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Magitek Soldiers Have No Opinions

Chapter Text

Prompto stared down the sight of his sniper rifle, took a breath, held it, and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and he mentally cursed when his target simply vanished, leaving a blue outline where he had been, the image slightly distorted from where Prompto’s bullet had passed through it. It had been a perfect shot too.

A commotion to his right alerted him to where his target had reappeared. His shot, or one of the ones let off by others in his unit, had alerted their targets to their presence, drawing their attention from the melee units they had been engaged in.

“Noct! Slow down!” the big one shouted as he ran to catch up.

Prompto tried to aim his rifle at him instead, to take him out, but was distracted by a gurgling scream immediately to his right. His gaze flicked towards it to see Arvid’s throat slashed by the prince’s sword. Breath catching in his throat, Prompto forgot about his earlier attempt to target the big guy and scrambled backwards to get away from the prince.

A fireball erupted to his left back down in the gully, taking out the remaining melee units, most of them MTs that crumpled without a sound, but Prompto ignored it. He was too busy trying to get away from the Lucian prince. He was so focused on that goal that he didn’t realise he had backed right into the big guy. With a shout he ducked under a swing of the greatsword, the blade only just narrowly missing separating his head from his shoulders, clipping the top of his helmet instead and knocking Prompto forward. Feeling the zap of electricity into the back of his head as the aim assist shorted out, he reached into the visor to rip it off, tossing the damaged thing aside; he hated wearing it anyway and were it not for assistive technology he would prefer to go without. Prompto winced as pain shot through his head. Magitek soldiers do not have opinions. His mind went carefully blank once more as he scuttled forward still half on his knees.

Hearing a sound behind him, Prompto flipped over, half sitting, still trying to get away. The prince was there, the sword that had killed Arvid disappearing in a shower of shining tiny crystals to be replaced by a huge greatsword like the one his hulking bodyguard used. A greatsword that was swinging towards Prompto’s head.

Instinctively he raised his rifle to block it, the force of the sword striking the barrel causing a shock down Prompto’s arms. The barrel cracked and Prompto to winced; rifle barrels are not meant to block crystalline swords!

With a twist he deflected the sword away and got his feet up under him. Heart pounding, he tried to back away again - he was a sniper unit, he had no melee weapons! - but gasped in surprise when his back hit the stone wall of the cliff face.

Prompto had to get some distance between himself and his target or he would never bring them down! He started to move sideways, to try to duck away but the prince sent his greatsword away and instead a pair of daggers appeared in his hands. He charged forwards, slamming into Prompto and knocking the wind out of him as he struck the stone wall. The broken rifle dropped to the ground as an arm pressed across his throat, cutting off his air. Even as his hands grasped futilely at the arm, Prompto knew this was it. He closed his eyes and waited for the fatal strike.

*

Heart pounding, chest heaving, Noctis stared at the magitek soldier before him, at a face that looked about the same age as his own.

When the drop ship had descended and all the MTs jumped out, he had charged into their ranks without thought. All the melee ones were MTs, he had known that by the way they moved, the way they jumped and landed easily from that height, the way they just crumpled amid bursts of sparks beneath his onslaught. It was a glint of metal armour that had caught Noct’s eye first, drawing his attention to the snipers on the ridge. Some of them had been MTs too, but some had been human, though still made somewhat in-human by their face-concealing helmets. Then this one had pulled his off.

The dagger was in his hand, a quick strike and it would be over, the Imperial boy wasn’t even trying to defend himself now. But still he hesitated.

The Empire had attacked his home, destroyed it, killed thousands, killed his father, killed Gladio’s father. But still he hesitated.

The sound of fighting behind him began to die down but all Noct could do was stare at the face before him, a face that had his eyes squeezed shut, awaiting his strike, unshed tears dampening the ash-blonde lashes.

“Finish it already,” Noctis heard Gladio growl behind him.

With a sigh, he sent his daggers back into the ether and stepped back, the magitek soldier sliding down the rockface to sit at his feet, staring up wide-eyed at him.

“We’re done here,” was all Noctis said as he turned on his heel and strode away, confident that the boy wouldn’t attack him. Gladio and Ignis hesitated only for a moment before following their prince’s lead and leaving the battlefield, heading back to the Regalia to continue on their way.

Chapter Text

Prompto stared at the remains of the battle before him, still sitting where the Lucian prince had left him. He was alive. He wasn’t supposed to be alive, if his unit was dead he was dead, he knew that. But still, he was alive. He was the only one, two whole units, one ranged one melee, had been decimated by three men. Granted, most of the melee had been MTs, doing nothing more than following basic programming, but the majority of the sniper units were human, boys he had lived with for the past few years, ever since he had failed to make an impression with his close combat skills.

What… what was he supposed to do now? The prince’s car had driven off some time ago. The sun was setting, daemons would start coming out soon, and he was all alone. No training had prepared him for this, there were no lessons on how to handle having your arse handed to you by a pampered prince and his two protectors. If he was defeated he was supposed to be dead, everyone was dead. But he was alive.

There was an Imperial fort nearby, he could go there. But to arrive without his unit, to be the sole survivor, alive only through the enemy’s mercy would only invite a death more prolonged and painful than any daemon could inflict. No, best avoid that area if possible.

Prompto swallowed and wiped a gloved hand over his sweaty forehead. Water. He had to find water. He also wanted to shed his armour but the pain that lanced through his head at the mere imagining of doing so convinced him that it wasn’t worth it; he could deal with the heat if he could find water. Plus, the protection would likely be needed.

Reaching over, still sitting where he had fallen, he picked up his rifle and examined it. There was a chunk carved out of the barrel and cracks running up and down it. Prompto tossed it aside once more; attempting to use it would likely cause it to explode in his face and he didn’t have the tools he needed to fix it. He still had his sidearm, it would do.

Pushing himself to his feet, Prompto walked over to Arvid’s body and stared down at it. From this angle he could see in through the visor, could see the boy’s lifeless eyes staring straight ahead, wide in shock.

Prompto charged at Sir, blunted steel practice blade raised high. It was contemptuously swatted aside, a foot rising to slam into his stomach causing him to double over, retching. Before even getting a chance to move away, Sir’s own sword slammed into Prompto’s collarbone with a crack, sending him crashing to the sandy ground.

He had to move, he -

The blunted blade struck his back, driving what air he had got in out again. Aside from the wuff of air forcefully leaving his mouth though, he made not a sound. He did not dare to. Any sound of pain was a sound of weakness and was to be stamped out. Crying was even worse.

“Get up,” Sir growled at him, his voice dripping with contempt.

Prompto was trying, but his left arm wasn’t working properly. Using his right arm he pushed and rolled himself over. His eyes met briefly with Sir’s cold gaze before he saw the sword swinging down towards him once. He squeezed his eyes closed.

Instead of the expected burst of pain, however, there was the clang of metal on metal. Prompto’s eyes snapped open to see another unit standing over him, his sword parrying Sir’s.

The corner of Sir’s lip rose in a disgusted snarl and he turned his attacks to the other unit. Prompto used the opportunity to pull himself up, ensuring he remembered to pick up his own training sword. By the time he had got to his feet and stumbled back a few steps, Sir had beaten the other unit back.

Prompto’s eyes flicked to the other unit, trying to convey thanks without saying anything. The unit shot him a grin instead, despite the fact there was blood running down his face now from a cut across his eyebrow where Sir had struck him. He must be new, was all Prompto could think of the reaction before he turned his attention back to Sir.

“Very well then,” Sir said softly. “Both of you. Come at me.”

They charged.

Prompto clenched his fists beside him and looked away. Arvid wasn’t a person and he certainly wasn’t a friend. He was a unit, and a dead one. He also had ammunition that Prompto needed. Bonus to wearing identical armour, Prompto knew exactly where the ammunition for his side arm was kept. He collected it, added it to his own, then moved to the next body and repeated the process. By the time he was done, the sun had nearly set entirely. He had to leave; this many bodies around would only attract even more daemons. There was a haven nearby; his unit had spent the night there after being dropped off so they would be ready to lie in wait for the prince. He headed back there.

-l-l-l-

Noctis stared out over the landscape as they sped past, chin in his hand with his elbow resting on the top of the door. He couldn’t get that Imperial boy’s face out of his mind. The fear and acceptance of pain and death written in his expression.

A kick to the back of his seat rocked Noct out of his thoughts as Gladio snapped, “What the hell was up with that? Since when do you get squeamish about killing Nifs?”

Noct sighed a little; he had known the questions would be coming, he just hadn’t thought of how to word what he was thinking. Instead, he glanced to Ignis and asked, “Are all the soldiers from Niflheim that young?”

“I’m no expert, but I do believe they start training their soldiers as children there. Though he did seem younger than expected,” Ignis said slowly.

“I was a child when I started learning,” Noct pointed out.

“You were twelve. From what I’ve heard, they start there as young as four,” Ignis clarified.

“Four?” Gladio exclaimed; even he was surprised by that number.

“So I’ve heard,” Ignis replied.

Noct slid down to slouch in his seat, turning that information over. He couldn’t even remember much from when he was four years old. If that boy had been training since then, if that was all he knew and all he remembered… He shook his head. He couldn’t even really imagine it.

Noct charged Gladiolus, wooden sword held high. It was no use of course, Gladio simply deflected his clumsy attack and parried, his own wooden sword striking the padded armour the prince was wearing, sending him stumbling to the side. It didn’t hurt of course, the padded armour ensured that and Gladio was always careful to only hit protected areas, but it was embarrassing.

“Come on, again,” Gladio said, turning to face the prince, his sword held ready.

Noct turned with a sigh and readied his sword before charging in again with a shout. This time when his attack was parried, he managed to parry a few strikes himself before a strong hit smacked into his back, knocking him to the ground.

“Damn it!” Noct swore, punching the ground in frustration and tossing his sword aside. He sat there, cross legged and head down, trying to catch his breath.

Gladio watched for a second or two, then sat down next to him, setting his sword aside. “You still have a long way to go,” he said. “But… you’ve got guts.”

“Huh?” Noct said, looking up surprised. Gladio never complimented him, he got the feeling he didn’t even like him.

They spoke a little, of how Noct had covered for Iris when she went missing, of how Gladio had appreciated it. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, an understanding at least. Then they got back to it.

Knowing Gladio wouldn’t let the matter of leaving the Nif boy alive go without an answer, Noct said, “It seemed cruel. He wasn’t fighting, he’d accepted death, all the others were dead. There was no need to kill him.”

He might have been imagining it - it was gone as soon as Noct turned to look at him - but he could have sworn he saw a smile twitch Ignis’s lips at that. Regardless, it gave Noctis some satisfaction to know that his advisor didn’t disapprove of his decision.

Gladio, however, clearly did not share this view. “Still should have killed him,” he said. “What if he’d shot you?”

“He wouldn’t have,” Noct replied.

“How do you-” Gladio started but he was cut off by Ignis.

“What’s done is done. The sun is setting and daemons will pose more of a threat to us than a lone soldier with no transport. I suggest we find somewhere to camp for the night,” Ignis said.

Noctis sighed dramatically, “Do we have to camp?”

“What, you got a problem with camping?” Gladio asked.

“No, I just have a problem with not showering,” Noct shot back.

“A shower would be ideal, but I’m afraid the nearest town is still a couple hours away, too far to make by nightfall. Camping it will have to be,” Ignis said.

Noct gave a loud, obnoxious sigh and went back to leaning on the doorway, staring out at the scenery once more.

-l-l-l-

Deserts were cold at night! Gralea was cold too but it was cold day and night. Leide was so hot during the day that he had expected it to be at least pleasantly warm once the sun went down, but no. Consequently, Prompto had spent the last couple of nights shivering and fitfully sleeping as close to the fire as he could before it burned itself out. At least there was plenty of food to forage in Leide, a step up from the frozen expanses of Vogliupe where he had done some of his survival training.

His biggest problem now, though, was water. He didn’t know the area, didn’t know where he was, and hadn’t managed to stumble across any natural sources of water. He had a flask from when he was dropped off and had topped it up with what other units had on them before leaving the battlefield, but that was just about dry now. He had no money to buy any but maybe he could take some hunts to earn some? Would they even give him some wearing Imperial armour?

Shouts up ahead pulled Prompto from his circular thoughts. Running up the hill and dropping to the ground as he came up to the ridge so he wouldn’t be seen, Prompto peered over the edge. His eyes widened when he saw three familiar men fighting two coeurls. Those things sucked ! Prompto had been forced to run from one already.

Standing so he could see easier, Prompto loaded his gun and took aim. Maybe, maybe if he took the prince down now, he could return a success instead of a failure. He was distracted by the beasts, now would be the perfect time to take him down with a single well aimed shot, then make a run for it before his bodyguards caught him.

Prompto’s gun followed the prince as he warped around the battlefield, darting between the coeurls, striking then running or warping out of reach. One shot, that was all it would take.

He pulled the trigger.

-l-l-l-

They were struggling, Noct admitted that. He thought this would be an easy hunt, two big cats and a few hundred gil at the end. But now he was tiring, Gladio was getting angry from needing to shield him so many times and having the things dart away before he could hit them, and Ignis had claw scratches down one arm.

Noctis was using his daggers which at least allowed him to get some strikes in but it wasn’t enough. Drawing a breath, he summoned the Sword of the Wise, thinking maybe his ancestor’s weapon would make a dent where his ordinary weapons were not. Just as he did so though, a gunshot rang out. Then another, and another.

Both Coeurls stumbled, one with a bullet wound in its front leg, and the other with bullet wounds in its front and back legs. Noctis charged that one first, swinging the sword down and finishing it off. Ignis and Gladio took down the other one.

Panting, Noct stabbed his sword into the ground and leaned on it. His ancestor’s weapons were powerful but they hurt to use, his arms were aching just from the little he had used it. Straightening, he glanced once more at the dead coeurls - yep definitely bullet wounds - then towards where he had heard them come from. He thought he saw a figure standing on a ridge and, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he clarified it. It was a person, but not just anyone. The same Nif whose life he had spared earlier. It seemed the others came to the same conclusion he did.

“Is that…” Gladio said.

“It appears so,” Ignis replied, both moving to stand either side of Noct.

“What’s he doing here?” Gladio growled.

“Saving our arses by the looks of it,” Noct said. He pulled his sword up from ground and touched it to his head in a wordless salute to the gunman before sending it back to the ether. The Nif in turn rose a fist to his chest and bowed slightly.

“Come on, let’s go get our bounty,” Noctis said turning and leading the way back to where they had left the Regalia. Ignis followed immediately but Gladio stayed where he was for a few more seconds, staring after the gunman, watching until he too had turned and walked away in the opposite direction. Only when he was sure that no shot would ring out to the prince’s turned back did he jog to catch up.

Chapter Text

Prompto futilely licked his lips and rested his head back against the warm stone. He had taken to resting during the hottest hours of the day, to conserve his energy and his hydration. It meant he only moved during the hours of dawn and dusk so not a lot of progress was made, though it ensured he would live longer. Why he bothered he didn’t know, it wasn’t like he really had a purpose. He was exhausted, dizzy, low on ammunition, his head was pounding painfully with every beat of his heart, and his throat was so dry and sore it felt as though he were breathing in sand. And of course, he was more than familiar with that.

The sudden shock of water being tossed over his head caused Prompto to start awake with a gasp, instantly sucking in the sand that coated the floor of the arena. Lifting his head slightly, he saw Sir standing over him, one hand holding an empty bucket, the other resting on his armoured hip, awaiting Prompto’s response.

Prompto wanted nothing more than to fall back into the oblivion of unconsciousness, but knew that even if he did so he would just be woken again, and likely in a rougher fashion. Instead he forced his limbs to move, pulling his legs under him and his arms before him, leaning over his thighs in a submissive bow. Waiting. He could be waiting in that pose for hours depending on how Sir was feeling but this time, at least, he was spared that particular training method.

“The two of you will replace the floor, then report to Inurement. Do not be late.”

Prompto ducked his head lower in acknowledgement but otherwise did not move from his position until he heard the door to the arena shut. Only then did he dare sit up and look at the other unit, the one who had bravely blocked Sir’s attacks even as it no doubt led to the later beating they had both taken.

“Well, he’s a bit of an arse hat, isn’t he?” the unit said, causing Prompto’s eyes to widen in fear and glance suspiciously at the door, half expecting Sir to come bursting in and really let loose on them. Seeing this reaction, the unit just grinned and stood. “Relax,” he said, walking over to where Prompto was sitting. “He’s gone, he won’t hear us. Name’s Arvid. What’s yours?” He held his hand out to Prompto to help him up.

Prompto took the hand and stood with only a little help. “Prompto,” he said eventually. He had to remind himself how to talk; he had been in self-imposed silence for… some time, it was hard to keep track.

“So… what did he mean by ‘replace the floor’?” Arvid asked, doing a fair impression of Sir’s gravelly voice and causing the corner of Prompto’s mouth to twitch in amusement despite himself. He was definitely new though if he had never been assigned this particular task.

“We sweep the sand into the grates at the edge of the arena, then pour fresh sand down evenly,” Prompto explained, limping over to where the brooms were kept.

“Sounds easy enough.”

Prompto nodded. Yes, this particular task was easy. It was hard when it hurt to walk and move, but it was better than the multitude of other tasks they could have been assigned.

Prompto sighed and opened his eyes. One major problem to trying to conserve his energy: he had nothing to do but think. He habitually shied away from anything that could be considered an independent emotion or opinion; if he stayed with replaying safe memories or what he physically required to survive, the headaches remained at a tolerable level. Otherwise the pain was enough to see stars in front of his eyes.

Arvid had taught him how to laugh at their situation and the laughter and the jokes had helped a lot more than Prompto had thought it would, especially on their worst days. He was someone to talk to, someone who understood and didn’t judge. They hadn’t been friends, Magitek soldiers couldn’t have friends, but they were comrades.

“Here’s a joke for you. What does the Imperial brat do when all routes are removed? He sits down and waits for death to come,” Prompto said, his voice a croak, to himself, before giving a bark of laughter. It wasn’t even funny, but laughing at crap like that was habit, it made it seem not so real.

Glancing at the sky, Prompto pushed himself up to a standing position; the sun was setting it was time to move. He really didn’t want to, but he didn’t know what else he was supposed to do. All his life he had followed orders - well he had been given them at least, there were a few times he had deliberately disobeyed - and now he had no orders. The only order he had had was to kill the Lucian prince. And instead of doing so, he had deliberately shot the creatures attacking them, saving them. That had hurt, a lot, but he rode through the pain and now it just left him feeling empty. Empty and lost.

But he wanted to live. Even though that wanting caused pain, it remained nonetheless. Last night he had spotted the lights of a town in the distance. That could be a destination, though he was apprehensive about how they would view him. Even without his face-concealing helmet he was very obviously a Niflheim soldier and since Lucis had fallen to the empire there was no love held for his people. But he had to risk it. He needed water.

-l-l-l-

“We need the gil,” Noctis said as the three of them leaned over a hunt poster. It was for 3 Ashenhorns tormenting the area and offered a large amount of gil and a rare mega phoenix down, something they had not been able to afford to buy for themselves so far.

“We should at least wait until morning,” Ignis pointed out.

“By then someone else will have snatched this up,” Noct countered.

“For once I agree with the princeling,” Gladio said, clapping an arm around his shoulders and ignoring the pout Noct gave at the hated nickname. “A prize this good? We can’t risk anyone else getting to it first!”

Ignis gave a long suffering sigh, then snatched the paper back, saying only, “Very well,” before moving off to the tipster to let him know they were taking the job.

While Ignis’s back was turned, Noct and Gladio fist bumped, sharing a grin. They were supposed to be gathering royal weapons, building up Noctis’s arsenal, and to that end they had heard of a tomb found in some mines to the south of Hammerhead. However, they had also been warned that the demons guarding it were tough, much stronger than the daytime Leide creatures they had been fighting. This would be a good test of their prowess and a chance to spend the prize money stocking up on supplies.

An hour later had them heading towards the area at a jog; Ignis had won one part at least, they were not going to take the Regalia for what would be a five minute drive. At least with the sun setting it wasn’t so blisteringly hot.

A gunshot as they approached the Asherhorn field fifteen minutes later was the first sign that something was amiss. Noct skidded to a halt and stared. Something had gotten the Ashenhorns all riled up but, outside of the recurring gunshots, there was no other sound.

“Don’t tell me…” Gladio said, looking decidedly unimpressed.

“The tipster didn’t say anything about any competition, did he?” Noct asked Ignis.

“No,” Ignis said, pushing his glasses higher on his nose.

“Then let’s go! We’ve already put our name on that job, he can’t claim it from us!” Gladio said and, with a nod in agreement, Noctis warped ahead leaving the other two to catch up as best they could.

Using his greatsword, he slammed it down against the rough hide of the Asherhorn in front of him but it just seemed to bounce off it.

Hearing another shot ring out, he glanced towards it, towards the Nif boy. He was fighting them but something seemed… off. He seemed slower than he had been the day they fought, only just managing to dodge out of the way to avoid being gored by another Asherhorn. That was something that had surprised Noctis when they had fought, that a sniper soldier could be so… dodgy.

The loud clang and grind of horn on metal caused Noct to jump, raising his arms defensively over his head even as he realised the sound was Gladio’s shield blocking him from an attack.

“Watch what you’re doing!” the man snapped.

“Right. Sorry,” Noct said as he jumped back and out of the way, focusing entirely on the Asherhorns.

The things were frustratingly fast for how big they were and when they started bucking, all they could do was leap out of the way and wait until it stopped. It made for frustratingly slow progress.

“Noct! Move! It’s charging!”

Noct was focusing on one particular Asherhorn of the two remaining, the Nif boy behind him shooting whenever he got a free shot, when he heard Ignis’s shout. Glancing up he saw the beast Ignis was referring to and threw his sword, warping to it and out of danger. Glancing back, Noct saw the Nif boy just standing there, still in its way.

“Move!” he shouted but the only effect it seemed to have was causing the gunman to look dazedly in Noct’s direction. Right as the Asherhorn barrelled into him. The Nif went down in a tangle of limbs as the beast charged right over the top of him. Noct winced but didn’t look away even after seeing the huge foot stomp on the boy’s shoulder and kick his head. Once it had passed, the gunmen lay on the ground, unmoving, the Asherhorn turning to charge back over him once more.

“Hey!” Noct shouted. He sent his greatsword away and instead summoned a spear. Throwing it, he warped above the beast, catching the spear once more and thrusting it down into the beast’s back, vaulting over the top. That got its attention.

“We need to finish this quickly!” Ignis shouted over the noise of battle.

“Right,” Noct muttered as he switched on his torch; like he didn’t know that. The three of them teamed up, focusing on one Asherhorn at a time and doing their best to ignore the other, taking down first the one that had trampled the Nif boy, then the remaining one.

Noct rested his hands on his knees, panting, trying to breath deeply. That was… a bit tougher than expected. But still they survived so that was a good start; maybe they could try their hands at the mines next.

The same couldn’t be said for the Nif boy though. Ignis was already kneeling by him and Noct jogged over, squatting next to him.

“He’s alive,” Ignis said, “but in bad shape.”

Noct could see that much for himself. The side of his face was coated in blood from a head wound and one shoulder had been wrenched from its socket. And that’s just what could be seen with his armour still on, armour that was now dented and twisted.

“He won’t survive long out here like that. Best slit his throat now and be done with it,” Gladio said. Noct turned and glared at him. “What?” Gladio said. “It’s a kinder death than letting him bleed out here or getting eaten by demons.”

“I’m not leaving him here to be eaten by demons, and I’m not killing him,” Noct said firmly. “He had the opportunity to kill us when we were fighting those coeurls and didn’t. He helped us instead. And even now, he had the opportunity when we charged in. But again, he didn’t. He’s coming with us.”

“You’ve got to be joking,” Gladio said, folding his arms across his chest. “And how are we going to get him back?”

“You’re going to carry him,” Noct said simply.

“I’m what?!”

Noct turned and rose an eyebrow at Gladio, daring him to argue.

Gladio opened his mouth to do just that but, perhaps seeing something in his prince’s eyes, he shut it again and sighed. “Fine then.”

While this was going on, Ignis was examining the boy’s body more closely. The head wound had stopped bleeding, which was a good sign, but his face was sunburnt, his lips cracked with more than just injuries sustained in this latest bout. Seeing his gun nearby, he took it and handed it over to Noct - if they were taking him with them they weren’t going to allow him to be armed - and searched for other weapons, finding none. He did find a water flask and a shake told him what he had already suspected: it was empty, the cracked lips a sign of severe dehydration.

“I think it will be safe,” Ignis said, moving the boy’s dislocated arm to rest across his chest. “He’s in no shape to attack any of us, and has obviously had no Imperial assistance since his unit attacked us.”

Gladio slipped his arms under the boy’s knees and shoulders, lifting him with a grunt. “How do you figure?”

Ignis lifted the empty water canteen and gave it a shake. “Empty,” he said, in case that weren’t obvious. “Add to that the split lips, red rimmed eyes, flaking skin with the added effects of sunburn and it all points to someone who hasn’t seen civilization in quite a while.”

“And the smell,” Gladio added, scrunching his nose.

“Trust me, you don’t exactly smell like roses either, big guy,” Noctis said with a laugh. “Seriously though, Iggy do you think you can help him when we get to Hammerhead? Lesatallum’s a bit too far away.”

“I’ll do what I can. At the very least we can get him a bath and some water,” Ignis said.

“Thanks Iggy,” Noctis replied, sincerely. He didn’t know why, but he had a feeling it would be a good thing for this guy to live.

Chapter Text

Inurement. That was what they called it. A fancy word for making you act the way they want you to act, to think the way they want you to think. A place where there was one phrase often repeated: “Everyone fights. At first.” Prompto couldn’t remember if he had fought or not, his first time to Inurement had been too long ago, but he remembered Arvid’s first time. How he had been returned to his dorm unconscious and woke screaming and shaking. Prompto had shoved a blanket into his mouth then to shut that up until he calmed down enough and promised to be quiet.

Of his own Inurement, Prompto remembered little. It occurred regularly, though the time between varied. He remembered more images, sensations, words or phrases. There were needles, things being drawn out, blood, spinal fluid (that one had hurt !), other things he hadn’t even recognised. And things being injected in, things that roared through his veins, things that burned, things that made him see red. He couldn’t scream. He couldn’t. It was weakness and they hated weakness. But he screamed.

Prompto started awake and instantly squeezed his eyes shut as pain washed over his body.

“Easy, there,” an unfamiliar voice said, the tone gentle.

Prompto’s eyes opened once more and then widened seeing who it was that had spoken. The Lucian prince was right there! He went to reach for his gun, but gasped when a burst of pain spread through his shoulder when he tried to move his arm.

“Hey, easy, I’m not gonna hurt you,” the prince said again his hands up placatingly. Much like he was talking to a terrified dog.

Prompto said nothing but instead allowed his training to kick in; his eyes swept around the room taking everything in. He appeared to be inside a camper of some description. It was dark outside so either he hadn’t been out very long, or he had been out for an exceptionally long time; he figured the former since if it had been the later his vision would have been blurred and he wouldn’t be able to think as clear. His armour had been removed and was sitting on the table nearby but looked badly damaged, he was wearing only the long grey shirt and pants he wore under his armour. He didn’t know where his gun was. His head hurt, not with Inurement pain but as though it were injured. And his shoulder, gods his shoulder! He couldn’t move his left arm because of it and there was a very obvious depression in his shoulder. There was pain elsewhere but he couldn’t tell if it was actually due to injury or if it were just residual pain. He was half-sitting half-slouched in a worn out couch and there was an open doorway about three feet away from him. The table that held his armour also held various supplies for healing. The prince was seated nearby on another couch on the other side of the table, and through the window he could see the back of someone’s head, the bulky bodyguard perhaps? All of this, he took in in a matter of seconds.

The prince stood then and pulled a glass from the cupboard, filling it up from the nearby tap. Prompto watched intently, unable to take his gaze away from the water. He was so thirsty ! Despite this though, he made no move to get his own water; his Inurement had taught him to withstand thirst but it had never managed to teach him not to show just how thirsty he was.

Instead of drinking it himself though, as Prompto thought he would, the prince held it out, offering it to him. “Specs said you were dehydrated but you should still take it easy drinking this,” he said.

Prompto hesitated only a moment before reaching out with his right hand to take the glass. He knew from experience how the stomach could rebell if he drank too much water too quickly after having none so he took his time, sipping from the glass. It did occur to him that it could have been poisoned - he had no way to know what the water line was connected to - but then logic kicked in: if they had wanted to kill him they could have just left him for the demons.

“Ignis!” Prompto flinched at the sudden shout, unable to stop himself.

“No need to shout, I’m right here,” another man said as he came up the stairs and through the doorway. His accent was unfamiliar - not that that was hard for Prompto being that he had barely been out of Niflheim - and he wore glasses in front of green eyes. Eyes that landed immediately on Prompto and seemed to soften. Prompto placed the now-empty glass on the table as the man spoke again. “I’m sorry, I had hoped you would still be unconscious while I relocated your shoulder.”

“It’s fine,” Prompto said, voice quiet. He was unsure what to make of this new man’s, Ignis’s, words. He looked at the prince. Noctis was his name, he remembered. He had been briefed on their various fighting styles, he knew that the prince had a huge arsenal of weapons he could call upon and summon, he had seen that already. He had also been briefed on the big guy’s (who’s name he couldn’t remember) using a greatsword and a shield and the advisor, Ignis, being able to use daggers and a spear. And that all of them were able to use magic and summon and dismiss their weapons at will through their connection to the prince. But truthfully, that was all that he knew of any of them other than he was supposed to kill them.

And now here he was, in their midst, seeming to be in the process of being rescued like some kind of damsel. He carefully made sure he felt nothing about that.

-l-l-l-

Noctis was watching the Nif boy even as he was cautiously watching Ignis. He had begun to stir before they got back which Ignis had assured him was a good sign. Something still seemed strange though, even now with him being awake. His chest was rising and falling quickly, as though he were afraid or at least nervous, but his face was completely impassive. Only his eyes gave any indication that he knew what was going on, darting around and seeming to take in everything.

“Hey,” Noct said, getting the boy’s attention. “What’s your name?” he asked. Ignis had suggested talking to the boy if he was awake when he had to relocate his arm, to distract him. It would also allow them to detect any slurring of the speech that could indicate his head injury being worse than it appeared.

“Prompto,” he said.

Noct smiled. “Prompto,” he repeated. “Nice to meet you properly.”

Prompto nodded, but all his attention was on Ignis, who had stepped up to him and lightly taken hold of his dislocated arm. It was held so his upper arm was against his chest and forearm held perpendicular to it, one hand on the wrist and one on the elbow.

Ignis, noticing where Prompto’s focus was and that he wasn’t interested in being distracted, opted for the ‘explain everything’ route instead. “I’m going to rotate your arm, then push it back into the socket. It will hurt, but just say so and I’ll pause,” he said.

“I’ll be fine,” Prompto said, and it looked as though he believed it too, though his voice was husky again and he glanced briefly at the empty glass of water before turning his blue eyes back to Ignis.

Noct, noticing this, pushed away from the counter he was leaning against and took the glass to refill again, letting Ignis do his thing. Ignis slowly began to rotate his arm outwards, pausing when he felt the expected resistance. “This is the worst part. Try to relax,” Ignis warned as Noct turned back to watch, putting the glass of water on the table.

Prompto didn’t seem concerned with that at all, however, giving a nod to Ignis and watching him closely. Ignis pushed and Noct winced as he actually heard the joint slip back into place. Prompto though, didn’t do anything more than blink. That was… confusing. Once, while Noct was learning how to warp, he had stuffed a landing and fallen badly, dislocating his own shoulder. The royal family’s doctor had relocated it for him and he had screamed. Granted, he was younger, about fourteen at the time, but he still clearly remembered how much it had hurt.

“Noct,” Ignis said, snapping him out of it. He had already maneuvered the arm so that it was resting against Prompto’s chest, left wrist by his right shoulder. “The bandage.”

“Right, sorry,” Noct said, grabbing it from the table and handing it over.

“Hold your arm there?” Ignis requested of Prompto and he did so, using his right arm to hold his left in place. Ignis used the bandage to make a sling and essentially tie the arm to his chest. He then took a potion from the supplies and handed it over. “Take this, then you can have some water and sleep. It looks as though you need it,” he said.

“You sure?” Prompto asked, holding the potion but hesitating in drinking it.

Ignis smiled. “Of course. I think being trampled by an Asherhorn is reason enough to use a potion.”

“So that’s what happened,” Prompto muttered, looking away and seeming to be thinking as he swallowed the potion in a single gulp, putting the vial back on the table.

“You don’t remember?” Noct asked.

Prompto turned his attention back to the prince and shook his head. Noct hadn’t noticed before, but now that the potion was working he saw that there had been a tightness, almost squinting around Prompto’s eyes that had now relaxed; it seemed he was feeling the pain after all.

Prompto reached out to the water but then hesitated, looking to Noctis with a raised questioning eyebrow. Noct waved his arm, gesturing that he should drink it; it irritated him that he needed to confirm something so simple but he tried not to let that show. Prompto took it, drank some, then said, “I vaguely remember seeing the Asherhorns, and them noticing me, but not much after that. I was just trying to get to the town with the lights. To get more water.” He took another sip.

Ignis reached forward and gently moved aside Prompto’s hair once more, to check on the head wound. He had cleaned the wound when they arrived back at Hammerhead but it hadn’t looked too bad then, not enough to cause significant memory loss. It hadn’t changed then, no swelling and no more bleeding.

“Probably the dehydration,” Ignis said, stepping back once more.

Prompto just nodded and finished off the water. He looked between Ignis and Noct, his gaze flicking back and forth, before finally asking, “Why are you-” he broke off suddenly, wincing in pain. Noct frowned and was about to ask what was wrong (the potion should have been working), when the Nif took a deep breath and, with teeth gritted, continued. “Why are you doing this? What is it you want from me?” His face seemed to go blank after the question was asked.

Ignis turned to Noct, letting him answer, and he did so as though he hadn’t noticed the expression change. “I wasn’t about to leave you to die out there, I’m not heartless,” he said. “Despite being a Nif, you clearly have no interest in killing me, so we’re good.”

“Those are my orders,” Prompto said quietly.

“What, to kill me?”

A nod.

“Well then, I’m glad you’ve been disobeying those orders,” Noct said with a grin. The corner of Prompto’s mouth twitched in an almost-smile and Noct considered that a win. “Why did you, anyway? Fight the beasts and not us I mean.”

Prompto averted his eyes at that question. He opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again with another wince followed by that same blank expression. Noct and Ignis exchanged a look. That was not normal. “I don’t know,” was all Prompto eventually said.

“Huh. Well… thanks anyway,” Noct said, summoning a small smile. “I’m just gonna… go for a walk,” he said. He didn’t know what was going on but figured he would let Iggy handle it; he was the one who had medical training after all.

-l-l-l-

Prompto watched as the prince stepped out of the caravan, then turned his attention back to Ignis. The man was watching him in turn and seemed to be considering his words carefully.

Eventually, he said, “How are you feeling now? Any pain?”

Prompto shook his head. He reported as he had so often in the past. “The potion is working. There is residual pain in my shoulder, head, ribs and right leg but not enough to suggest serious injury.”

Ignis watched him for a few seconds, but then said only, “Noct has convinced Cindy not to kill you on sight, but nonetheless you should stay here and rest some more. The bed is free, should you wish to use it and I’ll be nearby. Just call out if you need anything.”

“Thank you,” Prompto said. He rose his right fist to his chest and bowed slightly; it looked somewhat ridiculous in his current state, still sitting and with his left arm bound to his chest, but it still seemed like the right thing to do. Ignis, for his part, smiled and gave a nod, before turning to the kitchen and pulling out some ingredients to cook with, leaving Prompto to make his own way to the bed. He took his time moving to the edge of the couch. He hadn’t lied earlier when he explained how he felt, the potion had dulled most of his pain and he didn’t think anything else was broken. If he really had been trampled by an Asherhorn, his armour had probably saved his life.

Prompto stood, then was forced to grab the back of the couch as a wave of dizziness swept over him.

“You alright?” Ignis asked, seeing him stumble from the corner of his eye.

“Yeah,” Prompto said. “Just dizzy with the movement.”

“Any nausea?”

Prompt smiled at the concern in Ignis’s voice; he really did seem to care though Prompto couldn’t work out why he would give a damn about a Nif soldier. “Some,” he replied. “But only a little. It’s not the first concussion I’ve had, I’ll be fine to sleep.”

“Alright, but I’ll be waking you in an hour to check on you,” Ignis said. Prompto nodded and started moving towards the bed, but paused when Ignis spoke again. “And to have a shower.”

He didn’t bother replying, but he did smile, content to lay in the bed on top of the covers. He was asleep nearly as soon as he hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

It seemed that no sooner had Prompto’s head hit the pillow than his forearm was shook and he woke instantly. For once he hadn’t dreamed, he had been too exhausted to dream. Nonetheless, he was confused for just a second; while an unfamiliar bed didn’t bother him, the method of waking was unusual. Usually in the dorms lights out meant sleep and lights on meant wake, and out in the field a kick to his boot was the sign to wake up. Then he remembered: caravan, being healed, being able to drink, sleeping.

“Good evening, Prompto. How are you feeling?” Ignis asked when he saw he was awake.

Prompto swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. “Achey, but otherwise fine,” he answered honestly.

He looked around the room and saw both the prince and his body guard sitting at the table, the prince playing something on a phone, the bodyguard watching Prompto intently. He got the feeling that the man wasn’t impressed by Prompto’s presence in the caravan. There was something cooking in the oven and, smelling it, his stomach gave a rather audible rumble.

The heat rose to Prompto’s face when Ignis chuckled, hearing his stomach. “Clearly hungry too. Well, I made enough for everyone and there’s time for you to have a shower first. Now, before that, I want to check your shoulder.”

Prompto nodded and Ignis helped him remove the sling and pull his shirt up over his head. His torso was a mass of bruises, his shoulder even more so. Prompto watched as Ignis frowned at it and pressed the skin slightly. He rose an eyebrow slightly when Prompto didn’t react to the poking, but didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he said, “Have a shower, but try not to let this shoulder get too hot. We’ll ice it when you get out to take some of the swelling down.”

“Thanks,” Prompto said, sliding off the bed and standing.

“There’s clothes on the sink for you,” the prince said without looking up from his phone.

“Clothes?” Prompto asked, confused. He hadn’t brought any clothes, he wasn’t supposed to be staying long enough to need them.

“Yeah. Figured you were about my size and Iggy was complaining that I had packed too much anyway. It’s just a t-shirt and pants, but better than putting smelly underthings back on,” he continued, still apparently mesmerised by his phone.

Prompto just stared at the back of his head, at a loss for words. The prince of Lucis, who had every reason to hate him, gave him his own clothes to wear just because he didn’t have anything else to wear himself.

He jumped when Ignis placed a hand on his good shoulder. “Go have a shower,” he said, his voice gently, a small smile on his lips. “Dinner will be ready by the time you get out.”

“Right. Thank you,” Prompto said again before making his way to the shower and closing the door behind him.

-l-l-l-

“I don’t trust him,” Gladio said as soon as they heard the water start running.

“So you’ve said. Multiple times,” Noct replied wearily, still absorbed in his game.

“Perhaps because you’re not listening!” A fist slamming into the table punctuated his words and finally caused Noct to look up from his phone.

“I hear you!” he said, “But you never say anything new, or anything I don’t already know. You’re like a broken record repeating the same shit over and over and over and-”

“Noct,” Ignis said in his warning voice, not bothering to look at them, trying to focus on cooking.

“I wouldn’t have to repeat myself if you would just show some responsibility-”

“Gladio,” Ignis said, his warning voice getting a little louder.

“Responsibility? I thought it was the responsibility of the king not to judge someone by where they come from but by what they do! I-”

“Right! Both of you! Out!” Ignis snapped, turning and rounding on the two of them. Both Gladio and Noct stared at him. “You heard me, get out. Go train with each other, work off that steam in something more productive than shouting at each other in my kitchen.”

“But… what about dinner?” Noct asked.

“I will call you when it’s ready and you can both shower after eating. Now out!”

“Fiiiine,” Noct said, leaving his phone on the table and slinking out of the caravan into the lit evening.

Gladio didn’t move.

“Really, Gladio, you want to try me?” Ignis asked, his voice low, an eyebrow cocked.

Gladio looked like he wanted to argue the point, but the truth was he was just a little bit afraid of Ignis when he got angry. And he looked really pissed.

Meekly, he slid out of the seat and out of the caravan.

Ignis sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Sometimes it felt like he was the only adult of the three of them. Still, he thought as the sounds of the two of them training and shouting at each other outside reached him, at least they seemed to listen to him even if they didn’t listen to each other. And now he could return to his cooking in relative peace.

-l-l-l-

Prompto had heard them arguing over him, even if the water had been running. He hadn’t expected that. The way they fought together, he had thought the three of them to be perfectly balanced, perfectly in sync, a unit of their own, albeit a small one. But what surprised him most of all was the lack of deference both Ignis and the bodyguard, Gladio, showed their leader. He couldn’t understand that, couldn’t comprehend how it was even possible. A soldier obeyed his superior. That was it. There was no ifs, buts, or maybes. They obeyed or they died.

He shook his head, trying to put it out of his mind. At least it confirmed his suspicion that the bodyguard didn’t trust him. Not that he had any plans to do anything that would prove him right, he didn’t have any plans at all, but he knew where he stood.

Carefully, he kept his mind blank as he worked at cleaning the dirt and sweat of the past few days (week?) off him. It felt good to be clean, but he couldn’t even dwell on that feeling without a nagging headache forming so he tried to think of nothing at all. Watching the water was good for that. He watched the way it fell, the way it bounced off the glass door, how it ran over the discolouration of his bruises. His breathing slowed and he felt tight muscles start to relax. His skin seemed to go at least one shade lighter after all the scrubbing he did and when he turned off the water he felt a lot more refreshed.

Drying himself off, he draped the towel over his shoulders and looked at the clothes the prince had given him. They were, as he had said, a t-shirt and pants. Both were black (he wondered if any of them wore anything other than black), the t-shirt with a grey skull pattern on it, the pants ordinary black denim. Dressing, he examined himself in the mirror. The prince was right, they were pretty much of a size. The shoulders of the shirt seemed a little broader than what Prompto would have normally worn, but that just meant it was comfortably loose.

Rubbing the towel quickly over his hair one final time, he hung it up, ran his fingers through his hair to try to get it to sit right, then grabbed his pants and left the bathroom. Outside was just Ignis; he could hear the prince and Gladio training outside, but their argument seemed to have descended into wordless shouts and grunts.

“Feel better?” Ignis asked without looking up from what he was doing.

“Much, thank you,” Prompto said.

Ignis waved a hand in dismissal, then said, “Take a seat, it’ll be out shortly.” When he did so, Ignis helped refasten his left arm in a sling and use a bandage to strap a bag with some ice to it. Once it was secure, Ignis stuck his head outside and shouted, “Gladio, Noct! That’s enough for tonight, come eat.”

Prompto stared at the two of them as they tumbled inside the caravan. Both were sweaty and breathing heavily, but both were grinning. They were arguing again, but it seemed good natured this time.

“It doesn’t count!” Gladio was saying, giving the prince a shove.

“It does so count!” Noct countered, shoving right back.

They both sat next to each other opposite Prompto, and continued to shove each other and argue along the same vein (“Does too!” “Does not!” “Ah ah” “Ah huh!”).

Ignis sighed loudly and put the plates down in front of them, but there was a small smile on his face even as he did so. The arguing ended in silence almost immediately when the two started eating. Ignis sat next to Prompto and placed a plate in front of him as well. Just the sight of properly cooked food that included meat (that Ignis had thoughtfully cut up into bite size pieces for him) had Prompto salivating. Still, he waited until all the others had started to eat before eating himself.

“Dis is gud,” the prince said, right after stuffing more in his mouth.

“Don’t speak with your mouth full, please,” Ignis said, his tone weary suggesting it was something he said often.

The prince swallowed, then repeated himself more clearly, “This is good.”

“Then perhaps you will eat your carrots this time,” Ignis said.

“Pfft, no,” the prince said, very deliberately pushing them to the side of his plate.

Ignis didn’t say anything, but he did hum with exasperation. Prompto tried the carrots himself and had to think that the prince was missing out; they were delicious!

They ate the rest of the meal in relative silence, though Gladio did let off an impressive burp and petted his stomach once he had finished, earning a glare from Ignis and a snort of laughter from the prince. By the end, Prompto was struggling to keep his eyes open though, his one hour nap not really having made a dent in his exhaustion.

“Prompto,” Ignis said, his voice causing Prompto to open his eyes - he didn’t even realise they had shut! - and look at him. “Go to bed, you look like you need the rest.”

Prompto yawned, covering his mouth, and slid out of the seat. “Do you need me to help clean up?” he asked as he pulled the ice pack from his shoulder, leaving it on the table; he figured helping out was the least he could do after everything the man had done for him.

Ignis smiled, but said, “No, it’s fine, I’ll handle it.”

“Dibs on the shower,” Gladio said, making a dash for it.

Ignis just watched him go before turning an expectant gaze to the prince. Noctis chose that moment to make a huge exaggerated yawn then and say, “I’m tired, I think I’m gonna crash.”

“Not before helping me with the cleaning up you’re not,” Ignis said calmly.

“But you let him go to bed!” the prince complained, pointing to the staring Prompto.

“And when you get trampled by an Asherhorn you can have an early night too. But until then you can help me clean up,” Ignis replied simply. The prince sighed and stood up, gathering the plates as he went. Ignis turned and smiled to Prompto. “Go to bed, Prompto,” he said again. “His highness is just being a drama queen.”

“Am not,” the prince muttered, but was ignored completely by his advisor.

“Right. Okay then. Goodnight,” he said, he said turning to the bed once more.

“Good night,” Ignis said.

“Night,” the prince called.

Prompto shook his head in wonderment and lay down. This was definitely not what he was used to, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

-l-l-l-

The next day, Prompto leaned against the wall of the campervan, watching as the royal party packed their belongings back into the car, ready to leave again and be on their way to… wherever they were going. They had been very careful not to say anything about their destination around Prompto.

And now they were leaving.

They had given him some gil, some potions, a spare sling for his arm. He had met Cindy, and Cid, and Takka, and been assured that he could take hunts to earn more gil.

And now they were leaving.

Prompto felt his heart begin to race, his breath to quicken. He had been rescued, he was alive when he shouldn’t have been, but now he was adrift once more. He could not return to the Empire, not now, not after what he has done, or rather refused to do. If he were lucky he would be returned to Gralea for Inurement and reassignment, and even the thought of that was enough for him to break into a cold sweat despite the hot sun. He doubted he would be lucky enough to be awarded that fate, however. Without his unit to support him, without his superiors to order him, he was nothing.

“Wait!”

Not allowing him to think this through or even to acknowledge what he was doing or feeling, Prompto ran forward before dropping to his knees and bending over, sole unbound arm in front of him in his best submissive bow.

The bantering that had been going on between the three of them fell silent instantly and, even though with his head bowed he couldn’t see it, Prompto could feel the stunned stares on his back.

“Please,” he said, not looking up. “Please, take me with you.”

Chapter Text

“Please,” he said, not looking up. “Please take me with you.”

His request was met with stunned silence before he heard footsteps coming towards him.

“Prompto, get up,” Prince Noctis said, his voice decidedly annoyed. Prompto rose his chest, but remained sitting on his feet, looking up at the young man standing before him, daring to hope (ouch!) that the irritation on his face wasn’t a prelude to refusing his request. “Seriously, man, get up. I can’t talk to you while you’re on your knees like that.”

He really did seem annoyed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Prompto stood.

“Why do you want to come with us?” the prince asked.

“I don’t-” Prompto started, but then he clenched his teeth shut. He saw the prince’s expression change, become closed off as he started to give that answer. “I don’t know” was his standard safe response; if he needed to answer something he would say ‘I don’t know’ to avoid thinking about it. But if he was going to travel with the Lucian prince, if the prince was going to trust him to travel with him, he at least owed him a proper response.

Prompto took a deep breath to steady himself, then said, “I can’t go back to Niflheim, that no longer became an option when I didn’t take the opportunity to kill you. But I can’t stay here either, I…” he grit his teeth at the pain that was flaring up. “I don’t want to stay here. I have no superior, no orders to follow, the only goal is to survive, and I’m not very good at that. I need… I want-” Prompto broke off when a particularly painful burst shot through his head, ringing in his ears. The prince was patient, waiting for it to pass, and Prompto rode it out before continuing. “I want to follow your orders, to support you,” he finished.

“You know that I’m essentially at war with the Empire right? If you follow me you’ll eventually have to fight your friends,” the prince said, concern in both his voice and his expression.

Prompto, though, shook his head. “Not friends. Units. Killing them won’t be a problem.”

Prince Noctis looked confused at that, but he gave a small shrug and clapped a hand to Prompto’s good shoulder. “Welcome aboard then.”

The effect was immediate. Prompto instantly felt as though a weight was lifted and he dared to smile a little. “Truly?” he asked, wanting to ensure he had heard right.

The prince laughed. “Of course.”

“Noct, a word?” Ignis asked from where he and Gladio were standing by the car.

“Go get your stuff. I’ll convince these two,” the prince said as he turned back to his advisors.

Prompto, relieved, feeling as though things were where they were meant to be once more, hurried to do as he was bid.

-l-l-l-

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, inviting a Nif along with us?!” Gladio immediately demanded.

“I’m afraid I must agree with Gladio,” Ignis said, albeit more calmly. “It’s one thing to help him when he was injured, the boy seems pleasant enough, but let us not forget he is the enemy. It is quite another to be welcoming him permanently into our midst. Have you really thought this through?”

“Yep,” Noct said, leaning against the car nonchalantly.

Gladio was spluttering too much to respond to that, but Ignis said, “Then please enlighten us.”

“For one thing, outside the initial attack where he was under orders to do so, he’s never once attacked us. He’s helped us. Twice,” he said, ticking off his finger as he counted. “For two, he’s a Nif willing to defect. That means he can give us all kinds of information on our enemy that we never would have gotten otherwise, or if we did it would be old and unreliable at best.”

“What’s to stop him from lying to us?” Gladio asked, finding his voice once more.

“Nothing, but I don’t think he will. He wants to go with us, he literally threw himself on the dirt begging it. I don’t think he’ll put that in jeopardy, it was too real, too raw. And three, surely you’ve noticed that weird wincing thing he does? I wanna know what that’s about.”

“There’s more at stake here than your curiosity,” Gladio pointed out.

“I know that!” Noct snapped, getting annoyed now.

Ignis held up a hand to forestall the bickering and said, “I believe Noct may have a point, at least about the knowledge that could be gained. If we could somehow predict the enemy’s movements we could gain the advantage.”

“Ha! See?”

“Noct, stop being childish. And Gladio, Noct has already said yes to the boy, it would be cruel to turn around and say no now,” Ignis said.

“Cruel? Cruel?! It was cruel when the Nifs invaded our home unprovoked. It was cruel when the Nifs leveled towns outside the wall. It was cruel when the Nifs killed thousands of non-combatants. It was cruel when the Nifs killed my father, your uncle Ignis, and, worst of all, Noct’s father, our king! But no, none of that matters, let's just invite the enemy along, let's have a great big fucking tea party and pretend none of it happened!” Gladio roared.

“You done?” Noct drawled.

With a growl Gladio step forward but Ignis was ready, stepping between the two. “That’s enough!” he snapped. “This is easy enough to solve. Prompto,” he said, turning to the stunned gunman nearby. The others seemed surprised by his presence but Ignis had seen him hesitantly approach. “Were you part of the forces that attacked Insomnia?”

Prompto shook his head. “Before coming here, I'd never left the Empire. And we only arrived a day before we attacked you.”

“Wait, a day before? How’d you know we'd be there?” Noct asked.

Prompto shook his head again, “I don't know,” he answered honestly. “Our unit was briefed on your fighting abilities on the trip over, then we were dropped off at a haven. We were ordered to stay on that ridge and watch for your car, to shoot when the melee units started their attack. That's all I know of it. We…” he hesitated, not wanting to sound disrespectful, but then made the decision to continue anyway. “We don't question our superiors,” he said quietly.

“What, never? Even when your orders are immoral?” Gladio demanded.

Prompto looked Gladio in the eye as he answered calmly, “No, never. That sort of insubordination is stamped out early. You would question an order your King gave you even if you found it distasteful?” he asked, though his face was deadpan, the question almost rhetorical.

“Of course I would,” Gladio snapped.

Prompto rose a disbelieving eyebrow at that, but then he remembered that they were only discussing this now because they didn't want to follow the orders of their prince.

“And then you would obey,” Ignis said. Gladio turned to stare at him. “We both would,” he continued.

“I know you don't trust me, and that's fine. But I will share what I know of the Empire, their units and numbers. I have no phone or radio, no way to contact anyone without going on foot. And I swear, I will obey Prince Noctis’s orders,” Prompto said, trying to sound as confident and convincing as he could. He had to convince them, he had to! If he couldn't… Well, he didn't want to think about that.

The prince, at least, was smiling at him, and Ignis was nodding, but Prompto kept eye contact with Gladio. The group seemed to have completely different dynamics to what Prompto was used to and even though he was fairly certain that the prince could order his body guard to obey, that didn't seem like it was going to happen. Gladio had to agree of his own volition.

They stared at each other for what seemed like a long time before Gladio finally sighed and said, “Fine. On two conditions.”

“Oh this I’ve got to hear,” Noct muttered.

“Noct,” Ignis warned. Again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Noct said, waving his hand dismissively; he wouldn’t say anything. For now.

Gladio was ignoring both of them anyway, focusing all his attention on Prompto. “First,” he said. “You sit in the front where I can watch you.” Prompto nodded; he had no problem with that. “And second, if we’re really doing this, then we’re not going to… our previous destination with him, not yet. I don’t want to be shot in the back in some tight tunnel where no one will ever find our bodies,” Gladio said, though this time he looked to Noct for confirmation.

“Sure, sure,” Noct said, opening the back door and sliding into the seat.

Ignis helped Prompto put his armour and the bag of supplies they had provided him in the boot (only just managing to fit it all) and then soon enough they were all on their way, the trio now four.

Chapter Text

Prompto stared out at the landscape whizzing buy, unable to prevent the small smile on his face. He couldn’t put an exact name to what he was feeling other than right . Even if his shoulder was aching and even if Gladio hadn’t stopped staring at him since they left Hammerhead to some unknown destination. The pressure had been lifted. He had someone to follow.

Glancing in the side mirror at his new superior, he was surprised to see the prince leaning his head on his arm on the door, eyes closed asleep. He twisted in his seat to look back, but yes, the scene was still the same when viewed with his own eyes instead of through the mirror.

Seeing this, Ignis chuckled and said, “Yes, Noct sleeps a lot while we’re driving.”

“He has a sleep button in his arse,” Gladio said, surprising Prompto and, despite himself, he gave a snort at the comment; it was the kind of joke Arvid might have said about one of the other units they shared a dorm with.

He turned back around and watched more of the countryside go past. It was the first time he really got to see any of it; the dropship he arrived in didn’t have windows apart from in the cockpit and he wasn’t allowed up there. After that, he had been too concerned with surviving to really take in the sights. In many ways it felt strange; here he was, travelling in a fancy car, with his enemy. These people should want him dead and instead they had welcomed him.

“So. Story time,” Gladio said. Well, maybe not welcomed fully yet.

Prompto turned in his seat again to look back at him, leaning his back against the door. “What do you want to know?” he asked.

“Where were you born?”

Prompto blinked. That wasn’t what he had expected to be the first question. Troop sizes, government plans, battle tactics, those he expected. Not something so personal. Still, he had promised to answer any questions they had.  “Gralea,” he answered. “Zegnautus Keep, specifically.”

“Right in the heart,” Ignis said. Prompto nodded.

“What about your parents? Family? Will any harm come to them with your defection?” Ignis asked.

Prompto shrugged his good shoulder. “Wouldn’t know. Dunno who my parents are,” or if he even had parents, but he didn’t say that, refused to even think further on it. “I don’t think anyone born in Zegnautus Keep knows their parents.”

“You don’t remember anything of them?” Ignis asked, surprised.

Prompto started to shake his head, then paused. “Well, I think I remember a woman with long black hair when I was very young. But I have no idea if she was my mother. If she was I guess it means my dad’s a blonde,” he said with a slight smirk. “I've been either on my own or with a unit for a long as I can remember.”

“How old are you, Prompto?” Ignis asked; another personal question.

“Twenty,” Prompto answered. At least he thought he was about twenty. Sometimes it was hard to tell, but the answer seemed to satisfy the adviser.

“So what sort of training have you had?” Gladio asked.

That was getting closer to what he expected. “Shooting, as you probably guessed,” he said. “I also have basic training in swords and polearms, that’s where all Magitek soldiers start, but I’m not very good at them.”

“Why would a marksman have close combat training?” Gladio asked. “Why not focus on where you want to go from the get go?”

“To… find out what we're good at?” Prompto guessed. He shook his head. “I don't know what their reasons are, or even if there are reasons for the training order outside of tradition. I know I was about twelve when Sir, ah, our trainer decided I would be better suited to shooting things and avoiding getting hit for once,” he said with a self-conscious laugh, his hand going to behind his head.

A burst of stars as the polearm slammed into the side of his head, causing Prompto to stumble away.

“Again,” Sir’s gravely voice ordered.

Prompto shook his head to clear it, then attacked again.

Wrist. Shoulder. Arm. He dropped the pole.

“Pick it up.” Prompto did so. “Again.”

Shoulder. Chest. End to the knee. Prompto couldn't help the cry of pain as his leg buckled beneath him.

“Pathetic,” Sir growled. Prompto didn't answer, merely pulled himself into a submissive bow, staying there, waiting. The sounds of more training reached him, someone who was actually good at this. Prompto felt resentment and hatred boil in him as he watched drops of blood fall from his cheek to the sand, instantly being absorbed but leaving a patch of pink where it has been.

He listened as Sir handed out orders to various units and waited his turn. He heard his boots approach and then stop and, though he had yet to raise his head, he could feel Sir staring at him. He didn't have to be looking to know it was with disgust.

A light kick to Prompto’s leg let him know that what was to follow was directed at him. “Clean the sand. Then return to your dorm and await further instruction. We'll see if we can't find some use for you,” he said and as he left Prompto tried to pretend his world hadn't just come crashing down around him.

He tilted his head back into the wind over the side of the car, pushing the memories away and enjoying the feeling of the wind blowing against his face. He was soon smiling again without even thinking about it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the prince watching him. He hadn't moved from his sleeping position but his eyes were open. If the other two had noticed they didn't say anything about it so Prompto followed suit.

“If you're supposed to avoid getting hit, why bring your armour?” Gladio asked.

Prompto rose his head to look at the bodyguard, confused. “Um, to wear?” he said, not sure where this line of questioning was going.

“I'm not sure that will be possible,” Ignis said. “It was badly damaged by the Asherhorn.”

“Well yeah, but that's the point. Armour’s no good if it doesn’t get beat up instead, and if it couldn’t be fixed, it would be too expensive,” Prompto said. Gladio gave a snort at that, but he was wearing a smile. “I can fix it easy enough, just need to find some tools to borrow.”

“We’ll see what we can find when we get to Lestallum,” Ignis said.

Lestallum. Prompto was alive when he should be dead, he was seeing the countryside with wind in his hair, and he was heading to Lestallum, a city he had only ever seen on maps. Today was a very good day.

-l-l-l-

They didn’t make it to Lestallum that night, though Ignis said they probably would by midday tomorrow, barring any trouble. For now though, they had made camp at a haven. Noct didn’t mind, it gave everyone a chance to readjust to the new dynamics. True to his word, Prompto had answered every question asked, though a lot of the detailed stuff he had admitted to not knowing. Gladio was clearly still suspicious, perhaps suspecting of saying he didn’t know something when he really did, but Noct thought it more likely he was telling the truth and just wasn’t very highly placed in the Niflheim military.

Privately, he wondered about his decision. Despite what he had told Ignis, he hadn’t really thought it through when he agreed to allow Prompto to come along with them, though he suspected Ignis knew this and had just chosen not to bring it up. The thought to invite him along hadn’t even occurred to him before Prompto literally threw himself to his feet. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair he was slouching in at the memory of that. It was so submissive and desperate it disturbed him a little. More than a little. He had never had anyone do that to him, never seen anyone do it for his father either. Bowing, sure, but not throwing themselves on the ground.

Idly, he picked at the food on his plate, staring into the flames. He wondered what his father would have done, and felt the pang of loss in his chest before ruthlessly shoving it back down again. Outwardly his father had been a stern ruler, unflinching, almost ruthless but never cruel. To his family and closest friends he had shown a softer side, caring and genuinely concerned for his people. When he was younger, Noct had resented that; it had seemed as though his father cared more about everyone else than he had for his own son especially when family dinner after family dinner had been cancelled due to business. In hindsight of course, he knew that wasn’t the case. Especially now, knowing how much he had done, how much he had sacrificed, to keep his son safe. But after doing all that, would he have accepted Noct’s decision to welcome a Nif, one of the very enemies he was trying to save Noctis from, into his company?

Noctis looked across the fire at where said blonde was picking at his food. He had one of the chest plates of his armour on his lap, precariously balancing the plate on the arm of the chair, while he fiddled one-handed with wires that were on the inside. Half of his bottom lip was pulled into his mouth and he absently chewed it while he focused on what he was doing. He hadn’t seen that wincing thing as much today as he had yesterday, and certainly no where near as much as whatever it was that had hurt when he had begged to join them.

“Thanks for dinner, Iggy,” Gladio said as he stood from where he was sitting, putting his plate on the ground in front of him to be cleaned up later.

“You’re welcome,” Ignis said. He was sitting by the fire, using its light to repair a pair of Noct’s pants that the hem fall down on.

Gladio, however, had chosen a more active way to pass the evening. He had taken his shirt off (the show off) and moved to the edge of the campsite. There he started doing sit ups.

Noct rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to his food, though he more pushed it around his plate than ate it. There were only vegetables left, no carrots thankfully, but still peas and beans and pumpkin. He didn’t know why Ignis bothered, he hated the stuff, though no one else seemed to mind it. He saw out of the corner of his eye the Nif had stopped his fiddling and was watching Gladio, an unreadable expression on his face.

“If you’re not going to eat it, don’t eat it,” Ignis said, still not looking up from his mending.

“Hmm,” Noct said, though he was distracted by the clunk of metal hitting stone as Prompto dropped his armour to the ground and stood. He watched as the Nif started walking to where Gladio was. “Ah…” he started, going to stand and to stop him from going over there - if Gladio was exercising without even a ribbing comment for Noct to join him, he was doing it to work out his frustrations and that was not something anyone would get in the way of if they were wise.

Ignis’s hand on his wrist held him back though, and he said quietly, “Let him go.”

Noct looked to him, disbelievingly. “But-” he started.

Ignis shook his head. “Let him go. They need to sort this out. We can always step in later if we need to.”

Noct reluctantly sat back down, but he watched what was happening anyway, ready to step in if need be.

-l-l-l-

Prompto liked to have something to focus on. It kept his mind from wandering and his head from hurting. He didn’t have the tools he wanted, but he could at least inspect and see what kind of damage had been done to his armour. Then, when he did have access to the proper tools, at least he would already know what needed to be done. All things considered, it wasn’t that bad. The impact dampeners were shot, and the automatic lubricators were damaged, but otherwise it seemed to be in surprisingly decent shape. Well, other than the cosmetic dents and scratches of course.

He was distracted from what he was doing when Gladio stood though, thanking Ignis for the food before going off to work out. Prompto watched, considering. Gladio had grilled him off and on for most of the day about everything from his daily routine to the number of men in his unit. It was a largely one-sided interrogation, but he had learned a few things about his new companions. He in-turn had answered every question as honestly as he could, but he got the feeling that the bodyguard still didn’t buy any of it, still resented that he was there. That wasn’t something he could change in a day, he knew that, but perhaps he could make inroads. Gladio was a military man, he knew that now, and Prompto had been raised in the military. They may have been on opposite sides, in completely different countries, but military was military.

He dropped the chest piece to the ground and stood, walking over to him. He had moved on to push ups now and Prompto stood nearby, watching. He had good form, he thought, managing not to wince at the pain the stray thought caused.

“See something you like?” Gladio said without pausing, not even a hint of breathlessness in his voice.

“Something like that,” Prompto replied. He watched for two more push ups, before dropping to his hands and knees and getting into a plank position himself, albeit a one-handed one. He took a moment to centre himself, making sure he was balanced properly, before doing his own push ups, keeping time with Gladio. He doubted he looked as impressive doing so - one crippled arm strapped to his chest, his shirt still on (it was too hard to remove without help), wiry muscles as opposed to Gladio’s bulky ones - but the appearance didn’t matter. Keeping up did, and he was managing that just fine.

Gladio, seeing this and becoming more irritated, began to speed up. Prompto was expecting that reaction and also sped up, being careful to match push up for push up, not bothering to count, just following.

Soon enough, the both of them were coated in a sheen of sweat, Prompto still watching and still keeping up, though his arm was beginning to burn now. Gladio though, was watching Prompto with more of a considering gaze instead of the irritated one he had worn before.

“You run?” Gladio asked, breaking the silence they had been working out in, his voice somewhat breathless.

“Sure,” Prompto said. His mind shied away from any thoughts or feelings on the matter.

“First thing tomorrow morning. Let’s see what a Nif kid can do,” Gladio challenged.

“You’re on,” Prompto agreed.

The two of them shared fierce grins, a temporary peace obtained.

-l-l-l-

No one had commented on Gladio and Prompto’s work out session, and the run seemed to have also gone off without a hitch. Noct was relieved, even if he did find the whole thing a bit strange. They hadn’t even talked, not really, but it had obviously impressed Gladio somewhat and that meant less glares and more relaxing.

