Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended. Characters are the property of Nomura and Square Enix. Joseph Jobson is the property of Gonzo.

Summary: Change is an epidemic you cannot cure. Who evolves and who gets left behind?

A/N: This story began during my FanFic50 Prompt challenge aka The Lacesco Series for Noctis and Stella in Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Prompt: #50 Writer's Choice, Chapter Forty-Nine: Bivium. This is supposed to take place after whatever is to happen in the game, hoping that everyone is still alive. Also, because I really do not want to put a lot of research on names, the friends and background characters will have the same names as in Adventum. That is, however, where the similarities end. Bivium will be reposted here as the Prologue.
This is a Crossover between Versus and Blassreiter. This was formerly located in the Versus Archive since it was published before Blassreiter had it's own section here on FFN.

Creperum Consurgo is Latin for "darkness to arise".

Bivium is Latin for "place where two ways meet".

Creperum Consurgo

Prologue: Bivium

"Furthering the last negotiations of peace, the nations are glad to see the final end to the needless fighting. The revival of the Crystals has promoted harmony between the leading powers and a truce is close at hand. Prince Noctis' upcoming coronation is greatly anticipated by the great citizens of Nihilsomno, as it concludes the week long conference… In other news, the strange appearances…"

It seems odd to hear such tidings. There was a reason to mislead the public into thinking they had a certain level of security. As optimistic as she was, there was just a tad more pessimism within her now as she begins to drown out the remaining news highlights. She mutes the screen and watches the silenced storytelling of the newscaster as she sits and muses. Like many other dignitaries, she was here within the grand city of Nihilsomno, overseeing the peace talks. After everything that they had accomplished and after everything Noctis had sacrificed, there was still something evil looming in the air. Something hiding among the shadowy streets. It did not feel as if peace had been accomplished at all from their struggling journey from months before. She had thought that they had finally vanquished evil when they had fulfilled their destinies. Only, perhaps that had been premature. It feels, as if their destinies were merely beginning instead of concluding. There was something else coming their way and she knew that whatever it was, there was nothing that would prepare her for it.

Slowly, she brings the wineglass to her lips and takes a slow sip. Swirling the sharp, tart liquid around in her mouth, she savors the rich flavor and inhales the aroma through her nose. The fragrant perfume of fermented red grapes wafts into her senses causing her to close her eyes in enjoyment. Her glass was half full and she had already ascertained that the vintage was good. Still, she could not refrain from enjoying it slowly, as her mind crept toward dullness under the effects of the potent alcohol. A slow heat moves through her body, causing her head to cloud as the strong brew takes effect.

Despite everything, despite all that they had been through together, she has never felt such a sense of frustration before. They had won. But there was no sense of true accomplishment at their deeds. Never one to hide her feelings, she had made them quite clear to Noctis. There was no way he could have misread her. She had purposely been as subtle as a freight train. He had a very endearing but often times migraine inducing sense of honor. To his complicated mind, she was something that he could not allow himself to have. As outrageously upsetting as that was, she sort of understood his reasoning. Sort of. She was disinclined to fully accept it though. Her presence in his life tipped him off his axis and left him unbalanced. A balance that he currently needed firmly in place if he was to face the planet's ruling class to assert his rightful claim to the world's greatest empire. His monarchy was not even firmly established, yet there was already invisible opposition making demands and displaying rebellion. The remaining resentment in the wake of the Reawakening, as they had dubbed it, had only increased when it was pronounced that Nihilsomno would still be the leading nation in power.

There is a part of her that understands this too. She would be a liar if she denied ever feeling the same resentment towards Nihil when she had been growing up. They, as a nation and as a people, had been selfish. For many years, they had closed their gates and refused anyone entry into their realm. So careful to hoard the last remaining powers of their Crystal, they had kept its benefits from the rest of the world. It had shrouded itself in mystery and secret. As she had grown older, she had accepted this and had focused on the positive rather than the negative. Without a Crystal of her own, she and her family had helped put together a working government along with a prosperous nation. To her, there was no use wasting energy and time resenting something that one did not have and taking full advantage of the things that you did. So when the thirteenth peace conference had been hosted within Nihilsomno's walls, she had not been part of the glaring dignitaries that had visited. Instead, she had focused on the opportunity such a visit had provided. It was also when she had first glimpsed the dark prince himself.

