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Last Man Standing

Chapter Text

Prompto climbed through the bushes that framed the garage at Hammerhead, shaking off thistle and dust as a large black dog bounded at his heels. He stamped his feet on the concrete parking lot and glanced at the sleek Crownsguard vehicle behind him. He wasn’t the best at parking yet—Or steering, or backing up, or even starting the car without accidentally turning on the wipers—and Cor Leonis’ rented two-door was lodged halfway in a plot of azaleas that would probably grow back, eventually.

“Alright, Colonel,” Prompto said to the dog. He heaved a duffel bag over his shoulder, and gripped a cloth and metal badge tight in his right hand. “This looks like the place.”

The garage doors were closed, but there was a girl standing next to them, dressed in an eye-smarting yellow jumpsuit and a cap too smudged with old stains to have a defining color anymore. She turned at Prompto’s approach, and his throat went tight at the curve of her lips, the bright sparkle of her eyes, her rounded cheeks and bouncy light hair.

Noctis, Prompto thought, desperately. I’m in love with Noctis.

But gods, if she wasn’t beautiful.

“Hey, there!” The girl strode towards him, and he knew he had to be at least two different shades of pink by now. “You look a little lost, honey. Anything I can help ya with?”

“Uh.” Prompto’s fingers clinched around the patch that Cor had ripped off his uniform. “I’m looking for. For Cid?”

“What, Paw-paw?” The girl leaned back, hands on her hips. “Sure. He’s in the back. Paw-paw!” she shouted, turning towards the garage. “Some pretty-boy’s come to see ya!”

Pretty-boy? Prompto’s short-circuiting brain clung to the only words it could register, and he stumbled after the goddess in yellow as she heaved up the door to the garage.

A weathered older man with sun-bleached hair and a worn jumpsuit blinked into the sudden light that streamed through the garage. “Where’s this pretty-boy, Cindy?” he asked, staring straight at Prompto. Prompto, despite the dread that he’d carried with him through the drive to Hammerhead, smiled a little and stepped forward.

“Mr. Cid, sir?” he asked. “I’m Prompto. Prompto, uh, Leonis. I’m here ‘cause—“

“Leonis?” Cid leaned in to glare at him in earnest, examining his face so thoroughly that Prompto almost beckoned the Colonel to stand between them as a buffer. As it was, the dog shoved her side into Prompto’s legs, panting loudly.

“How the hell would you be a Leonis?” Cid asked. “Cor have a long-lost sister I don’t know about?”

“N-no, sir,” Prompto said. “He kind of, uh… here.” He handed the badge in his hand to the older man, who took it with no minor amount of suspicion. When he saw the symbol for the Marshal, his expression darkened.

“Come on in, boy,” he said, at last. “Before you get heatstroke. What’s the dog’s name?”

“The Colonel,” Prompto said.

“Of course. Bet the kid named her, huh?” He whistled softly, and the Colonel whined.

“It’s okay,” Prompto said, a little reluctantly. He didn’t like to give the Colonel permission to be too friendly with everyone, but there was enough to explain already. The Colonel let Cid pet her once, and then went back to Prompto’s side. Cid grunted and waved them up to a set of winding stairs at the back of the garage. Prompto took one last look at the goddess, who smiled and waved as he started to ascend the stairs.

“So,” said Cid. “What’s Cor doing sending a scrawny little teenager to me?

“Well, sir, I’m not too sure myself, really…”

 

---

 

It was the afternoon of the treaty signing between Niflheim and Insomnia, and Cor Leonis was about to commit treason.

He pulled up to his house in a rented Crownsguard vehicle, parking along the side of the road near the fenced-in front yard. Prompto was there, sitting on the lawn with his sketchbook while his service dog, The Colonel Floofsalot, tried to toss a plastic ball with her mouth. The Colonel looked more fluff than dog, a black cloud of fur and lolling tongue, and Prompto, all of twenty and covered in dark freckles and smudges of charcoal, looked as young as he’d been when Cor had first found him. They both looked up at Cor’s approach as he smiled down at the young man and unlatched the gate to the yard.

“Drawing the Colonel again?” he asked. Prompto shook his head.

“Architecture. Trying to get the Spire right.” Prompto still spoke with a bit of a buzz in the back of his throat; a remnant of his time as a Magitech soldier that had yet to go away. He shoved a pencil behind his ear and got to his feet. “What’s up, Cor?”

Cor jingled the car keys in his right hand, trying to figure out how best to phrase this. “I’ve been assigned to guard the outskirts of the city tonight,” he said, after a long enough time had passed for Prompto’s smile to falter. “The King and his Shield… are concerned that the Nifs aren’t going to stay true to their word.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Prompto said, tapping his tracker bracelet, which covered the serial code that designated his rate and class as an MT.

“You’re getting dangerously blasé about this, Prom,” Cor said, and Prompto scrunched up his eyes in his half-smile. “Anyways. I think it’s best if you. Ah. Aren’t so close to the Citadel, tonight.”

Prompto went still, and the Colonel bounded over, pressing her blocky head to his palm. “Cor. I can’t go more than two miles without the tracker going off.”

“I know,” Cor said. “I planned for that. Pack up for a few days’ worth of overnight gear, and I’ll explain.”

Prompto looked like he wanted to protest, but he must have seen something in Cor’s eyes that prevented him from putting it into words. He followed Cor into the house, and the two of them went about stuffing a duffel bag with enough spare clothes, rations, medication and toiletries to last Prompto about three days on his own. When Cor dug under the mantel of the fireplace and pulled out a black and silver handgun, Prompto drew back.

“Cor, no.”

“I’m sorry, Prompto.” Cor slipped the gun into one of the bag side pockets. “I know how you feel about fighting, but... you have to be careful.”

“Careful how? Why? Astrals, Cor, you’re starting to scare me.”

“It’s probably nothing,” Cor lied. “But for right now, I need you out of the city.” He zipped up the bag and held out his hand. “Your bracelet, Prompto.”

Warily, Prompto placed his hand in his father’s, and jerked back as a spark of electricity zipped along the metal tracker around his wrist. There was a crack, and the tracker opened, falling with a soft thump to the floor.

“The Crownsguard’s too busy to search for an escaped prisoner,” Cor said, when Prompto pulled his hand away. “You’ll be safe. But only if you do what I tell you, Prompto.”

Prompto looked up at him, and the horror in his eyes was enough to make his chest ache. Cor frowned, then tugged at the Marshal’s insignia on his left shoulder. It tore his sleeve as it pulled free of its stitches, and he heard the sharp intake of Prompto’s breath at the sight of it. He pressed the insignia into the young man’s hands, along with the keys to the car.

“Take the car out of the city,” he said. “There’s a garage a few miles out, Hammerhead. You can’t miss it. Ask for Cid—He’s an old buddy of mine from the war. He’ll take you in. Show him my badge if he gives you trouble. Stay there. Stay indoors. Don’t even look back at Insomnia until I call you, is that understood? Is that understood, Prompto?

“No,” Prompto said. “What’s going to happen, Cor?”

“Hopefully nothing.” Cor pulled Prompto into a quick embrace, and scruffed at his carefully gelled hair. “Get to Cid. I’ll find you there, alright?”

“Right,” Prompto said. “I’ll see you then.”

 

---

 

Cid Sophiar set down his mug of coffee hard enough to make Prompto jump.

“So Reggie and the others think somethin’s goin’ south with the treaty signing,” he said. He had ordered Prompto to a seat in the upstairs apartment over the garage, where Prompto sat with his knees drawn up and his hands clutched around his own mug. “Figured the Nifs wouldn’t make good on their promises.”

“That’s what I kept saying,” Prompto insisted, and balked at the sharp, calculating look Cid gave him in response. “I mean, if you look at how they’ve been operating. They’ve been boxing in the city for years.”

“Cor teach you that?” Cid asked, and Prompto could tell he already knew the answer.

“No.” Cid huffed.

“Now that’s what I don’t get,” he said. “No offense, boy, but what possesses Cor to take on a kid? Last I heard, he had bachelor tattooed in his bones.”

“He still does,” Prompto told him. “But before he found me, there was no one. If he hadn’t—“ He stopped, looking out the window at the dry desert beyond. It was so like the sand of the battleground on which he’d been left for dead, bleeding out in the protective MT armor, paralyzed with fear. He could almost taste the metal in his mouth, feel the heat of the daemonic blood that had been pumped into his veins. And the warmth of Cor’s hand on his, grounding him, keeping him tethered to life.

“He’s still my dad, sir,” he said, in a quieter voice. The rattle in his throat was always louder when he whispered, and Cid had to lean in close.

“Hells, you even talk like he did,” Cid said at last. “Alright, boy, I’m not gonna bite. Sit there and let me get you somethin’ to eat.”

Prompto couldn’t really eat much, but Cindy, the goddess emerging from the jumpsuit in a full-denim outfit sent by the Astrals, distracted him with a story about the no-good prince who ended up stranded at Hammerhead in a broken-down car not even a week ago.

“Gods,” Prompto said. “Is he okay?”

“Oh, yeah, hon, they just went off to Galdin last night.” Prompto sighed—At least they’d be away from whatever Cor, Clarus, and the King were so afraid of. Neither Prompto nor Noctis had been happy about the prince’s trip to Altissia—And not only because Prompto, being a known prisoner of war and the prince’s current boyfriend, wasn’t exactly free to accompany him. Noct was going there in the first place to get married to the Oracle, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, who he barely knew. The whole situation had sent Prompto into a sulk for weeks, and Cor had come home with so many pamphlets on teenage heartbreak and moving on that Prompto had wanted to set the whole pile of them on fire.

Cindy seemed to pick up on some of Prompto’s mood, because as soon as she found out that Prompto was interested in photography, she nearly jumped out of her skin in excitement. “Oh, hon!” she cried. “Then you gotta—and I mean you gotta take a shot of the garage tonight. Ain’t nothin’ prettier, I mean it.”

“Cor said the boy’s to stay indoors,” Cid said, and Cindy gave Prompto a roguish wink that made him blush right down to his toes. “Don’t you go leadin’ him astray. If he’s anything like his dad, he’s probably softer than a daisy in a rainstorm.”

“You have met Cor, right, Mr. Cid?” Prompto asked. Cid snorted.

“Sure,” he said. “Back in the war. First time we fought the Nifs, old Regis had to track him down. Pukin’ his guts up behind a rock somewhere, Reggie said, cryin’ like a baby. Which he was.” He shot Prompto a severe look. “Fifteen years old, and lied on his birth certificate to join up.”

“At least he had a choice, though,” Prompto said. He thought about how young he’d been, the first time he killed on order. Eight, maybe. Nine. MT subjects were weeded out early if they didn’t show an aptitude for combat, and Prompto had been slow to catch up with the others in his class. It was probably easier, he thought, because we didn’t think of ourselves as real people.

Cid grabbed Prompto’s empty mug from him. “Might’ve thought he had a choice,” he growled. “But when you’re dirt poor in the city, it’s join up with the guard or starve. Reggie and the others, we tried to convince him to tell the truth, go home. He was a stubborn little cuss. Like you, I bet.”

Prompto grinned, and Cindy slapped him on the knee.

“Which means we’ll be goin’ out to take a shot of the garage tonight, yeah?” she said. Prompto smiled helplessly, struggling to bring up the image of Noct’s face over the sparkle of the goddess’ eyes.

“Yeah,” he said, weakly. “You bet.”

Chapter Text

Cid made Prompto a bed on the couch out of some old green blankets and a pillow from the linen closet, but he didn’t see much use out of it. Cindy dragged him up to her loft above the living room, first, showing him a small bedroom she’d filled with diner signs and refurbished artifacts she’d found out in the desert. They sat on her bed, Prompto a little anxiously, and she had him hold out the end of one of her jumpsuits while she tried to scrub oil from the sleeve.

“I’m not used to all the rules,” Prompto admitted, “but I know the king said he’d hang any boy who walked into Princess Iris’ bedroom by the ears. In a pit. Should I be in here?”

Cindy had only laughed.

They went out to the parking lot of Hammerhead around midnight, leaving the Colonel asleep on the couch. Cindy struck a pose underneath the massive, beaten-up Hammerhead sign, and Prompto laughed as he adjusted the camera to get the right shot. After a minute, he frowned and shifted to the side. Cindy squinted at him.

"Move it or lose it, sunshine, I'm startin' to lose my balance!" she shouted.

"Yeah, one second," Prompto said. "Something's wrong with the lighting. The sky's all red in the lens for some reason."

Cindy dropped out of her pose and walked over to him. She leaned over his shoulder and stared into the camera. "You're right," she said. "Like a sunset, but it's all fuzzy at the edges. Don't that beat all." She looked up, and Prompto felt her small hand grip his vest, tight.

"Cindy?" he asked. She didn't respond. Prompto followed her gaze, and fumbled with his camera strap.

"Call it a hunch," Cindy said, in a horrified whisper, "but I'm gonna say that wasn't a problem with your camera."

Above them, beyond the desert of Leide, the distant dome of Insomnia blazed with fire.

Prompto made it five yards before Cindy caught him. She yanked him back by the collar just as he threw himself into the bushes at the edge of the lot, her shoes skidding on the concrete as Prompto tried to twist out of her grip. "You'll die out there!" she cried, and hooked a foot under his leg. Prompto went crashing into the bush, Cindy on top of him, and struggled to wriggle free. For a small girl, she had arms of steel. "The daemons'll grind you to dust, and then your daddy'll come out here and Paw-paw will have to give him what's left in a box."

"Those are Level D transport ships!" Prompto wailed. Overhead, enormous aircrafts flashed red lights in a complex pattern on their way to the city. "They're daemon carriers! We use them for destruction, not invasion, and Cor is out there!"

"We?" Cindy asked. There was a flash of light, a criss-cross of red ribbons like fireworks sprouting from a ship, and Prompto could see the outline of a daemon the size of a skyscraper, trudging through the buildings of Insomnia. He moaned, a helpless, desperate cry, and Cindy dragged at his shoulders.

"A Class A-5," he said. "They breed those special. Gods, Cindy, I can't just stay here and watch, I need to go, that thing is made to set the city on fire!"

"And what good are you dead?" Cindy asked. "Your dad said you stay here, you stay here!"

Prompto's fingers went slack on the stone beyond the bush, and he offered no resistance when Cindy pulled him back by his shoulders into the lot. He dropped to a dead weight when she tried to haul him to his feet, and she had to kick him hard in the side to make him look away from the chaos erupting in the sky beyond.

"Your daddy was right," Cindy said. "It ain't good for you to watch." She dragged him the rest of the way into the garage, up the stairs, and into the apartment. Prompto stood in a daze as she slammed all the windows shut and lowered the blinds one by one, and when she pushed him to the couch, he fell onto it numbly, waking the Colonel with a yelp. The Colonel shoved her nose under his hands and into his face, whining low, and scrabbled at his duffel bag. She came back with his medication, then ran back for one of his socks, a sketchbook, and a granola bar. She pushed the medication into his foot and started licking him on the jaw, and when he didn't respond, she jumped onto his back and curled up there, laying her head on his shoulder. At some point in the middle of all this, Cindy woke up her grandfather, who read the back of Prompto's medication and stomped off to the kitchen. He came back with a cup of water, shooed the Colonel off of Prompto's back, and pushed the water into Prompto's hands.

"Drink," he said. Something in his tone registered with Prompto on an almost primal level: He raised the glass to his lips. "Good boy." Cid guided him through taking two of his pills, and lay him back down on the couch. Prompto wasn't sure how long he lay there, trapped in a haze of exhaustion, but it seemed as though he'd only closed his eyes for a moment when he heard a boom of metal and a click of a latch. He sat up, but the fear that had held him so tightly was reduced to a low fizzing in the back of his mind, and the room he was in, while small and unfamiliar, was dimly lit and warm. Safe.

At the door, Cid flicked on a light and opened the door.

"You look like shit," he said to the dark figure in the doorway.

"Missed you, too, Cid," said Cor Leonis.

“Cor!” Prompto fell out of the tangle of blankets on the couch and staggered upright. He tripped over the Colonel, who was whining and whuffling as she woke, and Cor closed the distance to catch him in a solid grip. Cor let out a breath so deep that it felt like he’d been holding it all night, and dug his fingers into his hair. Prompto, bewildered and frightened and relieved all at once, held him back, trying to assure him that he was here, that he was alive.

“Thank the Six,” Cor breathed.

“That’s my line.” Prompto’s voice was muffled against Cor’s neck. “I’m sorry. I went outside. I saw the daemon, the class A-5. No one could’ve survived that.”

Cor let out a mirthless laugh. “They don’t call me the Immortal for nothing,” he said.

Prompto finally felt Cor’s hold loosen, and he let his heels drop to the ground. Cor looked older, somehow, the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper, and he smelled like smoke and metal, blood and dust. It reminded Prompto so strongly of their first meeting that he could feel his arms start to shake. When he spoke again, his voice was little more than a buzz.

“The king?” he asked. “Mr. Amicitia? Iris?”

The lines of Cor’s mouth hardened further still. “Iris is safe,” he said. Prompto stepped back, disturbed by the finality of his tone, and the implications of it all swept through him in a rush. He raised a hand to the back of his neck and swallowed down the taste of tears.

“No,” he whispered. No, the king was… the king was invincible. Cold and hard and dripping with the sarcastic wit he’d given to his youngest son, elegant in black suits and extravagant men’s dressing gowns, and a kindness behind the terrifying power that draped him like a cloak. And Clarus, his Shield and lover, the man who still swung Iris in his arms as though she were a child, the unbending steel to King Regis’ cutting temper. Prompto couldn’t bring himself to imagine a world without them. It was as though the universe itself had carved the shape of them into the very fabric of its being.

“I’ll explain when we have time,” Cor said. He brushed a hand over Prompto’s straggling bangs. “You should get some sleep, Prompto.”

“He can stay up in my room,” Cindy called, from the top of the stairs. “Come on, sunshine.”

Prompto wanted to stay, but the look that Cor and Cid shared was so private that he already felt like an intruder. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Cor nodded, and watched him and the Colonel climb the steps to Cindy’s loft. Cindy shut the door behind them and sighed.

“Come here,” she said, opening her arms to the boy. Prompto fell into her hold reflexively, the fear and horror of the night catching up to him. Somewhere, Noctis, Gladio and Iris were out there, unknowing of their parents’ fate, ripped free of their presence too soon. It had only been three years since Prompto had even learned what a family was, what love could be, and just the thought of being without was too much to bear.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, through the damp patch he’d made in Cindy’s shirt. “I don’t mean to ruin your shirt.“

“Oh, hell, babyheart,” Cindy said. “It’s only water.” She pushed him out of her hold and looked him over. “I’m gonna go out and listen in on Cid. He’s a tough love kinda man, and your pa looks like he’s a step from breaking.”

“Cor?” Prompto asked. “He doesn’t break.” Cindy gave him an arch look and shrugged, making for the door. Despite his reservations, he followed her out—He didn’t know if he could stand to be alone right now. They stopped at the top of the stairs and sat down next to each other, cloaked in shadow.

“If old Reggie passed on,” Cid was saying, in a low voice, “Who the hell activated the Old Wall?”

“I don’t know,” Cor said. He was holding a cup of tea in his hands, hunched next to Cid with his back to Prompto and Cindy. “Maybe he called it before he died, but… I could have sworn he said he couldn’t activate it just a week ago, Cid.”

Cid huffed. “Then who says he’s gone?” he asked. Prompto straightened, and Cindy’s eyes narrowed. “Only the king can wield the ring without payin’ a price.”

“I…” Cor’s voice wavered, and he took a breath to steady himself. “I went back, to find Iris. Dustin and Monica escorted her out of the city. The Citadel was a ruin already, so I thought, I thought that His Majesty at least…”

“Spit it out, son.”

“I pulled Clarus down,” Cor said. His hands were gripped tight around the tea mug. “I don’t know why. He was already cold. But I thought… It wasn’t right. He didn’t deserve to go out that way. If I find the man who did it, I swear, Cid, I will ruin him."

“Easy, kid.”

Cor sighed. “You always make me forget my training, Cid,” he said, an edge of fondness creeping into his hollow voice. “I found Regis in the lower levels. Brought him up to Clarus. But I didn’t have time…”

Cid rubbed his friend’s back slowly, bunching up the cloth of his charred Crownsguard uniform. “Reckon they’d be grateful for it, Cor,” he said. “You served them to the end.”

“I know what must be done,” Cor said, wretchedly. “But gods, Cid. I wish I didn’t. Without them, I… They were the heart of us.”

Cid’s hand went still at the nape of Cor’s neck, and his jaw shifted under loose, weather-worn jowls. “I don’t expect Reggie or Clarus would agree with you, there,” he said. Cor’s shoulders lifted, and his friend spat on the floor, making Cindy frown.

Cor remained silent, staring down at his hands.

