The Princess Pilfers a Pretty Picture
"I trust in your discretion."
"I can assure you that your trust is well-placed."
Luna smiled in gratitude. She had insisted upon asking after the aid of a less exhausted glaive, but Nyx stubbornly refused to trade the task with one of his brothers. Luna found his dedication humbling, and there was something earnest and endearing about the contrast between his straight, imposing figure and the baking powder on his suit. It would be crueler to deny the man the redemption of his dignity than to press upon him more work.
"That man is smitten with you," Gentiana said once Nyx had jogged off, her voice matter-of-fact and kept expertly indifferent.
"I certainly hope you're wrong. That would make my betrothal a touch more complicated."
The wry tilt of her smile exposed the princess's insincerity in the words. Gentiana smirked in agreeable amusement.
"Let's try not to get too distracted from what today is all about though, shall we?" Luna said, diverting the conversation.
"Of course. What would you have us do in the meantime?"
"Whatever we can be of use doing."
One of the detriments to being of royal blood was that people tripped over themselves to make certain that you didn't have to be of use doing anything.
Luna went to the gates to offer her support to the garrison. She volunteered Gentiana's services with maintaining the guard, assuring that the woman's skills were far better suited to warding off intruders than circling the grounds on Luna's arm. Her offer was rejected in that politely condescending way typical of most men she'd met in her life.
"Your aid humbles us, Your Highness, but this is no place for a lady."
She loathed that phrase, but she pulled up her smile and thanked the guards for upholding their duties, nevertheless. Besides the guards' lack of wanting for reinforcement, whatever services Luna intended for Gentiana to provide, the woman had a different service she might have volunteered, judging by the vulpine stare she raked across Gladiolus's bared abs when they met him. To his credit, the man somehow kept his composure, in spite of a slight reddening around the cheeks, and Luna deftly extracted Gentiana from whatever snare she was constructing before it could snap and catch him.
They meandered to the kitchens next, and Luna was certain there would be something for her to do, given that it was utter chaos when they arrived. Bowls were on the floor, flour was in the air, and the staff was in a state of complete disorganization. Luna's spirits lifted at the messy sight, confident that she could be put to work here, but, alas, the kitchen's master assured her that everything was under control. Ignis may not have been a king, but he ruled this room as if it were his kingdom. He muttered something about being grateful that Luna had not brought Pryna with her, then ushered both women out of the kitchens.
She asked the cleaning staff if they needed help.
She asked the decorators if they needed help.
She went to the garage and asked the mechanics if they needed help, even though she didn't know a damn thing about cars.
She asked after every glaive she saw if she could help them in any way, and all she got was a look of horror, wondering where her security detail was.
"I don't believe I've ever met anyone so determined to do hard work," Gentiana said when Luna finally slumped down on a bench in defeat. "Usually, if the opportunity to be lazy should present itself…"
"You and I are hardly usual people, Gen."
Gentiana paced, slowly, along the length of the bench Luna sat upon. She gazed at the flowering bushes in this little garden because there was nothing else to gaze at. Luna wrung her hands together in her lap. She wanted tonight to be perfect, and wanted even more to contribute to that goal. Plus, she needed something to occupy her thoughts off of Nyx's mission. Otherwise, she'd fret about it to her wit's end.
"We haven't tried him yet."
Luna looked up at who Gentiana indicated. On the other side of the garden, she recognized Noctis's friend, Prompto, sitting at one of the wrought-iron tables. There was a bottle of water and a half-eaten sandwich at his elbow, placed as far away from the contents spread across the table as possible. She couldn't see what the square sheets were, but they clutched Prompto with a fit of indecision. He had his head in his hands, teeth worrying his lower lip, and eyes shuttering from one leaf to the other in desperate deliberation.
Luna's curiosity drew her over to the table. So engrossed with his task was Prompto that he didn't even hear her approach. Luna peered over his shoulder and found that the table was covered with glossy photographs, depicting various combinations of Noctis and his three closest friends. Some photos were set apart from the others in a disorderly pile, others were set even further away on the chair beside Prompto. Luna glanced between the pictures and his consternated expression. When she couldn't determine the source of his distress, she prodded for his attention.
As if a gun had gone off next to him, Prompto jumped in his seat with a high-pitched yelp, and nearly toppled the drink set beside him. (His reflexes were quick enough to catch it before it ruined all his photos.) He put a hand against his chest and laughed at his own surprise.
"If that wasn't the unmanliest sound I've ever made…"
He looked up to apologize and his expression stalled once he recognized her. There was a beat of silence where Prompto blinked like a skipping record before bursting from his seat in an explosive scramble of frantic limbs, trying to compose his body into a bow.
