Friends, Family, & Fireworks
When he woke up that morning, he thought, It's going to be a good day. It was one of those mornings they opened kids' movies with: golden sunlight drifted through the curtains, the city noise was muted beyond, and he could almost imagine birds chirping in the distance. It was one of those rare, perfect mornings that actually made you want to enter the world rather than hide from it.
It was such a nice morning that he actually made eye contact with the servants he passed.
It was such a nice morning that he was actually able to smile when he met his father for breakfast.
It was too nice of a morning, which was why his father had to go and ruin it with a well-meaning, "Happy birthday, Noct."
It was a struggle to keep the smile from collapsing completely. He wasn't as good at faking it as Regis was and the king saw through him in an instant. The quickest flash of guilt flickered through the old man's eyes, but not quick enough to escape Noctis or spare him from feeling his own guilt.
"It won't be so bad," Regis assured him, and Noctis faked the smile as best he could, all through breakfast, to convince his father that he believed him.
It never worked. Breakfast consisted of omelets and evasions; lots of awkward comments about the news and other brainless conversation fillers. Each failed topic starter was divided by plains of silence that even had the omnipresent guards fidgeting. Noctis couldn't finish his meal fast enough, and even after he finally did, he couldn't escape Regis and the tense bubble of unsaid woes he brought with him.
"Is your birthday really so horrible?" Regis asked, hobbling along beside Noctis as they walked the halls.
An entire childhood of birthdays spent wishing for more than the monetary mountain of compensation for an absent father was not so easily shaken off, but he didn't need to tell Regis what he already knew. Noctis outgrew the disappointment of his birthday when he was thirteen, but he never outgrew the dread. The only thing he had to associate with his birthday was a mirage of niceties from strangers, familiar and not, that left him feeling hollow inside. It wasn't so much his father anymore; it was everyone else.
"I don't look forward to the double helping of people tripping over themselves to please me," he said, trying to put it as delicately as possible – but the bitterness was hard to mask.
"Don't appreciate being spoiled? I suppose that means I must have done something right, raising you."
While he intended it as a joke, Noctis couldn't bring himself to laugh or meet his father's gaze. Regis lapsed into a solemn silence then, and for a while the only sound in the hall was the click of his cane against the floor.
"I have to meet with the Council this morning," he said, making Noctis shrink beneath the collar of his jacket – he'd heard those words far too often. "But, I'd like to meet up for dinner later. Today's the dawn of a new decade for you; your first spent as a man grown. That's got to be cause for some celebration."
"It's not like it'll be any better than the first two decades."
It ended up sounding more accusing than Noctis had intended. He bit down on his lip too late to catch the words before they escaped. He ended up flinching more than Regis did. The king just smiled, sad and quiet, like he always did when he disappointed his son. It made Noctis want to scream.
"It might surprise you," Regis replied.
A mercy bestowed by the gods themselves was sent to distract them then. A bark greeted them from down the hall and Umbra trotted up to meet his master. There was an un-occupied leash trailing after him and a few specks of baking powder dusted his fur. Got into the kitchens again.
"Up to no good Umbra?" Noctis said, crouching down to catch the dog's head and letting him lick his face.
"There's one good thing about it," Regis added. "It marks the start of another decade spent with him."
"Don't use my weakness to prove your point. That's cheating."
Noctis unhooked the battered leash from Umbra's collar and beckoned for him to follow. The big dog wagged his tail and padded after the prince.
"Is that the secret?" Regis chuckled. "Use the dog to make my case?"
"I'm gonna regret saying that, aren't I?"
"Only if you like being right."
Regis paused as they rounded the corner, forcing Noctis to stop and look at him. The king's gaze was full of past regrets. It made a knot form in Noctis's throat, one that he could barely keep from unraveling until he was alone.
"Do try to enjoy your day, son," Regis entreated.
"It's only a day, like all the rest."
The air was growing suffocating, and it was all he could do not to run from his father when he finally left him to go meet with his Council. Noctis hurried through the halls, Umbra loping at his heels, until he found a quiet place to breathe. His search rewarded him with an empty sitting room. He closed himself inside, collapsed on the nearest couch, and pressed his palms to his eyes so hard that he saw spots. He just had to keep it together for one day. He'd been keeping it together his whole life; he could manage one day. Especially if he could just hide in here and not see another soul for the rest of it.