And, best of all, they were currently rounding the cliffside with Lestallum just ahead. Real beds! Even Ignis started to relax, the heel of his hand resting lightly on top of the wheel.

Prompto though was staring around at everything, his head seemingly on a spring as he tried to take everything in all at once. “It's so colourful!” he exclaimed as Ignis slowed the car, driving it down to the lookout car park.

Noct climbed out of the car and rose his arms above his head, stretching. “I like this city,” he declared.

“I think I-” Prompto stopped what he was saying with that wince and blank look, but it only lasted for a second before it was gone and he spoke again, “Should I leave my armour here? I don't see any other Imperials around.”

“They do come by, but are generally not very welcome,” Ignis said. “I believe it would be best to avoid anyone drawing a connection to your origin regardless, unless you fancy answering some awkward questions.”

Prompto nodded and, with a last look at his armour, pulled the lid of the boot closed once more.

-l-l-l-

Noct led the way to the hotel where they booked a room, staying only long enough for Ignis to inspect Prompto’s shoulder and judge it good enough to go without the sling for a while. “So long as you don’t try to use it,” came the stern instructions.

“Let’s get you some of your own clothes,” Noct said. Prompto was still wearing the ones he had given him in Lestallum, the long grey things he had been wearing kept with his armour.

“Ah, ok. I don't have any money though,” Prompto said.

“Sure you do,” Noct said, grinning at Prompto’s confused look. “You helped take down the Asherhorns before you decided you'd look better as a rug, part of the hunt money from that is yours.”

Prompto grinned. “Well, ok then.”

They spent the next hour or so wandering the markets, looking at all the stalls, smelling the different smells, Ignis probably spent twenty minutes just looking at the spice stall.

And every time Prompto was asked his opinion on something he would go to answer, wince, then mutter some non-committal answer or ‘I don't know’.

The fifth time it happened, Noct had had enough.

“Alright what is that?” he demanded.

“What... is what?” Prompto asked, a slight waver in his voice, carefully looking anywhere but at Noct. He winced again before the blank expression was back.

“That! The pain, the expression, what's going on Prompto? What aren't you telling us?” Noct said, his voice rising. A few people nearby had stopped to state but he ignored them.

“It… It’s just Inurement, that’s all,” Prompto said, his voice quiet and barely audible over the sounds of the market, his gaze determinedly staring anywhere but at Noct.

“Inurement? What’s that?” he asked, unfamiliar with the term.

Prompto did raise his eyes then to stare at Noct. “You’ve… you don’t have Inurement?” he asked, his eyes flicking between Noct, Gladio, and Ignis. All three mutely shook their heads which only seemed to confuse Prompto more. “But then… how do you know what to think? What to feel?”

“Are you having a go at us? You think we’re too stupid to think for ourselves?” Gladio snapped, ire rising.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Ignis said softly as Prompto frantically shook his head, eyes wide.

“I…” Prompto looked around a faint blush colouring his cheeks as he saw how much of a crowd they had attracted. “I promise, I’ll tell you everything just… not here? In the hotel room or somewhere private. Please?”

Noct ran a hand through his hair. He really hoped this wasn’t a sign he had made a mistake in trusting a Nif. Finally he nodded, agreeing. “Alright,” he said. “Just pick out some clothes you like and we’ll go back.”

“I can’t.” Prompto’s response was a whisper.

Noct stared at him, not understanding. They were just clothes, what was so hard about choosing something he liked? But Prompto’s fists were balled at his side and he was staring hard at the ground, looking genuinely upset. That crinkle around his eyes was there too like it had when he was in pain just after waking up after being trampled.

He sighed. “Fine,” he said, and he picked out clothes that he liked, figuring that would do until they knew what was going. Paying for them, he said, “Let’s head back then.”

Chapter Text

Prompto stared at his feet as he followed the Lucians back to their hotel room, trying desperately to come up with something to say, some way to explain this. He wanted to be truthful but how could he explain something so normal, but taboo at the same time? Everyone in the Niflheim military went through Inurement. Everyone. It didn't need to be explained and it was considered rude and invasive to ask what each unit's sessions consisted of.

All too soon they were climbing the stairs to their room, far too soon for Prompto to have worked out what to say or rehearse any kind of explanation. When the door shut a sense of finality settled in and Prompto shifted on his feet, chewing his lip while his right hand absently rubbed his left shoulder.

“Is it sore?” Ignis asked, seeing the action.

Prompto nodded. “Aches a little.”

“Put your sling back on,” Ignis instructed. “If it’s still sore in a couple hours with it on, you can have another potion.”

Prompto did so, relieved to have a task, instructions to follow, though he doubted Ignis realised the relief that brought him.

“So,” prince Noctis started. He was sitting on one of the beds, watching, dark eyes serious. Gladio had taken one of the seats and Ignis had moved to the small kitchenette in the room, preparing something. “This Inurement. What is it?” the prince asked.

He didn’t seem angry, at least. “I…” Prompto started, but then he cut himself off, not with pain this time, but just because he didn’t know what to say.

“Spit it out already,” Gladio growled.

“I don’t know where to start,” Prompto said honestly. “Everyone in Zegnautus does Inurement. I just assumed everyone else, even Lucians, did it too. Well I mean, not everyone obviously, there’s no need for civilians to, they’re non-combatants, but military people-”

“But what is it?” prince Noctis asked, cutting into Prompto’s babbling.

“Inurement, to inure oneself, typically against hardship or strife.” It was Ignis who answered, his back still to the party as he started mixing something in a bowl. He turned slightly so he could see Prompto out of the corner of his eye. “Am I close?”

“I guess, yeah,” Prompto said. He had never thought about it like that, but it made sense when spelled out. He sighed and flopped down into a seat. “It starts young, five or six I guess, with basic stuff. Discipline, obedience, things like that. Do what you're told, when you're told, to perfection and don't ask questions,” he said.

“Sounds fairly standard,” Gladio said. “Young, but standard.”

Prompto nodded. “That needs to be ingrained so you can handle everything else,” he said. He kicked his boots off and pulled his feet up under him, staring at the ground.

“What do they do next?” the prince asked, his voice soft.

“Tolerance,” he said. “Pain, poison, heat, cold. If there’s something that can wear a person down, to hurt them or kill them, we’re inured against it. There was even a rumor that some units were infected with the starscourge to see if a tolerance could be built to that, but I don't know the truth of it. I wasn't, I don't think.”

“If you were you would probably be dead by now, or at least showing symptoms,” Ignis said.

“Not if they’ve refined it or something,” Gladio said darkly. Seeing the stricken look Prompto gave him, he quickly added, “Sorry.”

“I doubt that’s the case,” the prince said. “If it was, Luna would have heard of it, she would have said something.” Privately, Prompto doubted Niflheim would have allowed the Oracle to know any such thing, but he kept that thought to himself. “That explains why it didn’t hurt when your arm was relocated, but not the near constant wincing you’ve done since.”

Prompto gave a bitter laugh at that. “Oh that hurt, don’t worry about that,” he said. “My nerves work just fine. I was just taught not to react to pain. It’s a lot easier to fall back on training when you wake up weaponless, with an arm that doesn’t work, and surrounded by people who are supposed to be your enemy.”

The prince smirked, and said, “I can imagine,” but then waited for Prompto to continue.

Prompto pulled a leg up and wrapped his good arm around it, resting his chin on his knee as he stared. The silence stretched on, broken only by the sound of Ignis scooping his mix into a baking tray. It wasn’t like Prompto didn’t want to explain everything, he had promised he would, he just didn’t know how to find the words he needed.

“Is that what your barcode is? Tracking what you’ve become inured to?” Ignis asked.

“Hmm?” Prompto looked up, surprised, then at his wrist where his barcode was. Looking at the others, he saw that, sure enough, none of them had barcodes; yet another thing he assumed had been the same everywhere but wasn’t. “No,” he said. “It’s an identity code. It gets added to whenever my access level changes.” Slipping his arm out of the sling, he pointed to the parts of the barcode he spoke of. “This part’s my name. It’s been there… forever, since I was born I guess. This part I got when I started basic training. It allowed access to the training areas of the keep I would be using and my dorm room. Then this part identifies the sniper unit I was assigned to. The end bit was added when I was deemed inured enough to leave the keep, to go out to Gralea city.”

“What determined if you were inured enough?” Ignis asked, jumping at the chance to steer the conversation back where it was supposed to be.

Prompto caught the grateful smile the prince shot his advisor and knew he had been manipulated but he couldn’t care. It gave him an opening, a direction. “An particularly long Inurement session determined that I think the way I am supposed to and don’t have opinions.”

“You said that earlier,” prince Noctis said. “Is that what you meant? That you need this… this Inurement to to feel anything?”

“Not exactly,” Prompto said slowly. “I still think, and feel, but it hurts when the thoughts and feelings don’t align with what was taught in Inurement. And opinions aren’t allowed at all.” Confusion all round. “I’m sorry,” he said, slipping his left arm back into the sling. “I’m not explaining it very well. We don’t talk about it back home, it’s rude to ask what a person’s gone through, but it’s considered normal. Without it, I wouldn’t know how to think or act.”

 

The room was small, two steps and he had crossed from one side to the other, made even smaller by the bed against one wall and toilet against the other. And it was cold. Prompto lay on the bed curled in a tight ball. The bed had a mattress, but no blanket or pillow. That didn’t really bother Prompto too much though; he knew that when he got tired enough he would sleep no matter how cold he was.

If he was allowed to sleep this time.

Wires that came through a small hole in the wall had been attached to his head. To monitor brain activity, they said. That they had told him what it did should have been his first clue. His second should have been the theory class he had completed recently about clearing his mind.

He didn’t even know what had triggered the first zap of electricity, only that the sharp agony had triggered a spiral of thoughts and questions which, in turn, had triggered more and more pain until he lost consciousness on the floor of the room.

It had taken practice. After waking that first time, his fears and questions had once more surged to the surface and caused pain that spiralled out of control. It had taken two more attempts before he remembered the earlier class. His heart was still racing, he had sat in the corner of the room on edge, terrified, waiting for the next surge to come, but carefully keeping his mind blank.

And then he realised: while his mind was blank, there was no pain.

Once he started to relax again, he began to experiment, laying on the bed so that if he lost control at least he was on a mattress instead of the steel floor. What could he think? What could he feel?

At that point, the answer was not a lot before pain was triggered, but he became very practiced at stilling his mind, of thinking of nothing when the pain occurred. So much so that it became second nature and he didn’t even have to concentrate to do it. That first session had been rough, Arvid hadn’t understood when he had come back twitchy but with no visible injuries. It got easier, though, with each subsequent session until not thinking and knowing what he was allowed to feel was second nature.

 

“Psychological conditioning,” Ignis said. He pushed the baking pan into the oven and turned back to face the group, leaning back against the bench.

“I… guess?” Prompto said, uncertain if that was what it was or not.

“Damn, kid,” Gladio said and Prompto shifted a little uncomfortably at what he saw in Gladio’s eyes: either pity or sympathy, he couldn’t tell.

“But then, what about you guys?” Prompto asked, wanting, needing to shift the attention from himself for a little bit. “If not through Inurement, how are you taught to think?”

“We… ah…” Gladio started.

“Hmm,” Ignus also started.

“We’re taught to think for ourselves,” the prince eventually said. “We go to school and…” he trailed off with a self conscious laugh. “Ok, I think we get why it was hard for you to explain, Prom.”

“Prom?” Prompto repeated with a half smile.

“Yeah. Prom. If that’s cool with you of course,” Noct said with a tentative smile.

“Sure, that's cool. Noct,” Prompto said, trying out the nickname he had heard the others call their prince. If he had ever addressed a superior like that back home a beating and cleaning duty would be the very least he could expect. Here, now however, the prince just grinned back at him.

-l-l-l-

Noct leaned against the balcony railing looking over the city lights, nibbling on one of the brownies Ignis had made earlier. Lestallum was a lively city at night and any other time he would have warped out to have a sneaky night on the town. Tonight though, he wasn't in the mood.

Prompto’s words kept being turned over and over in his mind. When he had reflected on how their childhood would have been different back when he had first seen Prompto’s face, he really had no idea. Even now, Prom hadn't shared any specific details and no one had wanted to push the matter after getting a hint of what it entailed, but the haunted look in his eyes had said enough. It may have been normal there but it clearly still had an effect.

“Can't sleep?”

Noct turned and gave a half smile to Ignis as the man stepped out as well, sliding the glass door closed. “I know, weird huh?”

Ignis returned the smile and lifted a smoke. “You mind?” he asked.

Noct shook his head and returned his gaze back outwards. After several minutes of silence between them, Noct said, “You knew what was up with Prompto from the get go, didn't you.”

“I didn't know ,” Ignis said, “but I suspected. The wincing occurred whenever he tried to say what he wanted or what he personally thought on something. Then, when he made that comment about being told what to think, it was the only thing that made sense.”

“What is it, exactly? He was kind of vague and I didn't want to pry into something so obviously traumatic.”

“I do not know the details on how they make it work, torture is not something I have had an interest in,” Ignis said dryly making Noct smirk. “In general, it involves physically causing pain for any undesirable behaviour, or in this case individual thought. Over time, the brain learns to associate that feeling or emotion with pain and anticipate it. And then it anticipates it so strongly that it creates it.”

Noct was staring at Ignis by this point. “So the pain’s not real?”

“Oh it's real,” Ignis said as he put his smoke out and dropped it in the ash tray. “Pain is simply certain electrons firing in the brain as a result of outside stimuli. Those same electrons are firing for Prompto, just without outside stimuli. It is no less real for that.”

Noct sighed and ran a hand back and forth over his head, scratching at it in irritation. Things were beginning to click into place now. Not just the pain when he said certain things, but the way he had begged to come with them instead of making it on his own. He needed someone’s orders to follow so he didn’t have to make the decisions himself. Even something as basic as choosing clothes hurt him.

“Iggy, just promise me one thing,” Noctis said wearily as he pushed away from the railing. Ignis turned to face him, an eyebrow raised questioningly. “We’re gonna destroy those fuckers, right?”

Ignis smiled, though the look did not meet his eyes; they flashed with a hidden rage that was scary to behold. “Oh yes. That I can promise you,” he said, his voice low.

Chapter Text

“So, this Inurement thing.”

Prompto and Gladio jogged around the outskirts of the predawn town at a steady pace. It was quiet at this time of morning; shops were still closed, it was still another three hours until the shift changed at the power plant, and most people were asleep in bed. They had already ran two laps around the city - the first to find their rhythm, and the second to just enjoy themselves. This was their third and final lap and it seemed Gladio wanted to talk.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask details,” Gladio said, and Prompto relaxed a little; he hadn’t even realised he had visibly tensed. “But I need to know what kind of effect it will have. What risks it will pose to Noct. I’m his shield, it’s my job to protect him, even if he makes it damned hard to do sometimes. You seem genuine. Iggy trusts you and he’s a smarter man than most. But I need to know what to look out for.”

It was a fair question, Prompto knew. But that didn’t make answering it any easier. “I want to say nothing, there’s no risk to him,” Prompto said. “But… I can’t be sure, not a hundred percent sure anyway. I don’t think there’s any risk though. What they… what was done. It only seems to affect me. That second time I saw you? With the coeurls? I was going to kill Noct. If I had killed him I could have gone to one of the forts and maybe not be reassigned. I had my gun trained on him and everything. But I didn’t want to kill him,” he said, an eye twitching at the pain that admission brought. “He let me live when he had every reason to kill me. It sounds stupid, but there was only one other person, another unit, who did something similar.”

“A friend?” Gladio asked.

“No,” Prompto replied instantly, instinctively. Then, “I don’t know, maybe? We weren’t exactly encouraged to have friends.”

Gladio gave a bark of laughter. “I can imagine,” he said. “So where is this other not-friend?”

“Dead,” Prompto said. He shot Gladio a half smile and said, “Noct killed him, up on that ridge.”

“Hold up,” Gladio said, reaching out and grabbing Prompto’s shoulder to stop him running and turn him to look at him. “You’re telling me you decided to join up with the guy who killed your friend? And you’re smiling about it?”

“He wasn’t my friend,” Prompto said sharply. “He was just another unit like myself.” He sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets, walking a few steps away to lean on the stone wall of the lookout. A light wind had picked up, drying the sweat on his body, cooling him. “It’s complicated,” he eventually said.

“I gathered,” Gladio replied dryly, causing Prompto to give a snort of laughter. He leaned sideways against the wall, watching Prompto.

“I hated him. He was good at everything he did. He wasn’t born into the military like I was, he had a choice and he chose to join. He applied from somewhere in the outskirts of Gralea. He got in when he was twelve and in his first training session he saves me from a beating. Well, temporarily anyway.”

“Sounds like he was a good kid,” Gladio said slowly.

Prompto nodded. “Too good,” he said. “He could make Sir or any of the instructors or scientists believe whatever he wanted. Inurement affected him, but not like anyone else. He could just… turn it off. I hated that about him.” Prompto glanced across at Gladio, watching him from the corner of his eye. He seemed to get it though, and was much more willing to listen than he had been before.

“But having him around made it all bearable,” Gladio guessed.

The corner of Prompto’s mouth twitched. “Right,” he said.

“You said he could just ‘turn it off’,” Gladio said. Prompto nodded and looked back out over the canyon, watching the birds circle. “You think you could do that? Turn it off?”

“I… dunno,” he said. “I don’t know how and I don’t know if I could. When I tried to imagine myself living as a hunter, even having a base in Hammerhead, I couldn’t do it, it hurt too much, I was afraid of the pain.”

“You’ve already started turning it off, though. You’re stronger than you think,” Gladio said. Prompto turned back to Gladio at that, surprised. “You went against your programming to ask Noct to let you come along, and we all saw how much that hurt you,” he said. Prompto nodded slowly; damn that had hurt though, he thought he was going to throw up from that pain. “The coeurls too. You said you had Noct in your sights, but you decided not to pull the trigger. You did that, not your Inurement.”

“Yeah. Nearly blacked out from that and then where would I have been? Sabertusk food most like,” Prompto said, a hint of bitterness to his voice.

“You’re not alone anymore, kid. You keep on fighting it, we’ll make sure you don’t become sabertusk food,” Gladio said.

Prompto blinked, trying to ignore the heat in his eyes and gave a solid nod. “Right,” he said.

Gladio raised an arm, the back of a closed fist to Prompto. He stared at it, instinctively expecting to be backhanded but also suspecting that Gladio wasn’t the kind of person to do that. Gladio sighed slightly and uses both hands to take Prompto’s right hand, make a fist and raise it the same way. He then bumped the back of his wrist to Prompto’s.

“Come on,” he said, as they lowered their arms. “Enough of this mushy crap. Race you to the hotel.”

Prompto grinned. “You’re on!” he declared, but before he could dart off, Gladio kicked a leg out from under him, making him stumble and allowing him to get the lead. “Hey!” Prompto shouted indignantly to Gladio’s trailing laughter and he bolted after him, determined not to lose.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“I’m not sure how well he’ll take to it,” Ignis said as he flipped the bacon.

“It’ ee ine,” Noct said, mouth already full with bacon.

“Noct, please-” Ignis started, but was cut off by Noct swallowing and speaking again.

“It’ll be fine,” he repeated. “You said his pain was psychologically conditioned right? Well we’ve just gotta psychologically condition it out of him. If I do it little by-”

Noct was interrupted when the ground started shaking. There was barely enough time for it to register that it was an earthquake before agony shot through his head. A cry ripped from his throat and he grasped his head, the plate falling from his hands and smashing to the ground.

“Now, Noct, really-” Ignis started before turning and seeing what was happening.

Noctis heard none of this, was only vaguely aware that Ignis was in front of him. Images flashed before his eyes, too fast to make sense of.

“Noctis? Noct, can you hear me?” Ignis was saying. It sounded like his voice was coming from down a long tunnel.

“I hear you,” he said slowly, blinking several times as the world came into focus again.

The relief that spread over Ignis’s face was almost comical, had Noct been in the mood to laugh. “Thank the gods,” Ignis breathed. Then, “What happened? Are you hurt?”

Noct shook his head. “Just a headache,” he said. “Came on… kinda suddenly.”

Ignis rested the back of his hand against Noct’s forehead but shook his head when he only felt slightly clammy to the touch.

Noct pushed the hand away. “I’m fine,” he said, flashing a grin to reassure him. His head still ached but it seemed more residual pain rather than something to be concerned about.

“If you say so,” Ignis said slowly, though he relented and stopped trying to check his prince over for some kind of injury. Instead, he started gathering up the broken plate and spilled food. “Maybe we should stay here for a few days, make sure whatever it is doesn’t come back. There are skilled doctors in Lestallum, we can get you checked out if it occurs again.”

Noct was already shaking his head. “I’m fine, really! And truthfully, doctors would probably just freak Prom out,” he said, slipping off the chair to help Ignis clean up (it was really the least he could do since he was the one who dropped it in the first place). Ignis just hummed in response, not really wanting to commit one way or the other but unable to deny the truth of his prince’s words. “Promise me you wont mention this to the others. I don’t want to worry them over nothing.”

Ignis watched Noct as he picked up the last of the broken plate, but eventually conceded. “Very well,” he said. “But if it happens again, I will not be concealing it. And you will not be driving until I’m convinced that this was a one off occurrence.”

“Fine fine,” Noct agreed as the two of them dumped the broken plate and food into the trash, just as Gladio and Promptis burst through the door, both sweaty and breathing heavily.

“Did you feel that?” Gladio asked, his voice booming and Noctis doing his very best to not wince. “It was like the whole world shifted!”

“Indeed,” Ignis said dryly.

“Something smells good,” Prompto said, his face turning up and very obviously sniffing.

Noctis grinned at him, glad that he was willing to express something like that even though he knew it likely caused him some pain.

“Nothing that can’t wait until you’re both clean and showered and not smelling so… ripe,” Ignis said.

“Dibs!” Gladio said, before gathering his things and squeezing into the small bathroom they shared.

Noct rolled his eyes at his bodyguard, but it did give him a good opportunity to carry out his Operation Prompto plan. “So, you like running?” he asked casually.

“Yes,” Prompto said carefully.

“How come?” Noct pressed. “I don’t see the appeal myself. All that exercise, and so early!”

Prompto sighed. Noct smiled sweetly; he got the feeling the Nif knew exactly what he was trying to do, but he gamely answered anyway. “I feel revitalised after running. Back home it gave a sense of freedom - it was training without fear of pain. Well, not pain inflicted by others anyway. It’s fun,” Prompto said.

Noct’s smile widened into a grin; he could see that tightness around Prompto’s eyes that gave away his pain, but still he was trying. Noct looked over Prom’s head to Ignis and shot him a gloating ‘I told you so’ look, which the advisor pointedly ignored. Prompto, perhaps suspecting something was up, looked over his shoulder to try to catch what was going on, but Ignis simply carried on his cooking.

“Come on,” Noct said, going to the bag of clothes they had bought yesterday. “While the big guy’s making himself smell pretty for all of the five minutes it’ll last, we should pick out your clothes for the day.”

“Ah… okay?” Prom said as he hesitantly stepped up beside Noct, looking down at the clothes that the prince had just dumped all over the bed. “What… what clothes should I wear?”

“Nah ah, you gotta decide,” Noct said. “Here, I’ll make it easier.” He pulled out a pair of pants and tossed them to Prompto, who caught them instinctively. “I used to have a pair like these, they’re comfy.” He dug through the shirts then and came up with three and laid them out on the bed. “What one do you wanna wear?”

Noct watched as Prompto’s eyes flicked back and forth between him and the shirts, back and forth, again and again. He could see the tightening of his eyes as his mind fought against itself and its programming - he had to obey, but in obeying he had to give an opinion. When he saw the clenched fist though, almost trembling as though he were holding back something, Noct reached out and rested a hand on his good shoulder. “Hey,” he said, his voice quiet and gentle. Prompto rose uncertain eyes to meet his. “You got this,” Noct said, his tone reassuring. He held Prompto’s gaze until the other boy gave a nod and reached out to grab a shirt. Noct had a feeling that he only chose that one because it was the one closest to him but he didn’t care; it was a decision and one Prompto had made on his own.

“Awesome,” Noct said, giving him a wide grin before packing the other clothes away and allowing to Prompto to just sit in one of the chairs. He had that blank look on his face again, but it was still an improvement and proof that Prompto wanted to be his own person. And so long as that was what he wanted, Noct was determined to help him.

Chapter Text

Prompto stood a little apart from the group as he reloaded his gun. It had been returned to him in a shower of crystals so long as he promised to return it once they were done. He had no problem with that, it was better than being left behind while the others hunted. Taking aim, he managed a headshot on a creature that was charging at him. A sabertusk. The irony was not lost on him or Gladio it seemed.

“Don’t become food, Nif,” he said as he swung down at another sabertusk that was charging at Prompto from the other direction.

“They’re more likely to be our food than us being theirs,” Prompto shot back with a laugh, killing a third one himself.

“That’s it!” Ignis said.

“Iggy, I swear, if you say you’ve come up with a new recipe, you’re gonna be the sabertusk food,” Gladio said.

“Not even I am skilled enough to come up with a meal from these,” Ignis said as he dodged around the battlefield. He had swapped his daggers out for his spear and said, “They are weaker against the spear than the daggers was what I was about to say.”

“Right,” Noct said, before summoning a spear himself and fighting with it instead.

Prompto tried to keep himself out of the way. He was wearing some of his armour but it was still better to avoid the main fighting. His leg armour was fastened in place as well as the right arm piece but his chest and back pieces still needed work and were left in the car. The left arm piece too as Ignis judged it too heavy and likely to strain his shoulder. Prompto thought he could have managed it, but didn’t want to go against the advisor, not when he actually seemed to give a damn.

From this distance, Prompto could admire the fighting prowess of the Lucians; they seemed to almost instinctively know where each other was (with only a few hiccups) and were even able to link together to take down an enemy, something he could appreciate now that he was no longer that enemy. It was no wonder they had mowed through the two units sent to attack them, and also no wonder that Prompto’s former superiors had considered them enough of a threat to send so many.

“Prom!” the prince called. “Back me up!”

Taking down another sabertusk, Prompto ran closer to the prince as he summoned a fancy sword, the same one he had used against the coeurls. “What do you need?” he asked.

“This sword hurts to use. It’s distracting,” the prince said.

“Got it,” Prompto said. He may not understand how a sword could hurt to use, but well did he understand how distracting pain could be. He would stay close, stand back to back, and do what he could.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth, however, than the earth moved beneath them sending everyone stumbling and the sabertusks crouching low to the ground. It was the cry of pain from the prince that drew Prompto’s attention. Spinning around, he saw the prince holding his head, the sword having vanished as soon as it was let go.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, but his words fell on deaf ears, the prince giving no indication that he had heard him.

The sabertusks did though, or rather they instinctively knew that one of their prey was weakened and three of them closed in. "How many of them are there?" he asked rhetorically, but he took aim and shot at one anyway. Going to shoot another his gun clicked empty. “Shit,” he muttered. He slammed his left shoulder into Noct, knocking him to the ground and out of the way, then rose his right arm defensively as one of the beasts leapt at him, its teeth scraping along the metal vambrace. The force of it knocked him to the ground, his left arm breaking his fall as his right pushed forward against the jaws, forcing them open.

“Gladio! Ignis!” he shouted. “Could use some help!”

They were there within moments and a brutal kick from Gladio knocked the sabertusk that was attacking Prompto away. Ignis pulled the prince to his feet and away from the battlefield leaving Gladio to cover Prompto while he reloaded. The pair of them worked together to take down the remaining beasts, Gladio swinging his greatsword to keep them away, shielding Prom when necessary, and Prompto shooting over his shoulder whenever he got a free shot.

When they were done, Gladio came over and rose his fist. Familiar now with the gesture, Prompto grinned and bumped his own against it, a shared job well done. Confirming that there were no more lingering about, they both jogged over to where it looked like Ignis and Noctis were having a rather heated discussion.

“I’m fine, Iggy!” Noctis was saying, the exasperation clear in his voice.

“That was not fine. If Prompto hadn’t been nearby-”

“But he was!”

“No, Noctis. You said if it happened again-”

“Wait, this has happened before?” Gladio cut in, looking between the two men.

“Yes,” Ignis said before Noct got a chance to answer. “Just before you two came back from your run. When the first earthquake occurred.”

“So what, like some kind of earthquake sense?” Prompto asked. He grinned. “You guys think I’m weird with Inurement but you’re the ones with a prince who has earthquake ESP.”

“That’s not how ESP-” Ignis started.

“Not the point, Iggy,” Noct cut in. 

“Regardless, we’re heading back to Lestallum. This needs to be checked out by a proper doctor and likely Prompto’s shoulder needs icing again at the very least after that stunt,” Ignis said.

“I’m fine, really,” Prompto said, though it was completely ignored by everyone.

“I’m sick of doctors,” Noct muttered at the same time, though he did slink off towards the car, hands in his pockets.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto looked out over the canyon as the four of them meandered along the lookout walkway. The owner of the hotel they were staying at, an elderly man named Jared who seemed to be friends with the Lucians, had organised for a doctor to come and check them all over. The adrenaline had worn off by the time they were half way back to the city and Prompto’s shoulder had been a throbbing mass of pain by the time they arrived. He was telling the truth when they left though; he hadn’t even felt it when he had knocked the prince aside and, while it had jarred when he landed, it still barely registered. He felt it now though. The doctor had given him a potion for the pain and an elixer to use that night so he could sleep, then strapped his arm up again. He was now under orders not to use it lest he run the risk of causing permanent damage. All the while Ignis had looked on with a gloating ‘I told you so’ expression.

The results for Noctis were less clear cut. The doctor could find nothing wrong with him to indicate why the headaches were occurring. He suggested perhaps a walk along the edge of town with the fresh air might help. Noct had helpfully resisted the urge to counter what the doctor said until he left, pointing out that they had been in fresh air the second time the headache occurred.  Ignis insisted they try it anyway so here they were.

Prompto had stayed out of it, content to follow his new commander in whatever was decided. He still wasn’t used to the way the three of them interacted, how they were so warm and casual and caring to each other even when they disagreed seemingly constantly. But he liked it. It didn’t even matter that it hurt to like it because he felt more like a part of a team with these three than he ever had in his sniper unit. He could almost forget about where he came from and just pretend he had always been with these guys.

That was until he caught sight of a familiar head using one of the look out’s binoculars. Almost immediately his old world came crashing down around him. Prompto's heart began to race when the man turned towards their approach and greeted them with a wave.

“What a coincidence!” the chancellor said, smiling as he approached.

“I’m not so sure it is,” Gladio muttered under his breath.

Prompto’s back straightened instinctively, though he managed to avoid going to full attention. Mentally he repeated to himself that he did not serve Niflheim any more, he had no reason to be formal to this man.

The pain in his head was building.

The Chancellor’s wolf-like eyes fell on Prompto and he didn't dare breathe. He felt as though he were being stripped raw from the inside out. The chancellor’s attention drifted down to Prompto’s right wrist and the barcode there, then rose to his face once more. A slow smile spread, a knowing smile, one that did not meet his eyes. And then it was gone, the man returning his attention to the prince and leaving Prompto to feel as though a smothering curtain was lifted from him.

“Aren’t nursery rhymes curious things?” he said as he sauntered towards the group. “Like this one: ‘From the deep, the Archaean calls.” He gestured grandly out towards the meteor. “Yet on deaf ears, the gods’ tongue falls. The king made to kneel, in pain, he crawls.”

Stepping protectively in front of Noctis, Ignis asked, “So how do we keep him on his feet?”

“You need only heed the call,” Ardyn said as though it were obvious. “Visit the Archaean and hear his plea.” He spun around to face them once more. “I can take you.”

Ignis turned back to the group, as Gladio asked, “We in?”

“I don’t know,” Noctis said.

“Do not trust him!” Prompto hissed. They all turned to stare at him. He felt heat rush to his face but pressed on regardless. “I’m sorry, but he’s bad news,” he said, persisting.

“We don’t have any other leads,” Ignis pointed out. Prompto looked away, balling his fist, trying to come up with something, anything, that could counter that but finding nothing. Ignis was right. “I say we go along with it…”

“... but watch our backs,” Gladio finished for him.

“Just… just be careful,” Prompto said.

“Do you know him?” Noctis asked.

Prompto shook his head and said, “Not directly, I don’t think. My memories are… confused. But I know his reputation. He reviewed the results of all Inurement sessions.”

Noctis nodded, though his face darkened with that news.

“We’ll be careful,” Ignis assured him.

“Let’s do it,” Noct said and he turned with a nod to the Chancellor.

The grin he gave was enough to chill Prompto to the core. Nonetheless, they followed him as he began to walk towards the carpark, introducing himself as ‘Ardyn’ and going on about his car. Prompto wasn’t really listening, he was too busy trying to calm the irrational panic that seeing him caused.

“I suggest your blonde friend rides with me.”

Until that.

Prompto looked up wide eyed at the suggestion and stared at the Chancellor. He was wearing the same sardonic smile, though it was hidden from view when the prince stepped between the two of them, catching and holding Prompto’s gaze. His voice was quiet, private, when he asked, “Prom? What do you want to do?”

The pain hit him so suddenly that he was unable to brace against it. Prompto stumbled with a gasp, but Noct’s grip on his arm kept him upright. He couldn't muster the courage to voice his feelings, but he shook his head sharply; there was no way on Eos he wanted to go with him!

Noctis exchanged a look with Ignis, allowing the older man to take hold of Prompto’s arm instead until he’s able to get his pain under control once more.

“I don’t think so,” Noct said, turning back to Ardyn. “The Regalia’s held the four of us this far, she’ll manage to hold the four of us again.”

“Very well,” Ardyn said. “You shall drive your car and I shall drive mine.”

“Fine,” Noct replied, before Ignis had a chance to protest.

As they all climbed into the car, Noct summoned Prompto’s gun and handed it over. “Keep it close,” he said quietly. Prompto just nodded and loaded it with a practised ease.

Holding the newly-loaded gun, Prompto stared at the barcode on his wrist. Gritting his teeth he turned his hand and rubbed it against his pant leg as though that would rid himself of it. It had never bothered him before; back home everyone had one and here no one seemed bothered by it. But that knowing look the Chancellor had given him when he saw it made him shiver. “When we get back, could we get a wristband or something?” he asked. Noct’s eyes briefly flicked to Prompto before returning to the road, following the car in front of them. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have it so visible,” he explained.

“Sure thing,” Noct agreed. Prompto nodded his thanks, then slid down a little in his seat, stilling his mind to give himself a break from the pain while he could. He had a feeling this wasn’t going to go down well.

Chapter Text

Prompto thought he had been inured to hot environments. He’d been locked in saunas that blasted hot steam into the room every few minutes. He’d been burned both deliberately and accidentally. He’d even gotten a little too close to one of Noct’s fire spells once. But nothing had prepared him for the heat of molten rock erupting from the earth itself.

The ice from the spell they had thrown at the Titan (that was so awesome , to be handed a vial and be able to actually throw magic!) had been relieving for a few seconds, but already it had melted and evaporated, leaving them just as hot as before. But at least it had worked judging by the golden glow that had surrounded both Noctis and the downed god. A god! Prompto would never have dreamed of being able to defeat such a being back home in the Empire.

Though he may never get to dream again if they don’t get out of here, and soon.

“Doesn’t get much worse than this,” Gladio said as he yanked a still dazed Noct away from a sudden eruption of lava.

But, of course, it can and it does, as the arrival of a drop ship heralds. “Not more MTs,” Prompto said, already breathing heavily. He was running dangerously low on ammunition and had mutinously slipped his left arm out of its sling. A potion had numbed the pain for now and he was trying not to use it but that was hard when the robots and his former countrymen kept trying to kill him and his new friends.

The four of them watched cautiously as the door to the dropship opened but instead of the expected enemies jumping out, a solitary figure strode forward to greet them. Prompto recognised him before he even spoke.

“Fancy meeting you here!” Ardyn called out over the roar of the volcano. “It occurs to me that I never formally introduced myself. Izunia. Ardyn Izunia.” He lifted his hat and made a sweeping bow.

Heart racing, Prompto kept his eyes steadily on the prince, doing his best to keep his mind blank, to think or feel nothing during this encounter. And besides, Noct looked exhausted, was pale and swaying on his feet, someone had to make sure he was okay.

“We know who you are,” Ignis said, wariness in his voice.

Prompto didn’t have to be looking at him to feel Ardyn’s eyes snap immediately to him; he could feel that cold amber gaze under his very skin.

“I see your… friend, has been speaking about me behind my back. How rude!” Ardyn said, his voice pouting. Prompto risked a glance over, then quickly averted his eyes once more; despite all that had happened since that ill-fated attack on the prince, Prompto could still not manage to meet a superior’s eyes, especially not one that was practically snarling at him for ruining his grand introduction. “Regardless,” the Chancellor continued, “I am at your service and, more importantly, to your aid!”

Head pounding, Prompto was shaking his head; no aid was worth whatever price the Chancellor wanted. He felt a hand clap down on his shoulder and looked up at Gladio. The man wasn’t looking at him though; he was staring intently at the Chancellor, as though trying to figure him out. Nonetheless, Prompto appreciated the silent support.

“I guarantee your safe passage,” the Chancellor was continuing. “Though you’re always welcome to take your chances down there.”

“We can’t ,” Prompto whispered. The pain that admission caused to shoot through his head was enough to make his legs turn to water, but Gladio’s hand on his shoulder kept him grounded.

“Buried among the rubble, is it?” the Chancellor taunted them, trying to drive them to make a hasty decision. Or maybe just knowing that they legitimately did not have much time before the ground beneath them collapsed and they were all burned alive.

“Dying here is not an option,” Ignis said. “We have no choice, Noct.” A pause. “I’m sorry, Prompto.”

“I know,” Noct said. He turned his attention to Prompto. “It’ll be alright, Prom. We won’t let him harm you.”

“Yeah, I know,” Prompto said, his quiet voice barely heard over the volcano. And he did know; despite their vastly different upbringings, or perhaps because of it, Prompto trusted his new commander. He trusted that Noct would help him.

Decision made, the four men hurried into the drop ship, its doors closing behind them.

A drop ship was never silent, not even the Chancellor’s, but even with the hum of the engine the loss of ambient noise from the volcano was sudden when the doors sealed. Prompto looked up when he heard Ignis tsk at him.

“Really, Prompto, if you don’t start looking after this shoulder I can’t be held responsible for any permanent damage caused,” Ignis said, stepping in front of him so he was between Prompto and the Chancellor, and helping to fasten Prompto’s sling again.

Prompto shot him a shaky grin, grateful for the distraction even if the tone was scolding. “You could never be held responsible for that anyway, Iggy,” he said. Ignis had been there when he had removed it anyway, it wasn’t like it was news.

“I must admit, I am surprised the young King of Lucis is travelling with an MT,” the Chancellor drawled.

Prompto’s back stiffened. “I’m not an MT,” he said. He tried to put force behind his voice, to sound certain, but it came out as more of a squeak.

“Oh sorry, a ‘magitek soldier’. As if there is a difference, really,” the Chancellor said. “Look at you, you can’t even look at me.”

Prompto tried, really he did, but it hurt so bad he could only do so for the barest of seconds before he was forced to look away. Nonetheless, it had been enough to see the mockery in the Chancellor’s face.

“Enough,” Gladio growled.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the Chancellor said, sounding anything but. “I didn’t realise you were so sensitive about a machine.”

“I said enough!” Gladio snapped. He stood between Ignis and the Chancellor, his broad shoulders completely blocking Prompto from view.

“My, my, let’s not get violent now. Especially not over a thing like-”

“Noct, perhaps you could help me,” Ignis said, effectively cutting off what the Chancellor was saying. With a hand on each of Prompto’s upper arms, Ignis guided the gunman back until he was sitting on one of the seats that ran along the sides of the drop ship.

“Sure, what do you need?” Noct asked, coming up to stand beside Ignis. The three of them were now between Prompto and the Chancellor, Noct and Ignis facing him and Gladio facing outwards watching Ardyn. Prompto didn’t really notice. His mind was blank, a still lake; he heard everything the Chancellor said but instinctively retreated back to his training, back to not responding, not thinking, not feeling.

“Some ice please,” Ignis said. “Just the tiniest amount, we don’t want it to be too cold.”

“Right,” Noctis said. He sat next to Prompto and placed both his hands on Prompto’s shoulder. Frowning with concentration, he summoned a tiny bit of ice magic.

The sudden coldness was so unexpected that Prompto gasped a little, shocked out of his trance-like state, and turned to watch.

“I can teach you to do this, you know,” Noct said, still focusing on what he was doing, completely ignoring the Chancellor.

“What, for real?” Prompto asked, enticed by the idea despite himself. The magic he had thrown earlier against the Titan had been handed to him by Ignis; magic was not something a magitek soldier could ever hope to wield.

“Well, sort of,” Noct said. “Not like this, I can't even control it well enough to use it in battle like this, but to access the armiger where I store magic flasks? Sure.”

“Awesome,” Prompto said with a grin.

“That's enough,” Ignis said quietly and Noct lowered his hands. Used to the cold, Prompto’s shoulder felt unnaturally warm now, but it was throbbing less and, with another potion that Ignis handed him downed, the pain was barely noticeable.

“So… how does it work?” Prompto asked.

“Are you really sure you want to do that with it? Do you truly trust an MT with that kind of power?” the Chancellor asked.

“First, I have to give you access to it,” Noct said, completely ignoring Ardyn. Prompto followed his lead as best he could; prince Noctis was his new commander, but he couldn't stop the words “it” and “MT” from circling around his mind.

Noctis took Prompto’s gun and set it aside before holding his hand in both of his own. For a moment nothing happened. Then a warmth spread, a golden glow encasing both their hands, though Prompto could swear he felt a hot cord or something winding around both their wrists, binding them together. He blinked and it was gone, the heat, the binding, all of it to the point where he wondered if he had just imagined it all.

Noct removed his hands with a weary smile and, after sending Prompto’s gun to the ether, said, “Now you summon it. You've just got to will it into existence.”

Prompto squeezed his eyes shut and screwed his face up as he tried to will the gun into his hand. And then, feeling its familiar weight, he opened his eyes and his face broke into a bright grin. “I did it!” he said.

Noct laughed at his new friend's reaction and rested his head back against the wall. Even Ignis was smiling at him. Prompto sent the gun away before summoning it again, without the facial expression this time. He sent it away and summoned it again. And again. And again.

Feeling a weight against his shoulder, Prompto looked to his side to see Noct had fallen asleep and slid sideways to rest against Prompto’s shoulder. He really could sleep anywhere. Prompto let him be; he had looked exhausted after the battle with the Titan. He doubted any harm would come to him just now.

Ignis and Gladio had moved off to the side and were talking quietly with one another. Neither had noticed that Ardyn had moved closer to Prompto and Noctis. At least not until he spoke. “How sweet. A picture of innocence. One might even believe you to be human, with thoughts and feelings that are your own.”

“Can it,” Gladio snapped, immediately inserting himself between his prince and the Chancellor.

Prompto meanwhile had summoned his gun again and started to raise it. His head erupted with pain. He managed to raise it a little further but that caused dark spots to swim before his eyes.

“It's alright, Prompto,” Ignis said, his hand on Prompto’s upper arm serving as an anchor.

Prompto sent the gun away as Ardyn laughed at him.  Trying to distract himself, he looked across at Noct who had slept through the whole thing. “Is he alright?” Prompto asked, voice still tight with pain. Surely it was unusual for even him to sleep through that.

“He will be,” Ignis said. “Each time we access the armiger to summon weapons or magic, or whenever Noct warp strikes it takes a little bit more energy. Energy he then needs to recover by sleeping. After a fight like that with the Titan, I'm honestly surprised he stayed awake as long as he did. That's why we try to limit our magic use and only use two weapons each.”

“And cause Sleeping Beauty there likes to look good,” Gladio added.

“That too,” Ignis conceded with a small smile.

Prompto felt guilt well up. “And I was just continuously summoning my gun to see if I could,” he said quietly, voice stricken.

Gladio laughed. “Don't worry, he's tougher than he looks,” he said.

“The energy required to allow you to do that would have been negligible. He may have felt it, but of itself that’s not enough to cause this. I wouldn't worry about it,” Ignis assured him.

Prompto nodded but nonetheless resisted the urge to summon his gun again. Instead, he rested his head back against the wall, mirroring Noct’s pose. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't allow himself to relax and let his guard down, but he could rest just a little. At least the Chancellor seemed to have lost interest in taunting them for the moment, allowing Ignis and Gladio to rest as well.

They didn't have too long to themselves before Prompto felt the familiar shift in air pressure that indicated they were descending; drop ships were a lot faster at crossing great distances than a car was. He nudged Noct awake then stood as the doors began to open.

“I'm afraid I must bid you farewell for now, little Lucians, though I do hope to see you again soon,” the Chancellor said.

Prompto hoped nothing of the sort - the Chancellor made him extremely uneasy as well as bringing up thoughts and feelings that caused pain despite his best efforts. He led the way down the ramp and jumped the small distance to the ground, glad to be out of the drop ship.

“Thanks for the lift,” was all Noct said about that as he followed Prompto down, Gladio and Ignis beside him.

“Just a friendly warning,” Ardyn called out from the mouth of the dropship. “Make sure to keep a close eye on your personal MT unit. You never know when they might malfunction. Right C1094?”

Prompto felt his old world come flooding in hearing his unit number spoken by that voice. He again felt the urge to stand at attention, awaiting and obeying any and all orders. The biting cold of Gralea - units do not need heating - the ache of previous training lessons, the burning of some unknown substance pumping through his veins from the latest Inurement.

He didn’t see the satisfied smile on Ardyn’s face as the drop ship doors closed, didn’t hear the questions his new friends asked. He didn’t hear prince Noctis telling him to follow, but his body did, and his body obeyed.

 

*

 

“Right C1094?”

“What are you talking about?” Noct asked, but Ardyn merely lifted his hat slightly in a salute, smirked, and retreated back inside the drop ship as the doors closed and the thing rose upwards.

“Noct.” Ignis tilted his head towards Prompto who was standing stock still, back straight, pale enough that his freckles stood out starkly.

“Prom? You okay?” Noct asked hesitantly.

Prompto didn't respond, he acted as though he didn't hear him at all.

“Shit, now what?” Gladio asked. “You don't think-”

“No, I don't,” Noct said, cutting him off. He sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets, looking around. They had been dropped near the chocobo ranch. Convenient since they had been forced to leave the Regalia behind.

“I should speak to the proprietor,” Ignis said eventually. “Sort out our accommodations, some birds to hire in the morning. I think we can afford to relax for a day.”

“Right,” Noct said. Looking over the chocobos in their pens, he got an idea and started walking towards them.

“Ah, Noct?” Gladio said.

Looking back Noct saw that Prompto hadn't moved, though his eyes were following him. Running a hand through his hair, clearly uncomfortable, Noct rose his voice and said, “Prom, follow me.”

He didn't know if he was relieved or dismayed when Prompto did as he was told. He supposed it didn't matter; if he would obey Noctis then at least it wasn't Ardyn he was obeying. Walking over to where the chicks were, Noct picked one up, ignoring the indignant squawks it gave. “Sit down,” he said. Once Prompto had sat cross-legged on the grass, Noct dropped the chick in his lap and sat opposite.

Prompto blinked and looked down at her. The chick cheeped up at him and hesitantly he rose a hand to stroke her feathers. She nuzzled his hand.

The effect was almost instantaneous. “She's so cute !” he practically shouted as he gathered her up in his free arm and held her close, nuzzling her like a mother chocobo might do and, surprisingly, the chick didn't seem to mind.

Noct laughed and sat back, relieved beyond measure that his friend was back to normal. He didn't know why Prompto had reacted like that to Ardyn’s words when nothing he said on the drop ship had caused that reaction, but at least chocobos seemed to break through it.

Hearing the crunch of footsteps approaching, Noct looked up to see Ignis walking towards them, eyebrows raised. Standing, clapping Prompto on the shoulder as he passed, Noct walked over to his advisor, wearing a smug grin.

“Well this is a surprise,” Ignis said, still watching Prompto as he played with the chick. “How did you know he would even respond to that?”

Noct gave a one shouldered shrug. “Had a hunch,” he said. Ignis rose an eyebrow. “Saw him eying off that dorky chocobo tshirt you and Gladio got me last time we were here. Figured he hadn't seen one before and might like to.”

“Noct! Can we keep her? Please?” Prompto called from where he sat.

“Didn't think it would be this effective though,” he admitted with a laugh.

“Indeed,” Ignis said and, though his tone was displeased with the childish antics he was smiling fondly.

Chapter Text

Prompto had spent the entire afternoon with the chocobos and, after seeing how the birds seemed to like him, Wiz had started showing him how to care for them, letting him help out feeding and grooming them, clearing out the stalls and exercising the ones that hadn’t been hired for a while.

The sun was setting and the pair of them were working in an easy silence grooming two birds who had just been returned. “You’ve got a real knack for this, kid. You sure you’ve never been around the birds before?” Wiz asked.

Prompto grinned over the bird’s back and shook his head. “No, never. Today was the first day I’d even seen one other than just a photo. It’s too cold in Gralea for chocobos.”

That seemed to give Wiz pause - Prompto hadn’t mentioned where he was from before now - but when he continued speaking there was no hint of malice in his voice. “Well, Nif or not, you ever get tired of following the prince around, you let me know. I could use another set of capable hands around here.”

Prompto practically beamed over the offer - it was the first time someone had actually said he was good at something he hadn’t trained his whole life for. Nonetheless, “I’ll keep that in mind. For now though, I'm happy to stay with Noct,” he said, looking over to where the prince was sitting in front of the caravan, playing on his phone again. Noct was the one who had managed to break through past the training that had taken hold, and then asked nothing more of him than to enjoy himself spending time with the chocobos. No demands, no questions, just patience and a willingness to let him readjust himself. He couldn't even think of leaving Noct now, even for something as awesome as chocobos.

“Understood,” Wiz said. “Just remember I’ll always welcome you to work here should the need arise.”

Prompto nodded and the two of them finished up in silence.

It was perhaps an hour later that Prompto hesitantly approached the prince. “Where’s Ignis?” he asked by way of conversation starter. He could hear Gladio snoring in the caravan so that one was obvious.

“Well, he was supposed to be just grabbing a few ingredients from the shop but that was an hour ago,” Noct said, not looking up from his phone.

Prompto looked towards the shop with a frown. “Should we go see if he’s alright?”

“No way,” Noct said. “Not unless you wanna be stuck there for another three hours at least while he extolls the various virtues of the cabbage.” Prompto tried not to laugh at that, easily being able to picture it, but didn’t entirely succeed. “Hey,” Noct said, looking up from his phone. “Go grab Gladio’s phone and bring it out here. I’ll teach you to play King’s Knight.”

“Won’t he be angry?” Prompto asked, glancing towards the caravan as the man inside gave a rather loud snort.

“It’ll be fine,” Noct reassured him.

Prompto wasn’t so sure, but he wasn’t about to start questioning Noct now. Thankfully Gladio had left his phone on the table so Prompto was able to grab it without waking him and bring it outside. He handed it to Noct and pulled a chair close so he could see what was being done.

They spent a good hour playing each other on the game. Ignis came back at some point carrying two large bags of supplies but other than humming in disapproval, a sound Noct just rolled his eyes at but otherwise ignored, he didn't comment on seeing a Nif with a phone.

“I suppose you want some kind of answer for what happened before, huh,” Prompto said eventually.

“Only if you want to,” Noct said slowly, watching him from the corner of his eye.

“I don't know what I want,” Prompto said honestly.

Perhaps guessing that Prom would need some kind of guidance on this, Noct suggested, “Why not start with what it was Ardyn said after we landed that was different to all the crap he said before?”

Prompto nodded. That made sense. “My name,” he said.

“Your name? Prompto?” Noct frowned, unable to recall Ardyn ever using any of their names.

Prompto though shook his head. “Not that one,” he said. “C1094 is who I am. What I am. My unit number.”

 

Prompto was strapped to a medical table. They told him this was part of the process to migrate to another unit. He had proven inadequate for melee so now they were trying something else. Only those who were completely malfunctioning, were defective, were destroyed.

A scientist wearing a full mask, apron, and gloves approached holding a syringe full of a dark liquid. Prompto watched it intently but he didn't dare ask any questions. The scientist tightened the wrist strap painfully tight, causing Prompto’s elbow to flex. Under the harsh lights a vein was easy to find and the needle inserted. Whatever that liquid was it was thick; Prompto felt it spread, felt it as his racing heart pumped it ever faster throughout his body. It burned. It burned, it burned, it burned it burned!

He screamed.

 

“I thought you said Prompto was your name,” Noctis said.

“It was, until I was about twelve,” Prompto said. “They reassigned me then. I had failed too many times in melee training. I wasn't responding well to Inurement. This was my last chance to avoid being decommissioned.”

“Decommissioned? They fire you?” Noct asked.

Prompto shook his head. “I don't think so. No one really knows. Those who are decommissioned just… disappear. Reassignment was my last chance to avoid that. As part of it they… kill who you were, you no longer exist as a name, and you're given a unit number. Prompto died then. C1094 was born.”

 

He was walked along a narrow hallway, flanked by two B-Grade units with guns, to stop him from trying to escape. He didn't want to escape, though part of him wondered if he could. His fingers twitched and his eyes darted this way and that and why were they walking so slowly! He wanted to run!

Turning a corner he had to wait for one of them to open a door before he was ushered inside. There was a man there in a lab coat. He had long white hair and looked familiar but he didn't care why. There was a girl on the other side of the room. She was pretty. She was chained to the wall but it didn't look like she had been there for long, she didn't have the raw wrists that he had.

“C1094.”

He didn't understand at first but then he remembered. C1094. That was him. He looked to the scientist.

“This woman has been found guilty of a crime by our courts,” he said. He picked up a rifle that had been resting against the wall and handed it to him. He had never held a gun before, but had seen other units use them. He copied the way his guards held it and awaited further instructions.

“You are to carry out her sentence. C1094, shoot the woman.”

“No, please no,” the woman said, pressing herself back against the wall. She was crying. Crying was weakness. He rose the weapon, pointing it at her.

And hesitated.

She didn’t look like a criminal. She looked like just an ordinary girl, older than he was but not that old. Twenty would be pushing it.

“C1094. Shoot!”

Intense pain shot through his head and he gasped as he pulled the trigger. The woman’s chest exploded in blood and gore. It splattered against the wall, sprayed him, blood in the mouth. It was hot and metallic. He licked his lips. He grinned even as his arms trembled, euphoric.

 

“I killed a woman,” Prompto said, staring at the table, the phone he was holding having automatically locked ages ago. “That was the first task C1094 was assigned. I hesitated, but I still killed her.”

“You did what you had to do to survive,” Noct said, his voice full of a sympathy that Prompto didn’t deserve, sympathy that wouldn’t be there if he knew the whole truth. 

“I did have to do it. It was an order, and I had to obey,” he allowed. “But I liked it. I liked killing them and I liked the blood. And I wanted more.”

 

C1094 killed two more criminals, an old man and a middle aged man. He didn’t know what their crimes were. He didn’t ask. He didn’t care. All he wanted was that rush, the explosion of blood, the gore, the light fading from their eyes and the euphoria it brought him. Shooting targets was boring when he could shoot real people.

When they came for him again, he willingly offered up his arm for the drug they gave him before every execution. The scientist, the one who had given him the order to kill every time, had laughed at him.

“Eager, aren’t we?” he said.

C1094 didn’t answer; it was a question, but not one that required answering.

“So this is your little pet project?”

C1094 turned his head to watch the new person enter.

“About time, Chancellor. I had hoped you would get here before the unit so I could run you through our findings so far,” the scientist said.

“All in good time, Verstael. What was it you were wanting to show me?”

“A lower dose, first,” the scientist said. C1094 watched as he brought the syringe with the black liquid closer and injected it in.

Anything further they said was lost as the sensations the drug caused washed over him. It burned, it hurt, but less than normal and not for as long. The restraints were removed and he was ordered to follow. His body obeyed before his mind caught up.

It was a different room he was taken to this time and there was another unit in there, waiting for them. His eyes widened when he saw the two men (no need for guards now) accompanying C1094. That only made it obvious that he hadn’t had many Inurement sessions, hadn’t learned to hide his facial expressions.

The scientist was speaking, but not to him, so C1094 stood calmly, trying not to fidget, as electrodes were attached to his head, chest and back to measure his heart and brain activity.

“C1094. This unit is malfunctioning,” the scientist said, handing him a gun. “Shoot him.”

C1094 rose the gun and shot, then closed his eyes with a smile as the euphoria washed over him.

“Fascinating,” the Chancellor said.

 

“They always gave me some kind of drug before,” Prompto said. “I hope that’s why I liked it so much. The Chancellor took an interest in it and in me. I didn’t recognise him before, I usually only saw him after the drug was injected and that made things… muddled. But he had seemed really interested in how much I liked killing.”

“The drug made you like it, I’m sure of it,” Noct said, a conviction in his voice that Prompto didn’t understand.

“How? How can you be sure? I’m not even sure,” he said.

“Cause you didn’t want to kill me. And I saw the way you fought the Nifs back at the meteor. Clean shots straight to the head, every time. Even the MTs. Someone who enjoys blood and killing, who really enjoys it, doesn’t do that,” Noct said.

Prompto still wasn’t convinced, but he couldn’t deny anything that Noct said. And the fact was the euphoria had faded when they started taking him off the drug - apparently it made him too jumpy and trigger happy - but still that kernel of doubt remained.

“I’m glad you gave your name as Prompto though. C1094 is such a mouthful,” Noct said, leaning back in his chair.

Prompto smiled. “That’s what Arvid said.”

“Arvid? Oh! Gladio said you had a friend who died up on that ridge.”

Prompto nodded. “He got reassigned too, some time after me. We worked well together so they put us in the same unit. I… didn't recognise him at first. But he kept talking to me and helped sooth the withdrawals. He insisted on calling me Prompto when we were alone and made me promise to call him Arvid instead of his unit number. I hated it.”

Noct’s eyebrows rose at that. “You hated it? Why?”

“It’s a lot easier to deal with things when you don’t have to think about them. And having a name meant you were more than just an expendable unit. That’s probably why they did it. So we could do what needed to be done,” Prompto said.

“No,” Noct snapped. Prompto looked up in surprise at the forcefulness of the prince’s voice. “It doesn’t matter what these so-called reasons are. There is never an excuse to do that kind of crap to you, to children.”

Prompto smiled sadly. “I can’t imagine it being any different.” He paused, then added, “Of course, I can’t really imagine anything at the moment without getting a headache so that’s not exactly a high bar.”

Noct gave a snort at that, but said, “Well, when we get Lucis back, you’ll get to see for yourself how it can be different.”

“I’d like that,” Prompto said softly, smiling through the pain.

“Dinner is ready,” Ignis called from the caravan.

“Come on, let’s eat!” Noctis said. Prompto stood to follow. Gladio was awake too now if the way the caravan rocked as he walked about was anything to go by.

“Where the hell is my phone?!”

And that.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto woke suddenly with a gasp, then gritted his teeth as he ran a hand through sweaty hair. His heart and he breathed deeply, trying to slow it. Damn the chancellor and his sardonic smile! And damn his ability to bring everything back when Prompto was finally managing to feel like he belonged with these guys.

Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood in a fluid motion and moved away from the bed absently rubbing his shoulder. The joint ached. He knew he had no one to blame but himself - he was the one who had gotten trampled to begin with and then kept removing it from its sling - but he was nonetheless frustrated with how long it was taking to heal.

“Everything alright, Prompto?”

Prompto jumped at the sudden voice, quiet though it was. “Of course, Ignis,” he replied, his voice equally soft. “Just… couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither can I,” Ignis said. A shadowy shape revealed itself to be the advisor. “I was just thinking of making myself a hot chocolate, if you’d care to join me?”

Prompto smiled; he doubted that was the case at all but he wasn’t about to complain. “Sure.” He took a seat at the table and glanced back at the beds. As expected though, both the other men were still asleep; Noctis could sleep through a hurricane and Gladio wasn’t much better. Ignis seemed like a light sleeper though, unless Prompto had made some kind of sound in his sleep that he wasn’t aware of. Ignis was polite enough not to mention that though, moving about the small kitchen with a practiced ease.

“You really like cooking, don’t you?” Prompto asked.

“I find the true joy of cooking on the faces of those for whom I cook,” Ignis said.

Prompto smiled. “That wasn’t really an answer,” he said.

Ignis smiled as well as he handed a mug over. Prompto wrapped his hands around it, enjoying the warmth. “I have learned to enjoy it,” Ignis answered. “His highness wasn’t particularly adept in looking after himself as a teenager.”

Prompto laughed, then quickly smothered it, not wanting to wake anyone. “I could imagine that,” he said.

“What about you, do you like to cook?” Ignis asked as he sat opposite with his own mug.

Prompto took a sip before answering, and hummed at the delicious warmth that spread through his body. “Honestly, I’ve never tried. Cooking was never really considered important to a soldier when we were just given ration bars and vitamin pills. I cooked a little when doing survival training, but that was more cut the skin off whatever I caught as best I can, then put it on a fire till the outside was black. There was usually an inch or so of flesh that was edible that way.”

“‘Edible’ seems to be a matter of opinion,” Ignis said dryly. “If you like, you can get up early tomorrow morning and cook breakfast with me. You can’t be any worse than Noctis and you should at least know the basics. Then we can visit the store and get a wristband for you to wear.”

Prompto nodded. “Sure, sounds fun,” he said. Leaning back into the couch, he continued to sip his drink. To think that not all that long ago he had woken up in similar surrounds after nearly dying three times and now he was travelling with his country’s enemy prince. A prince he would even dare to call friend who could summon magic and crystal swords and gods. “Life’s funny, isn’t it,” he said.

“I’m not sure I would use the word ‘funny’ truth be told,” Ignis said.

“Heh, maybe. But it’s so much easier to laugh at stuff, ya know? If anyone had told me a year ago that I’d be here, with you guys doing this, I would have thought them mad. And… I know you lost a lot of people who were important to you but… I’m glad things turned out the way they did. I’m glad that-” He took a breath and a sip of the hot chocolate. When he felt ready, he continued, “I’m glad that my first actual mission was against a soft hearted prince who, for some reason, decided to spare my life and then, of all things, let me tag along.”

“For what it’s worth, Prompto, I’m glad you’re with us as well.” Ignis took a sip of his own drink, before adding, “And away from those sadistic fucks.”

Prompto nearly snorted his drink at that. Wiping his mouth on the back of his arm, he just smiled at Ignis and the two of them finished their drinks in silence, just enjoying each other’s company.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto strode up the aisle of the small shop the chocobo ranch had. He didn’t really expect to find what he was looking for - some tools to fix his armour should they ever get their car back - but it was nice just to look, to push the limits on his Inurement, to actually like what he was doing and looking at.

He and Ignis had cooked breakfast for the four of them with mixed success. As it turned out, Prompto did not have the same innate talent for cooking that he had for shooting. What he lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm, trying to convince them that burnt bacon was better, but no one really bought it. He doubted Ignis would be so keen to invite him to help out again any time soon.

Now though, he was proudly holding a wristband that he had chosen out himself and was eyeing off the various cameras on the shelves. They were all fairly basic, just simple things for the happy snaps of tourists.

“We can get one of them as well, if you like,” Ignis said from behind him, seeing where Prompto’s attention was.

“I wouldn’t know how to use one,” Prompto said, looking over his shoulder. “I’ve pulled a couple apart before. Pulling things apart and putting them back together is a good way to clear the mind and stop thinking. But that’s about it.”

“Well, no time like the present to learn. Who knows, you might find a new hobby. Something less destructive than burning bacon perhaps,” Ignis said.

Prompto hesitated briefly - he knew that they didn’t have a lot of money to spend on frivolities - but in the end nodded and took one of them to the counter with his wrist band. Ignis was the fiscally responsible one and if he said he could buy it then it should be fine.

New wristband now covering his barcode and a crash course in how to use the camera given to him by the shop owner, Prompto raised the camera and took his first photo: a blurry picture of a decidedly unimpressed royal advisor.

Chapter Text

Prompto was breathing heavily, ears ringing from the explosions and constant gun shots, hand holding his gun trembling slightly though he tried not to show it. That was… Ramuh. He had been told how the prince could summon the aid of the gods, of course, that was what the glow had been with the Titan, and he had seen first hand how he pulled crystalline swords from the tombs of his ancestors. But nothing compared to the complete destruction of the gods.

“Really glad I’m on your side right about now,” Prompto said as he sent his gun away.

Noct shot him a weary smile. “With your shot, so am I. The way you blew up that mech… magic!”

It was just in time too; the sun was beginning to rise and with no end in sight, Prompto wasn’t sure how they were supposed to deal with the influx of enemies that was sure to come. Still, Cindy had really come through for them this time with her tip on where the Nif’s had stored the Regalia and, with that whole lightning ritual thing done they had wasted no time in getting their wheels back. Good thing too; chocobos were fun to ride but they couldn’t cover nearly as much ground as the Regalia, which meant they had to plan their movements very carefully to ensure there was always a haven that could be reached by the time the sun started to set.

“At least it clears the way to simply drive the Regalia out of here,” Gladio said.

“Quite right,” Ignis replied.

Perhaps it was training, perhaps it was habit, but something alerted Prompto to the fact that they were being followed. Not everyone had been killed by Ramuh it seemed.

“Ah, guys?” Prompto said, catching sight of the figure finally. Resplendent in white robes and shining silver metal, he nonetheless recognised the Commander of Niflheim even if only by reputation.

“Long has it been, Noctis,” the commander said.

“Ravus,” Noctis replied.

Seemed both of them knew each other by more than reputation, Prompto thought, as they both approached each other.

“You receive the Storm’s blessing. And yet.” He drew his sword and in an instant had its blade against Noct’s throat. That he didn’t immediately slice meant he didn’t mean to kill the prince but it was still a very obvious threat.  “You know nothing of the consequences.”

“Watch it,” Gladio snapped, immediately moving to put himself between the sword and his prince.