"Princess, I mean, Your Majesty – w-wait, no, it's Highness – Your Highness! Hi! I mean, um, good day, or, no, um…"
His voice was getting progressively higher, like a boiling kettle, and he got himself into a bow that was so rigid, Luna was afraid he might snap himself in half. She saw Gentiana smirking from the corner of her eye. "Adorable," the dark-haired woman observed, making the man blush an even more furious shade of red than he already was. Luna sent her an admonishing glance that Gentiana ignored. Then, Luna smiled at Prompto.
"Please, it's just Luna to friends of Noct's. And, yes, it is a very good day, isn't it?"
He was shaking like a chocobo's tail-feathers, a reaction that Luna was not unfamiliar with. She could never fathom why. She was a princess in title alone. She had no sovereignty over her own kingdom. If he wasn't afraid of Noctis, whose title actually came with something of substantial worth, then he didn't have to be afraid of her.
"What are you up to?" she asked, nodding to the pictures on the table.
"What? O-Oh, this mess? Just a silly little project… Did you want the table? I-I can move…"
"No, no, no!" Luna quickly said, waving a hand to stop him from clearing away the pictures. "I just…um…"
Her eyes traveled to the table, catching all of the white-toothed smiles across each photograph. Some were taken in the capital city, out in the local parks or at the arcade. Others were out in some rustic, hilly region, full of sunlight and uncut grass. Some were by the sea, some were at a school – a younger Noctis and an even younger Prompto – some were in and around the royal palace. And all of them, at some corner of the photo or another, had managed to capture at least one smile.
Ignis was trying to hide a grin in a blurry photo that suggested the photographer was in the middle of dropping the camera when the shutter went off. Gladiolus was beaming in one, his massive arm locked around Noctis's head, much to the prince's objections. Prompto smiled and waved at the camera with Noctis in the background, standing at the shore of a lake with a caught fish flopping around in his arms. Luna drew that one from the pile.
"These are all very beautiful," she said.
"You think so?" Prompto squeaked, hands knotting nervously together. "I-I'm no professional, but, um, thanks!"
"Are you certain?" Luna asked, smiling at him. "You have quite an eye."
Prompto floundered for a way to accept the compliment, and Luna looked at the photo in her hand. Her fiancée's face was in an exasperated panic, trying to get a grip on the halfway air-born fish. On the table, there were a few other pictures taken by the same lake, most of them depicting Noctis. Another in particular caught her attention. It was a shot of Noctis, holding a large fish at the end of a line. There was a smile of such pure, child-like elation on his face that he almost looked like a stranger to her.
"He likes to fish?" she asked, absently.
"Well, he likes to catch a fish. The actual process of fishing, not so much," Prompto chuckled.
"And this game?" Luna pointed at a picture from the arcade.
"Justice Monsters Five? We used to stop in that arcade every day after school to get a new high score."
"Do you mind if I…" She gestured at the other chair, piled with discarded pictures.
"Of course! No, I mean, of course I don't mind. Yes!" Prompto swept up the pile and dusted off the seat, even though there was nothing to dust.
Luna gratefully took the seat, and Prompto was just about to offer the other one to Gentiana, but the woman was off wandering the garden, circling the perimeter while the princess perused Prompto's pictures.
"What did you say these were for?" Luna asked him.
"Just a dumb gift idea. I should have finished last night, I know, but I couldn't make up my mind on which pics to use before falling asleep."
Luna gave him a quizzical look and he explained his "dumb gift idea."
"It's perfect," she told him, immediately after he'd finished describing it. "In fact, you should display it tonight! Mount it beneath the banner and put a big ribbon on it."
"I dunno about that," he laughed, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck. "Won't it clash with all the decorations?"
"Don't worry about that. Tonight's about thought, not what's been bought."
"Sounds like a fortune cookie."
Luna smiled in spite of herself. Cryptic poetry came with the Oracle's territory. "Forgive me if this is intrusive, but can I make a request for your project?"
"Of course! Anything! Name it!"
Luna slid the photo of Noctis's successful catch towards Prompto. "Include that one?"
He grinned fondly at the memory of his smiling friend. "Nice choice. You got it!"
Luna was just about to excuse herself and leave him to his task, but Prompto stopped her. "Um, would you like to help pick out the rest?"
She opened her mouth to say, "No, this is your gift, I couldn't possibly insert myself into all the hard work you've already put into it." But, before she could get the words out, Gentiana's circuit around the garden passed behind Prompto, and she gave Luna a look over his head as she walked on. It said, "Don't you dare sabotage yourself with that stuffy decorum of yours." Luna pressed her lips down on her initial response, and instead, smiled.
"Yes, I would like that very much."