Sensing his discontent, Umbra sidled up to the prince and rested his head in his lap. Noctis obliged him with a scratch behind the ears, hoping to siphon off some of Umbra's calm for himself.
Try to enjoy it, Regis had said.
Try to relax, Noctis interpreted. Taking a deep breath, he ended up doing the thing that usually relaxed him the least: checked social media. There was an onslaught of birthday messages waiting for him from a million people he'd never met. Some were even from news publishers that built their careers from slandering his family name. Fewer were private messages from some pen-pals of his, and those were the ones he lingered on.
When he had the opportunity to travel, he'd made a few local friends in foreign countries when befriending the nobility was impossible. He got a matching set of messages from the rose-haired sisters in Neworld: "Love from me" and "A punch from me." The scrappy blond duo from Dalmasca passed on a promise to "steal you a ride on the Strahl the next time you're in Rabanastre." He got an extremely explicit message from the Empress of Wutai – the only noblewoman he cared to get along with.
All of the personalized messages were a nice change from the empty staples on his public page, but they made him miss his friends beyond Lucis. Not that he didn't value the friends he had within his own borders, but he wished he could just take those three and run off to meet the others; go somewhere where the people didn't owe him insincere social platitudes. Noctis closed his phone when he finished sending his thanks and flopped back on the couch. Tracing the designs on the ceiling quickly turned to dreaming of a road-map where all lines lead to a home he didn't know he had.
He wasn't sure when he dozed off or for how long, just that he woke up like the shot he was sure he heard outside. He stumbled over Umbra as he rushed to his feet and out the door. A terrible image of his father bleeding out on his birthday conjured itself up in Noctis's mind. What if this was the one? What if this was the assassination they'd always feared? What if this was the bullet that killed the king?
The corners and corridors whipped by in blurs until he finally stumbled across Regis. For a blissful second, Noctis thought he'd dreamed the loud bang, but the look of irate displeasure on Cor's face made him reconsider. If Cor was anything other than in a perpetual state of vague annoyance, then something was wrong.
"I thought I heard a gunshot," Noctis said, hurrying up to Regis and searching him for any sign of injury. "Are you alright? What was that sound?"
For a moment, the two men gave him matching stares that he couldn't decipher, and his stomach dropped with worry before Regis simply said, "Just a little target practice." He went on to explain that the kingsglaive needed to temporarily change shooting venues, but Noctis hardly heard him. The words were drummed out by the pounding of his own heart in his ears. It slowly started to recede the longer he watched Regis's mouth move enough to convince Noctis that he was, in fact, safe.
"Having a nice day?" he finally heard.
Noctis grunted and moved on. Yeah, he was fine if he was already asking about his birthday again. Wide awake and no longer hidden in his safe space, Noctis wandered the property, waiting for the inevitability of someone wishing him a happy birthday. Strangely, each person he passed didn't pass on the expected sentiment, but rather quickly diverted their gazes from his face and unsuccessfully tried covering chuckles. The more often that it happened, the more confused Noctis became, until, finally, he was approached by a sympathetic serving girl.
"Um, Your Highness?" she greeted with a shy curtsy. "I'm not sure if you're aware, but, um… you have something on your face…"
Noctis's brow furrowed and he searched his immediate vicinity for any kind of reflective surface. The nearest was a window into one of the ballrooms, and he found himself facing a clownish, whiskered version of himself.
"Prompto," he sighed, bumping his head against the glass, too tired by the day to even feel mortified.
"Can I help you clean up, My Lord?"
"No, I'll deal with it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention."
"Of course, sir. Oh, and happy birthday, My Lord!"
Lucky he was already walking away or she might hear how hard his teeth ground together.
Washing the black marker off of his face took way longer than he had hoped. His skin was raw by the time he managed to scrub out the last, residual smudges. When he left the bathroom, the day was just beginning to fade – he found that relieving; the sooner it was over, the better. He passed a pair of glaives on his way out, one drooling over the others description of some cheese-stuffed pepper before snapping to attention before the prince. Noctis didn't ask after their conversation – even though it sounded delicious – and went on his way.
Seeing that the day was nearly out, Noctis wondered after his friends. While Prompto had left evidence of his presence on Noctis's face, the prince hadn't seen him or Gladiolus or Ignis all day. If he wanted to see anybody on his birthday, it was those three – maybe they at least could have made surviving it more bearable. Noctis spent the next hour looking for them, but the only other soul he found was Umbra, who finally caught up with him since his flight from the sitting room.
