The narrow halls of Gralea’s Magitech Development Facility were flooded with blazing blue lights, installed at angles to chase out shadow and dig through every door frame and tucked-away corner. Cor Leonis’ breath steamed in great white clouds as he passed beneath them, and his feet kicked up the heavy mist of frigid air that piped through air ducts in the floor. It was an added protection from the daemons that lurched and gibbered and slavered at the steel doors on either side: The creatures bred on that floor were weak to low temperatures, and the scientists who worked there installed every protection to ensure that they remained in the testing cells where they belonged.
But Cor wasn’t there for them. He’d spent the better part of two hours fighting his way through the facility to reach one research lab in particular: The workplace of Verstael Besithia, the man who engineered the worst of Niflheim’s bio-weapons. He couldn’t afford distractions, not now, not when the king himself had ordered Cor to infiltrate the facility for this express purpose.
When Cor reached the lab, it was blocked by an unassuming steel door, which opened far too easily under the influence of one of Cor’s crafted flasks of fire magic. The lock shattered as he passed through the threshold, and the warmth of the office hit him in a wet, heavy blast.
The lab was small, disappointingly tidy, and well-organized. Cor lifted several files and released them into the king’s armiger in a flash of blue magic—The king would sense the change even all the way in Insomnia, and would have his advisors poring through them within minutes. He did the same with several floppy disks, a case of clear vials, and a stack of what seemed to be Verstael’s personal notes. He was about to dig through one of the cabinets in the corner when he heard a high, keening sound, and a steady, dull beeping.
He turned towards the noise, and saw a squat, waist-high steel cube at the end of the room, next to a wall of glowing, flashing monitors. He approached it cautiously, one hand on the hilt of his blade, as the keening sound died off into a series of high-pitched whimpers. There was something alive in there. A daemon? Cor brushed the plaque on the door of the cube, which held a series of numbers, under which was an engraved code of some sort.
The door wasn’t locked. Not a daemon, then. Perhaps it was some experiment, a creature Besithia was crafting into a weapon. Cor pushed at the hilt of his sword with a thumb, and slowly, carefully, opened the door.
He peered through the mass of wires, tubes, and glass containers within, and felt his breath catch in his throat.
The streets of Gralea seethed with pedestrians at the height of the late night rush. Soldiers from the keep at the center of the city marched through on their way to duty stations, medics stood at bus stops and lingered at all-night takeaways, and everywhere there were brightly-clad locals, grinning and chattering and watching the evening news with tentative excitement.
The war’s turned for us at last, they said, as the Emperor’s smiling face flickered on barroom televisions and street-side holograms. It won’t be long now.
In the midst of them, pale with the wide-eyed, thin-lipped look of a haunted man, Cor Leonis disappeared into the night, holding a small, one-year-old child under his jacket as though they were made of glass.
June Fretham, part-time clerk at the Gralea train station gift shop and convenience center, had been robbed seven times in the past three years. Mostly, it was the same man: Percival “Digger” Cuther, the guy who lived four streets down and couldn’t seem to figure out that a pale stocking over the head did little to mask his violently white hair and jittery hands. Sometimes, she’d see him coming and open the till on her own just to save time.
After seven years of retail and three years of working at the train station, she figured she’d seen just about everything.
Still, she’d never been robbed by a man carrying a baby before.
She stared at the disordered rack of baby formula, diapers, cheap wipes and “no tears” shampoo that definitely wasn’t as effective as advertised, and bit down on her thumb. This was way above her pay-grade.
“Well,” she said, turning from the mess with the jaded disinterest of a retail veteran. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.”
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Cor said. He was sitting cross-legged on a bunk in a sleeper car of the train out of Niflheim, gazing down at the chubby, pink-faced baby before him. The baby—Prompto, he supposed he was called—had soft blond hair that curled up in an unruly lick over his forehead, a grip like an iron vise, and the lungs of a banshee. At the moment, he was trying to chew on Cor’s captain’s badge, and was succeeding at getting a pint of drool over the soft leather.
He hadn’t meant to steal the child. The king would have understood if he hadn’t. It was, honestly, an incredibly foolish thing to do. As soon as Besithia or one of his assistants found the boy missing, a full search would be made, and Cor hadn’t exactly concealed his movements after the fact. But still… He thought of the cube, and the wires, and the raised welts around a tattooed barcode on Prompto’s wrist, and fury roared in the back of his mind.
Soft fingers touched his chin.
“Da,” Prompto said, mournfully.
“Sorry, kid,” Cor told him. “I’m not your…” Prompto’s lip quivered. Shit. Shit. Not again.