“I seem to recall,” Cid said, in a voice much gentler than Prompto had heard him use before, “a scrappy little shit-kicker who didn’t know when to shut the hell up or stay the hell down. Gave a sergeant a good left hook for bad-mouthin’ the prince, when Reggie could’ve handled it well enough. Got his ass beat tryin’ to save Clarus from canon fire. Found that little girl out by the Slough, poor thing, and defied the prince himself to dig her a grave. Made us so late for muster he had latrine duty for a month. Never complained.”

“That was the war, Cid,” Cor said.

“Yeah? What’s that boy doin’ here? Who made a place for him? Gave him a name?” Cid pulled the larger man towards him, bumping their shoulders. “We would’ve followed Reggie into hell and out of it, if he wanted to. Sometimes, we just about did. And Clarus, he was his right hand. But the heart? Hell, Cor. We all know who that was.”

Cor leaned into Cid’s hold, and Prompto could hear the hitch of his breath from the top of the stairs. Cindy, in an echo of her grandfather, pressed a palm to Prompto’s shoulder and pulled him into a one-armed embrace, lacing his fingers in her free hand. They sat there for a long while, just breathing, watching grief break over the men below like the crest of a wave, waiting for the sun to rise.

Chapter Text

When Cor climbed into the driver's seat of the Crownsguard vehicle he'd lent to Prompto, he found that the young man was already buckled into the passenger's side, waiting for him. Prompto's forehead rested against the window, and he had one leg drawn up to his chest with an arm wrapped round it for balance. It was the same pose he adopted when he fell asleep in the living room at home, and Cor's frustration with the young man's inability to stay put warred with the urge to throw a blanket over him and turn out the lights.

"I told you to stay with Cid," he said, and Prompto shrugged lightly.

"I'll just follow Noct and the others anyway," he mumbled. He leaned down and pushed a paper cup of coffee into Cor's hand. "Three sugars, no cream."

"Don't bribe me with diner coffee," Cor warned him, and Prompto flashed him an exhausted smile. He dutifully took a sip and started the car. In the backseat, the Colonel slowly padded in a circle on the leather seat cushions. "Things are going to get dicey from here on out. Prince Noctis... He'll have a hard journey ahead of him. And I'll have work to do, scouting ahead, making sure he does the job right."

"Because he's chosen," Prompto said. "Yeah, he told me."

Cor turned off down a dirt road towards the rendezvous point. He doubted that Noctis had told Prompto everything. The boy had been fifteen when he'd wrangled the truth from his parents regarding what the ascension of the Chosen King would entail, and had tried to run away from home three times over the course of the next year. His brother, Gladiolus, always seemed to know where to find him, but it took Regis tracking the boy down himself to convince him that running away from his destiny wasn't going to make the weight of it any easier to bear. Since then, the crown prince had treated the whole business as though it were a distant sort of fairytale, nothing that could touch him directly.

Judging by the tone of his voice when Cor called him that morning, Noctis was running full-tilt into another episode. Cor could only hope that Gladiolus could pull him out of this one.

"It would be easier if you stayed with Cid," Cor said, for what felt like the fifth time. "There'll be fighting."

"I can handle it," Prompto said, still in that half-asleep buzz. He huffed at the critical look on Cor's face and slumped a little further against the window. "Not like I wasn't trained for it."

"But then you rejected that training," Cor told him. "That's something I admire in you." The young man's face fell a little, and Cor pushed at his shoulder. "Hey. I know that look, kid. Take the compliment, it's free."

"Thanks, Cor," Prompto whispered.

Their walk to the tomb where Cor was to meet Noctis was largely uneventful. He could hear the occasional snap of a photo being taken as Prompto lagged behind, the huff of the Colonel padding along at the boy's heels, the scrape of his boots on the stone. The world was still waking up from the terrors of the night before; Few monsters lurked in the crags this early, when the daemons that prowled the dark wastes were only just dissolving in the sun. Bees rose from the grass about them as they approached the tomb, heavy with dew, and the stone entrance was glossy with dissipating mist.

Prompto shivered as Cor leaned against the door to the tomb. "If you stayed behind with Cid," Cor started, and let out a startled laugh at the look of pure disgust on Prompto's face.

"Cor."

"Alright, I'll stop. I know when I've been beaten." Cor shrugged off his Crownsguard jacket and tossed it to his son, who put it on in silence, still shivering. Prompto didn't like to mention it, but he was still sensitive to changes in temperature—A remnant of whatever the Empire had done to him, back in the testing facilities of Gralea—and was worryingly prone to falling ill in the cold. No amount of prodding or pleading could convince him to take a flu shot, not with his debilitating fear of needles, and Cor had missed more work in the past three years than he had in the forty that preceded them just to see Prompto through seasonal colds. The poor kid treated each one as though it were a death sentence... Which, for an MT, it probably was.

They had a while to wait. Prompto was almost asleep again by the time the crown prince, Gladiolus, and Ignis arrived, but a shout from Noctis sent him staggering to his feet.

"Watch the stone—" Cor winced as Prompto tripped, hands outstretched, but Noctis warped to his side in an instant. The young men fell into each other's arms as though they hadn't seen one another in years, and Gladio strode over to them before their light, tentative kisses could turn into anything more.

"Knew you'd make it, blondie," he said, and dragged Prompto into an embrace that had him squeaking in distress. Ignis ran a hand through his hair, just the once, but Cor suspected by Prompto's response that this was as good as a tearful reunion in the advisor's case.

"Thank you." Cor glanced down to see Noctis at his side, looking pale and withdrawn. "For getting him out. And for... for my dads. Cid said..."

"Don't thank me for that," Cor said, and the crown prince frowned. "Come. There's much to tell you, and very little time."

He reached for a pocket he didn't have, turned to Prompto, and shouted, "There's a key in your left-hand jacket pocket!" Prompto disengaged from Gladio's embrace long enough to fish it out, and tossed it too high. The resulting scramble in the grass for the only key to the Lucian tombs ruined the gravitas of the moment somewhat, but it did seem to ease the hard lines in Noctis' brow. By the time they all piled into the tomb, the prince's grief was still raw, but tempered by the presence of his brother, and by the comfort of Prompto's hand in his. When he took the blade of his ancestors into his armiger, he held none of the anger Cor had come to expect: Only a grim sort of resignation, laced with an expression that made Cor's hair stand on end. It took him a moment to register why: It was the same look Regis or Clarus would get, at times, when Cor was visiting the manor. They were careful not to let that expression show in front of their children, but sometimes, when Noctis would pass by on the heels of one of Iris' latest schemes, or when he was outside training with Gladiolus, Cor would catch a flicker of it. Sorrow, perhaps, a grief that came before the loss. To see it in Noctis now felt like an unnecessary cruelty.

"There's another tomb not too far from here," Cor said, when the last of Noct's new power died away. "The Empire has occupied the surrounding area—We'll be in for a fight. I'll be joining you on this one, to see where you stand."

"And I'm coming with you," Prompto said, with only the slightest quiver in his voice. Noctis smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

"Of course you will," he said, before Cor could object. And that was that. Gods help him, Cor could only hope that the enemy was weaker than his reports claimed them to be. He cast Prompto one last warning look, pressed the key into Noct's free hand, and led the lot of them out into the sweltering heat of the midday sun.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, it was a good idea to leave the Colonel behind at the Hunter HQ.

The heat was thick enough to swim through as Cor ushered the young men of Noctis' retinue into position. A carrier of MagiTech infantry had set down not fifty yards from the entrance to the mines where the next tomb lay in wait. They weren't advanced soldiers: Cor was reminded of the MT troops who had fought alongside Prompto, years before, who were so quick to take down that the threat they posed felt almost insulting. Now, Prompto watched the troops carefully, scanning the field in the same order that Cor had: He sought for high ground first, then counted the troops, noted the placement of MT mecha units, and then for cover. It was an old habit, one that he'd been trying to shake, but he slipped into it again like the arms of an old friend. Even his stance shifted, shoulders straight, legs slightly bowed.

"You ready for this, Your Highness?" Cor asked.

"Ready as I'll ever be." Noct summoned one of his blades as Ignis murmured instructions in his ear.

"You take the lead, then," Cor told him.

Prompto smacked the back of Ignis' shoulder, and smiled toothily when the older man turned. "We're weak to... They're weak to light," he said. "Come at them from where the sun's brightest, and you'll catch them off guard."

"Thanks, Prom," Noct said, and Prompto's cheeks flushed pink. Then the prince was gone, warping between the soldiers his advisor had pointed out, decimating half of the MTs on the ground with a flash of his broadsword. Ignis followed at his heels, and Gladio charged in from the side. A basic maneuver, Cor supposed, but it did the job. He cast a warning look to Prompto to stay where he was, and then swept in at Noctis' back.

The fight was only a minute through before Cor heard the pock of gunfire and felt the spray of stone at his feet. Damn, they had a sniper. He opened his mouth to shout an order to the prince, but was interrupted by a hoarse cry to his left.

"Noct!" Prompto had his back to a burned-out wall. "Get the sniper!"

Prince Noctis warped to the top of a grille overlooking the battleground. As soon as the crunch of the prince's sword was heard breaking through the enemy MT's armor, Prompto vaulted the wall and made a break for the grille. Gunfire marked the stone at his feet, but he ran with the steady efficiency of a soldier, fast and not so wide that he couldn't turn for cover at a moment's notice. He swung himself up the ladder towards the grille and skidded to a halt at the fallen body.

"Go on," he shouted, and Noct gripped his shoulder once, tight, before warping back into the fray. Prompto wrenched the rifle from the dead sniper's grip and ducked behind a pile of debris at the edge of the platform.

Cor didn't see much of Prompto after that, but he did see his handiwork. An MT axeman went down just as they approached Ignis' blind spot. Another fell a few feet behind the prince. When Cor found himself face-to-face with a mecha unit, a shot to the joint of one of its legs sent it buckling to the ground, giving Cor enough time to finish it off.

When the last MT soldier was left shuddering in the dirt, Prompto slithered down the side of the wall and made his way to Cor. His legs shook, but his eyes were burning with adrenaline, and he didn't flinch away when Cor placed a hand on his cheek.

"Holding up?" he asked. Prompto closed his eyes.

"I'm okay." He stepped out of Cor's grip and bypassed his friends' attempts at greeting him, ducking away from Noctis' outstretched arm. He made for the battlefield, where he dropped the rifle in the dust and knelt at the side of a twitching MT soldier. Cor cursed under his breath. Prompto lifted up the green mask over the soldier's face, and Cor heard a rattling gasp of pain, the garbled slur of speech drowning out Prompto's quiet voice.

He was five feet away when he saw Prompto pull out the soldier's belt knife.

The strike was clean. There was less blood than Cor would have expected, and much of it was blackened with the viscous, oily sheen of the daemonic ichor that the MT soldiers were fed. It spilled over Prompto's hands and sucked at the dry earth at his knees.

"Holy shit, Prompto." That was Noctis, following at Cor's heels. "What the hell did you do?"

Prompto stood. "He asked for it," he said dully. "He was a phase above me, anyways. The sun would've killed him. It would've been slow." He pulled a box of bullets from the soldier's belt and tucked it in one of his own pockets, then picked up the rifle again. When he turned to Cor, his eyes were bright and wet. "You said there was a tomb?"

Cor left them at the mouth of the mines. Prompto was pale but firm in his resolve, and when he turned from Cor's awkward embrace, prince Noctis held out a steady hand that was half shadowed in the dark of the tunnel. Prompto took it, and the two of them disappeared behind the prince's advisor and Shield, the white-knuckled joining of their fingers the last to fade from view.

Chapter Text

The caravan at the edge of the Hunter HQ glowed gold against the harsh blue pools of daemon-warding lights, and the warmth of its ancient oven made the air around the front door ripple. Prompto sat on the ground, wedged between Cor and his colleague Monica, who was reporting in after escorting the princess safely to Lestallum. Monica always seemed to break her grim, level demeanor around Prompto, though, and was currently poring through his sketchbooks with all the delight of a teacher engaging a star pupil. The Colonel slept on Prompto’s legs, and Cor had an arm slung around his shoulder.

“The blockade should be easy enough to break,” Cor was telling the prince, who was sitting with his feet propped up on a plastic dining table. “But we’ll need to split into two teams.”

“Sure,” Noct said. “But after that, I have a request for you.”

“A request?” Cor’s brows raised, and Noct made a face.

“An order,” he corrected. “It’s about Luna. I know they say she’s dead, but they’re saying the same thing about me…

“You want me to find out if it’s true.”

Noct fiddled with his phone, flipping it over and over between his fingers. “If you can,” he said. “We… We’ve talked. About what we’d do, after Altissia. If she’s alive, she’s going to try to forge the covenants.”

“That means Titan, first,” Gladio said. He stepped out of the caravan with a tray of grilled sandwiches. “Or Ramuh.”

“I’ll check the Disc,” Cor said. “Prompto, it would be best if you stayed here, with Monica—“

“The Colonel needs a walk,” Prompto said, and the dog on his legs perked up her ears and whined. He pulled himself free of Cor’s hold and clicked his tongue at the Colonel, who bounded to her feet and trotted off at his heels.

He knew he was being unreasonable. Cor was right; it was better for Prompto to keep out of the fighting. It had been so easy—too easy—for him to pick up a gun again. The empty, endless space that filled his mind when he was in training as an MT had edged its way in as he sighted his targets, had threatened to drown him with the shame of disobedience, of adapting his fighting style to benefit his friends. MTs weren’t trained to work as a team. They were trained to work as interlocking parts of a puzzle, every soldier within their own role.

He didn’t want to go back to that.

Prompto hadn’t gone far before he heard footsteps behind him. He turned, preparing himself for yet another debate with Cor, and found Noct standing in the sparse grass by the HQ radio station, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Prom,” he said, his gaze roaming anywhere but on Prompto. “I don’t wanna make you choose between us and Cor. I know it’s all still new, but he’s… He’s your dad, and I can’t…” His lips flattened out, and Prompto heard the sharp hiss of a hitching breath.

“Hey.” Prompto stepped forward and tentatively touched the prince’s hands with his own. Noct sighed and flexed his fingers, and Prompto gripped him tight. “I know. And Cor… I mean, think about it, Noct. Do you think he can go a week without checking up on me? Really?”

Noct smiled wryly. “He is kind of overprotective.”

“It’ll be fine,” Prompto said. “He’ll find your ex-fiance—You two aren’t… still getting married, right?” The look of horror on Noct’s face was so stricken that Prompto laughed. “Okay, good. Because I don’t want to have to fight the Oracle for you. I’ll probably lose.”

“She has hidden depths, yeah.”

Prompto kissed the prince then, light and brief, knowing that the others were probably watching them. “So?” he asked. “I can come with?”

“Astrals’ sake, Prom, of course.” Noct kissed him back, and Prompto slipped away into the sudden, fierce joy of his touch for all of a minute before a loud wolf-whistle broke through the night air. He glanced over the prince’s shoulder to see Gladio winking at them under the awning. Noct flipped his brother a rude gesture, and Ignis and Cor both made twin hums of disapproval.

 

When Ignis, Prompto, and Gladio breached the blockade at the border of Duscae, Prompto still wore Cor’s jacket. It helped ground him—made him feel less like one of the MTs he quietly felled from the top of the blockade walls. It smelled strongly of campfire smoke now, but it had been a constant presence in Prompto’s life over the past few years, and it calmed the stuttering hammer of his heart.

“Well done,” Cor said, as he and Noct appeared from behind a set of maze-like buildings, sweating and covered in brick dust. “This should be—“

“Well, well, well! If it isn’t Cor the Immortal!”

Prompto looked up into the black maw of an MT carrier ship, hovering just over the top of the blockade walls. It looked like one meant for officers, with the amenities designed to support human soldiers and a smaller holding cell for select MTs. A mecha Prompto didn’t recognize was stationed at the edge of the bay doors, and a young man about his age with the blonde hair, rounded face, and angular shoulders of an MT leaned against it.

Except he couldn’t be an MT, because he had all the trappings of a commanding officer. Prompto found himself trying to make out the color of his eyes, but the heat of the ship engine distorted the air.

“Loqi,” Cor said. “Gods, not again.”

“You think you’ve evaded me this time!” the man said. “You’ll change your tune when you—“ he cried out as Prompto fired a bullet at his feet. Damn. Even now, it was hard, painfully hard, to shoot an officer. Every instinct in Prompto’s body was screaming for him to back away.

His moment of hesitation cost them. The young man jumped into the mecha, and the whole monstrous thing went crashing down right in the midst of his friends on the ground. Prompto grit his teeth and fired where he supposed the engine should be.

The bullet bounced off.

The fight against Loqi was woefully short. Prompto ended up having to drop to the ground to get a better shot at the engine, which turned out to be set at the mecha’s underside. When the machine began to crackle with fire, the officer in the cockpit grappled to the doors of the carrier, shouting something nonsensical about glory and the empire.

“So,” Prompto said, turning to Cor. “What was that about?”

“You really don’t want to know,” Cor told him. “But if you see him again, don’t make the mistake of arguing with him.”

“If I…” Prompto looked into Cor’s eyes, and clenched his hands in the too-large jacket. “Does this mean I can…”

“If it gets to be too much,” Cor said, “You go to Lestallum and stay there. Understand?”

Prompto threw himself at the older man, who grunted at the force of his embrace and staggered a little. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“I’ll see you when I’ve found the Oracle,” Cor said. "Try to stay safe, Prompto."

"Don't worry," Prompto told him. "I'm starting to think survival's kind of my thing."

"Wow," Gladio said, coming up from behind to swing an arm over Prompto's shoulders. "Sounds like you picked the right kid, Cor." He blanched at the older man's expression. "Mr. Leonis. Marshal. Sir."

Prompto laughed and towed Gladio off before he started groveling, and led them to the sleek, black car where Ignis, the Colonel, and Noctis were waiting.

Chapter Text

The hills of Duscae rolled past in a wavering blur as the Regalia cleared the blockade out of Leide. Prompto sat on his knees in the front passenger’s seat, snapping badly-focused photos of interesting-looking trees, and Ignis had to keep leaning over to tug him down by his waistband. He had Cor’s jacket buttoned up to prevent it from flapping loose in the wind, a thick leather bracelet around his tattoo, and was wearing a pair of Gladio’s sunglasses, which kept slipping down his nose. The glasses were an added precaution—While Prompto was pretty sure no one would recognize him as a former MT these days, if you looked too close, it was possible to see a faint glow in his red eyes. It would be a little difficult to explain that away.

He turned to take a photo of Gladio, who smirked.

“Enjoying the view?”

Judging by Noct’s roll of the eyes, this was probably a joke. Prompto didn’t always get Gladio’s sense of humor right away: The things he said sometimes had a second meaning that Prompto didn’t pick up on until much later.

He made a noncommittal grunt instead—that seemed the safest option—and waved the camera. “You look kinda like Noct when you smile like that.”

“Dude, don’t insult me,” Noct said. Gladio ruffled his hair, and he edged so far away that he was practically hanging out of the car. The Colonel, curled up between them, raised her head and huffed.

“Oh,” Ignis said. “Look at that. They have some sort of chocobo farm up ahead.”

Prompto nearly dropped his camera.

“Here we go,” Gladio said.

“It’s okay!” Prompto said, trying to keep the overwhelming yearning out of his voice. “We need to get to Lestallum, right? They’re just… they’re just chocobos.”

He’d spent the last twenty years of his life never seeing a chocobo in the flesh before. He could last a few more days. Possibly. They had to help Noct on his journey, and meet up with Iris, and find Luna, and…

“Ignis,” said Noct.

“On it,” Ignis said, and turned the car down an unmarked exit. “I believe we have room in our schedule for a pit-stop.”

Prompto turned from Ignis to Noct, unable to give voice to the warmth filling his chest.

“I…”

“Don’t sweat it,” said Noct, turning aside to hide the blush on his cheeks.

“I love you, man,” Prompto squeaked, and lunged across the gap between his and Ignis’ seats. Ignis cursed and the car swerved, sending Prompto careening into Gladio. The Colonel, assuming that her human was in peril, proceeded to try and climb onto his back, and Noct leaned over to usher the dog to her seat. By the time the car righted itself, Noct was on the floor, Prompto was sprawled in Gladio’s lap, the Colonel was whining insistently in his ear, and Ignis had to pull the car over so that he could collapse in silent laughter.

When he saw that the chocobo ranch was empty, Prompto nearly cried. While Ignis rubbed his shoulders and explained that Sometimes these things just happen, Prompto, Gladio stormed over to the proprietor to demand to know why.

“Deadeye,” the man said. “Damn beast has been scarin’ off all the chocobos, and I can’t put my birds in danger, can I? Ain’t no hunters had the stones to fight the thing, either. This keeps up, I might have to close the ranch.”

Gladio looked to Prompto, who was trying, yet again, to hold back tears.

“Where’d you say this Deadeye is hiding?” he asked.

 

“You didn’t have to do this,” Prompto said, as the four of them trudged back through the woods towards the chocobo post. The moon was low overhead, sinking towards morning, and all of his photos were giving the others nightmarishly shadowed faces no matter what filter he used. Then again, part of that was due to Noct, who had thrown a fire spell just a little too close to the others. Prompto hoped Cor wouldn’t notice the burn-marks on his jacket sleeves, but Ignis assured him that his hair, at least, was untouched.