Noctis's mood darkened considerably when he was unsuccessful. None of his friends were in their usual places – even Ignis's bustling domain was a ghost town. Suspicion skewed Noctis's search, and he kept glancing down at Umbra as if the dog was keeping the secret of his absent friends behind those yellow eyes. When Regis found him wandering the halls, Noctis grew doubly suspicious.
"You're out of your meeting," he said, bemused.
"By some miracle, yes."
Cor was in his usual position at the king's flank and the strangest thing was happening with his mouth. It almost looked like there was a smile there. It was horrifying.
"Ready for dinner?" Regis asked, his own smile creasing the corners of his eyes.
"Um… sure." Noctis cast his gaze back the way he'd come on his fruitless route, but no familiar faces materialized.
If Regis noticed the malaise that befell his son, he didn't point it out. He narrated their way to the dining hall with an overly detailed summary of his latest Council meeting. Noctis occasionally glanced up to watch him talk, wondering why he was talking about the one thing Noctis hated more than his birthday. His father wasn't usually this insufferably dull. Nor did he find the topic of the Council very amusing, which begged the question: Why was he smiling?
When the closed dining hall doors crept into view, Noctis's stomach opened into a bottomless pit that swallowed him whole from the inside out. It all clicked for him then – his missing friends, his father's secretive smile: there was a surprise party waiting for him behind those doors.
Historically, Regis's idea of a party was the opposite of Noctis's tastes. The king invited dignitaries, politicians, covert business associates, and any of their children to accost his son with a million questions and marriage proposals. They were loud, blinding events, full of press coverage and bleached white grins.
Noctis's jaw grew stiffer the closer they came to the doors. If they opened and the first thing he saw was a camera flash, he knew he was going to scream. That anxiety attack which had been building for twenty years was finally going to happen. He could look forward to a straight-jacket instead of a slice of cake before the night was over.
They reached the doors, Regis pushed them in, and Noctis braced for the breakdown.
…And he was surprised. At just how quiet it was. At how small the group of guests were. How familiar. There was Clarus and Iris; "Uncle" Cid and his grand-daughter; Luna and her lady-in-waiting; and Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus, all looking a little out-of-breath and relieved to be present. And that was it. There were no dukes or duchesses or photographers, just friends, family, and a feast. There were silver streamers on the walls and bouquets of dark blue balloons tied to chairs. There was a big white banner over the head of the table with "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" printed across it. Mounted beneath it was a big picture frame filled with a collage of cut-out photographs from Prompto's camera. It was surrounded by a handful of nicely-wrapped presents, all with tags from names he actually cared to know.
Noctis was stunned. It was the simplest, smallest, plainest party he'd ever seen… and it was beautiful. Regis put a hand on his shoulder, and this time, when he said "happy birthday" Noctis knew it really meant something.
Since he was too shocked to make himself move, Iris took it upon herself to help him along. She darted over to him, as sleek as a leopard cub in her pretty dress, and took him by the wrist. "Come on, we can't start eating without you, and I'm starving!"
"Oh, right, I've got the music to match!" Cindy suddenly remembered, popping over to a stereo set up in the corner.
She clicked play and a lilting indie rock ballad slipped through the hall, filling it with an under-stated energy that buoyed the bubbles of conversation throughout the night. Ignis had out-done himself with the cooking, as usual – a good chunk of the meal consisted of erotic moans around mouthfuls of hors d'oeuvres.
"Most of the cooking went to the staff dinners," he heard Ignis say when Prompto asked what kept him busy all day.
"Oh, that reminds me…"
Gladiolus excused himself from the buffet for a moment to visit one of the side doors to the hall. There was a glaive stationed on the other side – Nyx, if Noctis remembered correctly. He couldn't hear what they were saying from the other side of the room, but their expressions were wicked with delight. Gladiolus presented the screen of his phone to Nyx and the glaive made some gesture over it. (Later, Gladiolus would share the digitally autographed troll article of Malboro News.) Umbra trotted up to the pair and Noctis just saw Nyx's face turn into a grimace before he was distracted by a nudge to his side.
"Do me a favor and make sure you compliment Iris by the end of the night," Luna whispered. "Your opinion is quite important to her."