He picked the boy up in his arms and jiggled him experimentally as the boy sobbed on his shoulder. I’m twenty-three, he thought, toeing open his bag of stolen supplies. I barely even know how to look after myself.
It was true. If it weren’t for the complimentary meals at the Crownsguard mess hall, Cor would have probably starved by age eighteen, and he was always getting called out by Clarus at muster for having wrinkled fatigues or scuffed-up boots. Never mind all the disciplinary reviews.
“Look,” he said to Prompto, dragging out a stuffed chocobo doll he’d lifted from the train station. “Look, pure evil with feathers.” He bounced the toy in his palm, and Prompto stared at it for a full five seconds before bursting into tears again. “Oh, for fuck’s—for—What do you want, kid? What’s happening?”
Prompto threw back his head and wailed.
In the end, it took three discarded diapers, a bag of puffed wheat snacks, and a half-forgotten version of the Baby Behemoth song for Prompto to finally calm down. Even so, it was a fragile balance: The boy looked on the verge of a full break-down at any moment. Cor covered his face with both hands, and Prompto whimpered. He jerked them away quickly, and a shaky sort of smile broke out across Prompto’s round face.
Cor glanced behind him. There was no one outside, and the window at the door of his private car was too high for anyone to look in properly, anyways. He turned back to the boy and covered his face with both hands.
“Oh, no,” he said, in a deadpan voice. “I no longer exist, I guess.” He lifted his hands. “Now I do?”
Prompto giggled. Actually giggled.
“Thank the gods Reg and Clarus aren’t here to see this,” he muttered, and covered his face. “Wow. What do you know, I’m gone again…”
“I need to hear this one more time, Captain.” King Regis’ voice over Cor’s heavy brick of a phone was tinny and far too amused. “You have a what with you?”
“A child,” Cor said. “About, I don’t know. A year old? He knows some words, and he can walk a little.”
“I told you to obtain information, Leonis,” his king said. “And what do you mean, you were ejected from the train?”
“Exactly what I said, Your Majesty,” Cor told him. He worked his jaw around a gloriously colorful bruise. “Apparently, I needed a visa. So I’m renting a chocobo until I can get to a car.”
“Is that… entirely safe?”
Cor looked to Prompto, who was currently snuggled up next to the yellow, thankfully docile chocobo near the fire. Sunlight faded fast in Niflheim’s winter months, and they’d barely made it to a safe haven in time. As it was, Cor could see the faint lights of daemons prowling the edges, warded off only by the glowing lights of the anti-daemon runes on the haven platform.
“He likes the birds, Astrals know why,” he said. Cor and chocobos didn’t exactly get along at the best of times, but this bird seemed to think of Prompto as an adopted chick. “But that’s not why I called. Can you… is Clarus with you?”
Regis made a soft humph, and there was a rustling sound at the other end of the line. Then a low voice broke through the static. “Leonis. How’s fatherhood?”
“Ha. I need help, Clarus.” Cor watched as a lich emerged from the ground near the haven, releasing a soft green mist in the air. Prompto stared at it sleepily, watching its progress around the perimeter of the haven. “It’s… Prompto isn’t taking his formula.”
“Why would you ask me—”
“Prince Noctis lives at the daycare,” Cor said, shortly. “I’ve seen you bring your kid to work, sir. Please.”
Clarus sighed. “Fine. Was it the right temperature? Did you follow the directions on the box?”
“Temperature?” Cor asked, unable to keep the panic out of his voice.
“Oh, dear. You will need help. Very well, Leonis. There should be a kettle in the armiger—summon that, and let the fire bank enough to bring the formula to a low heat…”
Ten minutes later, Cor crouched over his knees, holding a cheap bottle in one hand.
“Test it on your wrist, first,” Clarus said, in the gentle, all-too-patient tone Cor had learned to associate with public reprimands.
Cor stared at his wrist. Prompto stared at the bottle. At the edge of the haven, the lich stared at Prompto.
“Right,” Cor said. “Right. Okay.”
“It’s formula, Leonis,” Clarus said. “Not poison.”
“It isn’t hot,” Cor said, after squeezing a drop onto his skin.
“Best you can do at the moment,” Clarus said. “Try it now, and remember what I said. It might just be that he doesn’t like bottles. If he was raised in a lab…”
Cor crawled over to Prompto, who cooed and raised his hands towards him.
“Choco cho cho cho,” he said.
Clarus laughed. “Is that your name, Leonis?”
“All due respect, sir, shut the f—”
“That isn’t the kind of language I’d expect from my babysitter, Choco cho.”