Ravus responded simply by moving the blade to the Shield’s throat, pressing to drive him back. Prompto and Ignis both responded at the same time, Ignis to leap forwards, and Prompto to start to raise his gun, ignoring the pain such an action caused.

“Be still, all of you,” Ravus commanded and, despite his best efforts to the contrary, Prompto had to obey. Ignis didn’t but clearly could see that it would be best to follow the order for now; with the blade still at Gladio’s throat any wrong move could spell the man’s death.

“Heir to a crown befitting no other… witness his splendor and glory,” Ravus said, the contemptuous sneer obvious in his voice. “All hail the Chosen King.”

“Awful high and mighty for an Imperial rat,” Noctis taunted, trying to draw the attention away from Gladio, to give him the break he needed. “Serving the enemy to hunt down Luna!”

His words had the desired effect; Ravus ignored Gladio and instead rushed forward, grabbing Noct by the throat with his metal hand. “I do not serve,” he snarled. “I command!” He shoved Noct away and Gladio took the opportunity to insert himself back between Ravus and Noctis. Prompto moved behind Ignis to rest his hand on Noct’s shoulder.

“You okay?” he hissed; he couldn’t easily fight Ravus, but he could at least see if his friend was alright.

Noct nodded, but his attention remained fixed on Ravus.

“The King’s sworn shield,” Ravus said, voice mocking.

“You better believe it,” Gladio said confidently. Watching, Prompto could easily see the power Gladio had; his stance was confident but not overly so, fists clenched and ready to fight if need be. Protective and fully aware of his position and his job in protecting Noctis. Prompto had seen Gladio on the battlefield, had only narrowly avoided being beheaded by the man himself, he knew that confidence was well deserved.

Ravus seemed to see none of this. “A weak shield protects naught,” he said before bringing his sword down in a strike.

Gladio, seeing this was no idle threat this time, summoned his own blade and blocked it. Instead of easily turning it to the side though, as he did whenever he and Noct were training, he seemed to be struggling to even hold it steady, to stop it from descending down to his head. Gladio’s huge muscles were straining, bulging, fighting against the inhuman strength Ravus possessed.

Inhuman. Prompto’s eyes widened with realisation. The arm was metal and made with the same fancy silver armour the A-Grade magitek soldiers had. And if he had undergone even a few of the enhancements A-Grades were privy too then this was not a fight they could win!

That thought became obvious to all when, although Gladio managed to finally turn Ravus’s blade aside, the Commander slammed his arm into the shield’s chest - his unenhanced arm! - and threw Gladio back. He went flying past Noct and Prompto and slammed into the Regalia.

“Gladio!” Noct shouted.

Prompto winced in sympathy and hurried over to help. He wasn’t sure what he could do but at least he could help the man stand, to not show any weakness to Ravus. Well, not any more than they already had. A sign of how badly the man was hurt, Gladio used Prompto’s shoulder to help him stay upright, his other arm wrapped around his chest, stance wide for balance.

Now though, Noct was pissed. Prompto didn’t think he had ever seen the prince truly furious. Frustrated, sure, maybe even some mild anger after hearing snippets of Prompto’s past, but even that was nothing when compared to what this was.

“Hey! Wanna go? Let’s do it,” he said, moving forwards and summoning his armiger, crystalline weapons dancing around him in a circle.

Ravus smiled and looked more than happy to do just that. “Should the Chosen fall, that too is fate,” he said.

Instead of the expected fight though, Ravus looked to the side, drawing Prompto’s attention in that direction as well.

“Oh shit,” he muttered, seeing who it was who had arrived.

“I’d say that’s far enough,” Ardyn said as he strutted towards them.

Prompto remained where he was by Gladio’s side, ready to help him however he could, but Ignis started to move sideways so that he was slightly behind Ardyn, to get the jump on him if need be. Apart from tormenting Prompto, the Chancellor hadn’t really done anything to harm them yet and had actually helped them, though why Prompto had no idea. But despite that, he definitely wasn’t to be trusted and, after overhearing Prompto’s talk with Noctis the other night, Ignis wasn’t going to let him get the advantage.

“A hand, Highness?” Ardyn asked.

“Not from you,” Noct snapped. The corner of Prompto’s mouth twitched; the quiet anger the prince had shown after learning that the Chancellor had overseen Prompto’s reassignment was evident in his voice, in the way his eyes narrowed dangerously. His armiger had been dispersed but a tingle along Prompto’s hand and arm told him that it was ready just below the surface and could be called upon again in an instant should Noct need it.

“Oh, but I’m here to help,” Ardyn said, seemingly oblivious both to how angry Noctis was and to how Ravus had turned away from him, clearly uncomfortable by his presence. That was interesting, Prompto thought. Perhaps things weren’t as cohesive in the Niflheim leadership as he was lead to believe.

“And how is that?” Ignis asked.

“By taking the army away,” Ardyn replied.

“You expect us to believe that?” Gladio asked, his voice pained despite his efforts to hide it. Prompto had to admit, he was of the same opinion. If the Commander was here it would be at the head of a small army of reinforcements, more than enough to take the four of them down especially since they had already been fighting all night. And the Chancellor wouldn’t allow them to just leave and take the Regalia unless there was something in it for him. Prompto just couldn’t figure out what that something might be.

“Believe what you will,” Ardyn said. His eyes then fell on Prompto and smirked. “I see you kept your malfunctioning MT around.”

Prompto’s heart raced but he was damned if he would let the Chancellor get away with a repeat of last time. He summoned his gun and rose it. Sweat instantly broke out on his forehead as the pain - already a constant low level ache while fighting - blossomed into agony. His gun shook but he held it as steady as he could and tried to convince himself to just pull the trigger.

“C1094, lower your gun,” Ardyn ordered sharply.

Prompto closed his eyes as his arms began to lower of their own accord. He heard Ardyn chortle and gritted his teeth, hating himself, hating his body, hating the Empire and everything they did to him.

“Hmm, I wonder,” the Chancellor said in a considering tone. “C1094, shoot the prince.”

“What?” Noct demanded.

Prompto began to raise the gun.

No!

Pain exploded through his head. He gasped, the gun trembling in his hand.

No!

He can’t do this! Those others had meant nothing to him, this wouldn’t bring him the euphoria he still sometimes craved. He couldn’t kill his friend!

No, no, no!

Prompto dropped his gun and it disappears in its usual crystal burst that he didn’t notice as he gripped his hair, a cry of agony ripping from his throat. The pain was building, getting worse and worse until it felt as though his head exploding would be a relief.

“Oh look, I think I broke it,” Ardyn said, still laughing.

There was a hand on his shoulder, but Prompto couldn’t feel it. He had fallen to his knees, unable to stop screaming as the pain just would. Not. Stop!

“Prom. Prompto, listen to me.” Noct’s voice, and he was close. “Are you listening?”

Prompto, teeth gritted, managed a nod. Yes, he was listening. It was hard to focus, but he was listening.

“You obey me and only me,” Noctis said, his voice firm. “Ignore everything Ardyn says. Ignore any order given to you by anyone from Niflheim. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir,” Prompto answered automatically, responding to the tone even before the words themselves sunk in. When they did, however, the pain began to ease. He crawled away slightly and vomited off to the side before sitting back, his back resting against the wheel of the Regalia.

Ardyn was clapping, that slow annoying clap. “Oh very clever, your highness,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun soon. When next we meet it’ll be across the seas. Just so happens we have business of our own with the tutelary deity. Don’t we?”

Ravus, who had impartially watched the entire scene play out, turned slightly towards him at that, but didn’t answer.

“Fare you well, your highness,” Ardyn said, making a sweeping bow before leaving with Ravus in tow.

Prompto tilted his head back against the car, eyes closed. That… had hurt. A lot.

“Prom? You okay?”

Noct’s voice was so hesitant that Prompto opened his eyes and did his best to smile, though it turned out more of a grimace. Noct was kneeling right in front of him, his face creased with concern. Glancing to the side he saw Ignis was tending to Gladio so he drew his attention back to the prince. “I’m fine,” he said.

“I’m so sorry, Prom,” Noct said, and Prompto frowned at the genuine sorrow in his voice.

“What for? I should be the one who should be apologising, I… I nearly…” He couldn’t even say it. His hand began to tremble again just thinking about how close he had come to shooting his closest friend.

“But you didn’t,” Noct said. He took Prompto’s shaking hand in both of his own, stilling it. “You fought it. I just… you were screaming and I couldn’t think of anything else that might stop your pain. I never wanted to order anyone like that.”

Prompto rose an eyebrow. “But… you’re the prince. King really. It’s your job to give orders.”

“I want people to obey because they want to, because they trust me. Not because some sadistic programming forces them to,” Noct said.

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’d follow your orders anyway, even without Inurement. But now,” he gave Noct’s hand a squeeze then let go to wipe the back of it over his sweaty forehead. “Now I think Ardyn won’t be able to repeat that stunt. Your orders are the most recent. You win.”

Noct smirked and stood. “I’d rather ‘win’ without sinking to their level and using your programming, but I guess a win is a win,” he said, holding his hand out to help Prom up. He looked over to Ignis and Gladio. “Hanging in there, big guy?” he asked.

“I’ll live,” Gladio said, and though he tried to put on a brave front, his voice was pained.

“Nonetheless, I suggest we make for Hammerhead. We could all do with some R&R and I’m sure Cindy would like to check over the car.”

“Right,” Noct said. The four of them, a little battered and worse for wear, climbed into the car and drove out of the base, facing no further attacks or interruptions.

Chapter Text

Spending a whole life training for combat, learning to respond to threats before the brain has even processed that a threat exists, is not something that is easily broken or set aside. This was never more obvious as when, stepping through the door to their room at the Leville, Prompto nearly shot Iris.

Prompto and Noct had spent their time in Hammerhead experimenting. Both of them wanted to know exactly what kind of effect Noct’s orders had on the magitek soldier. They obviously couldn’t just summon Ardyn and ask him to participate so there was no way to tell if that worked as Prompto suspected it might, but they could experiment with Prompto acting on his own, having his own opinions. They found that if Noct asked what he thought or felt about something, there was either no pain or only very minor pain in thinking about it and answering truthfully. That alone was a relief to Prompto; it had been years since he had been able to have his own opinion about something without associating it with pain. He suspected that what pain he did feel when giving his opinion was psychosomatic. However, he still felt the same higher levels of pain for his own opinions if he shared them without first being asked, or if Ignis or Gladio asked him.

Noct wanted him to practice resisting his orders as well, not wanting Prompto to mindlessly obey everything he said, but Prompto was less eager to do this. He trusted Noct on a deeper level than he had ever trusted anyone in the Empire. He had always obeyed his superiors because it was expected and the consequences for disobeying were dire. But it was different with Noct. And truthfully, he was a little afraid of being without anyone to order him; he didn’t want to go back to that lost and adrift feeling he had experienced after his unit was destroyed.

It was likely only that reluctance to break free from immediately obeying Noct’s orders that saved Iris’s life and, by extension, Prompto’s; there was no way Gladio would allow him to live if he ever harmed his little sister.

Prompto led the way into the room, laughing at something Noct had said when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, movement that his training instinctively interpreted as a threat. He didn’t even have time to think, didn’t really hear the wordless cry of the attacker, his body immediately moving to deflect the clumsily thrusting knife. He spun around, still gripping the hand, summoned his gun and had it pointed at their head.

“Prom! Stop!”

Prompto blinked. The order was enough to stop him from pulling the trigger, but it wasn’t until he recognised that the girl attached to the arm he was holding wasn’t truly a threat that he sent his gun away and stepped back, arms out passively.

“What the hell, Iris?” Gladio demanded and, though his question was directed at his sister, he was watching Prompto warily.

Not wanting anyone to think he might willingly attack someone, Prompto walked to the far side of the room and sat in a chair. “I’m sorry, Iris,” he said. He hadn’t met Iris before, she was out of town helping one of the women from the powerplant when they were last in Lestallum, but he could see the Amicitia family resemblance now that he looked for it. He had also heard Gladio talking on the phone to her, he knew she was his kid sister. And that that meant something outside the Empire.

Iris though, didn’t want to hear it. She was crying and that made Prompto shift uncomfortably, unused to the reaction. She pointed a wavering finger in Prompto’s direction and cried, “Why do you protect him? He killed Jarred!”

The three men all spoke at once.

“What?” Noct said.

“That’s impossible,” Ignis said, voice tense.

“What are you talking about, Iris? Prompto’s been with us this whole time.”

“P… Prompto?” Iris said, turning back towards him hesitantly.

The corner of Prompto’s mouth twitched. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Wait, what’s happened to Jared?” Noct demanded.

“It… he…” Iris closed her eyes, ignoring the tears that ran down her cheeks. “He's dead.”

“What?” Noct exclaimed, sitting down rather heavily.

“How did it happen?” Ignis asked as he moved to the kitchenette. One thing Prompto had learned was that whenever anyone was upset, Ignis baked. He had baked chocolate brownies when Prompto had explained his Inurement. After dinner he had baked a caramel cake the first time Ardyn had utilized his Inurement and a strawberry cake the second time. This time it looked like it was something with custard.

“Some Imperials came and started asking questions.One had his helmet off and he… he looked like him, like Prompto. But they were all called B-something.”

“B Grade units,” Prompto said. Everyone turned to look at him and he shifted a little uncomfortably. “Like my name is C1094, their names would start with B.”

“Your name’s Prompto, not some number,” Gladio said sharply and Prompto gave him a small smile, grateful.

“Is there a difference?” Noct asked.

“Some. The higher the grade, the more training, better equipment, better assignments. A Grades guard high profile people, like the Oracle.”

“Luna?” Noct asked.

Prompto nodded. “I never met her, before you ask. I never would have gotten the chance, I was training as a B Grade before I was reassigned.”

Noct frowned at that, making the connections, but thankfully he didn’t bring it up. Instead, he said, “You will, in Altissia.”

Prompto gave a small smile, liking the idea. “But, Noct, if B Grades are after you… then no one’s safe here. They know you come here often, they'll be back. They were probably watching for you to return.”

Any further attempts at making plans were interrupted by the sounds of someone crying outside. Prompto clenched his fist, nails biting into his palm, and looked away. Crying still made him extremely uncomfortable and it was hard to silence the voices that said crying was weakness and should be eradicated. It didn’t matter if the boy crying was only a child or that had just lost his grandfather, Prompto had been that age when he had killed someone. Granted that time was a training accident, but still.

He squashed those thoughts and feelings down; that wasn’t him any more and, as he was discovering, there were other ways, better ways, to raise children. Noct seemed to have it in hand though as he went to the door and knelt down before the boy.

“I… I couldn’t stop them,” the boy said in a hiccuping voice.

“I won’t let the empire get away with it,” Noct said. “They’ll pay for what they’ve done. I promise.”

“But… you travel with one of them,” the boy said, his wide pink eyes looking over Noct’s shoulder to where Prompto was sitting.

“Prom’s different. He’s a good guy, you can trust him,” Noct said.

“How do you know? The… the ones who came, they looked just like him.”

“Because I know Prompto. He would never harm you, and he’ll help us make them pay, I promise you Talcott,” Noct said.

The boy was still watching him so Prompto gave a small smile and a nod, agreeing. He certainly had no reservations about attacking his home country, especially if he could break free of his Inurement first.

“I… I believe you, Prince Noctis,” the child said, before leaving them and continuing on to his own room.

“I’m taking Talcott, and we’re going to Caem,” Iris said once the boy had left. “We… we can’t just stay here and do nothing.”

“I understand,” Noct said. “We can’t all fit in the Regalia, but Monica has a car. She can take you and Talcott there, and we’ll follow. Dad once told me he kept a boat there from when he took his road trip.”

“Wait, your old man has a boat, and we’re just hearing about it now?” Gladio said.

“It hasn’t exactly been maintained, I doubt it will even run. But since Luna’s last message said she was in Altissia I don’t think we’ll have a choice but to try and get it running again,” Noct said.

“To Altissia, then,” Ignis said.

“To Altissia,” Gladio echoed.

“To Luna,” Noct said, looking around at each of his companions, determination written on his face.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Gladio surreptitiously watched Noct while under the guise of reading his book. The uncrowned King of Insomnia was sleeping. Again. He knew that the power wielded by the Lucian kings was draining, had seen first hand how fast it had burned the life from King Regis. But Noct wasn’t maintaining a wall encompassing an entire city, nor was he providing access to the armiger to hundreds of kingsglaives.

All that left Gladio with was one burning question: how the hell was Noct supposed to take back their homeland when just the MT fights and normal hunts had him snoozing every chance he got? And as the one responsible for his safety and his training, how did Gladio himself fit into that?

“A weak shield protects naught.”

That bastard’s words kept circling round in his head, echoing particularly loud because they were true. He had been swatted aside as though he were no more than a fly in Ravus’s way and Noctis, the very one he was supposed to protect, had to jump in to defend him, to rescue him.

And then there was Prompto. They had been travelling for over a month with the Magitek soldier now and Gladio was more than willing to admit he had been wrong about the boy to begin with. He truly did seem to hold no further loyalties to his home country. He was reliable and dependable in a fight, and his laughing mannerisms made him fun to be around. It was that Inurement that worried Gladio. His heart was in the right place and he had more than proven that he would put himself in harm’s way to protect Noct, had proven that the way he fought off the order to shoot him. But what about next time? What if the next time a Nif gave him an order he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight off? He wasn’t sure he bought into the belief that Noct’s orders completely outweighed an entire lifetime of psychological training.

And if he wasn’t able to fight it off, then Gladio had to protect their monarch from threats both inside and outside.

“A weak shield protects naught.”

He had to get stronger. There was no other way. He hadn't been strong enough to protect Noctis from Ravus, but he couldn't allow that to happen again.

Putting his book away, he instead took out his phone and sent a message to the only person he could think of who would help without condemning him for needing the help in the first place. Noct had said the boat would likely need repairs, he had time.

His phone buzzed with a single message from a Cor: “Ok”.

“A weak shield protects naught.”

Gladio smiled to himself as he pulled his book out again. Even weak shields can be tempered with fire, he thought to himself as he started reading, actually able to focus on the words now that a course of action had been laid.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto hummed a little tune to himself as he tightened a nut on the engine he was working on. They had made it to Cape Caem without any problems and even managed to take out an Imperial fort along the way. This time they had been able to explore the warehouses once they were done so Prompto now had all the tools and supplies he needed to fix his armour.

He'd finished that task yesterday and, wanting to keep busy, had approached Cid looking to help on the boat. Between that and taking photos of the beautiful ocean views the had plenty to keep his mind busy. The old man hadn't trusted him to do much at first but, after he had shown that he knew his way around an engine, Cid seemed to have warmed up to him and now spent the days regaling him with tales of his youth. Prompto soaked it all in; it was so different to what he had seen and experienced growing up in Gralea that it almost seemed like a fairy story, the kind young children knew. Or at least the kind that Arvid knew.

“Hey, boy. That fancy armour you were tinkerin’ with. That wouldn't happen to have any mythril we could cannibalize would it?”

Cid always called him “boy” too, which Prompto liked a lot better than Nif or unit. He snapped a candid photo of the old man, who swatted him lightly with a wrench he was holding, saying, “Oi, none of that.”

Prompto just laughed shook his head. “Only A Grades get mythril; I was nowhere near important enough for that,” he said. Sitting back and putting his camera aside, he wiped the back of his hand over his sweaty forehead, heedless of the grease streak it left. As windy as Cape Caem was, none of that breeze reached under the lighthouse where they were working, but the heat sure did.

“Damn. Well looks like you boys need to stop lazing around and go on a little reconnaissance mission.”

“I’m up for that, but I think Noct wants to wait here incase Gladio comes looking for him,” Prompto said

“He’ll come back and find you when he’s ready,” Cid said. “He’s got some stuff to work through first.”

Prompto tilted his head to the side, considering that. Gladio’s desire to go off on his own for a while had seemed sudden to him, and with no true reason that he could decipher. “Did he say something about it to you?”

“Na, but Cor sent me a message the other day saying he was going on some dangerous mission with one of his students and that if I don’t hear from him to assume the worst. So dramatic. As if that little shit will ever die in combat!” he said giving a bark of laughter. Prompto smiled politely, sure that he was missing some joke there. “Still, figured it was probably your missing shield.”

“Maybe don't mention that to Noct,” Prompto said. “He'll worry. He'll pretend he doesn't care but he'll worry.”

“I'll worry about what?”

Prompto jumped at Noct’s voice and flushed guiltily even as Cid’s eyes twinkled with mirth. He could have said that the prince was coming up behind him! “Just that we don't have what we need to fix the boat,” Prompto squeaked, managing to hide the fact that lying to his new superior officer hurt.

A dark eyebrow rose though, suggesting that he still didn't buy it. He seemed willing to play along though, saying only, “Oh?”

“We need mythril. And the only place I know of that has a ready supply of it is in the Vesperpool, which is currently held by the Empire,” Cid said.

“So let’s go take it,” Noct said.

“I was hoping you would say that,” Cid replied with a smile.

“Alright! Time to check out my armour!” Prompto said, punching the air.

“You’re such a nerd,” Noct said fondly.

Prompto just grinned.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Ignis had a bad feeling about this. It wasn’t even the way the Imperial gates were open to let them through, only to run into an MT blockade further along the road. They mopped that up fairly quickly despite the fact that they were down a man. It just seemed awfully convenient for the enemy that the one thing they needed to repair the boat was only available in one location, and that that location was under Imperial guard.

They left the Regalia parked at the nearby Haven and took what they needed from the boot. It was with a strange sort of glee that Prompto put his newly-repaired armour on.

“Would it not be better to leave that here and keep your range of movement?” Ignis asked.

“I can move just fine, thank you! I didn’t go through all that training with it for nothing,” he said, swinging his arms this way and that as though to prove a point. “Besides, it saved my life once, twice if you count the time Gladio nearly scalped me. If I get hit in this it won't hurt as much.”

“I'd rather you not get hit in the first place,” Ignis said.

“Yeah, I know, but what are the chances of that?”

Ignis didn't bother replying. As much as he admired the gunman’s skill, he had shown a complete disregard for his own safety, especially when it came to protecting Noct. Ignis had judged his shoulder healed enough to handle the armour back in Caem, but that hadn't stopped Prompto from gathering any number of cuts, bruises, and scrapes that he didn't even seem to feel with his various antics.

“You think we have time to do some fishing?” Noct asked, looking almost longingly towards a pier that was just visible through the trees.

“I don't see why not,” Ignis replied. “Anything you catch I can cook up fresh for dinner.”

“Yeah!” Noct exclaimed and Ignis smiled in spite of himself. Noct hadn't smiled a lot lately; Ignis was glad to do what he could to bring it out again.

“Prom if you could accompany his highness, I'll get the camp set up and dinner started,” Ignis said.

“Sure,” Prompto said, jogging to catch up to the prince who had wasted no time in heading down to the water.

The fact of the matter was, it didn’t take any longer to set camp up on his own than it did with the other two helping. Ignis was just putting the finishing touches on his immaculately prepared campsite when he heard the shout.

“Iggy! We got trouble!”

Gunshots followed Noctis’s voice and Ignis quickly turned the stove off before running down towards the pier. He expected some kind of creature attack, a giggatoad or sahagin or something. He even could have expected magitek troopers, though there was no sign of the drop ship that usually heralded their arrival. What he didn't expect though was both Noctis and Prompto teaming up to fight a veritable horde of sahagin with the woman they had fought at the Imperial fort on their way to Cape Caem. Aranea Highwind.

There was no time to question it, however. Ignis grabbed the collar of Noct’s jacket, yanking him away from the jaws of a too-close sahagin before summoning his daggers and slicing downwards. They barely scratched its scaly hide so he sent them away and summoned his spear instead.

Dodging to the side to avoid getting bitten himself, he thrust his spear forward, allowing himself a small smirk of satisfaction when his strike struck home. He kept half an eye on Aranea, not entirely trusting her not to take the opportunity to attack them, but she didn’t seem interested. Especially when she protected Prompto from a flanking sahagin.

Sharing a grin, Ignis and Noct both used their spears and struck simultaneously, forwards, to the side, outwards and forwards again. Then Noct took Ignis’s spear and used his own to warp forwards and up into the air, bringing both weapons down into an enemy. He then tossed Ignis’s spear back to land embedded into another to Ignis’s right. Iggy grabbed it, then spun around as a high pitched scream sounded.

Prompto was madly shooting at a huge sahagin that had its jaws around Aranea’s waist. One shot out the creature’s eye but that only enraged it further and, with a shake of its head, it sent the woman flying into the shallow water.

“Noct, it’s blindside!” Ignis instructed.

“Right,” Noct replied, moving to where Ignis indicated.

Glancing over his shoulder, Ignis risked a look to where Aranea had fallen and was glad to see she was still moving, managing to keep her head out of the water even as she was trying and failing to get up.

“Alright!” Prompto shouted, drawing Ignis’s attention back. They had downed the massive sahagin and a single shot killed the last one.

“Are you both alright?” Ignis asked.

“Yup,” Prompto replied.

“We’re both fine,” Noct said. “She doesn’t look it though.” He pointed his chin towards Aranea.

“What do you want to do?” Ignis asked, his voice low and quiet so it wouldn’t carry.

Noct didn’t bother with such subtlety, much to Ignis’s irritation. “Help her,” he said simply. “She was the one who warned us about the sahagins.”

Ignis nodded and walked over to where Aranea had managed to rise to her hands and knees, one hand clutching at her side, blood leaking from between her fingers. He summoned a potion and handed it over. She accepted with a tight smile and a nod of thanks, downing it quickly.

Ignis held a hand out to help her stand, knowing she wouldn’t appreciate being carried, and Prompto ran around to her other side to help. “We have set up camp at a haven nearby,” Ignis said as they started making their way there.

“Thanks. My boys though, they’ll want to know what happened,” she said.

Ignis nodded. “Where are they?”

“Steyliff Grove,” Aranea said, voice tight with pain despite the potion.

“Prompto, would you mind going there and reassuring them that their commander is injured but will be returning once she's been tended to,” Ignis said.

“Right,” Prompto said starting to move off to do so.

Before he could leave, however, Noctis held a hand out and said, “Hold up, Prom. Iggy, you sure that's a good idea? I'm mean…” he glanced to Prompto then back to Ignis. “You know…”

“I know,” Ignis replied, understanding Noct’s reluctance to send their friend to someone who could take advantage of him. “But we don't have much choice.”

“Bleeding out over here,” Aranea quipped, but other than pursing his lips, Ignis didn't answer.

“I'll go with him,” Noct said.

Ignis was already shaking his head but it was Prompto who answered. “I'll be fine, Noct. You won, remember? Besides, I'll be less conspicuous in my armour than you in your Lucian blacks,” he said.

Noctis sighed. “Fine, but hurry back, okay?”

“Sure,” Prompto said with a wave before taking off at a jog.

“Noct, there's a first aid kit under the passenger seat, could you get it for me?” Ignis asked as he helped Aranea into a seat. To Aranea, he said, “I will need to… get under your armour.”

“That’s one I’ve not heard before. I’ve heard get in my armour, get me out of my armour, but good on you for being unique,” Aranea said.

Ignis couldn’t help it, he blushed. “Th-that’s not what I meant at all!” he stammered.

Aranea started to laugh but broke off with a hiss of pain. “You’re fun,” was all she said but she did undo her armour, dropping it down beside her. Ignis was relieved; he had half expected her to be naked under it but she was wearing a crop top and her skirt.

“Don’t mean to ruin your moment,” Noctis said as he entered the haven with the first aid kit.

“We’re not having a moment!” Ignis snapped. Aranea just laughed again.

“Sure you’re not,” Noctis teased.

“Noctis, I swear if I-”

“Relax,” Noct said, cutting him off. “So what do you need me to do?”

“Just…” Ignis trailed off with a sigh and pushed his glasses higher on his nose. “Just keep an eye out for Prompto.”

“Sure sure,” Noct said, though at least he did as he was asked and stood by the edge of the haven, looking out over the swamplands towards where his friend had disappeared.

For a time, Ignis was able to fall back on his first aid training and focus solely on the task in front of him: cleaning and tending to the wounds the sahagin had left. Thankfully, they weren’t as bad as they first appeared; the biggest risk would be infection after falling in that filthy water. He was able to clean them and use steri-strips to hold the wounds together without stitches. “Next time you’re in civilization, you should probably get these checked. I can do field triage, but I’m no doctor.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, Specs,” Aranea said, a teasing smile on her face when she used the nickname.

“Here he comes,” Noct said as Ignis was fastening a bandage around Aranea’s midriff.

“Hey, weren’t there four of you last time?” Aranea asked.

“There were,” Ignis answered. “Gladio just had some business to take care of.”

“Kinda rude, him running out on you like that. Isn’t he supposed to be your bodyguard?” Aranea asked.

“Hey!” Noct snapped, but Aranea just shrugged.

“Just calling it like I see it, kid,” she said with a nonchalance that would rival Noctis’s when he was in one of his moods. “And what about you?” she asked, turning her attention to Prompto as he climbed up to the haven.

Prompto paused, uncertain. He glanced once to Noct before answering, “Ah, what about me?”

“Why’d you switch sides? Why travel with them?”

“Because I… because I like them?” Prompto said, glancing once more with that uncertainty to Noctis.

“You don’t need to answer any more if you don’t want to, Prom,” Noct said and Ignis gave the boy a reassuring nod; he had been doing so well lately with expressing himself. Ignis didn’t doubt that it still caused him some pain but either Prompto was practicing hiding that or it seemed to be less than it used to.

“Oh relax. I was ordered to try to find out more about you, and to give you a few orders of my own just to see how you reacted, but I don’t think I’m gonna do that,” Aranea said.

“Ordered by whom?” Ignis asked slowly.

“Oh you know the guy. Purple hair, freaky amber eyes, pompous ass all round.”

“Ardyn,” Noct said darkly.

“Yeah him.”

“Why… why are you not doing as he asked?” Prompto asked, his voice quiet, staring at the ground.

“Cause I don’t like him and he’s not paying me enough for that shit. He is paying me to help you get the mythril, but truthfully I would have offered to help anyway. You saved my arse back there,” she said, meeting the eyes of each of them in turn. “All of you. You’re alright by my books.”

“Hear that?” Prompto said, nudging Noct. “We’re ‘alright’,” he said with a grin and coaxing a reluctant smile from the prince.

“How did you know about the mythril?” Ignis asked sharply.

“You just told me.” Ignis’s eyes widened and Aranea burst into laughter, gripping her injured side but unable to stop it. “Oh the look on your face!”

Ignis truly was mortified; had he just given their mission away through his own stupidity? And to an enemy no less?

“The same Chancellor who’s so interested in your gunman there said you would be by. He didn’t say why, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you’re here for.”

“We’re just here to fish,” Noct tried.

“The fishing is good, I’ll give you that,” Aranea replied. “But not good enough to risk gigatoads, cockatrices, sahagins, and enemy soldiers. And the Grove is the only place that has mythril. I don’t know what you want it for and I don’t care, but I will help you get it,” Aranea said. “Besides. Me and my boys are guarding the place. You’d have to go through us anyway.”

Ignis didn’t like it. But the fact was, everything she said was true. They did need it, and they would have to go through her. Even injured he knew she would put up a hell of a fight. He gave a small nod to Noct, letting him know he approved.

“Alright,” the prince said. Walking forward, he held out a hand out which Aranea took. “A truce so we can get the mythril. And get out again, then go our separate ways. Deal?”

“Deal,” she said and shook on it.

Chapter Text

Altissia was truly beautiful. No where near the technical wonderment that Gralea was or, what he had heard, Insomnia had been, but still beautiful. It’s waterways were magnificent, and the way the sun’s rays bounced off the still lakes and flowing waterfalls and canals was simply breathtaking. Prompto’s photos were improving daily, if he did say so himself, and he was getting plenty of practice in this stunning city. The city itself was very easy to get lost in, but in the best way, the way that lent itself to exploration.

They visited the place where Lady Luna’s dress was on display, unbeknownst to those others gathered around that her groom was watching with them, looking forward to meeting her once more. And Prompto was looking forward to that as well. Meeting the Oracle was never something he ever imagined he would be able to do and now, thanks to Noct, he would.

They visited the monster arena where they proceeded to lose a couple thousand gil before Ignis managed to drag the three of them out, Noct and Gladio obnoxiousy blowing their vuvuselas in each other’s faces even as they were physically dragged from the arena.

They took evening gondola rides to marvel at the city, and sat for hours while Noct fished. The other two seemed to find it incredibly dull but Prom was fascinated and took photos every few minutes even if it was just the same subject matter again and again with only slightly different light.

They would speak for hours with Weskam, enjoying his fine food and watching the gondolas slide past. Ignis was in a frenzy to examine all the different foods and fruits and spices and lamented that they didn’t have enough money to try something called caviar (“If you hadn’t wasted it all on those blasted monster games we could be eating something truly divine right now!”). Prompto doubted that, it looked pretty gross to him and smelled worse, but there was no counting for tastes.

Of an evening they would either take monster hunts around the city or retire to the fancy hotel, play cards or darts or King’s Knight - Ignis was willing to let Prompto borrow his phone to join in - and sometimes they would make wedding plans. Inspired by viewing Lady Luna’s wedding dress all of them were eager for the wedding to still take place, often spurred on by Gladio who showed himself to be a hidden romantic. And, if Prompto had to guess, Noct truly seemed to love Luna, despite not having spoken in person for years. Not that he was an expert on such things, far from it, but he noticed how the prince got a far away look in his eyes whenever he spoke of her, and his voice would take on a softer tone. He loved her, Prompto was sure of it.

Eventually though, they had to get down to business. The first secretary, a stern looking woman named Camelia, had already said that the Oracle was in her care but before she could allow Noctis and Luna to meet, they had to ‘come to terms’, whatever that meant. All Prompto understood was that Noct ruled in that diplomacy meeting, and Camelia seemed impressed as well, saying that Noct reminded her of his father, a compliment that made the prince grin with pride.

Of course, their good fortune could never last. After the meeting, Noct pulled Prom aside, to speak quietly. “Hey, Prom. Your Inurement. How’s it going?”

“Alright, I guess,” Prompto answered. “Was there something specific?”

“I need you and Iggy and Gladio to take three different sections of the city and organise the evacuation of its citizens; they don’t deserve to be caught up in our war with the Empire or with the Hydraean. If I remember correctly that particular goddess never really liked humans so I think gaining her power will be difficult. Especially if the Titan was anything to go by.”

Prompto grimaced at the memory. “I can handle that,” he said.

“You sure?”

Prompto smiled. “Yeah, don’t worry. The most it might cause is a kinda constant ache, nothing I can’t handle.”

“Ardyn is here somewhere too, remember,” Noct said.

That caused Prompto’s smile to falter but he forced it back, for Noct’s sake. “It’ll be fine. You should watch your back though; he’ll be more interested in what you’re doing than a lone Magitek soldier focussed on evacuating citizens.”

“Yeah, I guess. Just… be careful, okay?”

“Hey, I got the easy job. You’re the one who’s gotta deal with a cranky goddess, remember,” Prompto teased.

“Don’t remind me,” Noct said with a groan, causing Prompto to laugh.

“Just remember the end goal: Luna.”

“Right. Luna.” Noct smiled. Mission accomplished. “Before you go there’s one more thing.” Reaching into his pocket and pulled out a box, holding it out to Prompto.

“Aw, Noct, you shouldn’t have. But you’re supposed to be proposing to Luna, not to me.”

“What? No! Just- just take it already,” Noct stammered, much to Prompto’s amusement, as he shoved the box at him.

Opening it, Prompto’s mouth fell open rather comically. Inside was a brand new phone, complete with a wireless earpiece and chocobo protective case. “Noct…” he started, but didn’t really know what to say.

“I’ve already loaded King’s Knight on it and Iggy transferred your account over. And the earpiece means we can all keep in contact and still have your hands free to fight, so no excuses not to keep me informed of what’s going on, okay? I just hope it’s a model you like, I didn’t know-”

Noctis broke off suddenly when Prompto threw himself forward, wrapping his arms around him in a tight hug. “Thank you,” he said, his voice husky. “For this, and for trusting me with it.”

Noct awkwardly patted Prompto’s back, saying, “Yeah, well, how about letting me win a few games in King’s Knight to make up for it.”

Prompto gave a bark of laughter as he stepped back. “You got it.”

Noct showed him how to set up the earpiece, connected him to their group call and, after making sure that everything was working properly, each went their separate ways.

The evacuation, as Prompto had said, was easy. His armour was left in their room at the hotel so he wouldn’t be mistaken for the enemy and the citizens seemed more than willing to follow someone who seemed to know what they were doing. It was when the Empire began to move against the Hydraean that things became hectic. Ignis had the best view of this.

“The empire has the Hydraean surrounded. Hurry, Noct!” he said through their earpieces.

“I’m on it,” Noct replied.

“Then the rite’s already begun?” Gladio asked.

“Most likely,” Noctis replied.

Well then, there was only one thing for it. “Time to lend the Hydraean a hand!” Prompto said; they could not allow the empire to interfere with the rite as they had with the Titan.

After making sure that all the citizens he could find in his section had evacuated, Prompto started running through the city towards where he could see Leviathan towering above the buildings. It took him through the area Ignis was working on and, as luck would have it, a few shots managed to protect the advisor from being swarmed by MTs.

“Prompto, are you alright?” he asked hurriedly, watching as the citizens continued to run ahead.

“Fine, I-” Seeing something out of the corner of his eye, Prompto reacted without thinking, throwing himself into the advisor and knocking them both to the ground, just in time to avoid being hit by a missile.

“My thanks,” Ignis said as he got to his feet again.

Prompto wasn’t listening though, he was staring at the missile that had crashed nearby and short circuited from a blast of Hydraean water, an idea forming in his head.

“Prompto,” Ignis said slowly, recognising the look on Prompto’s face as one he usually wore when he was about to do something reckless and drag Noct into it. “What are you planning.”

Prompto was jogging over to the missile and turned to run backwards as he answered, “Gonna hitch a ride; it’ll be faster to get to Noct that way.”

“Will that work?” Ignis asked, intrigued despite himself and going to look over Prompto’s shoulder at what he was doing.

Prompto, meanwhile, had ripped the cover off the missile’s control panel and was pulling various wires out. He yelped and pulled his hand back when the damn thing sparked at him, but then just plunged right back in again. “Dunno,” he admitted. “Water and electrics don’t exactly mix.” He looked over his shoulder with a grin and added, “But it’ll be fun to find out.”

“I don’t think I want to know,” Ignis said dryly.

Nonetheless, Ignis watched Prompto’s back while he tinkered, taking out any enemies who came too close until, with a whoop of delight, the missile’s engine started up. Straddling it, he took the controls and shouted over the engine’s roar, “I’m off to find Noct. We’ll have the rite done in no time!”

“Keep in contact!” Ignis replied.

Prompto smacked a fist to his chest by way of acknowledgement and gunned the engine, shouting with delight as it took off, flying through the air with him on it. Through his earpiece, he heard Ignis say, “Noct! Prompto is on his way to you.”

Well, he was trying anyway, zig-zagging between the buildings and up and down the streets, searching for a sign of his friend.

“But, what about you guys?” Noct asked.

“We’ll wait below - there’s only room for two.”

And… there! He could see him! “Noct! Jump!” Prompto shouted over the engine noise.

“What?” Noct asked.

“No time for questions, just trust me!”

Prompto followed along as Noct ran along the balcony and then leapt off the edge. His heart leapt at the same time, both with pride that Noctis trusted him this much, and also with fear that he may stuff it up. Gunning the missile forward, he hung on with one hand, the other outstretched to grab Noct as he collided with the back of the missile, helping him to get his feet under him and hang on.

“What is this?” Noct asked.

Prompto laughed, adrenaline making him giddy. “New ride we borrowed from the Nifs. This’ll get us in close,” he said.

“Serious?” Noct asked, disbelief evident in his tone.

Prompto just laughed again, but broke off with a, “Woah! Here she comes!” as a waterspout surged towards them.

“I got this,” Noct replied as he summoned his sword. Prompto focused on flying around the city, leaving the defense up to Noct; he was better at it anyway.

“I’ll get as close as I can. Then it’s up to you,” he said.

“Alright. I won’t be long,” Noct said.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Prompto promised.

Clearing the main maze of the city, Prompto pulled upwards, confident now that he wouldn’t hit an overhead bridge. Upwards and upwards they flew.

“Hey, nice job finding this baby,” Noct said.

“More she found us. Moment I saw her, I knew we’d go places,” he said, fondly petting the side of the machine. Hearing a roar of water behind them, Prompto looked over his shoulder. “Not again!”

“Not making this easy,” Noct said, summing his blade once more.

“Noct, hold on tight!” Prompto said and he yanked the missile, pulling it into a tight barrel roll as Noct blocked one of the water spouts. Perhaps that was a little too ambitious as Noct started to slip. Prompto reached out and grabbed him, pulling him back up saying, “Dude! Don’t let go!”

Noct had only just regained his hold when he shouted, “Hey! Head’s up!” drawing Prompto’s attention back in front of them.

“Oh shit!” he shouted as he yanked on the steering, only just managing to turn away from the Hydraean’s head to avoid colliding with it. Well, this definitely counted as close. “Noct, can you reach?” he asked. He turned the missile back towards the Hydraean’s head again, watching… then, “Now!”

Noct threw his sword, warping cleanly to the god. “Don’t crash!” he shouted as Prompto whizzed passed.

“No promises!” Prompto replied, before turning the missile away from that battle. He had gotten the thing up in the air but hadn’t really thought about how he was supposed to land it. They were made to be remotely controlled, not ridden.

As it turned out, the option was removed from him entirely. Whatever it was Noct was doing with the Hydraean was causing water spouts to come up all over the place. The entire city was surrounded by a wall of water and the very buildings were starting to crumble and lift up into the sky.

“Gladio, Ignis, where are- oh shit!”

Prompto tried to dodge the water spout but he wasn’t fast enough, the engine unresponsive and shorting after too much water drowning it. The missile nosedived. A chunk of masonry slammed into it making it spin out of control. Prompto was thrown, the ground racing up to meet him. The last thing he remembered was fervently wishing he had Noct’s warping ability before he slammed into the cement, rolled down a slope only to fall again and lay still.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“I swear, Prom, if you don’t answer me in the next two seconds, I’ll-”

Prompto groaned. “Gladio?” he asked, pushing himself upright. “Oh, my head,” he said, raising a hand to touch it, his fingers coming away sticky.

“About time. You alive?” Gladio’s voice came through his earpiece. Prompto was honestly surprised the thing was still working but he wasn’t about to turn his nose up at that little bit of luck.

“Yeah, think so,” he replied. Sitting back, he looked around and realised he was sitting in a few inches of water, water that was steadily rising. “Crap,” he muttered.

“What’s happening?” Gladio demanded.

Pulling himself to his feet, fighting off the wave of vertigo, Prompto said, “Water’s rising. I’m down in one of the canals, or what’s left of it. Where’s everyone else?”

“We have to find Iggy. Something… something happened, I don’t know what. He was talking, after we lost contact with you then… well, he’s hurt bad. Somewhere. I don’t know where, but we have to find him.”

Prompto felt as though ice had lodged itself in the pit of his stomach. Gladio was rattled. Gladio was never rattled, in the face of danger he was cool and collected. Sure, he had a temper, but when it came to situations like this he was in control of his emotions. What Prompto could hear in his voice was anything but. Whatever it was he had heard had gotten to him.

“Ok, we should split up you take one part of the city, I’ll take the other. What about Noct?”

“I don’t know. Haven’t heard from him either.”

Reaching the upper level, Prompto came up short, staring at the destruction around them. The city was destroyed. Completely and utterly destroyed. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“He’s alive, he has to be,” Prompto said, as much to convince himself of the fact than anything else. “We’ll find both of them.”

“I’m closest to where the Hydraean fight took place. I’ll look for Noct, you look for Ignis. And stay in contact, got it?”

“Got it,” Prompto said.

Right. He would look for Ignis. But how the hell was he supposed to find one man amongst all of this? Especially since that man was likely unconscious and severely injured. The Hydraean battle seemed to be over at least; there were no more water spouts and the empire appeared to be driven back, retreating once the fight was lost. Nonetheless, there were still people milling around. Not many, most had gotten to safety, but there were those who had refused to evacuate and those who hadn’t made it in time.

Prompto scanned the faces of everyone he saw, but not finding Ignis. It was unlikely, of course, but part of him hoped that Ignis was alright, injured perhaps but otherwise fine and that it was just his phone that was damaged. He hoped the same with Noct too, but he left that worry to Gladio.

Prompto picked his way around the city, trying to head back to where he had last seen Ignis, figuring he couldn’t have gone too far from there. He began asking anyone he saw if someone had seen him, but he was just one of many doing the exact same thing. He was always met with the same response, either a muted shake of the head, or an apology and a reply question asking for whoever they were looking for.

“Prom! I’ve found him!”

Gladio’s voice made Prompto jump, but his heart leapt at the news. “Is he okay?” he asked desperately.

“I… don’t know. I- hold on.” Prompto froze where he was, listening. He gave a sigh of relief when in the background he heard someone that sounded like Noct heaving. “He’s breathing now, threw up a lung full of water, but alive. Still out cold though. Cuts and bruises… I don’t think he’s seriously hurt.”

“Thank the gods,” Prompto murmured, closing his eyes briefly in relief. “Is there somewhere safe we can take him?”

A pause. Then, “The secretary's office. It’s the most sturdy building, probably still standing, and will have the highest security. I’ll bring him there.”

“Right. I’ll meet you there when I find Ignis.”

Silence.

“Just… let me know when you find him. Please.” Gladio’s voice was desperate.

“I will,” Prompto promised, trying to sound reassuring.

He went back to searching, but the minutes dragged by into hours. Gladio kept him updated with what was happening to Noct but was reluctant to leave his side to search. Prompto tried to reassure him, a shield always stays with his king he said, but he could tell how torn the man was.

It was starting to get dark, with people retreating to the safety of the lighted areas to avoid demons, when Prompto finally spotted him. He had almost given up hope but it was the purple and black patterned shirt that caught his eye. Feeling his heart leap into his throat, he ran forwards, near shouting, “Gladio! I’ve found him!”

“Is he okay? Is he… is he alive?” Gladio asked desperately.

There was debri that had fallen on him and Prompto hastily shoved it off, then froze. “Oh shit,” he muttered.

“What? What is it? Damnit Prompto, if you-”

“His face is… burned I think,” Prompto said, cutting into Gladio’s swearing. Leaning in, he rested his fingers against his throat and felt a pulse. It was fast but strong. “He’s alive, Gladio. Other than his face and superficial stuff I can’t see any other injuries.”

“How the hell did he get burned? If anything he should have been drowned.”

Prompto just shook his head, forgetting that Gladio couldn’t see the movement. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. He spotted Ignis’s broken glasses lying nearby but ignored them; they were useless broken and, by the look of those injuries, would remain useless for some time. Gathering him up, he grunted a bit lifting him but managed; despite probably being the smallest of the four of them, Prompto’s training made him surprisingly strong. He would be able to carry their friend. He had to. “I’m on my way back. Just… just make sure there’s doctors ready. He’s gonna need it.”

“Got it. They’ll be here on standby. Prom… Thanks.”

Prompto gave a tight smile. “You got it, big guy,” he said.

Chapter Text

Noctis was unconscious and unresponsive.

Ignis was unconscious and unresponsive.

Gladio spent most of his time standing outside their respective doorways, making sure that no uninvited guests visited the two. He used to stand guard at the Citadel, he said, he was used to it.

Prompto didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Standing guard with Gladio just reminded him of the hours spent in a submissive bow waiting for Sir to notice him so he avoided that, but he seemed to just be in the way of the doctors when he was in either Noctis’s or Ignis’s rooms. Consequently he found he spent a lot of time out in the city, trying to help where he could with the recovery effort.

Now that the waters had receded, temporary shelter and body identification and disposal was the top priority. Were they in Gralea and the bodies soldiers, Prompto knew that their barcodes would be scanned and recorded and the bodies burned. Simple, quick, easy, no chance for the bodies to rot or contaminate drinking water. Here, it wasn’t so simple. There were no barcodes and the public wanted to have control of their own dead, to have funerary arrangements how they wanted them. To that end, a warehouse had been emptied of stock and all bodies recovered were laid out there. Prompto volunteered to use a separate memory card and spent the days taking photos of each of the recovered bodies. The photos were then used to help the relatives identify their missing family. Only when someone was identified would Prompto then go in and help get that body ready for transport to the family. His upbringing and familiarity with death and all its stages meant that the sights and smells were not new to Prompto. The people of Altissia on the other hand seemed ill equipped to deal with how fast bodies began to decompose when the most basic utilities had been knocked out.

Each evening he returned to the room he and Gladio shared, exhausted and smelling of rot. He would take long showers to try to rid himself of the smell and then visit Noct and Ignis, to get an update. With Noctis, there was no change. Within the first day his lungs had cleared, but he remained in a coma. The doctors could not determine why. They suggested that it was exhaustion and that he would wake soon, but Prompto wasn’t convinced.

Ignis’s situation was more complicated. His right eye, the doctors weren’t sure about. It was damaged, but might heal, they said. For now, bandages around his head kept him from trying to use it. The left eye was another story. The doctors had determined that it would never see again, the burns were too severe, the eye and eyelid damaged beyond repair. The eye had to be removed, else it cause a lifetime of pain.

The day that surgery had taken place, Prompto had not gone down to the warehouses. He did not want to be around death when Ignis was going through that. Instead, he had stayed in the room, watching, heart in his throat and waiting. He could not see much past the doctors, though that was probably a good thing. It had been bad enough for Prompto when doctors insisted on stitching the wound on his head. For that, Gladio had remained by his side, a hand on his shoulder, a constant reminder that he wasn’t with the empire, that this was different. Seeing what they were doing to Ignis though, while he lay there helpless and unconscious, a dear friend under their knife and at their complete mercy? He didn’t trust himself not to react to that even as he couldn’t bare to be away.

It was several days later before Ignis woke. Prompto had switched the memory cards over, leaving the one with the dead bodies on it on the bedside table, and was flicking through the photos he had taken. It was a soft groan that first alerted him to a change and, looking up, he saw Ignis starting to move, trying to raise his hand.

“Ignis?” he said hesitantly.

Ignis turned his head towards Prompto. “Prom?” His voice was croaky.

Prompto smiled, relieved, and switched his camera for a glass of water. “Here, I’ve got some water for you,” he said. Slipping a hand under his head, he lifted it slightly and brought the glass to his lips so he could drink.

Ignis only took a few sips though before he turned his head away and asked, “Noct, where-”

“He’s alive,” Prompto cut in as he helped Ignis lay back down again. “He’s… in a coma, but doesn’t seem injured. It’s just like he’s sleeping.”

“And you? And Gladio?”

“We’re both alright. We’re in the Secretary’s offices, they’ve made it up as a kind of private hospital of sorts. She’s letting us stay here till you and Noct are both back on your feet. Speaking of, how’s your pain? They’ve been giving you a lot of elixirs to try to help with it.” Prompto didn’t mention that, as with everything else, the city was running low on all their curatives and he and Gladio had largely been pulling from their own personal store.

“Smarts a little,” Ignis admitted, so Prompto helped him take another elixir.

“Just… rest okay? I’ll let the doctors know you’ve woken up so they can give you a proper reporting of what’s going on, I’d probably just bungle it,” Prompto said though truth be told, he was chickening out; he didn’t want to be the one to tell Ignis that one eye was gone and the other may never see again.

“Right. I’ll… do that,” Ignis said, his voice already sounding dazed from the elixir doing its job. Prompto waited until Ignis’s breathing evened out into sleep before he got up to tell the doctors and Gladio that he was awake.

 

-l-l-l-

 

A loud crash jerked Prompto awake and instantly his gun was in his hands, eyes darting around, searching for any sign of danger. But there was no danger in the room, only him and Ignis, and Ignis was leaning against a table breathing heavily, shoulders shaking silently. Prompto sent his gun away when he realised what had woken him: Ignis had swept his arm across the table, knocking everything on it to the ground.

“Iggy,” Prompto said quietly, standing up, but he froze when Ignis spun to face him with a surprised gasp. He had pulled the bandages from his face, they were hanging loosely around his neck, and his blind eye swung left and right, trying and failing to see him. What shocked Prompto, however, was the bloody tears running down Ignis’s cheeks from his right eye.

Ignis closed his eye then took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. When he spoke, his voice was calm but the words were clipped. “I’m sorry, Prompto,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“I do,” Prompto said simply. Walking over to where Ignis was standing, avoiding the broken glass, and took a hold of the bandages, unwrapping them from around his neck. “You got hit with the life fucking sucks stick, and now you’re trying to figure out how to handle it.” He used the edge of the bandages to gently wipe away the bloody tears before carefully winding them around Ignis’s head again.

Ignis gave a bitter bark of laughter at that and said, “Nonetheless, it was uncalled for and I apologise for it. Had I known you were there, I would not have… I would have comported myself with more decorum.”

It was Prompto’s time to snort with laughter at that. “Comported yourself with more decorum? Only you could quote an etiquette textbook when you should be raging against the astrals right now.” Taking Iggy’s arm, he guided the man to a seat, getting him to sit down. “Besides. I seem to remember you, all of you, telling me I wasn’t alone any more, that I didn’t have to fight my Inurement alone. Well, this is no different. We’re here for you, one hundred percent. And we’ll help you with whatever you need.”

Ignis didn’t respond, but he did accept a glass of water when Prompto offered it, and didn’t throw it in his face so that was a start as far as Prompto was concerned. He started to gather up the broken glass, allowing Ignis to sit in silence but ensuring he made enough noise so that the man knew he was still there.

“Noct is… still asleep, is he not?” Ignis said eventually, as Prompto was dumping the last of the glass into the bin.

“Yeah,” Prompto replied. “He’ll stir a bit, every now and then. And whimper as though he’s caught in a nightmare. But that’s it.” Truth be told, Prompto was just as worried about Noct as he was about Ignis. He hadn’t really shown any sign of waking and that scared Prompto; he was afraid that his friend might never wake again.

As though predicting Prompto’s emotions, or perhaps just hearing his fears in his voice, Ignis said, “He has recovered from such bouts before.”

“He has?” Prompto asked, unable to stop the small kernel of hope that latched on at the news.

“The circumstances were different. Last time he was out this long he was a child and had fractured his spine. He was unconscious even after the wounds themselves had healed,” Ignis said, his voice gaining in confidence as he spoke. “If he warp strikes too much, he can fall into what King Regis called Stasis and he could be unconscious for some time after that as well.”

“Well, at least there’s hope,” Prompto said.

Ignis nodded once.

Prompto brushed his hands on his legs and said, trying to put optimism in his voice, “So. Do you want to go for a walk? Most of the debri has been cleared away now so if you keep your hand on my shoulder I can keep you out of trouble.”

The corners of Ignis’s mouth twitched in an almost-smile as he said, “I think I would like that.” Prompto grinned and started to walk towards him but was halted as Ignis held a finger out to him. “First, though. I need you to do a favour for me?”

“Sure,” Prompto replied; he would do anything to make Ignis’s life a little easier.

“Take a shower first. You stink of rot.”

Prompto laughed a little guiltily. “Ah, yeah, sorry about that. I meant to have one before I fell asleep. I’ll be right back,” he said, hurrying out of the room.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Ignis listened as Prompto hummed to himself in the shower. Were it not for the pain, an agony that throbbed in time with his heartbeat, he could even pretend that his eyes were just resting closed, that they were in a hotel somewhere and he had just scolded Prompto for trying to come to the table without showering after running with Gladio. He could pretend that Noct wasn’t lying in a bed somewhere, unconscious and unresponsive, but was instead being his normal moody self, playing on his phone and ignoring everyone.

He could pretend that he wasn’t useless.

And then he would try to do something, like this afternoon. Or this morning. Or this evening, he had no idea. All he had wanted was a glass of water and a sandwich. He had even managed to find the ingredients he wanted for the sandwich. But first he had dropped the knife and couldn’t find where it had fallen on the floor. And then he had knocked over the honey pot, spilling it. When he misjudged how full the cup was and overfilled it, he had just snapped. What was the point of surviving if he couldn’t even function on a basic level as a human being?

But Prompto, Prompto was always bright and cheery. Ignis knew a lot of it was fake, put on for his benefit. He knew the gunman was hurting, was worried about them all, was trying to keep it all together and make everything normal when there was nothing normal about this situation. And, if what Gladio had told him in private was true, he had even faced his fear of doctors and surgeries to stay by his side when his eye had been removed. That took guts, more guts than Ignis had ever given him credit for. There was no Inurement that said he had to do that, no one had ordered him to and it wasn’t an act that could allow him to avoid pain. There was nothing in it for him but he had done it anyway. That was true friendship right there; such a soul was wasted in the Empire.

“Alright! All pretty and smelling like roses just for you Iggy,” Prompto said as he came out of the shower. Ignis had been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t even heard the water stop. “Do you have a preference on where you’d like to go?”

Ignis couldn’t help the bitterness that rose up at that question. “Does it matter? I won’t see it anyway.”

Prompto was silent for just a second too long, long enough for Ignis to regret his words, but before he could call them back, Prompto spoke again, a false levity to his voice. “Alright then. Well if you don’t have any objections, I need to take this memory card to the records office. I said I would drop it over once I checked on you. I didn’t exactly mean to fall asleep.”

“You’re donating your photos of Altissia before the Hydraean damaged everything?” Ignis guessed as he stood. Reaching out, he felt Prompto take his hand and rest it on his shoulder. As he always did, Ignis felt a lurch as he stepped forwards, needing to rely entirely on someone else to ensure he didn’t run into anything. He tried to focus on the steps, tried to draw a mental map of the area.

“Ah, not exactly. This is a different memory card. It has… well, photos of the dead on it. For identification purposes,” Prompto said, his voice uncertain.

“Ah,” was all Ignis said in return. “That would explain the smell.” Truth be told he had thought Prompto had just gotten dirty. Not that he had been dealing with the dead.

“I just felt like I had to do something, you know? We brought all this down on the people, I figured the least I could do was help out. And… well I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies before. Most people here haven’t. So if I can do it and spare them that…”

Ignis gave the shoulder under his hand a squeeze. “You’re a good person, Prompto,” he said quietly.

There was silence for a second or two, then Prompto said, “I’m grinning right now. Just so you know.”

And Ignis laughed.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Gladio swung his fist and grinned in satisfaction when it connected with the face in front of him. It hurt, of course it hurt, but he barely felt the pain. This was better than just sitting around though, waiting for something to happen. It was easier now that Ignis was awake and he could talk to him, but even that wore him down after a while and he would always make his excuses and leave. He hated the thought, but maybe it would be better to leave Ignis here. Or even to send him with Cid back to Hammerhead; he was sure the old man and Cindy would look after him. And if his sight ever returned he knew that Ignis would find them again.

Gladio had tried bringing up these facts, this plan, with Prompto, had tried to convince the gunman that it was for the best, but Prompto had yelled at him. Actually yelled at him. He’d never seen the Nif yell at anyone before, especially since doing so seemed to cause him pain. Gladio had tried reasoning, had tried matching shout for shout, but nothing got through to him. So he had stormed out, looking for a fight to pick.

He didn’t realise Ignis had heard it all.

He didn’t realise Ignis had followed him, as though to prove he could.

As citizens were slowly returning to Altissia there were bound to be those who took advantage of the controlled chaos. When looters started making the rounds, Gladio also made his own rounds, taking out any who dared to try something so low.

This time he had scored big, a whole gang of them. They all tried piling on Gladio, but Gladio was among the elite, trained since childhood to be a member of the Crownsguard, the prince’s and then the king’s shield. He had not only fought but survived fighting with Gilgamesh. These ruffians had no chance. Nonetheless, the fight was began to attract quite the crowd, and after knocking out the third person he spun around, grinning fiercely, arms open, welcoming. “Come on. You wanna piece of this?” he shouted.

Then he spotted him. Ignis. He was standing among the crowd, eye wide open, trying to step back but unable to get past the push of people, mouth open, chest heaving as he began to hyperventilate. He’d seen that reaction once before, when Prompto had freaked over a particularly tight squeeze in a cave. He knew that the advisor was on the edge of a full blown panic attack.

One of the thugs had decided to take advantage of Gladio’s distraction and used a piece of wood, slamming it against the back of Gladio’s shoulders sending him stumbling forwards. With an animalistic growl, Gladio spun around and tackled the guy, slamming him into the crumbled side of the building. Striking his head against the wall, the thug was knocked out and Gladio turned in time to see Ignis break free of the crowd and start to run. “Shit, Iggy!” Gladio shouted, but other than stumbling and falling, Ignis acted as though he didn’t hear him, only getting up to continue running again.

Growling in frustration, Gladio turned back to the thugs. No more games, he had to finish this. He knocked out the rest of the thugs in just a few minutes and started to run down the street he had seen Ignis disappear down, but was forced to stop suddenly when a young woman stepped in front of him.

“Sir? Please could you help? My husband, he’s being threatened. Please?”

Gladio was about to turn her down - he had to find Ignis! - but then he saw her eyes, swimming with tears, desperate for help. He never could say no to a crying woman. “A minute,” he said, before pulling out his phone and dialing Prompto’s number.

“Gladio? What’s up?” he asked after it had only rang once.

‘Bless your technology obsession,’ Gladio thought, figuring he must have been playing on his phone when he called. And also bless that there was no sign of a grudge from their earlier argument. “I need you to find Iggy,” he said urgently.

“What? Why, where is he?”

“If I knew that I wouldn’t need you to find him,” Gladio growled before he could help himself. He was pacing back and forth across the street. “He followed me into town and I didn’t realise. He saw- heard me get into a fight against some looters and panicked and ran off somewhere.”

“I’ll find him, but don’t you think it would be better if you were to find him, to reassure him that you’re okay?”

“I’m needed elsewhere. Just… just do this for me? Please.”

“I’m leaving now. Where’d you see him last?”

“East High Street. And Prom? Thanks.”

“You owe me,” was all Prompto said in reply before he hung up.

Gladio sighed and put his phone in his pocket before looking to the woman. “Lead the way,” he said.

 

-l-l-l-

 

As it turned out, Prompto didn’t need to go far to find Ignis. The man had somehow managed to make it back to the Secretary’s offices. Prompto saw him as he half ran half stumbled through the door that led to Noct’s room.

Prompto jogged after him, closing the door behind him to give them some privacy. He could guess what had caused the panic. First the sounds of fighting, a friend in danger and he couldn’t see to help, and then the noise of a pressing crowd, unable to tell what was what or where it was all coming from. That would terrify anyone. And yet, despite the circumstances, he couldn’t help but be impressed; somehow Ignis had followed Gladio when he wasn’t walking slowly or taking care to lead him along open streets and likely, knowing Gladio when he was angry, walking very quickly. And then, even amidst a full blown panic attack, Ignis had somehow managed to find his way back here and retreat somewhere safe.

“Ignis?” Prompto called softly.

Ignis didn’t respond. He had sat himself on the carpeted floor in front of the fireplace and, were he not blind, Prompto would say he was staring into the flames. Prompto approached slowly, noting the man’s rapid breathing but knowing that he was aware of his presence by the way his head had turned slightly towards him.

Prompto crossed the room and flopped down to sit behind him, leaning back so his back was resting against Ignis’s back. Tilting his head up slightly, he closed his eyes and said, voice soft, “Close your eye, don’t try to use it, you don’t need it. Listen. Just listen.”

He paused and listened himself, listened to Ignis and waited until his breath slowed somewhat, telling him he was calmer. Only then did he speak again. “Hear yourself breathing, your heart beating.”

He paused again, waiting. Ignis’s breath slowed further, reaching a more normal rate and Prompto allowed himself a small smile. “Expand it out and hear the sounds of the room. The crackling of the fire place. Noct breathing, the way he snuffles in his sleep.”

As though to help with their little exercise, Noct gave an unusually loud snuffle right then and Prompto bit his lip to stop from laughing. ‘Thanks, mate,’ he thought to himself. He let the silence stretch on, let Ignis just focus on what was in the room, to pick out the close sounds. Then, “Outside you can hear the water lapping against the buildings. Gulls crying to one another. The wind blowing in lines of laundry.”

After the quiet of Cape Caem, Atissia had seemed loud to Prompto. Its nightlife rivalled Lestallum’s with the added water noise and gondola drivers calling to each other. Even now, there were plenty of sounds to be heard and Prompto listed each of them one by one, allowing a pause between each to give Ignis a chance to pick them out.

“The cacophony of voices are all individuals. Pick one out and listen to it for a bit, then change to listen to another,” he said.

A minute stretched to five, which stretched to ten. Prompto didn’t mind, he’s patient. And for Ignis, who did so much for him, who tended his wounds gently and carefully, who baked sweets whenever someone was having a hard time, who always made sure they had enough food and gil for hotels whenever they were near a town, for Ignis, he had all the time in the world.

Finally, Ignis spoke. “I never realised before now how it was possible to pick out so many individual sounds,” Ignis said, voice quiet, a touch of wonderment in it that makes Prompto smile sadly. “Thank you, Prompto,” he said.

“Sure thing. Seems sense deprivation training is good for some things,” Prompto said lightly.

Ignis moved his hand, searching until it found Prompto’s. Resting over the top of it, he gave it a squeeze, then let go. Prompto stood and started moving around the room, checking on Noct, making sure he drank a little, then pulling out his phone to text Gladio, to let him know that Ignis was alright and to bring back some pizza. Ignis remained sitting on the floor, head tilted to the side slightly with his eye closed, just listening.

Chapter Text

Prompto gritted his teeth, fingernails biting into the palms of his hands as he struggled not to make a sound. The medical bed he was strapped to was turned on its side and hot wax was being poured into his ear. It wasn’t hot enough to raise blisters but it still hurt! When it had cooled and solidified, he was flipped over and the process repeated on the other side, effectively blocking all hearing.

The table was righted once more and the straps holding him in place removed. People around him were talking, but Prompto couldn’t hear what they were saying. He could hear his breathing, much louder than normal, but that was it. One of the guards gestured that he was to follow and Prompto did so, though his step faltered when he recognised where he was being led.

