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The first time everyone thinks Prompto and Cor meet is when Prompto is sixteen.

They're at the palace; Gladio has recently started training Prompto in some basics. It's not meant to be anything serious—Noct had practically dared him into it. He'd been watching Noctis train a couple of weekends ago, waiting for him to finish so they could hit up the arcade and play the new Justice Monsters IV that had just recently come out.

Noct, as usual, had been whining about Gladio being too hard on him. Gladio had been ribbing him back, calling him a wuss and saying it was so easy that even a ninety year old woman could do it.

In a way that he was all too familiar with, Prompto had opened his mouth and stuck his foot in. "Yeah, Noct, it doesn't look that hard. Hurry up so we can go!" Really, he had no idea why he'd said it. Watching the way Gladio moved during training had always secretly terrified him—the guy was so big.

Noct had given him an incredulous look from underneath a mop of sweaty black hair. "Is that so? Maybe you should show me how it's done then," he'd said sweetly, but Prompto hadn't been fooled for a single second, the predatory grin hidden beneath a layer of innocence all too obvious.

He'd tried to backpedal. "On second thought, that must be really difficult! Way harder than it looks!"

It was too late, of course. Gladio had given Prompto an assessing look upon Noctis' words, and had declared it Not A Bad Idea for Prompto to learn a few basics, just in case he ever needed to defend himself or Noctis someday. Prompto had whined and pleaded, and even tried to run, but in the end it had been useless. And now, two Saturdays later, here they are at the palace, Prompto getting his ass handed to him by Gladio while Noct stands off to the side and tries not to laugh too hard every time Prompto tastes dirt.

He's in the middle of glaring at his best friend as he picks himself up off the ground yet again when a very important looking man strides up to Noct and greets him. His back is mostly to Prompto, so Prompto doesn't pay him much attention, and happily slinks off to the other side of the training area opposite Noct, to grab his water bottle when Gladio mercifully declares a break.

He relishes the feel of the cool liquid sliding down his throat, and tries not to gulp it too fast; he studies Noct as he talks to this mystery man. Noct's relaxed and smiling, and he even glances in Prompto's direction once. When the mystery man turns, following Noct's gaze, his light blue eyes meet Prompto's.

Recognition slams into him. He feels his breath leaving him with an audible whump as ten year old memories and deeply buried feelings drop onto his head like a ton of bricks. He chokes on the water he's just taken a sip of, and then starts coughing, his face turning bright red both with exertion and embarrassment.

Gladio comes over and whacks him on the back a few times with those giant hands of his, which mostly just serves to knock the breath out of him again and make him wince as he anticipates the bruise that will show up later. "Alright there, Prompto?" he asks, and Prompto somehow manages to nod, even giving him a grin, though anxiety is thrumming through him too much for him to feel anything else.

Noct comes over, the mystery man—Cor, Prompto remembers, he won't ever forget that name—following along behind him. "Prompto, this is Cor Leonis, the Marshal for the Crownsguard. Cor, this is my best friend Prompto Argentum." Noct makes introductions, oblivious to the history between them.

Prompto nods at the man, politely returning his greeting, and tries to look as if they've never seen each other before.

Cor looks him up and down, assessing him as much as Gladio had done a few weeks ago. He gives no sign that he knows Prompto. "I was watching you train earlier," he eventually says. "You've got some potential. Have you ever considered joining the Crownsguard?"

"M-me?" Prompto squeaks, flushing. He feels embarrassment start to crowd in alongside the anxiety. He doesn't think Cor is making fun of him—the man looks as if he's never heard a joke in his life—but surely Cor is just being polite. This is only Prompto's second session, but he doesn't need anyone to tell him that he's terrible at this. He's uncoordinated and awkward, his footwork clumsy, and he can barely lift the practice sword Gladio let him try. His only saving grace is that he's fast, and full of stamina—despite how much dirt he's eaten, he's managed to dodge a fair amount of Gladio's attacks, and he still barely feels winded after half an hour of intense training. But he hardly would consider that the potential that the Marshal is talking about.

Cor simply nods at him. "Next Saturday," he says. "Fourteen hundred hours. I'll show you something a little different than Gladio. I suspect you've got a different sort of talent than your friends." His eyes flick down to Prompto's wrist, to the wristband covering the secret he can never tell anyone.

Prompto merely stares at him, swallowing hard as he barely holds himself back from grabbing protectively at the wristband. Cor remembers, then. He remembers who Prompto is. He wishes Cor didn't. His hatred for the man had died out as he'd grown up, but he still would have preferred they'd never met that day. Cor, oblivious to Prompto's thoughts, nods at him once more, and then takes his leave.

"Whew!" Gladio whistles once Cor's gone, clearly impressed. "He must really see something in you. He never offers to train anyone, no matter who they are."

