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C1:NDR3LA

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, there was a boy whose father loved him very much.

He loved the designation etched in ink upon the boy's wrist. He loved the progress the serums made in the boy's blood. He loved the way the boy's training regimen prepared him to be all that he could hope to be in the world.

And prepare him it did.

The boy learned to tolerate pain. He learned to take orders. He learned that, because of the alterations to his physiology, he did not have to eat when he was dreadfully hungry or sleep when he was dreadfully tired. His trainers practiced this with him, extensively, until it became second nature to the boy.

The boy's name had been Prompto, but the barcode on his wrist held a different designation. C1:NDR3LA, it read. Class 1: Niflheim Designated Regiment 3. Long-range; Artillery.

True to his designation, the boy was a crack shot with any gun they placed in his hands. But when basic combat training began, Prompto could not learn to wield a sword or heft a shield. It was a great disappointment to his trainers. No matter what designation, every MT was required to perform with reasonable competence on the battlefield.

The trainers told Prompto's father, and Prompto's father was not pleased. This boy, this project he had poured so many resources into, was failing in 73% of the required combat skills.

"Decommission him," said Prompto's father.

And the boy cried and pleaded as his trainers took him away.

But the boy's father had a friend – the Chancellor Izunia  – who had watched Prompto's training with great interest. He had an affection for the boy that had little to do with his combat skills and more to do with the way the boy struggled, and failed, and suffered, and struggled again.

He was fond of that sort of thing.

He said to the boy's father, "I intend to spend time in the Lucian countryside in the coming months – a frightfully boring assignment, I'm afraid. Have you any MTs I might borrow to help with upkeep? Even a failed unit would be of assistance, in maintaining an estate."

And so the boy escaped decommissioning, and he was transferred to the Chancellor's care.

That first night, the Chancellor patted the boy on his cheek. He said, "We're going to be great friends, you and I. Why, you can even think of me as your stepfather, if it makes the transition easier." And he smiled, a smile so smooth and unthreatening that the boy felt a spark of hope bloom inside him.

It was kindled the following week, when he was taken out of storage and shipped to Chancellor Izunia's new estate.

This place was not composed of brushed steel and white lights, as Prompto's last home had been. No: it was made of dark, worn brick, and the floors were wood. In the back, behind the building, the ground sprouted green things that poked from fragile stalks.

Prompto did not know what to make of any of it. It was so different, overwhelmingly new and unexpectedly pretty. He had not had many pretty things in his life, until then.

Prompto stared and stared at his new assignment, struck immobile, mouth open.

Then the Chancellor breezed through the door and dropped his luggage at Prompto's feet. "Do unpack, won't you, C1:NDR3LA?"

And the Chancellor's assistants were not far behind. Commander Caligo dropped his belongings on the floor as well, then strode off without a word. Commander Loqi flung down a set of keys. "My MA-X Patria needs servicing. See to it."

So Prompto unpacked. He put their belongings in the proper places, all twelve bags of them. Then he found a set of tools and saw to Commander Loqi's MA-X Patria, which had a knee joint that stuck when it extended and cockpit controls that had been badly wired. He worked through the night, until grease streaked his face and his hair stuck up at odd angles.

It was not until he'd finished his task, weary but satisfied, that Chancellor Izunia reappeared with the dawn, fresh and rested. "All finished?" he asked, and patted the boy's face, proprietary and condescending. "Excellent timing. There's so much else to be done."

And the Chancellor gave him a list.

It was a long list. It involved repainting the estate's interior, and landscaping the estate's garden, and repairing the estate's roof. It included deep cleaning and upkeep for every one of the forty-nine rooms.

The boy looked down at the list, a sinking feeling in his stomach. He said, "Is this all for today?"

And the Chancellor laughed, a low and friendly sort of sound. "Good gracious, no," he said. "It's for as soon as you get it done."

Chancellor Izunia turned to go, throwing a casual wave back over one shoulder. "But don't take too long. I'd hate to find out what happens if an MT flunks out of two assignments. Wouldn't you?"

 


 

Every morning, as he had for the past five years, Prompto collected his lists.

First he visited Chancellor Izunia in the parlor, bearing a tray with tea and scones. Then he tapped on the door of Commander Caligo's study, to deliver half a grapefruit and the sugar jar. Finally, he sought out Commander Loqi in his chambers, with a platter of toast and bacon.

Prompto brought his lists downstairs, where he read them in the kitchen while he took his vitamins. His allotted rations included just one meal each day, and experience had taught him that eating it in the morning would leave him miserably hungry by mid-afternoon. So he drank a tall glass of water while he examined his chores, trying to convince his stomach that it was sufficient.

Then he set to work.

First, he collected the breakfast dishes – scoured and dried and put them away. Then he moved on to his household chores: washing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors, and dusting the shelves. Next was upkeep: mending the clothes and patching the roof and weeding the garden. By noon, it was time for the heavy labor, and he spent two long hours chopping firewood and gathering stones for the ground walls.

After that, he ran through his training regimen – a strict series of drills that all MTs were required to perform daily, regardless of assignment.

At last came the lists. They changed from day to day, sometimes each twenty items long. Depending on what they contained, Prompto put in the requisition orders for their supplies, or maintained the Imperial machinery, or took on some of the commanders' own duties. When Chancellor Izunia was feeling particularly uncharitable, he called Prompto down to work with him in the estate's basement.

The metal table there was made of brushed steel, and there were straps on it designed to restrain. Chancellor Izunia had stretched him out on it, once, when he'd dropped a 2,000-gil crystal champagne flute while washing it.

Prompto never wanted to repeat the experience.

And so he worked, clumsy but earnest, with a very real fear of what failing to finish might bring.

It would have been a reasonable amount of work for a crew of five, but Prompto saw to it all alone. He never seemed to have enough time – slept in snatches, a bare handful of hours a night, and woke before dawn to repeat it all again.

Those precious few hours were his escape. When he closed his eyes, Prompto drifted away, far beyond the walls of the estate, far even from the gleaming metal and harsh lights of Niflheim. He dreamed of bright stars and soft fabrics; of meals that comprised more than protein bars and vitamin supplements; of a mysterious boy with dark hair and a fond smile.

They were not things Prompto should have known anything about. He'd had little enough experience with life's simple pleasures, in his time on Eos. And yet, they came to him all the same, tentative and trembling, like a bird landing on his shoulder.

The good dreams, with their soft edges and warm light, arrived each night with a permanent fixture: a small white creature, mostly ears and eyes.

It sat beside him in his dreams, and it listened as he spoke. It let him pet its head, and it climbed upon his shoulders, and it pressed its small, wet nose against his cheek.

They were sweet, these dreams, for as long as they lasted.

But they were dreams; that was all.