As soon as she had seen him cautiously approaching her on that deck, she had known. What exactly she had known was debatable. What she had known was that her life was never going to be the same again. The introduction of this man into her life was going to alter her course and take her on a journey that she had never imagined. It had explained the anticipation that had been within her all that night. Not the nervous, wary anticipation that the conference had surfaced within her, but a more personal and penetrating kind. She had been smitten right away and her playful nature had come out unheeded in the face of his stiff stoicism. Over these many months, it had turned into almost a game. The more morose he became, the more chipper her response. The effect it had on him always made her feel warm and contented.

Sighing deeply, she absently rubs against the scar on her chest. Her hand always seemed to rub against the subtly elevated, white tissue that had not healed smoothly. It was like a phantom pain that her hand reached for in times when she was feeling contemplative. As her finger gently rubs against it, she feels a strange sense of… something. Despite the calming effects of her wine, she feels a dawning sense of… something. She can only call it "something" because she cannot find the word or phrase to call it. It is neither daunting nor pleasant. It is neither terrifying nor happy. Her thoughts automatically go to Noctis but it is not him that is making her feel this way. He always provoked a far different kind of response within her.

Absently, her eyes roam to the muted television in front of her again.

"Strange appearances," she whispers slowly to herself, repeating the last words she had heard from the television.

Images from various, less populated parts of the city were displayed in split screens, as the newscaster recited the carefully worded telecast. Places where certain mysterious incidences had been occurring with rapid regularity lately. Actually, she realizes with rising caution, ever since Nihilsomno had opened its doors to the outside world. Quickly bringing back the sound, she catches the tail end of the story.

"…stated witnesses," the newscaster finishes. "As these areas are not closely monitored, there is no available video footage to fully explain what caused these varying degrees of vandalism." There is a pause as the camera angle changes and the anchorman turns his body to the other side, signaling the start of the next story. "In other news, recent construction on the city's new highway…"

She lets the sounds of the man's voice drone to the back of her mind as she turns to stare out into the city nightscape. Random acts of vandalism were not exactly unheard of within a large city as this. Considering that this particular city had a very dark presence about it, it was hardly difficult to see why. Happy things seldom hid within the shadows of the night. This city was like a perpetual night, even within the light of day. Despite their achievements as a society, they were not what she would call "happy" sort of people. They seemed more haunted. It was almost a direct contrast to her own home, the capital city of Tenebrae. She recalls those images from the news story within her mind again and her eyes narrow in thought. No, these were not random acts of vandalism at all. Something happened. That something. The missing chunks of concrete along the exteriors of the buildings were just not possible for someone of average strength. Her frown deepens as she remembers how high those gaps had been. Not only would the person be exceptionally strong, they would also have to be exceptionally tall. Well over seven feet tall at least. Someone with that height and strength would not go unnoticed anywhere.

Rising from the plush couch upon which she was perched, she makes her way to her laptop and lifts the cover. Phil had given her private access into the royal mainframe so she could browse without detection. It had warmed her through and through to see evidence that Noctis and his friends trusted her so completely. She would never abuse such a large gesture of trust and they obviously knew it. Quickly, she opens her web browser and searches the latest headlines. The story on the mysterious vandals was midway down the page. She resists shaking her head at that. Since these incidences had occurred in the less than posh areas, they were not granted the same amount of importance as they would if they had been in the richer neighborhoods. She clicked to enlarge the photos of each scene and spread them across her screen to see them all at the same time.

Carefully scrutinizing the high resolution pictures, she startles at the things that call out to her as she studies them. Tilting her head to get a better angled view, her eyes narrow again. Whatever did this, was not a man. That it was seven foot was still evident in the amount of damage to the side of one particular building. That one had looked to be overlaid with a thick layer of concrete. Another building had marble panels that surrounded the concrete base and another was aligned with stone. Something very heavy and very long had smashed right into them. There was no way anyone would miss the amount of power it would take to force anything that strongly to do that much damage to the buildings. Most puzzling of all was the shape of each impression. So, it was something big, exceedingly heavy and… shaped in the form of a man. She is not sure what made her more uneasy. The fact that it happened to look like a human body or that there was something capable of slamming such a thing against the side of a high rise building. That meant there were two things out there that did more than just go bump into the night.

