Insomnia didn't get cold in the winter; certainly nothing like the southern continent, which had experienced snow annually even before the murder of the Glacian. But the days still grew shorter, and Noct grew restless as old fears clawed at his heart.
Only months ago he'd died to save the world and bring the sun back. (People still stopped him in the street to thank him, even though he'd declined to rule as king of Lucius or even of Insomnia, and shied away from celebrity and notoriety.) He had no reason to believe that the days would continue to dwindle, that darkness would erode all their hard-fought-for progress, or that daemons still existed, waiting for eternal night to fall again.
No reason at all, but tell that to his inner twenty-year-old. He'd spent a decade pushing his humanity down to become the weapon the gods needed, but he'd never learned to live with the darkness.
Ignis, though, still did, and that was the lesser reason Noct asked him to join him on his escape: pack up a car and just drive through the solstice, to witness for himself the lengthening of the days and return of the sun. They could camp out at the havens or stay in whichever motels had reopened. Noct would, he promised, do all the cooking and... stuff.
Ignis had raised an eyebrow, looking nearly amused at how Noct had censored out driving, and said that he'd been working with Prompto to get his personal car in proper running order, after having been stored in the Citadel for years. Noct was welcome to use it.
Noct's chest clenched. "You remember, when I got my license, I begged you to let me drive and you pretty much laughed in my face."
"I apologize for my younger self," Ignis said. "Whatever was he thinking."
Noct swallowed down his retort that it had only been two years ago, and spread his road map on the table, to make plans.
They left mid-morning of the shortest day. Noct had wanted to get away earlier, but Prompto and Gladio had planned their own small celebration of the season, and he didn't have it in him to say no. The weather on their departure was auspicious, though: the sky a high clear blue, daubed with white streaks of cloud. The gas tank was full, and Ignis assured him that he had enough local currency this time.
As they crossed the bridge out from Insomnia, mostly restored except for some deep potholes, Noct told Ignis they could talk about business for the next half an hour but after that he didn't want to hear about elections or committees or zoning or wastewater reclamation or any of the other topics he knew Ignis felt he should be kept abreast of, for some reason. He wasn't even sure if Ignis was interested in any of that stuff, or if he was just shouldering the burden out of a vestigial sense of duty.
Ignis seemed amused by Noct's decree, but dutifully went through the morning's updates. Noct had no idea when he'd had the time to find out all that stuff... though unlike some people, he probably hadn't done all of his packing in a sleepy stupor right after rolling out of bed.
Noct was just about to tell Ignis his time was up when he cut himself off midsentence. "There, now. The next choice of conversational topic will be yours to decide." Ignis leaned back in his seat, stretching his legs out as best he could, and exuding a painfully familiar air of smugness. Noct bit his tongue to keep from asking how he'd timed himself so accurately, and a second later Ignis flipped shut the pocketwatch he'd been holding and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. A neat magician's trick, reading the time from the hands.
Noct had missed him so, so much. To keep from unleashing a decade or more of longing, he asked Ignis if he wanted him to describe the scenery. Ignis was obviously comfortable with his blindness, and Noct never knew what to say or do or offer. He felt clumsy; he didn't want to cause offense, but he felt like he did anyway.
"I do know where we are," Ignis snapped, and then raised his hand, rolling his fingers as if sweeping aside the sharp shards of his words. "Is there greenery? Birds or other wildlife? Lingering damage?"
"There're people," Noct said. That was what surprised him the most. "The train line is going to be south of here, which'll be convenient when it's done, so the land's blocked off into little farms. And bigger farms. Lots of neat rows for planting things. There's MT armor being used as a scarecrow at this place we're passing now. The barn used to be an airship, too."
"We had very little industry aside from salvage and recycling during the Long Night," Ignis said. Not defensive so much as proud. "Lestallum, of course, has many skilled engineers and mechanics, who taught people their skills, and a number of Magitek scientists traded their knowledge for safe passage and refuge." His fingers tapped on his knee, as if keeping time to an unheard song. "Have I returned to discussion of forbidden business matters?"
"Not yet," Noct said. He took a breath. "I'm never going to know what it was like to live through that, but I appreciate being told. Most of all, I want to know about you." That was the truth, but more honest than he'd meant to be, and he gritted his teeth against the impulse to joke it away.
