct’s shoulders to knot his tie.
"Aldercapt sent this . . . Chancellor guy to bring Lunafreya to meet with him," he said. "She was signaling me to drop it. I think. So I left."
He could see the questions in Noct's eyes, so he launched into a lengthier explanation, trying to recall exactly what everyone had said. At the end, everyone looked a bit . . . wilted.
“What do we do?” he demanded. “The party starts in an hour and I’m gonna need at least five minutes—”
“Do it during the party,” Gladio said.
Prompto’s stomach somersaulted. “What?!”
Ignis was nodding, though. “There won’t be a better chance. The party will at least provide a distraction. I’ll accompany you early in the evening, before I leave again to secure the trident.”
Noct leaned forward to look at himself in the mirror, swiped his bangs a little more into his eyes. “Specs, you might wanna change, then.”
Rather than a team of three Crownsguard flanking one Crown Prince, the group of four that emerged from the Prince’s guest room were a Prince, guarded by his Shield; and his Hand, guarded by a Crownsguard. (No one needed to know Prompto was really two months shy of it for real.)
Of course, Prompto reminded himself, Ignis was really his lookout. At least for this first part.
When they reached the first security terminal in the hallway and it was all clear, Ignis said, “You go on ahead, Your Highness. We’ll just be a moment.”
Noct and Gladio continued on, and Prompto swung into action with singular focus as Ignis angled himself to keep a lookout. He was tempted to glance behind him, but he needed to keep his eyes on the prize and let Ignis worry about them getting discovered.
He popped open the port with his pocket knife, jammed the flash drive from Luna into the right slot, and got to work with his heart racing but his fingers steady on the keys.
Two minutes and thirty seconds later, Ignis had just laid a hand on his elbow to signal someone is coming when he hit the last keystroke, slammed the port closed, and turned to follow Ignis down the hall at the very last possible second.
DONE. Bam. He felt relief flood his entire body, from the top of his scalp to the soles of his feet.
“Nicely done, Argentum,” Ignis murmured. He’d insisted they follow protocol (whenever they weren’t robbing the Empire beneath its Emperor’s nose, that was).
“Th-thanks. Uh, Adviser Scientia.” He blushed, and Ignis sighed with amusement as they strode down the hallway, Prompto two paces behind and slightly to the side, and through the double doors into the party.
The hard part of his night was done. Now, it was up to everyone else.
Zegnautus was entirely different from the Citadel. There, even even in the training yards and mess hall and dorms, everything in and around the Citadel whispered of old wealth. Yes, there was steel and glass, but also stone and marble and wood and oil paintings and plush carpets and just . . . it was clearly old.
This was more like if a warehouse had been converted into a fancy manor. The doors were steel, the floor was concrete, it was windowless in the interior — and yet there was damask wallpaper on the walls, and gray carpet runners over tile, and when they walked through the doors into the throne room, it buzzed with a crowd of Niflheim's elite dressed to the nines.
Ignis steered them immediately left, towards the jazz quartet in the corner thrumming syncopated bass and sophisticated atmosphere through the room.
And then: Ignis schmoozed. He’d never seen anything like it, frankly. The guest list for this party was crazy long, and yet Ignis seemed to hone in on just the people he wanted to find and get them sharing more than Prompto suspected they had ever intended.
Prompto hung back, just as Gladio did from Noct across the room, and kept an eye out. Across the room, Noct and Luna cut a striking image: Noct all in black, Luna all in white, both of them clearly royal in the way they stood, effortless and commanding.
Luna did most of the talking. Four years older, a ruler in her own right, known and beloved all over Eos, even here in the heart of the Empire . . . well, it was clear Noct was the arm candy in this situation, and he seemed to be playing the Prince Charming card for all it was worth.
Noct glanced up and met Prompto's eyes with a grin and a wink.
Prompto choked his laugh down behind his first. What a dork.
Ignis moved on from whatever socialite he'd been chatting up, a white-haired little lady who patted his elbow and asked "But please don't repeat that last bit to anyone, my dear," a little nervously as they left.
"Almost time," Ignis murmured. "If you stand by the column there, those on this side will assume I'm over there, and those on the other will —”
"I know my sightlines, Ign— er, my lord. You do what you gotta do."
Ignis nodded and melted into the crowd just as the room began falling silent. Lady Lunafreya and Noct were standing up at the front of the throne room, and Lunafreya had her hand raised slightly.
Across the room, Aldercapt was hanging back, trying not to look sour. Whatever this diversion was, Aldercapt didn't know about it.
"—and Prince Noctis and I would like to thank you all for warm hospitality," Lunafreya said, her voice carrying to hush the rest of the crowd near-instantly. "More important than the union between us," she said, threading her fingers through Noct's and kicking the prince's smile up a notch, "is the union between nations, promising peace on Eos and a future where all may flourish. As Oracle of the gods, I swear I still do all within my power to—”
An explosion rocked the room and nearly took Prompto off his feet. Smoke, everywhere.