“You aren’t the only one who likes chocobos, Prom,” Noct said, and Gladio sniffed. He’d been sneezing nonstop ever since they entered Deadeye’s lair, and had nearly given their position away three times while they were tracking the behemoth down. Prompto suspected that Noct wasn’t going to let him forget that one.

They practically crawled into the caravan on the outskirts of the ranch, and Prompto fell into the closest bed he could find. Noct clambered in after him, and lifted his arm to wrap it around his waist.

“Thank you,” Prompto whispered. Noct raised a shoulder in a lazy shrug and wriggled closer.

“No worries,” he mumbled. “Just glad you’re here.” Prompto blinked, trying to come up with the right thing to say to that, but he hesitated a moment too long. Noct was already asleep, breathing loudly through his open mouth, one hand curled in Prompto’s vest.

The next morning, Prompto finally got to meet a chocobo.

Her name was Garbage Monster, she was dyed an eye-smarting shade of pink, and she had a tendency to eat anything that sparkled—including shiny candy wrappers straight out of the trash. Prompto loved her. He also loved the babies that bobbed and clucked about their feet, their tiny peanut brains dedicated to hunger and intense rage by turns. Three of them in particular kept trying to attack Ignis, and the proprietor of the ranch had to gently suggest that Ignis’ hair may have startled them into thinking he was an aggressive older bird.

Ignis spent the drive to Lestallum grimly chugging cans of Ebony and casting dour looks back at a sniggering Noctis.

After years living in Insomnia, Prompto figured he was probably ruined for cities. Lestallum was nice, but it didn’t have the gardens in Prompto’s old neighborhood, or the fountains at every corner, the big screen TVs that broadcasted ads and announcements in the main square. It was quieter, though, and less congested, though Prompto did have to hold onto the Colonel and remember his breathing when they walked through the main market.

“Doing ok?” Ignis asked him, and Prompto nodded. He was fine. This was fine.

Noct and Gladio grew more antsy the further they went into the city. By the time they made it to the Leville courtyard, where a group of musicians played for a small crowd of tourists, they were almost jogging. Prompto nearly asked what was wrong, when he heard a high, familiar voice call out over the din.

“Gladdy! Noct!”

Prompto and Ignis slowed down as Gladio and Noctis broke into a run. Iris Amicitia-Caelum pattered down the steps of the Leville towards them, and yelped as Gladio swung her into his arms. Her feet had barely touched the ground when Noct caught her up as well. She clung to her brothers with frantic, grasping hands, as though they were in danger of being swept away in a high wind. Prompto hung back, and looked up at Ignis to see the advisor watching them with a forlorn look in his eyes.

“No family deserves what they have to endure,” Ignis said. Prompto watched him keenly, remembering how often he’d seen Ignis staying over at the royal manor in the afternoons, sitting at the couches with his reports, speaking to the king or to Clarus over tea. He’d always been evasive when Prompto asked him about his family, choosing instead to ask questions on how Prompto was getting on with Cor. Prompto knew he wasn’t the best at picking up emotions, yet—For the first year after his capture, he had to watch others like a hawk to figure out what they were feeling—but he wondered, now, what the king and his Shield had truly been to Ignis.

“You’re right,” Prompto said, and slipped his arm around the advisor’s. Ignis smiled down on him gratefully, and Prompto bumped his shoulder.

“The heck are you two doing back there?” Iris was standing between Noct and Gladio, hands on her hips. “Not even a hello? Talk about disrespectful.”

Prompto pulled free from Ignis and dropped to one knee before Iris, mimicking the mock-gallant pose he’d made when he first asked her permission to date her brother. “Your highness,” he said, and she slapped his arm.

“Shh,” Gladio hissed. “No titles.” Prompto winced and nodded, and kissed Iris’ hand as he rose.

“What the hell?” Noct said. “You don’t do that to me.

“Yeah,” said Prompto, “that’s because we—“

“Please, both of you,” Ignis said, walking up to give Iris his hand in greeting. “Let’s not detail your romantic exploits.”

“Thank you,” Iris said. Noct punched her in the shoulder, and she kicked him in the shin.

“Missed you, nerd,” he told her. Iris’ frown wavered, broke, and fell completely, and the others all converged on her as she burst into ugly, gasping tears.

Chapter Text

Cor pressed himself to the wall of the path leading to the Disc of Cauthess, hands grasping for purchase on heat-slick stone. Tremors had been rippling out from the center of the Disc all morning; Someone had roused the Archaean, at least, and he prayed that it wasn’t the Empire setting up shop at the main entrance. It probably was. This was likely a dead-end in his search for the Oracle, another failure to report to the new king, and he wasn’t looking forward to fighting his way through whoever was holding audience with the Titan.

He pushed off from the wall once the worst of the quakes had passed, and slid under an overhanging tunnel of rotting trees.

Around the corner, there was a high, cut-off sound of frustration, and a dirty white sandal landed on the ground before a stone column.

Curse it!” A young woman swung into view, dressed in what looked like a white shift with black lace on the sleeves, hanging onto a thick tree branch for dear life. She dropped heavily, and hopped to her shoe, which was already starting to melt on the baking earth.

Cor coughed. The young woman stared up at him with startlingly blue eyes, half obscured by soot-streaked hair. She looked to the sword in his hand, and Cor angled it behind him.

“Lady Lunafreya?” he asked. The woman wobbled on one foot, nodding. He bowed. “I am Cor Leonis, Marshal to the King. He has ordered me to ensure your safety.”

“Oh,” Luna said. “That’s nice of him.” She bent down to strap on what was left of her ruined shoe. “But I have much to do, yet. Thank you, though, Cor Leonis.”

There was something familiar about Luna, now that Cor had a chance to look at her. Her stance was too defensive, her hands clenched in her thin dress, and her feet had blistered around her impractical sandals. She had to work her jaw for a moment in order to smile, and she kept shifting her gaze from Cor to the fire beneath them as though uncertain which was a greater danger.

She looked much like Prompto had, those first few months at the Citadel; Pushing a smile through the terror and pain, always worried that whatever goodness he’d found was only a temporary reprieve. Cor watched the Oracle hobble past him, and years of conditioning took over.

“When was the last time you ate?” Cor asked. Luna turned her open face to his, and knit her brows. “If you have to think about it, it’s been too long. I have enough for dinner back at camp.”

Luna’s smile would have been dazzling, if her eyes weren’t shadowed with lack of sleep. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine.”

“You’ll be fine if you eat,” Cor insisted. “You aren’t a vegetarian, are you?”

“No?”

“Good. It’s a steak-only menu at the moment.” He held out his hand. “Indulge me, your highness. I don’t think I can cook for one anymore.”

The Oracle worried her lip, looked up at the wavering heat rising from the Meteor, and placed a pale, grimy hand in his.

 

Iris’ boots kicked up dust along the narrow streets of Lestallum, billowing over Prompto’s legs and coating Noct’s black jeans a fine misty grey. She had her arms wrapped around each of theirs, practically swinging between them as she dragged Prompto and Noct through the day market of Lestallum proper.

It was decided the night before, after an evening of tearful conversations and long, uncomfortable silences, that as the one who made Iris break down in the first place, it was Noct’s job to make it up to her. Which meant, in the true Amicitia-Caelum tradition, Noct had become Iris’ gofer for the day.

“Why am I coming, too, though?” Prompto asked, as Iris towed them to a stall of silvery-blue knives. It wasn’t that he minded, but crowds still tended to make him anxious. As it was, the Colonel was continuously blocking him from passers-by, her big blocky head swinging up to nudge his free hand for ear skritches. Iris grinned.

“You’ll keep him from running off. Look at these!” She wriggled loose to pick up a steel short-sword with a wavy tempering on the blade. “What do you think? Yes? No?”

Noct rolled his eyes. “Way too expensive, Iris.”

“It wouldn’t be if we were still…” She saw the dark look pass over Noct’s eyes, and set the sword down. “Of course, once we pick up a few hunts, I might be able to pay for it myself.

Noct’s mood, if anything, grew darker. There wasn’t really any getting around it: It was too dangerous for Iris to stay in Lestallum on her own, even with their butler and his grandson at the Leville for company. Noct wasn’t fond of the idea of Iris being thrown into the thick of battle any more than Gladio was, but Ignis had reminded them that they had safety in numbers, and that Iris was, in fact, marginally better at warp-strikes than Noct. Still, that didn’t stop him from hanging back in a deep sulk as Iris bobbed around the market, picking up bits of cloth and wire for who knew what reason.

Prompto pushed at his cheek with a finger, making Noct blink. “Earth to Noctis.”

“What?” Noct turned to him, and Prompto gave him a quick peck on the lips, startling him. “What was that for? I mean, don’t stop, but…”

“Okay,” Prompto said, and kissed him again. “You’re being a… what’s the word?” He held Noct’s face in both hands. “When you’re supposed to be doing something nice for someone, but you’re standing there like a total doofus—“

“Hey!”

“Shh, I’m trying to think of what it’s called.” Prompto kissed him again, idly, looking over Noct’s shoulder. “Selfish? No. Childish. Mmm, maybe… um… Come on, dude, help me out, here…”

“I’m not gonna help you insult me!” Noct said, but he was laughing a little, which was alright.

“Brat,” said Iris, jumping into Prompto’s line of sight. “The word you’re looking for is brat.

Prompto grinned. “Thanks, Iris!”

“Any time, Prompto!”

Noct scowled as Iris guided Prompto through a fist bump, but leaned in for another kiss. “You’re awful,” he said, pulling him close for more. “I can’t believe I’m. Letting you kiss me. When you’re—“

“Guys, PDA.” Iris grabbed Noct by the arm and dragged him out of Prompto’s hands, leading them up the stairs towards the power plant. “Gladio’s right,” she said, as Prompto and the Colonel trotted to keep up. “You two do need a chaperone.”

They were almost at the power plant when the ground began to tremble. Noct grabbed onto Prompto, who reached to Iris, who wheeled her arms as the three of them rocked back into a wall. The Colonel whined, head down, and pressed close to Prompto as the tremor increased, shaking dust down from the eaves of the apartments overhead.

“Wow,” Prompto said, “I’ve never felt anything like… that…” He stopped, looking from Iris to Noct in concern. Noct was wincing, holding his head in his hands, and Iris was covering her eyes. He touched their shoulders, unsure what he was supposed to do in this sort of crisis, and Iris flinched.

“What was that?” she gasped.

Noct looked to her through eyes squinted tight in pain. “You see it, too?”

“Sort of,” Iris said. “I thought there was… an eye? I don’t know, it was hazy.”

Noct frowned, and turned his gaze out to the distant Meteor. “I know it sounds weird, but… it felt like the Titan.

Prompto snorted, and the other two turned to him. “Sorry,” he said. “Old joke.”

It wasn’t, not really. The Titan, or the Archaean, as some called him, was one of the list of targets MT soldiers were briefed on nearly once a week. He’d spent so long hearing lists and lists of weaknesses, pressure points, and disparaging reports of people worshipping the creature like a god, that to hear someone speak his name with any sort of reverence was almost amusing.

Now, he wondered if maybe this was something he shouldn’t explain. He never thought that Noct might be one of the people who held the giant in high esteem, and it disturbed him to realize that some of his old habits as an MT hadn’t died out yet.

“Let’s go back to the guys,” Iris said. “Maybe Iggy knows something.”

“Sure, Iris,” Noct said, sounding unconvinced.

Prompto walked a little behind the two of them, lost in thought. Would this keep happening? Bits and pieces of his old life bubbling to the surface, needing to be pulled out and examined and broken down? He hoped not—It was exhausting enough trying to figure out all the different ways people spoke, hidden meanings and jokes that were insults in disguise. Noct was easy in that way: When he was being sarcastic, his voice took on a sort of drawl that sounded so like the king that they could have been the same person. Gladio sometimes spoke like that, too, and Iris, when they were scared and wanted to hide it. Prompto wasn’t very good at hiding his emotions, yet.

Baby steps, Cor had told him, when Prompto brought it up once. Anyways, it’ll keep you honest.

Honest. Right. He just had to figure out what honest meant, first.

When they made it back to the Leville, Gladio was waiting for them, sitting on the top step of the hotel with Cor. Prompto let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, and gave him a little wave.

“Mr. Leonis!” Iris shouted, and Cor nodded sagely at the princess. “I’ve been taking care of them for you! They kissed like, a thousand times, but I stopped them.”

“You fucking narc,” Noct said, and Iris laughed, skipping on ahead.

“Thank you for that, Iris,” Cor said, and Prompto groaned. He hoped this wasn’t going to lead to another talk. Cor stood when Prompto reached him, and looked him over slowly. “Were you burned?” he asked. “The jacket—“

“Uh,” Noct said, edging away.

“Just a fight with a behemoth!” Prompto said brightly. Cor’s eyes narrowed. “It was… scaring the chocobos, so… so we set it on fire…”

“Yes-and-we-all-survived-and-Prompto-has-a-chocobo-now,” Noct babbled, pushing Prompto out of Cor’s reach. “What about you? Did you find Luna?”

Cor frowned, giving Prompto the look he’d come to interpret as the “This isn’t over” glare, and nodded. Noct’s face went slack. “She’s upstairs,” Cor started, but Noct was already gone, racing through the entrance of the Leville with hardly a backwards glance at the attendants begging him to Please, don’t run in the halls, sir!

 

Prompto had seen the Oracle before, as one of the people that advanced MT subjects were assigned to guard, but there was a difference between seeing a young, nervous-looking woman on a screen and coming face-to-face with someone who looked like she could keep up in a battle of wits with King Regis and Clarus Amicitia. Prompto hovered at the door with Cor and Gladio, wondering if he should stand at attention, or bow, or anything.

“You must be Prompto,” the Oracle said, looking up over Iris’ head as the younger girl engulfed her in a tight embrace. “Cor has told me much about you.”

“H-he has?” Prompto looked to Cor, who gave him a comforting pat on the back. “How much?”

“Only good things,” the Oracle said. She smiled, and Prompto felt something in his stomach flutter, just a little. Gods, he was doomed to be surrounded by goddesses. This one had light blonde hair, like his, and was wearing what looked like Ignis’ spare shirt and slacks. She pulled out of Iris’ arms and took both of Prompto’s hands. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Yes,” Prompto squeaked. His voice came out in a harsh, mechanical hum. “That’s. I think so, uh huh.”

“She broke him,” Iris whispered to Ignis, who hastily coughed into his hand.

Behind him, as Prompto’s face turned a deep and incriminating shade of pink, Cor pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

Chapter Text

Tremors continued to shake Lestallum all afternoon. The workers in the downstairs lobby of the Leville could be heard shouting and laughing as they ran about catching paintings, cracked mirrors, and ornamental vases, while the manager walked about in a cloud of misery, explaining in a moaning voice that the Leville was quite sturdy, nothing to fear. Every time the floor would tremble, Iris and Noct winced. Noct had it the worst: Once, he had to sit down against the wall with his head between his knees while Ignis stood over him like a worried hen, murmuring something about breathing exercises.

“It’s the Archaean,” Luna explained, rubbing Iris’ back. “He’s not exactly patient, now that he’s awake. And I should warn you—He said something about testing you, when you meet him.”

“Wonderful,” Noct said. “Can’t wait.”

“No,” Gladio told him, pointedly. “You can’t. Thanks, Luna.”

Luna smiled again. She was radiant even in Ignis’ rolled-up cast-offs, the square set of her chin giving her a more mature, slightly stubborn presence. Prompto understood, now, why MTs were given visors that masked the world around them in a fog of green and grey. There were just too many… too many people out there, like Luna, and Cindy, Gladio and Ignis, and…

Prompto looked at Noct. The crown prince was slouching against the wall, head tilted back. His cheeks were a patchy red from his time breathing into his knees, there was ground-in dirt on his delicate jawline and over his weather-cracked hands, his black capris were starting to go red with desert sand and swamp mud, and Prompto could tell even from the other end of the room that he still smelled a little like chocobos. He turned red-rimmed, sleepless eyes to Prompto and yawned hugely.

“H’whazit, Prom?” he asked. He scrubbed a dirty hand through his hair, and half of it stuck up at an angle, held together by grit and clumping hair gel.

“Nothing,” Prompto said, smiling.

“Not in front of the kid, guys,” Gladio told them. Iris glared at him. Luna, sitting in the midst of it all, pressed a hand to her mouth, much in the same way King Regis did when he was trying not to laugh.

“Hate to break up the fun,” Cor said.

“Cor, you always break up the fun,” Noct pointed out.

“Hey, not cool, dude!” Prompto said, and Noct raised his hands in their just kidding, relax! gesture. Cor gave him a sideways look and went on.

“The Nifs started setting up camp when Lady Lunafreya and I were on the way out. Might be best to scope the area, first.”

“There’s a lookout spot at the edge of town, I suppose,” Ignis said. Cor nodded.

“Good. Your Majesty, this might be a good time to put those lessons in battle tactics to use.”

Noct groaned, but Gladio stared him down until he got to his feet, slumping out the door like a man half-risen from the grave. Iris insisted on staying with Luna in the hotel, and as Prompto hopped down the stairs after the rest of their group, Cor tapped him on the shoulder.

“Prompto,” he said. “A moment.”

“Oh. Sure, Cor.” Prompto fell into a slow marching step, the one that he and Cor both knew through vastly different means of training, and tucked his hands in the pockets of Cor’s charred jacket. “This isn’t about the… the kissing thing, is it?”

Cor looked visibly pained. “No,” he said. “No, that’s.” He coughed. “We talked about that. Extensively. This is about Noct.”

Prompto wanted to point out that Noct and kissing went pretty well together, actually, but figured that this wasn’t the sort of thing Cor wanted to know. He waited in silence instead, while Cor tried to work out what he wanted to say.

“As the chosen king,” Cor said, “Noctis’ path will be a hard one.”

“Yeah, you told me that before.”

“But do you know how—” Cor stopped. “Has Noctis told you what the prophecy entails, Prompto?”

“The chosen thing? I don’t know, he has to shake hands with some gods and… stab the darkness? With light?”

“That’s an image, but no,” Cor said. “You might want to talk to Noctis about it, when you have time.” He coughed again. “On. On another note. If you do need to talk about… any burgeoning feelings you might have for…”

“Oh my gods, no.” Prompto shook his head so hard that his sunglasses nearly slipped off his nose. “I’m fine. All fine in the feelings department. Feelings under control.”

“Right,” Cor said. “Good. That’s. That’s good.”

“Isn’t it?”

Prompto nudged Cor, and Cor draped an arm over his shoulders, letting Prompto lean in to his side as they walked. Like that, with the Colonel at their side and high walls overhead, Prompto could almost imagine that they were on their old street again, heading for the Citadel during Cor’s lunch break. In a few minutes, they’d be close enough to the gates that Prompto could run off to visit Iris and Noct at the manor, maybe even get a glimpse of Gladio before he dragged Noct to a sparring lesson. Sometimes, King Regis or Clarus would be there, in which case Prompto would have to sit in stiff, mind-numbing terror while they served him drinks and asked how he was doing. How he was doing, Prompto knew, always meant how and what he was doing with Noct. It was like being interrogated by a basilisk.

“Where are we gonna go?” Prompto asked. “After this.”

Cor squeezed his shoulder and guided him out of the way of a group of power plant workers. “I don’t know, Prom,” he said. “I’d like to say we’d end up at Insomnia, but… It might be a while.” He smiled wryly. “You might be a different person by then.”

“Not that different,” Prompto said. The way Cor was talking now sounded dangerously like a goodbye. “Not too different for you.

Cor raised his hand to ruffle the side of Prompto’s hair. “I know,” he said. “I’ll always have a home for you, Prompto. Even if it moves around a little right now.”

“So long as I don’t have to sleep in the Regalia for the next ten years, I’m good.”

Cor actually laughed at that, soft and faint. Prompto was smiling back, the Colonel was panting at his side, and he could see the others just down the stairs, crowded together at the lookout. Things were going to work out. They had to.

“Aren’t nursery rhymes curious things?”

Cor staggered, falling out of step as Prompto jerked to a halt. The Colonel immediately picked up on it, nudging him, getting between Prompto and the stair, but Prompto couldn’t let himself be stuck in place. There was a man standing in front of Noct, Gladio, and Ignis, hat tilted jauntily over mauve locks, an easy smile on his face.

“Prompto?” Cor asked. He followed Prompto’s gaze, and cursed darkly. “Stay here.”

Prompto pushed past him, making the Colonel whine and whimper at his heels as he ran down the steps. He could hear Cor striding after him, but Prompto was fast, like all MTs were trained to be, and by the time he reached Noctis, Cor was several paces behind.

“Prom,” Gladio said, staring at him in surprise. Prompto shoved Ignis out of his way, dug his fingers into the cloth of Noct’s shirt, and dragged him backwards.

“What the hell, Prompto!”