Even with Ravus' help, Noct had arrived in Gralea too late. Ignis had been dead on the floor and Noct had bargained – pleaded, begged – with the Crystal, demanding Ignis be saved and in return he'd give himself up to the whims of the gods. Ardyn had laughed at him, so pleased with himself to have destroyed someone so precious to Noct. The last time Noct saw him, Ignis' skin was burned to ash, and he'd been terrified to pull the ring off his charred finger, where the damage was the worst. He'd been afraid Ignis would crumble like a log in the fire.
They didn't talk about that, or about how badly Ignis must have suffered when he woke scarred and blind. Noct knew Ignis had stayed in Tenebrae with Ravus for the first few years, and relearned to fight by training with Aranea. Of all Noct's Crownsguard, Ignis had changed the most while Noct was gone: fighting with different weapons and skills, navigating by cane and sound, less open and more distant. Even the way he walked and stood was different, straight-backed and stiff where before he'd moved with fluid grace.
Noct had only really known this Ignis for a year and a half, and the wrongness of that ate at him like acid.
"You know something weird," Noct said, glancing over at Ignis who sat rigid in the passenger seat, struck silent by Noct running roughshod over the boundaries that had been necessitated in their former lives. "I'm older, but I don't feel like I know better, the way people always said I would."
Ignis' expression turned calculating for a moment. But then he said, with that edged weariness that he wore so often of late, "Eyes on the road." After a pause long enough for Noct to comply, he added, "One cannot be wise about all things."
Noct refrained from sighing. He was explaining things badly, but it wasn't like Ignis could – or should – read his mind. He made a decision; not a wise one, probably, but a necessary one.
"I'm pulling over here," he announced. "I need to stretch, have something to drink. Stuff."
"Are you feeling all right?" Ignis asked, instantly solicitous. He started to turn toward Noct, then froze in consternation. Ha. If he fussed over Noct, didn't it make logical sense that Noct was allowed the same right?
"Nothing a lie in the grass won't cure," Noct said breezily. He spotted a look-out point at the side of the road and flipped the blinker on. The road was empty of cars, but the ticking clued Ignis in, as did the crunch of gravel under the tires as he turned off the road.
Ignis bustled as soon as the car was parked, walking around to the trunk to take out a worn plaid blanket. Ignis always had prided himself on being prepared.
Noct moved more slowly, pulling himself upright using the car door and hanging on until he was certain his legs weren't going to crumple under him. He managed well enough with what his doctors called lingering weakness from where his spine and a few major organs had been magically healed. He had no real problems walking or even running if necessary. But sitting cramped in one position for an hour had given him a backache. Still. Could be worse.
He got himself walking, keeping a hand on the car for balance and trying not to limp. Ignis could hear when his steps were more uneven than usual, and Noct didn't want Ignis distracted by unnecessary worries.
Down a set of cement steps from the road, green swaths of grassland sloped gently toward a lazy river. Noct was intrigued by the lure of water, but not especially inclined to walk halfway to the horizon at the moment. He pointed out a nice flat-ish patch of ground to their left, trying to guide Ignis there without being obnoxious about it. Noct helped Ignis spread the blanket on the grass after first checking carefully for stones or sticks or other things that might antagonize a napping traveler. The breeze was light, with just a bit of a chill nip to it, but Noct still nobly volunteered to hold the blanket down with his full body weight. Just in case the wind became a gale for some reason.
Ignis sat primly on the side of the blanket. After a moment he pulled his shoes off, and Noct watched him trying to stretch out his toes unobtrusively.
Noct was getting used to how Ignis had learned to live with his blindness, but he still felt like he was crossing a line when he watched him. Like he was spying, a voyeur or a pervert. But he couldn't make himself stop looking, especially not on a day like today, when the spring sunlight highlighted the gold and sliver in Ignis' hair, and gave his skin a glow that faded his scars into less of a horrifying tragedy and more of a temptation to Noct's fingers.
Noct doubted he'd seen all of Ignis' scars, but he knew every line of the ones on his face: the jagged dark halo around his left eye, from where magical fire had possessed him, the sharp slices across his nose and mouth from Ardyn's blade, and the lightning-fork lines of silver that shot up his neck to curl like talons along his right jawline. Noct wondered if the scars still hurt sometimes, the way his back did, and what Ignis thought of them: if he wore them with pride, or wished he was unmarked and sighted again. After ten years he'd undoubtedly moved on, and Noct was the odd one for not having adjusted to the passing of time.