No. Oh no. Not again!

Ahead of him were those storage containers. And this time he wouldn’t be able to listen, to hear when someone walked along the corridor in front of him, or hear the conversations that careless B Grades made.

It was no use, of course. They needed to see how far they could push him, what his body and mind could tolerate, to determine where best to reassign him. A gun barrel pushed into his spine and he was forced to step forward until his nose touched the back of the container. And then it was sealed behind him, leaving him in total darkness.

For a while he was okay; even with his ears blocked, he wasn’t in complete silence since he could hear his breath. But time stretched on. He didn’t know if his eyes were open or closed as there was no difference in what he could see. His nose itched but there was not enough room to lift a hand to scratch it. Sparks started dancing before his eyes, and his breathing began to quicken. Air. There wasn’t enough air! Gasping for breath, Prompto started to push, to try to move his arms, to get more room! The container was getting smaller, he was sure of it! And the smaller it got, the harder it was to breathe. He screamed as he felt as though he were being crushed alive. Or was he dead? Was he already dead and that was why he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear couldn’t see? He screamed until his throat was raw but it made no difference, no one came.

He was alone.

 

Prompto woke with a strangled cry in the darkness feeling as though he were being smothered. He kicked the light blanket off him and stumbled from the couch where he had fallen asleep, throwing open the doors to the balcony and almost falling outside to lean against the railing.

Looking down at the lights reflecting on the water he started to calm himself down. He could breathe out here. He could move, he could hear, he wasn’t trapped, he wasn’t locked inside that hated container.

“Prompto? Are you alright?”

Prompto jumped at the sound of Ignis’s voice. Looking across he could see the man seated on a chair on the balcony next to him; he hadn’t even realised he was sitting there. “Yeah, sorry. Just… just a nightmare,” he said breathlessly, running a hand through his sweaty hair. “Seems the less I need to rely on my Inurement, the more it haunts me,” he added wryly. Or maybe it was just the pending foreboding of what was to come next, of returning home when every instinct screamed to run as far away as he could. He couldn’t share that though; it was the only chance for his friends to get their home back, for Prompto to make a new life for himself in a new country. Instead, he said, “Sorry, didn’t mean to intrude on you.”

Ignis smiled slightly. “It’s quite alright. I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to listen to the sounds of Altissia once more. I doubt we will be back here once we leave tomorrow.”

Prompto nodded, then realised Ignis wouldn’t be able to see that so said, “Right.”

He closed his eyes and tried to calm his racing heart down. There was a slight breeze blowing and it cooled his sweat soaked body as he turned to lean back against the railing and look back inside the room.

A week ago they had found out that Luna was found dead. Prompto had even been able to see her then. Her body at least. He was requested to take photographs for the official records, though such photos would not be released to the public of course. He had taken back the memory card he thought he was done with, taken the required photographs, handed it back and left. He thought about keeping one of the face - apart from being pale it was otherwise unmarked - but decided it was likely best not to; Noct would probably rather remember his beloved alive.

Noctis had woke that same day, while Prompto was out, leaving Ignis to be the one to tell him about Luna. Prompto remained somewhat uneasy around his commander; he was so quiet and sullen, barely even speaking two words to Prompto, or anyone else for that matter. It made Gladio furious - the man had ranted about his childish reactions on more than one occasion to both Prompto and Ignis - but Prompto just wanted to be near. Needed to be near. That was why he was sitting in Noctis’s room when he fell asleep, though he didn't know who had put the blanket over him.

“Permit me to ask a question, if I may,” Ignis said, his voice cutting through Prompto’s reminiscing.

“Shoot,” he replied.

“Why does the empire teach their soldiers to handle sense deprivation? It is not something normally faced in combat.”

Prompto smiled slightly; Ignis had been practising focusing on his hearing since their little talk. He had a cane now that helped him tell if there was any debris or slope changes in front of him and Prompto and Gladio had been helping him adjust to that. They had also bought him a pair of dark glasses which seemed to make him more comfortable going out in public. They didn’t hide the scars of course - the wounds were far too large for that - but Ignis had always worn glasses. He wanted to world to be crystal clear, Prompto remembered with a pang when he bought them. So having them now were a source of comfort to the man. He was getting better at being able to tell what was around him, didn’t panic any more and, if he got himself lost, he called Prompto’s phone; Prompto had found a little sticker and stuck it on the screen so that Ignis could feel where his fast dial icon was. All in all, he seemed to be coping well. Which was why his question surprised Prompto.

“It’s not so much that they teach us how to deal with it, but that we learn how to deal with it through exposure,” Prompto said, then shook his head. “That didn’t come out right. I mean, they use the sense deprivation to test our limits, to see how much we can handle before we snap, to determine what grade we should be reassigned to.”

“Your reassignment was when they decided to make you a sniper instead of melee?” Ignis asked.

Prompto nodded. Then said, “Yeah.”

 

Prompto was sitting on his bed in the dorm room, waiting. There was no one else there, everyone else was still in training or Inurement, like he was supposed to be. There were rumours: if you were unsuitable for reassignment, if you were decommissioned, you were designated D Grade, that D Grade really stood for Decommission rather than a simple alphabetical scale. D Grades weren’t human, they were all monsters, harvested for the Empire to experiment on in secret. There was no way a human could be designated D Grade but still, Prompto worried. He was B Grade now, so reassignment meant either C or decommissioned, D Grade. Reassignment itself was bad enough; C Grades were  cannon fodder, but at least he would still have a purpose. He wouldn’t be a monster.

The door to his dorm opened and Prompto immediately stood at attention. His knee throbbed at the sudden movement but he dared not shift his weight from it; he couldn’t give them any more of a reason to find him defective.

One of the men, a scientist with a walking stick looked him up and down, circling him. Prompto carefully kept his gaze forward. “Hmm, yes it could do. Good scores in shooting, you said?”

“Yes,” Sir replied. “That’s about all it excels in, though it may make it worth the cost of upkeep.”

Was Sir… defending him? Prompto never thought he would hear such things from Sir’s mouth; he thought the man hated him!

“Hmmm, maybe. I’ll have to see how it goes with a few of chemicals we’re developing. If it’s body can withstand that, then it may have some use. As a training dummy for the A Grades at the very least.” The walking stick shot out then and slammed into Prompto’s sore knee. It buckled, but he managed not to make a sound as he straightened once more to stand back at attention.

“Very well. Unit, follow me,” the scientist said, leading the way out. Prompto followed and was flanked by Sir.

 

“They had these… storage containers. Black metal things, tall enough that you would fit in, but not so wide enough that Gladio’s shoulders would fit. Magitek soldiers don’t tend to be as broad. I was… put in one of them while they were working out what to do with me,” Prompto said.

Ignis, for his part, said nothing. But he did reach into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. Prompto stared as he lit one and took a drag. He had never seen him smoke before, didn’t think he was the type who would.

After the silence stretched out for some time, Ignis said, “That was where you learned your listening technique?”

Prompto shook his head. “No. That was where I learned that I really really don’t like small spaces,” he said with a laugh. “Like, you remember that time, when we were getting the royal arm behind the waterfall? How… how Gladio and I had stayed behind and found another route cause he said that he was too big to fit through?”

 

Prompto stared at the narrow gap in the cave wall with a growing sense of unease. Noct lead the way through it, turning sideways to squeeze through, and Ignis followed. Gladio was last and, with a wave forward, gestured that Prompto should go first. He stared at the gap a second longer, the lights from the two in front of him growing dimmer, before he took a breath and forced himself forward. He had been Inured against this, he could do it. And besides, Noct cared a lot more for him than his Niflheim superiors ever did.

He took one step to the side, and then another, back pressed against one wall, hands in front of him against the other. Another step. Another. It was getting narrower, he was sure of it, and he instinctively started pushing against the walls, trying to force it wider.

“Hey guys? I think it’s a bit narrow for these guns. You go on ahead, me and Prom here will look for another way around,” Gladio called out.

“I don’t think splitting up is a very good idea,” Ignis said, his voice echoing strangely in the cave.

“Well I don’t think it’s a very good idea being stuck tight in a gap only wide enough for skinny arses like yourselves, blocking the way out,” Gladio shot back as he took a hold of Prompto’s forearm and started pulling him back the way they came.

“Point taken,” Ignis said.

 

Ignis gave a single nod, remembering it.

“He wasn’t… he lied about that. He could have fit through. He even started to do so behind me,” Prompto said, “but then he saw that I was panicking so came up with that excuse to get me out of it.”

“It reminded you of your reassignment. Of your Inurement,” Ignis guessed.

Prompto nodded. “Yeah,” he said. He wrapped his hands about his arms, leaning over slightly, chilled despite himself. “I had my hearing in the cave, of course, and it wasn't completely dark, but it was still tight, I still couldn't move my arms in front of me properly. Usually I manage ok, I probably could have then too if I'd been given the time, but I think Gladio didn't want to take that chance.” He paused, thinking, remembering. He had been so embarrassed at the time, but Gladio had just sat him down and forced him to bed his head over his knees until his breathing slowed down, and he was able to enact what he had remembered, the listening technique, counting what he could see and hear.

“Back in Zegnautus,” Prompto continued, “I overheard some older guys talking in the showers of listening to individual sounds, of counting them. One of them had just come out of a sense deprivation Inurement, the other was telling him about this technique to be able to handle it so that they wouldn’t be reassigned. When they took me and did it again, I tried it and it worked,” he said with a shrug. “Figured if it worked for me, it might help you too.”

Ignis was silent for a few moments, turning over what Prompto said. He took a drag from his cigarette then put it out on the balcony railing. “It has,” he said eventually. “Thank you.”

“Any time, Iggy,” Prompto replied.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct stared at the darkened ceiling as he listened to the muted conversation outside. It made him guilty, that he had dragged Prompto through those caves when they terrified him so much. He never realised it, Prompto had never let on, at least to Noct. Yet another thing he had screwed up.

Well, he couldn’t fix that. He couldn’t heal Ignis’s blindness, or take away the pain of Prompto’s Inurement, or make Gladio understand how he felt. But maybe he could at least show his friend how much he meant to him, show him how much he appreciated all he had done for Ignis while Noct had been unconscious.

Decision made, he rolled over and buried himself in the blanket, trying to get what little sleep he could before morning.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“So, do you wanna talk about it?”

Prompto slid himself into the seat opposite Noct and watched his friend cautiously. Five days had passed since they left Altissia, travelling first by boat, then by car, and now by train. And through all that time Gladio had ground his teeth while Noct moped in silence, Ignis stumbled and Prompto helped as best he could while at night a growing sense of unease crept up on him.

“Not really,” Noct replied, not looking at him, his chin propped on his hand with his elbow on the table. He was staring out the window though there wasn’t much to see at the moment. Prompto didn’t push, merely sat back and looked out the window too. After a while he sighed and spoke, as Prompto knew he would. “When your friend, Arvid, was killed did you… I don’t know, feel something?”

“No,” Prompto answered honestly. “But I was conditioned not to. If I showed that I cared about someone I was ordered to kill them. Or they could be ordered to kill me.”

“Sometimes I wish I could be conditioned not to feel anything,” Noctis muttered bitterly.

Prompto laughed a little despite himself. “No you don’t,” he said with certainty.

“Well, maybe not,” Noct allowed. “But it would make things easier, to do what I have to do.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring, staring at it. “She gave up everything for me. Her life, her health, her safety. Everything. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” Noctis’s voice hitched slightly at that last word and he closed his fist, squeezing it tight.

“Because she believed in you, Noct,” Prompto said quietly.

“Maybe I’m sick of people dying for me!” Noctis suddenly shouted.

Prompto smiled sadly, ignoring the stares the outburst gained them. Gladio thought that Noctis didn’t care about his position, that he’d never make a good king because he was apathetic about what that position entailed. Even Ignis had confessed worries in private about what kind of king Noctis would make, his sloppiness and unwillingness to even attempt the political reports he had presented him with before they left Insomnia. Prompto though, thought that Noctis cared too much, too deeply, about everyone.

“Maybe it's because I'm just an outsider looking in, but Noct, it's okay. You can't protect everyone. You can just do the best you can with the situations presented to you, ya know? And I think you're doing just fine at that.”

“But what if ‘just fine’ isn't good enough?” Noctis asked quietly. “What if ‘just fine’ gets even more people killed?”

“Then you get up, brush yourself off, and keep trying.”

Noct gave a mirthless laugh. “Just like that, huh?”

“Yeah, just like that.”

 

-l-l-l-

 

Gladio was angry. He was always angry lately, all the damn time. He was angry at Noct for not putting the past behind him, for not getting on with his job in taking back their home. He was angry with Prompto for allowing himself to be put through the crap that he was put through, for the wincing he still sometimes witnessed, for pretending to always be so damn happy all the time. He was angry with Ignis for being blind, for insisting on coming along with them when the wounds on his face had only just healed, for acting like he was okay with with everything. But most of all, he was angry with himself, angry with his failures, failures that it felt like were constantly being slapped in his face.

Sitting with Iggy, he tried to hide it, but he knew that the other man was aware of it, was aware of the simmering resentment boiling just below the surface. And watching Noct and Prompto a few seats down from him just made it all the worse.

Gladio was angry, and it was only a matter of time before he lost it completely.




Chapter Text

“Watch it!”

“Then get out of my way!”

Prompto gritted his teeth as he shot at one of the swamp alligator things, then hurried three steps to the side to hurl Ignis up and backwards, firing off another shot at the monster that was charging them, the last one.

“I wouldn't need to get in your way if you'd learn to defend yourself!”

“Ah guys?” Prompto tried, his voice hesitant.

“What?” both Noct and Gladio snarled at him at once, spinning to face him. Prompto instinctively curled in on himself a little, but a glance to Ignis, standing off by himself a few feet away strengthened his resolve.

Realising they had both snapped at Prompto and each blaming the other, Noct and Gladio were glaring at each other when Prompto spoke again. “There's a haven just up there and it's getting dark already. We should probably make camp, don't you think?”

“Bit early, isn’t it?” Gladio asked.

“If you want to fight daemons in the dark, be my guest,” Noct snapped. He started climbing up to the haven.

Prompto sighed softly to himself. “So much for that,” he muttered under his breath.

“Prompto,” Ignis said, quietly.

Prompto looked over to Ignis to see that he was still standing off to the side. He walked over, thinking maybe the man was just unsure of his footing. Ignis let Prompto lead him towards the haven but he walked deliberately slowly and when he spoke his voice was pitched low.

“We need to end this bickering between us, specifically those two,” Ignis said. “Talk to Gladio, convince him to try listening to Noct without losing his temper. I will speak to Noct.”

“I’ll try but…” Prompto trailed off, looking up towards the Haven where Gladio was setting up their camp with sharp, angry movements. “Why would he listen to me? I’m just…” The enemy, he was about to say; these guys had grown up together, shared mutual successes and losses, experiences that Prompto could never be a part of. That had been made all the more obvious when he tried to break up a shouting match between the two men and been shoved into a train seat by his face. It hadn’t hurt - he knew that Gladio wouldn’t deliberately hurt him - but it had made Prompto withdraw away from Gladio slightly.

“He’ll listen,” Ignis said. “You’ll find a way to get through to him. You must. We cannot succeed in Gralea without the four of us. Together and united.”

Prompto had his own doubts about how they could succeed in Gralea - he had lived there, he knew what was awaiting them - but he didn’t feel he had much of a choice. That was where the crystal was, and they needed the crystal’s power to defeat the Empire, to drive them out of Lucis. It was Prompto’s only chance to have a home, have a family, a place to belong and he wanted that. It still hurt to want that so badly, but that hurt only reminded him of how true it was, how much he longed for it to be so.

“I’ll do my best,” Prompto said.

“And that’s all any of us can do. Our best,” Ignis replied, his tone wistful.

Prompto smiled sadly and guided the man to a seat that Noct had set up by the fire.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Another day, another slog through an unforgiving swamp with a spoiled brat of a king leading them. Gladio was thankful for Prompto taking the active role in looking out for Iggy but he nonetheless wished that the others would listen to him for once, to take his advice, to leave Ignis in the care of their friends in Hammerhead. There he would be looked after, could adjust to his disability safely and then there would only be one liability he and the gunman would have to keep an eye on.

While the princess was off sulking last night Prompto had come up with the rather transparent request that the two of them patrol around the perimeter, to make sure no monsters would get close. Gladio had seen it immediately for what it was - an excuse to talk - but the fact was he had felt guilty about the way he had shoved Prompto the other day. The least he could do was agree to the request, to make sure things were still cool between them.

In the end they had had quite the heart to heart. Even if it had ended in the Nif setting him the challenge of expressing his doubts to Noct, of letting him defend himself against them and actually listen to him, without losing his temper. Watching Noct now, ahead of them, Gladio grit his teeth. He was striding ahead, faster than Iggy could keep up. As usual.

Glancing back, ensuring that Prompto was keeping Iggy safe, Gladio jogged forward and grabbed Noct’s shoulder to stop him. “Hold up,” he said. As expected the prince yanked it away, stepping back, but he did stop. Gladio looked over his shoulder briefly, but Prompto and Ignis had stopped a distance away. Good. “You sure you’re ready for this? You got what it takes?” Gladio demanded.

“To do what?” Noct asked sullenly.

“To face your ancestors and convince them to lend you their strength,” Gladio said. It was obvious wasn’t it? Noctis didn’t have anywhere near the strength of his father, surely it was obvious that Gladio would be having doubts. “Got a long road ahead. Can you see it through? To the end?”

“As if I have a choice,” Noct snapped. “You think I like the idea of people sacrificing themselves for me, one after the other?”

Gladio shook his head in disgust; just as he suspected. “Enough. Forget it,” he said, not bothering to keep the disappointment from his voice. He had promised Prompto he wouldn't get angry but he didn't need to worry; it wasn't anger he felt any more. Brushing past, he walked a few steps but then stopped. Looking over his shoulder, he said to Noctis’s back, “I thought you’d accepted your duty. I thought wrong.”

“No!” Noctis snapped, spinning around to face Gladio. “You think just because I'm sick of people dying for me I'm just going to shirk my duty? I am not so shallow! I will retake our home and I will not let their sacrifices be in vain! I am King, and it's about time you saw me that way!” Noct was shouting by the time he was done, fists balled and eyes hard.

“Hmph,” Gladio said, though he was wearing a small smile. “Damn right you're king. Which means you better start taking this seriously and stop slacking off.” With that, Gladio turned back towards the mine, leading the way down, feeling Noct’s eyes on his back but knowing they had finally got somewhere.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“That was awesome !” Prompto shouted, punching the air.

“I’m just glad it worked,” Ignis said. Modest as always.

Things had been looking particularly dire. Prompto had seen pictures of a marlboro before, in one of his monster theory classes. Seeing one for the first time, though, was completely different. And nothing could have prepared him for the smell! The Empire’s advice? Run. Not exactly helpful here when they had to get through it to get to the royal tomb. Which meant they were one up on the Empire having roasted that thing! Well, Ignis was anyway.

Eggs fried, royal arm obtained, now they just had to get back to the train before it left without them. As they’re leaving though, Ignis stopped.

“A moment,” he says, pausing just outside the doorway.

“Is everything okay?” Gladio asks, half turning to face him.

“It bloody well isn’t,” Ignis snaps. Prompto’s eyebrows shoot up. Ignis actually sounded angry. Like genuinely angry. Ignis never got angry! “And I won’t suffer this pointless bickering in silence any longer.”

Prompto looked aside, uneasy with where this was going. He had thought that things were sorted between Noct and Gladio; he had managed to convince Gladio to talk to Noct by challenging him, betting him one hundred gil that he couldn’t do it (and now he had to ask Ignis if he could borrow one hundred gil). And while he hadn’t heard everything, Noctis’s shouting was clear especially at the end. He thought ‘Fantastic, now things could get back to normal,’ or at least what counted as normal for these Lucians. But it hadn’t resolved anything; they had gone right back to snipping at each other during the fight. And, by the guilty look the two wore, they both knew it as well.

“Let us be frank. My vision hasn’t improved, and probably won’t,” Ignis continued. Prompto grimaced uneasily at that; he hadn’t realised until then that the man had still held on to hope that his eyesight would return. “Yet, in spite of this…” His voice drops, quiet. “I would remain with you all. Till the end.”

Glagio sighs loudly. “Sorry, but I object. War is a matter of life and death.”

Prompto was unable to help himself; they had been over all these arguments before, in Altissia. Ignis had still come along then and, what’s more, he had just saved all their arses. No matter how much it hurt, Prompto wasn’t able to stay silent. “We’ll be there!” he snapped. He gritted his teeth but glared at Gladio, daring him to continue.

Of course he did. “It’s not about us looking out for him!”

“Uh huh,” Prompto said, decidedly unamused. “Just like it wasn’t about you guys looking out for me when my head feels like it’s gonna explode? Like it wasn’t about Noct when he was paralysed with that stasis thing? Like it wasn’t about you when you took off to fight Gilgamesh! Just like all of that, Iggy should be free to choose.” Prompto’s head was pounding but he refused to back down, he couldn’t

“There’s more to it than just what he wants!” Gladio snapped.

“I know full well!” Ignis shouted. He wasn’t looking at them - well ‘looking’ - but he had his head turned to the side, an ear facing them. “Gladio, I was raised with the same duties instilled in me as in you. We may have different roles to play for our king but both of us know that our duty, to protect the king, comes first. I am not asking you to slow down. If I can’t keep up, I will bow out.”

Prompto was determined not to see that happen, not after all Ignis had done for him, but he could see Gladio starting to wear down so held his tongue. For now at least.

“What says ‘his majesty’?” Gladio said, his tone full of mockery.

Before Noct could answer though, Ignis spoke up. “Noct, you are king. Remember what we spoke about last night.” Noct, who had been staring at the ground, looked up at Ignis then. “One cannot lead by standing still. A king pushes onward always, accepting the consequences and never looking back.”

Prompto bit his lip a little, watching the play between Ignis and Noct, seeing how Noct seemed to cling to Ingis’s words like a lifeline; Ignis had earned his title of ‘Advisor to the King’. It wasn’t just because he was a good cook and, frankly, the most mature of the three of them, or because of his keen intelligence and analytical mind. It was that skill, the one to be able to cut to the heart of the matter and convey it to Noctis in a way that made him listen. Prompto envied that.

“Gladio, Noct will take his rightful place.” Ignis walked unerringly towards Gladio as he spoke. “But only once he’s ready. That is not for you to decide.”

Prompto gave a sharp nod, not willing to say anything further - his head was still throbbing lightly from earlier - but agreeing wholeheartedly with Ignis. He may be the outsider, he may be the only one who hadn’t grown up with Noctis, but he knew what he saw and what he saw was someone who had more grit, determination, and innate leadership skills than anyone who had ordered Prompto in Niflheim.

Gladio’s arms were folded defensively across his chest, but at that he lowered them and looked aside; perhaps he had been overstepping the mark a little, even if it was with the best intentions. “Have it your way. We’re still taking a big risk,” he said, unable to completely concede defeat but willing to go that far. “We better all be ready.”

“We will,” Prompto said quietly. Gladio started to stride away, walking away from the tomb and, glancing back to see Ignis and Noct speaking quietly, Prompto hurried after Gladio; they shouldn’t split up and, truthfully, Prompto wasn’t sure that Gladio wasn’t about to run off again.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noctis stared out the window at the Niflheim landscape, the weird desert meeting the snow. He had heard of it, of course, been forced to study the phenomena, but studying it was completely different to seeing it in person.

Hearing someone running down the carriage, Noct tore his gaze away from the window to see Prompto heading towards him. Prompto, seeing Noct at the same time, skidded to a halt and leaned on the table as he spoke.

“Woah! There you are, buddy! Did you see this? It’s unreal!” he said.

Noct frowned. “Didn’t you say you had trained out here?”

“Well yeah, but it was a few years ago now. And that cloud thing wasn’t so big then either. Just a kind of mist or something. This is insane!”

“Yeah,” Noctis said, looking back out the window. “Never seen anything like it. Doesn’t make any sense.”

Noctis shivered, a chilling tingle spreading over his skin. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and, slowly, he turned around. The light was strange, kind of blueish-white instead of the warm yellows the desert sun had provided. And the carriage was silent. Not just quiet, but completely silent, no rail sounds, no coughing, no chink of glasses from the bar, nothing. Prompto had vanished, he had just been talking and now he was gone. But, even more than that, everyone was frozen still. It was as though time had stopped for everyone except him.

“What’s going on?” Noctis asked slowly as he got out of his seat, looking around.

“It’s a real mystery,” a familiar voice drawled.

Noctis gasped as he spun around, his heart leaping into his throat. The last time he had seen Ardyn he had just stabbed Luna and then taunted Noct about it while he lay helpless, too exhausted to move. And now, the bastard had the gall to show up here on the train! Smiling all the while!

“I’m not liking that snow cloud. Kind of gives me the chills and it looks like it’s getting closer,” Ardyn was saying, for all appearances looking out the window and admiring the view like one of the frozen passengers. “Like, who comes up with this stuff?” he continued. “It’s nothing like I remember.”

Noctis has had enough. Striding forward, anger surging, he growls, “The hell are you doing here?” He doesn’t even think before he throws a punch.

 

<><>

 

It was only Prompto’s highly trained reflexes that stopped him from getting a broken nose as he dodged Noct’s punch. He had gone to get them a drink and was waiting for the bartender to serve him when Noct had suddenly ran up to him. “Whoa, what’s going on?” he asked uneasily. “Easy there, buddy.” Noct just tripped, he told himself. He stumbled and tripped, that was all. “Whoa, didn’t see that coming.”

A few people had turned to see and one woman clutched her young daughter to her, leaning against the window afraid that a fight would break out. It wouldn’t, would it?

It was as though Noct didn’t even see them though as he summoned his sword. “Shut up!” he shouted.

Was there something going on? Prompto risked a glance behind him, half expecting to see some kind of demon and only just saw the flash out of the corner of his eye, warning him to dodge back to avoid being slashed by Noct’s sword.

“Be careful there!” Prompto shouted. He backed away further. There had been something there, that had to be it. Noct was sometimes careless in battle, focusing more on the enemy than on where his friends were. There had been a couple close calls before.

But the expected guilty ‘sorry’ didn’t come. Instead, Noct kept on advancing, and it wasn’t something behind Prompto that he was staring at. Those dark blue eyes, filled with anger and hatred, were locked on Prompto.

“Wait - is this for real?” Prompto said. Noct didn’t answer, merely charged at him. It was real! Noct was furious with something and attacking him, completely ignoring the terrified passengers!

Prompto turned and ran, darting down the carriage, forgetting about their drinks. He couldn’t fight Noct! Wouldn’t fight him! He didn’t even know why Noct was acting that way. Pausing long enough to yank open the door, Prompto darted through. A sleeper carriage! Surely there would be… there! An empty room. Pulling the door open, Prompto slid it shut as he heard Noct open the carriage door himself. He threw himself under the bed and held his breath. What was going on? They had been talking all friendly just before. And to just attack him like that? Prompto squeezed his eyes shut. Not even when he was furious at Gladio had Noct physically attacked one of them, it wasn’t his style.

But then, Prompto wasn’t one of them. And so he hid.

One second. Two. Then the door was flung open.

“Show yourself!” Noct growled.

No. No no no no. Prompto gripped at his hair, pulling it slightly as he fought the order. He could do this, they had been practicing. It hurt, it hurt so much more when it was real disobedience instead of just pretend. But he could do this. The moment passed, the pain with it. And then… nothing. Prompto barely dared to breathe. Noct had seen him come in here, he had to, that was how he was able to know exactly which door to open. But… he wasn’t doing anything. Still, Prompto waited, keeping as quiet as possible, trying to decide whether to summon his gun or not. He wouldn’t shoot Noct, of course, but it was made from quicksilver, it would make a fair club. Maybe if he could knock Noct out, he could get help. But if he summoned it, would Noct feel it? Would it give him away?

A minute passed, then two, then four. Still nothing. Slowly, Prompto peeked out from under the bed, then hurriedly ducked back. Noct was there, standing in the doorway! There was still no sound though, no movement, no shout of discovery. Hesitantly, Prompto looked out again. Noct was still standing there, but he wasn’t looking at him. He was just standing still, staring, only occasionally blinking.

“Noct?” he said quietly.

No response.

Prompto wriggled out from under the bed and stood before his friend, right in front of him but there was still no recognition, no movement. Something weird was going on! Maybe he was sick, or, or confused. Some monsters caused confusion, made them mistake their friends for enemies, that had to be it! He had to get to Ignis and Gladio, maybe they had some idea of what was going on or at the very least Ignis would know how to cure this confusion. Careful not to touch Noct (though he couldn’t say why), Prompto slipped past his best friend and started towards the front of the train where he had seen Ignis and Gladio go.

He was at the doorway, hand on the handle, when he paused, looking back. Noct was still standing there, staring. What if… what if whatever this was put him in danger? Prompto couldn’t just leave him there, he was his best friend, the one who had allowed him to come along when he had nothing else!

Hanging his head with a sigh, Prompto turned away from the door and back to Noct.

 

<><>

 

“Show yourself!” Noctis growled as he threw the sleeper cabin’s door open. He stared. The carriage was empty. He had just seen Ardyn go in there but now there was no one. Where could he have gone?

“Uh.. Noct?”

Noct felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around, flinging his arm wide, but only caught a glimpse of Ardyn before he vanished again.

“That son of a bitch…” Noctis cursed, his frustration rising.

 

<><>

 

Prompto fell back again, heart racing. Nope, Noct was still trying to attack him! Not kill him, Prompto couldn’t believe that he would try to kill him. If he had wanted him dead he had plenty of opportunities so why now? He had to get help, there was no other way around it. He had to trust that Noct would be able to handle himself for a little while on his own.

He turned to run again, not noticing how Noct seemed frozen once more. He got two carriages away this time (why did the train have to be so damn long anyway?) before Noct caught up with him.

“C’mon, Noct!” Prompto shouted, stumbling along the carriage’s passage. It was a joke, it had to be! “You're scaring me!” he said, narrowly dodging another punch. The only response Noct gave though was a furious, almost animalistic growl when his attacks kept missing. “Seriously, man, cut it out! This isn’t funny any more, it’s not safe!” he tried.

Had to be a joke. Had to be had to be had to be- whoa! Prompto just managed to throw himself to the ground to avoid having his head chopped off by Noct’s blade, the passengers screaming as he only narrowly avoided hitting them as well. “Noct, you’re causing a scene. Quit playing around!” he tried; surely Noct cared about the other passengers, it was a king’s job to care about people right?

“You think this is funny?!” Noct growled and Prompto’s heart dropped even as he physically dropped himself again to avoid another sword slice.

“I… I didn’t mean it like-” he started to stammer as he scrambled backwards. Another time he was scrambling away from this man flashed into his mind. It was hot then, and there was sandy stone beneath him. Prompto had worn armour to protect him; he had none of that now. But even back then, when Noct had been trying to kill him, his expression was just determination to do what was necessary; he didn’t have the hatred he saw in his eyes now.

“Dude, are you seriously trying to kill me?” Prompto asked, almost dreading the answer. Getting his feet under him again he turned and ran once. It was a dream. That must be it. A dream, one of those forever running ones. Next time he falls he’ll wake right before hitting the ground like he always does.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Noct snapped.

 

<><>

 

“Why wouldn’t I?” Noct snapped.

He couldn’t believe this guy! How could Ardyn really think that he wouldn’t want to kill him? He had killed Luna! Stabbed her in the stomach! It was a deliberate act, a torturous one, one that would have killed her slowly and painfully had the Hydraean’s waters not claimed her first.

Why wouldn’t Ardyn just face him and be done with it?! Noctis was sure he was the one behind all the passengers seemingly frozen in time, so he clearly wanted something ! And then, finally, Ardyn pulled on a door that didn’t open. Noct had him trapped.

“What’re you after, following me around this whole time?” he growled as he approached. “It’s your fault!”

 

<><>

 

Eventually, as Prompto knew it would, his luck ran out. A door he tried to yank open was locked.

“What’re you after, following me around this whole time? It’s your fault!”

Prompto spun around at that. Was that… was that really what Noct thought? Prompto had begged to come along with them, way back in Hammerhead when he had felt so lost without orders to follow. He knew it had been a risk the Lucians took but… did Noct hate him for it? See him as nothing more than a stray dog? It certainly seemed that way as Noct shoved him back against the metal wall of the train, arm across his throat.

 

The broken rifle dropped to the ground as an arm pressed across his throat, cutting off his air. Even as his hands grasped futilely at the arm, Prompto knew this was it. He closed his eyes and waited for the fatal strike.

 

“What are you talking about?” Prompto got out through the pressure against his windpipe. What was his fault? Ignis’s blindness? Was it because he wasn’t there to save Luna, had only seen her body? Did Noct secretly blame him for the Empire’s attack on Insomnia? He knew that both Gladio and Ignis had shared that suspicion and uneasiness at first, but he had thought Noct was different. Maybe he was wrong. “Do… do you really mean that Noct?” he asked, hating how his voice was breaking.

“Of course I do!” Prompto closed his eyes at that as pain welled in his chest, at the anger and the hatred that rolled off Noct towards him. “You can’t talk your way out of this!”

Prompto shook his head slightly. “I won’t,” he whispered. He didn’t know what he had done to cause this contempt and rage from Noctis but he was still his commander, his leader. If this was what he wanted, then he would obey.

 

<><>

 

“I won’t,” Ardyn whispered.

Noctis frowned. That was… unexpected.

Growling, frustrated, he shoved against the neck under his arm. “Stop… stop messing with my head!” he snapped.

Ardyn couldn’t answer, he was making small choking sounds. Finally, this was it! He would have his revenge and the added satisfaction of doing so with his own bare hands. 

Noctis barely had time to recognise that it was an explosion that ripped into the train, throwing him across the carriage, before his head slammed into metal and he saw only darkness.

Chapter Text

“Noct! Are you okay?”

Noctis groaned and blinked a few times as the world around him came back into focus. Prompto was kneeling above him. “No,” he said sitting up. “Where’s Ardyn?”

“Wait, he’s here?” Prompto asked, looking around as though expecting him to suddenly pop up. “If he is that would explain all this weird stuff happening.” Noct was glad that Prompto had said it, meant that it wasn’t just him it was happening to. “I bet he’s behind the train stopping. Ignis and Gladio went up to inspect the engine room. I say the two of us go check out the rear.”

Noctis nodded, climbing to his feet. “Yeah,” he said. Seemed like as good a plan as any. Something had to have caused that explosion. Maybe they could help.

The two of them jogged through the train, but they got to the next carriage before another explosion rocked them. Glass cracked. People screamed and ducked. Noct stumbled a little, hands raising above his head before he realised that the explosion hadn’t been near them this time

“Did they bomb us?!” Prompto exclaimed. “Noct, we have to protect the people!”

“Right,” Noct said. He glanced around. The passengers in this carriage were terrified but no one seemed hurt. They continued on.

Yanking open the door to the next carriage, another sleeper carriage, they only just managed to dodge out of the way as people ran through, running towards the front of the train, screaming. Glancing past them, he saw the shine of sunlight on armour: Magitek.

Seemed Prompto saw it at the same time. “Head to the next car!” he shouted over the screaming to the passengers.

Taking his lead, Noct added, “Leave these guys to us.” Summoning his sword he warped ahead, moving behind the axeman so that Prompto had a clear shot. It was taken down quickly, but there was only one there and where there was one there was bound to be more.

“So much for a safe ride,” Prompto said. “More of ‘em might be on board. Let’s check the rear.”

Noct frowned. He started to move the other way but Prompto blocked his path. “We need to get the train moving again,” he said, wanting to head to the engine room instead, to get it to go and outrun the Empire. They could mop up after.

Prompto just getting in his way though, preventing him from changing directions. “I’m sure Ignis and Gladio will come up with something. We have to trust them and make sure this part of the train is safe.”

Noct grimaced. Prompto was right; Ignis had just proved that he could look out for himself and his hearing had been becoming ever sharper to compensate for his blindness. And besides, he had Gladio with him and Noct trusted no one more than the shield to protect both him and his friends. Things may still be shaky between them but he had never doubted the man’s skill in combat. “Hope so,” he said as he turned back again, heading down the passage back towards the rear of the train. “Let’s go.”

“How bad do you think it is?” Prompto asked as they progressed forward, checking on passengers as they went. “Hope nobody got hurt.”

Noct glanced back over his shoulder at Prompto hearing that; wasn’t that what they were just checking for? Prompto was acting… odd. He didn’t get a chance to really process that thought before another explosion sounded. He cried out a little as glass flew inwards, some slicing his arms as he threw them up over his face but most just bouncing off his clothes, thank the astrals. At least no one was in this carriage, but if they didn’t find what was causing the explosions soon there wouldn’t be a train to get moving.

Noctis was looking out the windows as they ran past (or as best he could through the broken glass), but it wasn’t until the next carriage that he could see past the storage containers. There was an MT ambling towards the train. It was walking slowly and, instead of trying to head towards a door, it was just walking straight to the side of the train car.

“What is-” was as far as Noct got before another explosion ripped through the carriage, close enough that he was thrown to the side, catching himself on one of the seats. When the dust cleared the MT was nowhere to be found. “It blew up!” he said stupidly, looking around.

“Crap, the MTs can self-destruct,” Prompto said.

“We can’t let them inside.” Noct pulled himself upright and jumped out the hole the explosion had caused, launching himself at the nearest MT.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto groaned and curled into a ball. His head hurt where it had smacked the train’s floor. He didn’t want to open his eyes, he wanted to pretend that none of this was happening, that the train hadn’t just exploded, that Noct hadn’t just been trying to kill him.

That Noct didn’t hate him.

Opening his eyes he frowned. It was dark. It hadn’t been dark before, it was the middle of the day and there was no way he was out that long. Pushing himself up and sitting back on his feet, he looked around. It wasn’t completely dark, he realised. There was a crack of light as though through a doorway and as his eyes adjusted he could see where he was: in a luggage cupboard. A small luggage carriage, where half the room had been taken up with shelving and people’s suit cases.

Grabbing onto the shelf, Prompto pulled himself upright and tried the door. Locked. He yanked on it and rattled it a few more times for good measure. Still locked. Okay. It was okay. He could do this. What could he hear? There were people screaming. Running. The occasional explosion that vibrated the train. None of that was good news.

His phone started to vibrate, a merry little chocobo tune playing and Prompto jumped. Reaching into his pocket, he smiled a little seeing the name: Gladio. A picture of the man with his thumb up, grinning widely was on screen. A swipe and he answered it. “Gladio?”

“Prom! What’s going on? Where are you and Noct?”

The connection was breaking up - reception wasn’t good out here - but he could hear what was being said. Prompto’s left hand started to tremble thinking about it and he clenched it in a fist. “Noct is… I don’t know,” he said. Flashes of Noct chasing him through the train ran through his mind. A sword slicing down at him. An arm across his throat, choking him. “Noctis tried… I don’t know,” he tried again, his uneasiness causing him to cut off with that same default phrase a second time.

“Prompto, calm down. Tell me what happened,” Gladio said and, even though he was telling Prompto to calm down, his voice was sharp.

Prompto took a breath, trying to stop the trembling, stop the memories, stop everything. Gladio clearly didn’t share Noct’s opinion of him, he wouldn’t be calling him, talking to him like this if he did. He could tell Gladio. “Noct attacked me,” he finally said.

“What?!” Prompto couldn’t help it, he flinched at the tone. “What do you mean he attacked you?”

“He… attacked me. He summoned his sword and tried to… to kill me with it. He said… he said that he didn’t know why I was following and that everything was my fault.” Prompto swallowed. “When the first explosion happened we were both thrown and knocked out. I don’t know where he is now.”

“That doesn’t sound like Noct,” Ignis’s voice came through distantly, listening in to the call.

“I’m not lying!” Prompto cried.

“I didn’t say that, Prompto,” Ignis’s voice said, his tone calm and soothing.

“Where are you?” Gladio asked.

“A luggage locker. I… I woke up locked in here.”

“Gladio, we need to get him out. Now!” Ignis snapped.

Prompto closed his eyes and smiled a little sadly; Ignis obviously remembered what he had said about how much he hated enclosed spaces and why. “It’s okay, Iggy,” he said with more calm than he felt. “If…” He swallowed again. “If there really is something wrong with Noct and… and he doesn’t hate me, then you need to get to him. He needs help and maybe he’ll listen to you. You’ve both known him longer after all.”

“Alright,” Gladio said. “What will you do?”

Prompto summoned his gun and looked down at it. “Take a leaf from your book and barrel my way through my problems,” he said. “I’ll shoot my way out.”

Gladio chuckled. “Atta boy,” he said. “We’ll find Noct, don’t worry about it. You focus on helping the passengers and stay away from him for now. Alright?”

“Okay,” Prompto said, his voice still a little shaky.

“And Prom?”

“Yeah?”

“He won’t have meant it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Prompto lied. The truth was, he didn’t know; Gladio hadn’t seen the way Noct had looked at him, with complete and utter contempt. Still, Gladio was only trying to make him feel better. “Thanks Gladio,” he said, before they hung up.

Slipping his phone back into his pocket, Prompto glanced down at his gun. He didn’t know if Noct had felt him summon it, didn’t even know if he would care, but he had to get out of here somehow. Stepping back as far from the door as he could (which wasn’t much really) he took aim at the latch and fired.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noctis warped away from the exploding tank to hang by his sword embedded in a telegraph pole. He couldn’t hold on long there but it was enough to get him away from a fiery death.

“Come on!” Prompto shouted from where he had climbed aboard a storage carriage. “We’re leaving!”

Noctis allowed his embedded sword to disappear into the ether and, as he fell, summoned it again and threw it, performing a mid-air warp to land on the train, only wobbling a little as he rematerialised there. If Ignis had seen that stunt he would have been scolded for being so reckless! Prompto would have gotten a photo if he weren’t otherwise occupied.

“Look! They’re hot on our tail,” Prompto said from somewhere below him. The rumble of airships was only just audible over the grinding and scraping of the damaged train pulling itself along the tracks. They were shooting at the train and soon it wouldn’t matter that Ignis and Gladio (or the actual train driver, Noct had no way of knowing) had gotten the train going again; they couldn’t outrun dropships. “They’re gonna blow us to bits!”

“Not if we blow ‘em up first!” Noct replied, an idea forming. He started running along the roof of the carriage towards the back of the train and the dropships.

“How’s that now?”

Noct skidded to a stop suddenly. Since when did Prompto need that level of direction? He was usually just as innovative as Noct was, especially now he wasn’t so shy and nervous around them. “Shoot ‘em!” Noct said, his voice conveying the obviousness of the plan.

“Oh, now there’s an idea!”

Noct shook his head but pushed worry about what Prompto was doing out of his mind; Prompto could shoot any troopers that got close, but his gun didn’t have the range to take them out from where he was. It was up to Noctis. He threw his sword, warping to the nearest dropship.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto reached under a train chair and grabbed the wrist of the little girl cowering under there. She was only about four or five but was the only one left in this carriage. “Come on!” he said as he pulled. She didn’t want to come and Prompto didn’t know what to do; he had absolutely no experience in dealing with crying children, even Talcott was afraid of him though he thought that was more due to seeing his grandfather murdered by someone wearing the same armour as Prompto had.

Gritting his teeth, hoping he wouldn’t hurt the girl, he tightened his grip on her wrist and pulled, dragging her out. She was screaming and crying, but he didn’t think it was in pain. Not that he would know the difference, but surely he wasn’t strong enough to actually hurt her. And, truthfully, even if he did that would be better than dying here because the kid was too scared to move.

Getting her out and picking her up, Prompto ran towards the front of the train, but another explosion caused him to stumble and fall. He turned his body so it shielded the kid from any glass and was up again as soon as it passed. There were a multitude of tiny cuts all over him now from the constant explosions but he barely noticed. He was surprised that the train was still moving truth be told.

Hearing a noise behind him, he glanced back to see three MTs leap in through the window. Clutching the child to his chest he ran through the carriage and threw open the door to the next one. There were people here and he he shoved the child on to the nearest person.

“Run to the front of the train!” he shouted. “There are MT’s behind me, I’ll take care of them!” That got them moving and Prompto turned his back to them and returned to where the MT’s were ambling towards him. He couldn’t help but notice that these MT’s seemed to be rushed; either they weren’t created very well or they hadn’t had long to train. Prompto’s shots took them down easily.

An explosion outside the carriage drew Prompto’s attention once the last of the MT’s had fallen. A dropship was following them but as he watched a fire caught and it went down, crashing into the landscape and quickly falling behind. There was definitely more than just the one though; the troopers had to be coming from somewhere.

Prompto ran towards the carriage’s doorway. There was a luggage car after this one, he would be able to get onto the train’s roof from there and maybe be able to pick off a few. His gun was no sniper rifle, they had never managed to find another that met Prompto’s high standards, but he could get a few shots into any that tried to come close and board the train, maybe even hit something vital.

Outside, the hot wind alternated with icy pockets from the distant snow. Trees and rocks raced past faster than they were supposed to, the train far exceeding the speed limit. Prompto climbed up onto the roof and looked around. He caught sight of a blue outline as another dropship went down and bit his lip; Noct was up there.

“Why, if it isn’t our little pet MT.”

Prompto’s heart leapt up into his throat and he spun around, raising his gun, ignoring the painful throb his head gave at the action. Ardyn was just standing there, smiling at him!

“What do you want?” Prompto demanded, glad that his voice sounded steady.

“C1094, lower your gun.” Instead, Prompto rose his other hand to help hold the gun steady, still pointed at Ardyn.  Ardyn’s smile only widened. “I see our young king there really has broken you. It’s okay, we can fix you.” The truth was Prompto wasn’t as ‘broken’ as he let Ardyn believe - he had been trying to pull the trigger since he saw Ardyn without success - but he wasn’t about to let the chancellor know that.

“What. Do. You. Want,” Prompto said slowly.

Ardyn moved slowly along the train, hands up as though he were surrendering. Prompto followed him with his gun until they were both standing facing each other with their backs to the landscape whizzing by.

“Nothing,” Ardyn said. “Yet.”

“Prompto!”

Ardyn’s grin became practically wolf like briefly at the sound of Noct’s voice, before he affected a terrified expression.

Noct’s sword slashed down, knocking the gun from Prompto’s hand as he hastily stepped back, then Noct turned and slashed at Prompto. Forced to dodge again, Prompto windmilled his arms, trying to keep balance, but in the end it was too late. He fell backwards with a scream, the last thing he saw was Ardyn and Noct together, looking down on him.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noctis’s heart dropped into his stomach as Ardyn seemed to flicker and change into Prompto as he fell, Prompto’s distinctive scream echoing in his ears.

“How long were you in the dark?” Ardyn drawled from behind him.

Spinning, Noct caught sight of Ardyn holding Prompto’s gun before it slammed into his head before he could react, sending him slamming into the train’s roof and into darkness.

Chapter Text

Prompto groaned as he felt movement. Eyes still closed he mentally assessed the damage. Sharp stings that spoke of cuts and scrapes. Pain when breathing that indicated cracked or broken ribs, likely from landing after falling from the train. Throbbing head and nausea meant a concussion and bad enough that if he opened his eyes he had a feeling he would see double.

A hand gripping his wrist, pulling, feet dragging in the ground.

His eyes flicked open and he yanked on his arm. The sudden movement pulled the person off balance and Prompto fell onto his back. His arm was still held though so he rose his feet and kicked out, the combat boots that matched Noct’s landing with a satisfying thud and forcing the person holding his arm to let go. It also meant that Prompto fell completely back to the earth and his vision swam with the sudden movement. He didn’t let it stop him though as he rolled his feet under him and staggered away. He tried to summon his gun but it wouldn’t come. Then he remembered: Noct had struck it from his hand and he hadn’t seen where it fell before he lost his balance. Obviously it had not been returned to the armiger.

Frantically, he balled his fists, ready to fight (well pretending he was ready) and looked around. Three soldiers, all wearing familiar magitek armour. The good news was Prompto knew that armour inside and out, knew what it protected well and what it didn’t and, if he had his gun, would have been able to shoot right into its weak points. The bad news was Prompto didn’t have his gun, he had always sucked at close combat, and he was dizzy, struggling to stand up without the world spinning.

As one the three charged him. They were armed but not using their weapons. They had obviously been ordered not to harm him. Good. He couldn’t punch while they were in armour - he really didn’t want to add broken knuckles to his list of injuries - so he caught the arm of the first one to punch him and swung him around into another. They moved as a unit, the second expecting the move and jumping back as the first stumbled. The third slammed a fist into the back of Prompto’s head and he fell forward. On his hands and knees he grabbed the nearest foot and pulled. One fell crashing to the ground and Prompto reached up to yank his helmet off with one hand and slam a fist into the nose with his other. A hard kick into his ribs threw Prompto off and he screamed as his ribs screamed at him, curling around them. By then it was too late. His vision narrowed into a black tunnel as metal booted feet continued to kick him until he stopped moving altogether.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“Damnit,” Noctis groaned as he came to.

As the memories flooded back, he wished he hadn’t woken, wished he could turn back time and undo all he had done wrong. Prompto… what had he done? Pulling out his phone, he tried calling him but he must have been out of service. Noct had service, he must be close to a phone tower, but, if Prompto’s phone was still working, he was out of range. They had to go back. They couldn’t turn a whole train around but they could stop it! He called Ignis.

“What’s wrong?” Ignis answered; they had set up individual ringtones for Ignis so he knew who was calling him. For Noct to call he knew something had to be up.

“Ignis, you’ve gotta stop this thing!” Noct cried. “Prompto fell off the train. I pushed him - I mean, Ardyn made me.” Even to Noct’s ears that sounded childish, despite the fact that it was the truth of the matter. “I don’t know where he is, but we can’t leave him!”

“Stay calm, Noct,” Ignis said, though his own voice sounded anything but calm. “I’m as concerned for Prompto as you are, but stopping the train would endanger everyone on board. We’d be sitting ducks for the daemons.”

“What do we do?” Noct demanded. What he wanted to say was fuck the passengers and fuck the demons, they had to get Prompto! But he knew he couldn’t do that, wouldn’t, as much as he longed to.

“First, we drop the passengers off at Tenebrae. We’ll be arriving shortly.”

“What about Prompto?!”

“Given the chancellor’s involvement, it’s probable he’s no longer where we left him. In anny case, he may try to contact us. Let us wait and hope for now and we will continue to try to call him,” Ignis said. Noct hated it, hated the very idea of drawing ever away from Prompto especially if it was what Ardyn wanted, but Ignis was right. “Can you make your way here? Gladio is with me.”

“Are the two of you okay at least?” Noct asked, guiltily realising he hadn’t even thought to ask about them.

“Yes.”

Noct felt relief rush over him at that. “Okay,” he said. “On my way.” As they entered a tunnel he saw the walls practically crawling with demons. Goblins mostly. “I’ll be there as soon as I take care of these stowaways.”

 

-l-l-l-

 

The next time Prompto woke it was to darkness and the familiar hum of a dropship. His head was pounding and he made to raise a hand to it only to find he couldn’t, there wasn’t room. Instantly the panic started to set in when he realised where he was: a storage container on a dropship, no doubt heading for the Empire, for decommissioning. His breath began to come in panicky gasps.

Listen. Remember to listen. He could almost hear his own voice telling Ignis as much, talking him through one of his panic attacks when he had gotten turned about and disoriented. Listen.

There wasn’t a lot to hear. Either the Nif soldiers who had captured him weren’t within hearing distance or they were too well trained to be discussing anything. There was the hum of the dropship engine but Prompto didn’t know enough about the dropships to be able to identify anything about it. And other than his own fast breathing he couldn’t hear anything else.

Someone had performed basic first aid on him. His ribs had some kind of bracing around them that took some of the pain away and he could smell antiseptic cream, feel the stickiness of it on his hands and elbows and knees where his pants had torn. His head still swam and pounded, but it wasn’t like he would be given a potion for his comfort. Magitek soldiers did not need comfort, they needed efficiency and that’s all the first aid provided: to ensure he remained efficient. Though for what purpose he couldn’t guess at; he had no idea what was involved in being decommissioned.

Prompto tried to summon his gun again, but it was in vain. His hand could reach his pocket though and he pulled out his phone. With one hand he unlocked it and tried to call Gladio but it was no use, there was no service. Just that same unable to connect message in that painfully cheery voice that made his teeth grit.

He locked the phone again, plunging the container back into darkness, wanting to save battery. He had to keep it charged, had to warn them. Ignis and Gladio had no way to know what had happened to Prompto, what he had seen: Noct and Ardyn, working together, allies. He ran his thumb back and forth over the embossed chocobo on the protective case.

The phone and its case had weathered up surprisingly well considering what it had gone through. It was scuffed on the corners and his screen had a few cracks in it but it still worked. Noct had really bought him a good one. And on the heels of that thought was the reminder that it was all fake, that he hadn’t really cared at all, that he was just biding his time till he could team up with Ardyn.

‘But why?’ his mind kept asking. What did Noct have to gain from teaming up with the chancellor of Niflheim? It didn’t make any sense!

Unless Ardyn had offered to get Noct into the capital.

But why would he do that, what would he get out of it?

Prompto had no idea. Ardyn had been ‘helping’ them since he joined them and outside of pushing Prompto’s limits, he hadn’t seemed to get anything out of it. He had the crystal, Niflheim had won the war. True, Noct was powerful and could still draw from the crystal no matter whose hands it was in, he would make a powerful ally, but why would he need it?

Prompto sighed. It was pointless. His thoughts were going around and around and getting nowhere but it was working to distract him from his own situation. He checked his phone again. Still no service. Damn. His thumb continued to trace the chocobo over and over.

 

-l-l-l-

 

There were many things Ignis missed seeing since he had lost his sight. He wished he could see the battlefields so he could help his friends. He wished he could see Gladio’s goofy grin when he laughed at something. He wished he could see Noct posing ‘like a dork’ at Prompto’s insistence for a photo. He wished he could see sunrises and sunsets and all the times in between.

At this particular point in time though, he really wished he could have seen the Hydraean forced to submit to Noct’s summoning, to brush the daemons from the train and help them. It was petty and vindictive and he wanted it more than anything. Gladio had tried to describe it for him but, bless the man, he wasn’t very good with adjectives, using words like ‘big’ and ‘huge’ and ‘wet’.

“That’s what she said,” Ignis muttered in annoyance.

There was a moment of silence before Gladio gawfed at Ignis’s comment and slapped him hard on the back only to be forced to grab his arm when the unexpected contact caused him to stumble.

Regardless of how he personally felt about the Goddess, it had ensured the train could arrive safely to Tenebrae, even if that didn’t turn out to be the safe haven they had hoped. For this, at least, Ignis was glad he didn’t have his sight; he could imagine quite clearly the city burning just from the smell of smoke that permeated the air. He made no comment on it; it had been many years since it had been his home - he felt more of a connection to Lucis than he did to Tenebrae now - though he had hoped to explore his former home while they were here.

It was only once they disembarked that Noctis was able to tell them the full story of what had happened between him and Prompto beyond the panicked demands to stop the train.

“How can he ever forgive me?”

Ignis’s fists closed tightly around the head of the cane as Noctis told him what he had done. How he had pushed Prompto from the train, mistaking it for Ardyn. Ignis had immediately made the connection between the Ardyn that Noctis had attacked and Prompto, telling the king of their phone conversation where Prompto had told them how he had been attacked.

He was furious with their boy-king. Noctis had once again allowed his anger and hatred to blind him towards what was painfully obvious to the blind man ! He wanted to drop his cane and shake some sense into him. He wanted to smack him into next week.

Instead, what he did was reach out and find his arm, following it so he could rest his hand on Noctis’s shoulder. He gave it a squeeze. “He’ll understand when you explain what it is you saw. If anyone knows the depths of depravity the chancellor can sink to, it is Prompto,” he said.

“Well, look who’s here.”

Ignis tilted his head towards the familiar voice, but it was Noct who replied.

“Aranea. Guess we’ve got you to thank for this mess,” he said, his tone bitter.

“More to it than meets the eye,” Aranea said.

“Isn’t there always?” Gladio said from Ignis’s right. He had been filled in on their first meeting with her, amid much teasing from Noctis and Prompto and spluttering from Ignis about the advisor’s flirtations. He didn’t much feel like flirting now, however.

“Definitely,” Aranea replied. “You wanna know who to thank? Come with me.”

“Can’t wait to hear this,” Noct said.

Ignis followed the sound of them walking. Such a thing had been beyond him when he had first lost his sight; the sound of the footsteps were lost in the multitude of other sounds, of others walking nearby, talking, laughing, shouting, any number of miscellaneous sounds one could hear when that was all one had to rely on. Now though, he was becoming quite practiced at focusing on a particular sound and following it. Nonetheless, before Prompto had always been beside him. Following Prompto had been easy; his gait was distinctive, light, as though he were always walking on the toes of his feet. Gladio was the next easiest to distinguish; the man was so large it didn’t matter how quiet he tried being, his step was heavy. Light on his feet, he may be during battle, but it was another matter when he was just walking. Noct was the hardest. Ignis’s constant nagging during the prince’s life had led to him having good posture and a sure stride, as befit a Caelum. But while that was appropriate of his standing and position, it meant he was surprisingly light on his feet. If he had been wearing dress shoes, Ignis was sure he would have no hope in picking his step. Not yet at least. He was glad for once that Noctis insisted on wearing combat boots.

It was the clomp of those combat boots that Ignis followed, his cane warning him of any stairs and with Gladio walking behind him, a light touch serving to guide him around any obstacles his cane may have missed.

Aranea noticed. “Huh? What did you do to your eyes?”

The question and, more, the tone surprised Ignis. “Oh, uh… just a flesh wound,” he said, playing it down. He heard Gladio snort behind him. Ignis not-so-accidentally stuck his elbow out to catch the bigger man in the gut as he walked into it.

“Can you see?” Aranea asked.

Her bluntness surprised Ignis, in a good way; most people seemed to tiptoe around it, being almost painfully courteous, helping him do things that he really didn’t need help with. It was refreshing. Nonetheless, admitting the truth was still hard. “I’m… afraid not,” he said.

“Wow. That sucks. It’s a cruel world,” she said.

Ignis smirked. “That it is,” he said quietly, though he doubt she heard him.

They walked a few more steps in silence before Noct stopped in front of him, causing Ignis to stop suddenly, Gladio’s hand once more going to his elbow to steady him as Aranea spoke again. “Hey, wasn’t there one more of you guys? Other than the big guy of course.”

“Yeah… there was,” Noct said, his voice dejected.

“We… lost track of him,” Gladio said. Ignis didn’t need to see to be able to hear the sorrow in his friend’s voice.

“Is he dead?” There was that bluntness again. He doubted Noctis appreciated it as much as Ignis did, however.

“I… I don’t know,” the king said.

“Then quit moping, keep hoping. And in the meantime, handle what’s at hand,” she said. Ignis couldn’t help but smile at the pragmatic advice; he had tried telling Noct much the same, of course, though in a gentler tone. Gladio had offered to punch the lesson into him. But he liked the way Aranea phrased it.

“R-right,” Noct said. “Keep hoping,” he muttered under his breath.

 

-l-l-l-

 

A change of pressure was the first hint to Prompto that they were arriving at their destination and with it a wave of nausea that had him gritting his teeth to stop throwing up. He hadn’t been able to hear any conversation or any hint of where they were going, but he knew. Deep down he knew. Gralea. Home. Though it had been some time since he had considered it so. His only consolation was knowing that this had been the Lucians’ destination. Of course, whether it still would be now that Noct had betrayed them and their easy in with Prompto was removed, he had no way to know. But he hoped. He had to hope.

The crate he was in rocked as something latched on and Prompto pushed with his arms as best he could to try to steady himself. He tried to listen. Normally in the Keep there was always noise, the hum of machinery always running, the exhaust fans blowing, people talking, laughing, the sounds of fighting and training, sometimes even the occasional scream. But what Prompto could hear now was different. The machinery and fan noises remained but instead of human noises, there was scraping and chittering, the sounds of metal on metal. Was he even in Zegnautus? Had he been transported somewhere else entirely?

His crate rocked and swayed and then was still. A hiss was the first hint that something was wrong. The air didn't smell any different but it began to feel different. His eyes felt it first; they began to sting and water uncontrollably, like that time Ignis had asked him to help with dinner by dicing the onions. Then his nose itched and his throat burned and the next thing he knew he was coughing, his breath wheezing. It hurt his ribs, every movement hurt and vertigo swept over him, the world would have spun had he been able to see it. His legs gave out and he slumped against the wall of the crate, only held upright by the fact the box was so small. His vision dimmed.

Sudden light.

Falling.

Hard metal.

Hands gripping, dragging.

A face, aubern hair, wolf eyes, predatory.

A bed, hard, unyielding.

Cold, so cold.

“Welcome home, C1094.”

Darkness.

When Prompto next opened his eyes it was to find himself lying on a bed in a painfully familiar room. Slowly he sat himself up, sitting back on his feet and cast his eyes around. Yes. The same bed with a mattress but no blanket or pillow. The same room that would only take two steps to cross if the furniture wasn't there. The same toilet in the corner. The same hole in the wall where wires came from. Suddenly fretting, Prompto rose a hand to his head but breathed a sigh of relief when he felt his normal hair there, dirty and blood mattered but nonetheless there. When he was last here he had been shaved bald.

Slowly, holding on to the wall for balance, he got off the bed and moved to the door. These doors had no latch, they were opened by either a keycard or barcode scan at the panel outside, but Prompto had never thought to try to open it before. He tried pushing. He tried sliding it. There was no handle to hold on to so he couldn't try pulling it but he did give it a kick for good measure. It made no difference. Not that Prompto expected it to, but he had to try.

Looking around the room, searching for something, anything, his eyes fell on the wire hole. About two inches in diameter, it had previously held a thick cord that split into a number of tiny wires, each either attached under or on top of the skin of his head. Now it was empty. Cautiously, Prompto approached it. Maybe he could see what was on the other side. He had never seen where the wires led before. Hands against the wall to either side of it he leaned in to peer through.

A golden eye stared back at him.

“Peek-a-boo.” Ardyn’s voice echoed around the room, followed by laughter as Prompto fell back with a startled cry, falling off the edge of the bed into a tangled heap on the floor. Frantically he righted himself and scuttled backwards, pulling himself into a corner. The same corner he had first cowered in, he realised, as he curled in on himself, skinned knees pulled to his chest.

 

Another time, another place, C1094 stood confidently in the centre of the room that had been his world for two weeks at least. He didn't know and it didn't matter. The wires were still attached to his head but he was used to them now and barely noticed their presence.

Two scientists and a guard stood before him. One had a clipboard and the other was watching a portable monitor. The guard was standing in front of the door, blocking the way.

Clipboard spoke. “What is your name?”

A formality; they knew his name. He answered anyway. “C1094. Sniper unit NH-01987.”

Monitor gave a single nod and clipboard made a mark on his namesake. “In the field, what is your directive?” clipboard asked.

“To obey all orders from my superiors. Should the line of command be broken through death or loss of communication, I am to obey the last known order to my death or recall or until it is achieved.”

“And if it is achieved and the line of command still broken?”

“Return to the nearest Imperial outpost and report.”

Another nod, another mark.

“When civilians are present, what is your default directive?”

“Avoid contact. Do not speak to civilians. Do not make eye contact with civilians.”

“Should a civilian approach you directly and speak to you, how do you react?”

“Direct them to my superior officer. Beyond this, do not speak to civilians. Do not make eye contact with civilians.”

“Should a civilian attack you, how do you react?”

“Disable them and refer to a superior officer for further instructions.”

“Should an enemy soldier attack you, how do you react?”

“Use deadly force.”

“Explain.”

“Shoot to kill.”

“Should you not have a gun?”

“This unit is defective without a gun. Should this unit succeed in taking down the enemy force without a gun, report to the nearest Imperial outpost.”

Another nod, another mark.

“Place your right hand here, barcode up.” Monitor spoke this time, indicating a shelf or bench next to the monitor. C1094 did so. The shelf moved, withdrawing into the main machinery part of the monitor and he felt sharp burning pain on the back of his wrist. He made no reaction. While this occurred, clipboard removed the electrodes attached to his head.

The shelf slid out again and C1094 returned his hand to his side, ignoring the thin line of blood that dripped off his fingertips.

“Return to your dorm. You will be assigned patrol duties shortly,” clipboard said.

C1094 clapped a fist to his chest in salute and left the room. Only once there was no one around did he allow a small smile to cross his face. Finally, he was allowed out into the city! He could explore the capital that had been his home for eighteen years!

 

Prompto held none of that confidence now as he sat curled in the corner. He had been so excited then! Or at least as excited as he was allowed to feel. He had hoped to be able to see where Arvid had lived as a young child. He wanted to see the tourist sights and, despite how he had answered the questions, to be able to talk to non-militants.

He had been a fool.

Trying to distract himself from that and from the certainty that he was being watched, Prompto reached into his back pocket and pulled out the thin tourist-y camera he had been using. It was broken now, of course, the lense shattered, casing cracked - there was no way it had the quality of his phone - but it still turned on. He cradled it in his lap and flicked through the photos on it. He went too fast for anyone unfamiliar with them to really see them, but each photo brought a memory with it, an emotion, fleeting though they were. Pressing the right button again once he got to the end looped it back to the beginning. He longed to check his phone for reception but didn’t dare, didn’t want Ardyn to see. He contented himself with his photos, with happier times.

Prompto dozed after a while. He was left alone long enough that he began to suspect he had imagined Ardyn watching him. It allowed him to sleep, though he slept in his corner, refusing to touch the bed.

When he woke suddenly as the door slid open, he didn’t hesitate, tossing the camera out of sight under the bed, not wanting it to be taken as he was taken.

Chapter Text

It was called a Y-Frame for the rather obvious reason that it was shaped like the letter Y.  Made of metal, it restrained whatever unfortunate soul was in it with adjustable metal braces around the chest and ankles and locks that connected to wrist cuffs that were worn. And currently that unfortunate soul was Prompto.