Cor groaned, hung up, and bundled Prompto into his lap. Right. Formula, mashed-up fruit and veggies, and eggs. He could do this: At least, until he made it to Insomnia. No problem.
Four months later, Cor collapsed to his knees in the soft grass South of Lestallum, letting his sword drop beside him. At his back, tucked safely in a sling and clapping his hands in delight, Prompto hummed and wriggled. About them, the corpses of a pack of voretooth monsters lay in sad heaps in the underbrush.
“Song!” Prompto crowed. Cor whistled the cheery little victory tune he’d set as a ringtone weeks ago, and Prompto danced in his sling, feet kicking painfully into Cor’s back.
“Good job, Prom,” Cor said. He was still breathless with the fear that came from warding off snarling jaws slick with venom and claws long as knives, all with the knowledge that there was a child hanging from his back.
A pretty decent child, all things considered.
Prompto was learning more words every day, lately. He’d grown to have an affinity for all animals sporting fur or feathers, loved bubbles, Cor’s shoelaces, and a pointless clapping game that had no rules and mostly consisted of Prompto trying to slap Cor on the arm. He liked bedtime stories, which were made up of watered-down tales of Cor’s time with Regis and the others, and slept curled up in the crook of Cor’s arm or sprawled over his chest, drooling impressively.
Technically, they should have been back in Insomnia weeks ago. But there had been that business with customs at Tenebrae, and then the week of storms between there and Lestallum, and he’d taken a few weeks there to get Prompto checked out at a doctor’s office—Except he’d run out of gil, so he had to take hunts to pay the bills, and… Well, here he was.
He repositioned the sling and lifted Prompto out, walking them both to the road. According to his phone clock, their ride should be there any minute. Cor set Prompto down at the curb and held his hand to prevent him from toddling out into the road.
“Da,” Prompto said, slapping his hand.
“That’s right,” Cor said, without thinking.
Prompto’s face lit up like the sun.
When their ride got there, it came in the form of a massive orange semi with a sloped bed, a garish decal of a grinning hammerhead shark, and two sets of fuzzy dice at the mirror. Cor picked Prompto up and held him to his hip as he opened the door, and groaned at the smirking face of the man at the wheel.
“Damn, kid,” Cid Sophiar said. “Old Reggie was right.”
“Not a word,” Cor told him, and set Prompto up in the seat before climbing in.
King Regis sat back on his throne, legs crossed, watching Cor Leonis with the air of a man witnessing the arrival of a new and bewildering life-form. A little to his right, Clarus Amicitia was struggling, and failing, not to laugh, constantly raising his hand to his mouth to hide a trembling smile.
On the dais before the throne, Prompto, the rescued experiment of Niflheim’s elite Magitech research lab and resident toddler, lay on the floor and screamed.
“It’s nap time,” Cor explained, avoiding Prompto’s flailing fists as he picked the boy up. “He’s had a busy day, Your Majesty.”
“No!” Prompto shouted. “No. No no no no—“
“You have a nap time?” Regis asked.
“Wanna choco cho,” Prompto whimpered. Clarus turned aside, shoulders shaking, as Cor dug into his cargo pocket and retrieved a much-loved chocobo doll. Prompto held it tight and sobbed once, eyes bright with the disapproving fury of a boy who needed sleep but was damn well going to fight it all the way.
“As we were saying before, ah, Prompto decided to grace us with his attention,” Regis said, “We’ve taken the doctors’ results into consideration, and with regards to your request…”
Cor bit the inside of his cheek, trying not to let the apprehension show.
“There’s certainly no reason why you shouldn’t take charge of the boy. Approved.”
Cor let out a heavy breath. In his arms, Prompto, emboldened by the fact that no one was staring at him anymore, started to scream again.
“Incidentally,” Regis said, as Cor bounced Prompto gently and whispered soothing nonsense into the cavernous throne room. “Since we can’t have our new Captain going on too long of a leave… Prince Noctis can certainly use a friend his age at the Citadel daycare. Just an option for you to consider, Leonis.”
Cor bowed, and Prompto took advantage of the movement to hang from Cor’s arm by his knees, the subject of pure, aggravated misery. Clarus covered his face with a hand and snorted.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Cor said, swinging the boy back up again with a whoop. Prompto let out a wet, half-hearted chuckle, and pressed a hand onto his cheek. “I may take you up on that one.”
And with that, King Regis and Clarus Amicitia watched in gleeful fascination as Cor and Prompto Leonis exited the throne room to a chorus of high giggling, and the low, cracking whistle of a well-known victory tune.