He didn't know how to ask, or whether he had any right to.
"What do you miss the most?" he settled on. Ignis could interpret that as he wished.
Ignis was looking down toward the river and wearing his visor, but he still kept his expression schooled and inscrutable. "Presently? Nothing." His mouth curled up at the corner, as if privately amused. "I have my hopes that stylish clothing will return in my lifetime, but... The sun is shining, the world is safe, the gods were thwarted – what more could I possible want?"
"I don't know." Noct pulled up a handful of grass, and then dropped it guiltily, hoping it'd grow back. "Sometimes I feel like I don't have a place where I fit in. Everyone moved on with their own lives. I don't blame anyone," he added quickly. "Ten years is... a long time. Of course people changed."
Ignis pulled his knees up, wrapping his arms around them and resting his cheek on top. Noct envied his flexibility, but ached at how effortlessly the pose stripped away the hardness Ignis had acquired over the years. He looked young and vulnerable, lost, staring toward the river below.
"I've killed people," he said finally. Noct jerked. He knew the Long Night had been terrible; he'd never dared to ask prying questions. "Some were infected. Others were thieves. Most were simply scared, I believe, and conditions were not expedient for taking prisoners. I remember their voices, and my own hubris in being so certain my survival was paramount." He hunched his shoulders in a shrug. "That, I believe, is the worst, but I've done many other unspeakable things. Ravus called me a feral dog more than once, and I can't say I disagree."
Noct sat up and reached out, his hand heavy, as if pushing through layers of obstruction – propriety, custom, fear – to touch Ignis' hair. Slid his fingers into the silky softness of it to brush against Ignis' skull, try and rub comfort there.
"He's just angry because you're amazing, and you've never been his."
Ignis huffed. "No. I never have."
"You're mine," Noct went on, building up momentum, reckless. "You always have been."
Ignis closed his visible eye. "While I have a fine nostalgic appreciation for the sentiment, you must be aware that... as you are no longer king and I no longer serve, you can dismiss me."
"Okay," Noct said. "Sure. I dismiss you from your service to the Crown." Under his hand, he could feel Ignis jerk, and then start shaking. "But I still want you to be mine, I don't want to go a day without being with you." He shifted closer. "Come here. You're a knot of stress, and I can try doing that thing you used to do for me."
Ignis didn't move aside from raising one skeptical eyebrow. "This from someone who loathes massage."
"Massages suck," Noct agreed. "But you did something different. Not like you were trying to rip my spine out."
Ignis huffed in amusement and indulgence, but shifted on the blanket in accordance with Noct's directions. Noct arranged them the way he remembered, more or less: he'd been in his wheelchair, and Ignis had stood behind him, hands cool and efficient as they moved over Noct's neck and shoulders, drawing out the tension. He'd never tried to touch Noct's back or move the muscles and bones around, just relied on slow and patient pressure.
As Noct planned his points of attack, he wondered if Ignis had been scared of hurting him. He'd always believed that Ignis knew all the answers and how to do everything, but looking back, they'd both been kids. Ignis hadn't been some expert at massage therapy; he'd just wanted to do something, anything, to make Noct feel better.
And it had worked. When Ignis touched him Noct didn't feel blamed for the blood spilled to save him, or the murder of Luna's mother, or for Luna and Ravus being taken captive. Noct hoped that he'd be as successful, returning the absolution.
The skin at the back of Ignis' neck, under his hair, was cool and dry, and Ignis leaned forward obligingly as Noct tried to parse what was normal, and what was stress. He gauged whether he got it right by watching Ignis' shoulders; when they lowered, he assumed he was on the right track. He kept that up until Ignis' breath slowed, and then said he was going to try the forehead thing.
"What thing?" Ignis asked, tensing up again.
But Noct had already leaned in, shuffling a bit forward on his knees so he could frame Ignis' face with both hands. He pulled his visor off and set it aside, then rubbed light circles at his temples, using the slightest pressure to encourage Ignis to tip his head back. Noct pressed along his hairline, feeling the slight stickiness of the lotion Ignis was religious about rubbing into his scars. Even now, after so many years.