He had only been put in the Y-Frame once before, after the one time he had not completed his assigned patrol and gone exploring instead. He had gotten lost in the sprawling city and when he was found and brought back he had been locked up here, in this. He couldn't remember a lot of what had happened, but he knew that the urge to explore never rose in him again, even after joining Noctis. He would admire what was around him, marvel and take photos, but he never felt the need to wander off and to look, content to just follow. He didn't know if this was the same cell, had no true way of knowing, but with Ardyn involved and his sick twisted sense of humour, it was likely.

Already his hands were cold, numb, though that was a kind of blessing. When the MTs had come for him he hadn’t fought at first - he wanted to wait for the most opportune moment when he would most likely be able to escape - but when he saw the Y-Frame he fought. That was how he knew the ones escorting him were just well programmed MTs instead of real people; he had punched the head of one clean off. It was only a temporary victory, of course, but Prompto was proud to call it his own.

“Tell me, C1094.” The voice preceded the man as Ardyn strode down the hallway towards him. “How do you like your new accommodations?” Ardyn spread his arms wide, encompassing the cell block around them.

“Pretty drab really. Could do with a fresh coat of paint,” Prompto said, putting on a false bravado.

Pain laced through his body. Prompto’s body arched and strained against the bonds that held him. He screamed and through it he heard Ardyn’s voice. “Magitek soldiers have no opinions.” A pause. The pain didn't let up. “Magitek soldiers show no pain,” Ardyn drawled.

Prompto closed his mouth and grit his teeth. He knew this procedure; the pain wouldn't stop until he stopped screaming.

It stopped. Prompto slumped against his restraints, breathing heavily, sweat dripping off the tip of his nose.

“Good,” Ardyn said. “Seems there's some hope for you yet.”

Prompto didn't bother answering, he didn't have the breath even if he had the words. Back here, restrained like he was, hearing those words, it was all too easy for his training to come rushing back.

“Tell me,” Ardyn said. He was in front of Prompto now, he could see his perfectly polished shoes. “What was it like, believing you had friends?”

“It wasn't a belief,” Prompto said, voice breathless. “They are my friends.”

“Really? Even dear Noctis?”

Prompto had nothing to say to that, the memory of Noct and Ardyn standing practically shoulder to shoulder as Prompto fell still fresh in his mind.

“You know, I was digging through the old records of your early training and I came across one particular entry. You had friends before.”

Arvid. There was a record of that? “He wasn't my friend,” Prompto said, the answer instinctive. Pain flared as electricity arced, his body having no way to escape. He didn't scream, he didn't dare, just squeezed his eyes shut, grit his teeth, and rode it out.

“Really?” Ardyn continued once it stopped, as though nothing had interrupted him. “I believe his name was Nicca.”

Prompto gasped as the memory came flooding back. Nicca had been a friend, an actual friend, his first when he was only six or seven years old. How had he forgotten?

“Just a child, and you killed him in cold blood.”

 

Tears streaming from bright blue eyes. Eyes the same colour as his own. Head explodes like a dropped melon. Bone shards and flesh fly outwards. One eye strangely whole, hangs from its socket. It was bright blue. The same colour as his own.

 

“It wasn't me,” Prompto whispered. Pain. Again. His body thrashed and jerked but he made not a sound. And it was gone.

“Oh but it was. You reached out and befriended him, so he had to die. It was your fault. Your next friend, sorry, comrade, specifically requested reassignment to be in the same unit as you and he was killed on your first mission together. A failed mission, I might add.”

“What?” Prompto stared at the polished shoes in front of him. Was that true? Had Arvid really requested that? Prompto had assumed he had failed in some way, he had to, to be reassigned C-Grade. He didn’t know where - Arvid was perfect at everything - but there had to be somewhere he fell down to be reassigned. Prompto had never questioned it, hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t thought about much of anything at that point.

“What was that little song he always sang to you?” Ardyn adopted a considering pose. “Oh yes.” He sings. “I want to ride my chocobo all day .”

As though summoned by Ardyn’s song, Prompto’s pocket started to vibrate, that very tune singing merrily from it.

Prompto felt the blood drain from his face as Ardyn’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “What’s this?” he said walking forwards. There was phone service here. Of course there was, they were in the heart of the Niflheim Empire, the most advanced nation on Eos. Prompto couldn’t reach it, but Ardyn could. He slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled it out, looking at it. He grinned and turned the phone around to show Prompto who it was: Gladio. That goofy grin and classic thumbs up lighting the screen. “Let’s answer it, shall we?”

“No,” Prompto started, but it was too late; a swipe and and a tap answered the phone and put it on hands free so he could hear.

“Prompto? Where are you?” Gladio’s frantic voice came through.

“Not now,” Ardyn drawled. “You’re ruining our fun.” He clicked something in his hand and the Y-Frame flared to life. Caught off-guard, Prompto cried out before he bit it off. It didn’t last long this time at least.

What the hell are-” Gladio was shouting but was cut off when Ardyn hung up on him with a low chuckle.

“So demanding,” he said. He turned the phone around, seeing the embossed bird on the back. “A chocobo? Really? How childish.” Prompto watched wordlessly as Ardyn pulled the phone cover off and dropped it to the ground. “You need retraining. Not interruptions,” he said and, holding the phone in one hand, squeezed. Prompto’s eyes widened as the phone cracked, and then shattered in Ardyn’s hand and he tossed it aside to fall against the corner of the room. The phone that had survived the destruction of Altissia, explosions in a train, and then falling from said train, was now nothing more than a tangled mess of wires and broken glass. And Ardyn had done it one handed.

Ardyn remained quiet while Prompto stared, then said, “I think I’ll leave you to rest for now. We have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. You’ll need your strength.” His tone was mocking.

Turning on his heel, Ardyn walked two steps, then very deliberately stepped on the discarded case, a crack spreading directly across the chocobo’s head. He continued walking, not bothering to shut the cell door, knowing Prompto couldn’t escape, humming the chocobo song as he strode down the corridor.

Prompto stared at the broken phone cover.

 

“I want to ride my chocobo all day!” Prompto sings loudly and off key.

“Someone’s having fun,” Gladio comments behind him.

“Hell yeah!” Prompto exclaims. “Come on, Noct!”

The wind whipped through his hair and Prompto and Noct race neck in neck. It wasn’t a true race, they hadn’t got the chance to go to the race track yet, but they were roaring down the road as fast as their birds could go regardless. In many ways this was more fun as they had to dodge traffic as well.

“You’ll never beat me, Noct!” he shouts joyfully as he overtakes the king. “You may be King of Lucis but I am King of the Chocobos!”

“You’d never even seen a chocobo until last week!” Noct teases back as he nudges his bird back in front.

“That doesn’t mean anything!” Prompto protested and, though he kept trying to nudge his bird faster, she had clearly had enough and was refusing to speed up. “No fair!” he protests playfully.

 

Prompto stared at the broken phone cover, the chocobo and its silly cartoon grin staring back at him.

 

All the muscles down C1094’s back cramp and he arches back, mouth open in a silent scream he dared not give voice to. Vaguely he can hear a familiar voice, humming and softly singing a familiar tune. It’s a happy tune, very out of place here, but comforting nonetheless. A hand uses the corner of the blanket to gently wipe his forehead soothingly.

“Prompto, Prompto, you can do this Prompto,” a voice says. Arvid’s voice, repeating the name he called him, his name. He starts to sing again, that same song.

The cramps ease and C1094, Prompto, is left lying on his side, head cradled in Arvid’s lap, breathing heavily. The scientists had given him something, a drug of some kind, then returned him to his dorm. Someone had looked at him, a threat, and he had attacked. Arvid had stepped in between them. He couldn’t fight Arvid, he was his-

The cramps had hit then, muscles contracting, spasming, and he had collapsed. Arvid held him, stopped him from hurting himself, rubbed the muscles until they relaxed, singing that stupid song.

“I want to ride my chocobo all day.”

 

Prompto stared at the broken phone cover, the chocobo and its silly grin staring back at him, a crack right through its head. Tears ran down Prompto’s cheeks for the first time since he was a child.

 

-l-l-l-

 

The cut off call left all three of them and Aranea staring stunned at Gladio’s phone. Without a word, Gladio tried dialing again, but it didn’t connect. Ardyn must have turned it off or something.

“That over-dramatic, dressed up, son of the whore of Ifrit!” Aranea fumed. Under different circumstances, Gladio would have found her swearing hilarious.

“At least we know he’s alive,” Ignis said slowly.

Noctis spun around to face him. “Alive? He’s in the hands of that.. that monster!’ he cried. “He doesn’t even see Prompto as a person, but as a thing! A machine! We have to find him. Can’t you trace the call or something?”

Ignis sighed. “That only works in movies, Noct. The chancellor has been driving us along this whole time, it stands to reason that he’s in Zegnautus Keep, with the crystal and Prompto. We shall continue on our way there.”

Gladio glanced at one of Aranea’s dropships longingly, then dismissed it. There were a lot of people on the train they had to get to safety, they would likely fill all available dropships to capacity just to allow them to leave, not to mention the refugees from the burning Tenebrae.  No, it would be better for everyone except perhaps Prompto that they take the train. And as much as he had grown to like the Nif, he couldn’t endanger hundreds of lives for one.

“He’s been playing us for the fools this whole time, and now he’s practically daring us to do what he wants, to rush into the the keep,” Gladio said.

“And yet, what choice do we have?” Ignis replied. “That is where the crystal is which, according to you,” he tilted his head towards Aranea, “is the only thing that has a chance of purging the world of daemons.”

“Hey, I said it was possible, not definite.”

“Nonetheless, it makes sense and would explain why daemons never bothered Insomnia,” Ignis continued.

“I don’t care about any of that!” Noctis exclaimed, ignoring the pained “Noct!” from Ignis. “That’s where Prompto is. That bastard killed Luna, I’m not going to let him kill Prompto too!”

“Well, get going then,” Aranea said. “Biggs ‘n Wedge’ll take care of ya. And Ignis,” she called, as the three started to make their way back to the train. “Take care of yourself. Don’t let the next time I see you be without your ears or something.”

“I shall endeavour to keep my ears intact,” Ignis replied, and Gladio snorted at the small smile the adviser wore; Prompto really hadn’t been kidding when he described the sparks between those two. He wondered what smart-arse comment the gunman would have had at the most recent interplay between them. He hated that he hadn’t been there to help, to protect Prompto especially since he had needed protecting from those he should have been able to trust.

Shoving those useless feelings aside, Gladio stomped up the stairs of the train just as it started to snow. Glancing back, he saw Noct standing on the platform, staring up at it. “Get your arse on board!” he snapped.

“Yes, sir,” Noct replied, only a hint of surliness to his voice as he boarded the train and they began to continue their way to Gralea.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct sent his sword away and straightened. That was the last of them. Damn daemons were definitely getting stronger as the days got shorter. He knew it was happening, but was another thing to have to actually fight them.

“Hey Noct!” Gladio called, hanging out the doorway.

“What’s up?” Noct said, wandering over.

“You better get in here. Something’s not right,” he said before going back inside.

“Got it. There in a sec,” Noct said as he heard Gladio guiding Ignis.

Climbing up through the doorway, Noctis froze. Ardyn just walked past!

“No way,” Noct said to himself. He heard again Ardyn’s voice on the phone, Prompto’s scream. He had no idea how Ardyn was both here and with Prompto but he didn’t care. “You! Hold it!” He ran to the top of the stairs and looked around. Ardyn had vanished. “That son of a bitch.” How the hell did he keep doing that?! Well, Ardyn had been walking towards the front of the train so Noctis went the same way. The carriage he walked into had thick fog swirling around the chairs. It must have been what Gladio had meant when he said something wasn’t right.

Noct hesitated only a moment before he started striding through the fog. There was no sign of Ardyn here. Maybe the next carriage. He threw the door open and nearly fell backwards again as a blast of icy air hit him. It pierced through his clothes, stealing the breath from his lungs. Arms over his face, trying to protect it, to give him a chance to actually breathe, Noct forced his way in, first one step, then another. He could see Ardyn standing, waiting for him at the other end.

“Where is he? Where’s Prompto?!” he shouted over the wind, voice torn.

“Oh there you are,” Ardyn said, turning to face Noctis, seemingly unaffected by the unrelenting icy wind. “I am worried about your friends. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up.” Noct looked past Ardyn and saw that he was right about that, Iggy and Gladio were both laying on the carriage floor unconscious, though whether it was from the cold or from something Ardyn had done to them he had no way to know. “Why don’t you lend them a hand?”

Noctis was trying, but his limbs were slowing down, getting heavier. Everything was getting harder until his legs gave out under him. “A coldness that can only be hers,” Ardyn said, but Noctis wasn’t paying him any attention. He looked past Ardyn at another figure behind him, walking slowly towards them. A figure that eventually reveals itself to be familiar to Noct. Ardyn, seeing that Noctis was ignoring him (again!), looked behind him and his eyebrows shot up in the first expression of genuine surprise Noctis had seen. It soon changed to a more familiar smile, however.

“Ahhh,” he drawls, “the face you wore the day you-”

Gentiana touched a finger to his lips and the man froze solid. She didn't even stop to look at him, continuing her slow, swaying walk to stand in front of Noctis.

“Let it be done… as promised to the oracle,” she said. Noctis can only watch as she spread her arms wide and changed before him. Snow swirled and she became paler until her true form was revealed: Shiva, the glacian.

“Gentiana… it’s you,” Noct said, somewhat stupidly. “You’re the glacian.”

Gentiana, or Shiva, didn’t respond to that. Instead, she spoke the words of prophesy: “O King of Kings, restore Light unto the world.” The snow died down and, with her hands out, she summoned a trident before her.

Noct, warmer now, regained his feet and reached out to touch the trident. The weapon changed, moved, and flew into him, joining his armiger with all the others and Noctis felt the rush of its power as he did so. Noctis didn’t see it, though. He was shown a vision. Of Luna. She was standing in a field of sylleblossoms, blue petals blowing gently in the breeze. It was the same as when she had died and Noctis felt tears prick his eyes then freeze to his lashes. She was talking to Ravus, wishing that she had more time to spend with Noctis. After Ravus left, Gentiana appeared and spoke to her.

“I promise you, it will be so,” she said. “Not as you imagined it, perhaps, but it will be.”

“How?” Luna cried, tears streaming down her face. “I already feel my body failing. A covenant with the Hydraean will be all it can handle and I… I won’t even get to tell him…”

“What will be will be. And you will yet be able to guide the King of Light. I will ensure it.”

The vision faded in a blinding white light and Noctis became aware of the real world once more, of the icy train. Gentiana was gone, but Ardyn was not. Feeling the rage boil inside him, fury at the destruction he had wrought, the lives he had taken, the torture he inflicted on Prompto every chance he got, Noctis summoned his newly acquired trident and slammed it into the frozen chancellor. Dozens of shards of ice shot out in every direction as he shattered. Noctis let out a breath. Finally. It was done. Now they could go to Gralea in peace, contending only with daemons, regain the crystal, rescue Prompto, and retake their home. No big deal. But at least the main antagonist was taken care of.

“Hey, wake up,” he said to Gladio and Ignis, giving Gladio’s boot a kick.

They stir as the ice begins to melt away.

“The hell happened?” Gladio asked as he sat up.

“You alright?” Ignis asked.

“Yeah,” Noctis replied. “I saw the glacian. It’s okay though, she’s gone now. You guys should check on our drivers. I just need to… catch my breath a little.”

“Got it,” Gladio said. He held a hand out to help Ignis, who was holding his elbow as he stood. “You good?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Ignis said as the two left, walking towards the front of the train.

Noctis remained sitting where he was, thinking, pondering what he had seen. It wasn’t the first time he had seen a vision of what Luna had been doing when interacting with one of the astrals, but it was the first he had seen since her death. He was staring at the metal floor, trying to think what it may mean when he smelled it. Sylleblossoms.

With a gasp he looked up. There were sylleblossom petals floating around him and, there before him stood Luna.

“Luna,” he gasped, and she smiled at him. He got to his knees but as he did so her smile faded and she pointed behind him. Noct turned as the sylleblossoms faded away and he saw Ardyn standing there.

“No way,” he muttered as he climbed to his feet. He was dead! He was supposed to be dead, Noctis had killed him himself! He had seen the icicles that had been the chancellor shatter! There were still pieces of it on the ground that had yet to melt!

And yet there he stood, rolling his head as though to relieve a crick. “Hello Noct,” he said. “I feel I’ve earned the right to call you Noct.”

He rolled his head to look at Noct and took a few steps forwards. Noct, unable to help himself, backed up a little. There was no way!

“For a moment, I felt death’s chill wind. Such is the might of the gods,” Ardyn was saying. “But then I remembered. Oh yes, I’m immortal.” The look in his eyes, eyes that borred right into Noct, was pure fury, a dangerous anger that made Noctis recoil a little. “Such is my blessing. And my curse.” He began to walk away a few steps, but turned to look at Noct over his shoulder. “Your attack hurt me nevertheless. My feelings at least,” he said with a nasty scowl. “And after all the memories we shared.”

Ardyn summoned a gun and Noct’s eyes widened, recognising it as Prompto’s. He loved that gun. It was Niflheim make but he had modified it along their journey, improving it. He was never without it; at least not until Noctis had struck it from his hands. Ardyn pointed it at Noctis. “Remember this?” He rose it, simulating a recoil the gun didn’t give off when fired. “Ah, but I should ask if you remember it , your pet MT, especially considering how often you tried to kill it.”

Ardyn pushed the gun against Noct’s shoulder. Noct made to grab it only to have Ardyn pull it away. “Ah ah ah! You mustn’t take what’s not yours. A lesson your little gunman really needs to learn.”

“Where is he?” Noct demanded, finding his voice at last.

“‘He’?” Ardyn repeated. “Don’t you mean ‘it’? It’s not a person, Noct. Just a machine, or will be soon enough.” He pointed. “The little gunman’s a short shot away.”

“Where?” Noct growled again.

“Where else but Gralea, the seat of the empire? I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you. If he remembers you, of course. And you might even find your crystal. With all these daemons about you certainly could use it.”

He brushed past Noctis and he had to resist the urge to strike him down again. There was no point if he would just come back. He had to find out a way to kill him for good first.

“Off you go then,” Ardyn said, waving a hand. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your friend.” He held a hand up with something in it and clicked a button. Noct half expected an explosion to ring out, but nothing happened. He stared after Ardyn as he walked away, then turned on his heel to find Gladio and Ignis, hoping they would have some idea of how to proceed.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto was so thirsty. Inurement always left him thirsty, but he had always known he would be able to drink eventually. Even if the very thing he was being innured against was dehydration he knew they wouldn’t let him die of it. He didn’t have that knowledge now. He didn’t know what was involved in decommissioning, or if that was even what was happening to him. He knew only that Ardyn was trying to ‘fix’ him.

Another wave of pain as the Y-Frame sparked to life, lighting the cell in a brief eerie blue light. He slumped against his restraints when it stopped. It felt like it lit up every few minutes. Just long enough for him to start to doze off, then the pain would hit. He had tried counting it, counting how many times it happened and counting the seconds between each burst to try to tell the passing of time. He had never been great with numbers though and it was hard to focus. He lost count. He started again. He lost count again. Days. It felt like days.

At some point he had wet himself. At another he had vomited. The smell of himself reeked. All the while the Y-Frame stop-started his agony.

There was a light, off to the side of the room, golden, gentle. Wearily, Prompto turned his head towards it but as he looked at it, it was gone. He let his head hang forward again, eyes closed. Blue light lit the room once more and his head was flung backwards, slamming into the metal of the frame behind him before it flopped forwards again as the light faded. He thought, while the pain had arced through his body, that he had seen something, or someone. A figure. A smell too, one unfamiliar to him. But once more, when he actually looked for it, both were gone.

Rest. He needed rest. He was hallucinating. Usually when he hallucinated from lack of sleep he saw dark shadows and imagined threats and never actually smelled anything. This was different, but no less just a figment of his imagination. He closed his eyes. There was a warmth against his cheek, softness. A hand? It didn’t matter if it wasn’t real, it was nice all the same.

“Rest,” a whispering voice said, and he did.

Chapter Text

Prompto woke slowly to the feeling of something soft and wet pressing against his bottom lip. Opening his eyes, he lifted his head and saw Ardyn standing before him, his fingers moistening Prompto’s dry, cracked lips. He jerked his head back and Ardyn lowered his arm with a small smile. The chancellor picked up a water bottle from a table next to him and held it to Prompto’s lips. Prompto tried to turn his face away, but the water tasted so good ! His traitorous tongue flicked out and licked his lips and Ardyn chuckled even as the man tipped the water bottle again so he could drink more.

“I used to be a healer, you know. A long, long time ago.” Ardyn spoke softly and Prompto stared. Was he… actually making conversation? “I would travel the world, much like your precious Oracle and heal the sick and the dying.” Prompto shook his head slowly. Ardyn, seeing it, smiled, though the expression didn't meet his eyes. “Don't believe me? I could heal you now, if I wished it.” His voice was slow, purring, like a cat trying to lull him into a false sense of security.

Prompto shook his head again. “I wouldn't want it,” he croaked out.

The pain struck him so suddenly he thought it was the Y-Frame again, but as his cheek throbbed and no further pain came realised Ardyn had backhanded him. Blood began to fill his mouth from where he had cut his cheek on his teeth, and he spat it off to the side. He was tempted to spit it in Ardyn’s face but he was afraid of what that might provoke the man to do.

“You will,” Ardyn replied pleasantly, and though his voice was calm there was a baked fury in his eyes that made Prompto’s heart race. “For now though.” He reached behind Prompto releasing some kind of latch and the restraints holding Prompto’s arms let go. His arms fell down, dead weight, and Prompto gritted his teeth as the blood rushed back into them. It hurt, gods it hurt, more than he remembered from last time. Carefully he willed his fingers to move, to touch the tips of each finger, to test his movement and sensation.

He was so focused on regaining feeling in his hands that he didn’t notice what Ardyn was doing. He had a cylinder of something and attached a plastic tube and breathing mask to it. “I noticed you seem to have lost your armour,” Ardyn drawled. “Allow me to help you with that.” Cylinder on the ground, Ardyn held the mask with one hand and gripped Prompto’s hair with the other so he couldn’t pull away. “Night night, C1094,” he said as he held the mask over Prompto’s nose and mouth.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“What now,” Gladio groaned as they regained their feet. Yet another explosion had rocked the train right after it stopped and all of them were getting tired of it.

Biggs’s voice came over the intercom. “City’s trying to keep us out… with the daemons.”

“Woah!” Noct exclaimed as one said daemon jumped at the cracked glass of the car they were in.

“Gotta run! Don’t worry about us,” Biggs said.

Noct shook his head at that; they really were a pair. The smile was quickly wiped from his face though when a snaga actually jumped through the window, showering glass everywhere. “Right,” he said, stepping forward. “Let’s get to work.” He made to summon his sword but frowned, staring at his hand when it didn’t materialize. It felt like back when he was first learning to access the armiger and it didn’t always obey his wishes. But he had long since mastered that skill.

“What’s wrong?” Gladio asked, seeing Noct’s reaction.

“The weapons… they’re stuck!” Noctis said.

He saw both Ignis and Gladio try to access their own weapons with no success, and then his shoulder was grabbed and shoved as Gladio leapt forwards, slamming feet first at a snaga that tried to attack while Noct’s back was turned.

“That was badass!” Noct exclaimed and, though he did smile, Gladio didn’t comment on that.

“Run!” Ignis said and turned, waiting for Noct to take the lead.

Running through the carriages was reminiscent of when Noct had done so with who he had assumed was Prompto. He scowled remembering how he had been played by Ardyn, how Ardyn was still playing him.

Dodging daemons they ran towards the back of the train, not really knowing what else to do other than don’t get killed.

“Only a matter of time before we run out of room to run!” Ignis said from behind Noct.

“Got a better idea?” Noctis asked, not having any himself.

“We trade the train for the Regalia,” Ignis said.

Noctis grinned. “Great idea, Iggy.” And, with a purpose in mind, they made good time dodging and punching the lesser daemons that tried to bother them until they made it to the freight car. “Gladio, get the door.”

“On it,” the man said while Noct and Iggy got in the car.

Once the doors were open and Gladio had climbed in, Noct mockingly said, “Strap in.” He caught the eye roll Gladio gave him in the rear view mirror.

“Gun it!” Gladio said instead. And Noctis did.

Were he not so panicked about getting them all safely to the keep he might have loved the thrill this was giving him; finally he was able to push the Regalia as fast as she could go, dodging and swerving, without Iggy telling him in a terrified voice to slow down and please do the speed limit. Would have been better without the life threatening missiles flying at them of course.

The tunnel lights made for a dizzying effect, much like going ‘warp speed’ on his video games. And then they shot out of it and Noct yanked on the wheel, only narrowly missing a tanker just sitting half across the tracks.

“What the hell,” Noct muttered as he quickly dodged another car abandoned across the tracks.

“What is it?” Ignis asked tersely. Noctis knew he didn’t particularly like being in the passenger seat with Noct driving at the best of times, and blind, outrunning demons with no weapons and on a train track definitely didn’t count as the ‘best of times’.

“There’s just… vehicles everywhere. And no people. The lights are on in the buildings, but there’s no traffic. It looks like one of my dystopian games, it- woah!” he cut off as an explosion got a little too close.

“What was that?!” Ignis demanded.

“They’re trying to blow us off the tracks!” Noct said.

“One clean hit and it’s over!” Gladio said, a touch of panic in his voice. Noct carefully filed that thought away to mock the older man with later, when things weren’t actually so dire.

“It’ll take a bit more than that to stop his majesty’s trusty steed,” Ignis said, more confidently than Noctis currently felt.

“Shit!” Noct swore as he felt the wheel jerk to the left when he didn’t quite dodge a missile fast enough.

“The Regalia can take the punishment. Just focus on your driving Noct,” Ignis said, encouraging.

“You can do it, girl. You can get through this,” Noct said softly.

Up ahead they could see the gates to the main part of the city. They were sliding closed, ready to bar entrance.

“It’s closing! Floor it!” Gladio shouted.

Not that Noct needed the encouragement. Foot flat to the ground, they flew through the gates, but then he was forced to slam on the brakes to avoid crashing into a jackknifed train. The car spun out and skidded to a stop and, for a moment, Noct just sat there, heart hammering in his chest. The engine light was flashing on the dash and steam began to curl out from under the bonnet. Even if there were room to take her further, this was as far as she could go.

“That’s all she’s got,” Gladio said, echoing his thoughts.

“It’ll do,” Ignis replied.

Slowly, they all got out of the car. Noct turned back to look at her. There was barely a single area that was undamaged from their latest stunt. The purple paint was scratched and dented, all the windows had cracks. His dad’s car. It was strange, after Insomnia had fallen and his dad was reported dead, he still felt as though he were there with them. This was his car, they travelled Eos in this car and, in a sense, they traveled Eos with his dad. Oh, he had his dad’s ring now, but the responsibility that came with it, the cost, that wasn’t his dad. That was his responsibility, his duty. The Regalia, to Noctis, represented his dad as his dad ; father, family man, someone who wanted to spend all his spare time with his son even if that wasn’t a lot. His dad was who he could turn to and just talk, as father and son, without being reminded of what was right and proper, and they had often done so in this very car to be away from listening ears.

And now the Regalia lay smoking, destroyed. It felt like an omen of things to come.

“Dad…” Noct said, his voice breaking a little. “Thanks for everything.”

And then he turned his back on the Regalia and walked away, Ignis and Gladio following silently behind.

With the train up ahead blocking the way they needed to find a way around it, to get further into the city and to Zegnautus Keep.

“Are we seriously marching into the enemy capitol empty handed?” Gladio asked.

“And with no assurances the crystal can beat back the daemon hordes,” Ignis added helpfully.

Noct stooped and picked up a broken pipe and handed it to Gladio. “There. Not weaponless now.”

“Very funny,” he said, but he kept hold of it nonetheless.

They approached the train car that had blocked their path and saw that it was actually partially suspended. It was tight, but they could fit. “Let’s go through here.”

“This thing could come down at any time…” Gladio said, eying it warily.

“Then let’s be quick,” Ignis said.

“C’mon,” Noct said, ducking under and leading the way.

A metallic groan was the first sign that this wasn’t going to end well and Noctis darted forwards even as Gladio jumped back, pulling Ignis with him. Right as the car crashed to the ground.

“Hey!” Noct shouted. “Ignis! Gladio!”

“We’re okay!” he heard Ignis call back.

“Wait there. We’ll find another way around!” Gladio shouted.

Noctis glanced up at Zegnautus Keep, towering above them, remembered hearing Prompto’s scream, then shook his head. “You know where I’m going, catch up!”

“Noct, no!” Ignis said.

Noctis ignored him and jogged towards the keep. He couldn’t leave Prompto alone in there any longer than he had to.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“Remember.”

 

A whirr and a plonk sounds as Noct casts his fishing line into the pond they had stumbled upon. His face is relaxed and he wears a small contented smile as he slowly winds the reel and Prompto lifts his camera, taking a snap. It was a good photo, but not perfect. He waits, hoping to get the chance at a better one. Noct doesn’t even notice.

 

Pain, agony as something drilled into his spine. He screamed.

“C1094, control yourself.” A voice of authority, harsh, commanding. He clenched his teeth, but could feel himself slipping.

“Remember.”

 

Noct slips a hand into Prompto’s vambrace and flexes his fist, feeling the sensors and wires responding to the movement. “Woah, cool.”

Prompto grins. He holds out the newly repaired chest piece. “Here, try this bit. It has impact dampeners, probably what stopped my chest from being crushed by that asherhorn.”

“What, for real? Awesome! Lemme try!”

With both chest and back pieces worn, Noct lightly throws himself backwards to land on the haven’s ground. “Ha! I barely felt a thing.”

“That’s kind of the idea,” Prompto says.

Noct pulls himself to his feet and summons a dagger, throwing it up into a tree and warping up there to hang.

“Noct, what are you doing?” Ignis’s voice came from where he was cooking dinner a few feet away.

“Experimenting!” Noct calls from where he was hanging, before he lets go, the dagger disappearing back into the ether and the prince falling back down to earth.

“Noct!” Ignis shouts in alarm, and even Gladio starts to jog over from where he had been setting up the tent.

Noct lay on his back, gasping to get his breath back, blinking up at the sky. “Ow…” he groans. The three of them stand over him, looking down at him, Prompto barely managing to hide a giggle. “I thought you said this thing stops impacts,” he accuses Prompto even as he accepts a hand up and the other two walk off, convinced now that he was fine.

“I said impact dampeners. Not I’m-not-gonna-feel-a-thing-after-falling… things,” Prompto says with a laugh.

 

Dark blood, daemon blood, roared along his veins. It burns, and he’s angry, furious. He wants to kill.

No!

He wants to eat.

No, better! He wants to kill and then eat!

Snarling.

“Remember.”

 

Prompto peers over the camp table, watching Ignis with his eyes level to the tabletop. “Whatcha doin’?” he asks when he saw Ignis had noticed him.

“You know full well what I’m doing,” Ignis replies, but he couldn’t help himself. “I’m cooking you all dinner.”

“Well, yeah,” Prompto says as he leans his chin on his arm, resting both on the table, “but what specifically like?”

Ignis pauses in the onion he was dicing and looks at the gunman. “Prompto, tell me what it is you want,” he says, his voice weary.

“I want…” a blink. “I want another go. To help make dinner.”

Ignis slowly makes another cut, then pauses again. “Are you sure?” he says slowly.

Prompto nods eagerly.

“I have a feeling I’m going to regret this,” Ignis mutters. Louder, he says, “Very well. Come over this side of the table.”

Grinning, eager, Prompto leaps up and hurries around to help. Despite doing everything Ignis told him to (at least he thought so) he still manages to burn the onions. And the peppers. And the meat. And even the oil.

“Iggy, do me a favour,” Gladio says as he forces himself to swallow another morsel of half burned half raw food. “Don’t let Prompto cook again, no matter how much he begs.”

 

Wires under the skin, through his veins, along his nerves.

He moved and the armour moved.

The armour was him.

He was the armour.

He didn’t know which was true any more.

He stood to the side of his cell. Waiting. He no longer needed to be restrained. He waited. For orders.

“Remember,” that voice said again. He did.

 

Prompto stares at Noct the first time he saw him obtain an astral weapon. He looks at both Ignis and Gladio but, apart from being dirty and tired from the trek up here, they don’t seem alarmed by what they had just seen.

“Dude… does it hurt?” he asks Noct as he turns back to them. “You know, being stabbed by a ghostly sword and all.”

Noct rose an eyebrow. “You saw me do it at the meteor,” he says, confused.

Prompto shakes his head but it is Ignis who answers. “I turned him away from that,” he says. “At the time we weren’t completely sure it would be wise to let a soldier from Niflheim see it.”

“Oh,” Noct says. “Well, yeah, I guess, a little,” Noct answers Prompto. “It’s only for a moment though. It’s more like…” he pauses, searching for the right word. “Shock of it entering, of it being added. It’s hard to describe.”

 

“C1094. Destroy those units.”

C1094 didn’t have a gun. He didn’t need it. He knew this arena like he knew little else and he knew that the three units standing staring before him were no competition. This was a test, to see if he could obey orders without thought.

He could.

He charged.

“Remember,” the woman’s voice spoke again.

C1094 chose not to.

Reaching one of the units, he grabbed its head and twisted, sharply. The neck snapped with an audible crunch and it crumpled to the ground. That unit was useless.

Another tried to attack him from behind, but C1094 expected it, swung his arm out, the blade attached to the back of his vambrace catching its neck, slicing it open, spraying hot blood. He licked his lips and grinned. Euphoria rushed through his veins. Someone was laughing gleefully.

The remaining unit was cowering from him, trying to scuttle away. Defective.

C1094 stalked forward but was halted when a golden light formed in front of him, blocking his path.

“Prompto, stop this,” she said. With both hands she reached out to cup his face. “This isn’t you, Prompto. Noctis didn’t betray you, remember that. And remember your friends, they believe in you.”

Prompto. That name was familiar. As was the golden woman before him, though she was more light than person.

“C1094! What are you doing? Attack!”

He blinked. She was gone.

He attacked.

 

-l-l-l-

 

As much as he hated relying on it, Noctis had to admit: his father’s ring had some serious firepower. And it was a good thing too; between the daemons, Ardyn’s tricks, and the maze that was Zegnautus, he needed all the help he could get. In hindsight, rushing off without waiting for Ignis and Gladio was probably not one of his best ideas, but he couldn’t stand the thought of Ardyn torturing Prompto while he just stood around and waited. Besides, if they split up there was a better chance of finding him. 

The Keep, for the most part, was devoid of any people, at least none that he had seen. MTs, sure, daemons, most definitely, but people? None. It was creepy. Prompto had said that there were probably over a hundred magitek soldiers when he had lived here. But now there was none. Aranea had warned them as much, but it didn’t compare to seeing the reality.

Moving along a random corridor, Noct made sure to check every room. The rooms in this wing seemed to alternate: one was some kind of monitoring station, with computers and desks set up, and the next was a bedroom. Though perhaps cell would be more appropriate considering how bare and small all the rooms were.

Approaching one of the computers in a monitoring room, Noct turned it on and, with only a little apprehension, began looking through the files on it. Most he couldn’t understand - they were talking about brain function and chemical levels of various subjects. He tried searching for “Prompto” but came up with no results.

What was that unit number Prompto had said he was called? C1094, that was it. He did a search for that and a few files popped up. Like the rest, they were full of jargon, but they did include what looked like security footage. Noct held his bottom lip between his teeth, hesitating. The date on all of them was old, before Prompto had joined them. Did he really want to look?

Just one, he decided. It might help, it might give him some indication of what his friend had gone through, provide some way he could help him. He clicked on the most recent one.

The video showed two screens, one obviously displaying some kind of medical readout, something that looked like a heart monitor or brain wave print out. The other was security footage showing a boy wearing the same long grey underthings that Prompto had worn under his armour, standing in the centre of the room, hands clasped behind his back. His head was shaved and, were it not for the fact that the file name contained Prompto’s unit number, he would never have guessed this was his friend; he couldn’t imagine Prompto without his signature chocobo butt hair. There were wires attached to his head and, though it was hard to tell from the angle of the video, it looked as though they actually went under his skin. They disappeared into the wall. The layout of the rooms made sense now; one room as a cell for the ‘soldiers’, one attached to it to monitor them.

Noctis watched, a frown on his lips. He was just… standing there. Nothing was happening. The brain wave lines (if that’s what they were) were steady, barely moving at all. He was about to close the video when he saw it. Prompto’s body seemed to jerk and he fell to his knees. The brain wave readout spiked then went still again. He knelt there for a few seconds, then his body convulsed again and he fell to the ground, curled up at first and then arching back. It took longer for the lines to become steady again this time. When it stopped, the younger Prompto crawled over to the toilet in the corner and threw up, then pulled himself back to standing in the centre of the room again, hands once more clasped behind his back.

Noctis scowled and closed the video; he had seen enough. It was no wonder Prompto didn’t like to talk about how they controlled his thoughts when this was what they did. He just had to find him before Ardyn undid all the progress Prompto had made in undoing it.

There were two more room sets that Noctis checked until he came to the last one. He was about to keep walking when he caught something different out of the corner of his eye. The cell room was empty and showed no sign of habitation, but there was something under the bed. Ducking down, Noct felt his heart race when he saw it.

Prompto’s camera.

Noctis grabbed it and sat on the bed, turning it over in his hands. It was smashed beyond repair and, when he tried to turn it on, the low battery icon flashed twice before it turned off again. He had to pull the camera apart to get at the memory card, but he succeeds and thankfully the card itself seems undamaged.

Putting the broken camera aside, Noctis stood and slipped the memory card into his pocket. As soon as he could access his armiger again he would make sure it was safe. “Hold on, Prompto. I’m coming.”

Chapter Text

“Hurry Noctis. I cannot hold back the darkness in him much longer.”

Luna’s voice roused Noctis from an exhausted doze. “Luna?” he called sitting up. But she was not there. If she ever was at all.

Rubbing a hand over his face Noctis tried to force himself back into a state of alertness. He had found what looked like a dormitory that had doors that closed. The weird MTs didn't seem to be able to open doors so he had felt safe enough to rest just for a while. He'd pulled his phone out to check on Gladio and Ignis, surprised he hadn't heard from them yet, only to find his phone flat, his charger locked away in the armiger.

He had no idea if he had just dreamed Luna urging him to hurry, or if her spirit really was warning him the way she warned him about Ardyn on the train, but the result was the same: he had to hurry to find Prompto. Already he felt guilty for taking this break but after running and fighting and hiding for what had to be over twenty-four hours with his only weapon a ring that burned to use, he had to rest and recuperate.

And now, he had to find Prompto. Regardless of whether he had dreamed Luna or not, he knew he was running out of time.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“Woah.”

“What is it?” Ignis asked from behind Gladio.

Gladio glanced back, and then forwards again. “Monitors,” he said. “A lot of them, a whole wall. Looks like some kind of security footage.”

“Maybe they can help us discern where Noct and Prompto are,” Ignis said, an eagerness in his voice that was reflected by his sure strides forward, his cane finding the stairs and helping him rise them with barely a pause and stopping him short before the controls.

Gladio had to admit, Ignis was getting used to his handicap. He rarely strayed too far behind now and, though he was covered in minor cuts and bruises from not being able to predict an enemy’s movements, they were not as bad as they could have been and he had even managed to get a few strikes in himself. If he knew what he was fighting he was even more effective, able to pull from that eidetic memory of his to recall all the strengths and weaknesses of a given creature.

“Be my eyes, Gladio. What do you see on the monitors.”

But there were still some things he could never compensate for. Gladio did as he was asked and turned his attention to the monitors. “Empty rooms, those weird MTs, daemons, little ones for the most part. Wait a minute,” he said, leaning closer as something caught his eye.

“What is it?”

“A person. I think. Not one of ours but human.”

“Alive?”

“I think so,” Gladio said watching the screen closely closely. “They’re not moving now but they were, that’s what drew my eye. The cell they’re in is dark, it’s hard to see clearly.”

“We’ll have to come back for them. Our priority must be finding Noctis and Prompto.”

“And the crystal,” Gladio added. Ignis just nodded. Gladio stepped back and looked at the control panel under the monitors. “Wonder if I can use this to choose what’s displayed.”

“Describe the panel for me. Preferably using vocabulary more descriptive than ‘big’ and ‘hard’ if you please.”

Gladio smirked and did his best, describing the buttons and labels, and Ignis directed him based on what he said, having much more of a head for this kind of tech than Gladio did.

“A lot of the security footage seems corrupted or something; it won't open. There's only one file from a month ago, and a few starting from nearly a week ago.”

“That would coincide with Prompto’s capture.  I wonder if our ‘benefactor’ intended us to find these.”

“Most likely,” Gladio said darkly. “The oldest is a document.”

“What's it say?”

“Something about MTs…” Gladio said, trailing off as he read. His gaze darkened the more he read. “It describes the process of making them. A lot of medical jargon but… Iggy, they're not machines.”

“What do you mean?” Ignis demanded sharply.

“They’re people. The empire has been cloning people specifically for their army. Everyone ‘born’ in Zegnautus Keep is really a clone.”

“Including Prompto,” Ignis said quietly, the implications sinking in. “It makes sense now.”

“What does?”

“Both Iris and Talcott thought Prompto was one of the soldiers who killed Jared. I always wondered about that but put it down to general Niflheim features and the trauma of the day’s events. But if Prompto was cloned…” he trailed off, frowning.

“Damn. Kid can’t catch a break,” Gladio muttered. He doubted Prompto even knew; he certainly hadn’t said anything to that effect.

“Does it say anything else?”

“Yeah, a lot. It says that most of the clones use Verstael Besithia for the father’s DNA and various women for the mother, as incubators. They tweak the embryos too, to try for specific traits.” Gladio paused, scrolling down the document, skimming over the scientific stuff he didn’t understand. He often wished Ignis hadn’t lost his sight, but none more so now; he probably could have understood all this stuff but Gladio couldn’t even pronounce some of the words used. “It goes on to say that a unit is assigned a class based on their ability and tolerance, which Prompto already told us, and that those who do not show enough promise are used to create MTs.”

“Decommissioned,” Ignis said, remembering the term Prompto used.                                                                                                                     

“Mhmm,” Gladio said. “Also goes to great length detailing the various ‘techniques’ and their effectiveness in wearing down a unit's resolve, just how much demon blood should be injected, what sorts and the various side effects and-”

“I think that's enough,” Ignis cut in.

Gladio glanced at the man and could see he was paler than normal but he simply hardened his heart and said, “Iggy, we need to know this shit. Incase…” he didn't want to say it but Ignis knew.

Hands gripping his cane with white knuckles, he sighed and said, “See if you can find a way to print it then delete it all. If the need arises we can review it in further detail. Otherwise such knowledge is better off lost.”

Gladio could agree to that; he didn't relish the idea of going through this with Noct but with any luck they wouldn't have to. It didn't take him too long to figure out how to print and when he did he folded the pages and stuffed them in the back pocket of his pants.

“What else is there? We should review what we can while we have the chance.

Reluctantly, Gladio returned to the monitors, almost dreading what else they would find. “The rest is security footage. Prompto is definitely here somewhere. There's… there's two of Prompto, one of him being tortured and one of Ardyn doing something on a medical table.” He swallowed and closed both of those videos; he didn't need to see those, they had the file detailing what was likely done, watching their friend go through that would give them nothing new.

“This one's of… Ravus. And Iedolas,” Gladio said, surprised. He shook his head and closed it. “Not important.”

“Play it anyway,” Ignis said. “If the chancellor left it here when he's removed all other irrelevant information he wants us to see it for some reason.”

Gladio growled wordlessly; he didn't want to admit it but Ignis was right. As though knowing his thoughts, Ignis spoke again. “I am loath to trust him but at this point we have no choice. Even if the information is only there to torment us it still gives us a greater understanding of what we're up against.”

“Yeah,” Gladio agreed. Even he knew information and strategy were key and there was no one better at dissembling random tidbits of knowledge into something usable as Iggy. “Playing it now.”

 

Iedolas sat in a throne. Ravus stood before him.

“What of the Hydraean’s power? What of my precious ring?” Iedolas demanded. Black smoke began to roll around him and his voice was strained.

“By the hand of the Oracle, they are with the king now - their rightful owner. And someday soon he shall use them to purge our star of its scourge,” Ravus said.

“But the crystal is mine… I am the one True King!” Iedolas shouted, a hint of madness in his voice.

“Nay,” Ravus countered. “It is Noctis and none other.”

A magitek trooper stepped out of the shadows behind the emperor. He was familiar.

 

“Prompto!” Gladio exclaimed.

“What?”

“He's there, with the emperor.” Gladio paused the video and leaned in to look closely, feeling his stomach drop. “He doesn't look good. He's wearing MT armour, including the helmet but without the face mask. His eyes are red and… I hope that's just the poor video quality,” he said even as he knew it wasn't. Knowing Ignis couldn't see it, he added, “There's black marks on his face, like veins.”

Gladio could see the way Ignis grit his teeth hearing that; the man would be lucky if his jaw didn't break. “Play the rest of the video,” he said, voice tight.

 

“The gods have shown Noctis their favour. As blood of the Oracle and in her stead, I will present him with his father’s sword so my king can shine his light upon the world,” Ravus said, his voice passionate. “I will not allow the crystal to fall into the hands of a puppet and the demons it has born.”

You are the puppet… and you must die,” Iedolas commanded, a hand waving forward indicating his will.

Prompto rose a gun and fired several times, but Ravus continued on. They fought, and Prompto gained the upper hand, sending Ravus tumbling down over a ledge with a solid kick to his chest.

 

“It sounded like Ravus tried to return His Majesty’s sword,” Ignis said when the video had stopped.

“Yeah,” Gladio agreed. “Guess he finally got over his grudge. Even called Noct ‘ his ’ king.” He paused, thinking about it, then said, “Let’s move. If that’s what became of Ravus, there’s no telling what he’ll do to Noct, or what’s already been done to Prompto.”

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto dreamed. His body did things, unspeakable things, endured pain he never thought possible. But he was divorced from that, kept separate by a golden woman with blue petals floating around her. She was beautiful and her golden light distracted him from what Ardyn was doing.

In another place, another world, they talked like old friends, gossiping about Noctis. “We were childhood friends,” she told him. “Even after we were separated we never stopped talking to one another.”

“How did you meet?” Prompto found himself asking.

“You know you're not a real person, surely.”

Ardyn’s voice carried through to where Prompto was hiding.

“You were created in a lab, designed to become one of the so called MTs. You are nothing but a clone. Not real. Not individual. Certainly not special. Mass produced.”

A soft, warm hand to his cheek drew him away from the words before he could acknowledge them and their meaning. “Our parents were friends and so we visited each other often as very young children and would play together,” she said, her words drawing him back to their conversation.

“What was Noct like as a child?” Prompto asked. “He's life seems so different to anything I had imagined.”

“He was different then. More boisterous and energetic. He liked to race around the palace. He would climb trees to rescue cats that didn't need the help. He terrorized the servants and his guards by talking to anyone he came across.”

“What, seriously?” She smiled at him. “Wow. So… why's he so different now then?”

“When he was eight years old, a demon attacked him and those he was traveling with. He was badly injured, breaking his lower back and severely injuring his head. He changed after that, but he was still a good person.”

“I liked him,” Prompto said. “That's why… when he was with Ardyn…”

You are the puppet… And you must die!” the emperor spat and a hand gesture made C1094’s orders obvious: kill Commander Ravus.

He pulled his gun and fired off three shots, each hitting the Commander in the chest, before the man reached him wielding his sword. The bullets slowed him but didn't stop him, forcing C1094 to block and strike out with his modified vambraces. The Commander was not as strong as he could have been thanks to the bullets but C1094’s body was also weakened from Inurement.

“He didn't know, Prompto. Prompto, you're still his friend and you always will be,” she said. Her hands were touching him, grounding him as much as one can be grounded in this dream state. They were gentle and warm to contrast the harsh coldness his body endured.

“How can you know?” Prompto asked. “I thought I knew him too, but then… when he…”

“You killed your own mother, you know ” Ardyn said in a conversational tone while C1094’s veins burned to make him stronger. “We used her like an incubator for clones, increasing her level of daemonic blood each time until she birthed only monsters. Then she became a monster herself, a naga I believe, crying over her lost children. Pathetic really, getting so emotional over specifically ordered objects, don't you think?”

“Prompto, it is my duty to guide the King,” she said.

Prompto stared (can you stare in a dream?). “You're Luna. I mean Lady Lunefreya,” Prompto said, stunned as the realisation hit him. That was why she looked familiar, though he had only seen her in death. “You were betrothed to Noctis.”

Luna just smiled. “Yes, my dear Prompto.”

“But then why are you here, with me. You’re dead, I saw you. Ah, no offence,” but she didn’t seem offended and her smile broadened. If she was dead, and Prompto was speaking with her, that could only mean one thing. “Am I dead?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “No,” she said. “But you are in danger. I need you to keep your focus on me to keep you safe. You have to be there for Noctis. He will need you for what is to come.”

“Okay,” he said. And they talked about Noctis.

 

 

-l-l-l-

 

“Shit shit shit!” Noctis swore as he decapitated the MT that was trapped with him. “This is not good!”

Things were going from bad to worse. First being attacked by an iron giant and falling astrals knew how many stories and getting knocked out for who knew how long. Then finding out that Niflheim had been making daemons - actually deliberately creating them! And then being forced to fight a bunch of MTs that jumped from the storage containers he had overheard Prompto telling Ignis about, with only his father’s ring, a ring which burned when he used it, or his father’s sword, a blade which sapped his strength and also hurt to use. And finally, as if that weren’t enough, he now found himself trapped between one stationary electrified barrier, and another that was slowly but inexorably moving towards its twin. 

“Hurry. While you dawdle, people are dying,” Ardyn’s voice taunted over the PA system.

Sword in hand, Noct striked out at the moving barrier only to be blasted backwards. “Fuck!” he swore. “Ow…” He climbed to his feet and looked around frantically for something, anything that could stop it.

“Noct? Is that you?”

That voice. Ignis?

“Hey! Noct! Can you hear us?”

And that was definitely Gladio!

“Ignis, Gladio!” Noctis called out, hoping they would hear him.

“Where are you?”

Yes! Ignis answered, they could hear him! Hopefully it wasn’t some trick, but really if it was he wouldn’t be alive much longer to worry about it.

“Ah…” Noct started, then “Ow! Fuck!” as the barrier clipped his arm, twisting him around.

“Noct’s in trouble,” Gladio said to Ignis, his voice clearer now, not muffled.

“Gladio! There ought to be a kill switch nearby - find it!”

“How do you know that?” Gladio asked.

“I believe it’s the reason we were brought here,” Ignis replied.

Noct didn’t really know what they were talking about but he was a little distracted right then. He was backing carefully away from the moving electric barrier now, uncomfortably close to the stationary one. And then it was down and he was able to stumble away.

“That was close,” Gladio said, helping Noct up.

“About time you guys caught up,” Noctis said breathlessly.

“You’re welcome?” Gladio snipped.

“Thanks,” Noct wearily recited and he shook out his sore hand.

“After we were separated, we received ‘help’ from the usual suspect.”

“He gifted us with our weapons, though I notice you’ve acquired a few of your own,” Gladio said, nodding his head to the ring on one hand and the sword held in the other.

“My father’s sword,” Noct said, holding it up for Gladio’s inspection. “I found it with Ravus’s body. He had bullet wounds but seemed to have died from a fall rather than whatever attacked him.”

“You mean whoever,” Gladio said, nodding at the sword, approving. “Prompto killed him.”

“What?” Noctis demanded.

“We found security footage of it. Iedolas ordered him to kill Ravus. And he did,” Ignis explained.

“That can’t have been Prompto. He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t obey that bastard,” Noctis said, adamant.

“We know that when we first met him, had he been ordered by a superior officer to kill someone he would be forced to do it,” Ignis said. “And who knows what he may have been put through to try to bring back that conditioning.”

“Then we just have to find him,” Noctis said, now more determined than ever to find his friend.

“Agreed,” Ignis said.

“Then let’s go,” Gladio added.

They didn’t have to go far. Ardyn continued to taunt them over the PA system, but Noctis was growing adept at tuning him out and he paid him no mind. One door opened, and then another, and finally they were in what looked like cell blocks. If Prompto was being held prisoner this is where he would be, Noct was sure of it. There were bodies in some of the cells, twisted inhuman things. He tried to ignore them and then his torch finally lit up the cell at the end of the corridor where a familiar mop of blonde hair was.

Prompto!

Noct ran forwards but skidded to a halt when he realised that he wasn’t locked in there at all. In fact the door to his cell was wide open. Prompto didn’t even look at him, he just stared straight ahead. He was wearing magitek armour but fancier and more elaborate than what he had when they first met. He also had a helmet on, but his blonde hair stuck out beneath it and he wasn’t wearing a mask. His eyes glowed red but they were dull, like the inactive MTs they sometimes came across in Imperial forts. There were tubes attached to him that disappeared somewhere into the dark recess of the roof. Black liquid of some sort was in them and seemed to be being pumped inside the armour. Into Prompto.

“Prom?” Noct asked, his voice hesitant.

Prompto blinked slowly, his eyes still a dull red, his head turning to look at Noct. But there was still no recognition, no reaction.

“We need to get those things off him,” Gladio said, moving around behind Prompto. He looked up and down the tubes then, sword in hand, slashed downwards, severing them, and jumping back as the black liquid splashed everywhere.

Still Prompto didn’t react, didn’t even seem to notice.

Ardyn’s voice came over the PA system. “Decommissioning usually takes months. I'm afraid I only had a few days with this unit, not even enough time to imprint a number befitting its new status. Nevertheless i think you'll be pleased with what I've accomplished in such a short time. For example. C1094, attack.”

Prompto’s eyes lit up at the order, shining red. He did not have a gun, but the arms of his armour had blades. He launched himself at Noctis.

Chapter Text

Gladio leapt in front of Prompto, shoving Noct back with a solid hand to the front of his chest and blocking Prompto’s attack with his sword. Noct fell back, landing on his backside and staring up stunned at Prompto. He attacked him. He had actually attacked him. Would have killed him had Gladio not intervened. Even that first time Ardyn had ordered him to kill him, he had never really believed he would. And this time he didn’t even hesitate.

Gladio deflected the attack and dropped his sword in favour of using his bare hands; he didn't want to kill Prompto if he could help it. He tried to punch Prompto’s unguarded face but had to pull up short when Prompto made to block with his bladed arm guards. Gladio stepped back as much to put some distance between the two of them as to move closer to Noct.

Prompto pressed the advantage and rose an arm as though to stab him. Gladio, trusting Noct to stay down, dodged to the side, catching the first in his left hand as it moved past him. It was yanked back with a surprising amount of strength and Gladio grunted a little as he struggled to retain his grip. Prompto swung his left hand across in a slashing motion and Gladio leaned back again before grabbing that hand with his right. Squeezing hard, he yanked both hands backwards, drawing Prompto stumbling towards him and slamming the top of his forehead into Prompto’s brow. Stars danced before his eyes but he was expecting it and didn't loosen his grip.

Prompto was another matter. He slumped slightly and blinked owlishly up at Gladio, showing the first human-like reaction since they had found him.

Noctis hesitantly approached Gladio’s shoulder, starting wide-eyed at his friend. “Prom?” he tried again. Prompto turned his red eyes to Noct and frowned a little as though confused. He was there, somewhere, Noct was sure of it!

Ardyn’s voice crackled to life over the PA system, chuckling, then taunting, “What's wrong little King, you had no trouble attacking it on the train.”

Noctis hunched his shoulders at that reminder, at how he had failed to see through Ardyn’s tricks and tried to kill his friend.

“C1094,” Ardyn’s voice came in a sing-song tone, then turned distinctly darker. “I gave you an order.”

Prompto visibly flinched at that, his eyes widening slightly. He then started to pull, to yank on his arms to vainly try and free them from Gladio’s grip. Gladio simply widened his stance and lowered his centre of gravity, his forearm muscles bulging as he strained to hold the daemon-enhanced gunman from attacking them again.

“Ideas?” Gladio demanded, his voice tight. He wouldn't be able to keep this up forever; Prompto had always been way stronger than he looked but that was especially true now that he had been injected with who knew how much daemon blood.

“We need to get him away from Ardyn’s voice, away from his commands,” Ignis said.

“The dorms don’t have PA systems,” Noct said, remembering that the nap he had taken in one was about the only time he was left alone by Ardyn’s taunting voice. “Are you going to be able to get him there though, Gladio? I can carry your sword so you have both hands.” None of them had been willing to send their weapons into the ether until Noct got access to his armiger again (if he got access to it again) lest they be unable to summon them when needed.

“I can help with that,” Ignis said, but before he was able to do anything, Ardyn spoke once more.

“You have feet for a reason, C1094,” he drawled.

Prompto flinched again but he acted upon the indirect order, standing on one foot and attempting to kick Gladio with the other. He stepped back, attempting to hold Prompto at a distance made easier with the height difference between the two.

Ignis stepped beside Gladio and said sharply, “Prompto.” Prompto paused, looking confused, but then continued trying to fight off Gladio and free himself from his grip. Ignis sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, Prompto,” he said quietly. Then, sharply, “C1094.” When he had Prompto’s attention, Ignis swung his cane, smacking it into his unprotected cheek, stunning him.

“Ignis! What the hell?” Noct demanded, but Ignis ignored him, instead focussing his attention solely on Prompto.

“Before coming here you gave an oath. You swore to obey King Noctis Lucis Caelum as your new commander. A king ranks higher than a chancellor and your king gave you explicit orders to ignore all orders given to you by the chancellor. Doing so will hurt but you can bare it. You will obey him now. Understood?”

Prompto blinked slightly, watching Ignis, then turned his red eyes to Noctis and stared at him. Noct tried not to let his heartbreak show seeing his friend liked that, tried to act composed and together and regal so that it would be easier for Prompto to follow them, but damn it was hard. He doubted even chocobo chicks would be able to help him now after what that bastard Ardyn had done to him. Whatever it was he did to him.

Eventually Prompto nodded. “Understood,” he said, his voice husky and monotone. He stopped fighting. Noctis breathed a sigh of relief.

“Keep a hold of him Gladio. Just in case,” Ignis said.

“Got it,” Gladio agreed. He maneuvered Prompto so that he held his hands behind him, careful of the blades on his arms.

“Let’s go,” Noct said, turning and leading the way out.

Ardyn’s voice came over the PA again, a growl followed by, “C1094, do as I order!”

“Keep ignoring him, Prom. We’ll make the pain stop soon,” Noct said over his shoulder.

Prompto didn’t say anything, but he stumbled a little from the conflicting orders. Gladio kept a hold on him though, keeping him upright and murmuring softly, “It’s okay, buddy. I got ya.”

Ardyn gave a wordless furious shout and an alarm started going off. The steady metallic step of MTs somewhere changed to several sets running and getting louder as they approached, axes dragging.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Ignis said.

“Keep Prom safe. I’ll deal with it,” Noct said. He leaned Gladio’s sword against the wall, drew his own, and leapt towards the nearest MT.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“You need to wake up Prompto.”

“No,” he said. He didn’t want to wake up, it “hurts too much.”

“I know, dear Prompto. But you are strong. You can handle it. Noctis has arrived and he can help you.”

“But what if” Noct betraying them was real? He was too “afraid to go back.”

“He didn’t betray you. You can talk to him yourself about that. But you need to wake up. And I must go.”

“No! Don’t go!” Prompto called, reaching out to her, but already she was fading.

“Trust Noctis. Trust Ignis and Gladiolus. And trust yourself, Prompto. You are stronger than what they have done to you. You will overcome.” The voice grew fainter as Luna began to fade from sight.

C1094 was fighting, doing as he commanded, trying to free his arms and lash out with his feet. The strike to his cheek shocked him, but it wasn’t the sting of the cane striking flesh - he was well used to pain in all its forms - but the fact that it was a blind man who had done so, one he had dismissed as not a threat.

He spoke. And though C1094 heard the words he did not comprehend them; they were not orders and they were not from a superior. Prompto did though. Prompto remembered Ignis and how he had always looked out for them. Ignis had taught him what brotherhood and family was. And he was reminding him of Noctis’s orders that day in the base.

“You obey me and only me. Ignore everything Ardyn says. Ignore any order given to you by anyone from Niflheim. Is that understood?”

“Understood,” Prompto said. He stared at Noctis and allowed Gladio to hold his hands behind his back. He did not fight, he did not want to. Not wanting hurt. He stopped thinking.

“C1094, do as I order!”

C1094’s shoulder twitched as though to attack again, but Prompto held himself still, steady. He heard Noctis say something but pain raced through his head and he stumbled. Gladio held him, murmuring encouraging words into his ear, gentle tones that pushed C1094 further away.

There was fighting. It made C1094’s blood rush, his breathing increase. He wanted to join in, feel flesh parting beneath his blades, taste spurting blood. Prompto listened. He could hear Gladio behind him, holding him steady, breathing a little heavily.

||“You think it so easy to be rid of me?”||

Prompto stiffened, hearing the voice voice inside his head. It was static-y, as though heard through a receiver with interference, but still clearly recognisable and understandable.

|| Now that I have your attention. C1094 you will kill the Lucian prince. Now.”||

“You obey me and only me. Ignore everything Ardyn says.”

“Prom, you okay?”

Prompto didn’t answer Noct’s question to the slight whimper he let out as his head throbbed, nor did he see the small shake of his head that Gladio gave. His thoughts chased one another in useless circles. Luna had said Noctis didn’t betray them, that things weren’t as they appeared. She had promised him. Ignis had reminded him that a king, even a prince, outranked a chancellor. And he had standing orders. But C1094 had orders too. And C1094 always obeyed. Trust Noctis, Luna had said. Trust Noctis.

They entered one of the keep’s dorm rooms and the door was shut. Noctis moved around the room searching for and destroying any camera he found, shoving his father’s sword through the lens. Ignis found a bed and sat in it, weary. Gladio slowly released Prompto’s wrists and stepped back.

||”Do it!”||

“No,” Prompto said. He kept his hands behind his back and stepped back towards Gladio. “Don’t let go, please.” His voice was quiet, pleading.

“Alright,” Gladio said slowly, but he took hold of Prompto’s wrists again, not tight but firmly, enough that he had confidence that he wouldn’t let him go should he try anything again.

“It’s okay, Prom,” Noctis said, his voice soft, reassuring. “Ardyn can’t reach you here. The door is shut, there’s no speakers, I destroyed the cameras. We’re as safe as we can be.”

Prompto was already shaking his head. He groaned as white lights danced before his eyes. “My head,” he gasped out. “He’s in my head. My helmet. Please, get it off.”

Gladio’s grip on him tightened at that and even Ignis sat up straighter, face creased with concern. Noctis’s eyes widened but he stepped forwards and slipped his hand under the edge of the helmet, feeling around for the catch. Releasing it, he started to lift it, but paused with a frown when it seemed to catch on something.

“Pull. Hard,” Prompto said, bracing himself.

In his head Ardyn laughed.

C1094 yanked at his arms then stepped abruptly back, hoping to stab behind him but he was held tight.

“Do it,” Gladio said sharply.

Noct glanced over Prompto’s shoulder to Gladio and grit his teeth, then returned his gaze back to Prompto. He gave a short nod, gathered his strength and pulled.

Prompto screamed, and then there was silence. Blessed silence.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“What happened?” Ignis demanded, already standing, his head cocked towards the others.

Noctis stared at his friend slumped in Gladio’s arms, horrified. He looked at the helmet and threw it across the room as though it were contaminated. It had been connected to his head. His very head! He felt like he was going to be sick.

“He’s… gonna need your help, Iggy,” Gladio said as he changed his grip on Prompto to get him to sit in a chair. He was semi-conscious, but groggy, blinking at them as dark blood, more brown than red, flowed sluggishly from the wounds in his head.

“I have no curatives,” Ignis said as he allowed Gladio to take his hand and guide it to Prompto’s head.

“I doubt they would do him any good,” Gladio said. “Never known a daemon to use a potion.”

“He’s not a daemon!” Noct snapped.

“That’s daemon blood there, plain and simple. So was the shit they were pumping him full of.”

“Now is not the time,” Ignis said.

Noct watched as Ignis’s fingers danced lightly over Prompto’s head, feeling the metal plate screwed in place on the side of his head, a tube as thick as his finger and multi-coloured wires coming from it and a few other places, disappearing under his skin.

“How could he even survive that?” Noct asked quietly, his voice horrified. His eyes ranged over the rest of Prompto’s body, wondering what was hidden under the armour. “What was Ardyn trying to do?”

“Turn him into an MT. That’s what decommissioning is,” Gladio said. Noct turned to stare at him. “We found their research notes that-”

“Noct, Gladio,” Ignis cut in. “I suggest we stay here a little while before moving on; we all need rest and Prompto… needs help,” he settled on. “Which means we need supplies, food and water for one, medical supplies if you can find it. Do you think the two of you can work together enough to do a sweep and find those things?”

There was a hint of rebuke in that which Noct immediately picked up on and slumped his shoulders; they shouldn’t be bickering when Prompto was… well something. “Yeah,” he said, glancing to Gladio.

Gladio nodded, also acknowledging the light scolding. “On it,” he said. “But… will you be safe here?”

Ignis paused then said, “Prompto, can you still hear Ardyn?”

“No,” he replied slowly, voice still rough, cracking a little. “I… think it’s broken now. There’s silence. It’s… nice.”

Noctis grinned; if it was ‘nice’ then it meant Prompto could still have opinions about things, he wasn’t completely lost!

Ignis was smiling too when he said, “I think I’ll be fine.”

Prompto turned those horrible red eyes to look at Noct, his head moving slowly. “It’s alright. I won’t attack him,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Ardyn was ordering me to attack you, and Gladio indirectly because he was restraining me. He's not interested in Ignis. And I hear nothing now.”