This was not the plan.
He scrambled to his feet, ears buzzing and heartbeat deafening. People were screaming. He couldn't see the stage, so he threw himself towards the door that led into the hallway.
That was his job in the "Things Go to Shit" backup plan: get to the door and prevent someone from moving Prince or Oracle from the party under the cover of sudden violence. It was a familiar plan, the job he’d take in any party-gone-wrong scenario. He’d drilled on in with the rest of the Crownsguard back home.
He hated it. He wanted to be running towards Noct and Gladio and Luna, making sure they were okay — but he did his job, moved his feet as fast as he could. He had to beat the press of people fleeing. He mostly did, throwing himself right beside the door into the corridor.
This was his door, the most likely route if anyone did try anything. The other two men were supposed to make for the other two doors in case of separation from Noct. Those routes were still important to watch, but less crucial if Gladio had been caught in the crossfire or Ignis had slipped out to complete the theft.
He could see Ignis by the door to the ballroom. He hadn’t left before everything had gone awry.
Damn. Guess they weren't getting that Trident after all.
But it was Gladio by the door to the dining room who sent dread rippling through his body. If he was there, it meant he had been separated from Noct and Luna.
He tightened his grip on his gun, scanned the crushing press of people, and held his ground to the side of the door. When the smoke cleared up front, he could make out Imperial guards surrounding Luna. Protectively, at least to his eye; one was holding a bandage to a wound on her arm.
That's when the screams started coming from the corridor. Suddenly, the press of people was surging back into the throne room, and it became very clear that people were going to be crushed.
"Stay calm!" Prompto barked, pushing into the crowd to send those still trying to get out in the other direction. He needed to get out into the corridor, now, and he couldn’t do it like this. So he improvised. “Go back behind the throne, sit down against the wall, and wait for instructions.”
Amazingly, people listened. Guess that was life in a military dictatorship. The crush became less pressing and Prompto kept barking nonsense orders as he pushed against the flow into the hallway, hand to his ear as if he was getting these directions from somewhere.
When he pulled into the hallway, Noct was tossing fire down it.
His suit was ripped, he was bleeding, he looked kinda singed, and there was a manic, sloppy edge to his fighting that made it seem like he was in trouble. Deep trouble.
The smoke made it hard to even see who he was fighting, much less get a good aim.
Ignis barreled past him, thank gods; he knew better than to rush in and out of his range, but it was hard to make himself stay back, and then someone screamed, and the smoke was finally clearing —
Ignis had the guy. It was that rat-faced ambassador who'd met them at the station, and Ignis had his arms twisted at an unnatural angle behind his back.
Prompto finally let himself rush in.
He slipped on the pool of Noct's blood and onto his knees beside his friend's unconscious body, shit there was so much blood, and went straight for a hi-elixir.
He tried again — hi-elixir, elixir, hi-potion, potion, ether, phoenix down — he couldn’t reach into the armiger for anything, and what did that mean —
He yelled for Ignis, who pushed him out of the way, then seemingly had the same revelation about the armiger, hands instead searching to find the source of all the bleeding.
Prompto had scrambled to take over holding the ambassador down, careless of the man's shoulder when he heard it pop out of joint beneath Prompto's pressure. He'd do worse if Noct died here.
"We need the Oracle," Ignis snapped, sounding desperate.
And thank every Astral: Gladio was already barreling down the hallway with Lunafreya in tow.
She sank to her knees, white dress instantly soaking up crimson, and bent over Noct. Their foreheads touched and Prompto’s stomach lurched. Noct was supposed to be getting married, not dying here in this ugly hallway, far from home.
"Blessed stars of life and light—" Lunafreya began, and a faint shimmer began to bloom between them. Then, golden light erupted around Noctis, and with the faintest flash of crystalline blue, the Trident of the Oracle appeared in Luna's hands.
She planted the butt of the Trident into the ground, holding it steady and continuing the invocation until Noct sat up, gasping but very much alive.
And then the Imperial soldiers deigned to show up.
Luna helped a shaky Noct to his feet. An Imperial official began to yell directions, but Luna was already in full-on Oracle mode, and she held up a hand to capture the rapt attention of everyone in the hallway, as well as all the brave faces peering in from the throne room.
“I am grieved to discover such a plot to ruin the peace agreement flourishing within the ranks of this government,” she said. “We are to be united by peace. And with this — my mother’s Trident, returned to me by the gods themselves in our hour of sorest need — I will double down my efforts to bring healing to all people, everywhere, that peace may grow even in the most violent of hearts.”
“Yeah,” Noct slurred, wobbling, and Prompto ran forwards to help hold him upright. “What she said.”
The next few hours were a blur. Medics saw to Noct and Lunafreya and members of every level of government kept interrupting with apologies.
They were packed and leaving with astonishing speed despite that. The Empire had almost let Noct get assassinated on its watch, and Prompto didn’t have to be Ignis to know that wasn’t a great look for them. Everyone was ready for this to be over.