 


 

Once upon a time, there was a boy whose father loved him very much.

He loved the boy's wry smile. He loved the boy's odd, teasing sense of humor. He even loved that the boy, at nineteen years of age, still plucked vegetables out of his meals like a picky child of five.

But he did not love the boy's isolation.

He was a proud father, an attentive father, but he was also the king, and he could not be there for his son as often as he might have liked. The boy was lonely; the king could see as much. He had no friends, no confidants. His favorite pursuits were solo ones: hours spent fishing in the gardens or attached to a video game controller in his room.

So the king went to his advisors, and asked what he ought to do. "Have the boy take a wife, sire," they replied. "A wife will keep him company."

But the king knew his son better than that. He knew that Noctis would chafe if he was forced to wed, and he did not heed the advice.

Instead, he went to his son's advisor, the clever young count who always had Noctis' best interests at heart.

"Hold a series of balls, Your Highness," Ignis suggested. "Invite guests who are unattached to the court. Perhaps he will find companionship among these new acquaintances."

It was an excellent suggestion. 

The king conceded, and he appointed Ignis to plan the events. Before the week was out, all the kingdom knew: each month for the next year, the Citadel would host a celebration the likes of which Lucis had never seen.

Chapter Text

When Chancellor Izunia first mentioned a ball hosted by the King of Lucis, Prompto paid it no mind.

Such things were for people, not MTs; besides, he had no time for distraction.

It was not until the Chancellor announced that he and the commanders would attend, for the sake of diplomatic relations, that the affair became Prompto's concern. A ball would mean ironed formalwear and a transport in presentable condition. A ball would mean a whole slew of small disasters, on top of the ones Prompto faced every day.

He worked himself ragged, during the leadup to the ball. He saw to every need, ensured that every small detail was in place. The clothes, pressed and freshly laundered, were laid out on the beds of the Chancellor and both commanders. Dinner was served precisely at 4:30, plenty of time in advance. The MK-Helios model, designed to seat four, had been scrubbed until it gleamed, all of its parts in working order, and it was parked out front at half past six, waiting for its passengers.

When at last Chancellor Izunia's retinue stepped into their gleaming metal transport, Prompto did not think to be jealous. He did not pause to wonder if he, too, might go to the Citadel. He only crossed an item off his list and turned to the next.

It was half an hour later, midway through polishing the stairway banisters, when the sound reached his ears: a small squeak, oddly familiar.

Prompto turned to see what had made the noise, cloth still in hand. Then he dropped the cloth in a rumpled pile on the hall floor.

He stood for a long moment, frozen and staring. For there, curled up on the bottom step, was the small, white creature from his dreams.

As he watched, it squeaked again. The air around its head shimmered and grew hazy, and letters appeared in a cheery block font. "Hi, Prompto!" the words read. "Are you ready to go to the ball?"

Prompto opened his mouth. He closed it again. He said, "This is a dream, right?"

The creature squeaked, and more text appeared: "You're awake. We'd better get you dressed, though. The longer we take, the more you're going to miss."

Prompto didn't move. He was, quite understandably, still convinced that he was fast asleep. He said, "But my lists."

The creature squeaked a third time. "Shh, don't tell anyone," the text read. "I can do magic." Beside the words, hovering in the air, an image of a laughing face appeared.

It didn't wait for a reply. It only hopped up on the boy's shoulder, as it had so many times in dreams. When its small, wet nose brushed his cheek, a wave of something surged through him, powerful and clear. Prompto grabbed for the banister – missed, and sat down hard on the bottom step, head in his hands.

The creature squeaked at him again – nudged him, more insistently this time. And Prompto lifted his head to discover that he had been transformed. In fact, the whole world had been transformed, the usual blur of everyday shapes crisped and sharpened by the pair of glasses that now sat across the bridge of his nose. Through them, he saw all the rest.

In the place of his dreary grey work uniform, he wore a shirt of a delicate, pale yellow silk, beset with a row of tiny buttons. The collar was smart; the sleeves were trim and well-fitted, long enough to hide his barcode from view. Over the shirt sat a brocade vest in cream and gold, elaborate embroidery picking out a flowing motif not unlike the shapes of clouds in the dawn sky. His pants, slim and flattering, were a cream to match the vest.

Gone, too, were his worn and battered work boots. In their place were a pair of slippers as light as the rays of the sun. Commander Loqi had several pairs similar; they were all the rage in the Imperial court, these days, simple shoes that hugged the foot without the aid of laces. Prompto's were sleek and stylish, pale leather with gold thread.

He reached for one, wondering – drew up short at the sight of his own hand. It was clean, the nails well-groomed, the palm free of blisters or splinters. When he ran his fingers through his hair, it wasn't a haphazard bird's nest, but instead was carefully styled, slightly stiff with gel.

The creature watched him with wide, luminous eyes. "You like?" said the text above its head.

Prompto swallowed, throat tight. No one had ever done anything this nice for him. "It's incredible," he said. 

"Great!" squeaked the creature, the text above it providing a ready translation. "Time to get moving, then. Just make sure you're at the base of the stairs by midnight, and I'll get you home."

"Wait," said Prompto. "The Chancellor will be there. If he sees me –"

The creature was not listening. The text above its head shimmered and changed.  "Say hi to Noct for me!"

Then the world shimmered and changed, and Prompto was standing before the Citadel.

 


 

The Citadel was a masterpiece in glass and steel, the sheer scale of it overwhelming. It reflected back all the lights of Insomnia, tiny twinkling points of brightness that glittered in the dark. The plush red carpet that stretched away into the high arc of the entryway ferried in couples, stunning ball outfits as brightly colored as the feathers of an exotic birdbeast.

And Prompto stood there, at the base of the steps, gaping up at it all like an idiot.

It took him five solid minutes before he could convince himself to move, and with each step, he became more certain that he was dreaming. No place this beautiful could actually exist. There was no reality in which someone would hold the door wide for him and say, "Right this way, sir."

If he thought the outside was lovely, it was nothing compared to the interior. The ceiling was hung with a chandelier, brilliant crystal that glittered and glowed and cast warm light across the room. The floor was dark, polished stone; the pillars were carved with elaborate attention to detail; strains of music, ethereal and lovely, drifted on the air.

There in the center, couples swayed together and came apart with the grace of swirling birdbeasts. There along one wall, a table stretched for what seemed like miles, every square inch laden with elaborate and enticing plates of food. There in the corner, some thoughtful soul had set out plush high-backed chairs, upholstered in rich black fabric, set apart from the noise and the crowd. Prompto, overwhelmed, picked his way toward them.

He sank into the one nearest the wall, the one that blocked most of the room from his sight, and he set his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, squeezing his eyes shut. He was shaking a little, breathing like he'd just finished his training exercises. If this was a dream, the sheer scale of it dwarfed anything the white creature had shown him before.