Noct nodded and was relieved; that was the most complete sentences they had heard Prompto speak since they found him. And he clearly recalled their names, something Noct hadn't been sure about.

“Right. Well… just in case,” Gladio said and he took Ignis’s dagger from where he had left it on the bed and placed it in his hand.

Ignis nodded in acknowledgement and Noct and Gladio left, shutting the door behind them.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto was still beneath Ignis’s fingers, allowing him to draw a mental image of how his helmet had been connected and how he had been able to hear Ardyn in his head. It felt like a more advanced kind of cochlea implant, something that obviously allowed the reception of a transmission instead of just interpreting outside sounds. The technology would have been fascinating were it not at such a high cost and forced unwilling upon a friend.

After Gladio and Noct had left, Ignis had found another chair and pulled it up to sit in front of Prompto. His hands lightly moved over the wounds, tracing the still flowing blood to its source, using his fingers to determine how large they were, feeling through the ridges in his skin how far the wires reached. He tried not to let his aversion show. He carefully wrapped the wires he could feel around his fingers and lightly pulled, but stopped when Prompto gasped.

“Can you get it out?” Prompto asked, his voice strained.

“Not easily,” Ignis replied, honestly. “I'm concerned about how deep they go. If they're just under the skin it should be fine, but if they go under your skull removing them could cause permanent damage.” Ignis wasn't sure what would be the best course of action; he wasn't qualified for such surgery, but he knew taking Prompto to a doctor after they were done here would be inviting trouble since it was unlikely they would be able to look past the MT label.

“Please, try. I want it out, I want it all out, I want to be me again, I want-” Prompto broke off with a cry of pain and Ignis felt him grab his head near where his hand was.

“Easy, Prompto. Calm yourself,” Ignis said, his voice soft, soothing. “I will do what I can but we have to take it carefully. We have to minimise any chance of brain damage.”

“But what if… I’m not me when you do it? What if I’m only me because he lets me?”

Prompto’s voice was a whisper and Ignis felt his heart break to hear him so confused. His hands moved down to his shoulders and from there found his hands. They were gloved, encased in flexible metal, but he gripped them tight anyway. “Prompto, you are you,” he said, his voice firm. “Even after what that bastard did to you, we’re with you. You know that, do you not?”

“Yeah,” Prompto replied, still whispering. Ignis wished he could see his face, to see what kind of effect his words had. “Luna said I should trust you, so I do.”

Ignis frowned. “Luna?” he repeated. “Lady Lunafreya?”

“Yeah.”

Ignis waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. Had he been dreaming? Hallucinating? That was definitely possible, Ignis thought, given what he had been through. Nonetheless, if whatever it was had convinced Prompto to trust them then hopefully it was for the good. “What else did Lunafreya tell you?” he asked, wanting to stir up more conversation. Prompto’s voice was slowly becoming more animated, conveying more emotion as he spoke and Ignis wanted to encourage that.

“Mostly stories about Noctis. Noct,” he said, repeating the name as though familiarizing himself with the nick name. “But also telling me that… that Noctis didn’t betray us. On the train?” He pitched the words as a question, as though seeking Ignis’s confirmation.

“He didn’t,” Ignis assured him, once more squeezing the hands he held. “As soon as he realised what he had done, he called me demanding to turn the train around despite such a thing being impossible. It was Ardyn the whole time, using illusions. Noctis would never side with Ardyn, I promise you that.” He fell silent, listening, but Prompto didn’t say anything else. “Now, let me see if I can remove at least some of the wires, shall I?” he offered eventually.

“Alright,” Prompto agreed, and Ignis began the careful process of pulling that would, hopefully, at least rid Prompto of the parts dangling from his head even if he couldn’t remove the metal plating just yet.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct decapitated one of the freaky MTs, putting all his anger into the strike. He would destroy Ardyn the next time he saw him! No more of this fucking ‘diplomatic immunity’ bullshit! Gladio had filled him in with some of what they had found, how Ardyn had tortured Prom to lower his defenses, pumped him full of daemon blood artificially boost his strength and then physically fused his body to that armour. It was no wonder he was acting strange and had trouble resisting orders. It was barbaric, and inhuman, and it made Noct hate Ardyn all the more.

The mission was successful - they had found both water and energy bars in a vending machine, a first aid kit, and a messenger style bag in one of the offices to store it all in - when Noct heard it. A shuffling sort of sound, and a moan, coming from one of the passages they had just passed.

“You hear that?” Noct asked, staring down the passage. It was another cell block like the one they had found Prompto in.

“Hear what?” Gladio asked, though by his tone Noct thought it likely he had heard it but just didn't want to investigate. Consequently,  Noct didn't bother answering and simply turned down the passage to investigate. “Hey wait!” Gladio called, jogging to catch up.

There was an open cell at the end with some kind of metal frame in the centre of it. The whole place stank of piss and blood and the acrid smell of fear. But what drew Noct’s attention was where someone or something was moving. It was humanoid but there wasn't much else that was human. It was all wires and circuits, like what had been attached to Prompto’s head but over its entire body. The legs didn't appear to be working as it was pulling itself along the ground by its arms. It either didn't notice Noctis staring at it or it didn't care as it reached out to grab something, clutching it to its chest.

The thing in its hands was yellow, a burst of colour in an otherwise colourless place. And, with a start, Noct recognised what it was: Prompto’s phone cover.

“Don't just run off like… that,” Gladio snapped, trailing off as he caught sight of the thing in front of them.

Noct barely even heard the reprimand over his rising rage. That thing was touching Prompto’s phone case! It's dirty claws leaving black smudges all over it! He drew his sword at the same time as that thing seemed to notice them. It turned to face them and its jaw seemed to dislocate as it let off an ear-piercing scream, its voice a disconcerting mix of human and electronic.

Gladio stumbled, clapping both hands to his ears in an attempt to block out the painful noise but Noct struck out. His father's sword smashing down through the thing's head, silencing it. The phone case was flung across the room as the thing died and Noct yanked his sword free before scooping it up. Wiping it clean on the leg of his pants he held it close. It was broken, a large crack running through the centre of the chocobo’s head, but that didn't matter. It was Prompto’s and Noct would see it returned to him. Prompto had adored both the phone and the case, it being one of his two most prized possessions. He had always been running his thumb over the embossed bird, especially when nervous about something. It was only right that he got it back.

“His phone’s over here,” Gladio said kneeling down off to the side.

Noctis looked over but neither of them bothered picking it up. It had been smashed beyond repair, even more than the camera Noct had found earlier. This time, though, it appeared deliberately destroyed and they both knew who was responsible for that.

Sighing, Gladio stood. “Let's get back. We've got what we came for,” he said, voice weary.

“Right,” Noct said, and the two retraced their steps back.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto gasped and felt ice settle into his stomach at the familiar scream. Ignis, who had been carefully unthreading the wires from his head, making him feel more like Prompto and less like C1094, paused. “What was that?” he asked.

“Me,” Prompto answered, voice hushed. “What I could have been. Ardyn… practiced on others. He would show me. I would watch. They're me, but with… more.”

He saw the muscles in Ignis’s fine jaw clench. “You are yourself, Prompto,” he said firmly, his deft fingers returning to gently tugging and pulling. “It doesn't matter what you were born to become. All that matters is what you choose to become.”

Prompto nodded slightly, knowing Ignis would feel the affirmation. He didn't know if he believed that yet, but he wanted to. He would keep trying.

Chapter Text

“That’s all I can do for now,” Noct heard Ignis say as they re-entered the dorm room.

Noct looked Prompto over. There were still a few wires loose, but less than before and those remaining Ignis had used his dagger to cut shorter, including the tube that went through the centre of the implant.

Prompto ran his hand over his head and frowned feeling the implant still there. He dug his fingers into the side of the implant and started pulling. “I want it gone,” he whispered hoarsely as blood spread over his fingers.

“Woah, Prom, it’s okay,” Noct said, hurrying forwards and taking Prompto’s gloved hands in his own, gently pulling them away. “We’ll get it out as soon as we leave Gralea. First thing, I promise you. But we don’t have the stuff to do it just now so I need you to hold on for me, alright? You can do that, right?”

Prompto turned his wide eyes up to look at Noct, searching. It was only then Noct realised that they weren’t the same as an MT’s eyes. An MT’s eyes were lights, nothing more, the same as what that thing had been in the cell before. They must be replaced at some point later than Prompto’s were. Prompto’s eyes though were red, the whites looked like they were filled with blood and it had spilled into his irises, the red tinting the normal blue.

“Yes,” he said eventually. “I can do that.”

Noctis grinned. “Great,” he said.

“If I may,” Ignis cut in. He was holding some bandages, Noct saw and he stepped back, allowing Ignis to wrap them around Prompto’s head. Despite his blindness, he was able to fasten the bandages securely, the laying of them as neat as if he had used his sight to do so.

Noct slipped a hand into his pocket, lightly fingering the phone case there, debating. Should he give it back now? Or wait? He thought if Prompto had it, it might help him remember good things, to pull him away from what Ardyn had done to him. But what if it only gave him bad memories? Of how his phone had been taken from him, of how he had been tortured while his friends had listened. The case was broken, a constant reminder, so maybe it wasn't such a good idea.

But then Noctis remembered how his face has completely lit up the first time he held a chocobo chick. How he had spent hours looking after not just the chocobos they hired, but all of them whenever they stopped at the ranch. How he would almost beg to visit the ranch whenever they were within a day's travel of the place. He couldn't get him a real chocobo but maybe his phone case would be enough. Even if it was broken.

Decision made, Noct pulled it out and said, “Hey, Prom. Found something I thought you might like back.” He held it out, chocobo image facing Prompto.

For a moment Prompto started blankly at it and Noctis felt his heart begin to sink. Did he not remember it? Had what Ardyn done caused Prompto to completely suppress the memory?

And then his eyes began to water, a bright red sheen coating them, making it look as though they were glowing. Prompto blinked and bloody tears streaked down his cheeks. He reached a hand out and it trembled. Still unsure if he was doing the right thing, Noctis handed it over. “It's just the case, sorry. The phone was completely trashed but this was okay.” He decided he wouldn't mention the monstrosity that had been pawing it before; bad enough that Ardyn had touched it, Prompto didn't need to know that some other creature also had.

For several minutes, Prompto simply held the phone case, staring at the broken chocobo. Noct took the chair Ignis had vacated and just sat there with him, watching. He wanted to ask him about it, how it had got there, why it had been broken (though he thought he knew that, he just wasn’t sure). Instead he remained silent. And then Prompto held the case cradled in both hands, bringing it up to his chest, hugging it; an instinctive and entirely human reaction. He rose his red eyes to Noct and whispered, his voice hoarse, “Thank you. Noct.” His lips twitched in what might have been a smile.

Noctis beamed. “Any time, buddy,” he said.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto cradled the phone case as though it were his lifeline. It was from before and it wasn’t just a dream. It was real. It was tangible. He could feel it in his hands. Well, sort of. The sensation he had through his armour was muted, the way a limb feels when the circulation is cut off. Different or disconnected. The way everything felt, even his thoughts and emotions felt distant. But looking at this chocobo proved it was all real and that, maybe, one day he might feel so alive again.

He ran his thumb over the embossed chocobo, staring down at it. He remembered the dread he felt when it rang while he was bound and helpless, tortured and tormented by Ardyn. He remembered the way Ardyn had deliberately dropped it on the ground and ground it under the heel of his perfectly polished shoe to ensure it broke.

But those were only two memories he had of it. He also remembered the pure joy he felt when Noct had gifted it to him, that he had actually thought about what he wanted to buy and what Prompto might like when he selected it. He remembered losing hours playing King’s Knight on it around a campfire until Ignis, irritated that they still hadn’t gone to bed, had taken both his and Noct’s phones off them, only to return Prompto’s a minute later, unable to resist his forlorn look. He remembered using the torch on it to find his socks in the messy bundle of sleeping bags in the tent. He remembered researching various filters he could apply to his photos on it and then experimenting to see what they would do.

He remembered. He was real, he was a person and not a machine, not a half-formed MT.

“We should eat, and then get some rest,” Ignis said from where he was sitting on the bed. Gladio had been sitting nearby, leaning against the wall, talking quietly, explaining to Ignis what he was seeing between Noct and Prompto, but he pushed himself forwards at Iggy’s words.

“We got bottles of water and energy bars,” he announced.

“Not exactly fine dining, but I guess it will do given the circumstances,” Ignis said.

“Better than noodles again,” Noctis quipped.

“Hey! There’s nothing wrong with a good cup of noodles. That balance of fresh ingredients and-”

“Yeah yeah, big guy,” Noct said, cutting Gladio off.

Prompto’s eyes flicked between the three of them as they talked, watching them as though he were seeing it all through a screen, as though he wasn’t really there. And then Noct turned to him, tossing him an energy bar. He caught it instinctively.

“Hungry?” Noct asked him.

Prompto shook his head, then actually considered the question. Was he hungry? “I don’t know,” he spoke slowly, looking at the energy bar, trying to summon some kind of feelings around it. “I don’t remember what hunger feels like.” He looked up as he said that in time to catch the pained expressions on all three faces. They each expressed it a different way - Ignis turned away slightly, Gladio frowned, Noct’s eyes widened a little and creased at the edges - but it was all unmistakably hurt. They didn’t like what he said.

Unwilling to let go of his chocobo case, he rose the packet to his mouth and used his teeth to rip into it, then took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. It sat heavily in his stomach. Not a pleasant feeling, but not an altogether horrible one either. It seemed to make Noct happy though - he was smiling encouragingly at him - so he took another bite, and then another until it was finished. By then the others were also moodily eating their own bars.

Noct wordlessly offered him a bottle of water. Taking a sip, Prompto decided he needed water more than he needed food, and he drank more quickly. It soothed his sore throat and moistened his mouth, but made his stomach feel overfull.

He drank again, but then set the bottle aside. There would be more; there were vending machines scattered throughout the facility.

“We should get some rest and keep a watch,” Gladio said as he tossed the wrapper of his bar unerringly into the wastebasket.

“The MTs cannot come in here. They’re… malformed. They can’t tell a door from a wall,” Prompto said.

“We still need a watch,” Gladio said and, from the way he was looking at Prompto, he knew that he meant to watch him.

Prompto just nodded and moved his chair back so he could lean his head against the wall. He could rest, at least. Let them sort out the watch.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct was sitting on a bed, trying to keep awake, to keep his watch as Gladio had suggested, when he saw Prompto rise jerkily and stagger towards the bathroom.

“Prom?” he called out hesitantly.

Prompto didn’t answer but he did hold out a hand as though he were trying to placate him. Perhaps he was just going to pee? Noctis didn’t know how that was possible in the armour he was in but there had to be a way, surely. That idea vanished, however, when not only did Prompto not bother to shut the door but he also dropped down next to the toilet and started to vomit.

Tiredness vanished, Noctis slid off the bed and hurried over. “Hey,” he said as he approached, knowing better than to come up behind Prompto without first announcing himself. “You okay?” Stupid, stupid question.

Prompto stared wide eyed when he had finished, looking down into the bowl. He shook his head. “This unit is… rejecting it. Rejecting the medicine.” His voice wavered as though afraid.

Noctis glanced down into the bowl and grimaced. Along with the remnants of what he had just eaten, there was a mix of red human blood and black daemon blood, though more black than red at least. “What medicine?” Noctis asked slowly, though he had a feeling he already knew what Prompto was talking about.

“The medicine…” He was forced to break off any further explanation as his stomach rebelled again. A sheen of sweat covered his face, but it was dark, staining his pale skin. Noct rubbed his back in what he hoped was a comforting manner. Well, rubbed his armour anyway. He didn’t know if Prompto could feel it or not, though the way he had ran his thumb over the phone case still clasped in his hand made him suspect he could in some way. “The black stuff Ardyn was giving me. To fix me, he said,” Prompto continued when he had finished.

Noctis grit his teeth. Of course Ardyn had thought Prompto was someone, no, some thing that needed to be fixed. “That wasn’t medicine, Prompto. It was poison,” he said sharply.

Prompto wouldn’t meet his eye, but he said, “He told me you would say that too. That you would test my resolve, test how badly I wanted to be fixed. That you wanted the same thing as he did, that’s why you were working together. On the train. You wanted to fix me too and would come and test my resolve.”

“He’s lying!” Noct snapped, then forced himself to breath when his outburst caused Prompto to flinch a little. Needing just a moment to calm himself, Noct stood and went back to the bedroom, fetched a bottle of water, and returned, handing it over. Prompto used it to rinse his mouth out, but he didn’t drink any. Noctis had to convince Prompto somehow that it was all a big misunderstanding, that Ardyn had tricked him.

“Prom, you remember back in Lestallum, when we ran into Ardyn at the lookout? You were the one to warn us of him, of the danger he presented. You know how dangerous he is, how manipulative. He would say or do anything to divide us,” Noctis said.

Prompto nodded slowly. He opened his mouth as though to speak then had to lean over the toilet again to retch. No food was coming up now though, just a combination of black and red. When he had rinsed his mouth out again, he spoke. “What happened on the train? For you? Luna said you didn’t betray us…”

“Luna?” Noct repeated, surprised. But then he remembered earlier, how Luna had woken him, saying that she couldn’t hold back the darkness much longer. He had pretty much dismissed that as a dream.

Prompto nodded again. “She helped. She said that… what were her words? When the prophecy is fulfilled, all in thrall to darkness shall know peace. She wanted to give me peace, to promise that it would end. She was warm and… she made me separate. Like what was happening wasn’t really happening to me but to someone else. When I’m not elsewhere though, when I’m here, my body rejects everything. Sometimes it’s easier, when I’m not.”

Split personality? That was the only thing that came to mind to Noct as Prompto talked. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of that. But then, if it had helped keep Prompto himself, then he was sure they could work with that. And that other part had definitely sounded like something Luna would say and do.

“What happened? On the train?” Prompto asked again.

“Right,” Noct said, remembering. And so he recounted the events, pausing every now and then as Prompto was sick, telling him how it looked like time had stopped, and how Ardyn had appeared. Doing this was good, he thought. He had been afraid Prompto would hate him for what he had done, for not seeing through Ardyn’s tricks, but he just sat there and listened, absorbing everything. Eventually, he ended with, “I’m sorry Prompto, so sorry. I didn’t know it was you, I would never have said anything like that to you. You’re such an important member of our group and we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without you.”

“Thank you. Noct,” Prompto said. He hadn’t thrown up for a while now and as he sat back, Noct thought there was a little bit less blood in his eyes. “You should get some rest,” he said. “Ardyn will not make it easy to reach the Crystal. He was pretty pissed that I obeyed your orders instead of his.”

“Yeah, well, he’s gonna have to deal with it,” Noct said, though he did get up and held a hand out to help Prompto up. “Come on. We should both get some rest. I think enough time has passed for Gladio to take his watch.”

 

-l-l-l-

 

They left the dorms once everyone had woken and had something to eat and drink. There was no way to tell the time in the Keep and Prompto said that was normal; there were assigned hours for tasks and the commanders were the ones who regulated the hours. There was no sign of the commanders now, however. Only daemons and misshapen MTs which, between the four of them, they had no problem dealing with.

Beyond requesting they stop at an armament locker where Prompto was able to arm himself with a gun, he hadn’t spoken beyond basic responses to direct questions since last night when he was sick. Noct kept an eye on him, but he didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects.

“Noct, do you hear that?” Ignis said from behind them as they walked down yet another featureless corridor.

“Hear what?” he asked. He didn’t hear anything unusual, but Ignis’s hearing had increased to a creepy level.

“I’ve heard this sound before,” he replied. Ignis stood still, head cocked to the side slightly, listening. “On the train,” he continued, “just before your weapons failed you. It’s nearby and may hold the key to restoring your power.”

“I hope so,” Noct said. He continued walking but they didn’t have to go far; the corridor opened into a large circular area, much like all the other central towers Noct had come across. Only this one had a room instead of an elevator in the centre of it.

“It’s here!” Ignis said.

“There’s a room here, but the door’s shut. Looks like machinery of some kind inside and… is that a throne?” Noct said, describing what he saw for Ignis’s benefit.

“It’s definitely coming from within. Is there no way through?” Ignis asked.

Noct tried the keycard he had picked up along the way but the panel just beeped and remained red. “Doesn’t look like it,” he said.

“There’s a way,” Prompto said. He stepped towards the keypad and rose the back of his wrist to the panel. It flashed green and the door opened. “This barcode wasn’t just identification. All MTs have them.” He paused. “I’m an MT,” Prompto said.

“You’re a person, Prom,” Noct said and, though he tried to hide it, his voice was weary. “If you were an MT there was no way you would have come with us, felt and experienced what you did. Only people feel that way.”

Prompto nodded, but still didn’t look convinced. “I didn’t know then, though. I thought I was like you, just born in a different place. But I’m not.”

Noct frowned, trying to put together what he was talking about. In the end he shook his head and said, “I don’t understand. How are you different? Ardyn did some shit to you, but we can fix that.”

“But he fixed me,” Prompto said. “I wasn’t born to a mother and father like you. I was made. In a lab. Specifically to become an MT. I wasn’t finished when I met you. I’m not a person, Noct. Just a thing created to become a machine.”

“No, Prompto,” Noct said firmly. “Gladio and Ignis, they found the records that said, that said you were cloned but that doesn’t matter.”

“It does, but still… you guys are like… the only friends I’ve ever known,” Prompto said, his voice breaking a little. “I just hope that, after this, when all these… parts are removed, things can go back to the way they were.”

“Hey, whatever,” Noct said. Prompto’s face, which had been staring at the ground, flicked up at that, but Noct just smiled. “Who cares where you were born? Or how? You’re still you.”

“I don’t see you turning on us. Not now, or ever. Not even Ardyn can force that,” Ignis said, and he was smiling too.

Prompto blinked, his eyes shining red again. “Thanks guys. Still… I can’t change what I am, what I was made to become.”

“Since when have you cared about following what you were meant to become? You never once acted like a true and loyal soldier of Niflheim around me,” Noct said, punching his shoulder lightly.

Gladio snorted. “He’s got you there,” he said.

“Never so much as a highness,” Ignis piped in, causing Prompto to flush a little realising he had called Noct his commander, and Sir, but never by his royal title as befitting a prince or king.

“Besides,” Noct said. “I’ve got a kingdom to reclaim, closely followed by a citizenship ceremony for one crown citizen in recognition for services to the crown.” He led the way into the room, leaving a dumbstruck Prompto standing outside.

“You’re one of us now, right?” Gladio said, giving the gunman a slap on the arm as he passed, guiding Ignis inside.

Ignis paused and turned back slightly. “Unless you’d rather not be a Lucian,” he said, a knowing smile on his lips.

Prompto swallowed and gave a nod before following them inside. Noctis was relieved; slowly but surely his friend was becoming more and more human again and it seemed that the more they treated him as a human the more it became true. Not that that was difficult; he had meant everything he said. He may not be overly keen on becoming the king and all that entailed, but one of the perks was Noctis would be able to make Prompto a Lucian officially, severing all his ties to the country that used and abused him. That, at least, he was looking forward to.

“Wonder how we turn it off,” Gladio said, looking over the machinery. “Don’t suppose you have any idea?” he asked, looking back at Prompto, but he just shook his head.

“Easy,” Noct said. He drew his father’s sword and slammed it into the machinery once, twice, three times, sparks flying every time.

“Well,” Ignis said. “That’s one way to do it.”

“Go on,” Gladio said. “Try it.”

“Alright,” Noct said. “Moment of truth.” He hesitated a moment, suddenly nervous. What if this didn’t do anything? What if his armiger was blocked for good? He pulled on the ether and summoned his engine blade, grinning when its familiar weight appeared in his hand. He sent it away.

“We’re back, baby!” Gladio said, punching the air.

“What a relief,” Noct said, finally feeling whole again.

“Let us continue to carry our weapons, however. Just in case,” Ignis said.

“Good idea.” An idea came to Noct then. “Actually, Iggy, can I talk to you for a sec please?”

“Of course,” Ignis replied.

Noct came over and watched as Gladio and Prompto went and stood by the door, looking out to give them some privacy. “I thought it might be a good idea to take some potions and stuff out of the armiger, to keep them in that bag just in case Ardyn does something to mess with us again.” They had given the bag of supplies to Ignis to carry, figuring that for one he was the most responsible, and for two it would hopefully give him reason to stay out of the fighting. “And also… I picked up something way back in Altissia. For Prompto.”

“Oh?” Ignis said, eyebrows rising slightly.

“Yeah. I, ah, overheard you guys talking one night. After Prompto woke from a nightmare. I wanted to get him something, as an apology for dragging him through things that were hard for him, like those caves. And to show him how much he means to me, to us, all of us.” Noct pulled the camera he had bought from the armiger. He took the memory card he had saved and slipped it inside before pressing it into Ignis’s hands.

“A camera?” he guessed, running his hands over it.

“Yeah. A good one. Way better than that touristy one he was using. It has his old memory card in it, I found it in one of the rooms. His photos are good, real good, figured he deserved a good camera to go with them.”

“Then wouldn’t the appropriate thing be to give it to Prompto rather than myself?”

“Yeah, but…” Noct glanced over his shoulder to where Gladio and Prompto were standing, talking. “He’s still not… himself. Not entirely. I don’t know what’s gonna happen from here on out, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be good. Ardyn’s almost encouraging us to get to the Crystal, there has to be a reason for that. If he… if Prompto… I just don’t want anything to happen to this one like the last one. When we’re out of here, away from Ardyn, then we can give it to him.”

“Alright,” Ignis said with a nod, and he placed the camera safely away in the messenger bag.

“Okay,” Noct said, turning back to the others. “Let’s roll.”

 

-l-l-l-

 

Ignis slashed at the daemon in front of him then jumped back. It was a cacophony of sound, screeching, growling, shouts from his friends, taunts from Ardyn, all of it confusing his senses. For the most part he tried to stay back, tried not to become a burden to the others but as more and more daemons appeared, it was becoming harder to do so. Outside of what they summoned from Noct’s armiger, he had most of their supply of potions, their food and water, not to mention Prompto’s camera. He had to keep it all safe. But if the daemons didn’t let up soon he didn’t know if he could do that, didn’t know if it would matter.

“We’re getting nowhere!” Gladio growled as he blocked an attack of some kind off to Ignis’s right, a sentiment Ignis shared.

Perhaps they could push through to the Crystal. But that would leave their backs open to the hordes of daemons. Maybe they could hold out and the daemons would stop coming? That didn’t seem likely either. He had felt Noct use the ring twice and even that monumental power hadn’t been enough to fully eradicate them all.

There was only one solution.

“Noct, you must go alone,” Ignis said firmly.

“What?”

“If you can obtain the Crystal’s power, we may yet turn the tide,” he said firmly, striving to keep his voice steady, reassuring, sure. “Elsewise, we are all likely to perish here.”

“Iggy’s right,” Gladio added. “It’s our only chance.”

“But what about you?” Noct asked, his voice torn.

“We’ll manage, Noct,” Prompto said from Ignis’s left. “Luna told me to-” He broke off and his gun fired three times before a slash and a monster’s scream sounded. “She told me to tell you to believe in yourself and that she’ll help however she can.”

“She would say that,” Noctis said quietly; Ignis heard him but he doubted the others would have over the noise.

“Get moving,” Gladio snapped.

An elevator dinged as Ardyn’s voice came over the PA system. “You could still reach the Crystal… if you went on your own. Your friends will have to stay behind.”

Ignis gritted his teeth as he danced away from a daemon of some kind slashing, missing, and stumbling from overbalancing himself. He hated that they seemed to be playing right into Ardyn’s hands, but what choice did they have? They needed the Crystal’s power to have any hope of surviving and for the life of him, Ignis couldn’t work out what Ardyn would gain. They had to follow through.

Ardyn’s voice again. “Betraying your friends for the greater good - the mark of a monarch! Step forth, Your Majesty!”

Ignis distinctly heard Noct mutter “Fuck off,” and for once he smiled instead of scolding him for his language. But, he was on his way, he had done what had to be done.

There was hope.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Gladio pulled a potion from the ether and downed it, feeling it mute his pain and revitalise his trembling muscles. He glanced over at Ignis and saw him leaning his hands on his knees breathing deeply. Prompto was standing still, the only sign of exertion the rapid rise and fall of his chest under that armour. They were still in one piece, and the daemons had gone.

“We need to find Noct, quickly,” Ignis said.

“He's not here,” Prompto said slowly, his odd eyes looking distant.

“What?” Gladio demanded.

Prompto blinked and looked at him, his eyes seeming to focus now. “I don't know, I don't understand it. But he's not here.”

“He better be,” Gladio growled. He jogged over to the elevator Noct had used and hit the call button, the wait while it rose giving Ignis and Prompto time to reach him.

Stepping in, Ignis spoke as the elevator descended. “Prompto. How do you know he's not here?”

“That's what Luna said. She's helping to keep me… me. So Ardyn can't order me. She said he's not dead but he's somewhere else, somewhere she can't go while she's helping me,” Prompto replied. Stepping from the elevator he paused and turned his attention to Gladio. “Can't you see her?”

Despite himself, goosebumps rose on Gladio’s flesh and he shivered slightly. “No,” he said shortly before leading the way across the silent hanger. To be perfectly honest, ghosts and spirits creeped him out. There was a rumour that the Caelums could see or sense spirits, but Noct had never given any indication that it was true. Had what Ardyn done given such an ability to a half created MT? Creepy, that's what it was. Creepy.

“Let’s go,” he said, choosing instead to ignore anything about ghosts or spirits or whatever.

There was no sign of life in this hanger, but still only one exit that Gladio could see. That had to be where Noct went. He jogged towards it, trusting Prompto to ensure Iggy kept up. Slamming his fist into the button panel to open the door, he was left staring. The cavern before them was huge , a long walkway seeming to stretch on endlessly and at the end of it that unmistakable glow of the Crystal.

There was no sign of Noctis at the end of the walkway, but there was another familiar figure.

“Ardyn!” Gladio growled and, readying his sword, he ran forwards, the sound of his feet banging on the metal walkway echoing. As he ran his eyes darted around, searching for any sign of Noct. Ardyn didn’t seem threatened though as he surely would have if Noct were here - there was no way he wouldn’t attack after what the monster had done to Prompto. Instead he was standing, staring at the crystal, a hand reached out as though to touch it but not daring to.

As Gladio finally got closer he turned with that slow smile. “Ah, you’ve arrived at last.”

“You bastard! Where’s Noct?” Gladio demanded, using his sword to bar any exit.

“As you can see, your precious king is not here,” Ardyn said, his hands sweeping wide.

“Where. Is. He,” Gladio repeated. He heard Ignis and Prompto arrive behind him but didn’t dare take his eyes off Ardyn; he had taken down Prompto, imprisoned and tortured him, and Gladio knew from experience that the kid was a hell of a lot stronger than he looked and wasn’t easy to take down. One didn’t turn his back on someone like that.

“I’m afraid you’ve arrived too late to bid your monarch a fond farewell. You see, for him to become the prophesied King of Light, the Crystal needs him. All of him,” Ardyn said and he turned to stare almost longingly at the Crystal.

“You mean he’s… inside?” Ignis said from behind Gladio.

Ardyn turned back with a smile. “You always were the smart one. Yes, Master Scientia. He’s inside the Crystal absorbing its power to bring light to the world and banish the daemons,” Ardyn’s hand made a grand waving gesture as he spoke. “Or so the prophecies foretell.” He stepped away from the Crystal and starts to walk towards them. “Never fear, he’ll return. Eventually.”

“You bastard. You planned all of this!” Gladio shouted.

“But of course. And you all went along with it like the good little dogs you are,” Ardyn said, his voice smooth as silk.

Gladio felt his anger rise at just how easily they had all been manipulated. And now Noct was gone. Not dead, but gone. Just… gone. A wordless cry escaped his lips and he launched himself forward. He slashed with his sword. It hit, he felt it hit, felt the flesh part beneath his blade.

Ardyn just stumbled and stood again, black whispy smoke floating around him.

Prompto lightly pushed Ignis aside so he was out of the way and rose his gun. His teeth were bared and he screamed as he pulled the trigger. The shot was perfect, right in the centre of the back. It should have been an instant killing blow.

Ardyn fell, but then stood again, scooped up his fallen hat, bowed and continued walking. There was black leaking from his eyes and mouth, and black smoke surrounded him.

The three of them were left standing, staring after him. “The hell?” Gladio muttered, but he watched as Ardyn strode down the corridor

Then he stopped, and half turned back. “Oh. I almost forgot. You’ll need a way out. I can’t do anything about the daemons, only your precious King of Light can rid them. But I can stop the MTs from attacking you,” he said. He held out a controller of some sort and pressed a button.

A strangled cry drew Gladio’s attention away in time to see Prompto’s body jerk as though electrocuted, and then collapse.

“Prompto!” he called, hurrying over and kneeling beside the unconscious gunman.

“What is it?” Ignis said, moving towards them.

Ardyn’s voice sounded, echoing around them, humming the chocobo tune that Prompto would occasionally sing. Looking up though, Gladio saw no sign of the man; he had simply vanished.

“Gladio, tell me what’s happened to Prompto,” Ignis said, his voice terse.

“Ardyn used some kind of controller on him, electrocuted him or something,” he said. Turning back to Prompto, he slipped his fingers against his neck, feeling around for a pulse and finding one. “He’s still alive, just unconscious.” He picked him up and slung him over his shoulder, hand over the back of his thighs holding him in place. Not the most graceful way to carry a person but this way he still had a hand free for his sword.

Looking around one last time, Gladio sighed. “Let’s go. There’s… nothing more we can do here.”

Ignis looked like he was about to argue, then his shoulders slumped. “You’re right. We can’t move the Crystal on our own and we have a long walk to leave Gralea.”

“You got an idea on how to move that thing?” Gladio asked, leading the way down the corridor.

“Several, in fact. Each more crazy than the last. Though all of them need more than just the two of us. I say we get back to Leide. We can gather a team of hunters, vehicles, whatever we need to rescue those we found on the cameras, and to get the Crystal out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Gladio said. He shifted Prompto on his shoulder and kept walking. 

Chapter Text

Ignis was the first to hear it. A low hum in an otherwise near silent city. Near silent since there were still daemons about. For the most part they had managed to avoid them, but a few had required Gladio to drop Prompto’s unresponsive body and deal with them. The hum though was familiar after so long on the run from the empire.

“A magitek engine. It’s close,” he said.

Gladio stopped and looked around. All he could see at the moment was the dim glow of engine lights, and then he heard the hum as well. He growled a little to himself. “Not good. Especially not with sleeping beauty here,” he said, tapping the held armoured thighs over his shoulder.

“Can we hide?” Ignis asked.

Gladio looked around. They were standing on a large suspended highway, a scene that looked like one of Noct’s dystopian video games laid out before them with parked, crashed, and burned out vehicles scattered all over the place, all of which were abandoned. He would say it looked like a war zone except there were no bodies.

“Not really,” Gladio replied. He led the way over to an overturned car near the side of the road and put Prompto down, propping him against the car’s underside so he had some cover and knelt down next to him. Ignis followed suit, a hand quickly brushing the car and then Prompto so he had his bearings. Gladio needn’t have bothered hiding though; the dropship had seen them. He stepped forward out of cover, sword at the ready. “Keep any that get past me away from Prompto,” he said.

“Of course,” Ignis replied, and Gladio turned his attention back to the drop ship; he trusted Ignis to have his back, to both keep an ear on Prompto and to be able to tell the difference in the sounds he heard and how close they were.

The dropship was red, Gladio noticed, and he frowned. Dropships weren’t usually painted bright red, that was almost like a flag saying ‘here I am’. It descended and he watched as the doors opened. Seeing who was inside, Gladio lowered his sword, eyes widening in surprise. “Aranea,” he said in disbelief as the woman strode forward instead of the expected MTs.

“Truly?” he heard Ignis say softly behind him, and Gladio smiled.

“Thought you boys might need a hand,” Aranea said as she jumped lightly down from the ship.

“Definitely won’t say no,” Gladio said, the relief evident in his voice.

“Hey, Ignis,” she said by way of greetings.

Ignis inclined his head, a small smile on his lips. “It’s a relief to see you again,” Ignis said. Silence. “Well you know what I mean,” he quickly amended. Aranea just laughed. “But what are you doing here?”

“And in a ship painted bright red so that anyone can see it?” Gladio added.

“Not that we’re not grateful, of course,” Ignis said.

“Of course,” Aranea replied. “I came to get my boys. My ship’s always been red, it was just tucked away at Tenebrae. And I happened to see the two of you lugging something and attempting to leave on foot. Figured you wouldn’t get very far without my help.” She nodded to where Prompto was slumped. “This your missing friend? He looks like shit.”

“That’s him,” Ignis said. He knelt down next to Prompto and felt his forehead, his pulse. “Ardyn did… things to him. Before we could get to him.”

“He looks like an MT. Kinda.”

“He’s not,” Gladio said sharply.

“He’s trustworthy,” Ignis said in a more reasonable tone. “But he does need help. I don't suppose that, along with being competent soldiers and, of all things, train engineers, Biggs or Wedge are surgeons?”

“‘Fraid not,” Aranea answered. “Field first aid, but that’s about it. And I have a feeling he’s a little beyond that.”

“It couldn’t be that easy,” Gladio said wryly.

“Of course not. Anyway, why is it whenever I run into you, you’re always down a member? Specs here seems to be the most reliable one of the lot of you.”

“Noct is… otherwise occupied. With the Crystal,” Ignis said slowly. “Indefinitely.”

“That so? There’s a story there somewhere. Maybe I should ask it in payment for saving your arses. Now, though, you boys going to get on board, or would you rather walk? Before you make your decision though, let me tell you this is no basic MT transport. It has beds, hot water so long as you don’t run the tank dry, and a basic kitchen. Tempting?”

“Extremely,” Ignis said. “Though…” he turned back towards Zegnautus Keep. “There are people still inside. We saw them on security footage. Well, Gladio saw them. And the Crystal…”

“Well, I’ll tell you what. You three get on board, I’ll take you back across to more friendly territory, get little sunshine there the help he needs and me a chance to gather a team. We can then come in and scour the keep. Won’t be easy but if there’s people there they should at least have a chance. They’ve survived this long, they can survive a few more days, or those that won’t wouldn’t have made it anyway,” Aranea said.

Gladio, carrying Prompto on his shoulder once more, gave a nod and the woman continued to talk as they started to climb on board. “As for the Crystal, however. That thing is heavy and its magic messes with our systems. No way I’m risking my baby over it. Can probably get some Hunter volunteers to set up a watch around it, protect the Crystal from… well whatever. I ain’t gonna be trying to order anyone into that hell hole though.”

“Of course,” Ignis said. “Thank you for your help, Aranea.”

“Anytime, cutie.”

Gladio scoffed at that, and had to bite down on his lip seeing the flush colour Ignis’s cheeks. “So, these beds, the bathroom. Where are they? A hot shower and a good long sleep is definitely needed after that hell hole.”

“I can imagine,” Aranea said. “This way.” She led the way through the dropship. It wasn’t particularly large; the hanger had enough free space to store a small vehicle and otherwise had subway-style seats. There was a door off to the side and Aranea waved a hand to it, saying, “Bathroom’s through there. Don’t use all the water.”

She didn’t pause though and led the way through another door at the end. “Cockpit’s through there, bedrooms through there. There’s two bunk beds so we’ll have to sleep in shifts, but I’m feeling generous today so you guys can sleep first.”

“My thanks,” Ignis said, then “We should get Prompto settled and check on him. I am concerned that he hasn’t woken yet.”

“What happened to him?” Aranea asked as she tapped the button on the door to the bedroom.

“Ardyn deactivated the MTs as he left. It had an effect on Prompto,” Gladio explained as he leaned his sword against the wall and maneuvered Prompto to lay on the nearest bottom bunk. He still looked okay, was breathing normal and, if he didn’t know better, he would have thought he was just sleeping.

“What did he do? Specifically,” Aranea said, leaning against the doorframe.

“He had a controller of some sorts. Pressed a button and zap, Prompto’s out cold. And the other MTs we came across were all deactivated,” Gladio explained. Aranea was nodding. “You know about that?”

She shrugged. “A little. I know there are control mechanisms, used to shut the MTs down within a given radius. Mostly used in the science wards where they were created and experimented on I believe. Incase something went wrong. With any luck he’ll come round as we get further from the keep.”

“We sure could do with a little luck right now,” Gladio said, staring down at Prompto’s unresponsive face.

“Indeed,” Ignis echoed.

“Well, I’ll leave you to rest. I’ll be in up front if you need me,” Aranea said, and she turned to leave.

“Aranea,” Gladio called, turning to her. When she looked back, he said, “Thanks. For everything.”

“Uh, sure, no problem,” Aranea said, clearly thrown off guard by the sincerity. She turned back and, if Gladio didn’t know better, he would have said she fled them.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto was laying on something soft. That immediately didn’t feel right and served to wake him completely. His eyes remained closed though; while the bed was unfamiliar, the sound was and he had to work out what was going on before he gave any indication he was conscious. He was in a drop ship. Usually drop ship transportation meant storage containers but he knew he wasn’t in one of them. It felt as though he were on a bed, soft mattress under him, pillow behind his head.

He heard Gladio’s snore, a distinctive rumble he was well acquainted with after living in such close proximity to him for so long. His eyes flew open. Had they all been captured? Quickly his eyes flicked around, taking in everything with a skill borne from necessity. Drop ship yes, the hum was unmistakeable. But a dorm room of some kind, bed above him, bunk beds next to him. Gladio’s hunched form was sleeping in the top bunk next to him, blanket pulled up over his shoulders against the chill. Ignis was sitting in a chair next to the beds, cane clasped lightly in his hands before him, face straight forward. No restraints, no sign of injury beyond the general battery he had obtained in the daemon fight while Noct went to get the Crystal.

No Noct.

“Where’s Noctis?” Prompto demanded, sitting up quickly. He stood to check the top bunk, but it was empty, unused.

“Prompto?” Ignis asked. He turned his head towards him. “How are you feeling? You were unconscious for some time.”

“Body aches, head hurts, I’m fine,” Prompto listed off absently, answering without really thinking about it. “Where’s Noctis?” he asked again.

Ignis hesitated and Prompto turned back to him, to stare. “Sit down. Rest,” he bade him. Prompto sat, though one of his legs bounced up and down, twitchy, full of nervous energy. What was going on? Where were they and where was Noct? “What is the last thing you remember?” Ignis eventually asked.

Was he supposed to know where Noct was? Prompto cast his mind back, thinking. “We were in Hanger B, fighting daemons. Noct had to go on ahead to reach the Crystal and we covered his back. The daemons stopped coming and we went after him.” He frowned. It hurt to remember. Why did it hurt to remember? He rose a hand to rub absently at his forehead; it was safe to show such weaknesses here, there was only Ignis and Gladio and Gladio was asleep and Ignis couldn’t see. “We reached the Crystal and… Ardyn was there? But Noct wasn’t, I don’t think.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember anything else. Ignis where is he? And where are we? I know it’s a drop ship but I’ve never been in one with a dorm room.”

Ignis nodded and said, “Your memory loss is probably from Ardyn… deactivating you. After that Gladio carried you out and we ran into Aranea, who is giving us a lift to more friendly territory. We are all safe and relatively unharmed. As for Noct, well he is… elsewhere was how you described it.”

“Yes,” Prompto said, remembering that now. “That’s what Luna said. Something about the Crystal?”

“Absorbing the Crystal’s power, yes. At least according to Ardyn. I admit I do not know too much about it. We’ll have to do some research when we can, learn about the Crystal and the prophecy surrounding the King of Light. And gather a team to move the Crystal out of Zegnautus so that it can be watched, so someone can greet Noct when he returns. But for now, we can rest. Can you shower in that?” Ignis asked.

Prompto shook his head. “Not easily,” he said. “Water can run down inside it and in Zegnautus, there were air dryers I stood under, but it wasn’t perfect and some parts chafed. Waste was removed through ports, pulled out, but there wasn’t a lot. The daemon blood is very good at sustaining the body. But… I still want it off. All of it.”

“Of course. When we arrive we can send for a surgeon. Don’t worry,” Ignis added, hearing Prompto’s intake of breath, near silent though it was, “both Gladio and I can stay with you the entire time. I simply do not have the skill required to remove your implants and armour, even before I lost my sight. For now though, rest. That is what we all need most right now.”

“Alright,” Prompto said, and he lay back on the bed once more and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep, he didn’t need much with the daemon blood still supplementing his own, but he could at least pretend.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto rubbed his arms absently as he tried to convince himself to follow Ignis and Gladio into Lestallum. They felt strange now, light, though he hadn’t realised the armour was heavy. He flexed his fists again, opening and closing them, watching the flesh move. Part of him was surprised; he had half expected it to be nothing but wires and circuits under the armour. Always being told he was nothing but a machine made it easy to believe that sometimes.

He was wearing a long grey jacket, a spare of Biggs’s, over his armour. It was stifling hot in it but it hid the armour from view. The catch was they had to remove his arm blades before he could put it on.

Gladio clapped his hands on Prompto’s shoulders. Holding him still, steady. Aranea was in front of him, her fingers slipped under the vambrace at his right elbow.

“You sure about this, blondie?” she asked.

“Don’t have a choice,” Prompto pointed out, again. “Even if I could put the jacket on without shredding it, one look at the blades and people will know. And… I don’t want to risk it.”

“Risk what?” she asked.

“Hurting someone,” he said simply. He didn’t want to explain any further, didn’t want to explain the bloodthirsty urges he still had, the need to kill anyone who got too close unexpectedly, to feel the flesh part, taste the spurting hot blood. He had already given his gun to Ignis to hold onto for now, but with the blades he was never truly disarmed and it was ridiculously easy to injure someone with them.

“Okay, so how do you want me to do this?” she asked.

“Just pull. Fast and hard,” Prompto said.

“Don’t get stabbed,” Gladio added helpfully.

She nodded and moved slightly so the blade would angle away from her as she pulled. It made for a slightly awkward position but still manageable. “Ready?”

Prompto gave a short nod and Gladio tightened his grip. She pulled. Prompto grit his teeth as he felt the wires pull and then snap with the same sharp pain that he felt when his helmet was removed. He gave a short cry of pain when the last of it snapped free. His left arm twitched as though to stab at the one causing pain but was held still by Gladio. And then he slumped back, breathing heavily through his nose. He could hear talking, the tone shocked and sympathetic, but it was as though from a distance.

A thumb rubbed at the base of his skull, lightly kneading the tight neck muscles there. Gladio’s thumb.

Prompto opened eyes he hadn't realised he had closed to see Aranea kneeling in front of him, her face creased with concern. “All good? Ready for the next one?”

Prompto took a breath and exhaled slowly. He nodded. “Ready.”

 

With the blades removed and the jacket covering the rest of the armour, a bandage around his head covering the implant, he almost looked normal. Still odd - anyone wearing a thick winter jacket in this weather was odd regardless of the cooler night air - but a quick look and he was dismissed. Children stared and pointed, but were scolded by their parents for being so obvious.

They reached the hotel and were able to book a room for the three of them; Aranea had declined staying in the city, preferring her ship. She planned to stay only long enough to refuel and resupply anyway before returning to Gralea to find what survivors she could.

In the privacy of their room, Prompto was able to shed the too-hot overcoat and relax a little. There were times when he was with Ignis and Gladio that he could forget his training and relax both himself and his ever watchful guard. They were familiar and comforting and with them C1094 seemed to be less and less real. But around the crowds of Lestallum, C1094 had the forefront. He didn’t attack, he had no orders to do so. But he remembered too clearly how it felt to kill, the sense of power it gave. He wanted that, wanted to feel that rush, that euphoria. He also had to watch every single one, to ensure none came too close, none attacked, none threatened them. It gave him a headache trying to keep up with everything. Retreating into the hotel room was a blessing; he only had to watch the door then since the windows were too high up to give access.

“I'll go find Holly. She'll probably be able to recommend a good surgeon,” Gladio said before leaving the room.

“How are your arms feeling, Prompto?” Ignis asked him.

“Light,” he answered honestly. “Naked.”

The two talked for a little while about this and that. At some point Gladio returned saying that a top notch surgeon was going to arrive in the morning. Holly had organized everything as thanks for what they had done for her and her girls at the power plant.

Prompto didn’t sleep much that night, nervous about what was to come. The thought of being forced to go under the knife again, albeit from someone who likely showed more compassion than Ardyn had, was, quite frankly, terrifying. But he had to get out of his armour, and soon. He was already having painful stomach cramps and breathing deeply was becoming difficult, not to mention the need to throw up anything he ate or drank. In Zegnautus, twice a day, he would stand in his cell and daemon blood would be added to his metabolism, into his stomach, his veins, his very muscles. Sometimes Ardyn was there and would service his armour, tinker with it, make modifications, and sometimes he was alone. He preferred it when he was alone. Daemon blood always burned as it spread through his body, but he didn’t have to deal with cutting, with slicing and breaking.

And he was about to be at another’s complete mercy. A stranger’s.

Prompto held onto his phone case, running his fingers over the chocobo, focusing on the feeling of the embossed bird, the actual feel of it, through his fingers instead of the muted dull sensation he felt through the armour. It was soothing. Noct wasn’t here, and he hadn’t seen Luna since leaving Zegnautus, but Ignis and Gladio were. He trusted them. He had to.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Gladio looked up from his breakfast (buttered toast, it was the only thing he could think of that Iggy wouldn’t be able to criticize his cooking skills for) at the knock on the door. Getting up, he opened it to a stream of people. At the head was the surgeon he had met briefly yesterday and following behind were several hotel staff carrying arm loads of supplies.

“Mara,” the surgeon said, holding out her hand to Gladio, who shook it with a small smile. “And you must be Prompto,” she said briskly, walking up to him.

“Easy, Prom,” Gladio said, his voice soft. Prompto looked like a rabbit caught in headlights, eyes darting around the room, trying to watch everyone and everything.

“I hope you realise what you’re risking by insisting that the surgery take place here, young man,” Mara said imperiously and, though the top of her head only came up to Prompto’s nose, she had a way of looking taller, of making even the hardened Niflheim soldier shrink a little.

“I… what?” Prompto stuttered, thrown off guard by her manner.

She sighed the sigh of the long suffering. “Infection is the very least of the risks by performing surgery here, and that is by no means a small risk. Without easy access to the best equipment if any number of things go wrong I may be unable to fix it. You must understand those risks.”

Gladio saw Prompto’s adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, but when he answered his voice was calm. “I understand. It’s just the best of a bunch of bad options.”

That seemed to satisfy her, however, as she gave a sharp nod. “Now, before we get started and while things are being set up, I need you to undo all the latches on your armour. I will remove what we can with you conscious so you can guide me, none of this ripping and tearing that you’ve been doing so far. Being that you’ve already removed some of it yourself, albeit crudely, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to remove the rest of it.” Prompto began to unlatch what he could of the armour as she spoke. It allowed small gaps to form, enough for fingers to slip in and water to run through, but little else. “As for the implants they will be somewhat more delicate and you will need to be asleep for it. As such, if I deem it unsafe to remove everything all at once I will not proceed. Better to take this slowly than to rush it and kill you. With that in mind, do you have a preference as to what should be removed first, or last?”

“My head implant,” Prompto replied immediately. “I want… I need it gone first. The others… whatever you think is best.”

“Very well. Let us begin.”

Gladio lent a hand where strength was required but for the most part he just stood back and watched. Both he and Ignis remained within Prompto’s line of sight which seemed to calm him somewhat, make him look less like he were ready to jump on anyone who looked at him wrong. And then, once all the hotel staff had cleared out, he was more forthcoming with information, describing how he thought things were connected. It took perhaps an hour for the armour to be taken off, sometimes needing a small portable saw to cut through the metal and wires. It was a significantly less painful process than simply pulling the armour pieces off had been.

And then they were all removed. Gladio stared at what he saw. Beneath the armour, Prompto was wearing the rags of what he had worn on the train. They were rank, torn wherever an implant was, filthy with ground in dirt and blood and other unnameable substances,, barely even recognisable as clothes anymore. Mara pursed her lips and ordered Prompto to wash himself thoroughly before proceeding any further.

“Gladio,” Ignis called softly so his voice wouldn’t travel to where the shower was running. Approaching, Ignis continued, “I smelled something… particularly malodorous. Was it…”

“Yeah, it was,” Gladio answered, knowing what Iggy was too polite to ask outright. “I figured he would have been wearing those long grey clothes under his armour. Like when we first met him. But he still had on the same clothes from before. The stuff Noct bought him. They were filthy, barely hanging together.”

Ignis frowned but only nodded in understanding; clearly Ardyn had less care for his little experiment’s well being than even Prompto’s original commanders.

Prompto came out with a towel around his hips, the remnants of his clothes abandoned on the bathroom floor. Wearing just that it was easy to see the state he was in. Skin pallid from being out of the sun for so long, nasty looking burns and general cuts and bruises from abuse, angry black and red lines along his veins where the daemon blood had been injected, implants on each limb and several running the length of his spine. He really was a mess and it wasn’t going to be pretty getting any of those out.

“Sit in the chair there and hold this over your nose and mouth,” Mara said gently as she handed over a mask attached to a cylinder, her eyes noticeably softer seeing what she was working with, what Prompto had obviously been through.

Prompto sat but hesitated in breathing in the gas. He opened his mouth, but then closed it again and looked away.

“Spit it out, kid,” Gladio said and, though his words were harsh his tone remained soft.

“W- What will I feel? It’s easier to handle if I know to expect it,” Prompto said.

Gladio looked away; had that sick fuck actually done this to Prompto while he was awake? Was that why he was so terrified of the surgery? He clenched his fists, struggling to bite down on his anger, bile threatening to come up, as Mara answered him.

“Nothing. The gas is a sedative, it will feel just like falling into a deep sleep. As you start to fall asleep, I’ll help you hold the mask to your face until you’re well and truly unconscious. Then I’ll do a few tests to make sure you can’t feel anything. If you show any indication that you can, I’ll just let you breathe more gas and try again until you can’t feel anything. Then I’ll start with the implant on your head. I’ll cut around it first, see how it’s connected to your skull and remove it as best I can. I’m not going to lie, anything regarding the skull and brain is extremely tricky. This first time I would prefer to only remove that one implant just to see how you recover from it.”

“What about when I wake up?” Prompto asked.

“You’ll have a killer headache and probably concussion symptoms. Much more than that I can’t guarantee. But we’ll have elixirs on hand to give you as soon as you wake. Do you still want to go ahead with it?” Mara asked.

Prompto looked first to Gladio, then to Ignis. Ignis rose a hand and lightly touched the scarring around his left eye, and gave Prompto a nod, which he returned even if Ignis wouldn’t be able to see it. He didn’t answer Mara, but held the mask to his face, and breathed deeply.

Chapter Text

Year 1

Gladio stepped out onto the balcony when his phone rang. It was Aranea. “Hey,” he answered, only mildly surprised that it was him she was calling instead of Ignis.

“Hey yourself. These hunters you put me on to are one crazy bunch.”

Gladio laughed a little. “Yeah they are.”

“That Monica’s a piece of work. Whipped those boys under her command into order right smart. You given any thought yet to what we talked about?”

“I…” He looked back into the hotel room. In the dim light he could just make out the hunched form of Prompto sleeping on a bed, and Ignis slowly making his way about the kitchen, fingers trailing on everything as he went. He sighed. “I can’t,” he said eventually. “I’m needed more here, at least for a while. I’m the only able-bodied one of the three of us at the moment.”

“How’d that go anyway? The surgery I mean. You find someone?”

“Yeah. Head implant’s been removed, and one of the arm ones, but his blood pressure began to drop too low so the surgeon won’t do any more for at least a few weeks. It’s slow going.”

“Yeah I bet. And Specs?”

“Bumbling around,” Gladio said, his voice betraying a hint of frustration. His best friend was blind. Permanently. And he still refused to say what happened, either claiming he didn’t remember or being particularly vague. Gladio didn’t buy it, especially since he knew Ignis still had nightmares about that night. “He’s having a hard time accepting that he needs help, that he can’t do some of the things he used to.”

“I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. He made it through Zegnautus Keep with you, didn’t he? And that place is a shit hole, I don’t even need to have been there to know that. He's tougher than you give him credit.”

“Maybe.”

Crash!

“Sod it!” came Ignis’s voice.

“I gotta go, your tough boyfriend just broke another plate.”

“Fuck off, he's not my boyfriend.”

“Yeah, sure. Listen, keep me updated with how things go at the keep, okay? Don't wanna have to go back there to rescue your sorry arse.”

“Of course I will. We'll set up a watch over the Crystal too.”

“Thanks.”

“And Gladio?”

“Yeah?”

“I was the one who rescued your arse. Remember that.”

Beep.

Brat,” Gladio muttered to his now-silent phone as he stepped back inside. He glanced at the bed and gave a rueful smile at the still sleeping blonde. Ignis had mentioned to the surgeon that he was having trouble sleeping, often being woken throughout the night with nightmares and to be sick, so she had slipped him a sedative. At least it seemed to be working to give him some rest.

Dismissing Prompto, Gladio turned his attention to Ignis. He was kneeling, using his hands to sweep across the floor and find the broken crockery, placing what he found in a pile by his knee.

“Stop that,” Gladio said gruffly taking hold of the roving hands after he flinched, finding a sharp piece of crockery by feel. He placed Ignis’s hands firmly in his lap and started gathering up the shards. “I can cook us dinner, you know that.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Ignis said in a tone that sounded anything but appreciative, “but I simply can not abide one more night of cup noodles.”

“Then order in room service, or even just follow me to a restaurant.”

“I need to learn to do this for myself.”

“I hate to tell you this, Iggy, but there’s gonna be stuff that you just can’t do any more. There’s nothing wrong with eating out, we-”

“We can’t afford to eat out, Gladiolus,” Ignis snapped. He sighed and sat back. With one hand he removed his glasses, holding them lightly in his lap while his other hand pinched the bridge of his nose as he struggled to get himself back under control. When he had, he spoke again. “We have enough funds to rent this room for the rest of the week, if we cook ourselves. If we eat out every day we’ll be lucky to last three days. I hear people talking, saying that the sun hasn’t risen in nearly a week now, or if it does it’s light is so weak as to make no difference. I certainly cannot feel its warmth. People who live on farms are going to start abandoning them to the daemons and moving somewhere safer. Food prices will go up as crops die from lack of sun and attention. Accommodation prices will rise as more people need it move to safer areas and need somewhere to stay. We need to prepare and part of that preparation is cutting costs wherever possible, including me regaining my cooking skills.”

Gladio had stopped gathering up the broken plate as Ignis’s voice became more and more heated. “You’ve really given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?” he said.

“There is little else to do with my time,” Ignis replied, bitterly.

As much as he hated to admit it, everything Ignis had said was true. The sun hadn’t risen and already Lestallum was slowly growing, people arriving telling of daemons that never leave without the sun to drive them away. It made Gladio restless and, as much as he had turned down Aranea’s offer to accompany her back to Zegnautus, he wished he could have taken her up on it. But this only proved that Ignis and Prompto needed him the most first. He was Noctis’s shield, but right at that moment, Noct was somewhere where Gladio couldn’t follow.

“We’ll eat out tonight when Prompto’s awake if he’s up to it, or I’ll pick us up some food and bring it back to eat here. Then tomorrow, I’ll join some hunts, make us some coin. Hunting earned us enough to traipse around the countryside with Noct, it will do just fine with the three of us. Get Prompto to help you in the kitchen. Will probably do him some good to stop the moping as well,” Gladio said.

Ignis sighed, clearly not happy with that, but either unwilling or unable to argue with it. “Very well,” was all he said.

 

Year 2

Gladio stared at the message on his phone for what had to be the dozenth time, before locking his phone once more, sending the area into darkness except for the light of the haven’s runes and the campfire. It was from Aranea and had come not long after Gladio had left on another hunt.

The Crystal is gone. Scoured the keep for it but it’s nowhere to be found. Dunno what else to say. Sorry.

-A

He had been tempted to turn back, to leave the hunt to the rest of the people in his party (no one hunted alone any more, the daemons were too powerful for that), to immediately inform Ignis and Prompto of what she had said. Maybe they could deduce what it meant because he had no clue. But the daemons they were hunting roamed one of the main roads out of Lestallum; it had to be dealt with both so the power plant could continue to supply power to the region and so the constant stream of refugees could arrive safely. What difference would one more week of not knowing make, he reasoned, when him not being here could mean the life of someone. He could have called, of course, or sent a text message to Prompto (they had bought him a new phone several months ago), but he felt such news needed to be told in person.

That decision, however, did mean he was left to ponder the situation himself. How could such a huge hunk of rock just disappear like that? He was sure Aranea would have thought to check the security records but the fact that she just said it was gone could only mean they had been destroyed or corrupted. But how could something so large just vanish? Especially when they were having trouble themselves coming up with ways to move the thing?

And more importantly, what did that mean for Noct who was, theoretically, inside the Crystal? Gladio would be the first to admit that he didn’t understand all the mumbo jumbo about the Crystal and the power of the Line of Lucis beyond what he needed to as Shield of the King (which was still a lot more than most people). But he did know that Noct was still alive, one of the first things the three of them had tried from the safety of Aranea’s drop ship had been to summon a potion from the Armiger, which they had succeeded with easily. If Noct were dead, that would have been impossible.

Holding his hand out, Gladio summoned another potion. It came, but he actually had to pull at it; it wasn’t the usual effortless summoning he was used to. He frowned. Was that because something had happened to Noct, or was it just that he was out of practice? He hadn’t been game to send his sword to the ether ever since Ardyn had managed to lock it, so he rarely pulled upon it anymore. Maybe he was just rusty.

A hand clapped on his shoulder, and Gladio looked up into the yawning face of a young woman, fairly new to the hunters but with promising skills. Anastasia, he remembered. “My watch,” she said. “You should go get some sleep. I think we want to move in a few hours.”

“Right,” he said. They all slept in watches now, even in havens. There were rumours that the haven runes were fading, had been fading since the Oracle had been killed. And that some of the oldest, most distant havens no longer worked at keeping the daemons at bay. Gladio hoped they were just rumours, stories spread by the fear of what may be happening instead of what actually was, but they weren’t willing to risk it. Easier by far to keep a watch. He pointed out the nearest daemons to her then crawled into his tent to get a few hours shuteye.

 

Year 5

Gladio pulled his jacket around him, now glad of the purchase even if the price was extortionate. Five years. It was five years to the day since that fateful trip into Gralea. Five years since Noct had disappeared into the Crystal. Every one of Ignis’s predictions had come true, though all of them wished they hadn’t. Most outposts were empty now, inhabitants either evacuated, left willingly, or killed by daemons once their power gave out. Lestallum was filling up. Hammerhead was holding out, as was Wiz’s chocobo outpost which, last he heard, was doing well with travellers who didn’t have access to vehicles using the birds for transport. Galden Quay was still holding on too, though if what the new arrivals were saying was true, it wouldn’t last that much longer.

Cape Caem was what interested Gladio, though. They were still holding out there as well, and served as a safe stopping area for refugees making their way to Lestallum but of more importance to him, that was where his sister was currently living.

Gladio pulled his phone out of his pocket and pressed a button, lighting the screen up. No new messages. He locked it and put it away again, looking out the window.

“She’ll be fine,” Cor said from the driver’s seat as he maneuvered around a rather large pothole. “Your sister is stronger than you give her credit for.”

“Course she is,” Gladio said, though even to his own ears his voice sounded strained, the tone fake. “It’s just… there’s a lot of daemons out there, and she’s just a kid.”

“She’s twenty years old now, hardly a child,” Cor pointed out, though he was smiling as he said it.

“Hmph,” was all Gladio said to that; it was true of course, and, as much as he hated to admit it, Cor probably knew her strengths better than even Gladio did now. He was the one who spent most of his time out at Caem while Gladio was in Lestallum, helping Ignis and Prompto get adjusted to both their new lives, hunting to earn the three of them enough money to live and build up supplies before the worst came. He had trusted Cor to look after his kid sister, even more so after their sojourn together into the Tempering Grounds, but in many ways he still resented that it was Cor who was with her instead of himself.

“This thing got any heat?” Gladio asked, wanting to change the subject.

“Gotta get used to the cold sometime, city boy,” Cor said, though he did turn the heating on.

“I can handle the cold just fine, thanks,” Gladio said. Reports were saying that, in the absence of the sun, the average temperature of this area had dropped twenty degrees. They were lucky that the meteor was still active; in other parts it had dropped 30-40 degrees and cold areas, like around Niflheim, it was too cold to sustain human life for any length of time. But all that meant that while out on hunts and staying in the few still-active havens that existed, dealing with the cold was something all hunters had to learn how to manage at some point. Cor knew this. “Doesn’t mean I have to put up with the cold when there’s another option though,” Gladio continued.

“We'll be there soon,” Cor said, rather than continuing to bait the larger man.

A few hours later had them rounding the bend towards the lighthouse, only for Cor to slam on the breaks as they came face to face (or face to ankle) with a massive iron giant. Monica and another hunter, Anastasia, are facing off with it, as well as - to Gladio’s fury - Iris. She was quick, her sword slashing out as she darted in, then away again, her strikes strong and precise. Skillful. Well trained moves. And familiar. The car door was opened almost before the car had completely stopped, and Gladio threw himself out. Reaching into the back he grabbed his sword and launched himself into the fight.

Gladio was often known as a giant or a behemoth, both because of his size and strength but also because of his speed, or rather lack thereof, especially when compared to his smaller, faster counterparts. But he was still faster than this giant, able to dodge around it’s attacks, to swing his sword in a powerful arc and slam it into the daemon’s legs from behind.

“Amicitia!” Monica shouted and from her tone, so often heard in his own training, he knew she meant him and not his sister. She pointed up to the monster’s shoulders and he nodded his understanding; after all it was her who taught him and Noct this particular trick. He slammed his sword into the ground as she ran at him, and cupped his hands ready. A second before he felt her boot in his hands, he was already lifting, gaining momentum, and throwing her into the air. She flipped as she rose higher than the daemon and angled her spear. Reaching the top of the height, she angled her body, spear first, to drive the point into the giant’s head. It roared and grabbed her, tossing her aside. She landed heavily, but was up again in a moment, generally unharmed.