On the way to the train station (they rode with Lunafreya this time, Noct refused to leave her on her own, or maybe it was the other way around) the senior official riding with them passed along news that Ambassador Scala had confessed to the plot and named accomplices. They were currently hunting them down and had apprehended all but one.
And so finally, they were back on the smog-choked platform, seeing Lunafreya onto her train, her trench coat buttoned up against the chill. Noct pressed a kiss into her knuckles before letting her hand go.
“See you in Altissia,” she said as she boarded the train.
“In Altissia,” Noct replied with a fond grin.
As the doors closed behind her, Noct jerked his head towards their own train. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
The door to their train car closed behind Prompto, who was the last one in. Noct had already thrown himself onto a bunk, and he wilted gratefully onto the one across from him. “Man, we went through all that trouble, and it turns out we just needed to stab Noct and let the power of love take over.”
“Ah,” Ignis said, then stopped.
It was weirdly quiet, and when Prompto looked up, no one would meet his eyes. Ignis had his arms crossed and was leaning against the opposite bunk. Gladio was staring at the suitcase in front of him as if it was a riveting romance novel.
They looked guilty as hell.
“Did I miss something?” he asked, eyes narrowing.
Noct sat up and leaned forward. “Prompto. I’m really, really sorry. But we couldn’t tell you because of your—” he gestured to his own face.
“What couldn't you tell me because of my face?”
“That was all . . . kind of the plan. From the start,” Noct said.
He sat back like he’d been punched. “The explosion?”
“Yeah,” Noct said, twisting his hands together.
“The almost dying?”
“Mostly,” Noct admitted in a higher pitch than usual.
“You . . . you absolute asshole. I thought you’d died when I couldn’t get into the armiger.”
“I know, and I’m so sorry,” Noct said, and fuck that guy, what a jerk. But he really did look sorry. “I locked you out so that you wouldn’t try to use a potion on me. You weren’t supposed to be there. You got to me way faster than I thought you would.”
“And you also prevented what surely would have been a fatal stampede, which we hadn’t the foresight to predict,” Ignis said. “Instead there was a neat little queue of guests sitting against the wall behind the throne afterward. Quite tidy.”
“Don’t placate me with flattery,” Prompto said, teeth gritted. “Just tell me what actually happened.”
“Well, that Scala guy really did try to kill me,” Noct said, as if that made it better. “One of Luna’s informants knew he was planning something, so she joined in on the plot.”
“Said informant is now a stowaway on this train, incidentally,” Ignis said. “The final conspirator they didn’t catch. We’ll escort her back to Lucis.”
“Yeah. She offered to set off the initial explosion and get me out in the hallway so Scala could finish me off.”
“Because Noct needed to be the one to get the trident,” Ignis said. “He was the only one who stood a chance of overcoming the last security barrier.”
“So when I set off the explosion, I warped out of the room, ran through all the open doors, and thanks for that by the way — and then I warped through the bars and put the Trident in the armiger,” Noct said. “Then warped out and then got back so I’d be in time to get attacked by Scala.”
Prompto pursed his lips. "Was it part of the plan for me to have to hack into the system during the engagement party?"
"No," Ignis said. "That was actually quite unexpected. And you came through with flying colors."
Prompto ignored the praise and kept his eyes narrowed on Noct. “But you were faking being injured?”
“Uhm, sort of?”
“You were faking it a lot less than you were supposed to be,” Gladio said sourly.
“Yeah, well, I got stabbed a little more than I’d intended,” Noct said, raising in palms defensively. “It’s kinda hard to judge in the moment.”
Gladio rolled his eyes. “And this is why we’re never doing this again.”
“But why?” Prompto asked. “Why not just go steal the Trident, put it in the armiger, and not get stabbed at all?”
“They would have known it was us,” Noct said. “And they would have found a way to punish Luna for it. This way, maybe they believe the cover story that it just came to her when she needed it, but if not . . . well, a whole crowd of elite Imperial citizens sure do, so it would be a bad look for them to try and retaliate.”
“Should put the fear of the gods in them,” Gladio said.
“Or at least the fear of Luna,” Noct smirked, though it slid off his face when he looked back at Prompto. “So, yeah. That’s what happened. I get if you’re pretty furious.”
Prompto considered this. Then he stopped considering and just waited a bit longer to put Noct through more anguish. “I mean, I’m not gonna lie. I’m pissed. But that was also the coolest thing I’ve ever done and you’re right, I woulda acted weird if I’d known you were faking it. So.”
“So we’re good?” Noct asked, looking hopeful.
“There are consequences, of course." Prompto said. "I’m revising my best man speech to include two additional embarrassing anecdotes."
“Shoulda thought about that before you bled out all over the hallway,” Prompto sniffed.
“Fine. I’ll take it,” Noct said, reaching out a hand for Prompto to shake. “Guess Luna’s going to regret marrying me five minutes after she does.”
“Probably,” Gladio said. “But that won’t have anything to do with Prompto.”