He didn't know if the headaches Ignis got sometimes were from the scar tissue, or the light that he could still see, or from stress, or the fake coffee that a start-up down in Niflheim exported from a repurposed military lab. Probably all of that. Under his fingers Noct worked it all loose and tried to shoo it out and away. He was reminded of harvesting power from crystals, sending his senses along a vein of electricity or ice or fire and pulling it into himself.
Ignis was becoming almost pliable under his hands, and Noct was tempted to pull him backwards to lean against him, fantasizing about being able to hold Ignis up, wrap him in his arms – about Ignis being willing to go along with that. But much as he hated to fall back onto his better judgment, he knew that'd be a terrible idea.
So when he decided there wasn't anything more he could do, he lowered his hands to curl loosely around Ignis' shoulders and leaned in to rest his forehead against the back of Ignis' head. Styling product probably hadn't been a priority during the dark years, but Ignis' hair smelled good anyway, clean and windswept.
Ignis reached up and covered one of Noct's hands with his own. "What brings this on?" His voice was soft and low, as if there was a mood and he was afraid of ruining it.
Noct didn't dare risk that by saying what he really felt, so he opened his mouth to say something about the beautiful weather, but Ignis' hair brushed over his lips and derailed his good intentions.
"Thank you for being alive," he blurted out. "I was so scared – I didn't want to live without you."
Ignis twisted sideways, reaching up to cup Noct's head and then pull him in to press a kiss in the center of his forehead. As Noct burst into flames like dry tinder, he was just barely aware of Ignis saying, "I swore the same when I used the ring. I vowed neither Ardyn nor the gods nor your ancestors would have you." He shook his head. "Hubris, of course. Mortifyingly selfish and self-serving."
"Literally mortifying," Noct said, the words like prodding a bruise. "You were dead when we found you."
Ignis' lips parted, but it took him a moment to say, "I'm sorry."
"I begged the crystal to heal you. All those years, I thought you were – " Still giddy from the benediction of the kiss, Noct raised his hand to run his fingers lightly over the scars surrounding Ignis' eye. He'd never dared to be so over-familiar before; against the pads of his fingers, he felt the unnatural smoothness of the burns, a brittle stiffness to the skin even with the protective lotion. As he explored the damage, running his thumb over the eyebrow that hadn't regrown entirely, and the sharp slash marks from cuts, and the lightning forks that licked up Ignis' jaw from his neck, Ignis began to shake under his hands, a fine tremor, as if suddenly cold. "I feel like you've been telling me you loved me for years, but I didn't realize until you were gone."
"How could I not love you?" Ignis said, as if that was plain fact, as simple as the sun rising in the east.
Noct sat a little straighter. "Right?" There was an escape offered there, where the conversation could turn into teasing banter. Some other time he might have been grateful for it. Not today. "The crystal refused. The whole time I was training with Bahamut, he kept telling me I needed to empty myself so he could fill me up with power. I got good at emptying, after a while. But I never, ever forgot that the one thing I asked the gods for, for myself, with all they demanded I give up, they refused me."
"You left me in the best of hands," Ignis said. "Gladio revived me with phoenix downs and potions, and Ravus brought us back to Tenebrae, where I recuperated."
"Yeah," Noct said. "I know that now. But... I never wanted to leave you at all."
"So don't," Ignis said. "Don't let me go." And then Ignis' shoulders stiffened, nearly shoving Noct off. "I should – that was quite – "
"Perfect," Noct said firmly.
"All I meant," Ignis went on doggedly, as his face flushed nearly as dark as his scars, "was that I would be more than content to simply live out my days knowing you were alive and well. I would never want you to feel... indebted, or pressured."
"Haven't we given up enough?" Noct asked. "Can't you stop catastrophizing and kiss me again?"
"I can't even see you," Ignis said. "This isn't easy."
Noct couldn't recall ever hearing Ignis admit to struggling with anything, and that admission was yet another blade twisting in his heart. But he raised Ignis' hand to his own face, shivering as Ignis' thumb brushed the corner of his mouth and his palm pressed against Noct's jawline. Noct had a moment to realize just how unshaven he was and worry that Ignis might not like that, and then Ignis' mouth met his.
The kiss went on so long Noct got dizzy, so he pushed Ignis down, framing his head with his forearms, chest to chest. Ignis' arms went around his back, so careful even at a time like this not to cause Noct pain. As if he could.