Noctis claps him on the back, looking pleased. Prompto tries not to wince at the resulting pain. "If he's offering, then he knows you've got what it takes."

Prompto somehow musters up a weak smile for Noct, and prays he doesn't look as sick as he suddenly feels. He suspects it's less about his potential for Cor, and more about what he'd nearly been. He has a pretty good idea what Cor has in mind to train him in, and he's not sure he wants to do it. He's spent the last ten years of his life trying to forget that part of him. He doesn't want to embrace it now.

He could never tell Noct any of this, though. He could never tell Noct that he's really a traitor. Could never tell him about the shameful imprint in his skin, and what it meant. Could never tell him that Cor knew about it, that Cor knew him, that they'd met before, even if it had been so long ago. Could never tell him what Cor wants to train him in, and why, and why the very thought terrifies him.

He knows Noct won't understand. Worse, he's sure that if Noct were ever to find out, Noct would hate him and never speak to him again, and Prompto doesn't want to lose his best friend. He says nothing, and lets the others believe he and Cor only just met.

* * *

The first time Prompto thinks he and Cor meet is when Prompto is six.

He's at his house after the first day of school. He's alone in his room, sitting on the edge of his bed listlessly looking through one of his parent's magazines while he listens to his parents' hushed voices float down the hall from the kitchen as they argue. There's a picture of a slightly younger Prince Noctis with King Regis in the middle of one of the articles. Prompto stops flipping pages and looks down at it, studying the prince. He's smiling for the camera, but Prompto thinks his eyes look lonely.

Prompto sighs. His first day at school had not gone well. To his surprise, the prince had been in his class. He'd been aloof, keeping his distance from the rest of them, but Prompto had thought he'd looked sad. Sad and lonely, much like in the magazine picture now. Prompto had spent all morning trying to work up the courage to say hi to him, thinking the prince looked as if he needed a friend, and maybe he could be it, but instead he had failed miserably. Why would the prince have any interest in him, after all? He was just a nobody.

Then, during lunch, he'd started to show another kid his barcode, thinking it was neat, and the teacher had caught him before he even had the whole thing uncovered, and had nearly flipped out. She'd dragged him down to the office, gripping the wrist with it tightly, screaming in his face about him being a "Nif traitor" the whole way down the hall. Drops of spittle had landed on his face as her features contorted into something ugly and horrifying. It had terrified him, and he'd started crying, fat tears rolling down his chubby cheeks and splashing into the collar of his new uniform shirt, making his neck feel uncomfortably soggy.

The headmaster had looked baffled when they'd come in, and it had taken nearly an hour for him to calm Prompto down and get everything sorted out, and for Prompto's parents to arrive and finally take him home for the day. In the car, his parents had been tense, and spoke tersely when Prompto asked what was going on, telling him they'd explain later. Prompto knew better than to ask again.

His stomach growls, interrupting his musing of school. He'd never gotten to finish his lunch, and he doesn't dare ask his parents about dinner right now. Instead, he lifts the wristband his parents had placed on him this morning, and looks down at the barcode.

It's always been there, ever since he can remember. He's never questioned it, and it's only been recently that he's come to realise not everyone has one. He was surprised, and then pleased by the fact. It makes him feel special, to have this thing no one else does. He thinks it looks cool, with the two diamonds on the ends and all the different lines in the middle. His parents taught him to read and count basic numbers last year, and the first thing he did was memorise all the letters and numbers on his barcode. NH-01987 is on one side, and 0006-0204 is on the other. He doesn't know what they mean, but he likes the look of them anyway.

Or he did. Now, he's not so certain. His teacher had seemed truly disgusted by the barcode, and frightened by him as she'd called him a Nif traitor. He doesn't know why she'd think that, or what the barcode has to do with Niflheim. He knows that Insomnia has been at war with Niflheim on and off for longer than he's been born, but he's never been there. How could he be a traitor?

Prompto frowns unhappily, tracing at one of the diamonds. For the first time in his life, he wonders just what his barcode is, and why he has one when no one else does. He lets the wristband snap back over it, and wonders if he can get rid of it. He doesn't think he wants it anymore.

A knock against his door jamb has him looking up. A man is standing there, one he's never seen before. He's tall, at least to Prompto's six year old self, and he's got short brown hair and light blue eyes that soften the serious look on his face. He's dressed completely in black, indicating his affiliation with the Royal family, and Prompto has no idea why this man is standing in his bedroom.

"Hello," he says quietly. "May I come in?"

Prompto nods wordlessly, feeling a little intimated. This man looks powerful, like he wouldn't hesitate to cut Prompto in two if necessary.