“My,” said the man in the hat, standing mere feet away from Prompto. “Is this a new companion of yours?”

Prompto shuddered. It hit him suddenly that his body was trying to stand to attention. His shoulders had straightened, his feet were set apart, head tilted just so as it always was during muster. It felt like an instinct that had been etched into his bones—Here was a superior, someone whose authority was listed higher than that of the Imperial High Command. Here was the man whose footsteps in the fortress where Prompto had been trained was a harbinger of pain, of rounds of new experiments, of entire swathes of MTs being sent to the upper floors for decommissioning.

Chancellor Ardyn Izunia gave Prompto a look of bland, unknowing amusement, and passed his gaze to Noctis.

Prompto tried to open his mouth to speak, but years of training fought against the fear in his throat. He didn’t have the clearance or the training to speak to this man, and if he did, he wouldn’t be able to. Only the most advanced MTs were allowed to accompany the chancellor, and they were the ones whose human voices were lost at least a phase behind them.

“You’ve picked up a rather protective friend on the way to Lestallum, haven’t you?” Ardyn said, trying to tilt his head to make eye contact with Noct. Prompto shifted to block his view. He felt the Colonel pressing against his legs, and focused on the pressure of her support.

“Prompto Leonis.” Cor’s voice was more growl than speech, and Prompto fell at ease out of pure dismay. He only used Prompto’s last name when things were really serious. The others knew it, and backed away from Prompto and Ardyn half a step.

“Don’t—Don’t trust this guy, Noct,” Prompto said, and he flinched at the buzzsaw scratch of his voice.

Large hands clamped down on Prompto’s waist, and he was lifted bodily off the ground, spun in a half circle, and deposited next to Noctis. Prompto wobbled a little as Cor let go of him, and watched in a dazed sort of awe as Cor began barking orders.

“Gladiolus, Ignis, secure your charge. Prompto, go with them. This is a code grey until I give the command.”

“Hey,” Noct objected, but Gladio was already pulling him back, summoning his sword in one hand. Ignis’ knives flashed into existence a second later, and Prompto found himself being ferried behind the others, with Noct.

“Leonis?” Ardyn said, smiling at Prompto. “I had no notion that the Immortal acquired a son. Allow me to congratulate you on your—“

“As a member of the Crownsguard,” Cor said, in a deathly quiet voice that Prompto had to strain to hear, “and a counsel to the king, I have every right to strike you down, Chancellor Ardyn.

Around him, Prompto felt the others tense.

“I assure you,” Ardyn said. “Whatever slight you believe I have given you is pure conjecture at best. I had no say in the dreadful events of the treaty signing—“

You delivered the terms,” Cor said. His hand clenched on his sword. Prompto remembered the stories he used to tell of his time in the military. As an MT, he would’ve been decommissioned within a year. All his stories involved him jumping into a fight too soon, starting trouble with superior officers, being sent to Clarus or Regis for punishment detail. Prompto had always thought Cor was a far cry from what he’d been in his teens, but now, he wasn’t so sure.

“Cor,” Noct said, in an echo of Clarus’ cadence of command. “Stand down.”

Cor glanced their way and back again, jaw clenched.

“Dad,” Prompto said, quietly. Just like before, it was a word they only used in private. It was too new, too fragile, to be overused just yet.

Cor took a step back.

“Oh, dear,” Ardyn said. “I can see this is going to be a delicate situation. All I want is to offer you,” he nodded to Noctis, “and your companions a chance to visit the Archaean in person, without those pesky MT soldiers in the way. I may not command the army, but I do have some influence.”

“He does.” Prompto was startled to find that the voice carrying over the lookout was his. “He’s the one who helped make… them.” Us, he’d almost said.

“That would be the first I’ve heard of such a rumor,” Ardyn said. “Prompto, was it?” He stepped around Cor as though the man weren’t even there, and Gladio and Ignis closed ranks, blocking Ardyn from view.

“We’re moving out,” Gladio said, shortly. He jerked his head, and Noct followed his lead, warping up the steps towards the market. Ignis followed, dragging at Prompto’s arm, but it wasn’t until Cor grabbed him that Prompto found the strength to move.

“I talked to the chancellor,” he whispered. Cor’s arm around his shoulder was firmer, now, guiding rather than holding him, and he let himself be marched through the side streets of Lestallum. “I actually… talked, to the…”

“Almost there, Prom,” Gladio said, from somewhere behind him. He felt oddly detached, grounded only by the weight on his shoulders, the feel of the Colonel’s nose nudging at his cargo pocket. He floated halfway up the stairs, and mutely took his bag from a startled, harried-looking Iris on her way down. They split up into two groups: Luna and Prompto with Cor, Iris, Ignis, Gladio and Noct in the Regalia. Prompto climbed into the passenger seat and watched the Regalia peel out of the main Lestallum lot, heading for Leide and the Hunter HQ.

Cor waited until they were a mile down the road before he slammed a fist on the steering wheel. Prompto and Luna jumped.

“Cor?” Prompto asked. “…Dad?”

Cor gripped the wheel so hard it looked like he might rip it from its moorings. “Gladio says they first met Ardyn at Galdin Quay, before Insomnia fell.”

Prompto looked from him to Luna, utterly lost. “And?”

“It means they’re being tracked,” Luna said. “You’re being tracked.”

“And now Ardyn knows who I am,” Prompto said, in a horrified whisper.

Cor’s scowl deepened as he gunned the accelerator, bringing the engine to an unsteady roar. “If I can get my hands on him,” he said, “I promise, Prompto, it won’t be for long.”

Chapter Text

Prompto was never meant to have a name.

Magitech soldiers had no need for names. They were coded as they entered the testing facility, at a time when civilians—when real people—were learning how to crawl. Prompto answered to the code when called, raised it dutifully every morning during muster, when the long, remotely-operated scanner glided down the lines of MT test subjects. He learned how to avoid making eye contact with other subjects in the first phase, struggled to be silent and still when all he wanted to do was move. And when the man in the wild jacket came, tilting his hat to the researchers who walked among the phase one subjects during testing, he learned how it felt to be afraid.

“Little Prompto,” one of the researchers said once, in a voice like gravel. “He was meant to be the best of them.”

“And to think he turned out so terribly ordinary,” the man in the hat had said. “How disappointed you must be, Besithia.”

“I can always have another,” the researcher said. “But there’s no use wasting him now.”

The man had smiled at him, then, and placed a hand on his hair. Unused to the touch, he’d jerked in his bonds, and the man leaned down and whispered his name in a soft mockery of comfort before leaving him to the researcher and his tools.

 

“Prompto.”

“Mnn?” Prompto opened his eyes to the collection of squat buildings that made up the Hunter HQ, obscured through a film of dust. He’d fallen asleep with his head on the window, and the dirt road made the car jump, knocking his temple against the glass.

“All the way to Leide?” he groaned, popping his back as he twisted round. Luna was asleep in the backseat, an arm over her eyes, and the Colonel looked up from the footrest expectantly.

“Safest place we could agree on, for now,” Cor said. He cracked open a window and turned off the car. “Your bag is in the trunk, and there are showers behind that building. We’ll run through our options at the campfire once you’re done.”

Prompto slipped out the door, still a little shaky on his feet, and retrieved his bag from the trunk. The showers were little more than waist-high boxes with hoses strung over the side, and Prompto stopped short when he saw that one of them was already occupied.

Noctis stood in the center of one of the boxes, holding a hose over his head while he scrubbed two days’ worth of dirt out of his hair. Water ran down his chest, trickling past narrow hips. Prompto wondered, faintly, if it was possible for former Class 6C Magitech soldiers to explode. Maybe that’s what was happening now.

Noct saw Prompto standing there and made a little gesture with his chin.

“Hey.”

“I think I’m malfunctioning again,” Prompto whispered, and pressed a hand to his throat, where his pulse was hammering against too-warm skin. Noct tilted his head, shaking off stray droplets of water.

“What was that?”

“Evening, boys.” Ignis Scientia breezed past Prompto, a towel wrapped around his waist, a loofah dangling from his middle finger, and a tray of toiletries in his free hand. He gave Prompto a searching look as he stepped into the stall next to Noctis.

“Prompto?” he asked. “Didn’t you want to use the facilities?”

He folded the towel over the stall door, and Prompto quickly glanced away. Ignis was… Ignis was very tall.

Prompto ended up showering in the second-farthest stall, back turned to Ignis and Noct as the other two discussed the drive from Lestallum in light, all-too cheerful tones. He changed quickly, but the dampness of his clothes didn’t matter much when Noct and Ignis, thankfully dressed and mostly dry, took his shoulders on either side and led him off to one of the campfires dotting the HQ grounds. The Colonel was sitting by Cor, finishing off a bowl of what Prompto hoped was dog food and wasn’t actually that strange mystery meat Ignis picked up. Prompto sat close enough to the fire that his clothes steamed.

When Noctis sat beside him, Prompto saw that he was wearing a black and blue dressing gown over his boxers, complete with embroidered swans. When he caught Prompto staring, Noct flushed a little and looked aside.

“It’s Dad’s,” Noct said. “Iris grabbed a bunch of stuff from the manor when she ran.”

“Monica yelled at me for it,” Iris said, looking at Cor. He didn’t voice disapproval, but just stared into the fire, tapping his phone on his leg.

“You did good, kid,” Gladio said, and pulled her into a one-armed hug.

Cor cleared his throat, and the others turned to him. “If you’re ready, Noctis,” he said, “I think it’s time to make concrete plans.”

 

Two hours later, Prompto gave in. He’d told everyone all he knew of Ardyn—which was only a little more than what Cor and Luna knew—and that was about as much as he could handle before the stress of the day hit him full-force. He knew it made no sense, but there was a part of him that felt like he’d failed somehow. It seemed as though Ardyn was going to walk through at any moment, like he did back at the facility, and check off the little box in Prompto’s holding cell that would send him right down to the lower levels for decommissioning. He just hoped Ardyn hadn’t caught on. Had an MT ever escaped before? Had any survived?

“I have a question.”

Prompto looked up. Through most of the talk around the fire, Iris had been quiet, watching everyone with a tense, tight-lipped concern from the safety of Gladio’s arm. Now she shook him off, and scooted closer to the fire.

“Does Noct have to form the covenants?” Iris asked. She blushed at their collective stares, and drew up her knees. “Well. Daddy always says that any member of the royal line can do it, and that the ring’ll be more powerful than any of the gods once everything’s done. So, wouldn’t it make sense if someone else—“

“No,” Gladio and Noct said together.

“You didn’t even hear me out!”

“We didn’t have to,” Gladio said. “You ain’t getting dragged into this any more than you already are.”

Prompto expected Iris to shout, or say something cold and biting, but she just looked down and started marking the ground with her finger, tracing sharp, narrow lines in the dust.

“I’m sorry, flower girl,” Gladio said, in a softer voice. Iris ignored him.

Luna got to her feet, brushing dirt from the back of her pants. A warm wind swept over the dark road beyond, blowing smoke about her legs and throwing up sparks. Prompto leaned aside as a spray of fire danced towards him, and the Colonel huffed and inched back.

“Iris,” Luna said. “Let’s go inside.”

Iris looked up at her and nodded. Prompto couldn’t make out either of their expressions, but he knew that something had passed between them, and tried to make it out as Iris followed the Oracle into the camper. Their voices, muted and low, hummed through the thin walls as the fire slowly started to die.

“Poor kid,” Gladio said.

Noct kicked dust into the fire. “Poor us.”

 

Prompto passed out with his head on Gladio’s stomach sometime after midnight, and woke briefly to find Noct leaning above him, looking pale in the washed-out daemon lights of the HQ.

“Up, Prom,” he whispered. Prompto sat up, and softly whistled to the Colonel, who stood with a grumbling whine. Cor was sitting next to Luna, speaking quickly and quietly amid the occasional snap of the dying fire, and Iris and Ignis were already gone. Prompto waved to Cor, who gave him and Noct a warning look before pointing towards the caravan.

“Right,” Noct drawled. “I am the king, you know.” Prompto decided not to mention that Noct had said this only when they were too far away for Cor to hear.

Noct stopped at the Regalia, and climbed over the back door without opening it.

“I used to camp out in here when I was little,” Noct explained. He gestured for Prompto to climb in, and he did, leaving the Colonel to huff and collapse on the ground next to the car, thoroughly disgruntled. Noct raised a hand, and a blanket and a pillow fell over his arm in a flash of magic.

“You keep blankets in your armiger?”

“I keep everything in there.” Noct plopped the pillow down on one end of the seat and clambered in, squeezing himself into the corner. “There’s room.”

Thankfully, it was dark enough for Prompto’s blush to not be too noticeable as he settled himself next to Noctis. There wasn’t exactly enough room, but with their legs tangled together, and Prompto’s arms pulling Noct’s head down to his chest, they made do. Noct dragged the blanket halfway over them, and pressed dry lips to Prompto’s shoulder.

“Luna and Cor are going to wake Ramuh,” he mumbled. Prompto nodded—He’d been awake for that part, at least. It had taken the better part of an hour just convincing Cor that Prompto would be better off in a large group, and not tied to a child safety leash for the foreseeable future.

“Are you okay with that?”

“Luna can’t go alone,” Prompto said. “And Cor… He’s the Immortal, right? Survival’s kind of his thing.”

“That’s what you think,” Noct said, and he snaked his hands up Prompto’s back, tugging at his shirt. “I thought that, about…”

“Oh.” Prompto held him back, unsure what to say. “I’m sorry, Noct.”

“Iris keeps talking about them like they’re waiting for us.” Noct’s breath was hot against his neck. “Gladio doesn’t say anything. I wish he would. I wish I’d been there.”

“No, you don’t,” Prompto said. “You wouldn’t be here if you were.”

“But maybe they would be.”

There were too many things Prompto could say to that, but nothing that would stop Noct’s shoulders from shaking, or his hands from balling into fists, his face gone hot with tears that dampened Prompto’s shirt. All he could do was hold him, silent and desperate, trying to say through touch what his failing tongue could not. He ran a hand down the silk sleeve that had once belonged to Noctis’ father, thought of the red sky of Insomnia as it fell, and kissed the tears from the young king’s cheeks.

Chapter Text

Prompto and Noct awoke to a booming, full-throated bellow coming from the nearby caravan. Prompto jumped up, elbowing Noctis in the face and flinging their blanket over the side of the Regalia. Something small and black shot through the air as Noct’s knees swung into Prompto’s hip, and Prompto threw himself towards the trunk and caught it with both hands.

It was a ring. A black and gold metal band twisted around a chunk of crystal, half hidden behind a sunburst pattern like a tangle of tree roots. Prompto held it to the light of the rising sun and wondered where he’d seen it before.

“Prompto.” Noct spoke very carefully. “Where did you get that r—“

“I said wake up!” Both Prompto and Noct turned to find Gladio standing at the door of the camper, wearing boxers with a pattern of dancing black chocobos on the hem. The fury in his eyes was so fierce that Prompto sat back against Noct, holding the ring to his chest. Behind Gladio, Ignis was wrapped in a white bathrobe, his hair unstyled and hanging over his eyes.

“The hell were you two doing out here?” Gladio shouted, storming towards them. Ignis followed at a somewhat statelier pace. “How could you’ve slept through it?”

“S-slept through—“ Prompto tried to swallow around building panic.

“He’s shaking, Gladio, cut it out.”

Gladio looked at Prompto, and then down at the Colonel, who was standing with her ears pressed flat to her skull, trying to get between the Shield and her boy. He settled like a bird trying to unruffle its feathers, and closed his eyes for a count of four.

“Sorry, Prom,” he said. “But I just. Don’t get. Why no one heard Iris run off with the Oracle this morning!”

Prompto and Noct stared up at him in the ringing silence. Noct’s arms tightened around Prompto minutely.

“Say that again.”

“They took the car.” Cor strode out from a group of hunters, looking about as grim as he had on the drive back from Lestallum. “I’m sorry, Gladiolus, I should have known.”

“Wait.” Noct hugged Prompto to his chest like an oversized stuffed animal. “Wait. Are you telling me that the Oracle kidnapped our sister?”

“Quite like the other way around,” Ignis said. “Do you recall what she said at the fire? About the covenants?”

Prompto saw Cor’s face go pale. At his ear, he could hear Noct’s teeth grind together.

“She’s gonna try and forge the covenants herself,” Noct said. “She thinks she can… can outwit the prophecy? On her own?”

Ignis held out his phone Noct, who peeled an arm away from Prompto’s chest long enough to grab it. A single text showed on the screen, from Iris.

Iris Lucis Caelum.

“The smiley emoji is cute,” Prompto said, in a small voice.

“I’m going to kill her,” Noct said. “I’m going to find her, then I’ll kill her, then I’ll bring her back to life and lock her in a dungeon until she’s thirty-five.”

“You sound kind of like the king when you talk like that,” Prompto said.

“Not the time, Prom.” Noct paused. “No, actually, yes it is. Prompto. Show me the ring.”

Gladio’s eyes widened as Prompto opened his hands. “It was… I think it was on the blanket when we woke up…”

Cor flipped through his own phone as Noct delicately picked up the ring. “Luna said something last night,” he said. “When we were alone. Said she was tired of watching good men die. I thought she was talking about Insomnia, but…” He gave Noct a look that Prompto couldn’t decipher. “Clearly, it was more than that.”

“But she’s the Oracle,” Ignis said. “She doesn’t just flaunt the rules and go off on her own—“

“We talking about the same Oracle?” Noct asked. “The one who keeps trying to run from the Empire every chance she gets? The Oracle who tried to talk to Titan by herself? The one who somehow ended up with my father’s ring and traded it for my sister? That Oracle?”

Ignis drummed his fingers on his arm, looking to the empty space where Cor’s car had been the night before. “If she thinks it can save you…”

“My sister’s not getting involved,” Noct said. Gladio nodded, typing a message on his phone. “This isn’t her fight.”

“Why do you have to be saved?” Prompto asked.

There was an uneasy silence.

“It’s…” Noct pulled away from him, standing up in the car. “It’s nothing. Right now, we need to find Iris and Luna.”

It didn’t sound like nothing, but Noct was twisting the ring in his fingers as though it were a double-edged knife, Gladio looked like a storm come down to earth, and Ignis was two shades paler than usual. Prompto turned to Cor, who was on the phone, speaking quietly as he walked around the other side of the Regalia.

“They’ll want to go to Titan first,” Noct said, banishing the pillow and blankets back into his armiger. “If we hurry, we might catch them in time.”

 

---

 

Iris stood in a half-sunken tomb at the southern edge of Duscae, fingers trailing over the statue carved atop the casket. It didn’t look like the portrait of the king the tomb belonged to—Her father used to walk her along the public gallery when she was little, pointing out all the second sons and daughters, and she’d made a study of them. He knew that being the spare twice over was something that weighed on her. Would she be a Shield to Noct’s future children? Would she marry into another household? She’d asked her fathers more times than she could count, and they’d always given her careful non-answers, or met her with an uncomfortable silence that lingered in her mind for days.

Then, a year ago, Noct had let something slip, and Iris’ world had folded in on itself, forming another shape beneath the one she’d grown to recognize. She was never the spare.

Noctis was.

Noct, the chosen king of legend, the one destined to bring light back to Eos and destroy the Starscourge, was doomed to die before he truly took the throne. Suddenly, so much of Iris’ life made sense: The way Clarus insisted on her mastering the art of diplomacy and trade, Regis’ endless lectures on every aspect of the war, the fact that she had to go to a private academy when Noct was allowed to go to public school. It was the reason she was allowed to sit in on Council meetings from the age of twelve, why Noct seemed so apathetic when they talked about affairs of state. It was why Gladio would go all funny and quiet sometimes, watching her and Noct like they were on opposite sides of a vast ocean, too far to touch.

Noct was the chosen one, but it was Iris who was raised to rule.

“Do you think it’ll be enough?” she asked. Luna wrapped an arm around her waist.

“It’s a start,” Luna said. “The gods aren’t immutable. Neither is fate.”

We can’t depend on miracles and crystals to save us, Luna had said the night before, when she and Iris had spoken of Noct’s fate in quiet whispers while the boys made plans outside.

So we’ll make our own miracles, Iris had told her.

Iris was a child of Lucis and an heir to the Shields of the Amicitias. She carried the strength of her fathers just as Noct and Gladio did, and she wasn’t about to stand by and let her brother run full-tilt into a predestined sacrifice.

She would be enough.

She lifted her hand over the blade fastened to the casket, and tugged at the pool of magic in her veins. A ghost of the blade rose through her fingers, shining in the darkness of the tomb, and dove for her heart in a rush of light. If it weren’t for Luna at her side, Iris would have stumbled back—as it was, she braced herself on the casket and gripped her chest, riding out the unsettling feeling of having been run through.

“Well,” she said, as Luna helped her stand again. “Ready for the next one?”

 

---

 

When Noctis slipped on his father’s ring, the air around Prompto squeezed with pressure, as though he were in the airlock of an MT carrier airship. Ignis swerved and cursed, Gladio shouted, and the Colonel let out a single bark before trying to climb up the back seat towards Prompto. Prompto assured her that he was safe while Cor held Noctis up by his back and gazed down at the black ring on his finger.