"Should I really be doing you favors?" Noctis countered, smiling wryly and nodding at the center picture featured in Prompto's collage. "After you sabotaged me?"
"I swear, I was under the influence!" Luna laughed. "Prompto is absolutely addictive, I am so jealous that you get to have him every day."
"Don't let me hear that you tried smuggling him out of the country in your clutch when you go back tomorrow."
"Not making any promises."
She gave him a coy look before hiding the conspiracies of her smile in her glass of champagne. Every corner of the dining hall was brightened by smiling faces. Gladiolus teased Nyx in the doorway as Umbra tried jumping up on his hind-legs to lick the glaive's face. Prompto and Cid were snorting booze through their noses at something Gentiana said – whatever it was could never be gleaned from the woman's straight face. Ignis was graciously accepting compliments on his culinary prowess from Clarus and Regis, pushing at his glasses as if the glint of light off of them could hide the blush on his cheeks. Iris and Cindy were debauching Cor's dignity by dragging him into the middle of the room to dance.
When Noctis caught Iris's eye, he made sure to tip his glass to her. She blushed like a school-girl and shoved Cor along that much harder. Favor done, Noctis glanced back at Luna and took a moment to admire her. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her, just that however long ago it was had been too long.
"You look good," he said, because "I missed you" was far too sad a saying for such a pleasant party.
"And you look happy," Luna noted, misty-blue gaze wistful. "Is it the champagne playing tricks on me, or do I detect a smile on your face?"
Noctis didn't even try to hide it, even laughing in spite of himself. "I guess I am happy… You know how sometimes you don't know how badly you need something until you've got it?"
Luna followed his gaze as it traveled the room, lingering on each and every face. She smiled and, so delicately that he almost didn't feel it, touched his hand. "Happy birthday, Noct."
Having left Prompto and Cid in a state of malfunction, Gentiana appeared before the royally intended. She passed on her best wishes to Noctis and then, extended her hand to the princess with a perfectly exaggerated bow.
"May I have this dance, My Lady?"
Luna accepted and allowed the woman to spin her out onto the impromptu dance floor. There was a flash off to the side which blinded the prince's view for a moment. When he turned, Prompto was just lowering his phone from a snapshot.
"Yes! Almost missed it," he said, pumping a fist in triumph. "Gotta catch that smile when you can!"
"Surprised you still have space on that thing," Gladiolus teased as he came up from behind Prompto, briefly admiring his work over his shoulder before passing him. "The amount of pictures you take must kill that thing."
"Half of them are for Ignis's food Instagram."
"For the hundredth time, I'm not starting one of those!" Ignis objected, coming up to Noctis's side.
"I'm telling ya, you'd be Insta-famous."
Anyone who wasn't Prompto groaned. Thankfully, they were all spared from another mortifying pun by a loud pop and fizzle from outside. Everyone crowded out onto the balcony to see the fireworks brightening the night sky. They burst across the starry canvas like midnight flowers blooming in the moonlight.
"Don't your friends down in Neworld have a tradition that goes with fireworks?" Ignis asked between bursts.
"That you can make a wish on them?" Noctis looked around at the people on the balcony. "Can't think of anything I might wish for."
"I've got something!" Prompto chirped, leaning on the balustrade. "I wish that we'll always be like this; together and happy and having fun."
"I can get behind that," Gladiolus agreed with his lop-sided grin.
While they were making their wishes, Noctis caught his father's eye over the heads of his friends. He'd been watching Noctis for most of the night, assessing whether or not the festivities were to his liking. Finally, Noctis could give him a smile that was truly grateful for everything he'd done. The king's weary face lit up in reply to the silent gratitude. To immortalize that happiness, of course, Prompto insisted on a photo.
"Crowd around everyone, I'm sure I can fit everyone in here!"
Suddenly, Noctis was squished on both sides by the small group, clustering behind Prompto and the lens he had faced to them. He scrutinized his phone screen and gave a few directions to get everyone in the shot. Once he was satisfied, he announced, "Okay, on three, everyone say 'happy birthday, Noct.'"
In perfect unison, Noctis's companions parroted Prompto's instructions. Noctis would cherish that picture for the rest of his life. Friends, family, and fireworks; the memory of his happiness on that night would drive him through countless challenges. It gave him hope, even in the darkest of times, that one day they would all be that happy again. And they'd share it together.