What did Noctis know about this? It was impossible for him not to know something about this.

As almost an afterthought, she sharpened the zoom onto the ground and scoffed at herself as she caught the faint hint of crystal remnants. Of course Noctis already knew. It had obviously been him that had made whatever this thing was, crash so jarringly against stone.

Glancing over at the digital clock on her nightstand, she reads the time. Just past midnight in a city like Nihilsomno was early. Especially when it thrived in the nightlife and remained subdued during the day while most of its residents slept. She wonders if Noctis were within the castle grounds. Most likely not. Her senses refused to let her drop this for the night and she knows what she has to do. Snatching up her mobile lying beside her laptop, she quickly speed dials Phil. He never took very long to answer.

"What's up, Stella?" he asks and the incessant typing of keys in the background tell her he is busy.

She grins knowingly.

"You tell me, Phil," she says lightly, the smile noticeable in her voice. "I was just watching the news."

"Anything interesting?" he asks nonchalantly. She could almost believe he was really oblivious. Almost but not quite.

"Not much," she answers, letting out a sigh as she leans back in her chair. Might as well get to the point. "What is Noctis fighting out there?"

"He didn't want you to know," answers Phil smoothly before chuckling. "Caught some detail the media didn't, did you?"

No denial. She had not been expecting one. It still irritates her a little that they had consciously kept this from her. Actually, it irritates her a lot that Noctis had kept this from her. The others were just following his orders.

"He seldom does," she states regretfully. "Do you know what it is?"

"Never seen anything like it before," is the response and she worries her bottom lip between her teeth. Had it been something familiar she doubts they would have tried to pass it off as vandals.

"What do they want?"

"Only the one as far as we can tell right now," he says. "It hasn't made any demands either."

"I doubt it was merely trying to show off," she comments.

"Singing to the choir," he agrees and the clicking becomes more rapid in the background.

"Where is he now?" she asks.

"Top secret, sorry," he replies. The tapping of the keys stops but she soon hears the rapid clicking of his mouse. "Cal and Durus are both with him."

Leaving Phil to be the eyes and ears around the city while they were out patrolling for whatever this thing was.

"Where exactly was the latest incident?"

"Noct's not gonna like you going out there alone," he says with that knowing voice.

"And you know that is not going to stop me," she retorts and he chuckles again.

"Will he be more pissed off if I'm with you or if you're going it solo?" he wonders aloud.

"I never called you," she answers for him. The last thing she needed was to get him in trouble with Noctis.

"He'll never believe that," he says but he does not sound at all worried about Noctis' wrath. "You're going to be careful, aren't you?"

"Like Noctis," she grumbles. Noctis who was far too reckless sometimes.

"I'll give you the address," he says. The amusement evident in his voice.

It does not take her long to dress and pull her hair into a long ponytail. She feels a bit of apprehension as she grabs her white leather riding gloves and helmet. Her hesitation is brief though, before her determination sets in. She did not survive the last few months hiding away in her rooms. If Noctis did not accept that, he was going to have to start. She briskly makes her way down the long hallway and down a corridor at the top of a hidden staircase that led directly to the garage below. If Noctis was already out there, chasing this thing, he was obviously not keeping watch on the apartments that he had given to her.

The overhead lights of the garage flicker on as she makes her way into the hollow space and she walks over to her custom bike while pulling on her gloves. Taking a moment to appreciate the gleaning beauty of the white finish, she throws her leg over the body and turns the ignition. She takes a moment to make sure her helmet is adjusted right and a light tap against the head tests the Bluetooth system connected to her phone. As the engine roars to life, streaks of gold race across the body of the bike as the gauges rev. She feels the leak of energy from her inner as the system roars to life.

"Welcome, Princess Stella," greets the computerized voice of Luna.

"We might encounter some danger, Luna" she says as she kicks the stand up.

"Danger level set," replies the computer.

"Will you alert me if Lord Noctis is nearby?" she asks.

"Of course, your highness."

"Stealth mode please," she orders before taking off out of the garage and onto the city streets.

