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.
“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.”