"Your Majesty… That's absurd," Ignis frowned before continuing, "is this supposed to be some kind of prank?"
"Dude, really?" Prompto laughed from beside the King's Advisor, "did you lose a bet with someone? Was this your dare?"
"Well, I guess the King isn't as serious as we thought he was," Gladio rolled his eyes at the lame joke. It was almost a surprise for Noctis to even attempt something like this. He'd been different for a while now. Even before he became King. He'd quickly lost his former lackadaisical attitude and grew into his responsibilities. Their friend actually seemed almost too eager for his looming role as regent when before he'd dreaded it.
Maybe it was the pressure and responsibility of the position but Noctis had changed even further afterwards. He no longer laughed or joked about trivial things like they used to. When he did find something funny or attempted humour, his jokes seemed far more venomous. He seemed content with his life but his amusement at certain situations could be unsettling at times.
Regardless of these changes, Noctis and his three friends had been as close. It was nice to see a little of the old Noctis come back, Gladio thought to himself. It was a weird way to show it though. Like any one of them would believe that their King had been an imposter for the last two decades. Gladio continued with a small smile, "I was afraid we lost you for a while."
"My friends... I do not jest," the King chuckled as he sat on his Throne. Only he and his friends were in the throne room that evening. Their King had called for just his three closest companions and dismissed the rest, "the person seated before you, your King and the man you've called your friend these many years is not your Noctis. Over twenty years ago, your dear friend's body was overtaken by another."
The three friends looked at each other and frowned. What the hell was Noctis thinking? Like they'd really believe such a preposterous story.
It was Ignis that spoke next, "Noctis… This is very unlike you. Did Aries have a hand in this?"
Perhaps the King's son had convinced his father to try such a joke. Aries could be a bit of a troublemaker at times. He was very different from Noctis as a teen, far more studious and driven. He wished to be like his father as he was now. A great King and hero all across the entirety of Eos. Noctis had come a long way from his former self, Ignis thought with pride when remembering all of this.
"Wait!" Prompto suddenly exclaimed, stepping forward. "Is this some reality TV thing? Like those shows that have people play practical jokes? Are we being recorded? Is there a hidden camera somewhere?"
The blonde man began to look around the room, trying to find said hidden cameras.
"I don't think our King is really into that sort of thing… I think," Gladio said.
Noctis laughed loudly, causing his three friends to look at him. He shook his head and said, "it is actually quite amusing how well I've integrated into the Chosen's life. Not a single one of you noticed anything amiss, not his people, not his beloved father, not his closest companions. Here I sit, revealing the truth of our circumstances and still you deny it."
Noctis's friends were rather perturbed at their King's response to them.
"Tell me then. What must I do to convince you? Must I swear on the name of the former, and recently departed, King Regis? Perhaps the life of Crown Prince Aries? I will gladly do both if that is what it will take."
"Noctis," Ignis scolded, aghast he'd spoken of his father in such a way for a joke. It had only been a few months since the former King's death. It was true that there seemed to be some sort of tension between father and son before the elder's passing but it did not warrant this disrespect. Both Gladio and Prompto seemed rather shocked as well.
Noctis didn't take the hint, rising up in his seat and stating, "I swear upon the lives of the 113th monarch and Crown Prince of Lucis that what I've said is no jest. Twenty years ago, a man took the place of your Prince. Through means that cannot be replicated... I, Ardyn Izunia, former Chancellor of Niflheim took the body of your Prince while he was left on my own. Since then, it has been I that built this Kingdom up from the ashes of its former glory, it has been I that has led this world to a future without conflict, it is I that is to be the savior of Eos. Your Noctis had no part in this. No, he has been sequestered entirely away from his former life."
No one spoke, not for a while. The three friends were processing this information.
"This is… Not a joke?" Prompto finally ventured.
"It is not," the man they thought their friend smirked at them, "though, I will assume you must wish it to be."
It didn't register in their minds that something like this could even remotely be true. Not at first.
Prompto could only think to himself, the man he'd known for the last twenty years wasn't Noctis? It hadn't been his friend he'd spoken to about his insecurities? It hadn't been Noctis he'd finally revealed the truth of his heritage? That he'd been adopted and was from really Niflheim. It hadn't been Noctis that accepted him and told him his blood meant nothing, as long as they remained friends?