He was just beginning to wonder, with a dawning sense of panic, what precisely he was going to do if this was not a dream, when a voice spoke beside him. It was a wry voice, not unkind, and it said, "I know how you feel. Kind of too much, isn't it?"

Prompto opened his eyes. And there, seated in the chair beside his own, a nearly-empty plate of food across his knees, was a boy about his own age.

His face was pale and elegant, like a sculpture of marble carved by a skilled hand. His hair was a soft, dark halo, and his suit was crisp and fashionable, all blacks and charcoal greys. He looked strangely familiar.

Prompto glanced around briefly, startled, looking to see who the boy was addressing – realized, belatedly, that there was no one but him.

"It's, uh," said Prompto. "It's really something."

The boy snorted. "Let me guess. Not from Insomnia?"

Prompto shifted in his chair, suddenly aware of how much an idiot he must have seemed, from the moment he set foot onto the Citadel steps. "That obvious, huh? This – this is all pretty new." He faltered to a stop, unsure what to say. He knew only, with a sudden, awkward urgency, that he wanted to say something. He couldn't remember the last time someone had talked to him for any reason besides giving orders. "What's your name?" he decided, at last.

The boy fixed him with a flat, disbelieving look. Then, slowly, the expression thawed into something milder. "You're really not from around here, are you?"

"Sorry," said Prompto, but the boy was pushing on already.

"No, it's fine, just – you know what, nevermind. Call me Noct."

He knew the name. It was the one the white creature had called out after him, just before it sent him on his way. But how do you say, "We might have a friend in common. Do you know a talking cat-fox?" 

So instead Prompto said, "Noct, huh? I like it."

Noct shrugged, noncommittal. "How bout you?"

"Me?" Prompto blinked back at him.

"Yeah." The space between Noct's eyebrows creased slightly. "Your name."

Prompto was silent for perhaps a beat too long. Protocol insisted that he give his designation number, identify himself as an MT unit, and ask if the inquirer had any orders.

But Noct hadn't asked for a number. He'd asked for a name.

"Prompto," said Prompto.

He waited for someone to call him out on it. He waited for Chancellor Izunia to appear, deceptively unthreatening smile in place, and take him down to the metal table in the basement. But a moment passed, and then another. Nothing happened, and Prompto let go of the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"So where are you from, anyway?" Noct said.

Prompto fidgeted with the buttons on the cuffs of his sleeves. "Niflheim, originally. But we moved, awhile back."

"You're in Lucis now?"

"The outskirts," Prompto said. His lips curled up into a smile. "It's pretty. Everything's so green."

"I've never been to Niflheim," Noct offered – then laughed softly, when Prompto scrunched up his nose.

"You're not missing much," said Prompto. "Metal and concrete, far as the eye can see."

He might have added more – was warming up to the unusual notion that someone was willing to listen when he spoke – when a voice rang out beside them. "Am I interrupting?"

Prompto jumped – twisted in his chair. But it wasn't the Chancellor or either of the commanders at all. It was a somber boy in a button-down shirt, immaculate tie, black vest, and glasses.

"Sorry," said Prompto. "I'll go." And he was halfway to his feet when Noct caught at his wrist to pull him back down.

"Stay," he said. "It's fine. This is Ignis, my –" He hesitated. "The one who made the tarts at the buffet."

"The tarts?" Prompto asked.

"Indeed," said Ignis. "Such a notable act that it seems to have become my title."

Noct fixed him with a long, pointed look. Then he turned back to Prompto. "Did you try them? They're pretty good."

"Try the tarts," Prompto echoed, blankly. He felt like he was missing something important here, not the least of which was why anyone would ask whether he'd dared to sample the food. He wasn't allowed anything beyond his rations. Chancellor Izunia had been extremely displeased on the one occasion he'd caught Prompto snitching leftovers from a plate instead of putting them into the trash.

But he'd given Noct a name, and not a number.

And sure enough, Noct was reaching onto his own plate, where a single lonely tart remained. He held it out to Prompto. "Want to try?" When Prompto made no move to take it, he said, "Come on, just a bite. If you don't like it, you don't have to finish it."

So Prompto reached out to take the offering, aware in a distant kind of way that his hand was shaking.

He flashed his gaze to Ignis and then to Noct, half expecting this to be some sort of joke, but neither of them said a word. "Thanks," said Prompto, uncertain. Then he bit into the confection.

Pretty good, Prompto decided immediately, was the understatement of a lifetime.

The crust was flaky and buttery and rich. The filling was sweet and bright, topped with heavy cream and a small sprig of mint. It was the best thing he'd ever put in his mouth, ever, and even though Noct had said only one bite, Prompto couldn't quite bring himself to stop. He crammed the rest in before he could think better of it.

He had it down in two hasty chews and an urgent swallow, then licked the crumbs from his fingers with great care. Already, his stomach was shifting, interested – wondering as it always did, in its hopeful way, whether he would send down anything more substantial, this time.

It made an inquisitive gurgle, and Prompto flushed, glancing up to see that Ignis and Noct were both watching him with intent expressions.

"They're, uh," said Prompto. "They're really good."

Ignis looked him over again, more thoroughly this time. At last he seemed to come to a conclusion. "I'll just fetch you another one then, shall I? We'll talk after the ball, Noct, if you don't mind."

Then he was gone, weaving his way through the gathered crowds.

"Sorry about that," Noct told him. "He doesn't really know how to unwind."

"No, he's fine," said Prompto, almost tripping over the words in his haste to get them out. "You're both fine. You're –"

Being so nice to me, he wanted to say, but the words caught somewhere in his throat. Instead he waved one hand, helplessly.

Noct snorted. "Forget it," he said.

But Prompto didn't want to forget it. He wasn't ever going to forget it: the plush velvet of the chair back, and the taste of tart on his tongue, and Noct's pleasant, mellow voice. He stared around him, trying to sear the image in his mind. If he never got another night like this one, he wanted something to hold onto.

 


 

 

"We should probably go find a spot for the fireworks," said Noct, some four hours later, apropos of nothing.

Prompto had heard of fireworks, of course – cultured discussion in passing, when Chancellor Izunia had guests at the estate. Accordo, apparently, was renowned for its firework displays. He hadn't known that any were planned for tonight.

"There's fireworks?" Despite the drowsy contentment that had settled over Prompto like a blanket, he perked up at this, setting aside his now-empty plate. It had been a gift from Ignis, laden with another tart and a small assortment of mini-sandwiches. With its contents now in his stomach, Prompto felt... euphoric might be an overstatement, but not by much. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so happy.

At first he'd been on edge, worried that the Chancellor would spot him.