“You okay, Noct?” Gladio leaned around Cor and grabbed Noct’s hand, covering the ring. “Does it hurt?”

“Like hell,” Noct said with a smirk. Gladio squeezed his hand, and again, Prompto saw something unspoken pass between them, just as it had between Iris and Luna. He leaned over the back of his seat, arms dangling over the sides.

“Please sit properly, Prompto,” Cor said.

“Oh! Prompto!” Noct sat up, half standing, and Cor made a disgruntled noise, pulling him back down. Noct ignored him. “Since we're not dealing with enough freaky magic shit right now... I need to give you access to the armiger before we get to the Disc.”

“Right here?” Ignis asked, downing a can of instant coffee like it was a life-saving elixir. “In the Regalia?”

“It’s totally safe,” Noct said, standing up again. He took Prompto’s hands in both of his, and Prompto’s left hand stung a little as the ring brushed his skin. “Okay, Prom, this is gonna be weird, but it’ll take like, two seconds. It's like falling into a swimming pool.”

"Right. What's a swimming pool?" Prompto wasn't entirely sure he was ready for this. Ignis had told him a bit about the armiger, but the concept of being able to use magic was beyond him. Magic in Niflheim was something people used to create. It had rules and structure. The line of Lucis treated magic like a divine sandpit.

Noct bumped Prompto’s forehead with his own and took a deep breath. Prompto closed his eyes.

There was a great rush of wind, and Prompto pressed himself to the back of the seat, eyelids fluttering open. He was both sitting in the Regalia and being flung through an endless, groundless space all at once, the world around him falling back into a clear blue distance. He heard laughter, the hush of many voices speaking over one another, heavy footsteps on tile floor. A giant figure appeared overhead, massive booted feet stamping down on a plush carpet. A child tottered towards the boots, barely old enough to walk, and hands obscured the sun as they reached down to pick him up.

The black ring shone from the third finger of one of those hands, its crystal throwing spots of light in Prompto’s eyes.

“Little prince,” a voice said, rising above the others in a rough-edged rumble. “My Noctis.”

Then the blue haze of the other place fell away, and Prompto was back in the Regalia, face to face with a pale and open-mouthed Noct.

“Was I supposed to see your dad?” Prompto whispered.

“No,” said Noct. He looked down at the ring on his hand, and up at Prompto. “No, that definitely wasn't what I… Can you try calling a weapon?”

Prompto tried to remember how Ignis had described it. He held out his hand and squeezed his eyes shut, thinking furiously: Gun. I need a gun.

There was a hiss, and something heavy landed in his outstretched palm. He opened his eyes to see a large, silver-lined revolver in his hand.

“Oh,” he said.

Noct laughed weakly. “At least it worked,” he said. He fell onto the seat with a thud. “I think, uh. I think my magic’s going to be kind of… different, for a while.”

“It hit Regis like this, too,” Cor told him. Noct turned to the older man with a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Don’t ask me how! I was nineteen at the time, I wasn’t exactly paying attention.”

I’m twenty,” Noct said.

“Yeah, well, we all mature at our own pace,” Gladio said. Cor frowned. “Sir.”

A tremor in the ground shook the road, and Ignis pulled the car over. Noct fell forward with a hiss of pain, and Gladio looked out at the Disc of Cauthess as though he could see Iris and Luna through sheer willpower alone.

“Titan’s still calling me,” Noct said. “They haven’t reached him yet.”

“Good,” Ignis said, grimly. “Hopefully we can intercept them before the Empire does.”

“Yeah, thanks for that, Iggy, I really needed the reminder.”

“My apologies, Gladio.”

Prompto sat down in the passenger’s seat, running his hand over the spiraling metalwork on the surface of the gun. Ignis veered off down a dirt road that curved around the Meteor on the other side of the main entrance, and Prompto stared at his exhausted, red-eyed face in the side mirror. His hair blew wildly in the warm wind off of the Slough, but for a moment, he could see beyond his own reflection and to the road behind them. Power lines slid past in waves, and trees became a blur of green and grey. For a moment, Prompto thought he saw a splash of purplish pink and white: A car almost like theirs, top down, too far away to see the person at the wheel. But then he blinked and the car was gone, leaving the Regalia to trundle down the empty road towards the Disc, and the Titan, on its own.

Chapter Text

The hydrangea bushes off the path of Thommel’s Glade rustled in an unseasonable breeze as Magitech troopers marched through the grass, completing their patrols for the afternoon. Huddled in a hollow made by the twisting branches, Iris and Luna took short, measured breaths and tried not to let their feet slip out into the open. After a few minutes of silence, Iris untangled herself from the bush and staggered to her feet, batting off dark, sticky leaves from her arms and hair.

“I wanted to try out that shield,” she said, as Luna emerged with a bit more care. Iris’ skin tingled from the effects of taking on another spectral weapon, and she could taste the magic on her tongue. Her father, Clarus, had mentioned going on a tour to collect her own arsenal one day, but none of his or Regis’ explanations could prepare her for the jittery spike of adrenaline that ran through her now.

“You’ll get a chance,” Luna said, picking flower petals off of her shirt. “But we don’t want the Empire to know we’re here.”

Iris wanted to argue, but she figured that if anyone knew how to avoid Niflheim long enough to get the job done, it was the Oracle. The two of them walked the long way round to the road, where they whistled for their chocobos and sat on the curb to eat what rations they had left. A few stray drops of rain fell from the heavy clouds overhead while they waited, and by the time the chocobos trotted towards them at last, the sky was threatening a downpour. Rain fell in earnest when Iris hopped into the saddle, and her bird let out a werk of discontent.

“It’s Ramuh,” Luna said, and Iris’ hands clenched on her chocobo’s neck ruff. “He must be waking in response to the Titan.” She turned a wry smile to Iris. “Do you want to meet him?”

“Don’t I just,” Iris said, and clucked to her mount. “Lead the way, Princess Lunafreya.”

Luna shook her head. “That’s a title I haven’t heard in a very long time.”

Iris preened. “Unlike Noct or Gladio,” she said, in a mock-superior tone, “I was raised to be polite.”

 

---

 

“Motherfucker!

Noctis Lucis Caelum, king of Lucis and chosen hero of Eos, rolled out of range of a rockslide as the colossal fist of the Archaean took out a cliff-face the size of a house. Noct was covered in red dust, grimy smudges of soot, and pink, healing burn marks, and he wheeled through his armiger so quickly that the air around him shone.

“Gladio!” he shouted. “We need to pull an Iris!”

“On it,” Gladio grunted. The young Shield of the king braced himself on the smoking earth, one hand extended, as Noctis barreled down the slope towards him. Noct placed a foot on his brother’s knee, grabbed his hand, and pushed off, letting the momentum carry him into a stuttering warp towards the Titan’s good eye. On the ground, Prompto had his back to Ignis, picking off oncoming MT soldiers as the advisor shouted directions to the king.

Cor wondered, for the first time in forty-three years, if he was getting too old for this.

Fifteen-year-old Cor would have been horrified. In his youth, before years of increasingly aggravated reprimands from his king had tempered him, Cor had felt that he could, in fact, take on the gods. He bore through the overwhelming nausea and terror of his first firefight, threw himself into any and every battle with a reckless fervor that had Clarus groaning in horror, and once spent a good two weeks trying to get out of bed on a broken leg because Regis needs me, Cid! When his body picked up the tab in his late thirties, Cor pushed through it with the knowledge that while Clarus stayed at the king’s side, he would need to take up the duty of being his sword. He lived with the constant fear of failure, the looming presence of his own mortality, and was able to push it all to the side so long as he had a purpose to fulfill.

Now, watching Prompto knock Ignis away from a volley of gunfire, he knew that he’d never truly understood the depths of that fear. Not really.

There was a shriek of grinding stone, and Cor craned his neck to see the dark shape of the Archaean’s foot bearing down upon them. Wonderful. He shifted his stance and brought his blade up in a defensive block, waiting for the blow to come.

Then Noctis was there, warping before him in a flash of light, a broadsword upraised in both fists. He met the Archaean head-on, and parried with a force that sent a shockwave pulsing through the ground.

Noct grinned back at him, and for a fleeting moment, Cor could see Clarus in the deep-set lines of his smile.

“Noct!” Ignis waved from where he and Prompto were regrouping close to the Astral’s feet. “Prompto and I have a plan, if you would be so kind—“

“Sure thing, Specs,” Noct shouted. “Cover me, Marshal.”

“Majesty.” Cor gestured to Gladio, and the two of them engaged the enemy on the far side, giving Noct enough time to warp across the patch of open stone.

He didn’t see the moment that the Titan broke to Noct’s sword, but he heard it, a great crash of ice and stone that made Cor’s ears ring painfully. He nearly fell as the ground shook beneath the Astral’s collapse, and when he turned, he saw Noctis standing in the wreckage, shoulders back, head tilted up as the Titan dissolved into a mass of swirling golden light.

“He’s done it,” Ignis said, in a hushed tone. He was standing at Prompto’s side, leaning heavily on the younger man as blood spread slowly down the cloth of his right pants leg. Prompto’s arms barely strained as he held the advisor, and despite the chaos of the fight, he looked oddly calm.

“Still no girls, though,” said Gladio. A rumble of thunder broke the silence, followed by a dreadful hissing as torrential sheets of rain overtook them, drowning out the fires that sputtered at their feet.

 

---

 

“I don’t get it,” Iris said. She and Luna were sprawled out in Cor’s tent, eating bits of anak steak that Iris had charred to a cinder with a blast of fire. Both of their clothes were hanging up to dry under a fire they’d set up near a rocky overhang, and Iris was wearing one of Cor’s sweatervests and a skirt she’d hidden in her armiger, while Luna was remarkably comfortable in Prompto’s spare clothes. Iris waggled her bare feet against a bundle of warm blankets, and picked ash off her fingers.

“Don’t get what?”

“Mm.” Iris looked up at the roof of the tent. “When I touched the first mark of Ramuh…” She flexed her fingers. They’d set up camp not far from the mark itself, which still smelled of smoke and ozone. “I thought I’d be rejected, at first. Because I’m not the chosen one.”

“It’s complicated,” Luna said. “But part of why what we’re doing is possible is… Well. I hate to say this, Iris, but the prophecy is like a lottery.” When Iris just stared, she sighed and made a broad gesture with both hands. “Every king and glaive has been powering the crystal and the ring, and when the crystal reaches a certain strength… that’s when the current king—or queen—of Lucis can wield it.”

Iris nearly dropped her steak. “Wait, so you’re telling me that Noct is just, what, Lucky Customer 100? Get a free car and a ticket to the astral plane?”

“I… yes.”

Iris thought about this for a moment. “Wow,” she said. “The gods are—“

Luna lunged to cover her mouth with a hand. “Best not to say that aloud,” she cautioned. “Not while Ramuh’s still deciding whether to give you his blessing.”

Thunder rolled overhead, and a new rush of rain battered the tent on all sides. Iris groaned and dragged the covers over her knees.

“We should probably get going as soon as our clothes dry,” Luna said, tapping the tent wall. Iris rolled her eyes. “Iris?”

“You’re human, right?” Iris asked. Luna blinked at her. “You can’t just go from mark to mark without sleep, Luna. The covenant takes more out of you than it does out of me.” She finished off her blackened steak and lay back.

“Time isn’t a luxury I have at the moment,” Luna said, in a wry tone that made Iris squint at her suspiciously. She had to admit, personally, that for most of her life, she’d never considered Luna to be more than just a faraway, well-spoken diplomat. Sure, Noct wrote to her sometimes, but her radio and TV appearances were always so regimented that Iris couldn’t really see the person behind the Oracle. Now, she was getting a glimpse, and she wasn’t sure what to think.

Luna was the most polite, sacrilegious Oracle Iris had ever heard of. She spoke of the gods as though they were giant, temperamental children. She viewed the prophecy as a loose guideline at best, and treated authority the same way Noct did: With complete disregard for anything they had to say. Iris was starting to see why the two of them became friends in the first place.

But Luna was also self-sacrificing to a fault. She didn’t seem to care what happened to her, and was dangerously reckless when backed into a corner. The same drive that Iris admired in her was also slowly wearing her down, and Iris wished there were something she could do to help.

Here I go again, she thought, smiling a little. Thinking like Daddy.

Amicitias would do anything to protect their monarchs. The monarchs of Lucis would do anything to protect their people. Her fathers, when faced with a hopeless situation, had done all they could to keep their children safe. And now Iris was following in their footsteps.

“Just try to sleep,” Iris said, reaching over to take Luna’s hand. “You never know, you might even like it.”

 

---

 

“I hate this.”

“Yes, Noct, I believe we are all well aware.”

Prompto stepped into the blessedly dry darkness of a cave mouth, slinging Cor’s soaked jacket over one arm. The four boys and Cor had crawled out of their tent that morning to find a solitary bolt of lightning breaking through the darkened sky, too bright and uniform to be natural. It took everything they had to keep Gladio and Noct from running off on their own, and even then, it was a near thing. As it was, Prompto had the best night vision and was better equipped to take out distant enemies, so he and Ignis were at the front of the procession while Noct, Gladio, and Cor took up the rear.

They’d left Prompto’s dog with Monica while they snuck into the Disc; She wasn’t trained to be a war-time service dog, and Prompto was starting to worry that he would have to leave her behind for good one day. It wasn’t a decision he was looking forward to, but he hadn’t been prepared for how quickly Noctis tended to find trouble.

“I still think we should’ve kept going,” Noct said. "Luna wouldn't stop for the night. They're probably already gone."

“Of course,” said Ignis. “Very logical. And when we got there, you could have fainted on them. That would show Iris and the Oracle that you are capable of carrying out your duty as king.”

Gladio chuckled.

It was slow going. The caves were crawling with Imps, and they all kept peering over cliffs and into hollows, unsure whether they wanted to see Iris and Luna there. Gladio insisted that Iris was at least as good a fighter as Noct, if not more, but it sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Cor stayed silent, a steady presence at their backs to ward off any daemons that tried to surprise them from behind.

They reached an open chamber, partly lit by shafts of sunlight streaming through cracks high above, when Prompto spotted it: A daemon, its coiled body slowly dissolving, slumped before a low tunnel.

“They’re here,” Ignis said, and broke into a run.

“They’re alive,” Noct said, in a choking voice. Noct and Gladio almost got stuck trying to fit into the tunnel at the same time, and Ignis had to intervene, dragging Noctis back by the collar as Gladio slid through. As he did, they heard Gladio’s great, booming shout, and a high, answering cry of warning. Iris.

Prompto climbed through after Noct, and got to his feet just in time to see Iris standing before a glowing, gnarled tree. She held out her hands as a bolt of lightning struck with an ear-splitting crack: Violet branches of magic wove around her, raising her hair and lifting her an inch above the pool of water before the tree. Unthinkingly, Prompto lifted his camera and took a shot: Iris’ eyes in the photo were a brilliant violet, and she had the same stubborn set to her mouth as Gladio, the same crease to her brow as the late king. By the time Prompto lowered his camera, the lightning was little more than a cloud of sparks, and Iris had both feet firm on the ground. Beside her, Lunafreya placed a hand on her shoulder.

She turned to the others.

“Oh,” she said, in a light, all too airy voice. “Hey, guys.”

Chapter Text

Anger in the Amicitia-Caelum family was a complicated creature. It was twisted up in years of training in diplomacy, endless nights of standing in bored huddles while adults in ceremonial braid bowed and curtsied and made snide little remarks about King Regis’ health and the state of the Wall. The rare times Prompto had seen the siblings fight, he’d learned to pick up a pattern: Noct and Iris tended to fight like cats, all quick, short bursts of furious energy and yowled insults that meant nothing ten minutes later. Gladio took out his aggression through sarcasm, dredging up old wounds that made Noct and Iris avoid him in sulky silence for days. Prompto overheard Clarus mention that he’d picked that habit up from Regis, and Prompto could see that, in a way. King Regis treated sarcasm like a weapon, and even though it became more of a blunt tool in Gladio’s hands, it still did the job.

Now, though, Gladio said nothing, and Noct and Iris weren’t even raising their voices. They spoke low, if a little urgently, staring at each other’s feet and hands across the fire of their haven, and something in that made Prompto wonder if this was the one fight they couldn’t recover from.

The trouble was, Prompto was angry, too.

He could feel the shape of it forming in the short silences and unspoken words that hung in the air like the buzz of a spell before the casting. It rose in a tight lump up Prompto’s throat as Noct avoided his gaze, as Iris made to speak and settled again, in the way Gladio kept turning to him, steady and somber and sad. It burned him even as Cor pressed a hand on his shoulder and announced that he was going off to dig the latrines, as Luna sat beside Ignis and whispered to him in a voice too soft to hear.

“It won’t matter without the ring,” Noct was saying to Iris. “The prophecy says that it’s the ring that absorbs the crystal. Whoever wields that—“

“And the crystal’s energy hasn’t been shared before?” Iris asked. “What about the Glaives, Noct? What about Gladdy and Ignis and Prompto? They’re sharing some of the magic, aren’t they?”

Right, Prompto thought, scratching the Colonel behind the ears. What about Prompto?

“It isn’t the same, Iris,” Noct said, and turned to Gladio. Gladio said nothing.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” Luna said. “What the astrals have given us can’t be the only option.”

“Damn it, Luna, we’re not flipping a coin over who gets to—“ Noct paused, and Prompto had the feeling that he was trying not to look in his direction again. And then the tiny bubble of anger in Prompto’s throat popped, and he sat up straight, ducking into the light of the fire.

“Die,” he said. The others turned to him like malfunctioning MT units, all jerks and slow swivels and roving eyes. “You can say it, Noct.”

Prompto felt like his stomach had twisted up in knots. He’d spent the past three years learning to push away the curse of having been defective: An MT who wouldn’t accept his conditioning, a soldier so afraid to die that he’d wept at his first taste of the sun. He’d been taken in by the Immortal, the man who made a name for himself by fighting death at every turn. And his friends—these friends—had encouraged him, had told him over and over, in the dark moments, that he wasn’t broken, that he deserved to live… They were going to let Noct walk to his death. They were going to hold his hand while he did it.

“Were you going to tell me?” he asked. Noct drew back, unable to meet his eyes. “Were any of you going to tell me?”

“It wasn’t—“ Ignis faltered at the ferocity of Prompto’s glare. “It wasn’t our secret to tell, Prompto.”

“Prom,” Noct said, in a small voice. “I didn’t want to ruin what we have. I wanted it to be normal—

Prompto scuffed his feet in the dust of the haven. “It wasn’t normal,” he said. “If you told me, I could’ve done something.”

“Yeah?” There was a brittle edge to the young king’s voice, and Noct’s hands clenched and unclenched on his knees. “Done what? ‘Cause trust me, Prom, I don’t like this any more than you do.”

“Then let us help,” Iris insisted.

“The astrals set this in motion,” Luna said. “That doesn’t mean their plans are right.

“And yours are?” Noct said.

“I’m with Iris.” Silence settled over the haven as Gladio spoke for the first time in hours. He leaned his elbows on his knees, the firelight making his tattoos shift as he moved, like the shadow of a living bird on his skin. “If there’s a way for the crystal to spare you, I’ll take it.”

Noct stared at him, looking lost and groundless and suddenly very young. Prompto wanted to go to him, but the anger was still there, a burn on his tongue, weighing him down.

“I’m not just your Shield, Noct,” Gladio said. His eyes shone bright in the orange glow of the fire.

“And I’m not just your sister.” Iris looked to them both, forcing them to meet her gaze.

Then there was a shuffling in the bushes, and everyone jumped at once, questing in the dark for the source of the sound. Cor appeared at the edge of the haven, shaking dust off his boots. “What’s this?” he asked. He spotted Prompto, and his face twisted in an unfamiliar expression. “Prompto?”

Prompto got to his feet, wincing as his knees protested. The Colonel stood next to him, panting slightly, and Noct’s shoulders hunched as Prompto left the warmth of the fire.

“Prom, I’m sorry.

Prompto stopped, took a breath. “I know,” he said. “I need a minute, okay?” Noct nodded miserably, and Prompto trotted down the slope of the haven. “Cor?” he asked. “Is everything okay?”

“I feel as though that should be my line, my boy,” Cor said, placing a hand on Prompto’s back. “I wanted to check on you, but if I’ve interrupted something…”

“You have, but it’s okay,” Prompto said. “Can we talk? I know it’s getting dark.”

“Of course.” Cor smiled, but it didn’t sit right on his face. Something was wrong, then. Prompto fell into their slow pace, but was thrown off when Cor didn’t automatically follow. He was walking in time with him, sure, but his legs swung a little wider, and his bearing didn’t carry the usual straight-backed discipline Prompto was used to. And stranger still, the Colonel kept trying to shove herself between them, no matter how many times Prompto gestured for her to walk on his other side.

They were a few yards out when Prompto ventured to speak.