That was enough though as, with the guttural cry, the beast fell and was absorbed into the ground as an oily blackness.

“Good timing,” Anastasia said, approaching with a smile.

He smiled in return though that soon turned to a frown as Iris ran up to him with her trademark, “Gladdy!” and threw herself into Gladio’s arms.

He caught her and hugged her, but then held her away from him and glared down at her. “Iris, what’s the deal! I thought I said no fighting. And where’d you get that katana?”

Iris pouted up at her big brother, not at all phased by his anger. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there are daemons about, Gladdy. I can’t rely on others to defend myself all the time. I have to learn. And Cor agrees with me, right Cor?” she said turning to the Marshal.

At the mention, Cor turned a rather undignified shade of pink, coughed roughly into his hand and turned to Monica, requesting an update as though he hadn’t heard Iris’s comment.

“Hmph!” Iris complained in irritation at being ignored, but Gladio let her go; there would be words between him and the marshal later.

“Where’s Talcott? Please tell me you haven’t been encouraging him to fight as well,” Gladio said.

“He’s inside with Dustin. And don’t worry, he doesn’t need me to encourage him to fight,” Iris said.

Gladio sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He hated it, but knew that if there was something Iris was determined to do there was nothing he could say or do to stop her. Though he was distracted from his thoughts when he saw bombs over Iris’s head, dancing around the outskirts of the Cape’s ring of lights.

“Go inside, Iris,” Gladio said firmly, pushing her towards the house where the others had already disappeared.

She took a few steps but then stopped and stood ready to draw her katana.

“Iris,” he said, tone warning.

“But I-”

“Inside. Now!”

“Go on, Iris. I’ll look after him,” Anastasia said. She had a gun in one hand and a polearm in the other, the tip resting over her shoulder and strode confidently towards the daemons. She flashed Iris a smile and said, “We’ve fought together before, it’ll be fine. These things are nothing, just mop up. You let the others know what we’re doing so they’re not worried.”

Iris looked between Anastasia, the bombs, and Gladio then gave a nod. “Alright,” she said, then pointed the hilt of her katana to her brother. “Don’t go getting hurt now, you hear?”

Gladio smiled. “Hey, it’s me. No way a couple of gas balls are gonna get the better of me.”

Iris and Anastasia exchanged some kind of look between them, but Iris then turned and jogged back inside the house. Gladio let out a breath he would never admit he was holding as he turned his attention wholly back to the daemons.

“Let’s do this,” he said, and the two hunters charged as one.

The fight, as Gladio had predicted, was a fairly easy one. It was over quickly (as was ideal when fighting bombs) and only one of them had exploded, catching Anastasia on the arm.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked, resting his sword over his shoulder and striding over after seeing her shaking out her arm.

“Yeah. Smarts a bit is all,” she said.

Gladio took a hold of her hand and held it out. The burn looked pretty bad; he was no Ignis, trained in all forms of field triage, but he had been in enough fights to know when something needed tending to and this did. Slamming his sword into the ground, still holding her hand with his other, he reached into Noct’s store and pulled. It took a second or two, longer than he would have liked, but then a potion appeared in his free hand and he poured it over the burn.

Anastasia didn’t even seem to notice the pain relief, however. She was too busy staring at Gladio as though he had grown an extra head. “So it’s true,” she said eventually.

Gladio looked up as he let her hand drop. “What?”

“The Lucian King. He’s really alive. I mean I know you were his shield, every hunter knows that, but everyone just figured he was dead. That’s why you were hunting with us. But if you can do that…”

Gladio grimaced. He inclined his head towards the lighthouse, indicating they should move closer to the daemon repelling lights. “He’s alive,” he said. “I just don’t know where he is. He’ll be back though,” he said, conviction clear in his voice. “I don’t know when or how, but he’ll be back. He’ll bring the sun back and destroy the daemons.”

Somehow.

 

Year 8

Gladio stood at the open window looking out over the city. Lestallum was packed to bursting now, and it had started to snow. Snow in a city that had felt like it was summer all year round just eight years ago! He shook his head, knowing that Prompto would love to take photos were he in town. Then again, perhaps not; it wasn’t the clean, pristine snow of Niflheim. This snow was grey, tainted with ash. When it was heavy like it was now, it was alright. Annoying, cold, wet, but manageable. The problem came when it was light, when it was fine. The particles were so fine that all doors and windows had to be shuttered against it and masks worn whenever someone ventured outside. Those who were caught without a mask developed a nasty cough and prolonged exposure resulted in death, coughing bloody chunks until the lungs finally stopped working. He hoped that Prompto had his mask with him this time.

A hand slapped his bare arse and Gladio jumped, brought out of his dark thoughts and he turned with a smile to Anastasia. The woman was wearing a sheer robe about her curvy form that left little to the imagination.

“You just going to stand there, giving the whole city a view?” she asked, a teasing smile about her lips. The two hunters had become closer in the last couple of years, brought together largely through hunts, but also a mutual respect and friendship. A friendship that had developed into something more about a year ago. Nothing serious, he told himself - one couldn’t really justify getting into a serious relationship with the end of the world steadily approaching - but just fun and comfort in each other’s company.

“What can I say, it’s a good view,” Gladio replied. A hand shot out and wrapped around her waist, pulling her in for a kiss. “We can always give them something more,” he murmured, his voice low and deep next to her ear in a way that he knew made her shiver.

Instead of eliciting round two, however, all Anastasia did was slap his arm and slip away, laughing. “Come on,” she said. “We’re supposed to be meeting your friend Ignis, remember?”

As though it heard her words, Gladio’s phone started ringing. He groaned. “Now look what you’ve done, you’ve gone and summoned him.” When he went over to look at the phone however, it wasn’t Ignis’s name on the screen, but Iris’s. He frowned. He wasn’t expecting to hear from his sister till later in the week.

“Iris? What is it?” Gladio asked immediately, answering the phone.

“Gladdy? Oh thank the astrals. You’re in Lestallum right? Not out on a hunt?”

“Yes, I’m in Lestallum. Iris, slow down, what’s going on?”

Drawn by the unexpected conversation, Anastasia came closer, a hand resting on Gladio’s shoulder as she listened in.

“The generators have given out. All the lights are off and the daemons are getting closer. We need to leave, but we’ve only got my bike, and it can’t take everyone.”

Gladio was moving around their small apartment at the first sentence, gathering up his clothes and pulling them on one handed. “Stay where you are,” he said. “Take refuge in the lighthouse if you need to, up the top, it’ll be harder for most of them to reach you there and you’ll only have to deal with snaggas and other pests. We’re leaving now. Are there any other refugees with you?”

“No, it’s just us. I don’t think any new ones will arrive now we have no lights.”

“Alright, stay safe. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He hung up and pulled his shirt over his head. Anastasia was already moving about their appartment, gathering spare masks, drinks, potions, jackets, anything they might need on the road. It wasn’t their first evacuation trip they’d undertaken together, far from it, but it was the first one rescuing someone he loved.

Sitting on the chair and pulling his boots on, he dialed Ignis’s number next. “Gladio? Is something the matter?” Ignis’s voice came when he answered the phone.

“Gonna need a rain check on dinner, Iggy,” he said.

“Really, Gladiolus, it’s only polite to give more notice than an hour. I’ve already put-”

“It’s Iris,” Gladio cut in. “The generators have given out at Caem. We’re going to go get them.”

All irritation was gone from Ignis’s voice hearing that as he said, “Do you want me to come with you?”

“Where’s Aranea? Her ship could really come in handy.”

“Not here, I’m afraid, and too far away to arrive any sooner than you would. I can still come along to back the two of you up. I assume your mysterious lady friend is accompanying you.”

“Yeah, she is,” Gladio answered absently as he mulled over Ignis’s offer. He knew that the man had been training hard to regain the skills he had lost along with his sight. This dinner was also supposed to be him showing off his returned culinary skills as well as meeting Anastasia. He had gone on a couple hunts with him over the past year or so, and knew he could hold his own even better than he had before. But still he held back, still remembered the stumbling lost man he had been. “Thank you, but no, it’s probably best if you remain here,” he said. “I’ll call you when we arrive, let you know that everyone’s all safe or… whatever. Then again when we get back here and we can reschedule dinner then. This way if something happens on the road you and Aranea can come help out and not be caught up in it.”

Ignis was silent just long enough that Gladio knew he was annoyed with him, but in the end he said, “Very well. Be sure to keep in contact.”

“I will. Thanks, Iggy,” he said, before hanging up. “Let’s go,” he said, taking his sword and leading the way outside.

Year 10

“What’s with that growth on you chin?” Gladio poked Prompto’s chin where the offending hair was.

“Hey! I’ve been working hard on that!” Prompto protested, a hand instantly going to rub down the goatee he was trying to grow.

“I’m sure you have,” Gladio allowed, with just enough mocking in his tone to make Prompto scowl up at him.

“So where is your mystery woman?” Ignis asked from where he stood at the kitchen bench.

“Out on a hunt with Iris,” Gladio replied. A fact he was altogether unimpressed with, but even he had to admit that his kid sister had some serious talent with that katana of hers. When he had driven out to bring everyone back from Caem it had been in time to see her single handedly take down a Yojimbo without getting stabbed. And now the little brat had gone and got herself a reputation. ‘Iris the Daemon-Slayer’ they called her. Said Daemon-Slayer and Cor had ignored his advice to remain at the top of the lighthouse and instead had been standing back to back at its base, fighting off those who came close. And even Talcott had been fighting, shooting with one hand and lashing out with a short sword with the other, his fighting style very reminiscent of Monica and how she trained the Crownsguard. “They wanted some ‘girl time’ or some such,” Gladio explained. “I thought it sounded like a good idea at first - Iris has been spending way too much time with Cor if you ask me-”

“Which we didn’t,” Prompto cut in with a knowing grin.

“Anyway,” Gladio spoke loudly, over the top of Prompto. “I thought it would be a good idea, they could go shopping, or at least window shopping, girl-talk, gossiping, paint nails, hold hands in the bathroom, whatever it is girls do when they’re together. Then I found out it was a hunt they were planning on doing. Those daemons aren’t getting any weaker out there.”

“You’re telling me,” Prompto said, leaning back in the couch and propping his feet on the table. “We lost three birds to them just last month. Used to be those little things, snaggas or whatever? Used to be they would just take three bullets and they were down. Pop pop pop, and dead,” he held a hand out in the shape of a gun and flicked it up with each ‘pop’, then dropped it back to his lap, “you know? Now I’ll empty a whole gun into one before it falls.”

“Prompto,” Ignis said from where he was pulling something out of the oven.

“Yeah Iggy?” Prompto replied, hanging his head backwards over the back of the couch to look upside down at him.

“Are your boots on the table?”

Gladio gave a snort of laughter before he could help himself, and bit down on his fist to try to stop it.

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Prompto lied as he took his feet off the table, placing them on the floor as quietly as possible.

“Of course not,” Ignis replied dryly, knowing full well that Prompto was being less than truthful with him.

“Hey, Iggy. You gonna be done in time before the blackout?” Gladio asked.

“Of course I am. We have a good half hour yet,” Ignis replied.

Lestallum was overflowing with people now, not just in the apartments like what Ignis and Gladio lived in, but the hotel was at twice its normal capacity and a shanty town of sorts had sprung up in every available space. Plazas were now filled with tents and make-shift hovels. And everyone was drawing on the power. Power for warmth, power for light, power to charge any electrical devices those lucky enough to have them had. Lestallum’s power plant was never built for such a draw on its resources so last year the city had instigated scheduled section-wide blackouts. One day per block residents and businesses would be without power, on a rotating basis. Hunters would patrol the area with portable lights and kill any daemons that formed, though they were relatively few within the confines of the city. So far, it was enough to keep the rest of the city powered. And it was Ignis’s block’s turn next.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before even that wasn’t enough - there was a rumour that the disc’s heat was fading at a noticeable rate - but Gladio trusted that when that time came another solution would have presented itself. Ignis was helping with that, putting his sharp mind and sharper education to use. And surely Noct couldn’t be too far away from coming back. It had been ten years already! Countless people had died since the world fell into permanent darkness. The astrals owed them big time, all of them. They owed them the sun, and a time of peace, and Noctis back so he could rule it as he was always meant to.

Lost in his own thoughts, Gladio jumped slightly when Ignis’s phone began to ring.

Chapter Text

Year 1

“I'm sorry, but we can't risk removing those implants.”

Prompto sat in stunned silence as the words sunk in. A hand slipped into his pocket, finding the phone case there and running his fingers over it. An unconscious habit he had picked up that grounded him.

“There's nothing at all that can be done?” Ignis asked from where he stood just behind Prompto.

Mara shook her head. “There's not,” she said to Ignis, then turning back to Prompto, elaborated, “Your spinal implants have been completely fused to your spinal cord. How, I have no idea. I suspect that is how you had the maneuverability in the armour, it getting signals directly from your brain so that it worked with your movements instead of against them. Incredible technology, genius in a way. But irreversible. To remove them would damage your spinal cord, if not server it completely. You would be completely paralysed if it didn't kill you outright. I'm sorry, but the best option now is to learn to live with them.”

Prompto nodded silently but didn't say anything. Ignis rested a hand on his shoulder and spoke for him. “Thank you for all you've done. Even if this wasn't the result we hoped for, it is better than we faced before.”

“Of course. I'll see myself out. Be sure to contact me if any complications arise,” Mara replied. With one last sympathetic look to Prompto, she turned and left.

After the door closed, Ignis walked around and knelt in front Prompto, a hand on his knee. He said nothing for a few seconds, perhaps waiting for Prompto to speak, but when he was met with only silence, he spoke up. “Prompto, are you alright?”

“The pain is minimal,” Prompto answered absently.

Ignis smiled sadly. “I meant emotionally, not physically.”

Prompto looked up, then, and started into Ignis’s unseeing eyes. “I had hoped…” he started, but then shook his head with a sigh. “It doesn't matter. I'm not human. Not really. And I never was. I just have to accept that. C1094’s not some separate person. It's just me, doing atrocious things, wearing another name.”

“Prompto-” Ignis started, but Prompto cut him off as he stood.

“It's fine, Iggy. I'm fine. I'm just… gonna go have a shower. I need some time to think.” He started moving towards the bathroom as he spoke.

“Of course. Well then, if you don't mind I think I'll head out into town. There are a couple things I would like to pick up.”

That gave Prompto pause, and he half turned back to look at Ignis. “Will you be alright on your own? I… can come with you if you prefer it.” He didn't want to, he wanted to be alone, being surrounded by the Lestallum crowds was not something he felt he could handle, but he had to ask. It would be worse if Ignis got into trouble just because Prompto was moping.

“I'll be fine. Don't worry about me. Your listening trick helps a lot, I'm thinking perhaps everyone should be trained in it,” he said with a smile that Prompto hesitantly returned. “I'll be back in a few hours. Then I think I'll have a hankering for some ribs. What do you think?”

“That… sounds really good. Thanks, Iggy,” Prompto said sincerely, knowing that Ignis never really had a ‘hankering for some ribs’ and only said that because it was one of Prompto’s favourites. He appreciated Ignis’s efforts to make him feel better nonetheless.

Ignis nodded, then closed the door behind him, leaving Prompto alone to his thoughts. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, heading towards the shower. He stripped himself of the clothes Gladio had bought him the night of his first surgery and stared at his reflection in the mirror. His hair was starting to grow back now from where it had been shaved away to get at his head implant, though it was noticeably paler than the rest of his hair. There were fresh scars on his arms, legs, and collarbone, and stitches still in his thigh which was the last of the implants that had been removed. They would scar and fade as well with only the memory remaining of what had been there.

What set his stomach rolling, however, were the five metal plates down his spine, implants that he could see in the mirror reflected in the shower glass. Ardyn had done that to him. He had been strapped down to a medical table, face down, the straps so tight they cut in, preventing all movement. He even remembered the first half of the surgery, the scalpel slicing through his skin, hooks pulling the flesh apart, and then a drill into bone-

Prompto threw himself across the bathroom as nausea bubbled up and he threw up what little he had managed to eat for lunch. He and this toilet were old friends now, best buddies. He visited it with his mouth at least once a day, though sometimes more often if he had nightmares. It took away the half digested food and bile and black goop, and propped him up as he lay draped over it, shaking and sweating.

How was he supposed to completely banish C1095 now? Noct was gone and they had no way to reach him, Gladio was often away on hunts, and, as much as Ignis had helped him more than anyone, he wasn’t a commander. He had been advisor to the crown prince, a role which held some authority, but wasn’t the same. With these things attached to him, and Ardyn still out there somewhere, C1094 was only just below the surface, waiting for the chance to take control.

Prompto rested his forehead on the cool bowl and tried to focus on his breathing. He could do this. He had to do this. He just… had to find something, or someone, anything to focus on, a purpose or whatever.

One thing at a time, Ignis had told him. First, he had to shower. Then dry and dress. Then help Ignis with dinner, as much as he could anyway. Maybe Ignis would have some ideas on what he could do after that.

With the water as hot as he could stand it, ignoring the way his back implants heated up and scalded the skin around them, he scrubbed himself raw, trying to wash away all the negative thoughts and feelings, all his worries and fears and insecurities. He allowed his mind to go blank, it was easier that way. One thing at a time.



Year 2

Prompto stared at Gladio as the words sank in. The Crystal was gone. Just… gone. As if it had never existed. Noct was inside the Crystal but if the Crystal was gone then Noct was… Noct was…

There was a roaring in his ears and the world was turning grey, distant. And then suddenly there was a hand gripping his elbow, holding him steady.

“Woah, easy there, buddy.”

Gladio’s voice cut through the fog and colour leached back into the world again. Prompto looked up into Gladio’s warm, concerned eyes.

“Why don't you sit down,” Gladio said, but he didn't wait for an answer before guiding Prompto to the nearest seat.

“We don't know anything yet, we'll keep looking for it. I'm sure it'll all work out,” Gladio was saying, but Prompto barely noticed, just nodded absently.

What would happen now? Prompto had worked hard to push Ardyn’s influence away over the past year largely by asking himself what Noct would tell him to do or think with regards to any given situation. Would Noct care that he still had implants in his back that couldn't be removed? No. He had seen the scars on Noct's back. When surrounded by people and becoming overwhelmed at the need to watch everything for potential threats, what would Noct tell him to do? Breathe slow, step aside, and trust that danger won't come in a busy street. Even though he wasn't really there with him, Prompto felt as though he was simply by the voice in his head reassuring him of what Noct would say or do.  

Holding a hand out, Prompto hesitated a moment, afraid to know the truth, then pulled a potion from armiger, unknowingly repeating the exact same action Gladio had performed when he first found out. It came, and he sighed in relief as he sent it back. At least Noctis was still alive. He would come back. He had to come back. Everything had gone to shit, surely he could come back and help make things right.

He heard Ignis and Gladio talking quietly amongst themselves, but Prompto paid them no mind. Instead he reached into his pocket and pulled his phone out. Ignis had bought it for him a few days after learning that the last of his implants couldn’t be removed. He had thought being able to play some King’s Knight would take his mind off it.

Now though, he held it face down on his leg, running his fingers over the case. The tactile sensation was soothing, grounding. It kept him firmly rooted in reality. And he needed that, right then. Everything he knew had been turned upside down over the last two years. His commander was gone, and with it his purpose. His hopes that he could be normal and not have any sign beyond a few scars of what Ardyn had turned him into was dashed. Then they had been forced to move out of the Leville and into a small apartment that he shared with Ignis and Gladio. It was cheaper, and really, fairly nice compared to where a lot of the refugees were living, but it was cramped with all three of them living there.

“Prompto?”

Ignis’s voice cut through Prompto’s depressive thoughts, and he turned towards him. “Where’s Gladio?” he asked, noticing that the man wasn’t there.

“He’s gone out to get a few things from the market for me,” Ignis explained. Prompto frowned as he watched Ignis; the man seemed to be unsure of something, shifting on his feet as though nervous. That was very unlike the Ignis Prompto knew.

And then, he finally came to a decision. “Come with me, if you would. I have something for you. From Noct.”

Prompto felt his heart leap and he jumped to his feet. “From Noct? You've seen him? Where is he? Why hasn't he come back here?” He cut himself off from asking more questions when Ignis rose a hand to stall him.

“I haven't been in his company since Gralea, no,” Ignis said and the wording made Prompto realise his own words may have been a little insensitive. Ignis didn't show it though as he opened the door to the sole bedroom in the apartment. “This is something he asked me to give you before we were separated. At the time, he wasn't sure… that is…”

“He didn't know how human I was,” Prompto filled in. “It's okay Iggy,” Prompto added, seeing how uncomfortable that statement made the man. “ I didn't even know how human I was at that point.” That was another thing he had worked hard at over the past year. That he really was Prompto. Prompto the human, perhaps born in Niflheim but no longer beholden to it. C1094 was dead, as was the MT that it was made into. Prompto the human, the one who enjoyed photography, found chocobos to be the cutest animals on Eos, and who waited for his King to return had survived.

“Nonetheless, it was a disservice to you to assume otherwise,” Ignis said and Prompto shrugged, forgetting Ignis couldn't see it. “He wanted me to wait to give it to you until I was sure you would appreciate it. But that took so long, what with all the surgeries, that I thought you might resent me keeping it for so long.”

“Ignis, I could never-”

“Let me finish,” Ignis cut in, raising a hand to bade him to wait. “Gladio and I, we should have handled…” He sighed, irritated. Prompto remained silent and let him gather his thoughts. “I know that learning of the Crystal's disappearance would make you feel lost and adrift, so perhaps this could help ground you again, give you something to work on, a purpose.” He was holding that old messenger bag they had found in Gralea and from it he pulled…

Prompto’s eyes widened as he stared at what Ignis was carrying, was holding out to him. “Is that… what… how?” Prompto stuttered, not daring to take it.

Ignis smiled and pushed it into Prompto’s hands; he had to take it or risk dropping it. He took it and turned it over. It was a camera, and not just a cheap one to replace the one he had lost in Gralea. Besides, Noct could not have known that something would occur to cause him to lose his old one. No, this was a good quality camera, the best probably, Prompto thought.

“Noct bought it while we were in Altissia. I’m not sure when he got the opportunity, but apparently he heard us talking one night after you woke from a nightmare. It left him feeling guilty about leading you through things that were emotionally difficult, such as the caves we traipsed through. He wanted to give this to you to make up for that.”

“He doesn’t need to make up anything to me. I would follow him anywhere,” Prompto said.

“I know that. And, I suspect, he did too.” Ignis paused, then said, “Go ahead and check it out.”

Prompto turned it on then, ensuring that the flash was turned on, pointed it at the advisor. Bringing it into focus (a manual focus!) he held the button down. It clicked several times.

“Not me!” Ignis snapped, though his voice was far from angry.

Prompto just laughed and started flicking back through the photos. He didn’t realise it was on a burst setting but he didn’t regret that; the photos showed Ignis’s expression morphing backwards from irritated amusement to passivity. And then… He stared. “What?” he whispered disbelievingly. There was another photo. The last one he took before everything went to shit. It was of Noct, pushing his greens to the side of the plate in the train’s dining car.

Heart racing, Prompto pressed the scroll button almost frantically. There were there. All of them. Every single picture was there. He had long since given them up as lost, but here they all were. He sniffed.

Ignis spoke, his voice quiet. “Noct also mentioned he found your old camera in the Keep. He rescued the memory card from it.”

Not letting go of the camera, Prompto practically launched himself at Ignis in a hug that was awkwardly returned; Ignis wasn’t one for outward displays of affection but Prompto didn’t care. Right then, short of being able to hug Noct, Ignis was the next best thing.



Year 4

Click.

The haven lit with a bright flash of light for a second and Prompto grinned as he looked down at the photo he had just taken.

“Will you shut that thing off already,” Gladio growled at him.

“No way. I’ve gotta document everything for when Noct comes back,” Prompto said proudly.

“You don’t have to document me taking a piss,” Gladio pointed out. “Delete that shit already or I will.” Pants done up, the big man stalked towards where Prompto was sitting in order to make good on his threat.

“Alright alright.” He pushed a button. “Deleted, see?”

“Hmmm,” was all Gladio said, though he did back off again, picking up his cup of noodles and finishing them off. Prompto, meanwhile, grinned privately to himself; he hadn’t deleted it at all, but instead deleted a blurry picture he hadn’t really liked. Gladio’s photo didn’t show anything, of course, he wasn’t a perve, but it was obvious what was going on from the way Gladio was standing. It was going to be fun to show Noct these photos! Surely he couldn’t be too far away now.

Prompto had spent the last two years photographing the people of Lestallum, refugees who came in, vendors and their wares, even the view from the look out, the landscape lit by the meteor and floating bombs outside the bounds of the city lights. He wanted to document everything he could, how the world was slowly changing with the lack of sunlight.

Now though, he wanted to get photos of hunters in action, doing their part as defenders of the people and all that heroic stuff. And truth be told he wanted to take a break from being always surrounded by people. So he had asked to come along with Gladio when next he went on a hunt and here they were.

“We should get some shut eye,” Gladio said after a while. “Take this thing on after a good night's rest.” Of course the phrase ‘good night's rest’ was now irrelevant, they just slept when they were tired, but Prompto knew what he meant.

“You can sleep first, I'll stay up and keep watch,” Prompto offered.

Gladio hesitated. “We're in a haven, Prom. No need to keep a watch here.”

“Yeah, I know. Still the daemons are stronger aren't they? It'll be better to keep an eye on them just in case,” Prompto said, hoping he sounded convincing enough. The fact of the matter was he slept very little. While the sickness that had plagued him when they first arrived at Lestallum had abated, and with it his MT-red eyes and black veins, he was still beset by constant nightmares every time he closed his eyes. They disturbed his own sleep enough, the last thing he wanted was for them to disturb Gladio’s as well.

“Alright,” Gladio eventually agreed and Prompto breathed a silent sigh of relief. “Just be sure to-”

“Wait,” Prompto cut in.

“What?”

“Shush shush,” Prompto urged. He could have sworn he heard-

Kweh.

There! Prompto leapt to his feet and scooped his gun up. Slinging his camera over his shoulder by its shoulder strap, he ran towards the sound, leaping off the edge of the haven.

“Prompto, what the hell?!” Gladio shouted behind him, but Prompto paid him no mind, running towards the sound. He could hear Gladio behind him, swearing all the while, getting his own sword and following behind him.

Prompto slowed about fifty meters from the haven and paused to listen again. For once, when Gladio caught up, he didn’t say anything. “That way,” Prompto said, pointing with his gun in the direction he heard another fainter sound and the two were off again. There was a cliff face ahead of them and, following it along, a small gap with an arachne chittering, trying to reach inside it.

“Hey!” Prompto shouted and aimed and shot his gun in a fluid movement. That drew its attention.

The daemon swung around and screeched at him.

“Damnit Prompto, quit rushing ahead! You’re as bad as Noct,” Gladio complained as he leaped forward, bringing his sword down on the creature. The two of them fought well together; Gladio keeping the daemon’s attention while Prompto shot at any openings provided, his uncanny accuracy hitting the creature’s weak spots with ease, blasting through the gaps of the carapace.

The fight still took longer than it should - the daemons were becoming worryingly stronger the longer the night lasted - but a single daemon was still no match for two seasoned fighters. Soon enough it was gone, its dead body dissolving in an all too familiar (for Prompto) black goo.

“Okay, now what’s the deal? There are plenty of daemons out there and that one wasn’t our mark,” Gladio said, resting his sword on his shoulder as he turned to face Prompto.

“Didn’t you hear it?” Prompto asked as he approached the gap in the cliff face.

“Between you and Iggy,” Gladio muttered under his breath. Louder, he added, “Hear what?”

“This,” Prompto said, as he saw what he was looking for. The bright yellow feathers of a chocobo. He smiled. “Hey there, little guy,” he cooed, voice gentle and soothing. “It’s alright, it’s safe now,” he said. Well aware of how skittish the birds could be, especially when trapped and around so many daemons, he took his time approaching. Slow and soft, hands out before him, making no sudden movements.

“That’s a tame one,” Gladio said from behind him, looking over Prompto’s shoulder.

“It’s bridle is stuck in the bush there. It would have been daemon food if not for us,” Prompto said. To the bird, he started making shushing noises as he got closer, though the bird didn’t seem too worried about allowing him close. Carefully he reached out and took hold of the bridle and began untangling it from the bush.

“Wonder where it’s rider is,” Gladio said, looking out over the darkened plain. There was no sign of any human life out here and hadn’t been since they arrived.

“There you go,” Prompto said proudly once he got the chocobo loose. Instead of letting her free though (he could tell it was female even if Gladio couldn’t), he continued holding the bridle. “We should take her back to Wiz. She must have come from there.”

“Prompto. We can’t just take off to the outpost. That’s three days ride away by chocobo, and even longer walking with all the daemons around. We have a hunt to do and its rider is probably around somewhere, we should look for them too,” Gladio said, sword resting against the cliff face and arms crossing over his chest.

“I want…” Prompto grit his teeth and looked away. He no longer really felt any pain when expressing what he was thinking or feeling, but sometimes, like now, it was still hard. The words didn’t want to come and that ever present ‘I don’t know’ phrase was always on the tip of his tongue as an excuse, a way out. And Gladio’s aggressive stance wasn’t helping at all, though he did wait patiently, knowing that this was something Prompto still struggled with.

Prompto knew what he wanted, it had been turning over in his head for a few weeks now, he just didn’t have the courage to say anything. But then this chocobo appeared and needed his help and everything fell into place. Finally, running his hands over the soft feathers, focusing on their texture and not looking at Gladio, he continued, “I want to take her to Wiz. I think I need to do this. You were always planning on taking this hunt on your own anyway, you’re more than strong enough to. And you might even find the rider and be able to help them get back to Lestallum. Iggy’s doing much better, and Aranea’s been helping him whenever she’s in town, I’m just a third wheel with them. I don’t belong here anymore, not really.”

“So you take the chocobo back,” Gladio said slowly, as if speaking to a child who couldn't see the full picture. “Then what? How will you get back? Cars aren't exactly in plentiful supply, you know.”

Prompto shook his head, choosing to ignore Gladio’s tone. “I don't think I will come back.  Not immediately, anyway. Once, when Noct was still with us, Wiz offered me a job at the chocobo ranch. I think… I’d like to see if the offer still stands. If he’ll still accept me being, well, what I am.”

Gladio sighed and dropped his arms. Prompto knew he understood the need to belong, and the truth was Gladio was spending less and less time with the guys as it was, more focused on hunts and helping the people where he could. He had his place among them. Prompto didn't. Without Noct he was just some, lost, malfunctioning MT. He needed to be his own person. Chocobos had helped once, when he was lost in his training of only obeying direct orders, not feeling, not thinking. Maybe, just maybe, they could help again.

“Fine,” Gladio said. “But you can be the one to tell Iggy. I'm not poking that bear.”

Prompto felt a brief lurch at the thought that his leaving might upset Ignis - he didn’t want to do that, never that - but he also knew that Ignis would understand, probably even support it. Besides, he wasn’t alone now, Aranea was living in the apartment with them more often than not. He would be fine.

“I will,” he said. “In a few hours when he's awake. But…” he glanced at the chocobo who was standing placidly by his side. “I should get this bird to her home though, as soon as possible.”

“You’re not even going to sleep for a few hours?” Gladio asked, though now his voice held more concern than irritation.

But Prompto shook his head. He didn’t want to sleep. Especially not now; if Gladio heard him in one of his nightmares he would probably just insist that Prompto not leave at all. He couldn’t risk that. “I’m not really all that tired,” he lied. “I’d rather just get on the road as soon as possible.” That was true at least.

“Alright. Keep in contact at least. Come back to the haven and we’ll split supplies,” Gladio said, which Prompto agreed to.

 

Year 6

Crack!

Prompto lowered his gun and turned back to the birds behind him, waving his arms, herding them along the road, before turning and shooting some more daemons.

“Wiz!” he shouted. “To the east!”

“Got it!”

Another shot rang out in that direction, a rifle shot.

Prompto ran to the left, covering the birds from that direction. His phone began to ring from inside his pocket, a generic tune; he didn’t use any chocobo tunes on his phone any more. Pulling it out he fired another shot off at an approaching daemon and answered it absently.

“Really not a good time, Gladio,” he said. He shot another two times then shouted to Wiz, “I’m out!”

“I got you,” the man said, running closer to cover Prompto while he reloaded one-handed.

“Prompto? What’s going on?” Gladio’s voice came from the phone.

“Chocobo post is down. Reserve batteries ran out and the daemons swarmed. Shit!” Prompto ducked under a sword swipe from a Yojimbo and started shooting into it as he darted backwards.

“Prom You okay? Do you need some help?”

“Help would probably be a good thing,” Prompto said. “Howard’s leading them, Wiz and I are trying to herd them and fend off the daemons till we can get to a haven that still has wards. The rest… didn’t make it.”

“We’re on our way. What’s the nearest haven you’re aiming for?”

“Ah…” he was distracted from needing to take down another three goblins. “Pullmoor haven.”

“Shit, Prom, that’s a long way from the post.”

“Yeah well not like we have many options at this point. The closer ones aren’t active anymore. Thanks Ardyn.”

“Alright, well send me a message when you get there. I’ll get a team together to go help you.”

“Thanks Gladio,” Prompto said, hanging up. His focus now back on the chocobos he noticed two of them getting separated from the group and ran around to the side to herd them back in.

Three hours later found the three men and sixteen chocobos safely up on the haven’s sacred ground. Prompto rested his hands on his knees and breathed deeply. They had been forced to run for the last half hour or so and the birds were too scared to allow riders right then, but they made it.

Feeling a clap on his shoulder, Prompto straightened and smiled towards Wiz. “You did good, kid,” Wiz said and Prompto’s smile spread ever broader. “Couldn’t have done this without you.”

“I’m sure you’d have managed. But thanks,” Prompto said. They began moving through the birds, touching, soothing, checking them over for any injuries, making sure they ate and drank. They had lost a further two birds on the journey here, but otherwise were alright. Apart from those two birds, and the human and bird loss in the initial attack, they had arrived here relatively unscathed.

“Dinner’s on,” Howard said from where he was standing over a pot on a small fire.

“Wait, lemme get this shot,” Prompto said as he backed to the edge of the haven.

“Really, Prompto?” Howard complained; that man had never really liked Prompto’s photography, or Prompto himself for that matter, but it didn’t concern him. Wiz liked him and didn’t care about the scars or implants. The first time he saw them was an accident - Prompto was usually so private about getting changed so that no one would see the scars or the metal - but he hadn’t remembered to lock the bathroom door and Wiz had wandered right in. He’d actually been concerned, even more so when Prompto had, briefly, told him that he got them while being a prisoner of the Empire. But after being assured that they didn’t hurt, that they wouldn’t impact his work at all, Wiz left the matter alone since it clearly made Prompto uncomfortable, and he never mentioned it around any of the other workers.

Even now, it was Wiz who came to his defence saying, “Let the kid have his fun. He deserves it.”

Prompto shot the older man a grin and rose his camera to take the shot. The flash lit the haven and he checked the photo, pleased with what he saw. “Alright!” he said. One more to keep to show Noct when he returned.



Year 8

Eight years today. Today marked the anniversary of the first day the sun failed to rise. The day Noct disappeared into the Crystal. The day that Ardyn won and Lucis had lost its second war, even if the second one was no where near as widespread as the first, just four guys against an empire.

Prompto still had trouble sleeping, though not always because of nightmares. He would often just lay in bed and flick through the photos on his camera, the occasional tear trickling down his face. He missed his friends, he missed Ignis and Gladio. They talked fairly regularly of course, and met up whenever they were in the same vicinity, but it was different to before. He missed Noct. His best friend. His first friend. The first person who had trusted him and treated him as a person instead of a unit. He had welcomed him when he had every reason to kill him. He had helped him fight against his Inurement, helped him rebuild an image of who he was, who he could be. But most of all he missed what they had before. He missed travelling with the guys, with Ignis behind the wheel and able to see. He missed teasing Gladio about his books, trying to pry from him what they were about. He missed drawing on Noct’s sleeping face and then running and laughing when the prince finally found out what they’d done. He missed how carefree they all were and that was something, no matter what happened, that they could never go back to.

All these thoughts and more sped through Prompto’s mind, circling and chasing one another, as he followed the tracks of a lost chocobo that had managed to get out of her pen. The poor thing had lost its chick recently and had likely escaped to try to look for it.

Reaching the edge of the ledge, Prompto looked down but it was too far to see if the tracks continued. They had to, he reasoned; he couldn’t see where they had turned, though it was hard to tell. As he started to climb down, a light snow began to fall, but it was heavy enough not to need to return. He had to find this bird. Pulling his jacket tighter around him against the cold, he pressed on.

Another hour later, just as the snow had turned to the light, whispy kind, he found her. Prompto closed his eyes and sighed. He was too late, the daemons had found her first, her body was a mess of slashed skin and strewn feathers. Well, there was nothing more he could do now.

Turning back to return to the rest of the flock had Prompto come face to face with a Yojimbo that was standing far too close behind him, its sword raised and ready to strike. “Shit!” Prompto swore as he stumbled back away and drew his gun, firing off a few rounds. They hit but they barely even seemed to bother the thing. The daemons were far too powerful now at the best of times and normally Prompto was able to sneak around them. But a Yojimbo, on his own, and with a very limited supply of bullets? Suicide.

He turned and ran, but could hear it close behind him. Ahead there was a road, but the open space were prime spawn locations for various giants. No better to avoid that. The other side of the road the landscape dropped away to the rushing river. It was the same river they had often enjoyed walking along before all this crap began, but it was a lot higher now and there were chunks of ice lining the side of it. Not ideal, but-

Prompto screamed as a sword thrust through his shoulder from behind. It held him aloft for a moment or two, then threw him aside, tearing the wound wider as he fell from the sword and rolled. One hand pressed to his shoulder, trying to stem the blood flow, Prompto scrabbled to his feet. He ran, booted feet smacking the road and leaped over the side railing and down.

Falling, falling, then splash ! The water was so cold the breath he had managed to hold was knocked out in a flurry of bubbles but, worse than that, he had jumped into a shallow area and the burst of pain in his ankle had him seeing stars. Kicking with his left leg and swimming with his right arm, his head burst the surface of the river and he sucked in a large breath of air and sooty-snow.

A glance back showed that, if the daemons had even noticed his escape attempt, they hadn’t bothered to follow. Good. Paddling to the far bank, he pulled himself out of the water but when he went to stand his leg buckled and he gave a whimper of pain.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he muttered. “Wiz is gonna kill me.”

On his hands and knees, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, clicking it and grinning when he saw it light up. “Thank the astrals for waterproofing,” he said to himself and hastily dialed Wiz’s number.

It rang out.

Frowning, he tried again. And again. Each time it rang out. “What the hell.” There was no reason he could think of that the man wouldn’t answer his phone; he was only in Lestallum, not too far away, picking up supplies. Who else could he call? With an ankle that couldn’t hold his weight and bleeding from the shoulder, he knew he wouldn’t make it back to the chocobo camp without daemons catching him first. He couldn’t call Howard, he was the only one looking after the chocobos they had. Gladio was away, out at Cape Caem apparently. Which only left one person.

He dialed Ignis.

“Iggy? Ah… I think I need some help.”

“Prompto? Why, what’s happened?”

“Ran into trouble with some daemons,” he said, voice tight. As he talked he crawled his way to the stone wall and leaned back against it, breathing heavily. He could do this. He’d certainly been through worse, even if it wasn’t recently. “Had to jump into a river to get away, hurt my ankle in the process and I can’t get a hold of Wiz.”

“Where are you? I’ll come find you,” Ignis said.

“No offense Iggy but I don’t think you coming after me is a good idea. Was hoping you could just find Wiz and-”

“Prompto shut up and tell me where you are. Aranea is here in town at the moment and she can help me if that’s what you’re worried about,” Ignis said and Prompto had to smile at the irritation in his voice; his friend had been trying so hard to prove to both he and Gladio that he was every bit as capable as he had been before he lost his sight. That he fought differently now but was no less deadly. Gladio and Prompto had spoken of it in the past and, while they wanted to believe it, neither of them were willing to risk their friend’s life just to prove it. But Aranea was more than capable, he knew that.

“East of Lestallum, north of Narcie Haven. Or where that used to be anyway.” So many of the havens had lost their power and that was one of them. It wasn’t so bad though since it was close to Lestallum, but there were others further out and away from any kind of civilisation that were causing issues. “Somewhere around there anyway. I’m against the rock wall by the river bank.” He shivered and drew his knees up to his chest. “If you could bring a blanket that’d be good… so cold,” he said, teeth chattering.

The phone was quiet for a moment, a muffled voice heard as Ignis spoke to someone, probably Aranea, then, “Stay on the phone, Prompto, and keep talking to me. You need to stay awake.”

Prompto chuckled. “Not exactly likely to fall asleep here, Iggy,” he said. He coughed. “Too cold for that.”

“That’s exactly what I’m concerned about. Keep talking to me, we’re just heading out to get a couple of chocobos to get there faster.”

“What… should I talk about?” he asked, then coughed again.

“Tell me about the last few days, what have you been doing?”

And so the two of them spoke, though Prompto was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on what he was saying, or what Ignis was saying in return. He was so cold ! The snow was swirling about, floating and flying through the air rather than falling. He stared up at it and watched it as it danced through the sky, following it with his eyes. It was so light that it was affected by his breath, flowing away from him when he exhaled, along with a cloud of steam from his breath, and then back towards him when he inhaled. Some were even sucked inside his nose and mouth but instead of tasting clean and soothing like the snow had in Gralea, it was gritty and irritated his throat, making him cough harder.

Ignis was talking to him, saying something, but for the life of him Prompto couldn’t work out what it was. He was cold and tired and he kept coughing. He wasn’t sore though, that was something, the cold had taken the pain away. Maybe he should have a nap. It would pass the time before Ignis got here and there were no daemons about. Just a little nap, he thought as he closed his eyes.

“Prompto!”

Dully he felt something tapping on his cheek, hard enough to push his face aside, but he didn’t feel any sting from it. He opened his eyes and blurrily saw Ignis in front of him, Aranea standing just behind. Ignis’s hands moved over his face, then said, “Damn it where’s your mask?”

Prompto took a breath to answer but sucked in a mouthfull of snow and had to cough instead. He closed his eyes again, the lids too heavy for him to keep them open.

“... fire…”

“... clothes…”

“... bleeding…”

“... mask…”

Words that held no meaning floated by Prompto and he fancied he could almost see them. He felt his wet clothes being stripped from him, then being dressed in something that was warm and dry, and some kind of cloth placed over his nose and mouth. There was warmth to one side of him, and a dancing light too. There was a sharp sting in his shoulder, and he gasped but couldn’t find the energy to move.

At some point he was lifted and placed onto a chocobo (he recognised the smell and the touch of their feathers), the warmth of someone behind him with a strong arm around his waist holding him in place. He didn’t mind; he knew he was safe, that Ignis was there, and he was reliable.

The next time Prompto opened his eyes he was laying on a bed and there was a plastic mask over his face. Not having any memory of where he was or what had just happened he ripped the mask off and sat up in a quick motion. His gun, where was his gun? There was no way he would let Ardyn at him again! But his gun was nowhere to be seen. Prompto’s breathing began to quicken and with it he began to cough, a deep hacking cough. Leaning over he held a hand to his shoulder, the movement hurting it, pulling at the stitches he could feel in there, his other hand covered his mouth. When the coughing eased and he pulled his hand away, he saw specks of blood.

“What-” he started.

“Prompto, it’s alright,” Ignis said from the doorway, “you’re safe. But you need to put that mask back on. It’s just oxygen but it will help repair your lungs.”

“Iggy…” Prompto breathed. Relaxing again, he did as he was told and laid back down, fitting the mask again. It wasn’t Ardyn, he wasn’t trapped, and looking around, he recognised the single bedroom in Ignis’s apartment.

“Why were you out there in that weather without a mask? And why didn’t you tell me that you had been stabbed?” Ignis asked as he sat on the edge of the bed, his voice sharp. He wasn’t using a cane any more to get around, Prompto noticed.

“The snow was heavy when I left, didn’t think I would be long or that I would need it,” Prompto said.

“You should always have it on you, regardless. Always,” Ignis said, his voice firm and, to anyone else he might have appeared angry but Prompto knew he was just worried.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said. “The stab wound… I don’t know. I guess it didn’t seem important.” He fell silent again, then, as the thought occurred to him, “Wiz, did you find Wiz? He’ll be worried if he gets to the outpost and I’m not there.”

“It’s alright, he knows. Get some rest,” Ignis said, standing. “I’ll wake you when dinner is ready.”

Prompto nodded and closed his eyes, but opened them again when he called, “Ignis.” Ignis paused in the doorway, and half turned back. “Thank you. For finding me and… everything.”

Ignis gave a small smile and a nod before taking his leave, allowing Prompto to rest some more.

 

Year 10

Prompto had come around to Ignis’s apartment early with the intention to help him get the place ready for their little dinner party, but he need not have bothered. Ignis always kept his apartment spotless. It helped him navigate, he said, though Prompto suspected that Ignis was always an obsessively clean person.
“Hey Iggy,” Prompto said, leaning against the counter and watching the man slice vegetables with nearly the same speed as he used to.

“Hmm?”

“Do…” he traced circles on the countertop with his finger. “Do you think Noct will come back soon? I mean really, not just hope, we all hope it, but realistically. It’s already been ten years, and the world is so different now. And if he does, what if he hasn’t aged, and we all have? Do we even know what absorbing this power entails?”

“I have been doing some research on the subject, yes,” Ignis said as he dropped the carrots into a pot and moved on to the potatoes, his hands swift and sure. “From what I have learned, for Noct it will pass as though a dream and, when he is ready, he will simply wake up. Though being that we have yet to find where the Crystal disappeared to all those years ago, where he wakes, I have no idea.”

“But… what if he doesn’t come back? What if this is it?” Prompto asks, his voice low, not looking at Ignis.

Ignis stops in his cutting and rests a hand on Prompto’s shoulder, causing the shorter man to look up. “We have to believe that he will come back. He’s still alive, we know that. And as soon as he’s able to, he’ll come back.”

Prompto’s smile was shaky but he gave a nod anyway. “Yeah. Thanks, Iggy. I just wish… there was some way to contact him, you know? Tell him what’s happened, how the world needs him, how we need him.”

“Hey guys! I got the beer!” A shout from the doorway announced Gladio as he pushed it open.

Prompto pushed his low mood away with an effort and fixed a bright smile on his face as he moved to help Gladio bring in what he had brought.

The evening passed smoothly, conversation flowed, and friends of old caught up over all they had missed.

And then Ignis’s phone rang.

Chapter Text

Year 1:

Ignis woke to the sound of hitched sobs, a retch and a cough followed by heavy breathing. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, reaching for the cane he left leaning by the bedside table. He mostly knew his way around the hotel room now, but it was a comfort to have it with him. Especially with Prompto’s often messy habits. Speaking of.

“Prompto?” Ignis called out as he made his way towards the bathroom.

He heard Prompto’s breath catch and hold for just a moment before he answered, “I’m fine, Ignis. Go back to sleep.”

“That is not going to happen any time soon,” Ignis said from the doorway. He may not be able to see but he could imagine the scene before him. He remembered the way the Leville’s bathroom looked, and Prompto’s voice came from a point lower than he normally stood. He had been vomiting so he was sitting by the toilet.

And there he went again, the sounds and smells filling in all the information that Ignis needed. He found the wash cloth on the sink and wet it before taking two steps forwards and kneeling beside Prompto. Much as he had with Noctis when he was sick as a child, Ignis used the cloth to gently wipe Prompto’s face, his hands, the back of his neck. His skin was cool and clammy, not feverish, but still clearly unwell. He pulled the cloth away again as Prompto leaned over to retch some more, instead rubbing his hand up and down his back soothingly.

“Why… why are you doing this?” Prompto asked when he was done, his voice strained.

Ignis held out the cloth as he answered, “Why wouldn’t I do this?”

“Because I’m not… I’m just…” Ignis felt the muscles in Prompto’s shoulder bunch beneath his hand. “I’m just a broken MT from Niflheim, of no use to anyone. You shouldn’t waste your time on me.”

Ignis was silent for a few moments, but his hand remained on Prompto’s shoulder, refusing to let go. He had said to Prompto, several times, that none of them saw him that way, that he was as human as the rest of them who had just been through something awful. But it didn’t seem to matter how much he said it, Prompto didn’t seem to want to believe it. So maybe if he related to him instead.

“Ardyn was the one who took my sight,” he said. He heard Prompto gasp and under his hand felt him sit up straighter to stare at him. “He wished to ensure that all the requirements for some prophesy were fulfilled and that prophesy apparently required one of Noctis’s companions to be blind.” Ignis flinched a little when he felt Prompto’s hand touch his face and, allowing it, he removed his glasses. Setting them aside, he let Prompto look at the scars properly. It made him uncomfortable - he didn’t like to think of anyone staring - but if it would help his friend he would do it.

“How could you lie? To Noctis. How could you say you didn’t remember when you really did?” Prompto asked.

“Part of it is I am not compelled to follow orders as you are,” Ignis said with a small smile. “But it was also for the best. Noctis was dealing with enough at the time. He had just witnessed Luna’s death at Ardyn’s hands, I could not burden him with this as well. He was already on a murderous, vengeful path. If I revealed to him that the same person who killed Luna was behind my injuries, then he would have stormed off without further thought to anyone or anything else. I could not allow that. We needed Noctis to think with his head instead of his heart. To act as a King rather than an angry boy. And so I lied. And… I would appreciate it if you kept that between us.”

“I will,” Prompto promised. His hand was soft, gently on Ignis’s face and he found that he didn’t mind his touch where he had shied away from Noctis’s back in Altissia.

“I do not wish to go into more detail about what happened, but know that you are not the only person to have suffered under his hand,” he continued after Prompto’s touch had withdrawn. “Would you say I am any less human for the changes he forced upon me?” he asked.

“Of course not!” Prompto was quick to answer. “But… you were born normally, to a mother and a father. I was created artificially. To serve a purpose. And there are others, maybe even hundreds of us. All clones. All with my face. Ardyn he… he showed me some of his ‘pets’. Showed me what had been done to them. They were all failures, he said, but they paved the way to make me a success. He was so angry when I fought him, when I refused his orders. I was yet another failure.”

Ignis felt Prompto shiver beneath his hand. “That doesn't make you any less human,” Ignis said firmly. “Noctis was created for a purpose as well: to inherit his father's throne, to rule the people of Lucis. To maintain the wall and allow the kingsglaive to sap his power and strength and, yes, to ultimately be burned up in serving that purpose. King Regis was only in his early 40s when he was killed and, though not many people know it, had peace been achieved he only would have survived another couple of years. Less if the war had continued. Then it would be Noctis’s turn to become what he was made to do.” It pained Ignis to think of such things. He had been so angry the first time he had learned what the full price of being born a Caelum entailed, how he was helping to groom his friend into a role that would ultimately kill him. But that anger had faded to acceptance and then to determination to do whatever he could to make it easier for him.

“But he's gone now,” Prompto was saying. “He just left… didn't even say goodbye.”

“I don't believe he had the chance,” Ignis said, choosing to ignore the hitch he heard in Prompto’s voice. “None of us really knew what using the Crystal would mean, what it would entail. King Regis was the only one allowed near it before the fall. Perhaps he would have told Noctis more had there been time but it was not to be.”

“I guess,” Prompto said. He sniffed again and stood, placing Ignis’s glasses into his hands. “I just… I don't know. It's hard I guess. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier to just let myself be C1094.”

“I understand,” Ignis said, putting his glasses back on and standing up, offering a hand to Prompto. “Try to keep the hope alive. Noctis will return, and he'll be able to use the power of the Crystal. The daemons will be banished, the sun will rise again and, with the Empire having collapsed on itself, Lucis can rebuild in safety. Keep that image in your heart. We'll get there.”

Prompto took the hand and pulled himself up, Ignis’s other hand going to his elbow to help steady him when he felt him wobble a little. “Thanks Ignis,” he said. “I have a feeling I’ll be saying that a lot in the near future.”

Ignis heard the smile in Prompto’s voice and returned it with one of his own. “Any time, Prompto. That’s what friends are for.”

“Friends, huh?”

Ignis nodded firmly. “Friends.”



Year 2

 

Ignis frowned hearing the rapid breaths coming from Prompto; he sounded as though he were on the verge of hyperventilating. Truth be told he kind of felt like joining him, but knew that that would solve nothing.

“Didn’t think it would affect him so badly,” Gladio said, his voice quiet, not wanting to carry. “Truth be told I thought it would be you who would go all faint on me.”

“I admit, the news does concern me greatly,” Ignis replied, his voice equally quiet, “but wherever the Crystal is, Noct is safe inside it. Whoever or whatever moved the Crystal for whatever reason would not be able to enter and harm him, of that I am sure. Prompto, however.” He paused, focusing his hearing on the blonde. He seemed a little calmer now and, as he listened, he heard the familiar tinkle that sounded whenever a potion was pulled from the ether followed by a relieved sigh. “He has rebuilt himself on the belief that Noct will return to command him once more. It is a belief I have encouraged, if only to giving some hope, some reason to continue being. I fear this news may have shattered that foundation.”

“Shit. I’m sorry, probably should have told you first and alone so we could figure out how to break it to the poor guy.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Ignis brushed it off. He tried not to let any bitterness enter his voice. Gladio was away on hunts more often than not, earning them the money they needed to rent this apartment and to buy food and other necessities. A job that Ignis could not help with. He had handled himself well enough in Zegnautus Keep, he thought, but Gladio was saying the daemons were getting tougher. To Ignis’s mind, that just meant he had to get stronger, but to do that, for now at least, he would need someone on his side, someone who trusted him to be able to take care of himself but be there in case he did miss something. He had a few ideas, but first he had to help Prompto. That was his priority right now.

“Look, ah, I hate to do this, but I can’t stay. The Marshal needs me to head out to Hammerhead with him,” Gladio said, breaking into Ignis’s thoughts. “Are you… gonna be okay with him? And for yourself?”

No he was bloody well not going to be okay!

He forced a smile. “We’ll be fine. Though, if you don’t mind, I would appreciate it if you could get a few things from the market for me before you leave.”

“Sure thing. What do you need?”

Ignis rattled off a list of things that would be vaguely useful. The truth was, he just needed to get Gladio out of the house for a little while, so he could do something to help Prompto; the boy had really started to open up around Ignis, even more than he had before Cartanica, but Ignis had noticed he became a little more withdrawn around Gladio. Why, he could not guess at, but for now, for this kernel of an idea that was forming, he wanted it to be just the two of them.

After Gladio left, Ignis followed the sound of Prompto’s breathing. It was slower now, but still a little ragged. “Prompto?” he called, to get the younger man’s attention.

“Where’s Gladio?” Prompto asked, and Ignis was relieved to hear that his voice sounded normal, almost calm.

“He’s gone out to get a few things from the market for me,” Ignis replied. Hadn’t Prompto noticed? That was concerning. Maybe he wasn’t yet ready for what he had in mind. But no, he thought firmly to himself. That was just making up excuses. The fact of the matter was, the longer he held onto it, the harder it was to hand it over. Delaying it would only make it worse, especially on such flimsy excuses. Prompto had been improving almost daily, with only a few hiccups now and then. He had accepted that the implants in his back would never be removed, and all the other scars had healed nicely. What’s more, he no longer referred to himself as a unit or an MT. No, it was time.

“Come with me, if you would. I have something for you. From Noct.”

 

Year 3

“Hey, watch it!”

“So sorry,” Ignis said, raising an apologetic hand. ‘Don't sit on the ground with your legs into the walkway then,’ he thought angrily to himself, though he didn't bother giving voice to the thought. He could probably handle himself in the fight that would ensue - he wasn't as helpless as so many believed - but it wasn't worth the effort. Instead he simply stepped to the side, around where he thought the man's legs were, and kept walking, cane out before him to warn of any further such obstacles.

He was managing passably well, if he did say so himself. So long as Prompto put things back where they were supposed to be, he could easily navigate their small apartment without his cane. And he was managing to cook basic food now, very rarely burning himself, though his hands were now speckled with burn scars from his previous attempts.

Next on his tasks was to navigate Lestallum as easily as his apartment, which he endeavoured to practise every day. The well-dressed, poised blind man was now a familiar sight in the streets of Lestallum, though few were willing to talk to him.

“Ignis! Nice to see you, my good man.” Mr Furloch was not one of them. “I have some fresh pears today if you would like some. To your left.”

Ignis smiled as much in greeting as in pleasure to hear the man again. Mr Furloch was the first of the merchants to accept Ignis’s hands wandering over his product and would always describe what Ignis was examining truthfully. A few of the other merchants had tried to rip him off in the past, especially when he was still learning how to judge the quality of items by touch and smell instead of sight, telling him that something was in better condition than it was. The second time it had happened, Gladio had had ‘words’ with the vendor. He didn’t try to trick Ignis any more, but nor did Ignis really shop there when he had another option.

Finding the pears he was directed to, he ran a hand lightly over them, selecting one that felt right and lifting it to his nose to smell. His smile widened. “These are lovely,” he said. “Though I admit, I am surprised you are still able to get fresh fruit. If you don’t mind me asking, how are they growing without the sunlight?”

“Nephew’s set up a greenhouse of sorts. Uses lights to simulate the sun, even turns the light gradually up and down as though it were setting and rising. Damn clever that kid.”

“Sounds it,” Ignis said and he handed the pear over. “I’ll take six of them, they would go nicely in a poached pear dessert I think. Do you have cinnamon and nutmeg by chance? Dried is fine, though fresh is better.”

“Tell you what. You buy the pears, and I’ll put together a bag of all different herbs and spices for you, cinnamon and nutmeg included.”

Ignis’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head. “I could never accept that, you need to make a living as well.”

“I insist. It was thanks to your hunter friends that the pears arrived safely here in the first place, it’s the least I could do. For them and a former hunter such as yourself.”

Ignis smiled; it was a common misconception around Lestallum that he used to be a hunter until he lost his sight. Most people were too polite to ask how the injuries happened and those who weren’t he was able to brush off with the standard “I don’t remember” line, thanks to Prompto for that inspiration with his standard ‘I don’t know’. But since he was regularly seen in the company of Gladio and Cor, both gaining a reputation for competent and reliable hunters, the leap had been made. It suited his purpose to allow it; that was better than people learning he was the advisor to an exiled and missing king.

“Very well,” he said. “Since you insist.”

“I do.”

Before long a paper bag was handed to him that was filled with wonderful smells. Ignis took a deep breath and smiled at what he could smell coming from there. His sense of smell was nowhere near as attuned as his hearing was becoming, but he was sure he could smell not only the requested cinnamon and nutmeg, but sugar and thyme and rosemary and… maybe some peppermint as well? He couldn’t wait to get home and dig through his little trove, plan out some meals and treats he could try.

“Thank you,” he said, handing over the money and accepting the change without bothering to check it.

“Anytime, Ignis. You need something, you let me know.”

Ignis gave a slight bow of appreciation, and took his cane back up (he had rested it against the stall when examining the pears). He paused, listening, orienting himself, then turned back towards the apartment. He had wanted to challenge himself, push himself to walk around more of the city knowing he could call Prompto if he got lost, but now he just wanted to go home and examine his prize.



Year 4

Ignis’s head was angled down slightly as he listened. He turned slowly as he heard a scuff off to his right. He thought he could hear a quiet breath but he wasn’t certain, not yet. And then another tap of leather on stone a little further to the left alerted him and he dodged to the side. He successfully avoided that strike, but then the tap on his right arm told him he had missed the back swing.

“Dead, again,” Aranea’s voice said far too cheerfully.

“So it would seem,” Ignis replied drily.

“Aw, don’t be so down. You’re still doing better than before. And you’re not so bruised and banged up as you were after I saved all your arses from that Hell Keep.”

“Better than before is still not good enough. It’s been four years,” Ignis said. Four years without his sight. It was difficult to keep track now, but from what Prompto and Gladio had told him, that was something a lot of people were struggling with. There was now a clock and a calendar in the central square of Lestallum to help off-set that disorientation the lack of sunlight brought about.

Not that any of that helped Ignis. No, he had to make his own adjustments. And, for the most part, he was successful. He could now navigate his apartment with ease (unless Prompto was having a bad day and left his things all over the place) and so long as he kept to the main streets he could get around Lestallum as well. There was only one thing left that Ignis felt he simply must regain his skills at: combat. And towards that end Aranea had volunteered to help out whenever she was in town which, granted, wasn’t all that often. When she was, however, they spent all their time together. To help him regain his skills, of course.

“Then stop complaining and get to it. You’re not nearly sweaty enough to call it a day yet.”

The corner of Ignis’s mouth twitched in amusement at that even as his cheeks coloured slightly. He rose the wooden weapon they were training with right as his phone began to ring.

“Come on, seriously?” Aranea complained.

“It’s Prompto,” Ignis said, knowing it from the personalised ring tunes he set for everyone. He put his practice dagger on the ground and answered the phone. “Prompto? Are you alright?” he asked. Prompto had decided he wanted to take his camera and follow Gladio around on a hunt, to capture the hunters in action he said. He should have been fine, so why was he calling?

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Prompto replied.

“Then what is it? Is it Gladio?”

“Gladio’s fine, Iggy. We’re both fine. It’s just… um…” Prompto sighed. Ignis was relieved, even as Prompto was clearly struggling at the moment; if the two of them were alright then it shouldn’t be a problem, whatever it was. Prompto was just having a hard time putting words to what he felt. He had been doing a lot better and was almost back to his normal self before Ardyn had gotten his claws into him, but there were still times that he struggled.

“It’s alright, Prompto. Take your time. What have you and Gladio been doing?” he asked, leaning against the building behind him. He heard Aranea move up beside him, almost like she were trying to listen in, though Ignis knew her hearing was nowhere near as sharp as his now was.

“We made camp at a haven,” he said, the words coming easier now he had a direct question. It was a dance they were both familiar with. “We were planning on completing the hunt tomorrow after some rest but there was a… well, a little hiccup.”

Ignis frowned. “A hiccup?”

“Yeah. See, there was this chocobo and-”

“A chocobo?” Ignis repeated, an eyebrow raising. Beside him, Aranea gave a snort of laughter that was suddenly cut off as she tried to hide it.

“Yeah and so I had to go and rescue it, it was in trouble see. So me and Gladio, we fought of this huge daemon that was trying to get at the poor thing and we kicked its arse and saved the day! But um… now we have a chocobo. Well, I have a chocobo. But it’s obviously tame, it has a saddle and reins and everything. But there was no rider around so Gladio went to look for its owner and to complete the hunt, and I’m taking it back to Wiz’s.”

Why was it always chocobos, Ignis asked himself mentally. If there was a chocobo involved, Prompto would routinely go crazy over it. Didn’t matter if it was wild or tame or just passing through, he had to pet it. Not that Ignis minded for the most part, but if anything were to distract the younger man it would have to be chocobos.

“Okay,” he said. “So you’re trying to say that you’ll be later than expected in getting back to Lestallum?”

A pause. “Um… yeah. Yeah that’s it. Gotta return this bird back to Wiz. You’ll be okay?”

“Of course. I’m not completely helpless, you know. And Aranea is visiting and helping me regain my combat skills. I’ll be fine. Let me know when you get there though, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah I will. Thanks Iggy.”

“How odd,” Ignis said as he hung up. Shrugging it off as one of Prompto’s little quirks, he picked up his wooden blade again and went back to practice.

It wasn’t until four days later when Gladio returned that Ignis found out what was making Prompto act so weird.

“You’re doing better than I thought you would be,” Gladio commented as he took a bite out of the roast garula he had made this afternoon.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ignis asked, setting his own plate on the table. “Basic living is easy enough now, and even if the city is getting busier, the layout of the streets themselves don’t change much.”

“I meant with Prompto moving out, deciding to live with Wiz at the chocobo outpost. You two got pretty close while he was recovering from all that crap,” Gladio said.

Ignis froze and felt ice settling into the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean, moving out?” he asked slowly.

Silence. The sound of Gladio using his cutlery stopped. “Didn’t he call you?”

“He called me,” Ignis said. “He told me that he was returning a chocobo you found to Wiz and that he would be late returning to Lestallum.”

Gladio said nothing for a moment and Ignis fancied he could hear his teeth grinding, then he stood suddenly, only just managing to catch the chair before it fell to the ground. “That cowardly little shit, I swear, I’m gonna kill him!” Gladio roared.

Ignis heard Gladio’s phone unlock as the man stomped across the room to the balcony, stepping outside and slamming the sliding door shut so hard it bounced open again. “PROMPTOOOO! What the fuck! Why didn’t you tell Iggy!?” he shouted into his phone.

Ignis sighed and pushed his plate away. He wasn’t hungry any more. He was hurt, though he tried not to be. If Prompto wanted to live with Wiz at the chocobo ranch, then that was his decision to make. He was more hurt that he hadn’t been willing to tell him himself. Needing to be alone for a while, Ignis left their meals at the table and retreated into the bathroom. In here, with the water running, he could almost block out Gladio’s shouting. Almost.



Year 6

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Mr Scientia?” Talcott asked as he stepped hesitantly into the abandoned building.

“It’ll be fine, Talcott,” Ignis replied, following the sound of his footsteps on the cracked marble floor with ease. “The hardest part was getting here.” And not letting anyone know, he added silently.

“But… it’s the royal archives. For royalty. We’re not royalty,” Talcott insisted.

“It is research on behalf of royalty. And besides, it’s not as though I haven’t used it myself before Lucis fell,” Ignis said. He paused for a few seconds then said, “If you are truly uncomfortable with it, we can return. I cannot do this without you Talcott. I can do many things, but reading is something I’ll never do again. At least not in its traditional form. I need your eyes.”