But the ball, Noct explained early on, stretched throughout twenty of the Citadel's chambers. The chances that Chancellor Izunia would happen to glimpse Prompto in a secluded corner, hidden mostly behind a chair that dwarfed him – much less recognize his scruffy MT in fancy party-wear and spectacles at a distance – seemed less and less likely as the night crept onward.

"Sure," said Noct. "Dad likes them. They're set to start at midnight, so we've only got like five minutes."

Prompto was just opening his mouth to ask why Noct's father had any bearing on the entertainment – was he responsible for some of the festivities, as Ignis apparently was? – when the final sentence caught up to his brain.

"Wait," said Prompto. "Midnight?"

He was on his feet in half an instant, looking for the door.

"What is it?" Noct asked him. "What's wrong?"

"I've got to go," said Prompto, spotting the exit and making toward it.

Noct kept pace, just to his right. "Already?" he said. "But what about the show?"

Prompto felt a pang of – something. Longing, maybe. Regret. Some combination of both. "I can't stay," he said. "I'm sorry. I wish –"

It crashed over him like a wave, so sudden it nearly floored him. Tomorrow morning, he would wake up in his cramped little cubby by the hearth. He'd fix breakfast for everyone but himself, and no one would listen to him ramble on about how he liked spotting shapes in the clouds, or how much he wanted to see a real, live chocobo. No one would tell him about the best fishing spot at Galdin Quay, or elbow him amiably in the side, like they were sharing a secret.

"I wish I could stay," he finished, miserably.

"Well," said Noct. "You'll be here next month, won't you? I'll see you then?"

"What's next month?" said Prompto.

"The second ball."

Hope pounded in like a summer storm at the sudden possibility that there could be another night like this. A month from now, he could have a few more precious hours of light and laughter, somewhere with incredible food and people who called him by his name.

There was nothing in the world that Prompto wanted more. But he needed the cooperation of the dream-creature, and he wasn't sure if it would – or could – bring him a second time.

"I'll try," he said, with all the sincerity he could muster. "I swear, I'll try."

Noct nodded, reluctantly – pulled up short, just beside the entrance. He schooled his face into something smooth and cordial, and he gave Prompto a nod more polite than familiar. But the smile, when it came, was far more intimate. "See you then."

Prompto flashed him a grin in return, pure sunlight. He waved once, wide and exuberant. Then he dashed out the door and down the side stairs – tripped, lost a shoe, and had to go back for it.

Less than a minute later, midnight struck, and Prompto shimmered and blurred at the edges, overcome by the same dizzying sensation from before. He closed his eyes, hard, and when he opened them, he stood in his grey work clothes, streaked with dirt, in the kitchen of Chancellor Izunia's estate.

In his hand, he clutched three lists, and every item on them had been crossed off.

Chapter Text

The month leading up to the second ball felt like the longest month of Prompto's life.

Every night while he dreamed, he sat in a plush black chair with Noct by his side and the small white creature curled upon his shoulder. Every day while he worked, his thoughts flitted away to the bright lights of the Citadel and the wry smile on Noct's lips. Twice he tripped going up the stairs, thoughts on the images in his mind instead of the world in front of him. Once, lost in daydreams, he burned Chancellor Izunia's salmon, and the Chancellor pressed the side of his arm to the hot frying pan in retaliation.

After that, Prompto was better about paying attention.

Still. When the night of the second ball arrived, Prompto was practically bouncing with anticipation as he saw the Chancellor's retinue to the door. No sooner was it closed and locked, the transport pulled away, than Prompto turned to the empty room.

The creature had promised him, in dreams, that he could go. It had promised. But Prompto was not used to being told that he might have things, and so it was with a great deal of trepidation that he said, "Are you here?"

Like a road mirage on a too-hot day, the little creature flickered into being. It squeaked at him, and words appeared above it. "You ready?"

Prompto had never been more ready for anything in his entire life.

This time, he did not stand at the base of the Citadel stairs and marvel at it. This time, he rushed up the steps, anxious to reach what he knew awaited him inside.

He found Noct in the corner, alert and oddly on edge. Some of the tension faded from his face when he saw Prompto – and Prompto, for his part, grinned wide and bright as the sun, setting himself down in the opposite chair. 

"I was starting to think you wouldn't show," Noct said, with that wry smile that had played itself over and over in Prompto's mind.

"I haven't thought of anything else all month," Prompto told him, earnestly.

"Well," said Noct, taken aback, cheeks shading pink. "Then I'm glad you made it."

"Me, too," said Prompto, and he meant it more than he could have ever put into words.

The night glided by, in a series of vibrant moments: Noct leaning in close, the touch of his hand on Prompto's arm very warm through the silk of his shirt; a detailed play-by-play of Noct's favorite zombie shooting game in the arcade downtown; a mountain of a man who wandered by to introduce himself as Gladio; the absolute bliss of getting to try daggerquill soup, and fresh fruit salad, and Ignis' orange cake; exploring the button on Noct's phone that captured images, filling up screen after screen with snapshots of their smiling faces.

"You're staying for the fireworks this time," Noct asked him, at ten till midnight. "Right?"

Prompto could think of nothing he'd like better. "I can't," he said, reluctantly. "I've got to go."

"Yeah," said Noct, looking oddly disappointed. "Sure. But I'll see you next month?"

To Prompto, next month seemed like it was decades away.

 


 

At the third ball, Noct met him at the door. He took Prompto by the arm, and Prompto didn't care when the bruises underneath the silk complained, because he'd been waiting all month for this.

"Hey," Noct told him. "Good news. Fireworks are at ten tonight."

"Seriously?" Prompto said, practically vibrating with excitement. "Talk about lucky! I thought I was never gonna get to see them."

"Yeah," said Noct, face going pink again. "Lucky."

At ten, they sat out on the Citadel's steps, watching sprays of color bloom and burst across the sky. Prompto stared up at the glimmering strands of gold and brilliant flashes of light, hardly daring to blink.

And when he began to shiver midway through the show, cool night air creeping through the thin silk of his dress shirt, Noct slipped off his jacket and settled it carefully about Prompto's shoulders.

 


 

Ignis and Gladio crashed their private chair party for the fourth ball, and Prompto didn't mind at all.

The conversation was lively with so many people, and Prompto grew more animated as the night slipped by. Gladio brought over flutes of bubbly champagne, and Ignis insisted he try the meat pies, a new recipe. Noct's phone ended up in Prompto's hands – filled up with close-ups of the pie crust, and artistic angles of the ceiling lights, and shot after shot of the four of them, framed by the high backs of their chairs.

The fireworks were at ten again, and they sat out on the steps, all four of them, to watch the sky catch fire.

 


 

During the fifth ball, Noct took Prompto on a stroll through the Citadel's grounds. It was an ambling, wandering sort of expedition, and they walked so near to one another that their shoulders brushed from time to time.