The buzzing vibrations of the engine beneath her along with the air swooshing past add to the ambiance of the night as everything around her becomes streaks of light. She carefully steers clear of the more heavily populated areas and keeps to the side streets where camera coverage is not as intense. Easily weaving past the cars that are going too slow, she guns the engine and rushes forth into the darker parts of the city. The streetlights wiz past her like a kaleidoscope of colors as she finds herself getting closer and closer to the rougher neighborhoods of Nihilsomno. It is not long before the cars begin to thin out and the streets become empty as she makes her way. Luna slows to a smooth stop in front of the address Phil had given to her and she looks up.

Bracing her left leg against the pavement, she stares at the indentations where the thing had impacted with the concrete. It must have been the end of the fight, just before it disappeared. Pushing down the stand, she makes sure that Luna is balanced before she swings her leg around to stand on the street. Automatically, Luna adjusts the lighting on her high beams so she can better see the debris still undisturbed from the fight. Obviously not a lot of heavy foot traffic passed this way either. Lifting her head, she can see the subtle silhouette of where the thing had crashed into the concrete. The sharp, steep indentation suggested a shoulder. It had fallen back against it. Thrown? There had not been a car parked to slow its crash and the lack of skid marks puzzles her. Whatever had hit it, had been extremely heavy as well and had impacted with it as it had been standing just off the sidewalk. Yet, there was no indentation on the sidewalk or along the wall to tell her what it had been. Maybe not something heavy at all. She kneels down to stare at the small spattering of Crystal and looks out into the direction that Noctis must have looked. A dark alleyway loomed before her with many possible exits. A smart choice to escape a threat. If Noctis had been fighting this thing, he had probably stabbed it with one of his many swords. She could not recall him having one big enough to take something that big down like this. If he had….

Blue eyes roaming along the cracks in the pavement, she sees a tiny spattering of something. Sliding a little forward, she crouches down further to get a better look. She knew, without having to touch it, that those had been drops of blood. A flash of worry hits her as she wonders if it is Noctis' but pushes that away as absurd. She would have noticed any tension in the way he moved if he had been injured. Having had to live with him under rugged, often times, unsanitary conditions where they had, had to dress each other's wounds gave her enough experience to be able to read any pain that his body withstood. Curious that there was not more though. If the impact had obviously been wounding enough to down the thing, it would have produced a lot more blood. More importantly, how was it possible that it could bleed at all. Flesh would never be able to withstand the blow nor the impact with the wall. Bones most definitely would have been broken, a shoulder dislocated at least. Nothing was adding up correctly. She needed to talk to Noctis.

Reaching into her pocket, she produces a clean handkerchief and pen. Carefully, so as not to scratch the pavement, she scrapes the dried blood with the butt of the pen before wrapping it carefully in the handkerchief and tucking it back into her pocket. She is just about to stand up when she sees something that does not seem quite right. Letting out a huff of breathe as she tries to determine why it catches her eye, she leans in closer. The beam of light grows larger as Luna accommodates her by coming closer at her back without prompting. Glancing from side to side to make sure, she frowns at the small pile of ash in front of her. No where nearby was there any trace of a fire. Which definitely made this small pile look out of place near the dark alley. True, it was not the cleanest of streets to begin with, but to have such a neat pile of something as wispy as ash was suspect. Nihilsomno was usually a windy city on a mild day. Patting herself down in search of something to gather it, she remembers the small receipt she had tucked within her pockets the last time she had worn this jacket. She sends a silent prayer of hope before using the thin paper to gather as much of the ash as possible before folding the edges together to contain it. Pocketing that too, she makes sure to place it in the other side so as not to contaminate her two samples. Well, not anymore than they already had, that is.

She stands then and waits for the circulation to flow steadily through her legs again, before she walks back over to Luna. Mounting her bike again, she accelerates slowly down the rest of the street before coming to a stop at a light. The engine rumbles softly in the empty intersection and she looks both ways, deciding whether she should just gun it out of there, when her eyes catch a glimpse of something a short distance away. Leaning forward, slightly, she peers through a bush to see something in the dim light of the small park half a block away. Not something, someone. Her senses swarm through her but she does not receive any hints of danger. The figure is not even turned in her direction, seemingly unaware of her presence. It incites a strange sense of familiarity. Without waiting to change to her mind, she makes the turn and rides over to where the figure sits alone on a ruined bench. It is the only spot within the small park that sits directly beneath a steady light.

