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The Way They Were

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"I just hope that things can stay the way they were."

Prompto says it on the tail end of the worst week in his entire life. He says it in the middle of an industrial complex that's all hard lines – harsh metal and artificial light and Ardyn's voice, in stereo, over the intercom. He says it while he's half-starved, barely on his feet, and he means it with every scrap of honesty he possesses.

He misses it already – long drives in the Regalia, with the sun heating the leather seats and the wind in his hair.

Prompto wants those days back again, cramming into a tent too small for the four of them, playing cards late into the night. He wants Ignis, whole and well, managing food-mag perfect dinners over a simple wood fire like it's not a miracle and a half. He wants Noct falling asleep halfway through the meal, and Gladio, grousing like it's a chore, carrying him off to the tent.

He's never had friends like them before.

He's never had friends.

The thought of losing them feels like a Naga's wrapped a coil around his throat, scaled and serpentine – like she's tightening, inch by inch, until his breath burns in his lungs.

"I just hope that things can stay the way they were," he tells them, and he means it. He means it more than he's meant anything, ever.

For a couple of hours, he even starts to think he might get that wish.

Then the daemons descend in wave upon wave of horror, and Ardyn's laughter fills the room, and when they reach the Crystal, it's just in time to see that Noct is gone.

 


 

The first year's rough.

Like, 90% of the population rough.

They're just not ready for it; the daemons flood into what once were peaceful towns, crushing through the civilian populations like a rock slide bearing down on a lone hiker.

Cindy rigs some pickups with ultra-bright headlights, and they go together, the three of them, to pick up survivors. Gladio and Prompto drive; Ignis rides in the back of one truck or the other, tying off bleeding limbs and trying to calm hysterical men and women whose families are smears of red on the pavement.

Iggy's good at it.

Prompto's glad one of them is, cause Gladio's retreated behind a stone-solid wall of perfect soldier, and Prompto – Prompto's barely holding himself together.

He pukes when he sees what's left of Galdin Quay the first time, violent black water and nightmare dreamscape, the leavings of sun-drenched vacationers painted in blood red and bone white there on the sand.

Then he pulls it together. He wipes his mouth with a shaking hand, and he fumbles out his guns, and they get the little girl hiding under the pier the hell out of there.

It's not a victory. It's not.

All Prompto can think while he's driving back to Hammerhead is how glad he is his hands are on the wheel, instead of around that poor girl's shoulders, cause if he had Ignis' job right now, he would lose his godsdamned mind.

If there's a plus side to that first year, it's that the chaos is so all-consuming it's hard to think of Noct. There's just no time for it.

Those thoughts still creep up on him, of course – when Prompto's lying on the ground, waiting for sleep to come.

He thinks of Noct's voice, mellow and even. He thinks of Noct's hands, warm and steady, helping him down out of metal restraints. He thinks of Noct's face in a hundred different photos, pretending indifference – of the way that blank stare didn't quite hold up, when you knew where to look for the quirk of his lips or the spark of mirth in his eyes.

So sure, Noct sneaks in sometimes – but not till Prompto's run himself ragged. Not till he's stretched out on the ground, every square inch of him bruised or bloody, thirty-six hours out from his last decent sleep and five hours away from when he needs to be up again to swing by Cauthess and check for anything they can scavenge.

As far as plus sides go, he's sure there are better ones. But it means he only spends about two minutes every night wishing that Noct would hurry up and make it back.

And that's something, anyway.

These days, he'll take whatever he can get.

 


 

Year two's not much better.

They've gone through most of the canned food by the time summer hits, and without light, all the crops are dead.

The herds out on the plains are skeletons gathering dust now, just another set of dead things in the daemon-ridden wastelands. Fishing's still viable – most daemons won't go in the water – but it takes a team of five or six holding off the hoards so one or two can reel in catches.

90% of the population might be gone, but that 10% is still a hell of a lot of mouths to feed, and what they pull in never seems to be enough.

Prompto drops weight that second year. He looks like he's got some kind of terminal disease, eating away at him inside. He can't remember what it's like to be full.

When he fights, he's always borderline dizzy – always a bit off-balance.

Time's still at a premium, too. He and Gladio and Iggy, they're always on guard duty, or driving people out for supply raids, or picking up machinery scraps so the ladies at Lestallum's power plant can keep the lights on.

There's always something new to worry about, so Prompto can't worry quite so much about Noct. About how long it's been, or how Noct's holding up, or if he misses them.

Noct's a pleasant memory in the moments between crises, and he's a silent prayer on Prompto's lips at night, every time he closes his eyes. 