Noctis had been acting a little odd for a while, Prompto did recall, but he assumed it was all the stress he was under. The blonde thought he'd just snapped one day, but in a sort of good way. He ended up doing so much for his dad and the kingdom in just a short time. He'd almost single handedly stopped Niflheim.
Prompto and he did not have as much as they used to to hang out but that was part of growing up. The blonde was trying to start his own family, he had a career and Noctis was fairly busy running almost the entire world at this point. Regardless, the blonde still texted Noctis every day… Or at least who he thought was his friend. But in reality, if this was true... He'd been texting the Chancellor of Niflheim?
That couldn't be true. It just… Couldn't. Prompto didn't know how to deal with it if it was.
Similar thoughts were swirling in Gladio's mind. If this was true… Had the Shield of the Prince truly not realized his charge had been replaced? Had he been that blind? Too willing to accept an imposter that did everything he thought a Prince should? Gladio had been delighted that Noctis suddenly began taking his responsibilities seriously. Yes, it was strange but he'd never questioned it. He figured the kid finally grew up. He'd been impressed with his changes, just like his own father and Cor had been.
So all this time, Gladio had failed his duty from the beginning? He'd let his charge be 'sequestered from his former life', as this Ardyn put it, while he protected the man responsible for it? It hadn't been Noctis he'd told he was proud of? It hadn't been Noctis he'd once gotten so drunk with for his bachelor party as both Prompto and Ignis watched on in amusement? Where Gladio had finally apologized for pushing Noctis so hard and admitted he viewed him like a brother. It hadn't been Noctis he'd had as his best man for his wedding? It hadn't been Noctis who'd he'd allowed to name his eldest daughter? It had been some higher up from Niflheim?
It… Didn't make sense.
Ignis felt devastated, a pit of dread forming in his stomach at the thought of this being true. Noctis was his dearest friend, his brother. They'd known each other since childhood. How could Ignis have missed seeing that his charge had been replaced? Or had he purposely ignored it when 'Noctis' had become the perfect Prince he always desired him to be? It was easier to not think about all the small changes, not when he felt such relief that Noctis was finally taking up his duties as Crown Prince. He'd ignored the peculiarities, just because 'Noctis' was doing what he should have been.
It may be that all this time Ignis had been treating a stranger like his brother. The boy he'd learned to cook for, the boy he'd desired wholeheartedly to see as the happy child he'd once been before the Daemon attack… He'd allowed another to take his place so easily?
No. Ignis thought to himself. He could not have let that happen.
He prayed that this was not so.
So many thoughts swirled around the minds of the three companions. How could this be possible? Was this even true? And if it was, what technology could allow Niflheim to do such a thing? And if they could do it once, could they have done it to others? How much of Lucis had been infiltrated?
And two of the biggest questions of all were… Just where was Noctis now? And why reveal this?
"If I were to believe your words as truth, why would you reveal this to us?" Ignis clenched his fists, praying that this was not true. The implications were horrifying. Perhaps Noctis was just playing some cruel joke on them all. "And where is the real Noctis?"
"Oh, do not fret over him. He is alive and well."
"Is he?" Ignis challenged, already thinking of all the things that could have been done to him as a prisoner.
"Of course. I've made sure he's been well taken care of. He has everything he would want, all the basic amenities and then some. He has been treated extraordinary well for a prisoner... He does have my old body after all."
"Why… Tell us this?" Gladio asked, his voice rough as he tried to not show any emotion. He didn't know how to deal with this situation.
"Because I wish to offer you the opportunity to bring him back," Ardyn responded with an almost innocent looking smile on his face. "I of course cannot return this body but I can allow him to come home."
"Just like that?" Prompto murmured, puzzled. He felt as if something was up.
Ignis felt the same, "you can't have just risked your entire twenty year scheme. After all this are we to believe you've just had a change of heart? There is something else to this."
"So suspicious of your King..." Ardyn chuckled, "but you are correct."
"So what is it?" Gladio questioned before the other two could.
"If you are to free your dear Noctis, I will inform the world of what has transpired. Everything you know, I will then reveal to the masses."
"Wouldn't that be a good thing?" Prompto asked, looking to Gladio. The Shield was unsure and shrugged at the questioning look his friend gave him.