While it was hardly the laborious task that she'd set out to do, it was no less important. Prompto grew less nervous with her the longer they sat together. Once he started talking about the stories behind each photo, Prompto completely forgot about Luna's title. His enthusiasm for his friends and their adventures together eclipsed everything else. She asked after every picture, to which he provided animated answers. He was a vault of information; an open catalogue for years of Noctis's life. Years that had passed her by in a blink.
When Luna was a girl, she would fantasize about her wedding. She would dream of one day falling in love with someone she knew inside and out, and who knew her just as intimately. When they informed her that she was to marry Noctis, she'd thought that was perfectly ideal. There was someone she knew since they were children and someone who, someday, she could grow to love like a wife should love her husband. But, after her initial relief upon hearing the news that she wouldn't be wed to a stranger, therein arrived the fingers of doubt. She couldn't explain where they came from or why they insisted on tickling the back of her mind. Picking through Prompto's photos provided a sudden, startling answer.
She hadn't known Noctis since they were children; she knew him when they were children. So much time had passed since then where they never even saw each other. They met each other on off occasions – political functions, diplomatic meetings, etc. It was always in a professional capacity. They were hardly ever given a moment to talk; to venture out into the city, grab a cup of coffee, and just babble about their lives. The most she knew about Noctis as an adult was from the news. Hardly a reliable source for a biography.
Prompto's pictures delighted and saddened her, as did his regaling tales behind each one. Here was a man who had been there through it all. He knew her fiancée like she had never been permitted to. He saw Noctis at his happiest, lived that happiness alongside him. He had painted portraits of so many more memories than she had of the prince. He'd make a better spouse for him than she would. And there was nothing she could do to fix this rift between her and Noctis. Once time passed, it was gone. As fleeting as a camera flash.
"I think we've got enough," Prompto eventually said, triumphantly shuffling through the selection. His triumph slowly fizzled down to concern, and he bit his lip in thought.
"Is something wrong?" Luna asked, worried that her choices may have ruined his vision for the project rather than aided it.
"We need one of you." Prompto looked up at her, racking his brain for any known photos he could use.
Luna smiled, sadly, sorry to disappoint him – and secretly disappointed herself. "I hardly think that's necessary," she said instead. "You have such wonderful pictures as it is."
"No, no! You helped, it's only fair that you have a picture in it, too."
Luna tried to assure him that he needn't bother himself, but Prompto wouldn't be dissuaded. An idea dawned on him, spreading like sunlight in his bright blue eyes. He checked the time on his phone and a mischievous smile curled across his lips.
"I've got an idea. Come with me!"
Prompto swept all the evidence of their project into a little backpack that had been under the table, took her by the arm, and darted into the palace.
"Where are we going?" Luna asked as they trotted through the halls.
"It's just past noon, which is when Noct usually flops down for a cat-nap, which means perfect photo opportunity."
Luna's brow wrinkled in confusion, not following his line of logic. He wore an impish grin on his face the whole way to their destination. Their route brought them to a big set of doors, somewhere near the center of the palace. Prompto's gait slowed to a tip-toe as they approached. Luna looked on with confounded curiosity as Prompto tapped on the door, quickly announcing them as "room service." There was no answer, and contrary to Luna's interpretation, Prompto assumed the lack of invitation as permission to enter the room. The door made no sound as it creaked open and Prompto peeked his head into the room. He gestured for Luna to follow and went inside.
She was hesitant to obey, every mannerly instinct in her body demanding that she turn back. When she looked through the crack in the door and spotted Noctis, sleeping on a couch inside, her interest overrode her instincts. Prompto was snickering maniacally, shuffling through his backpack. Umbra was sprawled at the foot of the couch, glancing tiredly between the two intruders, deeming them non-threatening, and going back to sleep. Noctis slept soundly, one arm thrown over his eyes, oblivious to his visitors.
"What are you doing?" Luna hissed from the door, afraid to take one step in.
"Don't worry, he sleeps like a rock," Prompto whispered back. "Come on, this'll be classic!"
Luna's gaze darted to each corner of the room as if there were sentries stationed at every one. She felt like a burglar, stealing into an occupied room that she hadn't been invited into. She walked, awkwardly over to Prompto, trying to keep her heels from clicking two loudly on the tiled floor.
"What are you doing?" she asked again, through gritted teeth, looking from Noctis to the door and any other swift exits from the room.
Prompto fished out a marker from his bag – "Ah ha!" – and sidled up to Noctis's face.
"What are you, twelve?" she objected as Prompto carefully drew upon the prince's face.
When he'd finished, Noctis's cheeks sported black cat whiskers and his nose a black dot. Simple, but effective. "Classic" as Prompto described it. He got to his feet and traded the marker for his phone, prepping the camera for a photo.