“Cor,” he said, warily. “Do you remember what you said to me? Back in Lestallum?”

“You may need to jog my memory, son,” Cor said. “I recall quite a few words were said at that time.”

Son. Cor never used that word lightly. It was something he said in quiet moments, when the awkwardness of their usual titles slipped away and Cor’s eyes would go all soft at the edges, the lines of his mouth deepening in a secret smile. It wasn’t something that either of them threw around.

“It’s Noct,” he said, watching Cor closely. He bumped Cor’s arm with his, their usual signal for Prompto to lean in closer, but Cor simply looked down at him with mild amusement.

“Trouble in paradise?”

A cold shiver ran up Prompto’s spine. “Well… Dad,” he said, testing it out. Cor didn’t even blink. “When you used to date Monica, what did you do when you had a fight? How did you work it out?”

Cor hummed for a moment. “I suspect my past relationships were a bit less complicated than yours,” he said. “Seeing as how you’re walking out with the king of Lucis.”

Prompto forced down a surge of panic. He wished he had left the Colonel at the fire. He wished he hadn’t left the fire. He glanced back, and could just see the glimmer of it through the trees. If he ran, maybe he could make it in time…

“Prompto?”

“Cor never dated Monica,” Prompto said, turning to the man at his side. “He never had any past relationships.”

The man wearing Cor’s face let out an exaggerated sigh. As his shoulders sank, it was as though the image of Cor Leonis was sliding off him like rain, revealing a broader frame, a stubbled cheek, soft mauve hair flowing free from a silk hat to shadow his eyes.

Prompto didn’t bother summoning his guns. He ran.

He didn’t go far.

 

Cor climbed onto the edge of the haven, not bothering to scrape the mud off his boots as he approached the fire. He’d wanted to give the others time to sort out their mess themselves, but after a while of standing idly just out of view of the haven fire and checking in with Monica and Dustin, he figured that this wasn’t the sort of argument that could be settled in an hour. He’d have to prepare himself for at least a few days’ travel with three tiny Regises, all too exhausted to fight but too proud to give in.

When he reached the fire, he was surprised to find that every eye in the haven was trained on him.

“Did I miss something?” he asked.

Noct shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Where’s Prompto?” he asked.

Cor raised an eyebrow and glanced around. Prompto and the Colonel were conspicuously missing. “Did he turn in?”

The silence that followed was heavy. Cor could feel the tickling brush of dread crawl along the back of his neck.

“Sir,” Gladio said. “We saw him walk off with you.

It was as though Cor had been thrown into an icy lake—He jerked to attention, panic swamping all corners of his mind save for the small, insistent cry of alarm that rang in his ears as he searched the grey expanse of the grounds beyond the haven.

Prompto.

“Where?” he asked. “Where did he go?” He pulled his sword from its sheath. The ringing sound of the metal slicing through the air brought the camp to life: Gladio and Noct rose at once, Iris and Ignis following at their heels. Luna clutched at the air and summoned a bright, glossy trident, which she held with a steady confidence that was more than a little concerning. Gladio gestured towards a copse of trees in the distance, and Cor didn’t bother to wait for him, just strode into the growing dark.

There was the sound of gunfire, a strangled shout, and the roar of an engine. Cor broke into a run.

He almost made it to the pine trees when he saw the red-hot glow of an MT airship light up the ferns at his knees. The Colonel barreled into him, whining and whimpering, her body wriggling in a twist of misery just as the ship rose into the evening sky. Cor sheathed his sword—There was no use for it, now—and buried his hands in her thick, curly fur.

Behind him, Noct’s phone began to ring.

“Who—?” Noct could barely choke out the word. He swiped a button on his phone, and the speakers hissed.

“Simply a concerned friend, Your Majesty.” The voice of Ardyn Izunia wove through the trees, unmistakable and thick with false sympathy. “I was passing through, you see, and happened upon that dear friend of yours. Prompto, was it? So very distressed, he was.”

“The hell have you done with him?”

“Done with—“ Ardyn laughed. “My sweet boy, I’m only doing the poor thing a favor. A lost, woefully defective MT, wandering so far from the Empire? Not to mention terribly aggressive. He very nearly wounded me.”

The woods were filled with the silence of five people finding themselves suddenly unable to breathe.

“I assure you that he is safe, Your Majesty,” Ardyn continued. “Safer, indeed, than he has been in quite some time. After all, you could say that it is my duty to bring any such wretched, lonesome soul safely home.

Chapter Text

When Prompto opened his eyes at last, he was lying on the floor of a long metal walkway, surrounded on all sides by wall-to-wall monitors that flashed an ominous red and green. The roar of their cooling fans sounded like the crash of the waterfall that ran under Lestallum. He knew these monitors, this style of walkway, and the light of the cavernous hall.

Prompto was in Zegnautus Keep, square in the center of the MT research facility where he was trained.

For a terrifying second, he wondered if he had never left: If the past three years had been a fever dream, and he was on the fast track to being decommissioned and scrapped as a failure. Then he felt the warmth of Cor’s jacket on his shoulders, and the bruise on the back of his head where Ardyn had struck him, and he knew that it had been real. All of it, even the horrible moment when Cor had shifted into Ardyn, when the chancellor had taken two bullets to the neck and kept walking as though he’d been bitten by a fly, when the world sank beneath him into darkness and pain.

He scrambled to his feet, and his boot nudged the barrel of a Class 7 Magitech gun. He held out his hand and tried to summon his own from Noct’s arsenal, but the new tug of magic in his mind was gone, wiped blank. He frowned and tried again: Still nothing.

“Damn it,” he whispered.

“Ah, the prodigal son awakes.” Ardyn. Prompto spun, but he was alone on the walkway, and Ardyn’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, echoing in his ears and bouncing off the monitors. “Sleep well?”

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked, still searching the walls for any sign of the chancellor.

“You, dear one,” Ardyn said, “Are being offered something that no MT has been given since the inception of this project: A second chance.”

Prompto spotted the speakers at the end of the hall, and slowly bent to retrieve the gun. Any weapon was better than none, even if it was one given to him by the chancellor.

“A second chance for what?” he asked. He checked: The gun was loaded, and as far as he could tell, fully operational. He took a wary step along the walkway, and his lips twitched at the hollow boom of his boots against the metal.

“If you can find your way back to your cell,” Ardyn said, “And I mean your real cell, my boy, the one you had before… Then you will be allowed to pick up where you left off. What a treat, is it not?”

“And if I don’t?”

“Oh, that won’t matter.”

There was a clacking sound as one of the doors at the far end of the walkway opened, and a line of MT soldiers lurched out. They walked strangely, as though they were moving through deep water, and their blades looked dull and worn with age.

Prompto hefted the gun carefully, making sure the butt of the weapon wasn’t in danger of dislocating his shoulder with the recoil. “If you don’t want to die,” he said, in a loud, clear voice, “You should probably go.”

The MTs in the hall paused, recognizing the tell-tale buzz of Prompto’s throat. Then they raised their weapons.

“I’m warning you again,” Prompto said. He sighted the closest Assassin class MT, and turned off the safety of the gun. “Go back to your cells.”

The Assassin whirled towards him, and Prompto fired.

He fired seven more times.

“What were you expecting?” Ardyn’s voice echoed down the hall when it was over, thick with laughter. “I assure you, if your king and that… father of yours… comes calling, they will not offer the others the same courtesy.”

“Someone has to,” Prompto said, and wove around the bodies of the dead MTs, heading for the door. If he could make it to the main hall where the scientists traveled between labs, he could find his way to the exit. Then he’d… he’d steal a car, maybe, and drive back towards Lucis, find Cor and Noct and the others before they got there.

Please, he thought, as he shot out the lock on the door. Please don’t get here before I leave.

 

---

 

All things considered, Cor was fine. He felt almost calm as he navigated his car along the lonely, winding roads towards the train line that would take him, Noctis, and the king’s retinue to Gralea. His hands were steady on the wheel, his vision clear, and he wasn’t even breathing very hard. He knew where Prompto was going, he knew how to get there, and he knew just what he would do to Ardyn after he sliced the man lengthwise from behind.

Again, Cor was fine.

Of course, Luna and Iris, who were sharing his car, were remarkably quiet, and spoke to him in short, clipped whispers. But they were bound to be concerned. Anyone would be.

Not Cor, though. Cor was f—Cor was collected. Yes. Collected. Composed. If he were in his twenties, he’d be screaming half the way to Gralea. As it was…

“Luna?” Cor jerked his hands on the steering wheel, and nearly swerved into oncoming traffic. Iris gave him a tense look and pressed a hand on Luna’s forehead. The Oracle was lying out on the backseat, eyes closed, hands clenched tight over her chest. “What are you…”

“We don’t have time to find the other weapons for you or Noctis,” Luna said, in a soft voice. “There’s something I can do, but it will take a lot out of me.”

“Wow,” Iris said. “I can’t believe it. Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, sleeping.

“I thought you were raised to be polite.

Iris patted Luna on the head and scrunched up her nose. “Hey. I know you now.”

That was all they said before they reached the station. Cor watched the road glide by before him, endless and hard and cracked like the scales of a dragon, and tried not to think about Prompto.

“Of course he is,” Iris said, when they parked at the train station lot. Cor glanced her way.

“What?”

“Prompto,” Iris told him. She edged back. “You said that He’s fine. I’m just… just agreeing with you.”

“When did I…” Cor shook his head. That wasn’t important. He had to be focused. He was always focused, even as a hell-raising teenager with no respect for authority and a tendency to fight his own shadow. If Ardyn was right—and gods, he hated having to think of Ardyn being right—Then it wasn’t just Prompto waiting for them at the keep in Gralea.

When Noctis climbed out of the Regalia a few spaces away, Cor saw the flash of the ring of the Lucii catch the midday sun.

“It’ll be two days before we reach the capital,” Ignis said, as they regrouped. He turned to Cor. “Will you—“

“I’m fine,” Cor said, a little too quickly.

“Ah.” Ignis adjusted his glasses. “That’s. That’s good to hear.”

Cor turned his back on the silence that followed, and made his way to the high steps of the station platform.

 

---

 

“Now this should bring you back,” Ardyn said.

It had taken Prompto a good three hours to get far enough into the keep to start recognizing familiar scraps of its layout: Here was a corridor that led to the training chambers, there a hallway that, as far as Prompto could remember, contained the cell that had once been his. He passed that one quickly, never minding which door he took so long as it led away.

And now… Now Prompto stood in the training room that housed the Phase One Magitech subjects.

None of the Phase One MTs were older than ten. They stared at him warily at first, judging by his clothing that he was a real person, someone to guard or to defer to. Then, one after another, they spotted the tattoo on his wrist, peeking out from the sleeve of Cor’s jacket, and their red eyes trained on him with the intensity of a pack of snipers.

“Phase One Class Six Magitech soldiers,” Ardyn said, in a commanding voice. The MTs in the room all straightened to attention. “What you see before you is an escaped, defective MT. The first to decommission it will be moved directly to the second phase.”

Prompto watched the Phase One Magitech subjects turn to him. Not all of them moved in the same, fluid manner they were trained to—Some hesitated, hands twitching away from their weapons even as they faced him. Some closed their burning red eyes, others had to take steadying breaths before they took a step.

Children, Prompto thought. It was the first time he’d ever connected that word with MTs in the first phase, and the gun in his hands felt as though it were weighted with lead.

“Remember, defective MTs will be decommissioned,” Ardyn’s voice said, smooth as silk from the loudspeakers above. Prompto glanced up, and his gaze caught the dim haze of the overhead lights. He remembered those lights: The researchers used to test the Phase One MTs with it, turning the dial up until the artificial sunlight made their eyes burn and their skin itch. And the dial… the dial was…

Prompto whipped his gun round and fired at a steel box near a set of flashing red doors. He ran for them, yanked the door of the box off its hinges, and savagely twisted the largest dial all the way to the right.

The room filled with piercing, rattling shrieks as the Phase One MTs crouched on the ground, shielding their eyes from the harsh light that flooded the walls and floor. It wouldn’t kill them, Prompto knew—He’d endured that level of light himself, when he was in the first phase. But it would definitely have them seeing spots for at least an hour, and that was all he needed. He stumbled past them, blinking tears from his eyes as he ran, tripping over cowering bodies as he made his way to the elevator shaft. He held his wrist over the scanner and ducked inside.

The wails of the children followed him as the elevator creaked its way to the depths of the keep.

 

---

 

The train leading to Gralea was a luxury line, complete with sleeper cars and its own recreation of a Crow’s Nest diner. Iris stayed with Luna for most of the first night, talking to her off and on, making sure she remembered to eat, but eventually the closed-off bunks and rattling windows started to wear on her, and she picked her way through the economy booths towards where Noct, Gladio, and Ignis were sitting over the saddest-looking meal she’d ever seen.

“Where’s Mr. Leonis?” she asked. Noct gave her such a dry, bone-weary look that she immediately felt like a monster. Of course Noct would be beaten-up by this, too. Prompto was his… well, he was his something. Boyfriend, maybe, if kings were allowed one. Iris made to touch his arm, and he shied away.

“Cor’s in the bathroom, probably scaring half the train,” said Gladio. Iris nodded. The ride to the station was the most harrowing experience of her life—She kept worrying that Cor was going to scream, or spontaneously combust, or both. Honestly, she wouldn’t blame him if he did.

“Are you well, Iris?” Ignis asked. Iris smiled at him. Ignis was as good as an older brother—Sometimes better, really, because he didn’t pull pranks like Gladio or get all surly like Noct. She leaned over to touch the advisor’s hand, and her shoulder brushed Noct’s chin as she did.

For a second, the world around her was a deep, dark blue. Then Noct jumped back, and it was gone, and Iris was standing in the dining car with her hand outstretched, staring into the distance.

“Iris?” Ignis asked.

Iris looked to Noct.

“I have to go,” he said. Iris sidestepped, and, before he could think of warping in a dining car full of people, smacked both hands on his shoulders.

The blue edge to the world was back, spreading out over the dining car like a curtain, muffling all sound. Iris looked from Noct, who was staring up at her with a look of agony, and up to the roof, where the blue fog was thickest. There, she saw the line of a man’s jaw, a soft beard, a smile she knew so well she could draw it from memory.

“Dad?” she asked.

Noct pushed her away so violently that she staggered back, and he took that chance to lunge out of his seat. Ignis and Gladio gave Iris questioning looks, but she didn’t bother trying to explain: She ran after her brother, ducking around diners and skipping over discarded lumps of what was probably food at some point in the faraway past.

“Noctis!” she shouted. Noct kept going. “Noct. Noctis Lucis—

Noct pivoted, his face a mess of fury and pain. “Don’t say it.”

“You saw Dad,” Iris said. “Back in the dining car. It was like looking at a projection on a screen.”

Noct twisted the ring on his right hand, hunching his shoulders. “I know.”

Iris moved towards him, and he rocked back. “How long? When did this start?”

“When I put on the ring,” Noct whispered. “It’s been happening more and more lately. Like it’s bleeding into everything.

“Dad and Daddy never said anything about visions.

“Well, they aren’t here to explain, are they?” Noct snapped. Iris bit down a shout of her own. Noct had never looked so frightened before. “Maybe it’s because I’m chosen. I don’t know. But I keep seeing him, sometimes I can even hear his voice, and I…”

Iris grabbed him by the shoulders, pulling him down as she stood up on her tiptoes for a tight embrace. She closed her eyes even as the blue distance started to spill into her vision, and felt Noct do the same, his lashes tickling her cheek. They stood there for a long while, Noct’s erratic breathing slowing to match his sister’s, until Iris began to wobble on her toes. She sank back down, and Noct mussed her hair, giving her a half-hearted smile.

“I’m with you,” she told him. “Okay? Through all of it.”

Noct sighed. “You’re the best nerd I know, Iris,” he said. She pushed his shoulder lightly.

“Don’t you forget it, loser.”

 

---

 

Once, Prompto didn’t need to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. Once, running nonstop through steel hallways and up and down stairs would have done little more than leave him faintly breathless and jittery. Now, Prompto needed to stop. He was slowing down, his feet were starting to drag, and his breath sounded louder than even Ardyn, who still wouldn’t shut up and leave him alone.

He ducked into the crawl space underneath one of the labs, where the heat sensors weren’t likely to reach, and managed to get almost an hour to himself before a Phase Three MT ripped open the floor and grabbed him by the collar.

He didn’t have a choice about that one. He lay the MT’s body down gently, and turned to try and find the miniscule cameras that dotted the walls.

“Try. Harder,” he said, through deep gasps of air. Then he pulled out a box of bullets from the dead MT’s belt, tucked it into his pocket, and kept going.

 

It was the panic that caught him, in the end.

Prompto had been going for a good two days, if the bells for the morning and evening drills were the same as they’d been three years ago. Ardyn had tried to trick him into going towards the cells by way of piping toxic gas through the vents of the other exits—Prompto heard the chancellor actually growl in frustration when he ran through the gas instead. Then he’d sent some of the more erratic MTs after him: The ones meant for integration into the daemon programs, who were handpicked by Ardyn and the head researcher, Besithia themselves to be made into the sort of daemons that had attacked Insomnia. They weren’t regimented in their attack patterns, but Prompto’s vision was already starting to swim, and one or two managed to get a hit on him before he was able to take them down.

Then, dizzy with exhaustion, his heart quickening in his throat, Prompto had locked himself in a dorm, curled into a corner, and tried to remember how to breathe.

Somewhere in the middle of it, as the room before him started to flicker into blackness, strong hands gripped his arms. He remembered struggling, kicking out, scrambling for his gun, but his breath was too short, his hands clammy with a cold sweat, and all he could hear was the hammer of his pulse as he was dragged from the cool air of the dorm and into the hall.

“Shame, shame,” said Ardyn, as Prompto fell at last into the grip of unconsciousness. “You know that an MT of your class doesn’t have access to the dorms…

 

Prompto woke in a small, dark laboratory, strapped by the arms and legs to a narrow metal chair. The lab was cleaner than the ones he had been to before, with high monitors along one wall, stacks and stacks of black liquid sloshing in neat vials along another, and desks lined with files and personal tablets. At the end of the room, Prompto could see a stocky man with white hair leaning over a computer. He coughed, and the rasp of his voice brought Prompto to mind of lying on the operating table, Ardyn and Besithia staring down at him, saying his name.

“Oh, my,” said Ardyn, as Prompto flung himself to the side, hitting the metal floor with a thud that made the desks and tables rattle. The chancellor’s immaculate boots clicked to a stop before him, and even as Prompto worked at the bindings on his wrists, he was gently righted once more. “None of that, dear one.”

“Is that the rogue MT you’ve brought me?” Besithia, the head researcher of Niflheim and founder of the MT program, turned to regard Prompto with the same look Cor had right before he tossed their broken DVD player in the trash the year before. He made a sharp, funny little gesture with his hand and tilted his head. “Identification.”

“Prompto Leonis,” Prompto said. “Citizen of Lucis. I live on 146 Rose Street, south of the Citadel. I don’t really have a job right now, but Monica says I’m an artist.”

Besithia stared at him. Then, having heard something that couldn’t possibly be spoken by an MT subject, he turned from Prompto and addressed Ardyn instead.

“Prompto?”

Thought that might interest you.”

Besithia looked to Prompto again, and there was a strange, hungry light in his eyes.

“Sit at attention, soldier,” he said.

Prompto slumped his shoulders, trying to sink into the same, bored pose that Noct made whenever Regis tried to lecture him. The researcher’s brows furrowed.

“It’s been ruined,” he told Ardyn. “You should have decommissioned it rather than bring it here.” He turned around without another word, and strode back to his computer.

“You mean killed,” Prompto said. He glanced at Ardyn, who was watching him with an indulgent sort of pride.

Besithia didn’t answer, but his shoulders straightened as he leaned over his computer.

“You killed all of them,” Prompto said. He thought of the children who had been ordered to take him out, shivering under the daemon lights. The MTs screeching in pain, so much of their humanity lost in the poison of the blood that was pumped into their veins. Even the daemons, bred from MT test subjects. Bred from people. “Every single one of us you decommissioned. You’re a murderer.

“And what of the Immortal?” Ardyn asked, placing a hand on Prompto’s shoulder. “Just think of all the MTs he killed before you came along. What is he?”

“That’s war,” Prompto said. And Cor never saw Prompto as anything less than human. Not even when his eyes glowed a furious red, not when he was convulsing under the throes of withdrawal, not on the battlefield, as Prompto bled out in the red sand of the desert.

“As you can see, Verstael,” Ardyn said, and the hand on Prompto’s shoulder tightened. “He almost has potential—“

“Do what you want with it,” Besithia said, in a ragged, cracking voice. “So long as it’s gone.”

Chapter Text

Gralea was unseasonably cold for early autumn; Frost fogged the windows of the train as it ground to a halt at the station not two miles from the Imperial keep, and the locals who scuttled about the largely empty streets were bundled in thick, high collared coats. Noct shivered as he jumped onto the platform, and even Gladio chose to zip up his jacket. Iris, in her plaid skirt and one of Cor’s sweaters, hopped from foot to foot, lifting up her hand as though appealing to the gods.