They passed through room after room of vibrant celebration, ending at last far from the noise and excitement – in the Citadel's gardens, near deserted, where only an occasional party-goer ventured to take in the sights.

High above, the stars were a wash of brilliant white. All around, creeping tendrils of vines draped down from lush green trees. The scent of flowers was heavy on the air; it filled up Prompto's lungs, every time he took a breath.

There was something like magic in the velvet dark of the night, the delicate, precious kind that can only be found in the pages of a storybook.

And there on the bank of the reflecting pond, surface bright in the moonlight, Noct reached out and took Prompto's hand in his own.

 


 

At the sixth ball, Noct introduced Prompto to a refined older gentleman with a neatly groomed salt-and-pepper beard.

"This is my dad," said Noct. "He, uh. He's been wanting to meet you."

Prompto took in his face, cultured and kindly. He could see Noct in the nose, and the cheekbones, and the curve of his brow. He thought briefly of his own father, whom he hadn't seen now for five and a half years, and then shoved the thought away.

"A pleasure to finally put a face to the name," Noct's father told him. "My son's spoken of little else, these past few months."

"Dad," said Noct, face going pink again.

Prompto ducked his head and scuffed the toe of one of his fancy slippers against the polished floor. "Uhm. Nothing too bad, I hope?"

"Oh, no," said Noct's father, face softening into a smile. "Rave reviews, I assure you."

 


 

"Hey," said Noct, half an hour into the seventh ball. "Wanna ditch?"

Prompto glanced over at him, mouth full of the mushroom he'd just wrestled off the skewer. "Ditch?" 

"It's just, y'know," said Noct. "I got this new game, and there's a multiplayer mode, and the AI runs into walls and shoots your party members when you leave it to itself."

Prompto chewed twice – swallowed. "Just you watch," he said, grinning. "I'll go one better. I'll shoot the walls."

Noct, it turned out, had a room in the Citadel. Prompto still wasn't entirely sure what his title was, but he must not take it too seriously, because he stripped the bed and dumped the blankets on the floor so they'd have someplace to sit in front of the television. 

By quarter till midnight, they'd made it through eleven levels, and Prompto's name was on every high score chart for accuracy.

He was just standing to go, reluctant, when Noct said, "Hey. What's your number? Maybe you could come over and play some more next week."

There was a moment, one breath-stealing, heart-stopping moment, when Prompto felt a surge of understanding that he was wanted here. His knees went watery and he was sure they were going to drop him on the floor.

Then he imagined actually sneaking out – leaving his chores undone so that he could walk the whole way to Insomnia. He imagined the Chancellor's face when he finally returned, and the way the straps on the metal table in the basement would bite into his skin. His brain blanked out the mental image before he could take it further than that, shutting down the promise of imagined pain.

"That's," said Prompto, finding it suddenly hard to breathe. "I'm. I'm pretty busy, most nights. And I don't have a phone." The silence stretched thin. "Sorry."

When he looked up, he discovered that Noct was wearing a shuttered expression, carefully blank. "Right," said Noct. "Sure."

He seemed to hesitate – finally came out with: "Want to play more next time, then? I don't mind waiting. We can pick up at level twelve."

And Prompto, who had been certain Noct would get mad at him, let out a shaky sigh of relief. He threaded their fingers together, like Noct had done in the garden, and he said, "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

 


 

They beat the game during the eighth ball, sprawled in their elegant finery amid a pile of sheets on Noct's floor.

At 9:30, they emerged into the noise and bustle of the party, just in time to catch the fireworks at ten. 

This time, when Prompto started to shiver, Noct didn't give up his jacket. He scooted close enough for them to share, and draped it awkwardly over two sets of shoulders.

 


 

 

During the ninth ball, Noct took him up to the top floor of the Citadel.

There were no guests at all in the long, polished corridors, and the elevator required a passcode. As they slipped up, level upon level, Prompto wondered again at Noct's rank, that he had such unrestricted access.

Then the elevator dinged to a stop, and Noct took Prompto's hand and pulled him out onto the balcony, and he forgot about everything but the view.

The lights of Insomnia were spread out below them, twinkling white pinpoints and splashes of neon. Above, like a still reflection in water, the stars stretched overhead, the moon hanging among them round and yellow.

Prompto walked to the balcony's edge, slow and wondering. When he looked at Noct beside him, he could not help but notice that Noct's hair was the color of the sky, and that the moonlight caught in his eyes.

Noct huffed a soft laugh, and Prompto swore he'd never heard a better sound. "Thought you might like it."

"Yeah," said Prompto. "Cause it's awesome. Quick, gimme your phone and get over here. It's picture time."

"About that," said Noct, and then faltered to a stop.

Prompto turned to look at him – really look at him. His face was carefully blank, but his shoulders were hunched and he had one hand behind his back. If there was more light, Prompto suspected he'd see that Noct's cheeks were pink.

Noct opened his mouth to speak again – got nothing out. In lieu of words, he took his hand from behind his back and thrust something Prompto's way: a small box, edges crisp and surface glossy.

Prompto took it carefully, squinting down at the image splashed across the front. His eyes grew very wide.

"I figured, someone doesn't have a phone, they probably have a reason," Noct said. "But I wanted –" He stopped, seeming to need time to gather the words. "You ought to be able to take your own pictures."

With trembling fingers, Prompto eased the lid of the box up. He lifted the camera from its wrapping with the reverent care of a mother cradling her child.

"It's for me?" Prompto asked, uncertain. He'd never owned anything before. He'd never imagined the sweet rush of warmth at the thought that, beyond the dreamlike pleasure of these glittering nights, Noct had thought of him.

"Of course it's for you," Noct said, and Prompto felt his eyes stinging, throat unaccountably tight. 

"Thanks," Prompto told him, and dredged up a watery smile that glowed brighter than the sun. "It's –" Incredible. Amazing. Mind-blowing. Something he would hide away until the day he died, like a talisman to remind him of better times. Something precious, set aside for when the last of these balls was years in the past and Noct was nothing more than a treasured memory. 

Prompto swallowed, the words sticking in his throat like the blade of a knife. "Thanks," he said again instead, more fervently this time.

Before they left the balcony, Prompto filled half a memory card with pictures of the moon, and the shining lights of Insomnia, and their faces, side by side, laughing there in the dark.

Chapter Text

Prompto hid the camera beneath a loose floorboard in the hall closet – settled it in its box and wrapped it lovingly in one of his cleaning rags, then secreted it away so that Chancellor Izunia would not stumble upon it by accident.

There it stayed, all the long month. There it stayed, until the evening of the tenth ball, when he fished it out with careful fingers.

Then he called for the white creature, and with a now familiar rush of magic, Prompto came to stand upon the steps to the Citadel.