"... Perhaps not." Ignis said, thinking about it thoroughly. There were far too many things that would go wrong if such information was revealed and believed. It was preposterous sounding, however, it had been revealed that Niflheim had the ability to produce cloned humans. Ignis had not been privy to the finer details as the operations had been systematically taken down by their 'Prince'. The buildings and records were destroyed so that none could reproduce the methods of creating such soldiers. The truth that MTs were created of cloned humans and Starscourge was common knowledge now, even in Lucis. It was not something that could be kept secret after ties between the two nations had been formed.
People likely would believe Ardyn, at least maybe in that the King had been replaced by a clone of some sort. Not all of course, but Ignis could see the damage even a few people believing this could cause. Misinformation, rumours and conspiracies spread faster than a wildfire. Such a thing could threaten the peace that settled across Eos… Especially when the 'King of Eos', as he had been lovingly dubbed, spewed such information out of his own mouth.
Many in Lucis might reject Ardyn's rule entirely if they believed it. They may see this as nothing more than a successful Niflheim ploy to take over Lucis. Accordo and Tenebrae might feel the same. Some might want the real Noctis to reclaim his place as King, if they believed such a thing that bodies could be swapped. Or if they believed he was kept elsewhere. It might even be that many people would see the good this imposter had done and support him instead. Would both sides war if they disagreed on this? Would this cause a resurgence in the enmity between Lucis and Niflheim? So much ill could happen and in so many ways. And if things did end in such dire circumstances, it seemed Ardyn might make sure they did. He held too much power, regardless of whether or not people believed him.
This would not end well for Eos.
"Such an act might destroy the peace achieved. What would be the point of that after you've supposedly done so much to bring the world to this state? What would you gain from telling us this?" Ignis demanded. He could not understand any reason for keeping such a charade for so long and then revealing the truth like this. Had this man desired power so badly he'd taken over their friend's rightful place? But then why give up his charade now?
"Amusement," the man easily admitted. "I wish to know the depth of your loyalty. Will you rescue your long lost friend or will you leave him to his fate for the world's benefit? He is not in any harm's way and is in fine health. After so long, he's even grown used to his life. I've been keeping him informed of his friends and family and that has kept him placated."
The three friends felt a wave of guilt. Twenty years of imprisonment. They could not even imagine what that must feel like.
"... Amusement?" Gladio growled in anger, taking a step forward. He was beginning to accept the man before them was not Noctis, not with the way he was acting now. His friend would never be capable of this kind of facade. "This is just some game to you?"
Ignis and Prompto held Gladio back before he could go any further. The Shield allowed them, narrowing his eyes at the man on the Throne. The man who did not belong there. Ardyn just smirked, causing another wave of anger to wash over Gladio.
"I see that you are finally beginning to believe me," Ardyn grinned triumphantly. "I will say again that I am allowing you the opportunity to bring your Noctis back. However, before you go making any hasty decisions… Remember that the man you've known as your King and friend these last 20 years has been me."
Ardyn leaned forward, smirking at the three before them, "I've known you longer than poor Noctis has. I've been the one you have come to for aid. I am Aries's father and raised the boy since birth. I was the one that repaired the ties between the many nations, ending hundreds of years of hostility. If your Noctis was released, do you think he'd be content to stay in the shadows? Do you think he would not want his body back? Even if it were possible, could he lead as I have? He is the same boy he has always been. He was, rather unfortunately, given no opportunity to grow in his prison."
The three friends looked at each other, silent.
"And if this scandal was brought to light, do you believe the people of Lucis would accept it? That an agent of Niflheim was so easily able to integrate into their Royal Family and wrest control of their nation? Perhaps the seeds of doubts and rebellion would be sown in their hearts… And the peace that I have achieved would crumble as the people begin to war once more."
Silence. Deafening silence.
"And I must mention too, that it is only this body that has the capability of cleansing the Starscourge and Daemons from this world. It has been a desire of mine to see this though, however, the thought my former body running around might put me ill at ease to continue to follow the Prophecy set out for me," Ardyn continued on. That Noctis was the Chosen King to cleanse the Darkness was also common knowledge among the people. Since the former monarch's death, only Ardyn and the Gods remained to know what exactly it would entail however. "... Perhaps it might be best to let things remain as is. To never allow the world to know of this truth. For the sake of Eos and humanity. It is true that poor Noctis would be left alone... But what a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things."