“Is something the matter, Iris?” Ignis asked.

“Darn right it is,” she said. “I can’t get my pants out of the armiger.

“You need to stop keeping your clothes in there,” Gladio said. Iris nearly growled.

“It’s not that,” she told him. “It’s like the armiger is gone.”

Cor, who kept his sword on hand too often to bother using the armiger, watched as the others tried to delve into their shared magic. Ignis’ brows snapped together. Gladio muttered under his breath. Noct cursed loud enough for a passing mother to slap her hands over her daughter’s ears and give him a withering glare.

“The hell?” Gladio said. “Iris is right.”

“Story of my life,” Iris muttered.

My magic’s fine,” said Luna. She’d been so quiet on the ride to Gralea that she’d sunk into the background, a pale shadow yawning and stumbling her way at Iris’ side, and the others jumped and gave her guilty looks when she stepped into their circle. She held her hands loosely before her, and a long, dangerously sharp trident materialized inches above her fingers. She flushed pink at her allies’ flabbergasted stares, and wrapped an arm around it, using it as a staff. “For goodness’ sake, Noctis, if you listened to me when we were children, you wouldn’t be so surprised.”

“I think I’m kind of in love,” Iris whispered. Noct shoved a hand in his sister’s face, pushing her behind him.

“One crisis at a time, gods,” he said.

Ignis cleared his throat. “So we have two weapons at present,” he said. “Three, if Gladio counts as one.” Gladio winked at him, and he narrowed his eyes. “Still, that’s hardly enough to storm a keep. It’s likely what our friend the chancellor is planning. We’ll need to find a way to… ah, clear the keep out as thoroughly as possible, first.”

Cor turned his gaze to the dark, tiered towers that rose above the Gralean skyline. “What do you have in mind, Scientia?”

Ignis smiled. “All we need,” he said, turning to Iris and Noct. “is a little divine intervention.”

 

---

 

Sirens blared throughout Zegnautus Keep, a tone too low to be confused for the inhuman shriek of magitech soldiers. Prompto had heard the sirens once before, when a group of renegades from Tenebrae had breached the lower levels, and he swallowed down the taste of copper on his tongue. He was still a Phase One, then, not exposed enough to the daemonic ichor that ran through the veins of the advanced soldiers, and had been ushered into his cramped cell to wait for the danger to pass. Now, the sirens were muffled through thick walls that barred the more conventional cells reserved for prisoners of war.

“Ah,” said Ardyn. “That must be your prince charming.”

“King,” Prompto said. He rolled his shoulders against the cold metal of his restraints. It wasn’t a table he was used to: It had two branches of steel to hold up his arms, metal cuffs at his hands, ankles, and neck, and it could be moved and swiveled about at will. There were one or two slots near his elbow that looked uncomfortably like they could fit a set of wires, and there were cloth pads dangling near his neck, which Ardyn helpfully explained were there to prevent him from biting through his tongue.

None of this was really comforting.

“Yes, of course,” Ardyn said. He appeared from the dark, tugging at his cuffs. He smiled warmly at Prompto, as though he hadn’t spent the last hour describing, in detail, the effects that every item on the table behind him could do to the human body. “I suppose an MT must find someone to give them orders.”

Prompto didn’t bother responding. He thought of Noct sitting at the fireside, staring after Prompto like his heart was breaking. Cor, off in the woods somewhere, unknowing of Prompto’s disappearance. Was he with Noctis, now? Was he safe? Prompto had heard so many stories about Cor’s strength in battle, but… He’d heard the same about Clarus and King Regis, once.

“It’s a shame,” Ardyn said, and Prompto realized he must have been talking the whole time, completely unfazed by the fact that Prompto wasn’t paying attention. The sirens were stuttering, bellowing a message he couldn’t recognize. “I was hoping I could have more time with you. I wasn’t aware that an MT could survive the recovery process.”

Prompto looked into the dark hollows of the chancellor’s eyes, and attempted a shrug. “I’m a Leonis,” he said. “Surviving is kind of our thing.”

Ardyn paused, and Prompto caught a flash of anger there, raw and savage. He turned aside in anticipation of the blow, and the chancellor’s hand slid as it made contact. He had enough time to grin before he was struck again, just hard enough to make his eyes water but not to send him over the edge.

“A Leonis.” Ardyn’s voice was cold. “The Immortal. An ill-fitting name for a servant of a degenerate line. When I’ve robbed him of that title, shall I bring him to you?”

“You can try.”

Again, there was a flicker of rage, and something like a shadow curled under Ardyn’s skin. Prompto flinched back as the man ran fingertips over Prompto’s damp brow.

“Well, you’re considerably more resilient than I expected,” Ardyn said.

Prompto sucked at a cut on his gums. Ignis would probably trick Ardyn into giving him more information, if he were there. Ardyn was pretty much asking for him to beg for more. Gladio would go stony and cold. Noct? He cracked under pressure. Prompto figured the best he could do would be to pretend it didn’t matter.

“You don’t have any gel on you?” he asked. Ardyn’s smile froze. “Cause, you know, if you do want to take on my dad, I don’t want to show up to your…” he sought through the fog of pain for the right word. “Funeral, with my hair like this.”

Ardyn’s laugh reverberated off the cell walls, mingling with the incessant sound of the sirens. “Oh, my boy,” he said. “You were wasted with Besithia.” He leaned in close. “We’ll just have to make up for lost time, you and I.”

Then he turned, letting the door to the cell swing wide, and left Prompto to the dark.

 

---

 

The streets leading away from the keep were nearly empty by the time Luna slammed the spikes of her trident into the north-side service door. Ignis had directed them there, using just his phone and an unsettling ability to bypass government blocks on internet access to draw up a serviceable map of the keep. The crowds in the main roads of Gralea were eerily silent, save for the pounding of feet, or the occasional gasp or cut-off cry as thunder boomed and the earth moved beyond the gorge just at the edge of the city.

“I kind of want to know who wins,” Iris said, hopping again as an icy blast of air swept past them. Noct leaned against a rail and shrugged.

“It’s not like they’re really fighting,” he said. In the distance, the great figure of Ramuh rose amidst a spiral of dark clouds, lightning crackling in his hand. Beneath him, the Titan forged new hills in the darkness of the gorge. They just needed to keep it up long enough for the MT airships to arrive, which would give them barely enough time to find Prompto.

“We’ll try the labs, first,” Ignis said. He looked to Cor, who said nothing, only drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword. Luna pried her trident free of the door, and Gladio entered first, turning on his travel light. The hall was dark, illuminated only by the red glow of security lights, and when Cor followed the group at the rear, he pulled out a round watch, which clicked twice before sending out a steady, blue-white glow.

“That’s beautiful,” Iris said, her voice bouncing off the walls of the empty hall.

“A gift from Prompto,” Cor said. Iris’ smile died out like the sinking of the sun.

Ignis directed them down a flight of stairs and through an equally empty curving corridor. The security lights flashed occasionally, and there was a whirring of the vents and machinery rolling about in adjacent rooms, but all that could be heard beyond that was the sound of their feet on the metal floor.

Then there was a hiss of static, and the chancellor’s voice piped in about them, ringing in their ears.

“Your Majesty!” he crooned. “What a pleasure it is to be graced with your presence yet again.”

“Don’t speak to him,” Cor snapped, when Noct opened his mouth to shout.

“And you must be the Immortal! I’ve heard so much about you.” Ardyn sounded positively gleeful. “None of it true, I’m sure.”

The door at the far end of the corridor opened, and three MT assassins came into the light. One of them reared their head back to scream, high and grating, their shoulders convulsing as the light snaked over the cracks in their armor. Cor drew his sword, and Luna warily hefted her trident.

“Wait!” Noct ran forward, holding out his right hand. A wall of crystal, nearly four inches thick, rose between him and the oncoming MTs. When he looked to the others, his eyes were bright and wild. “One of them might be…”

The word he couldn’t say hung in the air, but none of them dared to voice it. It was as though saying it aloud would make it true.

“Oh, dear me.” Ardyn’s voice was cloyingly sweet. “Don’t fret, little king. Your pet MT is safe and sound. Of course, I say safe, but he does seem troubled, does he not? Not as… functional, as he could be.”

Fuck you,” Noct said. He swiped at the wall, which started to melt away. “Okay, guys. Luna, Cor, and Gladio, you’re in front. Try not to kill anyone, just in case. Ignis, you have the layout on your phone? Tell us where to go.”

“What about me?” Iris asked. Noct held out his right hand, palm up.

“They aren’t going away, Iris,” he said. “The visions. I need you.”

Iris grabbed his hand for a brief moment, blinked rapidly, and let go. “Noct…”

“No time,” Noct said, as the wall cracked and fell. Luna readied her trident, Cor his sword, and Gladio moved into the center, facing down the first of the MT soldiers with nothing but his fists.

When the soldiers were laid out on the floor about them, Cor, Luna, and Ignis pulled off their masks one by one. There was a young woman with short, dark hair and eyes made hollow by the Scourge, a person who looked like a child’s drawing of a human rather than a man of flesh and bone, and someone so young that they couldn’t have been older than sixteen. Luna hesitated over their bodies, the glow of her healing magic starting to shine at her palms, and turned away.

“I can’t,” she said. “I won’t have enough.” Iris threaded her fingers through Luna’s and tugged her towards the others.

“We can come back for them,” she said. Luna tightened her grip on Iris’ hand for a moment, then broke free to rejoin Gladio and Cor at the front.

 

---

 

They found the main laboratories an hour later. They examined each one together at first, but after Iris staggered out of the third lab and heaved what little she’d eaten that morning onto the floor outside, they decided on splitting into two groups: One to keep watch, and the other to investigate. Ignis, who was decidedly green after the latest room lined with daemon-hybrid experiments in progress, volunteered to stay behind with Iris. Noct stayed outside as well—He was growing more distracted by the minute. His gaze traced over shadows, he jumped at sounds that didn’t exist, and he occasionally groped into the empty air as though he were trying to catch up with someone a few paces ahead. Luna and Iris watched him carefully, guiding him when he started to slip away from the others, so when they reached the workplace of V. Besithia, Head of Research and Development, only Gladio and Cor entered the lab.

“I told you,” croaked a stocky, white-haired man at the desk, when Gladio shut the door. He kept his head down, scratching at a graph with a pen. “I won’t leave for some nonsense happening at the gorge. I have an ongoing project that needs constant…” He frowned when he saw Cor and Gladio, conspicuously out of place in their Crownsguard black. “Did Izunia send you?”

“Gods, I’d hope not,” Gladio said. His eyes widened as Cor drew his sword, bearing down on the man like a storm come down to earth.

“Besithia,” Cor said. The man looked from him to the sword with vague disinterest. “I’ve heard about you.”

It was a name Prompto had spoken of only a handful of times, in the rare moments when he was willing to talk about what had happened to him before. Besithia was the leader of the program that created the Magitech infantry, the man who personally oversaw Prompto’s progress out of what he called “the first phase” of his training.

“It was… hard,” Prompto said, when Cor had asked what that entailed. “I don’t know what I did wrong, but I could feel it. He knew I wasn’t.” Prompto had run a hand over his eyes, which still glowed red in the darkness of his cell. “I wasn’t right.”

A sickening thud shook the walls, and Cor glanced to a narrow door at the end of the lab. There was a thick panel of glass at the top, and twin red dots gleamed in the blackness beyond. Cor’s mind sank into a fog, and his body moved on its own. Besithia was yanked up by his collar and dragged to the door, where he was slammed into the steel hard enough for his eyes to go unfocused and wide.

“What is that?” Cor asked. His voice was shaking. He tried to will himself into a semblance of control, but he could hear scraping and hissing in the room before him, and there was a tight pressure in his head that refused to let him go. “Who is that?”

“Who?” Besithia was winded, but maddeningly calm. “I can hardly call it a who. I’ve been working on this for months—I tell you, if you disrupt my research for some—“

Cor’s shoulders sank. Thank the Six. “Prompto,” he said. The man in his hands raised his eyebrows. “Have you come across a man named Prompto?

“I can’t say I have.”

“He’s lying,” Gladio said. Cor had almost forgotten the Shield was there. “Look at the way he’s blinking.”

Cor didn’t bother. He jerked Besithia up another inch. “Fine. A former MT. Blonde. Probably followed by that sick sack of shit you call a chancellor.”

“Ah,” Besithia said. “That one. Yes, I saw it. It should be with Izunia… He does like his pet projects. Now, if you will let me go, I need to—“ He gasped as he was slammed against the door again. “No wonder it was defective, if you were the one who—” His head cracked on the frame, and the door shuddered as the creature on the other side slid long, blackened fangs along the glass window. A daemon, drawn to them by the scent of the blood that trickled along the head researcher’s temple.

“Cor,” Gladio said. “Careful.”

“Where is he?” Cor asked.

“I’ll tell you,” Besithia said, as the daemon mouthed at the glass. “But it won’t do you any good.” Cor’s grip on him tightened, and he let out a gurgling croak. “It’s with the chancellor, in the lower levels. The cells on floor 2B. What’s left of it.” He wheezed for breath as Cor’s fingers clenched on his windpipe, and Gladio’s boots shuffled, bringing Cor out of the red mist.

“He has a name,” he heard himself say.

“Yes,” Besithia said, to Cor’s surprise. “It did. Call it sentimentality. Now, if you will leave me to my work?

”We’re not supposed to be afraid,” Prompto had said that first year, as he lay half-dead on an operating table, fingers twisted in Cor’s. For weeks, every time he writhed in his sickbed, coughing up rusty, black-flecked blood into towels that had to be burned after, he reached reflexively for Cor’s hand. He held it like an anchor, whispered apologies in that buzzsaw voice of his, pleaded with eyes that made glowing tracks in the dark for mercy that should have never been in question.

Cor searched the face of the man who had doomed hundreds of the Empire’s children to feel broken simply for being human.

He yanked the lanyard from around Besithia’s neck and swiped the attached passkey before the lock at the door.

“No,” Besithia said, emotion flicking across his eyes at last. “No, I can’t. You can’t.“

“It’s more than you deserve,” Cor told him. The door hissed as the locking mechanism slid back, and it opened to a heavy, wet panting, and the scrabbling sound of claws on stone.

 

When Cor and Gladio stepped out of Besithia’s workroom and into the hallway, Gladio had gone ashen under his light brown skin. Noct shook himself out of whatever waking dream had taken him to ask a question, but Gladio silenced him with a look.

“Prompto’s below,” Cor said, tucking a passkey into the pocket of his vest. His sword was drawn, and the blood on the edge of the blade was blue-black and slick as oil. “We should go.”

 

---

 

Time passed strangely in the dark. The sirens died out, and red security lights winked on in the edges of his vision. A bell rang, once. He was thirsty, worse than he’d been in years, worse than it felt when he was on the verge of passing through his Phase Two training and had failed the physical by half a point. He’d been brought to the head researcher, then, who had looked down at him impassively for a time before abandoning him for two days. He had more important things to do than to enhance an MT who hadn’t tried hard enough.

For a while, he almost thought he could hear Ardyn.

Then there was a crash, a cacophonous mess of voices, and a blinding white light shone through the door of the cell block. It bounced and jostled along the walls and over the floor, and someone was shouting, calling his name.

“Noct?” He asked. His voice was a dry rattle.

“Prompto!” A flash of black hair, a pale hand on his hair, the heat of lips on his freezing skin. “Gods, Prompto. I—“

“Give me a hand, Noct.”

Prompto struggled to see through the sliding travel lights that passed over him, and blinked down into the eyes of Cor Leonis.

Prompto had worried, at first, that Ardyn might come back cloaked in an illusion. That Noct or Cor would show up, they’d make their way almost to the door, and Prompto would find himself in Ardyn’s hands again. But there was no mistaking the man who dropped his sword—his favorite sword, the one he’d earned at fifteen—to the ground and gripped Prompto’s face in both hands, his touch light as he grazed over a bruise on his cheek. No one, not even Ardyn, could think to imitate the way his brows arched a little, the way his whole face softened despite the fear that still wound its way through the lines at his eyes and mouth.

“Sorry, Dad,” Prompto said. The restrains snapped open, and he held on to one of the arm guards as his legs slipped free. “I think I ruined your jacket.”

The stony tension of Cor’s cheeks dropped away, and he caught Prompto as he fell. Cor’s arms felt impossibly warm as they pulled him close, and when Prompto pressed his face into his shoulder, he could smell blood and dust and the sharp tang of metal.

“I’m so sorry,” Cor was whispering. “I swore—I swore you’d never go back, and I stood there and watched you go—“

“It’s okay,” Prompto said. He’d never heard Cor sound so shaky before. Except… Back when he was recovering from the loss of his daily injections, when Cor was standing over him, holding him down as he fought the toxins in his blood, he’d seen it. He just hadn’t known what it was yet, hadn’t recognized the twist of Cor’s brows, the way he bit his cheek to hold his expression still, the pain in his eyes. Prompto disengaged enough to run a dirty hand over Cor’s cheekbone, pushing away the unfamiliar damp of tears.

Cor made a rough, low hmph and dragged Prompto back into his hold.

“Clearly,” Ignis said, somewhere beyond the wall that was Cor, “We’re pleased to have you back.”

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much time to recover. The MT soldiers deployed from the keep were likely to return any minute, and they couldn't turn back with the crystal nearly within their reach. Ignis ran through the monitors in the control room outside the cells while Prompto sat on one of the office chairs and tried not to choke on a bottle of water.

“Easy,” Cor said. Iris came back from a vending machine, looking a little lost.

“All they had were these supplement things,” she said. She shook a packet of pills, and Prompto grimaced. He hadn’t had one of those in years, but they’d do the job. He took one of the packets, but Noct snatched it out of his hands.

“What’s in these?”

“Everything you need to live,” Prompto said, and snatched it back. “Tastes awful, though.”

Cor looked like he was about to protest, but Prompto swallowed the pills down before he could be interrupted again.

Five minutes later, he was shaking in the corner, spitting up what felt like half the liquid in his body.

“Told you so,” Noct said, and Iris stamped on his foot. Cor knelt at his side, holding him up, while Luna lent him a tentative touch of magic, easing the worst of the pain.

“Guess I’m… really not an MT anymore,” he said, trying to grin.

“Could have told you that myself,” Cor said. Prompto rolled his eyes, and Cor rubbed his back, sighing.

“Can you keep going, Prompto? Did they do anything to you?”

“Not yet.” Prompto sat up, and touched the new scar on the bridge of his nose. Cor’s face hardened again. “I think he wanted you to find me. So it’ll be worse when it happens again.”

He yelped as slender hands held him by the shoulders, and when Prompto turned to Noctis, the room around him faded into a deep field of blue. Prompto saw a shadow behind his friend, an outline of light, but every time he thought he had it down, it shifted like a distorted reflection.

“It won’t happen again,” Noct said, and another voice spoke a beat behind him, a whisper as thin and wavering as the shadow at his back.

…happen again.

“Noct,” Prompto said. “There’s. Everything’s gone…”

“Sorry.” Noct released him, and the colors of the real world returned. “I think… I think it means we’re getting close to the crystal. But look, Prom, I should’ve told you. If it weren’t for me—Gods, Prompto, I’m so—“

“It doesn’t matter,” Prompto told him. He used Cor’s shoulder to stand. “No, really. I just got kidnapped by a guy who can’t be killed. Puts things into perspective, right?”

The silence that met him now was absolute.

“Prompto,” Luna said, in a funny, strained voice. “What do you mean, can’t be killed?

 

Fifteen minutes later, Prompto trotted in the center of the group, following them to the signal Ignis had identified as the source of what was blocking Noct and Iris’ magic. The rest of them were quiet, save for short, erratic jerks of speech, breaking through the pounding of feet and the pant of breath.

“He just took a bullet?”

“That shadow you described, Prompto. Was it like the Scourge?”

“Couldn’t be, though. He’s from Niflheim.”

“Seems pretty damn quiet now, don’t he?”

Cor didn’t weigh in. He stayed with Prompto, a hand at his back, a grounding presence in the midst of rows of MT containment units and far too familiar security panels. Prompto nudged his arm and slipped under it as the group slowed down, coming to the central viewing chamber where the Emperor was said to hold court.

The chamber was empty.

Prompto’s wrist code came in handy, though why a Class 6 MT would have access to the kind of doors reserved for human officers and commanders was beyond him. Ignis found the source of the block on their magic in the form of four large monitors along the wall.

“We’ll need to be careful,” he said. “This is delicate equipment.”

Luna moved past him, pushed her trident into one of the monitors, and dragged it down in a flurry of electrical fire.

Or we can use brute force,” he said.

“It’s been a hard day,” Luna told him.

Noct grinned at her. “See, this is why we’re friends.” Ignis gave them both a disapproving look, but Noct was already reaching into his magic, the light of his eyes going slightly violet as he extended a hand. A spear fell into his fingers, and he let out a whoop of excitement that echoed in the circular chamber. Gladio summoned his own sword, and Iris whipped out a shield from midair that looked almost as big as she was. Noct stared at her with seething envy.