That prayer always ends, "So come home soon, okay?"

 


 

"We'd do more good if we split up," Gladio announces, just into year three.

And really, nothing about those words come as a surprise. Prompto can read between the lines.

He hasn't seen Gladio smile for going on two years, and he suspects some part of that's down to his kid sister running wild over the plains, now a hot-shot daemon hunter of her own.

So yeah, Prompto gets it. He does. If he had a family left, maybe he'd feel the same way.

He puts on a smile, dredged out of his own dwindling supply, and claps Gladio on the shoulder. He says, "Stay in touch, big guy. You know where to find us."

And he watches Gladio walk on out the door.

 


 

By year four, they've almost got their shit together.

Prompto's not a breath away from starving most days, which is such a novel feeling that it seems like a revelation. Holly and the ladies at the power plant've got an artificial light greenhouse up and running, and they are officially his own personal heroes.

Potatoes have reappeared; so have tomatoes and wild onions. Mushrooms grow on half-light, out beyond the greenhouse, and Prompto thanks the Six every day for weird fungi that don't need much sun. Someone had the bright idea to catch the last few wild daggerquills, up in the high reaches where the daemons couldn't get claws on them, and keep them for eggs. They've got a coop in the middle of the city, now. Fishing runs are still hard, but they're become almost routine. They bring in fish and crab and mussels; sometimes, when the quay's clear enough, they launch the boat and dredge for seaweed.

They've almost got a life again. Almost.

It's enough so Prompto has time, sometimes, to take out the photographs from their trip. He picks through them gingerly, almost afraid to touch, after Iggy's gone to bed for the night.

He kind of misses the first few years and the nonstop scramble to survive.

Back then, there was never time to remember.

 


 

It's the middle of year five before Ignis pulls him aside one night after dinner. It's the best meal they've had in awhile; Ignis, praise all the Six, managed to make something edible out of seaweed and clams. He's cooking again – really cooking, not just feeling his way but starting to get the hang of it.

Prompto's finishing up the dishes, lazy swipes of a rag to get the last of the water off, when Iggy speaks up.

"They've asked me to stay on at Lestallum," he says.

Prompto's not stupid. He knows what it's got to take, running a city that size on the resources they have. And completely objective, no bias, Iggy's probably the best logistics guy left in the whole damn world.

So Prompto says, "Yeah, sure, go for it. Surprised they waited this long."

He thinks he's being casual – encouraging, even. But his voice must give something away, because Ignis purses his lips and furrows his brow. He's got his head tipped to the side, the way he does now when he's listening.

At last he says, "Are you all right?"

The words slide into Prompto like a splinter of glass: disproportionately painful, for something so small.

Because it's Ignis asking. Ignis, who lost his eyes and spent the last five years rebuilding his world from the ground up during the apocalypse. Ignis, who will never see again – who had to relearn to cook and wield his knives  – who still stumbles in debris sometimes, trying to walk without a cane.

Ignis, asking Prompto if he's all right.

For the first time in a long time, Prompto remembers sitting on a hotel rooftop with his best friend. He recalls confessing that he's not enough—smart enough, or strong enough, or brave enough. He's only him, and that's not good for very much at all.

Prompto feels it again now, in a sudden surge – suffocating inadequacy at the sight of Ignis' expression, all concern, set in a face riddled with scars.

"You know me," Prompto tells him, trying desperately to channel the boy from five years before. "I'm always okay."

 


 

Year six, Prompto almost dies.

Not that brushes with death aren't a gil a dozen these days, but of all his almost-bit-it misadventures, this one's the worst.

When the daemons are done with him, he can't even walk.

His right leg's got a gash running from thigh to ankle thanks to a ghostly form in a wide straw hat, and his left arm's a whole mess of bite marks from hobgoblin teeth.

He drags himself half a mile to the old chocobo ranch, to the inside stable where they used to let the sick birds bunk down. He sits himself down in the straw, and he shreds his vest for bandages, and he does his best to stop the bleeding.

It's almost not enough.

He's out for – who knows. A day? Two?

He wakes and sleeps and wakes again in the musty straw that smells like feathers and better days.

He drinks from the rain bucket in the corner, some catch-basin for a leaking roof. He eats the strips of fish jerky in his pocket, all two of them, and then he's out of food.

His leg runs hot, throbbing and swollen. He sweats and freezes, and his face burns to the touch. He dreams strange dreams, of an empty world and a vast, metallic, impassive face.

He dreams of Noct. He swears that Noct is calling his name.