As she closes the distance, she parks Luna and climbs off to walk the rest of the way. The figure's head is bent down, studying something in its hands intently a steady scraping sound reaches through her helmet. The person does not look up as she comes closer. She realizes belatedly that it is a man. A man dressed completely in black. Black pants, a long black trench coat with buckles and a high collar that hid the bottom lip of his mouth. A young man at that and were it not for a few differences, she would have thought it was Noctis and not a stranger. That visual shocks her and she does hesitate slightly as she comes to a stop not two feet away from him. If he had any ill intent she would not be fast enough to stop him, but she still feels the strange sensation of calm familiarity instead of the wariness of approaching a stranger on a dark night as tonight.

She is close enough now to see that he is carving an image into a small piece of wood. The steady, fluid swipes of his hand blade conveying that he was no novice to this art. Somehow it increases the mystique of this stranger before her. There is no readable expression on his face that she can see through the thick strands of his jet black hair and the high collar of his coat. His hair is not overly long, but just enough to fall over his eyes.

"What are you making?" she finds herself asking. Her voice sounds harsh against the small flicking sounds of his knife and the silence around them.

"An image of a child praying," he answers smoothly. There is no alarm or surprise in his voice. His eyes remaining on his task without pause.

The answer makes her frown. Of all the things to be doing in the middle of the night in such an open and exposed place. He was asking for trouble. She would normally assume he was some sort of unsavory character, but being this close to him she could not see him as anything unsavory at all. Just as she would never consider Noctis in such a way. Her eyes catch the sight of the bike leaning against the bench on the other side of him and inhales sharply in surprise.

"I have never seen a model like that before," she says in admiration.

The machine was absolutely beautiful in its design. A steady, wide body with a larger engine than was considered standard. The sleek bends in the shell said it was built for speed though the width hinted that it was made for a body larger than the man sitting in front of her.

"It's custom," he replies vaguely, with that same monotone as before.

"It really is not safe for you to be sitting here like this," she states, looking around them but sees nothing within the still darkness.

"Yours is pretty impressive too," he comments, ignoring her remark.

When she blinks at him, he nods his head in the direction of Luna.

"With a fully uploaded interface," he adds in, taking a moment to stare at Luna. It is a slow assessing stare of someone who knew the inner workings of the machine, before returning to his carving.

"In a city like this, it is easier to get around in," she says, feeling suddenly unsure and awkward.

The sudden beep within her helmet she almost squeaks in surprise before Noctis' smooth voice flows out of the speakers near her ears.

"Stella, where are you?" he asks, his tone somewhat strained but polite.

Torn between something snide and something flirty, she settles on something in between.

"Taking in the city," she says with a lilt in her voice that hints at playfulness but not enough to hide that she is upset with him.

Silence greets her a moment and she can almost see Noctis process her response. He caught her underlying tone and she knew it.

"Alone?" he asks unexpectedly. It is with a hint of jealousy, a pinch of annoyance and a little bit of hurt mixed in together.

One word and she feels guilty for doing something that she had no right to be guilty about.

"Luna is with me," she says with a smile, not exactly lying but not completely truthful. "Where are you?" She manages to ask before he can ask something else first.

"Are you in danger?" he asks and his tone turns a shade darker.

"No, I am fine," she reassures with a low sigh.

He lets out a loud sigh of his own.

"I was worried," he confesses and it sounds like she has dragged it out of him involuntarily.

Despite her initial annoyance, she feels herself soften at his admission.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" she asks just as softly, wording it carefully but there is no sting in her tone.

"It was why I was coming to see you now," he says petulantly.

If he had been anyone else, she knows he would be pouting. Only, he was not anyone else and his expression was probably blank. As blank as the expression on the stranger's face in front of her. The one who gives no indication that he is paying any attention to her conversation with Noctis. That inward, contained emotion always made her feel a simmering in her veins. It tingled sometimes when Noctis was feeling an emotion especially strong. She felt that same simmering in her veins now as she looked at the stranger. To find another that held the qualities that she so loved in Noctis. What were the chances of that?