Noct was waiting in his chair, an easy smile on his lips. Ignis had made riceballs, wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with salmon. Even Gladio had an amiable wave for him, though he laughed as soon as Prompto raised the camera to snap a picture of the greeting.

"Guess you like it," Noct put in, expression struggling to remain neutral.

"Just wait," Prompto told him. "I've got all night to show you how much I like it." The shutter snapped, and Noct appeared on the screen, wry and amused. "You're gonna be so sick of this thing."

At five till ten, when the four of them were making their way toward the front steps to find a seat for the fireworks, no one had gotten sick of it. Prompto felt like he was floating over the ground, heart somewhere in the clouds. Noct's arm was linked through his, like a promise.

Then a voice spoke from beside him, mild and unthreatening. "Your Highness," it said. "What a pleasure. I'm afraid I've been remiss in paying my respects."

Prompto knew that voice.

The world slowed to a crawl. Every particle of his body felt like it had been drenched in ice. When Prompto turned, naked horror a crawling snake in his gut, he found himself staring into the smiling face of Chancellor Izunia.

Noct's expression was a smooth mask, utterly unreadable. "Chancellor," he said, cordial but not warm, and inclined his head slightly.

"I won't take too much of your time," said the Chancellor. "I just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed your little celebrations tremendously." His gaze slid sideways, settling on Prompto. "Why, every time I come, I discover something new I've missed."

Prompto was struck by the sudden thought that his legs weren't going to hold him up. Neither would the ground. He was going to sink into the stone of the stairs, and he was going to suffocate there, beneath the earth, and that would be better than going home.

"Kind of you to say so," said Noct. "And for you to attend."

How could he have forgotten that the Chancellor was here? How could he have let himself get so lost in the wonder of these nights that he'd forgotten there was danger, too?

"Now, if you'll excuse me," said Chancellor Izunia. "I believe the fireworks are about to begin." He tipped a slight bow, from the waist – doffed his ever-present hat. Then he moved to turn aside.

He paused at the last moment, however, as though remembering something.

"Oh," he said, tone pleasant. "One last thing, if I may." His eyes searched out Noct's face – shifted sideways, to land firmly on Prompto. "Forgive my saying so." The Chancellor reached up, proprietary and condescending, to pat Prompto on the cheek, "But you look better without the glasses."

With a swish of fabric, he was gone – but his touch slipped through Prompto's veins, curdling his blood. He couldn't seem to pull in enough air; his chest felt like it had steel bands around it.

In another few hours, it probably would.

"Prompto?" said Noct, frowning down at him. "Are you okay?"

From behind came Ignis' voice: "Perhaps he'd best sit down."

But Prompto was shaking his head, already backing away. "No," he managed. "No, no – I just remembered. I've got to go early tonight. I'm sorry. I just – have fun, okay?"

He only had one chance. He had to get back before Chancellor Izunia did, and convince the man that he'd been mistaken. After all, how could an MT with no transportation be here in Insomnia, while all of his chores were getting done at home? It was impossible. The argument was foolproof.

He was gone before any of them could think to stop him – tearing off across the Citadel grounds, out of breath, camera clutched in his hands. When he reached the bottom of the side steps, out of sight from the gathered crowd, he whispered. "Can you hear me? I need to go home early tonight. Please."

The Citadel shimmered around him – grew indistinct and hazy. Then Prompto materialized in the living room of the Chancellor's estate.

In a frenzy, practically in tears, he hid the camera in its spot beneath the floorboards. Then he threw himself into his work, scrubbing until his fingers were raw.

And just before midnight, when the sound of the MK-Helios trundling to a stop outside the door reached his ears, Prompto bowed his head and scrubbed harder.

Three pairs of footsteps sounded in the entryway. Then the Chancellor's voice reached him, level and mild. "C1:NDR3LA," he said – not a bellow, not a threat. Just a quiet word, but Prompto knew better.

He pushed himself, shaking, to his feet. He ducked into the entryway.

"Yes, Chancellor?"

The Chancellor looked him over, head to toe, and Prompto resisted the urge to fidget. The transformation was perfect; it always was. Everything was exactly where it needed to be, from his rumpled hair to his battered old work boots.

"I saw something rather extraordinary tonight," Chancellor Izunia said, idly. "A weapon, hanging from the arm of the crown prince."

Prompto's mouth was very dry. His brain sputtered and sparked, trying to come up with a response. "I don't know what you mean," he said at last.

"Listen to him," sneered Commander Loqi. "He doesn't know what you mean." The commander's voice pitched up, mocking.

"I don't," said Prompto, almost pleading. "I've been here all night."

Commander Caligo smirked, a lazy lift of his lips. "Whoever said you hadn't?"

Prompto froze.

His heart was going to tear its way out of his chest, he was sure. "Nobody," he managed. "Please. I –" He held up his hands, red and wrecked from the hot water and the scrub brush bristles. "I've been cleaning the kitchen floor."

Chancellor Izunia came over to him. He looped his arm through Prompto's, where Noct's had been just two hours earlier. "Poor thing," said the Chancellor, almost gently. "He doesn't understand."

The smile that unfurled across the Chancellor's lips was like a strange and poisonous flower. "Come down to the basement with me," he said. "I'll explain it for you."

 


 

Some hours later, when Prompto lay upon a bed of steel and the Chancellor had lingered awhile and then gone, the door to the basement creaked open again.

A silhouette stood there in the door frame, black on white. It spoke with the Chancellor's voice, and it said: "By the way. I found something in the hall closet."

The figure's hand lifted, high above its head. Then it let go.

The camera hit the floor with a crunch. It skittered down twenty-two concrete steps, every impact brittle and sharp. When it came to the bottom, the lens flew out as though trying to escape, cracked and battered.

Without another word, Chancellor Izunia closed the door behind him.

 


 

 

Three days before the eleventh ball, Chancellor Izunia came to sit beside Prompto in the parlor, while he was scrubbing the baseboards. The man lounged on the loveseat. He crossed his legs, polite and proper, and told Prompto to fetch him some tea.

The Chancellor waited until Prompto placed the saucer into his outstretched hands.

Then he said, "I believe we'll stay home from the ball this month," and took a sip.

Prompto said, "Yes, sir." He didn't dare to say anything else. The Chancellor had been much less lenient since last month's excursion and the nightmare days that had followed.

On the night of the eleventh ball, instead of donning his formalwear, Chancellor Izunia unlocked the hall closet. "In you go."

And Prompto went in, even though tight spaces made his breath come too fast and his skin crawl. He sat himself down on the floor, in the corner near where the camera had been, and wrapped his arms around his knees. He listened as Chancellor Izunia locked the door behind him.

When the little white creature came, a faint pale shape in the darkness, it squeaked and pressed its head against his hand. But Prompto only closed in on himself, shoulders hunched.