"Alright, get in there."
"Go on! Make a funny face or something. Trust me, this'll be hilarious!"
Embarrassing, she thought would be a more accurate term…but, then again, there were more mortifying photos one could take. And besides, when Luna remembered that hardly any personal pictures of her and the prince existed, a desperate madness took over her, and she ended up submitting to the graffiti on Noctis's face.
"This is awful," she tried convincing herself, one more time, even though she could feel her cheeks pinching with the restraint of a smile.
"Worth it," Prompto insisted, thumb primed against the screen to take the shot. "Say 'happy birthday!'"
Luna waved at the camera, grinned, and said the words. The phone beeped as he took the picture, and Noctis grunted in his sleep. They both scurried out of the room in an instant, barely holding in their laughter until they were safely out in the hall. Luna was assaulted by a fit of giggles that she couldn't get a hold over. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so giddy. It was such a childish prank, so cartoonish, so beneath a lady of her station, and yet she felt so accomplished.
"This is going right in the middle, I think," Prompto decided, beaming at the image.
"We're no better than the paparazzi," Luna chuckled.
She looked up to find Gentiana standing in the hall, with Nyx just behind her. He wiggled a flash-drive in his hand, grinning slyly. Luna felt her heart thump proudly. She turned back to Prompto.
"Princess business?" he teased.
"Something like that."
"I'll leave you to it, then. Gotta put this all together." He patted the backpack and the contents therein. "Thanks for the help!"
He bounded off before she could do the thanking, a bundle of golden-blond energy. Once he had gone, Luna turned to Nyx and he passed her the flash-drive.
"You were fast," she said, impressed.
"Only the best for the queen-to-be. I'm familiar with that news outlet, anyway. Chummy with a couple of their photographers. I think you'll enjoy this afternoon's headline."
"And this?" She held up the flash-drive.
"Every copy in their system is on there and off their computers. Scrubbed 'em clean."
"Thank you, Nyx. I knew that I could count on you."
She thought she caught the slightest touch of pink in his cheeks before he straightened into his bodyguard stance and bowed.
Later, Luna perused the contents of the flash-drive herself, just to give herself peace of mind. She didn't know how the photographers had managed to capture the image when palace security was so industrially tight, but she had a friend of a friend of a friend who worked in the media who got wind of the story, and the how of the photo became less relevant. The shot was taken from a distance, aimed at the window of Noctis's bedroom. He was there, between the curtains, his face the picture of distress. She knew the expression well. It was the expression she saw in the mirror when she became acutely aware of just how much was expected of her from the people she would one day rule. A pressure she didn't know she had built up cracked over her head and flooded through her in a wave of panic.
Noctis was being consoled by someone – one of his friends – and the headlines ran ballistic over it. "Future King Guilty of Adultery?" "Heir to the Throne Keeps Male Paramour." "Prince of Lucis Cracking. Caught in Company of Consort." They were all different drafts of the same story. Every word in every version was unfair and cruel to the prince. Some drafts even had the gall to speak on her own behalf, consoling the poor, ignorant princess over her fiancée's infidelity.
They'd capture an image of Noctis at his most vulnerable, feeling the weight of a kingdom collapsing on top of him, and they were going to slander him for daring to seek the comfort of someone other than his future wife. A woman who hardly knew him. A woman who was hardly allowed to leave her prison to see him. The pages spoke about her as if she would be a jilted, jealous lover once she found out, and they couldn't be further from the truth.
She was happy that the boy she'd adored as a child had grown up surrounded by people he trusted enough to break around. Whether they were friends or truly were secret lovers, she didn't care. It didn't hurt her. In fact, it bolstered her faith in the prince's happiness. What hurt her was his pain, and the thought that someone could so effortlessly exploit it for the sake of a scandal. She may have been unable to comfort Noctis in his darkest moments like the man in the picture, but she could protect those moments from prying eyes. Everyone had a role they could fulfill. Hers was best-suited to the distance.
She got an email then. An update from the Malboro newsletter. On the front page, the publishers had unknowingly printed the wrong story. The cover image was of one Nyx Ulric, making a rude gesture at the camera, with two photographers tangled together at the foot of a tree behind him. The headline read, "Kingsglaive Compensate Paparazzi with Lucrative Photo Opportunity." The columns were walls of a troll-face emoji.
Luna made a note in her phone to treat Nyx to a drink. As she finished punching in the reminder, she received a text message from an unknown number.
"For all your royal needs ;)" it said, and attached was a copy of Prompto's photo, her face beside a whiskered Noctis, smiling and waving at the camera. She felt that smile returning. She saved Prompto's number and set the picture as her background.