"The Gods…" Ignis interrupted. Surely the Gods, or even the old Kings, would have done something to stop this? If this was true, that is. And... Had King Regis known? Had the Astrals and Kings not informed him? They should have been able to tell when Ardyn and they journeyed to receive their blessings.
Part of Ignis was wishing someone would jump out to tell them it was all just a joke like that program Prompto thought this might be. He found himself taking a moment to glance around for a camera, praying to find one.
Ardyn laughed at the mention of the Astrals. His expression was gleeful as he spoke next, "the Gods are aware and do nothing to stop this. They have accepted that I am a better choice for the future of this planet. It might be best that you do the same and keep this secret to the grave. I will let you know that even the noble King Regis kept his silence once he learned the truth of this matter."
That the three friends were shocked was an understatement. What Ardyn said could not be true.
"I don't… Understand," Gladio could only manage. This was too big of a revelation to handle. It was too much at once. Both Ignis and Prompto felt the same.
"All will be revealed to you when the time of the Prophecy nears," Ardyn responded, rising from his seat to stand, "but for now, I will take my leave so you may collect your thoughts. All I would like to say in conclusion is that I have spoken no lie to you today. You may believe what you wish."
"No, wait!" Ignis made a move as if to stop him.
"Do not worry. I will call upon you again tomorrow night. If you heed my summons, I will assume you wish to release the former Prince. I will gladly reveal his location to you... But if you choose not to heed them, I will never bring up this matter again. It will be as if this conversation never happened. I shall make sure nothing risks the peace this world has suffered for. I will cleanse this world of the Darkness that plagues it just as it is foretold. Humanity will live free of the terrors of the night once my duty is complete."
Before anything else could be said or done, Ardyn warped out of sight.
Ignis, Gladio and Prompto were left there to think about everything they learned today. No one said a word at first, each lost in their own thoughts.
The silence was quickly broken by a ping from each of their phones. All three at once. Startled, the men quickly glanced at their phones. There was a message. From 'Noctis'.
On the off chance you still do not believe me, this may prove it to you.
There was a link to a video. Each of the friends looked at each other before tapping on it.
"Your friends have been informed about our circumstances," Ardyn casually remarked as Noctis and he sat across one another for dinner. It was rather late for it, but Noctis didn't mind. Today the MTs with Ardyn had brought grilled barramundi. There was a side of salad but Noctis didn't complain. He'd quickly learned to eat everything on his plate lest Ardyn reprimand him. He disliked disappointing him.
Noctis dropped his fork from his suddenly nerveless fingers. It hit his plate with a clatter, bouncing off onto the table.
"... What?" The prisoner could only manage, his golden eyes wide in shock. He trembled slightly. His friends… Knew?
Ardyn continued to eat his fish, as if he had said nothing out of the ordinary. He didn't say a word and took a sip of the wine he'd chosen to bring.
"You… Told them everything?" Noctis asked softly. It had hurt when his dad learned the truth but his son had also been so happy to see him again. It was almost equally painful as it was joyous. The man tried to swallow the lump in his throat in thinking of his father. His dad had passed a few months ago. He still wasn't over his death though they'd all known it was coming. Noctis hadn't been able to attend his funeral, only able to see it on TV.
The former Prince had broken down in tears so many times since. He'd felt a yawning emptiness now that it was only Ardyn that knew the truth. He felt so lonely, almost more than before.
But now… Might his friends visit Noctis? After all this time? Would they even like him still? A failure that had done nothing these last twenty years?
"Well... Not quite everything," Ardyn chuckled, breaking Noctis from his thoughts. The King wiped the corner of his mouth with a napkin, "they've been informed I took your body. They know I've locked you away for the duration. They were quite horrified."
"You did something," Noctis accused, even as he felt his spirits lift at knowing his friends thought his situation was wrong. Of course Ardyn must have said or done something. Ardyn would do nothing like this unless it benefited him in some way or brought him some sort of amusement.
"You are so suspicious of your benefactor," Ardyn sighed like he'd been wronged too many times.
"You've given me few reasons not to be," Noctis responded. His words held no anger though. This was just how things were. Whatever Ardyn did, Noctis would have to bear it. This was his life and he had accepted it.
"I will admit that is rather accurate," the King agreed. He then abruptly asked, "do you think they will come for you now that they know the truth?"