"Give me ten minutes and I shall be there," she says, hanging up before he can say anything else. She takes a moment to collect her racing emotions, something that she has to do frequently of late, whenever she spoke with Noctis. Then her gaze settles on the man still sitting on the bench again. Only now, he is no longer working so intently on his carving, but regarding her with a steady gaze.

The urge to step back is strong under his studying eyes, but she manages to keep her feet planted as she regards him right back. There is no lust nor any hinted attraction in his gaze as he stares at her. His eyes do not leave her face as he studies her with a look far more focused than the one he had used when working on his carving. With his face turned up and pointed towards her own, she can finally see the dark scar running down the side of his face. A mark almost resembling a bolt of lighting. It streaked down his pale cheek just below his right eye and his eyes, she paused as she took in the color of his eyes. They were a flickering transition of blue to red and back. That too, was so much like Noctis. She does take a small step back then.

"Someone like you should not be in a place like this," he comments dryly. It is not threatening, just a matter of stating fact.

The comment throws her concentration further and she frowns before collecting herself.

"Neither should you," she replies with an easy smile in response.

His eyes contain a small shine with a hint of amusement, but he does not smile. He does not even smirk as Noctis would have. As she continues to stare at him, she realizes that the lack of lines along his face showed a man who did not laugh very often or at all. Another similarity to Noctis. Yet, there were subtle expressions that flash across Noctis' face that conveyed his emotions. This stranger, though, took carefully blank to a whole different level of indiscernible.

"You had better get going," he says, turning back to his carving and releasing her from his capturing gaze.

She feels a loss at the release. As bland as his voice and tone had been, his eyes had given her a sense of connection. Now that they were no longer looking at her, she felt blocked, thwarted. Much like she did when she tried to get through to Noctis.

"Yes," she agrees distantly as she watches the precision of his movements. "Will you stay here all night?"

"You don't need to worry about me," he says, pausing to look up at her again.

"I am more worried about your bike," she jokes with a teasing smile. With the return of his eyes, she feels more steady somehow. Almost as if they were on equal footing when she held his complete focus.

There is that shining glean in his eyes again and now his expression is curious as he turns his head sideways to look at her.

"Your boyfriend is waiting," he reminds her and she jerks in surprise at his comment. Humor leaks out of his voice though his lips do not quirk.

"What makes you say that?" she gapes in surprise.

"Your reaction is answer enough," he says with an invisible shrug and returns to his work.

"Right," she says, even though she does not believe him. She takes a step back towards Luna. "I suppose I shall see you around then." She turns around to mount Luna and her engines vroom.

He does not respond to her parting, but she gets the sense that he was not ignoring her, merely silently agreeing.

Her mind stays on the image of him sitting on that rusty old bench as she rides back to her large flat where Noctis is waiting for her. The aura around him had spoken of tragedy. That deep emotional agony brought out the nurturing part of her that left her compelled to help him. It was just like her reaction to Noctis' usual brooding manner. A need within her to help lighten the dark mood that hovered like a cloud over their crouched forms. The little progress she had made with Noctis seemed more significant now that she had seen someone else so like him to compare with. Not that she could boast to altering Noctis in anyway. She merely felt, upon meeting the dark stranger, that her relationship with Noctis had shifted more than she had realized. It made her feel almost heady as she pulls back into her garage and shuts off Luna.

Pulling the helmet from her head, she pulls the tie holding her hair in place and shakes out the blond strands. The tingling feeling in her spine alerts her to Noctis' presence upstairs. So close. She allows herself a faint smile as she carefully climbs each step to bring herself closer to him. When she opens the door to her flat, she finds him looking out of one of the many tall windows on the other end of her living room. The tension in his shoulders tells her that he was having trouble organizing and processing his emotions. He knows she is there but he needs to suppress whatever it is that is bothering him before he turns. It is only until she closes the door softly behind her does turn to look at her.

The angle and view of his face is overlaid with a sheer silhouette of the dark stranger a moment, making her stop in her steps to reach him. She blinks and the silhouette vanishes and only Noctis remains. The slight bend of his eyebrows silently conveys his curiosity before he frowns.

"Are you hurt?" he asks suddenly.

The concern warms her as it always does and she shakes her head to clear her mind as well as deny the claim. "Not at all."

"Forgive the late night visit," he apologizes.