When the fever breaks, he finds himself strong enough to hobble. He makes his precarious way to the parking lot, where someone's left a car with half a tank of gas. Prompto breaks her open and twists together the wires. He uses his left foot for the gas pedal.

And when he gets back to what passes for civilization these days, no one's noticed he was gone.

 


 

Seven years in, all of Prompto's dreams come true.

Cindy pushes him up against the wall out back of the garage at Hammerhead. She threads her fingers into his hair, and she kisses him senseless.

He holds onto her like he's a drowning man and she's the air. He's shaky, almost desperate – but every time her chapped lips touch his own and he catches the smell of her, sage brush and motor oil, he flashes back to the overlook above Hammerhead.

He recalls Noct's teasing voice, and stumbling through an improvised script. He thinks of his old camera, gathering dust now for seven years.

His stomach isn't full of butterflies. He just feels sick.

And when they pull apart to breathe, Prompto gasps, "I can't. I'm sorry. I can't."

He doesn't remember the last time someone touched him in kindness. He feels like he's shaking apart, like a faulty engine on its last legs. He's not sure when he stopped being able to handle people, but there it is.

He's lost the trick of it.

"Oh, honey," says Cindy, soft and sympathetic, and he's afraid to look up at her face.

 


 

Cindy clears out the little shed out back of the garage halfway through year eight, and Prompto moves in. By mutual, tacit agreement, they never mention the now-distant kiss.

Staying at Hammerhead's – nice, in a way. He hasn't had a place to call home in a long, long time.

He hauls in a beat-up old couch and a roll-away cot. He sets his camera on the table in the corner.

On the days Cindy needs supplies, he heads out into the darkness, guns blazing. On the days Prompto can't seem to drag himself out of bed, Cindy cajoles him into the garage, where they sit in rickety folding chairs, drinking Cid's whiskey out of paper cups.

Cid doesn't mind. He's been dead going on four years now.

Some nights, they talk about what they'll do when the sun comes back. Some nights, they talk about what it was like before it was gone.

The days Prompto has too much whiskey, he'll even talk about Noct. About the way he was with no one else around – a lazy sprawl across the bench in the palace gardens, or fierce competition in the dingy arcade near Prompto's place. Always flat and uninterested on the surface, but so warm and fond and good just underneath.

One night, three cups of whiskey in on an empty stomach, Prompto goes on longer than usual, words tripping out like he'll choke on them if he can't put them in the open. Cindy's got a funny look on her face the whole time – and when he's done, she only says, "That boy sure did a number on you, didn't he?"

She won't tell him what that's supposed to mean, no matter how many times he asks.

 


 

Year nine, it finally occurs to him that maybe Noct's not coming back.

Maybe the Crystal's broken him down into component parts. Maybe they're waiting on a dawn that's never gonna rise.

He drapes himself over his couch, and he stares up at the ceiling. When Cindy tries to ply him with whiskey and talk, he turns his face into the shabby cushions, buries himself against coarse fabric until she leaves.

He drifts into sleep, and dreams creep up on him. In them, he sees violet Crystal-light and Noct's eyes, glowing the same color. He sees a small, white dog, scratching at a gilded door, ancient and immovable and sealed.

When he wakes, the ceiling is like an old friend, greying in spots, worn down by time.

It's three days before Cindy shows up in the doorway, face pinched and pale with worry. "There ain't no more food left," she says, like an apology.

There is. He knows there is. He never used to be the sort to keep track of inventory or rations, never cared much for paring things down into necessary increments, but things change. She's got enough to see her through the next week and a half, easy.

But Prompto – Prompto clings to the offer like the crutch it is. "I'll go," he tells her, and somehow, it gives him the strength to stand.

 


 

The day Talcott drives the most precious cargo anyone's ever carried into the dusty parking area at Hammerhead, Prompto forgets every Six-cursed second of the past ten years.

Suddenly he's twenty again – that same careless kid who couldn't sit still, barreling off across the packed earth toward the one thing he's been waiting for.

It's Noct.

It's Noct, as worn down as the rest of them, too-thin face and scruffy beard and the same incredible, edge-of-night blue eyes.

It's Noct, and for just one minute, Prompto means to bowl him over, arms around his back, face buried in his shoulder. It's what he would have done, once upon a time.

But with every step, the years come rushing back to him, and he finds himself stumbling, slowing, drawing up short. There's some invisible line in the dust, and he can't bring himself to cross it.

What's the matter you with you, he thinks. Just do it. Just go.

But Prompto's stuck there, two feet away, just a little too far. Much as he wants to be, he's not that boy anymore.

Sometimes, things just can't stay the way they were.