The man takes slow, measured steps into the room, and settles himself carefully on the bed next to Prompto. "My name is Cor Leonis," he says once he's situated. "I'm part of the Crownsguard. And I know you're Prompto. Your parents called me. I hear you had trouble at school today?"

His voice is gruff, but for reasons he can't understand Prompto actually finds himself comforted by it. He's never seen this man before, but he feels safe in his presence. If Cor works for the Crownsguard, then he protects the prince—he's a good guy. He feels the tension in him loosen, relaxing as he decides Cor can be trusted. "Yeah," he tells Cor softly. "My teacher got mad at me." He hesitates, fiddling nervously with the wristband, sliding a finger under it but not lifting it. He darts a glance at Cor's serious face, then looks down at his lap in shame. "She called me a Nif traitor."

Cor says nothing, and after a moment of quiet Prompto chances another look at him. Cor's watching him patiently, his eyes fixed firmly to Prompto's face. His expression is stern, but there's no judgement in his gaze. Prompto's only six, but he's pretty sure he's not imagining the hidden warmth and protectiveness towards him that he senses in Cor. "Can I show you something?" Prompto asks him in a loud whisper. "It's a secret, I think."

Cor nods solemnly. "I would be honoured."

Prompto flushes, but nevertheless tugs the wristband off, holding his wrist up so Cor can see the barcode. "My teacher got mad at this," he confesses. "But I've always had it. I don't mean to be a traitor."

Cor's expression doesn't change as he looks at the barcode, but a hint of sadness darkens his eyes. "Have your parents told you anything about it?" he asks.

Prompto shakes his head, a few strands of blond hair falling down across his eyes. He leaves them. They make him feel hidden. "They don't talk to me much," he admits softly.

Cor frowns, looking even more unhappy, and Prompto wonders if he shouldn't have said that. Cor's next question, however, has nothing to do with his parents, or his barcode. "What do you know about Niflheim?"

Prompto frowns in confusion. "They're our enemy?" he offers uncertainly.

"Yes. We've been at war with them for a very long time now. They have a vast army, made up of beings called magitek soldiers, or MTs. We don't know much about how they're created, except that they start out as humans, and every one of them gets branded with a barcode." Cor looks at Prompto, waiting for it to sink in.

It takes a moment, but when it does, Prompto sucks in a sharp breath, and stares back at Cor with wide, startled eyes. He feels like his whole world has just been ripped out from beneath him, leaving him falling into an endless void, flailing around and trying to make sense of things. "I'm an MT?" he asks. His voice is more high-pitched than usual, and trembling. "I'm... I'm from Niflheim?"

"Yes," Cor says, sounding oddly pained. "You were born in Niflheim, branded with that barcode at birth, intended to be raised to become an MT. Your real mother managed to escape with you when you were one, and brought you to Insomnia where you were adopted by the couple now raising you."

"My real mother..." Prompto repeats, feeling dazed. This is too much. His whole life has been a lie, a made up fantasy covering up the terrible truth. He can't take it in, can't understand it all. No wonder his teacher had called him a Nif traitor. He is one. "Where is she?" he manages to ask faintly. "My real mother."

Cor hesitates. "She died, shortly after bringing you to Insomnia. I'm sorry."

Prompto simply nods. He's starting to feel numb, overloaded by the shock of information. He looks down at the barcode on his wrist, hardly believing something so innocent-looking could hold such an evil truth within.

"You understand," Cor asks, "that you must keep that barcode hidden? From everyone, all the time. No one can ever see it, no matter whether you're inside Insomnia or out of it. Your mother gave up her own life so that you could have a chance at one. But if the wrong people see that barcode, you risk losing that chance."

"I understand," Prompto says softly. He tugs the wristband back on, covering up those black lines once more. He feels sick.

Cor claps him on the shoulder gently. "You're a good kid," he says. "You'll be okay."

Prompto looks down at his lap and wishes he could believe him. But he can't. He knows now, he knows the truth. He's an MT, a Nif traitor, an impostor living a lie. He doesn't deserve to even exist in Lucis territory, much less become friends with the prince.

When Cor gets up to leave, he waves goodbye mechanically, and as soon as he's alone he flings himself fully onto his bed, burying his head deeply into his pillow, and lets the sobs flow freely. He knows it's not really Cor's fault, but he hates the man nonetheless for telling him the truth, and finds himself wishing they had never met just now.

* * *

The first time Prompto and Cor actually meet is when Prompto is one.

It's late, well past midnight, and the majority of Insomnia has settled down for the night. The city is well protected by the wall King Regis maintains, and there's no reason to avoid the night, but the recent increase of daemon attacks outside the city is enough to keep most people in their homes after dark. Only the youngest and the bravest dare to trawl the streets.