Ignis closed his eyes reflexively when kissing, and Noct thought he looked otherworldly, like Altissian religious art, a protective divine messenger. He kept his eyes shut as Noct kissed him again, but his hands wandered – never below the belt; perhaps he didn't trust himself not to ravish Noct on a blanket barely out of sight from the road.
Noct... couldn't bring himself to care about that. He fully intended to take Ignis apart, right here, in the sunlight that lent Ignis' skin and hair a golden glow; Ignis didn't say no, he didn't cite propriety or rules or decorum. He let Noct unwrap him like a gift, then he flipped their positions with frantic grace.
There was no such thing as taking this slow – it was a tidal wave of shoved-down and denied desire. Noct clung to Ignis' shoulders as he came, muffling his groans against Ignis' skin, shaking like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Not dead, not in stasis, not locked away in the darkness, but soaring free.
He wanted to make Ignis feel just as wonderful, even though he had to fight the tendrils of post-orgasm drowsiness trying to pull him into sleep. He'd seen Ignis undressed, of course; only the scarring was unfamiliar. But the weight of him in Noct's hand as he rubbed against the front of his trousers was precious and real, a gift greater than any fantasy could have provided. And the sounds Ignis made, muffled, as he writhed and pleaded with Noct...
Noct was almost regretful when Ignis arched, shuddering though release, but he took advantage of Ignis' vulnerability to pull him down, kiss him and curl up close to him, insinuate his hands under Ignis' shirt and his leg between Ignis' own.
"Mine," Noct said, utterly content. "I'm not leaving you again."
"You had better not." Ignis sounded dazed. His hand found Noct's hair and stroked it, probably making it even more of a mess, but Noct didn't care.
He drifted for a while, until roused by Ignis calling his name, and said no reflexively.
"I'm afraid if we wish to make the haven before nightfall, we will need to leave shortly." Ignis didn't sound that put out by the tyranny of this schedule; he tried – badly – to hide his amusement as Noct grumbled his protest. "I thought we might avail of the opportunity to – " he paused, as if at a loss for words, before settling on, "make ourselves presentable."
Noct pushed himself up. He did feel damp and uncomfortable, now that Ignis mentioned it. "Yeah." He reached into the armiger and grabbed out towels, pushing one into Ignis' hands.
Ignis stared at him, surprise and wonder settling on his face in a delighted smile. "You didn't lose it."
Noct shrugged, and worked on standing up as gracefully as he could. "I don't know why. I... lost the ancestral arms. And I know none of you guys can use it. Think of it as a perk."
Ignis stood with fluid ease, and Noct kissed him for that. He bent to collect Ignis' visor from the blanket so it didn't get stepped on, and kissed him again before turning his back to give Ignis a moment of privacy.
When they were back on the road he had very peculiar feeling of disconnection. How was he supposed to open himself so utterly to someone, to touch him intimately, and then to return to normalcy? Everything had changed, but Ignis was still a terrible backseat driver – despite being in the passenger seat – and when they arrived at the haven Noct still wasn't good at putting the tent up. The fire needed to be built and dinner prepared, but somehow everything took longer than it was supposed to, perhaps because whenever he and Ignis crossed paths he needed to reach out and make sure he hadn't dreamed what had happened earlier.
Ignis had just produced a baked vegetable dish with meatballs when Noct realized the sun was going down. He waited for Ignis to set the dish down on the table, and then hugged him from behind, as if Ignis could shelter him from the night.
"Tell me the sun will rise tomorrow," he said, not caring how childish the demand was.
"It will rise," Ignis said without hesitation, "at precisely a quarter to seven." His hands, warm from cooking, settled over Noct's. "Shall I wake you then, to watch?"
"I'm good," Noct said. "I trust you."
"The world will keep on turning without us," Ignis said, an edge of gentle self-mockery to his words. "Plants will grow, towns and cities will develop, children being born now will learn about you in history books and – based on my observations of your studies – be bored silly." Noct poked Ignis in the stomach. "The sun will rise, tomorrow will be longer than today, and I will always be here for you."
Noct looked over Ignis' shoulder as the last sliver of molten gold slid behind the horizon. He felt a bit like a parent watching their child walk away for the first time. He had no more control or power over the world, but he had his own life and all the years to come.
He took a deep breath and let Ignis go... but just long enough to pull him around so he could be kissed until he laughed and protested that their dinner would grow cold.
Noct was content.