One day far into the past, Noctis might have said yes without hesitation. He was unsure now. He wanted to believe they would.
Noctis nodded. He wasn't sure just what Ardyn said but his friends might come to him, even if only to see if Ardyn was telling the truth.
"Do you now?" Ardyn murmured, a glint in his eyes. "Well, that remains to be seen. I've given them time to reflect on what has been revealed. All they must do now is ask and I will lead them straight to you."
Despite his suspicion, Noctis couldn't help the spark of joy at the thought of seeing his friends again. It might hurt, just like it did for his dad, but he hadn't forgotten them. He'd missed them all these years. If they still wanted Noctis as their friend, he would gladly welcome them into his life once more
Gladio didn't look at his friends and neither did they look at him in turn. They'd all watched the video Ardyn sent them. It wasn't a full video, but clips of an imprisoned man being visited by the late King. It was a montage of various little snippets, some so personal if felt wrong to watch them. The men's hearts ached for the two in the video, the pain they showed so visibly.
From that video, the three men learned that Ardyn did seem to be speaking the truth. Regis was aware of everything. For how long, they were unsure. But regardless, the late King knew and did nothing. He'd let his son rot in some cell that he must have only visited on occasion. They couldn't tell where it was, or how often Regis might have gone there. The ailing man still traveled to and from Insomnia, usually once per week, prior to his death.
Ardyn was a monster. A sick, twisted man that took enjoyment out of the suffering of their friend. They understood that now. Had he wanted to, Ardyn was fully capable of maintaining his facade until his death. But instead he desired to hurt Noctis, his father and them as well?
The three men wondered how they could have mistaken Ardyn for Noctis. How had they been fooled so thoroughly? Again, the three men felt a wave of guilt wash over them. And of hopelessness.
… Because as much as they wished to release Noctis, they could see how Ardyn had benefited the world. He was still needed to save it. Even Regis had seen this.
Ignis, Gladio and Prompto thought long and hard about the decision they would make today. It should have been easy. They of course should save Noctis. He'd done nothing wrong and was suffering. How could they not save him from a life of confinement?
However, it wasn't that easy.
For Gladio, it had been Ardyn who'd introduced him to his girlfriend, now wife. It had been Ardyn he'd protected and trained almost every day with. It had been Ardyn that his daughters called their favourite Uncle. For twenty long years… It had all been Ardyn. An enemy of Lucis, someone in bed with the late Emperor Ledolas and Verstael Besithia.
For Ignis, it had been Ardyn who'd begun to bake with him during his very limited spare time, showing interest in helping him make treats they both enjoyed. It had been Ardyn who'd helped him find and take down the corruption in Insomnia's elites when he'd discovered such information. It had been Ardyn that asked for his help in drafting policies that would better the lives of those less fortunate in Insomnia. It had been Ardyn who ended the war and fostered the relations between the nations. It had been the Chancellor of Niflheim, an imposter, that helped fix their broken world.
For Prompto, it had been Ardyn who he trusted enough to reveal the truth he'd been keeping to himself for so many years. It was Ardyn that helped him find a career he loved more than anything. It was Ardyn that helped him cope and heal from his many insecurities. It had been Ardyn that encouraged him to better himself.
As much as it might be a betrayal to say this… Now that they had the time to focus on their feelings, the three could not help but feel something that was not hatred for the man who'd imprisoned their friend. For the man who they knew for even longer than Noctis.
If it was true even the King Regis allowed this… Did that mean he thought leaving Noctis there was the best option? His own father? This must have been the reason for the tension between the current and former King.
A part of each of them wished they'd never learned the truth, so they could be oblivious to it all like so many others were. So that they could live their lives without the guilt that would follow them.
In the end, the three made their decision independently of one another. But it was the same for them all.
The first night passed in a haze, Noctis unable to sleep. His mind stayed on his friends and their possible reunion. Any little sound caused the man to startle, believing they were coming.
Noctis knew he shouldn't get his hopes up. He should have learned by now. But he couldn't help himself. His father had been allowed to visit with no issue, maybe his friends would too?
The next day passed slowly as the prisoner kept his eyes outside of the cell in the direction of the exit. He'd self consciously tried to make himself look more presentable, dressing in some finer clothing Ardyn had brought for him on occasion. He'd always wondered what the point was when he was never allowed out. No one but Ardyn, and for a short time his father, was able to see him anyway.