“Nice, right?”

“Yeah, whatever,” he said. The half smile on his face died out, and he turned towards the exit, suddenly tense. “Iris. Do you see…”

His sister banished the shield and ran to him, grabbing his hand. She swayed on her feet, and peered around the open door.

“I see it,” she said, softly. “The ring's trying to lead us to the crystal.”

“Are you certain?” Ignis asked. He watched them carefully, concern tight in his eyes. “It isn’t an… illusion?”

“No,” Noct said, firmly. “It isn’t.”

“It’s Dad.” Iris’ hand tightened on Noct’s. Her eyes settled on a figure in the distance that only she and Noct could see. “He’s showing us the way.”

 

The closer they came to the crystal, the more daemons began to appear, emerging from the dark to meet them. They always fell between Noct and the others, isolating him, backing him into corners and close to dizzying drop-offs. Gladio took to keeping an arm on Noct at all times, and judging by the pained grimace he wore, whatever Noct could see in the blue distance of his mind was showing up in his, too. Gladio didn’t comment on it, though, only fell deeper into himself, shuttering off the emotions that played across his face one by one. It was like watching the lights in Prompto’s neighborhood go off at night, leaving only darkness and stars behind.

Eventually, even Prompto was starting to see a blue edge to the light. Ignis kept blinking and adjusting his glasses, and Luna was twisting her hands on her trident as she walked.

When Prompto asked Cor what he saw, he just shrugged.

Two Red Giants blocked the path to the high walkway that led to the crystal. It took nearly everything they had just to get past, and Luna looked worse than Prompto felt by the end of it. He held out a hand for her, and she took it, smiling slightly.

For just a second, when Prompto turned towards Noct, Iris, and Gladio at the front of their group, he thought he saw a fourth figure, standing at the wavering, shimmering form of crystal. Their father? Was he there, after all, or was he a trick, a vision brought out by the ring? Prompto blinked, hard, and the figure was gone.

Maybe it’s Ardyn, said a treacherous voice in his mind. Maybe it’s always been Ardyn.

But why would Ardyn want to lead them to the crystal?

“How the hell are we going to get this back to Insomnia?” Gladio’s voice echoed in the vast tunnel below the walkway.

“Put it in the Armiger?” Noct asked. Everyone stared at him. “What? No?”

“Neither of you are touchin’ it,” Gladio growled, holding an arm out to block his siblings from the hovering stone before them.

“Fine,” Noct said. “You carry it. Don’t pretend you can’t—I’ve seen you rip pillars out of the ground.”

“Once. Once, and I had bedrest for a week—“

“Dreadfully sorry to interrupt.”

Fear took over, sharp as instinct. Prompto turned, summoned his gun in a flicker of blue magic, and fired. Ardyn Izunia fell back onto the railing behind him, then the hole in his chest began to bubble with the smoky dark sludge of the Scourge. He looked to Prompto with a mournful air.

“Dear boy,” he said. Cor’s hand clenched on Prompto’s shoulder. “Why do I feel we’ve been through this before?”

“Stay back, Noct,” Ignis said. He was closest to Ardyn, but his hands barely trembled as he summoned his knives. Ardyn took a deep, aggrieved sigh and snapped his fingers.

A tight pressure bloomed in Prompto’s chest, as though the weight of an iron hand were holding him down. He fell to his knees, and the rest of his body followed, twisting so tight in his lungs that he could barely breathe. He reached for his guns, but they disappeared into the armiger even as his fingers hooked in the trigger. At his side, he heard a grunt and the crack of limbs on the walkway.

Ardyn carefully stepped over the struggling, fallen form of Ignis and walked in his slow, nonchalant stride towards the crystal.

“The hell did you do to them?” Noct. That was Noct. “How did you—“

“I don’t believe I’ve had the chance to properly introduce myself,” Ardyn said. His cheeks were marred with the Scourge, and his smile was too tight, as though his skin were just a loose mask pulled over the churning shadows within. He bowed, a hand on his hat to keep it steady.

“Ardyn Lucis Caelum, at your service.”

“Lucis?” Iris’ voice was small and high.

“And you must be the princess,” Ardyn said. “Oh, yes. So glad to see the whole family all in one place.”

Prompto winced as a faint chorus of voices sounded in the back of his mind, twining round the blue edge to the light. The world of Noct’s visions was slowly starting to creep in around Ardyn as he spoke, muffling even the sound of Ardyn’s voice. Prompto was so lost in this, so focused on the change in the light and the weight of his limbs, that he didn’t see the red gleam of Ardyn's magic until it was too late.

Ardyn stood directly above him, twirling a long sword in his left hand. He glanced down at Cor, who was struggling to rise against the magic bearing him down, and adjusted his grip on the hilt. His gaze found Prompto’s, and the smile he gave him now was small, indulgent: A private little joke.

The edge of his blade shone with the light of the crystal.

Then there was a sharp cry from behind. Prompto couldn’t turn to see, but he felt it—A wave of power rolling over him, sending Ardyn stumbling back just out of Cor’s reach. The weight lifted, just a fraction, and Prompto twisted his head round just in time to see the light of Luna’s magic eclipse her features, turning her into a beacon bright enough to match the crystal.

Noct and Iris gasped as though they’d been struck. Prompto heard a shimmer of glass, and rows of glowing blue weapons swirled around them. Noct grinned at his sister.

“Iris,” he said.

Iris grabbed one of the weapons out of the air, a massive, saw-like throwing star, and threw it past Ardyn’s shoulder. She warped behind him, and as Ardyn spun on his heel to strike, Noct pulled a spear from his armiger and vaulted into the air over his head.

What followed was the most confusing fight Prompto had ever seen. The three of them moved like fish through the water, darting and glimmering and too fast to track. Occasionally Iris would hiss in pain, or Noct would shout a curse, but they managed to match Ardyn between the two of them, keeping him too distracted to focus on either one for very long. As they fought, Prompto could feel the magic holding him lessen, and by the time Noct was panting hard and Iris was spending most of her energy warping away from the so-called chancellor, he was finally able to stand. The others were on their feet as well, save for Luna, who was holding on to her trident like a pillar in a storm.

Prompto opened his hand, and summoned his gun.

The first shot hit Ardyn on the shoulder. The second knocked off his hat, and when Ardyn turned to him, Iris took the chance to slam two of her blades at once into the tender flesh of his back. Ignis’ knife spiraled through the air to lodge in his throat, and Ardyn yanked it way, black blood oozing down his neck and chest.

But unlike the time Prompto had fought him in the woods, this wound wasn’t healing.

Cor got him at the belly. Gladio took out the back of his knees. Prompto landed another shot as Ardyn fell, sprouting blades like an ancient behemoth of the wilds. Ardyn looked up, and trained his eyes on Noctis.

“Useless,” he said, and spat on the floor at his knees. “Without the crystal. Though I must say, it’s… A good way… to relieve stress, I’m sure.”

“Fuck you,” Noct panted. He faced the crystal, and the ring on his hand shimmered. Iris called after him and landed in a sloppy warp at his side, but Noct was already breaking into a run. They reached the crystal together, Iris’ hands scrabbling at Noct’s arms to hold him back, and as the hand bearing the ring twitched towards the stone, Prompto heard a tinny whining noise, like a radiator about to burst.

Iris and Noct were thrown from the crystal in a flash of light. Prompto caught Iris and nearly went tumbling over the edge, but Luna held him by one arm, Cor by his back, and they were yanked to the walkway again. Gladio and Ignis grabbed Noct before his feet could hit the ground.

The crystal was humming, more of a vibration than sound, and just as Prompto thought he couldn’t take the keening building in his ears, there was a crack from the center of the stone, and light billowed about the blue haze of the air like a mist. It drew together to form the outlines of hundreds of people: Some in the smart lines of the Kingsglaive uniform, some in varying stages of the royal raiment that lay unused in the trunk of the Regalia. They filled the space about them on all sides, and their gazes all settled on the kneeling figure of Ardyn Lucis Caelum.

“The price has been paid,” they said, in one voice, low and terrible. Prompto’s teeth ached at the sound of it.

Noct fell out of Gladio and Ignis’ arms, but he paused a few feet from the crystal, coming up against an invisible wall. Iris joined him, a hand on his arm, and Gladio braced him on his other side.

Out of the amassed lines of kings, queens, and glaives, a single figure approached the group on the bridge. His spectral footsteps made no sound, but memory filled in the gaps as the ghost of King Regis Lucis Caelum stepped through the crystal, trailing magic in a spreading cloak.

“The price has been paid,” he said, and he paused before the stricken forms of his children. “But not by you. Not this time. The ring, Noctis.”

Noct gripped the ring between the fingers of his left hand, slowly sliding it free. “Dad. I don’t—“

“Don’t question me now.” Regis smiled with his eyes, cheeks lifting slightly. He held out his hand.

Noct dropped the ring in his palm, and Regis ran the fingers of his free hand through his son’s hair. Gladio looked as though he were about to fall, and leaned heavily on Noctis, who grunted and wrapped an arm around his waist. Iris’ cheeks were an uneven red.

“Look at you,” Regis said, and tapped Iris’ chin with a knuckle, and she let out a shivering sob, tilting her head up at the touch.

“Whatever is to happen…” Regis looked to each of them in turn. “Know that we are proud of who you have become. In your hands, Lucis will endure.” He laid a hand on Gladio’s cheek, the other on Iris’ shoulder, and tipped his head towards them. His lips moved, but Prompto couldn’t catch what he whispered to the three of them, only saw their shoulders straighten, their hands grasp for each other, their faces falling into shadow as Regis withdrew and placed the ring on the second finger of his right hand. He raised the ring of the Lucii high. Its light spilled over the kneeling remains of Ardyn, who stared up at him with an exhaustion that dragged the breath from his lungs in great heaving gasps.

There was a ripple in the air, and for the span of an eyeblink, a figure stood at Regis’ back, broad-shouldered and steady. Then he was gone, and a black sword materialized in Regis’ hand.

Ardyn laughed, weak and wretched, and closed his eyes to the unwavering light of the crystal.

The sword of the king swung noiseless through the air as the blade struck home.

Chapter Text

Time stuttered as King Regis lowered his blade. Cor watched as, in a rush of shifting forms and flickering magic, the figures standing in attendance around them dove through the crystal. They burst out the other side bright with the raw power of the Astrals’ gift to Lucis, and twisted into a current of light that struck Regis like an arrow. He stumbled, but his arm was steady, and when the blade of his sword fell through Ardyn’s half-unreal flesh like paper, the crystal was nothing more than a glimmering speck in the air.

The pressure in the room snapped, and Prompto groaned, falling against the railing at his back. Cor caught him, sinking to his knees as Prompto clutched his arms so tight that his nails bit into his skin.

“It’s like I’m…” Prompto dropped his head to Cor’s shoulder. His skin was hot, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and neck. “I’m burning.

Cor looked to where the light of the ring was stretching out from the sword in Regis’ hand, driving out the Scourge that lay within Ardyn. How much still remained with Prompto? Cor tightened his hold on him, resting Prompto’s head against his neck.

“You’ll be fine,” Cor whispered, as Prompto’s fingers tensed with a fresh wave of pain. “Stay with me. Gods. Stay with me.”

“’m here,” Prompto murmured. He raised his head from Cor’s shoulder, and when he lifted heavy lids to blink up at his father, his eyes were a clear and light-flecked blue.

The crystal was fading fast, the brown and grey colors of the keep chasing away the blue of the kings’ ancestral magic. Ardyn was the first to fall, collapsing like a cloud of leaves picked up in a high wind. Then the others flickered away as well, all of them facing the survivors on the walkway as their forms dissolved. At one point, Luna cried out, her hands tight on her trident, but no one dared look away.

Regis was the last to go. He stood straight, his hands bare, looking through them with that unassuming smile he saved only for those who knew him best. He turned slowly, and an arm threaded through his, the outline of a familiar, guileless smile matching his own, before the sight of them was lost in a shower of light.

And so they were gone, and all that remained was the empty platform where the crystal had been, the stillness of the air, and soft, helpless gasping as Gladiolus Amicitia-Caelum wept into his hands.

 

They saw the full effects of the Accursed’s death in the MT training facilities on the way to the service entrance. Where Prompto had experienced nothing more than a moment of searing pain and a lingering ache in his bones, the MTs whose blood ran thick with the Scourge were charred husks in piles of armor and wire.

Gladio didn’t notice it. He and Luna hung back, talking softly, as Iris and Noct hovered around them in an uncertain state of panic. Cor understood, in a way—Gladio was Noct’s Shield, but he was also his emotional bulwark. He wasn’t supposed to break. He was the one who intervened for them when Noct or Iris were placed under restriction by their parents, who took the blame in countless fights and minor acts of rebellion. He was the only one who was able to find Noct when the crown prince had run away, only a year before Cor found Prompto, terrified of prophecy and fate.

The Oracle’s voice was low as she spoke into his ear. She, too, knew what it meant to be strong for everyone but oneself.

Prompto paused in the next room of MTs they came to, his face unreadable and vague. Then his shoulders lifted, and his brows knit together as he turned from the remains. When Prompto reached for him, Cor followed him to the side without a word.

“I have a favor to ask,” Prompto said.

“Anything.”

Prompto nodded, closed his eyes for a breath, and ran a hand over his serial code. “We need to make a stop.”

 

Metal groaned and squealed as, one by one, the containment units for the Phase One Magitech soldiers were ferried on steel cables and deposited along the walls of the largest training facility. Prompto stood in the center of the room, speaking urgently into Noct’s ear as, around them, children in black and grey jumpsuits fell out of their cells and tried to form orderly lines. Many of them were trembling: Some had tearstained faces and lines along their necks and hands where they’d clawed at themselves in pain. The Scourge had barely touched them, but it was enough that the eradication of the plague had shaken them.

“Class Six Phase One Magitech test subjects,” Noctis said, in a clear voice that belied only a faint unease. The children straightened. “The war is over. The MT program has been disbanded as of this afternoon.”

Shouts of alarm broke out among the ranks, but were hurriedly muffled. Several of the younger ones began to cry. Noct, always a soft touch for tears, made to move towards them, but Prompto stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“You’ve all been promoted,” Prompto said, and the children stared at him with eyes that no longer shone with the red of their daemonic conditioning. “To the rank of the G-10 Civilian Class.”

Silence fell.

“It’s a trap,” one of the oldest girls said. “Don’t listen to them.”

“It isn’t,” Prompto told her. “What you felt was the enhancement drug being burned out of you. You are.” He took a breath. “You’re too valuable to the Empire to be decommissioned.”

A young Phase One, so small that she had to raise her hand to make the signal for a question, stood on her toes.

“Granted,” Prompto said.

“Can we…” The girl lowered her hand. “Does this mean we can sleep in the dorms?”

Prompto’s attempt at a stern expression broke, and his smile was so wide it looked like it hurt his cheeks. “It means you can have a name.

It took some convincing, but in the end, most of the young MTs followed them out of a lost, desperate urge to obey orders. Some were cautiously taken by the explanation Noct gave them, and one boy, hardly older than three, even tugged on Gladio’s leg and gasped as he was lifted in the Shield’s arms. A dozen recognized the Oracle in Luna, and had decided that they were her honor guard, following her in a loose formation.

The girl who had spoken up clung to Prompto, and Cor caught him gently showing her how to hold hands as they walked through the empty halls of the keep.

“What are we gonna do with them?” Iris asked, holding a toddler on her hip. “Throw them in the armiger?”

“Oh, very funny,” Noct said.

“I called on Gladio’s contacts among the Hunters,” Ignis said. He was accompanying the older girl who had protested their reassignment, and seemed quite unfazed by the searching glare she was subjecting him to. “They’ll meet us at the station in Tenebrae.”

“And that’s where I’ll say goodbye,” Luna told them. She was using her trident as a staff, and one of the older former MTs was politely holding her up by the elbow. “It’s been too long. With the Empire… with what happened,” she amended, not wanting to scare the children. “I need to find Ravus and rebuild. We can take some of them in, in the meantime.”

“The rest can go to Insomnia,” Noct said. He shrugged. “Hey, I’m king, right? My word is law.”

Prompto’s smile at that was wicked. “Come here, Your Majesty,” he said.

Noct leaned in, and Prompto dragged him all the way for a crushing kiss. The girl holding Prompto’s hand made a confused sound.

“What was that?” she whispered to Prompto, when he’d left Noct dazed and grinning.

“It’s what people do when they’re in love,” Prompto said. “Sometimes.”

The girl thought about this. “I don’t know what that means,” she said, “but it looks unsanitary.”

Cor coughed to cover a laugh. Gladio hid a smile with his hand, and Iris sighed.

“In love, huh?” Noct asked.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Prompto told him, and took his other hand, squeezing his fingers tight as they made their way towards the open streets of Gralea, and home.

 

---

 

Six months later, Prompto and Cor climbed the roof of their old house, which gleamed with the cool light of a spring morning. Prompto had a red vest zipped up over his Crownsguard fatigues, and a black cloth—the sad remains of what had once been Cor’s jacket—tied around his right bicep. Most of the citizens of Insomnia wore an armband or black scarves, in memory of those lost in the war, and in honor of the king who had cleansed their star of the Scourge. Prompto’s wrist, however, was uncovered, and the lines of his serial code were stark blue against his sunburned skin.

“Beautiful day for nailing our thumbs to the roof, huh, Dad?” he asked. Cor, still testing the uneven, charred shingles of the roof for purchase, didn’t dignify that with a response.

“If you fall,” shouted a voice from below, “I can’t take you in for maintenance!”

Prompto leaned over the edge, and Cor instinctively grabbed his collar to hold him back.

“Roger that,” Prompto shouted. There was a muffled giggle as Hazel, the MT who had taken Prompto’s hand back in Gralea, sat down next to the Colonel and held onto her chocobo-themed thermos like it was a lifeline. She’d run off twice from the well-meaning guardians who’d taken her in, only to show up, shaking with nerves and standing to attention, at the rooms Cor and Prompto shared in the residential wing of the Citadel. Once, when the door opened to reveal that it was just Cor at home, Prompto had to run, half-dressed, from Noct’s bedroom just to assure her that he was still there.

The former MTs were all in various stages of moving from their old lives in Gralea to their new civilian statuses in Insomnia. Some took to it quicker than others, and were happily living with trusted families in the city. Others were still in the Citadel, struggling to reconcile their training with what was often an overwhelming freedom.

They were given the chance to name themselves, and not all of them had a wealth of inspiration to draw from. There were two Gladios, five variations of Prompto, two Irises, three Lunas and so many Nocts that they had to come up with a creative string of nicknames to tell any of them apart. Ignis had one copycat: the stern, nine-year-old girl who’d refused to keep any of them out of her sight on the entire trip back. She’d called herself Scientia, and took to shadowing the advisor whenever possible.

“I almost caught her smiling the other day,” Ignis said once, as he and Gladio stopped by Prompto’s apartments in the Citadel. Prompto was usually in the company of at least one former MT at any time: As the first one to’ve undergone the transition to civilian life in Insomnia, he’d volunteered with the psychologists at the palace to be a go-between for older MTs who didn’t quite trust Insomnian doctors to answer all their questions.

Most of the questions he got were small, careful ones. What does it mean when someone looks like this? How do I hold a fork and knife at the same time? Why can’t I salute anymore?

The most common question, though, the one that kept Prompto up late talking to Cor or curled up in bed with Noctis, counting the minutes as the king slept, was:

What did I do wrong?

“Nothing,” he said, every time. One day, he hoped they might believe him.

“You sure this isn’t too much?” Cor asked now, gesturing towards his son with the hand not wielding the nail gun. Prompto looked up at him, bewildered.

“I’m just holding down a shingle,” he said. Cor’s lips twitched.

“No,” he said. “Not that.” He jerked his head towards the kid, who was petting the Colonel reverentially behind the ears. “Her. The others. Between them and King Noctis, I’m lucky if I see you for dinner once a week.”

Prompto scooted back so they could work on the next patch in the roof. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “They’re just… scared. And Noct’s doing okay. Gladio has a bet going on how long it’ll take for him to lock Ignis in the dungeon, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one here.”

“None that I’ve found,” Cor said. “Watch it, Prom, you’re holding it crooked.”

“Oh, sorry.” Prompto adjusted the panel. “It’ll calm down,” he said. “We’re all kind of figuring things out, right now.”

“What about her?” Prompto looked down to see Hazel staring at him. He grinned and waved, and she waved back, smiling warily. “Doesn’t seem like she’s going away.”

“Who says she has to?” Prompto asked. “I brought her here. I won’t leave her on her own. I won’t leave any of them.”

“That’s a heavy responsibility,” Cor said. “It’ll be hard. It’ll take sacrifice. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“I’m sure,” Prompto said. “After all…” He leaned in, his eyes crinkling in a smile, and placed a hand over Cor’s. “I learned from the best.”