Cor considers himself to be both young and brave, but he's still holed up in his small apartment, labouring over some reports for the Crownsguard he needs to have finished by the AM. He's not expecting any visitors, so when the knock comes he's on guard immediately, tensing and reaching for his katanas. He heads to the door quickly, peering through the small hole. The face that stares back at him makes his eyes widen slightly—it's one he thought to never see again.

Still, he didn't get to his position in the Crownsguard by being reckless, so he edges the door open carefully, keeping his body wedged in the small gap, one hand hovering protectively over his weapon. "Sophia," he says guardedly, studying the childhood friend he'd thought lost to him forever. "What a surprise to see you here."

She looks terrible. Pale and gaunt, dressed in threadbare clothes that are torn and stained. Her face is smudged with dirt, and her once vibrant blond hair falls in greasy, dirty limp strands about her face. Her eyes, previously a brilliantly bright blue shining with laughter and warmth, are now dark, sunken shadows. Her arms are littered with bruises and scratches, one of which is still bleeding sluggishly. She's cradling a bundle of cloth close to her chest, as if whatever is contained within is the most important thing in the world. She gives him a desperate look, and Cor begins to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Cor," she says, and her voice is harsh and raspy, as if she hasn't spoken in a long time. Or as if she'd spent too much time screaming. The thought makes his chest tighten. He's tempted to invite her in, but the last time he'd seen her, she'd been packing to flee to Niflheim, to join in the war efforts there. He'd known even then that she was only motivated by fear, but he's never been able to forgive her for turning traitor. He's not sure now that this isn't some kind of trick, or that perhaps she's being forced into this.

"Can I help you, Sophia?" he asks.

She hesitates a moment, and then suddenly shoves the bundle in her arms at him. He takes it on instinct, reacting before he can think about the consequences, and then nearly drops it in shock when it lets out a small wail. Carefully, he pulls back the cloth to reveal a round, chubby face framed by soft blond strands of hair. Stunned, he looks up at Sophia for an explanation.

"My son," she says, drawing in a ragged breath as tears begin to drip down her face. "His name is Prompto. They were going to make him an MT. He's only one. Please, you've got to help him."

"Sophia..." He's speechless, struggling to find the right words to say. He looks back down at the baby in his arms. He's settled back into sleep, his tiny lips pursed slightly. There's a small smattering of freckles across his nose—much like the ones across Sophia's face. In fact, his entire face reminds Cor of the way Sophia had looked when they were children. "You should come in," he finds himself saying to her. "We need to get you cleaned up, get you to a hospital."

She smiles at him, wide and tremulous. "It's too late for me," she says. "I don't have much time left before I'm no longer human. But I couldn't let the same happen to him. Please, Cor, keep him safe." She reaches out a bony hand, grasping his arm with a surprising strength. "Promise me, Cor. Promise me you'll help him, that you'll keep him safe."

"Sophia, I—"

"Promise me!" she insists, her voice cracking and fading on the last word. She stares at him with wild eyes, and he feels unsettled. They're both silent for a long moment as Cor tries to make sense of what's happening. Neither her grip nor her gaze lets up, and finally Cor slumps, defeated.

"I promise," he says, hoping it will placate her.

She shakes her head. "No, all of it. I need you to say all of it," she rasps out.

Another beat. He glances back down at the little boy—at Prompto—and realises he can't make this promise lightly. "I promise you, Sophia," he says softly. "I will help your son, and I will keep him safe."

She stares a moment longer, and then her face smooths out with relief, more tears rolling down her cheeks as she lets go of his arm. "Thank you," she says, and the immense gratitude in those two words makes Cor uncomfortable. She moves away from his door then, turning her back on them both to stumble down the street.

He feels an ache in his heart, and wants to call her back, to run after her and force her to a hospital, but he remembers her words—before I'm no longer human—and stays standing still where he is, watching her leave until she's nothing more than a dark speck in the distance, and then he goes back inside his house, Prompto held in his arms, and firmly shuts the door.

Once inside, he begins extracting the child from the dirty cloths wrapped around him. It doesn't take him long to discover the barcode, and to get an inkling of where Niflheim's soldiers come from. The thought is sickening, and enraging. He stares down at Prompto, at the overly large barcode engulfing his tiny wrist, and feels overcome with a sudden urge to keep the child and raise it himself. It's a ridiculous, irrational thought. He's not parent material—his job with the Crownsguard aside, he's never felt any paternal instinct in his life—and he'd be better off finding a family to adopt the boy and let them raise him.

Still, the thought doesn't go away easy, and when he manages to find a young, childless couple willing to raise a Niflheim-born baby a few days later, he's surprisingly reluctant to let Prompto go. He hands the one-year old over to the new mother's arms, feeling an empty pang in his chest, and wonders if he'll ever have a chance to meet the boy again.