"That is not the apology I am waiting for," she says, giving him a level look. She lets the accusing glance sink in before making her way to her coat closet to put away her helmet and gloves. Casually unzipping her white leather jacket, she takes it off to hang directly beneath her helmet within easy reach before shutting it.

"I will not apologize for keeping you from danger," he says stubbornly. His voice, as always, level.

"It is not your place to protect me," she states evenly.

He cringes so minutely that she might not have seen it had she not been looking directly at him. She knows it wounds him to point out, but that is only because he refused to be with her in that way.

"This is a new evil that I do not know anything about," he explains. "I am not willing to risk you when I do not know enough about this new enemy."

"Which would have been the same as when we fought before," she replies sharply, sharper than she had intended. "We did not then either."

"That was different."


"Stella," he says with a heavy sigh. The sound of her name sounds like a plea and it tugs at her heart. "We had no choice but to fight then."

True, but that did not make him right this time.

"I know you believe we should not be together," she says, getting to the root of the matter. Slowly, she takes small steps to bring her closer to him. "But I also know that you feel for me as deeply as I feel for you. You would not worry about my safety so much if you did not."

She stops before he can try to restrain her, like he always does, to look up into his face. It hurts her heart to see him look so torn but she needs to push him. If left to his own devices, they would live their entire lives loving each other from a distance. His hands are clench at his sides and his eyes display the war within him. She almost expects the words that he is steeling himself to say.

"Do you really think we could feel so deeply for each other if it were so forbidden?" she tries to reason, tilting her face up just enough.

"I would anyway," he answers without reservation and there is a regretful smile on his lips. "Just to be contrary."

"I believe you would," she replies with a smile at his tease. Trust him to try and distract her with something like that. Clever man.

As if he cannot resist her smile, he leans in further and closes the remaining distance between them to touch his lips to hers. It is a light and tentative touch and it is over too quickly. Not their first and not their last, but she cherishes each one that he has given thus far.

"Would that I could give in," he whispers and it seems more to himself than to her. His eyes are fixed upon her lips for an intense moment causing her to nervously lick her lips in response.

"What is it that stops you?" she asks in a breathy whisper. It feels as if his intensity has sucked all the oxygen from the air.

He leans his head to the side and smirks at her.

"With this new foe, I feel that we shall be faced with another deadly challenge," he relays with a regretful sigh, leaning back just enough so their proximity does not distract them both too much. His lack of reversion warms her. That he did not step back and place more distance was an assurance of his regard. Yes, they were making progress. Slowly, very slowly he was giving in to her and the achievement feels like a triumph. "I do not wish for you to feel obligated to me when difficulties arise."

His cryptic words make her uneasy. She know that there is much more that he is keeping from her and no coaxing could force him to give it away.

"To tell you now would be cheating," he responds with a knowing smirk.

"But you know?" she asks in worry.

"I do not know the path you will choose," he responds. That did not mean he did not know his. "But I know there is an evil here and there is more on the horizon."

"But you have seen it," she presses. "What is it?"

He shakes his head and the frustration on his face strengthens the sense of foreboding. Before she can ask something else, he presses a hand against the small of her back to press her chest against his and kisses her forehead heatedly.

"I only know how I feel," he whispers into her hair and she lets the subject drop for the moment. "And I know that I shall always feel it towards you."

Her heart creates those flapping flutters of joy and a shivers of delight runs down her spine. Lifting her hands, she clenches the collar of his leather jacket to breathe in the scent of worn leather and Noctis as he presses her head against the hollow of his neck.

"Know that I care," he whispers in warm vow. "I am not pushing you away because I do not want you."

Questions, questions. His words leave her with only more questions. She can feel it now. The emotion that he had been keeping from her ever since she had returned to Nihilsomno. He was afraid. Afraid of this something that she knows is there but cannot describe. He must feel it too. More than feel it. He has seen it and whatever it was, it was something that must be terrifying.

When he pulls away, she drops her hands to look at up him. She wants to touch his face and reassure him, but she refrains. The torn expression of yearning has left his face and the focused prince was in its stead. When would she see that side of him again?

"Now," he says, his tone reverting back to his usual friendly, yet distant tone. She can feel the walls being erected between them. "What have you found during your little nighttime excursion?"