"Go away," he told it. "Please. Just go away."

 


 

 

On the night of the twelfth ball, Chancellor Izunia held the door to the hall closet open wide.

On the night of the twelfth ball, Prompto sat himself in the corner, and the tiny space closed like a vice around him, pressing in on every side. He could hear his own breathing, fast and shallow. He could hear the pounding of his heart, loud as a drumbeat in his ears.

He was certain he had never had a worse idea in his whole life.

But when the creature came, he said, "I can only stay a few minutes this time. Would you – would you please be ready to take me back?"

The little white creature squeaked, but the closet was too dark for Prompto to read the text of its words. It pressed its nose against him, tenderly. Then the hall closet dissolved, and the Citadel rose up before him like some mythical fairy tale palace.

Prompto climbed the steps like a boy in a dream, beauty and light all around him. When he reached the door, music swelled out, a rushing stream. It washed over him, clear and sweet, and he closed his eyes, there in the entryway, swaying on his feet.

He was just gathering himself to begin his search when a familiar voice reached him, relief coloring the tone.

"There you are. I was starting to think you were too mad to show." Noct was wearing that same wry smile, but there was an edge beneath it this time, worry and strain. When he got a good look at Prompto, though, the smile slipped away entirely. "What happened to your face?"

His face?

Prompto felt up to touch his cheek, the mottled bruise that the Chancellor had left three days previous. It was hot to the touch, swollen and painful. Somehow, though all the rest had been swept aside – the grime and the ragged clothes and the torn nails and blistered hands – this remained. Somehow, though always before the transformation had been complete, this one reminder had stayed behind.

"It's not important," said Prompto, and barreled onward, words coming out in a rush, when it looked like Noct was going to say otherwise. "Look," he said. "I can't stay long. Can we talk somewhere? Not – not here."

And Noct, frowning and somber, led him away.

They ended in the gardens, all pale moonlight and lush growing things. They ended sitting on a carved stone bench, side by side, neither of them touching.

When at last the silence had gone too long, Prompto said, "I came to say goodbye."

Noct jerked like someone had punched him – turned toward Prompto with wide eyes. "You can't," Noct said. "I was just –"

He cut himself off with a frustrated noise. Then he tried again, struggling to get the words out. "I should've said I was the prince. Okay? I'm sorry. Iggy gave me hell about it, after you ran off. I don't blame you. But –"

He trailed off into silence. Prompto sat frozen, transfixed by the sight of him.

Noct swallowed. "Don't go," he said at last, voice very small.

And he leaned forward, tentative, to press a kiss to Prompto's lips.

The touch was warm, and soft, and butterfly-wing gentle. Prompto told himself firmly that this was a terrible idea, and then Noct put an arm around him, and he melted into the touch anyway.

His fingers curled, clutching at Noct's crisp black lapels. His eyes slipped closed, savoring the foreign sensation of arms around him. He was shaking; he knew he was.

The kiss drew on and on, searching and tender. Prompto's cheeks were wet, and his glasses were smudged. He had never wanted anything more than he wanted to stay right here, exactly like this, forever.

Then Noct pulled back. He trailed the pad of one thumb over Prompto's cheekbone, brow furrowed at the sight of the tears. 

And Prompto thought of the hall closet, and the Chancellor's unthreatening smile, and how long he would have to stay in the basement if anyone opened the door and discovered that he wasn't there.

"Sorry," Prompto choked out. "I'm so sorry. I can't stay."

When he rose from the elaborate bench in the Citadel's garden, it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. But then Noct called his name and he kept walking, and he found that there were harder things, after all.

Half blind with tears, Prompto made his way through polished dance halls, among glittering costumes that would have been at home in any children's story. He passed through the massive entryway, into the cool night air, and stood beneath the stars. He took the stairs down two at a time, trying to outpace the pain in his chest, swollen and thick.

When Prompto tripped and lost a shoe, he left it where it fell, there on the steps.

And at the very bottom, he set his hand upon the chill, carved marble of the railing. He said, "I'm ready."

Then he flickered and faded from view, to return to the place where he belonged.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, there was a prince with a broken heart.

He had been lonely all his life – but for a time, a boy as bright as the sun had dawned in his sky, filling his nights with laughter and his days with anticipation. Now that boy was gone, and the prince fell into black despair.

His Shield told him that he was a lovelorn fool, and to snap out of it already.

His advisor suggested, diplomatically, that he might be able to discover the boy's address.

His father fussed and fretted as he had not done since the prince was very small.

But the prince ignored them all and closeted himself in his chambers. He was known to nap at odd hours and remain abed until late into the afternoon, but in his grief he slept yet more.

It was there, in the land of dreams, that he found a small, white creature he had not seen for some time. Carbuncle, his treasured childhood friend, had doubtless come to comfort him. 

Carbuncle pressed against his legs, and hopped upon his shoulder. But when it squeaked at him, the text that appeared above its head was not a consolation at all.

"Hurry, Noct," it said. "You've got to go find him."

And there into the dreamscape, usually so pleasant and mild, crept flashes of pain, and the suffocating grip of steel, and a gnawing, desperate hunger.

"Where is he?" Noct demanded.

Above Carbuncle, the lettering flickered into sight, solid and true as the title of a storybook: "I can't help you this time," read the words. "There's stronger magic than mine."

 


 

Noct came to Ignis' chambers in the dead of night, hair rumpled from sleep, clad in his black silk pajamas. He knocked twice and then waited – knocked again, more urgently, and Ignis opened the door, still in the process of sliding his glasses onto his nose.

"Get me his address," said Noct, and Ignis knew, without asking, that it would not keep until morning.

He pulled the immigration records from Niflheim for the past ten years, and he pored over them in his study, a strong cup of coffee in one hand. When dawn came, he had determined that no boy named Prompto had come to settle in Lucis during that time.

It raised questions, to be sure: why the boy's papers weren't in order, and why he had bothered to circumvent immigration law when the requirements were no more complicated than a valid form of ID and a single three-page form. But that could wait for another time. 

For now, they would need another means of searching.

Ignis availed himself of a map. On it, he marked what few details his prince had provided: an area near the outskirts of Lucis, by the border of Niflheim, where the countryside grew green. After a moment's thought, he looked up the residence of Chancellor Izunia, as well, and noted it with a small, black dot.

Then Ignis drained the last of his coffee, folded his map, and went to see Noct.

 


 

The prince's entourage arrived at the Izunia estate in mid-afternoon of the following day.

It comprised the crown prince himself, dressed for travel, face grim and somber; the prince's Shield, in full armor, massive blade at the ready; the prince's advisor, clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other; and a half-dozen Lucian soldiers.

When the prince knocked, the Chancellor himself opened the door.