Now, Noctis was a little grateful for the clothing. He took care in his appearance that day, despite never feeling accepting of this body as his own.
The prisoner waited, hopes high.
… But no one came.
That evening came and went with no sign of Ignis, Gladio or Prompto. Noctis felt his heart break a little. Maybe… They would come another time?
The next night passed with no visitors, the prisoner once again waiting by his cell door the majority of the day. It hurt even more than the day prior.
One more night and still no sign of anyone but the MTs. Soon, a week had passed and only Ardyn arrived. He did not mention anything about the conversation the previous week. Noctis did not try to bring it up either. He couldn't manage to finish his meal that day. The King didn't comment on it, not reprimanding him for once.
It took a month before Noctis's hopes finally began to wither and die. No one but Ardyn had come to visit. His former friends decided to leave him here. Noctis knew his captor must have said something to them, threatened or implied something that made them decide to abandon him here. Or maybe… That's just what he hoped he'd done.
Maybe they just liked Ardyn more. He was the perfect King after all. He was the kind of man they probably always wished Noctis would be. Maybe they didn't even want to see the old Noctis after learning the truth.
The man found that… He couldn't blame his former friends.
Noctis further resigned himself to his fate. He did not cry, not this time.
It was all over the media. A week after Aries's 18th birthday, Noctis had entered the Crystal. He would return and cleanse the world of the Starscourge. Though the Darkness was pushed back, it was not defeated. Daemons still spawned in the night and lurked in the dark corners of Eos. They still took the lives of humans unfortunate enough to cross their paths.
It was only then that the knowledge was revealed that ridding the world of the Scourge required the life of the King. The people of Eos grieved for something that had not yet come to pass. They praised the man that saved them once, and would save them again. A celebration was held. A parade was organized.
Aries gave an emotional speech about his father, having also just learned of the fate of the Chosen by the King before he entered the Crystal. With tears in his eyes, the Crown Prince told the world that he was proud of his father, that he was grateful to be raised by a man like him. A man that had done everything to better the world he lived in and now willing to sacrifice himself for it. He stated that his father would go down as the greatest King in history and that he himself would strive to uphold the values his father instilled in him. He too would strive to better Eos.
After the celebrations, the world waited with bated breath for their King's return.
Gladio, Prompto and Ignis took the opportunity granted to them once Ardyn entered the Crystal. They now had the freedom to search for Noctis without the risk of the King learning of their endeavors. They weren't sure what they would say, what they would do but they just wanted to see Noctis at least.
The guilt had haunted them for years now. There was not a day they did not remember what they allowed to happen. All for the sake of Eos... And perhaps out of selfishness as well. Their lives were going well and bringing Noctis back would have caused such upheaval. It had been easier to pretend nothing was wrong.
It took months but the men finally found Noctis's prison under their own noses, right beneath the Citadel. It had been uncovered by accident by one of the staff. A passageway opened up as the woman was tending to the gardens. She'd immediately called the King's Advisor, fearing she'd done something wrong.
Ignis had been with Gladio and Prompto at the time and the three returned to the Citadel. The Advisor was unaware of such a passage existing and was immediately suspicious, especially when he realized it was newly built. They'd entered it regardless, wanting to know what it might contain within.
The men had been hopeful when they glimpsed the cell at the end of the winding passages, feeling they'd finally found the location of the real Noctis.
But it was not to be.
Because they found no one. Just an empty cell where it seemed someone had once lived, and for quite some time.
This one was such a struggle, especially the dialogue. I was debating cutting out everything before Noctis's interaction with Ardyn and just having a very short chapter with the rest of that plus some other stuff I decided to cut out. I'm deciding to keep the first part but I know everything probably sounds pretty off. I just didn't know what to do with it at this point or how any of the characters would talk/react in this scenario. D:
Everyone would probably question all of this more but I really ran out of steam trying to finish this. I kept trying to add dialogue to have them question Ardyn more but it wasn't fitting in nicely. I gave up, sorry. ^.^' Hope this still works enough that it is enjoyable to read! If not, I'm again really sorry.
Well, this story is getting close to being done at least. I still have one chapter left of this but that may take a while to finish up just like this did.
As always, thank you for reading!