"Why," said Chancellor Izunia. "What a pleasant surprise. Do come in, Your Highness."

"Thank you," said Noct, somewhat stiffly, and stepped inside.

His advisor came behind him, and his Shield just after. Before any of the soldiers could begin to wonder whether the invitation extended to them, the Chancellor shut the door on them.

"Sit down," said Chancellor Izunia, gesturing to his parlor. "I'd offer you refreshments, but I'm afraid there's nothing freshly baked. I've had the most nightmarish trouble with the help lately."

Noct remained standing, formal and stern. "That's fine," he said, curtly. "We're not here for refreshments."

"Oh?" said Chancellor Izunia. "Then to what do I owe this honor?"

The prince opened his mouth to reply, but Ignis beat him to it. "A survey of residents," he said, tone smooth and unassuming. "We'd like to meet with every person in the household and ask a few brief questions."

Noct pinned his advisor with a long look. Then he nodded and glanced away.

"Of course," said the Chancellor, smiling broadly, as though he was in on a grand secret. "I'll just fetch them, shall I?"

And fetch them he did. He introduced the prince's retinue to his associates, the commanders Loqi and Caligo, and they answered the questions gamely: how long they had been in Lucis, and what had led them to emigrate, and whether they found the area to their liking.

When they were finished, the Chancellor spread his hands. "That's everyone."

Noct, expression carefully blank, said: "And the help?"

Chancellor Izunia cocked his head, like a bird of prey. "Beg your pardon?"

"The help," said Noct. "You mentioned servants."

"I did, didn't I?" said the Chancellor. "But then, you mentioned people."

The prince's lips thinned into a line. "Explain."

"I'm afraid I only have an MT unit, and it's a rather unreliable one at that. Probably overdue for the scrap heap, truth be told." The Chancellor fished idly in his pocket and pulled out a folded-up square of paperwork. It was the authorization form for a unit designated C1:NDR3LA, and all three of his guests noted that he happened to have it readily on his person.

"Show me," said Noct. "I want to see the MT."

The Chancellor sighed, the sigh of a man humoring a willful child. "Very well. Though I'm afraid you'll be let down after all this build up. It's not terribly impressive."

And with that he waved them on, toward the back of the house. He unlocked a door at the top of a flight of stairs – flipped on the light switch, and led them down.

At the bottom was a room of metal and concrete. The walls were harsh and unforgiving, pocked with the wear of time; at the far end, a small panel of buttons stood, row after row, like soldiers lined up to go to war. The ceiling was low, claustrophobically close, and a single bare bulb swung from it by a wire. Near the far wall rested the crushed remains of what once had been a very expensive camera.

But none of that seemed important, because there, in the center of the room, stood a steel table set with restraints. Lying upon it was a blond boy of about the prince's age.

He was naked from the waist up, and the sight was ghastly. The boy was desperately thin, collarbone and ribs far too prominent in his slender frame. Bruises littered the pale skin, thick black and purple that faded out to the mottled green of older pain. His lip was split, and most of his right arm had been scraped raw. The fingers of his hands, palm up, curled loosely inward – except for the last two, on the left side. Those were bent at odd angles.

"Prompto!" cried the prince, and shoved his way past Chancellor Izunia.

The boy had been dozing – or unconscious – but at the sound of his name, his eyelids fluttered open. "Noct?" he said, voice a rasp.

"Oh, gods," said Noct. He took hold of the Prompto's right hand and squeezed, gently, trying to reassure. "Don't worry," he said. "Don't worry, we're getting you out of here."

"Are you?" said the Chancellor, leaning casually against the wall at the foot of the stairs.  He reached for the paper in his pocket again – unfolded it leisurely and pretended to examine it.  "Why, this grants me ownership rights of the MT unit you're putting your hands all over. It would be such a pity to provoke a diplomatic incident over something so base as property theft."

Gladio took a step forward, letting the tip of his sword sling down to clang meaningfully against the concrete ground. His message was clear: he'd provoke a diplomatic incident over something a lot more serious than theft, if his prince so much as gave the nod.

"Sorry," Prompto was saying. His voice was mostly gone; the word broke in the middle, a hitch he couldn't control. "I should've told you. I shouldn't – shouldn't've been there at all."

Noct rounded on Chancellor Izunia, face gone murderous with rage. "Open these restraints," he demanded.

"Temper, temper, Your Highness." The Chancellor smiled, slow and even, and lifted the paper in one hand. "Wouldn't it be a shame to start a war? Think of your people."

For the first time, there was a hint of hesitation in the prince's eyes.

Then Ignis swept in, voice absolutely level – absolutely lethal. "Diplomatic incidents have a remarkable history of being overlooked for the sake of social nicety," he said. "It happens all the time. Why, I seem to recall just such an incident, not two months past, when the Chancellor of Niflheim sent his registered military-grade weapon to infiltrate the celebration of a supposed ally. It took quite an exchange of favors to keep that one quiet."

The Chancellor seemed taken aback. His eyes flickered from the prince to his advisor, then returned.

"The restraints," Noct ground out. "And the papers."

Chancellor Izunia looked the prince over, up and down – the clenched-tight fists and the way he trembled with barely suppressed emotion.

"Well played," said the Chancellor, languid and slow. "Well played, the lot of you." He moved to the panel of buttons along the far wall, finger selecting a small green one near the center. "I'll look forward to round two. Shall I?"

The table beneath Prompto gave a faint beep, and he tensed as though with expected pain. Then the restraints snapped open, and Noct said, "Hey, shh, it's okay. We're going. We're going right now."

"You got him?" growled Gladio. "I wanna keep an eye on this joker."

"Indeed," said Ignis. He'd slipped his pen away, and in its place he held a dagger, slightly curved and wickedly sharp.

"I've got him," said the prince. And he slipped his hands beneath Prompto's shoulders and beneath his knees, and he lifted the boy free.

 


 

Once upon a time, there was a boy whose new family loved him very much.

For most of his life, he'd known precious little by way of love, but now he lived in the Citadel with the prince, who was his best friend; and with the king, who was like the father he'd always wanted; and with the prince's advisor, who baked them tarts most weekends; and with the prince's Shield, whose teasing made the prince's cheeks turn pink when he suggested that perhaps best friends did not generally hold hands in public or kiss behind closed doors.

The boy often sat with the prince in the Citadel's gardens while he fished, and the boy's initials, PLC, topped most of the high score charts in the prince's video games. The prince bought the boy a new camera, and it filled up with photos of his new life.

It was a good life, all told. It was everything the boy had ever wanted and more.

And he lived that way, happily, for a long while – although perhaps not quite for ever after.

 


 

Once upon a time, there was a prince who set out on a road trip across the kingdom of Lucis.

But that, dear reader, is another tale entirely.