“No, I’ll… I’ll do it,” Talcott said. “I just… If Prince, I mean, King Noctis finds out, he won’t be angry will he?”

Ignis couldn’t help it. He laughed. Just the thought of Noctis caring about the archives, let alone who used them, was amusing. “He most definitely won’t be angry. You know Noctis, you know he’s not someone who likes formality and especially not rules and regulations. He would probably congratulate you for doing what needed to be done instead of letting the rules get in the way.”

“Oh… okay then,” Talcott said. He led on and Ignis followed.

The royal archives were silent apart from the sounds they made and the countless daemons outside. Strange, Ignis thought, but he wasn’t about to question their good fortune. They needed information, specifically about the Crystal (which still had not been found), about the prophecy that spoke of the King of Light, and anything else that might be related. Ignis couldn’t read, but he still had his mind, and it was his brain that had first singled him out to King Regis. And while he had that he would continue to use it in service to his king.

As such, he had begun to visit the library in Lestallum regularly and, after discovering that Talcott enjoyed history, he took him along with him. But the Lestallum library was fairly small and didn’t hold the tomes that Ignis was looking for. The last place he had seen them had been the royal archives. In Insomnia. The last two years both Ignis and Talcott had been training, Ignis mostly with Aranea, and Talcott with anyone who would teach him.

Now, six years after Noct entered the Crystal, he judged them both strong enough to at least evade most of the daemons in Insomnia and to fight those they could not avoid. Thus far it had been a success. They just had to make the most of their time here, and then get out alive. Ignis could deal with his friends’ anger then.

“This place is a mess,” Talcott said. “Best be careful Mr Scientia. The ground’s all cracked and there’s books and paper everywhere from fallen shelves.”

“I’ll be fine. I can hear you clearly enough and I have my cane,” Ignis said.

“How are we meant to find anything in this mess.” A pause. “Please don’t make me sort and clean it all before we begin.”

Ignis chuckled. “I think we can manage without that. Now, if I remember correctly-”

“You do,” Talcott impertinently cut in. Ignis ignored him.

“The myths and legends area should be over that way,” Ignis continued, and pointed with his cane.

Ignis found a place with his back against the wall and, eye closed (not that it made a difference of course, it was just habit when he was focussing solely on his hearing), he listened to Talcott reading what he found. Occasionally he would comment on the usefulness or uselessness of a piece but otherwise he remained silent. Talcott had a bright mind of his own and a knack for hunting down mysteries, and the mystery of the Crystal was one such that had captured his interest.

He let Talcott’s voice wash over him as he read aloud of the history of the Caelum line. It was nothing he hadn’t read himself before. In fact he believed he had read this very book himself, when he was just eleven years old.

“The first of the Caelum line was,” Talcott paused as he turned the page but, instead of continuing to read again, he broke off. “Um… Ignis? There’s a piece of paper in here, like notes that someone wrote.”

Ignis smiled to himself, wondering if they were notes in his own hand. “What do they say?” he asked, expecting to hear his usual commentary on the reliability of sources of such an ancient time.

“It says, ‘My son. They want my son. Why now, what is the purpose? Hasn’t he been through enough? He-”

“Talcott,” Ignis interrupted, sitting up straighter, face intense. “The hand-writing. Can you describe it?” He felt a lump in his throat. Surely it couldn’t be. They couldn’t be so lucky.

“It’s very neat, a script almost, but it looks like whoever wrote it struggled a bit when moving the pen to the left. The letters are sharp when the pen moves to the left but otherwise perfectly rounded and flowing when moving to the right. And… Ignis? Are you alright? You’ve gone pale.”

Ignis swallowed, trying to clear his throat. “That is King Regis’s hand,” he said, his voice tight. “An injury made that fine left movement difficult for him. Is there a date? A signature? Anything that might prove it's his writing, or when it was written?”

“No, nothing,” Talcott said. “Should I… keep reading it? It’s not disrespectful or anything, is it?”

“Please, keep reading.” Ignis had no idea if it was disrespectful to read what was obviously a private letter or even a diary entry. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Regis would have wanted them to find it. Otherwise why slip it inside a book in an archive that anyone could walk into?

“‘Hasn’t he been through enough?’” Talcott continued reading. “‘First Aulea and now this. My dear Aulea, what would you think of this? What would you do? I wish I could hear your voice of reason now. You would know what to do. Is it even possible to challenge a prophesy, to rewrite that which has yet to come to pass? The Kings of Old seemed certain. Noctis is the one. He will be the one to…’” Talcott trailed off.

“Is there no more?” Ignis asked, his hope beginning to fade. Surely that couldn’t be it.

“Yes but… Ignis, it’s not good news,” Talcott said, his voice wavering a little.

“Keep reading. Even if it’s not good news, we need to know,” he said. King Regis must have had a plan. He had to.

Talcott swallowed, but continued reading. “‘He will be the one to… sacrifice himself to banish the darkness. I do not know what this darkness entails - the ancient ones were less than forthcoming about that - but one thing they did make clear. Noctis would die. They even alluded to the fact that I would be the one to kill him. I cannot. Will not! I must do everything in my power to divert the course of this prophecy. Somehow.’ That’s all the page says,” Talcott finished.

Ignis swallowed again, hard. Noctis would… die? Surely not! It couldn’t be. They knew now, unlike King Regis at the time, that the darkness was both literal and figurative - the lack of sun and the proliferance of daemons. And from what they had found in various texts there was a prophesy of a King of Light who could banish it. It was that prophesy that Ardyn was trying to fulfil somehow. The fact that Noctis had been absorbed into the crystal made it obvious to Ignis that he was this King of Light, that this was the prophecy that King Regis was talking about. They had also learned, both from the files recovered from Zegnautus Keep which the two of them had studied in detail and from any other sources they could find, that the starscouge caused the daemons, and that the starscouge itself was caused by Ifrit burning Eos’s body at the Rock of Ravatogh. This King of Light, Noctis, was supposed to clean up the Astral’s mess. But nowhere had he found mention that in doing so it would cost him his life.

“What is the section of the book about, where the page was inserted?” Ignis asked.

“Um…” Talcott flicked through pages, muttering under his breath as he read to himself. “It’s about the first chosen king. There was one before, apparently, about two thousand years ago. But instead of curing the starscourge, he absorbed it, craving more power than the Crystal provided and was consequently rejected by the astrals.”

“Does it give a name?” Ignis asked idly. He thought he had read this before, but it was so long ago now he couldn’t remember. And, frankly, in his youth he had read so much it would be easy to mix it up with something else.

“An Ardyn Lucis Caelum,” Talcott said as Ignis gasped, blind eye open wide. It can’t be! “Ardyn…” Talcott continued, oblivious to Ignis’s unease. “Wasn’t Ardyn the name of the Niflheim chancellor? The one who held Prompto prisoner?”

“I’m surprised you know about that,” Ignis said distractedly; Prompto was usually very private about that time.

“I saw his back once when he was changing. He looked like he was ready to murder me for seeing, but then he turned away and said only that he had been taken prisoner by the Empire and that Ardyn did it. And that if I ever came across a mahogany haired man by the name of Ardyn I should run in the opposite direction.”

“Wise advice,” Ignis said. “As to the name, it would only be a coincidence.” It had to be. “This king was two thousand years ago you said. No one can live that long.” Unless he was immortal. Ardyn had been shot. Slashed. He should have been dead. Ignis had heard the attacks find their marks, heard the flesh parting and blood splattering to the ground. And he had just gotten back up again as if it were nothing. He didn’t need his sight to remember that.

He kept such thoughts to himself - he didn’t want to concern Talcott with such things - but he was beginning to think that King Regis didn’t leave the paper there by coincidence.

“Flick through the book, see if you can find any more loose pieces of paper. I have a feeling King Regis may have been on the same path as we are. Maybe he got further along as well,” Ignis said, before sitting back once more to wait and listen.

There were no more of Regis’s writings in that book, nor in the next, nor the next. Just as they were about to give up for the night, Talcott picked up one more book and, flicking through it, gave a happy cry. “Here’s another one!” he said.

“What’s the book?” Ignis asked.

“It’s… on philosophy,” Talcott replied, puzzlement in his voice. He flicked back and forth through the pages before eventually explaining, “On the nature of time and, if it were possible to manipulate time, whether it would make a difference in the current world or if it would create a separate parallel world. I think. I don’t understand most of it. Do you?”

Ignis shook his head. “I studied philosophy, of course, and was required to debate it. But specifically the various philosophies behind time? No. What does King Regis’s writings say?”

Talcott cleared his throat and then read, and Ignis heard his dead King’s voice as though he were speaking through the boy. “‘I spoke with him today, though I am not sure exactly who ‘he’ is or how he relates to my son. Asked him how many must die until he was satisfied. He replied that there was only one death that he was looking forward to. And that after that he could rest. He was referring to Noctis, I know it. And that may satisfy him but it will NOT satisfy me. And so I have made my own preparations. This treaty is a sham. We all know it. But they will not have their way with everything. Already, my son has left Insomnia, and the Oracle makes her way here where she can leave the Empire’s thumb. Cor has also been sent away, to prepare the path for my son to collect his inheritance. Only with that will he be strong enough to survive the trials ahead. Now there is only the matter of his sacrifice to counter. I pray this works, though who I pray to I do not know. Shiva perhaps, she has always looked kindly upon us mere mortals. I write this so that I hope my son can find it. Noctis, if you are reading this, trust that I am doing all I can to counter the prophecy's outcome. I love you, my son. And may the gods forgive me for what I am about to do.’ That’s it,” Talcott finished.

He had known. Known about all of it. And done… something. Something unthinkable, though Ignis didn’t know what, and he doubted they would find any more hints. The end of that letter made it clear that whatever it was the King planned to do to counter the outcome would not be trusted to paper.

“Let’s take those two books and the letters with us,” Ignis said. “I believe Noctis would like to read them when he returns. But for now we should get some rest, and then return to Lestallum. I doubt we’ll find anything more here. I will think on it some and there may be other places to look. Perhaps we can visit some of the old tombs next,” he mused.

“I’m with you Mr Scientia. We’ll find everything we can and be ready for when King Noctis returns,” Talcott said, his young voice breaking a little with enthusiasm.

“Thank you Talcott. I mean it. Thank you.”



Year 8

Ignis had his arms wrapped around her and, with his glasses on the nightstand beside them, he nuzzled her neck, breathing in her scent, feeling her hair across his face. She was soft and warm, her skin so smooth. What had started as a mutual respect for each other and playful flirting on occasion had developed into something more and Ignis was happy. Truly happy. Being blind no longer hindered him, it empowered him. He could tell things about the world that no one else noticed, could hear things no one else could. His sense of smell was stronger, as was his touch. He didn’t need his sight but, more than that, he no longer wanted it.

Aranea had taught him that. Had coached him through his panic attacks the way Prompto used to. She was the only one who had believed him capable of learning to fight, of adjusting his fighting style to suit his new circumstances. When all others just wanted to coddle and protect him, wanted him to sit by the sidelines, she had pushed him head first into danger, only jumping in when he absolutely needed it. The two of them had completed countless hunts together in the past year, even a few iron giants. She was the one who stuck by him, who helped and believed in him but didn’t patronize him.

He loved her. And though she had never said it, he thought it likely that she loved him as well. Or at least, he hoped that was the case. He should ask. Or at least vocalise his own feelings. Ignis opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again with a sigh when his phone started ringing with Prompto’s ringtone.

“That boy certainly has a gift for timing,” Aranea murmured against Ignis’s ear, nipping it slightly and sending shivers down his spine.

“I should get it,” he said, reaching towards it, but Aranea caught his wrist.

“Let him wait. You’re busy,” Aranea said.

Ignis chuckled a little but twisted his wrist free and picked up the phone, ignoring the irritated sigh as Aranea slipped off his lap.

“Iggy? Ah… I think I need some help,” Prompto said, and Ignis frowned at his voice. It sounded like he was in pain.

“Prompto? Why, what’s happened?”

“Ran into trouble with some daemons.” Yes, definitely pain. He was breathing heavily as well. A touch of a button put Prompto on speaker phone so Aranea could listen as well. “Had to jump into a river to get away, hurt my ankle in the process and I can’t get a hold of Wiz.”

Odd, Ignis thought, but unimportant. What was important was that Prompto was in trouble and, quite possibly, freezing out there. The temperature had been becoming progressively colder as it was, and then to be wet and unable to walk because of an injured ankle would be putting the gunman in particular danger.

“Where are you?” he demanded, putting the phone on the table and buttoning up his shirt once more (when had that happened?). “I’ll come find you.”

“No offense Iggy but I don’t think you coming after me is a good idea. Was hoping you could just find Wiz and-”

Ignis felt a flash of anger and snapped, “Prompto, shut up and tell me where you are.” When were they all going to stop babying him? He was more than capable of not only looking after himself now but also looking after others. Attempting and not entirely succeeding to push the irritation out of his voice, he continued, “Aranea is here in town at the moment and she can help me if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Oh can she now?” Aranea piped up quietly, and though her sass suggested otherwise, Ignis knew that she would help; she liked the ‘sunshine child’ as much as he did even if he could be a pain sometimes. Not to mention the fact that her voice was already muffled slightly as it was when she wore a mask, a match to the one she pressed into Ignis’s hand.

As Ignis listened to Prompto’s voice he became more and more convinced that he was in a worse state than he was letting on. The coughing was worrisome, a deep hacking cough that made it sound as though he had been hours out of the water and just slowly freezing before deciding to call. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t been that stupid.

“Stay on the phone, Prompto, and keep talking to me. You need to stay awake,” he said as he grabbed a blanket and the first aid kit. With irritation he also took up his cane and allowed Aranea to take the first aid kit from him; he didn’t really need the cane to navigate, but outside Lestallum it could be helpful he supposed. Both of them left the apartment quickly and set off at a jog, Aranea with her arm lightly on Ignis’s to guide him; he may be able to manage on his own but he wanted to pay more attention to his phone at the moment and it would be faster if he allowed Aranea to lead. Ignis continued to talk to Prompto, discussing banalities, asking him constant questions, trying to get him to do most of the talking. It was only while he was talking that Ignis could keep a figurative eye on how he was going.

Reaching the new chocobo post outside of town, Ignis let Aranea talk to the surly handler there. “I don’t know how you can stand that Howard guy,” Ignis said to Prompto as he waited, trying to draw out more conversation as their previous topic slowed to a standstill.

Prompto laughed weakly and broke off to cough some more. When he had his breath back, he said, “Yeah, he can be a pain.” Ignis frowned and paced a few steps; Prompto’s voice was beginning to slow and slur, and his teeth were chattering. “But he’s good with the birds… they… they like him.”

“Stay with me Prompto,” Ignis said, his voice taking on a slightly desperate tone even as the reigns of a bird was pushed into his hand and he mounted up. “We’ve got the chocobos now, we’re coming. Do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” he replied, though his voice was very quiet.

“What did I say?” Ignis asked. Holding on to the saddle with one hand he handed the reigns over to Aranea, letting her lead.

“Chocobos… they’re fluffy… and warm… so warm…”

“Prompto! Prompto answer me!” Ignis shouted. Nothing. “Damn it all,” he muttered and he shoved his phone into his pocket. No use now. He was either asleep or unconscious, neither of which was a good thing. “Aranea, lead the way. I’ll just hold on,” he said, though he hated allowing that.

“You got it,” was all Aranea said, and she nudged both their birds into what felt like a mad race to Ignis. It was utterly terrifying to be on a bird going at such speeds, and to have absolutely no control over it. Rather as it had been when Noct had raced the Regalia at top speed in Gralea. But, just as he had trusted Noct then, he trusted Aranea now. As much as she pretended she didn’t care, he knew otherwise. She wouldn’t let him down.

It was likely no more than half an hour, but it felt like a lifetime before Aranea slowed the chocobos, and allowed them to pick their own way down to the river he could hear.

“I think I see him,” Aranea said, her voice quiet so as not to attract the attention of the daemons they had been avoiding.

“Lead the way. Not like I can do anything at this point,” Ignis said, his worry making him bitter.

“Hey, suck it up princess. No time for self-pity, we’ve got a friend to save.”

“You always know just what to say,” Ignis said drily though he was smiling as he said it. She was correct. Right now they had to focus on Prompto.

Dismounting, Aranea took his arm and led him over to where Prompto was, saying, “He’s out cold, pale, not wearing a mask, and his left shoulder’s bleeding. First aid kit’s to your left, blanket on top of it. You see to your friend, I’ll keep watch from any daemons.”

“Thank you, Aranea,” Ignis said as he knelt down. His hands found Prompto and ran over him, confirming what Aranea had said. He also remembered him complaining about hurting his ankle but right now that could wait. “Hey, Prompto,” he said, tapping his cheek. No response. He smacked it harder. “Prompto!”

“Not so loud!” Aranea snapped.

It worked though, Prompto opened his eyes briefly, only to close them again; Ignis had a hand resting over his eyes to feel it. “Damn it where’s your mask?” he asked, but got no response, only coughing. Not having a spare with him, he found a bandage in the first aid kit and wrapped that around his face, covering his nose and mouth. It wasn’t ideal and wouldn’t block the finest particles, but it was better than nothing. “Aranea, could you please get a fire going? We need to warm him up.”

“Sure thing,” she said.

Hearing her start to gather wood, Ignis ran his hands over Prompto’s clothes. Military style jacket, probably a t-shirt underneath knowing him, jeans, combat boots. Piece by piece he started to remove them.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Aranea asked as she lit a match to get the fire going.

“His clothes are wet. Keeping him in them will only leave him wet and let him get colder.” He thought of something then, and added, “Just so you know, we weren’t able to remove some of his implants. Ones along his spine specifically. They don’t affect him but he doesn’t like people to know, so best not mention it when he wakes up.”

“I won’t,” she said, her back to him once more as she kept watch.

“Where are you bleeding?” Ignis muttered to himself as he got Prompto’s clothes off him and wrapped the blanket around him. He could feel slick blood down both his chest and his back but had yet to… There! His shoulder. Laying him out, Ignis’s fingers probed the wound, a sword wound from the feel of it. Yoshimbo. “Why didn’t you say anything? And why the bloody hell are you out without a mask?” Ignis scolded the unconscious man even as he got what he needed from the first aid kit.

Stitching the wound was slower going than it would have been with his sight, but he knew Aranea didn’t really like surgery as much as she was a mercenary and had been exposed to violence her whole life. If need be it could be fixed back in Lestallum by someone actually qualified but for now it would do.

The most dangerous conditions taken care of Ignis was then able to feel around Prompto’s ankle but there wasn’t a lot he could do there. He could feel the swelling but there were no hard lumps suggesting it was broken and he could move it around normally. He would leave it for now and let someone look at it, x-ray it perhaps.

“How long should we wait here?” Aranea asked.

“Until his clothes dry,” Ignis replied. “He can sit on the chocobo in front of me. No doubt the bird won’t be impressed with the double load, but it should be fine for a short distance.”

“It’ll manage. Should probably let Wiz know though. You know where the kid’s phone is?”

“Near his clothes,” Ignis replied. He tipped his head back, allowing himself to enjoy the warmth of the fire while he could, letting the sound of Aranea’s voice wash over him without actually paying attention to what she was saying.

“A woman,” Aranea said as she tossed Prompto’s phone back on his clothes and sat next to him. “Wiz didn’t answer because he was with a woman and didn’t want to be disturbed. Figured it was just another argument between Prompto and that Howard sleaze. Wanted to let them work it out themselves.”

“Not a bad idea, in theory,” Ignis said.

“Yeah. Well he’s headed back to the chocobo post now. Told him we were taking Prompto to our place till he recovered. Figured he’d prefer that with those implants and all.”

“He would. Thank you, Aranea,” Ignis said.

“Any time,” she replied. Then added, “Though don’t make a habit of it.”



Year 10

It was rare that the three of them were in Lestallum at the same time now, between Gladio going off on hunts and chasing after Iris trying to get her to lay down her katana, Prompto taking chocobos off to various people who needed transport and helping to protect them wherever they needed to go, and Ignis and Talcott find some old tombs to check and examine for any information on the Crystal and the prophesied King of Light. Not that that was yielding any results. No, it seemed the only thing left to do was to wait until Noctis returned and then hope that perhaps his father had told him something, or that his time absorbing the Crystal’s power had given him some kind of insight.

But for now, while he prepared their little feast, he was alone. And alone it gave him time to think, to gather his thoughts. The last year he had been quite busy. Someone, though he wasn’t entirely sure who, had let slip who he had been before the eternal night, that he had been advisor to the crown prince. He had been approached by several city officials wanting to utilize his skills. He had readily agreed, of course, and even Aranea had commented how much more confident and comfortable he seemed. It was what h e had always done, what he was meant to do.

The routine blackouts had been his idea, to try to conserve energy. And even now, they were discussing ways they could erect some kind of barrier over the city, something to keep the dirty snow out so that people didn’t always have to wear masks when they went outside. It was also important to ration food, medical supplies, even space, all of it had to be organised and then also conveyed to the people in a way that wouldn’t incite riots. All of this Ignis helped with and it gave him a sense of purpose.

Noctis hadn’t returned. Ignis hoped against hope that he would, there was so much that needed to be said, to be done. But, he thought, if he never returned at least he had found a new purpose.

The roast was now in the oven and he started to pull out the vegetables when the door opened and Prompto’s footsteps announced his presence.

“Hey Ignis, I’m here,” Prompto announced himself, as though Ignis weren’t able to immediately tell that already.

“So I hear,” Ignis replied. “Is it snowing outside? I can tell you’re not wearing a mask.”

“Yeah, but it’s heavy. I got it, don’t worry,” Prompto replied.

“I believe I am allowed to worry after the last time. I endured a scolding about that from the doctors you know,” Ignis said.

“I know, I know, not like you’ll ever let me forget,” Prompto complained. “Hey you should invite Talcott over, I haven’t seen him in forever.”

“Talcott is currently running supplies to Hammerhead via Costlemark Tower,” Ignis said calmly.

Prompto, however, was less than calm. “Say what? You can’t be serious! I mean, I know he’s gotten strong but you can’t just be sending a kid there on his own! What are you thinking?!”

“Calm yourself Prompto. He’s not going inside, just a little reconnaissance around the outside. And he’s not a kid anymore either. He’s surprisingly skilled.”

“Look I know you and he snuck off inside Insomnia, still pissed about that by the way, but at least you knew your way around and your creepy-arse hearing could pick up where the daemons were. But Costlemark is dangerous as it is, and on his own? Oh man, I’m gonna call him.”

“Don’t you dare,” Ignis snapped, pointing his knife at Prompto, ignoring the tomato juice dripping from it onto the ground. “I am not certain exactly where abouts he is. He should have left the area by now but if not, and if he is hiding from a powerful daemon, you calling him would only put him in further danger.” He returned to chopping the vegetables when he heard Prompto put his phone away again.

“I have also sent Aranea out that way, just in case. If Talcott does run into trouble, he is to call me twice and hang up both times. That was the agreed upon signal. If he does that I will then call Aranea and she will step in,” Ignis said calmly. “Really, Prompto. As if I would put Talcott in any more danger than was necessary.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Prompto said eventually.

The matter settled, the two of them returned to a comfortable silence, broken only by amenable conversation. Conversation that became slightly more rowdy once Gladio arrived with the beer. It made Ignis miss Noctis even more than he had before Prompto had brought him up. It was fun with the three of them, but it wasn’t the same as when there had been four. Ignis wondered what Noctis would make of this new world, and what he would be able to do about it, assuming he could do anything about it.

When Ignis’s phone began to ring with Talcott’s number, Ignis frowned and listened. But instead of cutting off as expected if there was trouble, it continued to ring.

“You gonna get that?” Gladio asked.

Ignis leaned forward to reach his phone and answered it. “Talcott? What is it?”

Chapter Text

Year 1 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

Everything was going according to plan. For a millennia this had been in the works, careful planning and manipulation of the Caelum line through the generations, a puppeteer’s fingers dancing across the strings of his puppets. The perks of immortality. Oh, of course, they had no idea who he was for the most part. Sometimes he was an envoy from Niflheim, sometimes a trader from Accordo, sometimes he was even crownsguard from Lucis (that was a fun few years). Ardyn Lucis Caelum wore many faces, but all of them had one thing in common: revenge. It drove him, burned inside of him, kept him going whenever his will wavered.

It had started simple. A word here, some money there and presto! The Caelums only ever produced one heir. Or at least only one managed to survive long enough to take the throne. That solved two birds, as it were: the line of Lucis was easy to keep track of - no cousins or uncles or bastards distorting the picture - and it also watered down the bloodline, each successive heir growing ever weaker, their connection to darling Eos’s magic becoming frailer. Ardyn was a patient man, but even he had his limits; by weakening each heir in turn he also shortened their life expectancy. The average one hundred and fifty years his dear brother had enjoyed had dwindled down to a mere 40. How sad! Forcing the astrals hand, ensuring they must make their choice in haste, well, that was just an added bonus. Icing on the cake of his retribution as it were.

And now that cake was just about ready to come out of the oven.

There was still time left - the weaker the king, the longer it would take him to absorb the Crystal's power - and after seeing the king's retinue on their way, Ardyn had gathered his favourite pets and left the Keep. He didn't go far, he didn't need to, just far enough that his deactivation of the MTs would remain in place long enough for the king's retinue to ‘escape’ unharmed.

And he waited. Ardyn Lucis Caelum was good at waiting.

 

Year 1 - Noctis Lucis Caelum
Noctis opened his eyes blearily, feeling as though he was pulling himself out of a deep sleep, one he wasn’t yet ready to wake up from. Sitting back on his feet, he looked around at the forested landscape around him. It all looked… somehow familiar. But why? He remembered the daemons swarming his friends. He remembered abandoning them, no, being forced to abandon them, it wasn’t like he wanted to. Then there was a long, long corridor and… the Crystal. The Crystal was at the end of it, glowing, seeming to draw him towards it with a strength that was undeniable.

But then nothing. Why couldn’t he remember?

A flash of grey caught Noct's eye and he looked up, smiling at the fuzzy little creature that now sat demurely before him. “Oh, hey little guy,” Noctis said softly, not wanting to scare it.

The creature didn't respond, but Noctis’s phone buzzed. Reaching into his pocket, he glanced at it with a frown. There was a message there but not from his usual message app and it didn't have a name or number attached to it. He trapped it and read.

Noct! You finally woke up! Do you remember me?

Noctis frowned and glanced between his phone and the creature watching him calmly. This was… familiar, but again he couldn't quite place it. “I'm… gonna need a little hint,” he eventually said. He assumed that the creature could understand speech since there was no reply button to his phone message.

I'm Carbuncle! We meet once before like this. You were a lot smaller though. I probably was too.

A memory came rushing to the forefront only, instead of playing out in his mind as memories normally did, this time they seemed to be transported to another world. Noctis climbed to his feet and looked around in wide-eyed wonderment. It was a playroom, but it was huge ! There were yellow crystals scattered around the room and as he watched, a younger version of himself came running through, following a carbuncle of his own.

“Hey wait!” Noct called out as his younger self dashed past. He reached out a hand to try to grab the boy but it passed right through him and the boy kept running, oblivious.

His phone buzzed.

This is just a memory, Noct. This isn't real, not really, and you can't affect anything here. I'm glad you remember me though ^_^

“Yeah, I remember,” Noct said. “Sort of anyway. You led me through these places after,” he paused, thinking, then, “after the Marilith attack.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the oversized playroom faded and in its place appeared a gigantic marilith. Noctis fell back with a cry of alarm as it lunged at him hissing. Carbuncle leapt in front of him, it's fur fluffed up as it attempted to face the daemon down, but Noctis paid it no mind as he immediately threw walls up around that memory, shoving it away. The daemon raged and banged against the walls for a while but that was one memory Noctis had plenty of practice in ignoring. Eventually it faded away to nothing and his world returned to that empty forest.

His phone buzzed.

Phew! That was too close! Don’t you remember? Your dreams have power here. Memories can’t affect you, you can’t change them, but dreams and imaginings can affect you.

“So, what am I doing here then? I don’t really remember everything from last time,” Noctis said, turning in a slow circle as he looked around. His phone buzzed.

You need to gather the Crystal’s power in order to fulfill your destiny.

“My destiny, huh,” Noct repeated. The scene around him changed once more and this time he watched himself floating in a blue abyss as a disembodied voice spoke to him.

“The fate of this world falls to the King of Kings. His providence consecrated in the divine Light of the Crystal. So it is ordained - the revelation of Bahamut.”

There was more, he was sure there was more, but the memory faded and with it the images and voices. Noct couldn’t remember anything else at the moment.

His phone buzzed.

Come on! You’ve gotta gather the crystal shards so you can obtain its power. I’ll help!

And with that Carbuncle pranced off through the forest, leading the way to the first of the floating blue crystals, leaving Noct no choice but to follow.

 

Year 3 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

The Crystal's blue light lit the throne room, coating everything in its unnatural ambiance, dancing off the armour of the two units sparing below. Ardyn watched the two fight idly, barely paying attention. After the success in fitting C1094 with the arm blades, Ardyn had ensured all his base units were equipped with them. Now they only had to practice with them, to learn to dance the deadly steps for survival.

Ardyn himself, however, had little interest in the training. He sat draped across the throne of Lucis, one leg resting over left arm while his right elbow leaned against the right arm. It wasn't the most comfortable of seats, but that was the idea; a king's job should never be comfortable. Apparently. To Ardyn it seemed more likely someone had simply decided to spout such nonsense to allow them feel better about handing down harsh judgements. Izunia would have said something like that.

As though the spirits could hear his musings, Ardyn caught sight of a golden light out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t look at it, knowing that doing so would only make it invisible to his gaze, but spoke anyway. “So what do I owe the divine pleasure of your company to?” he drawled.

Communicating with spirits was an unusual thing. This wasn’t the first he had spoken with, there had been several over the centuries, some which still haunted him even to this day, but most could not see them or hear them. Even Ardyn could not hear them, not in the traditional sense with his ears. No, spirits were far too melodramatic to use something as mundane as hearing. Nonetheless there was some sense that could understand them when they ‘spoke’. At least of one were ‘lucky’ enough to be of the Caelum bloodline. Or with one foot across the threshold of death, as C1094 had discovered.

“I want to help you. I have always wanted to help you.”

Ardyn scoffed and his eyes shot to the the light, briefly caught sight of the woman in a white dress and a golden aura before his eyes registered what was real and what was not and she vanished from his sight. “Oh of course you do,” he said, knowing she was still there despite what his eyes told him. Or didn't tell him as the case may be. The units below were staring at him, seeing their commander seemingly talking to nothing. Or… perhaps not all of them. The youngest one, one with different DNA from the rest, was staring with glazed eyes at where the spirit was. It had recently undergone some surgical enhancements and, coupled with its young age, it seemed to be able to observe things that the other units could not. Ardyn wondered briefly if its eyes could be enhanced or replaced somehow to always see such things, but then dismissed it as unimportant. He only had one of these units for now, he didn't want to lose it to frivolities just yet.

Swinging his leg back forwards, he rose smoothly to his feet, only favouring his bad leg slightly. “And how, pray tell, do you believe you could possibly help me? I am far too gone for the likes of you to raise up, even the gods themselves have turned their backs on me.” Knowing that it was near to where the spirit was, Ardyn sauntered over to the large floor-to-ceiling window and stared out over the darkened city, his new domain.

“Everyone can be redeemed, if they only wish it,” the spirit persisted.

“And give up when I am so close?” Ardyn turned with a smile towards the spirit, not looking at her so as to keep her in his vision. “Whyever would I do a thing like that?”

“The King of Light will defeat you. You will die and this time you will not come back.”

“Good,” Ardyn replied, his voice almost purring as he turned back to the window. He could see daemons striding through the city. They posed no threat to him, barely even acknowledged his existence. He was one of them to their senses. Any humans he found he turned into daemons to build his army, or gave to his pets to practice on.

“Do you not fear oblivion?” the spirit persisted.

“I have died before. Been executed in fact, several times over,” Ardyn replied. He felt in a generous mood at the moment - perhaps it was being here in this room, this city - so he continued. “How much do you know after you die? Did killing you give you some kind of divine insight? I suppose it matters not. I sought to save someone once, someone dear to me.” His face twisted into a grimace. “What a foolish notion.”

“It is never foolish to try to save someone you love.”

“What did that love do for me beyond bring pain and suffering?” he snarled. Feeling the daemon ichor creeping up, he forced a smile on his face and said a lot more calmly, “Begone now. I am done with you.”

“I will return,” the spirit said, but she did fade.

Spinning on his heel, Ardyn stalked down the stairs towards the staring units. He pointed to the two that had been performing the best. “You and you, with me if you would,” he said (as if they had a choice), and led the way out into the city. Time to harvest some more daemons.

 

Year 3 maybe? - Noctis Lucis Caelum

It seemed never ending. Follow the line of crystals, touch them and allow them to absorb into his body. Move to the next one. And the next. And the next. And the next. Onwards and onwards, never ending. Small ones tingled as they were absorbed, like bugs crawling under his skin. Larger ones were less pleasant. They stung when absorbed but, more than that, they forced him to relive a memory. That wouldn’t be so bad except he never knew if the memory he was about to relieve was a good memory or a bad one and they were never in any particular order.

With the Crystal’s aid, he saw again the ceremony accepting both Gladio and Ignis into his Crownsguard, his father watching on proudly with his remaining guard - Clarus - standing just behind him. He saw himself retreating to the Citadel’s fishing ponds to throw a line, angry and upset that his father had brushed him off yet again for work. He would pretend that he didn’t care, pretend that he preferred it this way. It was easier if he didn’t care, he had told himself. Now he wished only that he had made himself heard, had forced the time with his father, knowing that it would soon all come to an end.

Once again, he relieved watching some of the Citadel’s children, children he was not allowed to play with, throwing a ball between them. He wanted that ball, he wanted to be able to throw it with his father, to laugh and run and have fun as they were. His chest physically hurt (again) with the longing. His father had actually made it to have dinner with him that evening, but even then, Noctis couldn’t bring himself to be happy. He told his father of the other children and the ball they were playing with. Two days later his father had stopped by his room on his way to a ‘very important meeting’ to give him a present: a ball just like what the other children had played with. He promised to play with him with it later but for now he could play with himself to his heart’s content.

Regis had never played ball with his son, the ball remained in a corner of the prince’s bedroom.

That memory, as it faded, had left Noct shaking, with silent tears running down his cheeks. Carbuncle seemed to almost pur as it rubbed itself against Noct’s hand, trying to comfort him. Reliving the memories hurt just as much as they had at the time. More so, in a way, as the events themselves were spread over time, while Noctis lived each relevant scene one after the other with no chance to catch his breath.

Not knowing what else to do though, he gathered himself up and continued collecting the smaller crystals, dreading the time when he would come across another larger one.



Year 5 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

Ardyn lay on his back on the King’s bed, his head pillowed by his arm, staring up at the crumbling ceiling. It truly was a pity that such fine architecture had been damaged and destroyed. That had not been part of his plans.

“Then what was your plan?”

Ardyn sighed loudly, but didn’t move his gaze from the ceiling. “Surely you have someone more interesting to haunt,” he said. The astrals damned spirit had barely left him alone for a day or two before coming and pestering him about something. He almost regretted killing her. Almost. Likely the woman would still find some way to bother him. “What about that pet MT?” he suggested. “I know you were interfering with it, separating its mind from its programming.”

“And yet you did nothing to stop me.” She smiled as she spoke.

“I was curious,” Ardyn admitted. “I wanted to see what kind of power you actually had over the unit. Though I request that you do me a small favour and not interfere with any of the other units I have.”

“They are all too far gone for me to help, even the child,” she replied, her voice sad, if an ethereal understanding could be called a voice. “But you never answered my question. What was your plan for Insomnia? You wished for Noctis and I to wed, and then destroyed the city and the peace our marriage was to obtain.”

“Believe what you wish, but I never desired Insomnia’s destruction. I truly wished yourself and Noctis to wed, to become the perfect little couple, someone the people would rally behind.”

“A couple you could control.”

“Of course. What, is that so surprising? Two powerful families joined as one. Much easier to maintain.”

“And then you attacked.”

“Iedolas, fool that he was, attacked. I had nothing to do with that.”

A pause, and then, “You are telling the truth.” She sounded surprised.

Ardyn sighed with long suffering patience. “Of course I am telling the truth. Why does everyone assume what I say is a lie? It hurts my feelings, truly.” Alright, that was a lie, Ardyn was used to people mistrusting his word. It came with the position of power. “I wanted only the marriage, and the Crystal. Dear King Regis interrupted the marriage by sending your prince not-so-charming away but the marriage was still meant to go ahead in Altissia. Your precious Noctis was even heading there from Galdin Quay. I was ordered to bring him back, you know.” He gave a short laugh. “Iedolas, ordering me ? I know you do not believe me, but I only pretended to carry out his little errand; I found Noctis, and gave him your favour so he would know you were still well and left him in the comfort of a beach-side resort before returning to Insomnia.”

“I… I believe you. I know you are telling the truth. This is something I can tell.”

“Really?” That was definitely interesting. And perhaps useful. “Well then, you know this also to be true. Iedolas paid the price for defying my wishes and destroying the city. He ceased being a threat long ago.”

“You are so wrapped in your own need for vengeance that you cannot understand that not everyone seeks the same as you do.”

“You truly believe so? If the wise and powerful oracle says as much then it must be true,” Ardyn said, though his mocking tone belied the words. “I would be interested to learn if the thousands who died in this very city while you fled agree with those sentiments. Oh but I forget, they have moved on to the Astral Plane while you yet linger here. How tragic.”

“I remain in order to help the True King of Light destroy the menace that plagues our world.”

“Meaning me? How cruel! You truly hurt my feelings. And here I thought I remembered you saying that you were here to help me. I must have been mistaken. My memory is slipping in my old age, it happens when you're as ancient as I am. Perhaps a nap is in order for this old soul. Not that I require sleep, but it helps pass the time. I'm sure you understand.”

Ardyn smiled to himself when his words seemed to strike a nerve (did spirits even have nerves?) and the insistent being finally left his presence. Now, finally, maybe he could sleep.

 

Year unknown - Noctis Lucis Caelum

Noctis fought against the blue waters, blue the same as the sylleblossom flowers she loved so much. A blue that was uniquely hers. He swam frantically but, no matter how hard he tried, he was forever pulled away from her and she drifted, lost to him forever.

Noct came awake with a gasp. He was sitting on the grass next to a huge lake, skin still tingling from the larger crystal he absorbed. His clothes were wet, his hair dripping into his face, hiding the fact that there were also tears. Carbuncle wanted him to continue on but he ignored it, his arms wrapped around himself. “Luna,” he whispered.

“Noctis.”

Noctis’s head shot up and his eyes widened seeing her there before him. “No way,” he whispered. She just smiled down at him. Noctis stared. She looked… beautiful. Ethereal and most definitely not alive but still so beautiful. Her skin was paler than he remembered, her hair brighter and she seemed to glow with an inner golden light of her own. “Luna, I’m.. I’m sorry,” he got out, his voice breaking. “I’m so sorry. I tried, I really did, I tried to reach you in time but-”

“Hush, Noctis. It is alright. We could never have been together as we would have liked. Iedolas saw to that when he attacked Insomnia.”

“You mean Ardyn,” Noctis said, his voice dark as he wiped his eyes again.

Luna shook her head slowly. “It seems that Ardyn did not want the city destroyed.”

Noctis scoffed. “Somehow I find that hard to believe.”

“It is true. I do not understand all of it but I am able to tell when he is lying. And he was not lying about that.”

“Wait, you’ve been talking to him?”

Luna nodded once. “He has currently taken up residence in the Citadel in Insomnia. He is waiting for you. As are your friends.”

“My friends…” Noctis murmured. A memory formed and the world around them changed. Once more they were in Zegnautus Keep, and his friends were quickly becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of daemons. Gladio’s massive sword was swinging in broad strokes, taking out as many daemons at once as he could, occasionally blocking with his shield. Ignis was trying his best, a dagger swiping and sometimes striking something, but more often he was the one being struck and unable to dodge, his injuries growing in severity and slowing him further. And Prompto… Prompto was barely distinguishable from the daemons he fought. Eyes glowing bright red, teeth white as he grinned with undisguised glee, licking his lips whenever daemon blood splattered his face from the blades on his arms, lost in a bloodlust he never showed before being held captive by Ardyn. As he had in the memory, Noctis turned his back on them and walked away, shoulders hunched, following that version of himself past the crates and down the passageway.

With an effort he pulled his mind back to the clear blue lake, away from the looming threat of the Crystal and the sense of dread it gave.

“What… what has happened to them. Do they live?” he asked when he was back away from his memory.

“They live,” Luna reassured him and smiled softly as Noct gave a large sigh of relief. He had no idea how they could have survived that onslaught, but they had and that was what was important. “The world has become shrouded in darkness but they are doing all they can.”

“And… Prompto? He hasn’t… I mean, he isn’t…” He trailed off, unable to put into words his biggest fear, that Prompto had been unable to resist his conditioning, that he had become a full MT, or worse, a daemon.

Luna seemed to understand his request though as she answered, “He is working on rebuilding himself and making a life for himself. He is counting on your return, relying on it. They all are, but him more than any. He dreams of the day he can show you the photographs of his new life, and of shedding the last of his Niflheim heritage and becoming a Lucian.”

Noctis smiled, a true smile, his first in this place. Prompto was still taking photos. For an enemy soldier who had never used a camera before, he was surprisingly good at it. But, more than that, the fact that he even had a camera, that Ignis had given it to him, reassured Noct that he truly was becoming more human once again. Thank goodness.

“I did promise to make him a Lucian citizen when this was all done,” he said. Briefly his world started to form that moment, the way Prompto’s face, red eyes and all, had lit up with delight when he was told that. He forced his mind back again. It was becoming easier to control.

“Well,” he said, looking around. “I guess that means I have to keep going. I have a promise to keep after all. Luna, you’ll stay with me?” he asked, longing for her company, but she shook her head.

“It is difficult to be here so I’m afraid I must go back. But do not fear. I will attempt to learn all I can and I will return. Please, continue with your quest to gather the Crystal’s energy. That is the only way you can save  us all.”

Noctis couldn’t help but be disappointed, but he nodded anyway. At least she would return. “Very well then. Carbuncle, I guess it’s up to you to lead on,” he said and as he turned away, Luna’s light faded to nothing.



Year 6 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

“There you go. You should start to feel better now.”

“My lord, thank you! Thank you!” The old man bowed several times as he backed away, making room for the next person in line.

Ardyn smiled wearily, stubbornly ignoring the burning in his veins as he leaned back in his chair.

“Are you ready for the next one?” a woman by the door asked, her face creased with concern but willing to do Ardyn’s bidding regardless.

Ardyn’s smile widened and became more genuine as he looked at her. Ten years on and she was still beautiful. Her long blonde hair fell in waves down her back like a golden river, her waist narrow and hips wide. Childbearing hips they called them, and one day, when his work was done and the scourge eliminated, he would like to settle down with her and put those hips to the test, to have their own family.

“Not just yet, my peach,” he said softly and held a hand out to her. She hurried to him, believing he may need help standing as was becoming more common after long healing sessions. Instead of allowing her to pull him up, however, he tugged her into his lap, catching her to prevent her from falling, and simply held her close. She seemed to melt against him, her soft curves fitting perfectly against his solid muscle. Closing his eyes, Ardyn ran his fingers through her hair, breathed in her scent, let her closeness drive away the pain and weariness that absorbing the daemon essence caused. He longed to kiss her but resisted; she said he tasted like death after healing the afflicted. He had no desire to inflict that upon her.

After a few more moments he pulled back a little, though his arms remained loosely around her waist. “Are there many left? I long to take you to bed.”

“Two more,” she said. “Though I'm afraid I must decline bed. Izunia has requested I return to Solheim immediately. I am already defying his orders enough by staying here until you are done.”

Ardyn frowned, a flicker of jealousy igniting in his chest. “Am I not King? Who is he to order my people around?”

Aurora held her hands to either side of his face as she spoke, “Of course you are king, my love. Izunia merely takes care of the administration while you are away. You know this. And as much as he likes to give orders, he respects you. You are his brother.”

“Half-brother,” Ardyn cut in, the distinction important to him. Ardyn and Izunia used to be close; as children they were the best of friends. But that all changed when Ardyn became chosen by the Crystal to heal the scourge affecting their citizens. That and the fact that they both loved the same woman. Despite their differences, Ardyn trusted Izunia unquestionably to run his kingdom in his absence and, to date, that trust was well placed. His kingdom was not only at peace but flourishing, coffers were growing, architecture was booming, the number of afflicted was steadily decreasing. This was truly a golden age.

So why did Ardyn feel so uneasy?

“Half brother then,” Aurora allowed.

“Stay,” Ardyn said and, though it wasn't a question, it wasn't an order either. “A few more hours will make little difference.”

She smiled, that brilliant, radiant smile. “Oh very well then. Just a few. And you will chew some mint beforehand; I cannot abide the taste the scourge leaves in you.”

Ardyn grinned, victorious. “Always,” he said. “Best call in the next one.”

Ardyn shifted in his sleep, uneasy despite the pleasantness of the dream, a golden light nearby casting shadows over his face.

Ardyn rode through the gates to his home city expecting crowds and fanfare, music and confetti, the welcoming of a hero. So when the crowds watching him were silent and pointing with no music playing and no sign of any kind of welcome, he knew something was wrong.

The past few months there had been fewer and fewer people needing to utilise his healing so returning home for the winter had seemed like the perfect plan. Also he felt as though it had been forever since he had last seen Aurora, so that was always a bonus. But now, with the hushed voices and less than friendly stares, he was left feeling as though he should have returned long ago. Something must have happened, a war, or a death, something to justify this change.

Approaching the palace, Ardyn dismounted and handed his horse off to a stable boy who refused to look at him, bowing and staring at his feet. Unusual, but not unexpected; some people were unable to look at him in all his splendour. Ardyn ignored him as he strode up the sandstone steps to the palace. Izunia and Aurora stood at the top waiting for him but, instead of welcoming smiles as they had worn in the past, both were serious, Aurora’s face carefully blank and Izunia’s actually looking angry. The guards lining either side of the steps stood ready at attention.

Ardyn forced a smile onto his own face even as every instinct in him screamed danger. There could be no danger here, this was his home, his kingdom, his brother and his lover stood before him. Something must have happened, that was all.

“Izunia! Aurora! So nice to see you both again,” he said, hands wide in greeting, welcoming them to come down to meet him, though neither moved. “Tell me though, who has died that you all look so glum?”

It was Izunia who answered, of course. “You have,” he said and, with a gesture, the guards that lined the palace stairs rushed forwards, two on each arm and the others encircling the King, weapons pointed towards this.

“Izunia! What is the meaning of this? I am your King! Unhand me at once, that is an order!” Ardyn shouted, truly growing angry now. Had his brother truly done something so foolish as try to usurp his throne? Ridiculous!

“You are no King of ours. You are tainted, rejected by the Gods and the Crystal and as such Ardyn Lucis Caelum, you are hereby under arrest,” Izunia said, his voice cold.

“Such claims are false and slanderous! I serve the Gods! I heal the afflicted as they instructed. Aurora, surely you cannot stand for this! You saw me just three months ago heal everyone who required it in a town.”

“I saw you absorbing a darkness from the afflicted, taking it into yourself. If the Gods say you are tainted, and Izunia has conferred with the Crystal to confirm it, then I am inclined to believe it,” Aurora said calmly. There was no hint of remorse or regret in her eyes.

Ardyn felt hurt and fury rise up within him. “No!” he roared and, with a strength he was unaware he possessed, he shoved outwards, throwing the guards holding him aside with ease. For a moment he stood still, stunned - it was an instinctual reaction, nothing more, and certainly not something he had expected to actually achieve anything - but then the moment passed and the guards rushed in once more. Ardyn tried to fight them and he probably still knocked down more than he would have a year ago, but there were simply too many of them and several solid blows to the head rendered him unconscious and much more compliant.

Ardyn blinked awake, his headache fading as consciousness returned to him. And with it came the realisation that he was being watched. Again. “Aren’t you tired of me yet? It has been years,” he said to the spirit who stalked him, his dreams making him irritable.

“Has it? Time has no meaning for me. Nor, does it seem, for you. Who was the woman in your dream?”

“You mean you did not recognise your great-a-million-times-over grandmother?” Ardyn said, a small smirk twisting his features as he sat up and swung his legs over the bed. He wasn’t even surprised that she was able to see his dreams somehow. A little disconcerted, perhaps, but he would never let that show. Instead, he sought to throw the dear Lunafreya off instead. “That’s right. The majestic and beautiful Aurora Fleuret is your ancestor, though she had not an ounce of Oracle blood in her. You’ll never guess where you got that trait from.”

Ardyn had never known it were possible for a spirit to gasp but somehow she managed it and, as he watched her from the corner of his eye, a knowing smile on his face, her hands flew to her mouth and her eyes, which were nothing more than pools of white light, widened.

And then she was gone.

“That takes care of that. Perhaps I should have informed her of her true heritage when she first appeared,” Ardyn said and, running a hand through his hair, he made his way to the lower levels of the citadel. Now that she was gone, he could progress with his experiments in peace. It was a good thing she was gone, and he truly did not miss her. Not at all.

 

??? - Noctis Lucis Caelum

The crystals hurt less when they were absorbed now than they had at the start but they still tingled uncomfortably and he continued to hesitate with the large ones. His phone buzzed.

Hey Noct! You have a visitor.

“Huh?” Noct had been looking over a vast starry blue vista but turned towards Carbuncle at that, then grinned when he saw Luna’s golden glow. “Luna!” he exclaimed, jogging down the slight hill towards her. He slowed though when he saw she wasn’t smiling. “What’s wrong?”

“I have learned some things. About Ardyn.” Noctis’s expression became still. “How much do you remember, Noct? Of when you were accepted by the Crystal? Of what he told you?”

Summoned by her words, Noct’s world changed again, became the vast open room that had housed the Crystal in Zegnautus. He watched himself as he reached out to the crystal, remembered the way it seemed to vibrate, thrumming in his very veins.

“Please,” he had said. “Help me stop the daemons.” That was all he had been concerned with: stopping the daemons and saving his friends. He sensed the way the power seemed to reach out. He felt again the way it lovingly caressed his cheek, tingling, and Noct, the real Noct, rose a hand to his cheek as though it were there again.

And then it began to pull.

“Why?!” the other Noct demanded as he tried to fight in vain against the pull. And then Ardyn walked past them, completely oblivious to the presence of the real Noct, Luna, and Carbuncle.

“Unharmed by the light. The Chosen King indeed.” From this angle, not blinded by the light of the Crystal, Noct could see the fury on Ardyn’s face, the hatred and… jealousy? Surely not. The Crystal was burning him at this point, and again, Noct felt those burns up his arm as more of his body was claimed by the Crystal. Ardyn continued speaking. “Allow me to regale you with a tale. In an age long past, an incurable scourge ravaged mankind. A tiny menace that twisted men into monsters, the likes of which you’ve seen. In Lucis lived a Saviour that could cure the afflicted. His body would come to host myriad daemons, that countless lives be spared. But a jealous king, one not yet chosen by the Crystal, ostracized and demonized this healer of the people, making a true monster of him.”

It had been hard to hear and even harder to focus on what Ardyn had been saying back then, the burning in his arm and both legs distracting him, a roaring buzz in his ears deafening him. But he could hear every word this time.

“I gave you my name earlier, but you should know that it was not the name given to me at birth. Ardyn Lucis Caelum is my proper name. You’ll never guess whose name Izunia was.”

Noctis gasped as he heard those words and the last of his memory self was absorbed by the Crystal.

He allowed the memory to fade and return to the vast vista where he had been, a few Crystals still scattered about that he had yet to claim. He was becoming more practiced at controlling his mind now and the change was easy. Dispelling the shock of learning that Ardyn claimed to be a Caelum was much harder.

“He’s… he’s lying. He has to be. He just wants to torment me,” he said.

“He is not lying,” Luna countered. “I have seen his past. He lived a millenia ago and he truly was a healer, ordained by the astrals to heal the scourge and he did so by absorbbing the essence of daemons in order to save the populace. Our methods of healing were different, but the purpose was the same: to save as many people as we could from the scourge.”

“You are nothing like him!” Noctis growled, offended that she would even consider they had something in common.

Luna simply smiled. “He was once a good person, loving and generous. Selfless in his healing and wish to help. The jealous King he mentioned was his brother, Izunia. I saw a vision of how he spread rumours of how Ardyn was corrupted by the daemons he absorbed, and the woman he loved, someone named Aurora, corroborated on the story. It was… sad.”

“Don’t tell me you pity that monster,” Noct said, unable to believe what he was hearing.

“I do,” Luna replied. “I do because it very easily could have been me. If Ravus had cared for me less… but I did not come here to discuss what may have been. There are things about Ardyn you must know before you emerge from the Crystal.”

That was something Noct couldn’t disagree with; the more he knew of his future adversary, the better his chance of success. He sat on the grass, fingers running through its blades, and Luna sat opposite him. “You said he was born a millenia ago. How is that possible? He should be long dead.”

“The daemons he absorbed changed him. Izunia was not wrong, the daemons had corrupted his brother, just not yet to the extent that he claimed. The sheer number of daemons he had absorbed had rendered him immortal. Let me show you.” Luna reached forward and her hand touched Noctis’s forehead. She was cool, soothing, and then her light enveloped him.

A king watched as a shirtless Ardyn was carried before him, chained to a stake on the back of a cart, crowds of people parting to make way. “That is King Izunia Lucis Caelum, second King of Lucis,” Luna said from where she was beside Noct.

“Yes,” Noct said, remembering the name even if he knew little else about the ancestor. Ignis could probably tell him, and would likely berate him for not knowing himself, but Ignis wasn’t here.

Izunia spoke. “Ardyn Lucis Caelum, former King of Lucis and fallen Oracle of the gods. You have been found guilty of heresy, of blaspheming against the gods, of absorbing the monsters you claimed to heal and using their essence for your own gain. For this you have been condemned to a traitor’s death. Do you have any final words?”

“Izunia Lucis Caelum, usurper of the Lucian throne,” Ardyn spoke, his booming voice carrying easily across the masses, somehow still managing to command the crowd despite being chained. “And your harlot half-sister Aurora, false woman, betrayer. You shall rue this day. When the darkness spreads over the land and turns all men into monsters, leaving you without recourse, remember me well, and all I did for mankind. At the behest of the astrals themselves. It is not my death warrant you sign, but your own.”

As he fell silent, guards stepped forwards, surely far more than was necessary, escorting someone wearing a red robe with the hood raised and their face covered with a white mask. He was carrying a jar and inside were numerous black bugs or beetles of some kind. Seeing them, Ardyn’s eyes widened slightly and his arms yanked briefly at the chains as though seeking to free himself, though it made no difference. The lid was opened and the opening pressed against Ardyn’s taut stomach. The robed man held a hand out and a nearby guard passed over a flaming torch, which was then held to the base of the jar. Fleeing the heat of the flames, the beetles had nowhere to go but to the soft, yielding flesh at the opening of the jar.

Noctis held a hand over his mouth as tortured screams rang out. He had never heard Ardyn scream before and found that, as much as he had fantasized about making the man scream, hearing it was quite a different matter. “Enough, Luna. I get the idea,” he said, wishing he could will himself out of this vision as he did out of his memories.

“Not yet,” she said, though her voice was tight betraying that she too felt disgust for what was happening. “I apologize but there is still more to see. I shall skip ahead a few hours, however.”

“Hours?” Noct repeated, but Luna didn’t answer. Instead the world faded to a bright white light then, blinking the spots from his eyes, the light faded.

Ardyn was still chained to the post but now Izunia stood before him, outrage written clear on his face. “How do you still live?!” he roared.

His only response was a pained groan that rose to a short scream, quickly bitten off. Ardyn did not look good; his skin was pale, sweat made his hair hang in lank strands, black tears streaked down his face and the same blackness bloomed at various locations over his torso. His mouth was open and he was breathing heavily, a line of black substance oozing from the corner of his mouth.

Not getting the answer he wanted, Izunia reached to the side and took a guard’s sword, plunging it without preamble through Ardyn’s heart. The bound man merely grunted at this new addition of pain but then his eyes drifted closed and he slumped forwards, held up only by the chains attaching him to the stake. He appeared, for all intents and purposes, dead. Clearly Izunia thought so as well as he ordered the guards, “Throw his body with the refuse outside the city walls,” before turning on his heel and striding away.

“We need to follow Ardyn,” Luna said, and Noct did as he was bade, following behind the cart, watching as Ardyn’s body swayed to and fro, a frown on his face. And then he saw it. It was brief, a shudder, or a twitch of the chest, eyes that blinked open, and then closed, the slightest smile curling about blackened lips. He continued to play dead as he was carried out of the city, ignoring the way the populace seemed to both despise him - spitting and throwing rocks at him - and adore him, crying as his body passed. It seemed that not everyone believed the new King’s words, but all believed him to be dead.

When he was tossed into a ditch outside the city, along with the waste food and dead rotting animals, he lay still but, as Noctis watched, the beetles that had been burrowing through his insides were forcefully rejected, sometimes hard enough to send them flying across to the other side of the ditch. The wound on his chest closed, leaving first scar tissue then smooth skin. Then, finally, Ardyn rose. He was unsteady at first, but his eyes were glowing amber, black veins of corruption spread across his face and body. He grinned wolfishly, then turned and strode away from the city and with him, the vision faded, returning Noctis to the vista in the Crystal.

“He’s… immortal. Truly immortal, not just living forever but healing everything,” Noctis said, his voice stunned.

“Yes,” was all Luna said.

“How am I meant to beat something like that?” Noct demanded, looking to Luna desperately.

She shook her head. “I do not know. Not yet. I hope that the power of the Crystal will help you. But now I must go. I will return when I know more.”

“Wait!” he called. “Why Izunia? Why take the name of someone he hates? Maybe… maybe the reason could help.”

“I will do my best to find out. Farewell for now, Noct.”

Noctis sighed, sad to see her go, but nodded in acceptance. As she faded, his phone buzzed.

I like her. It’s good she’s on our side. ^_^

Noct smiled. “Yeah it is.” With a groan, he stood up. “Come on. She’s doing what she can, now we have to do what we can.”



Year 8 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

“Why did you take your half-brother’s name?”

Ardyn stabbed the daemon in front of him, banishing it contemptuously, before he allowed himself to react to the spirit’s presence. “And here I thought you had gone and left me for good. I was hurt! To think that you would abandon your great grandfather like that.”

“Far too many generations have passed for that to mean anything. And you are deflecting again. Why did you take your half-brother’s name?”

“Oh alright,” Ardyn relented, knowing he wouldn’t know a moment’s peace until he answered her questions. “Izunia Lucis Caelum, destroyer of worlds and lives, betrayer, consummate actor deceiving those around him as to his true nature. Ring any bells?”

“You took his name in order to emulate him?”

“If that reason works for you then by all means, make free with it,” Ardyn said with a wave of his hand as he strode through the near-abandoned streets of Insomnia. He had a horde of goblins following behind him in his wake, watching him carefully as they chittered to themselves.

“Now let me ask you a question. Why the sudden urge to know all these things. It is all ancient history and certainly will not bring you back to the land of the living.” Spotting movement, he pointed and sent three of his goblins running forwards. There was a woman there, a scraggly, scrawny thing. They swarmed over her as she screamed, a most delightful sound, and dragged her towards him.

“No, please no,” she was begging but Ardyn paid her no mind. She was of no use to him, skinny, starving, no mask and blood on her lips, she’d be lucky if she lasted a few hours. Though her body could be useful to study - she hadn’t turned into a daemon yet by breathing in the ash, something that often happened to the humans who died from prolonged exposure to the gritty air. Her DNA could be useful, but he had no true desire to go dragging a corpse around behind him. A wave of his hand dismissed her and his daemons killed her.

Lunafreya paused over the woman’s body, praying perhaps, then continued to follow Ardyn. She did not attempt to prevent his actions any more, did not bemoan the loss of life. Perhaps she was even understanding, though Ardyn had his doubts as to that.

“Noctis wishes to learn about you,” she eventually answered him .

“Ahh, dear Noct. I was wondering if you were able to communicate with him as you are with me. Or even if you wished to. Your marriage was only arranged after all. Until Altissia, you hadn’t even seen him since you were children. But what could your precious King of Light do with the knowledge he gains about me.”

“I do not know.” That caused Ardyn to stop walking and, while he knew he could not look directly at the spirit, he stared just past her. “I only know that with each interaction, he grows stronger, and the more knowledge he has the more likely he is to succeed.”

“Ah, of course. Then, by all means, ask your questions. I will tell you what you want to know. One Oracle to another.”

That gave the spirit pause, though when she spoke it was obvious that it wasn’t his dig at her origins that caused it. “You want Noctis to succeed?”

“But of course,” Ardyn replied. He was distracted from speaking further when a blackness began to bubble in front of him. He paused, waiting, one hand on a hip. The giant daemons were strong but they took so long to appear. And they called him over dramatic with his foreshadowing. One hand was thrust upwards from the earth, then another and finally the full daemon emerged, easily towering over him. A wave of his hand, however, sent the daemon on his way and out of Ardyn’s path, allowing him to continue onwards. He spoke as though nothing had interrupted him. “Did you really think I meant to kill Noct?”

“You certainly tried hard enough.”

Ardyn laughed at that; he didn’t know ghosts had a sense of humour. “Oh trust me, my dear. If I had wanted him dead he would already be pushing up grass in some forgotten corner. No, I interfered in allowing him that fate more times than either you or he are aware of. He must succeed and I have done all in my power to ensure it. You asked me once, long ago, if I feared oblivion. Do you remember?”

“You deflected my question.”

Ardyn chuckled, but then grew serious and stopped walking. He turned to face the spirit, looking straight into her eyes for the second that he could and, even when she vanished from his eyes, he knew she was still there. “Eternity wears on a person. Philosophers dream of immortality, or what they could or would achieve if only they had more time in their life. Do you want to know what they would achieve?” He answered himself without waiting for a response. “Nothing. They would achieve nothing. Without the looming threat of death to drive a person they grow stagnant. For me, the promise of death, a true death and the oblivion that follows, is what drives me.”

Except when the rage drove him, those times when all he could think about was vengeance, for making the whole of the Lucis line and, indeed, the whole world pay for what they did to him. That would also hurt the astrals, which was fantastic to Ardyn’s mind, to return the favour of their betrayal, for demanding everything from him and then condemning him for it. He said none of this, however. If the spirit truly was able to converse with Noctis while he was in the Crystal, then he wanted the so-called King of Light to succeed. Both outcomes - destruction of all the astrals and Eos, as well as his own oblivion - depended on him emerging from the Crystal with all of its power. What outcome eventuated, he could decide upon later.

 

Time is Meaningless - Noctis Lucis Caelum

His phone buzzed.

We’re nearing the end now, Noct! I bet you’re looking forward to seeing your friends again.

“Sure am,” Noct said as he followed Carbuncle through one of the world-changing portals. Instead of the landscapes he had been travelling through, however, this time he landed in the front court yard of the Citadel in Insomnia. It was whole and showed no sign of any of the destruction it had surely suffered, its beautiful white towers still stretching towards a blue sky. “Home,” he murmured. His phone buzzed.

This is where your journey started, and this is where it will end. Everything comes around in a circle.

Noctis turned around. “There are no crystals here,” he said. His phone buzzed.

There is one. Follow me!

Carbuncle pranced off towards the Citadel and Noct had no choice but to follow. Carbuncle led him through familiar halls that, though devoid of people, still pulled at Noctis’s heartstrings in a way he hadn’t expected. This was home, just as he remembered it. If he didn’t want to summon a memory again, he would almost be able to pretend that he was a teenager, or even a child, that he had never gone on the doomed trip and that his father was still alive, and Insomnia had never fallen.

But then he never would have met Prompto for a start. And who knew where the Nif boy would have ended up if his unit hadn’t been wiped out by Noctis and his party.

No, what had happened had happened. And now, it was nearly at an end.

Carbuncle sat at a pair of closed doors, doors that led to the throne room, waiting for Noct to push them open. Doing so, Noct only made it two steps in before he came up short. There before him, towering all the way up to the ceiling, was an astral.

“Bahamut,” Noctis breathed.

The god spoke, and Noctis felt his words vibrate in his very bones. “By the covenants awakened, the Six have seen the coming of the prophesied hour - a time when the Crystal shall have shed the entirety of its light unto the ring.” Noctis looked down on the ring on his finger and, for the first time, noticed that its gem did seem to glow stronger than he remembered. “Only by the True King’s hand can the Immortal Accursed be banished and the Light restored to this world.”

“The Immortal Accursed. You mean Ardyn, right?” Noctis said.

“One so impure of body and soul was deemed unworthy of the Crystal’s light, and forbidden to ascend. His mind twisted by spite and bent on revenge, the Usurper came to bring darkness upon our world. Only the True King, chosen by the Crystal and guarded by his forebears, can end the Accursed’s madness.”

Noctis frowned. That didn’t match what Luna had showed him. Not exactly. Izunia had been the one to usurp Ardyn’s throne, not the other way around. Was it possible that… the gods were wrong? Or was Bahamut trying to manipulate him? Truthfully he wouldn’t put it past the later.

“How can I end someone who is immortal? Nothing I have learned here has helped with that,” he said; Luna had told him of the reasons behind Ardyn taking Izunia’s name, but it hadn’t revealed as many insights as he had hoped. The only hope she had been able to give was that Ardyn sometimes seemed to wish to die, so that he could shed what he saw as a curse of immortality.

“The providence is the sole means to ending the Immortal Accursed. A power greater than even that of the Six, purifying all by the Light of the Crystal and the Glaives of rulers past. Only at the throne can the Chosen receive it, and only at the cost of a life: his own. The King of Kings shall be granted the power to banish the darkness, but the blood price must be paid. To cast out the Usurper and usher in Dawn’s Light will cost the life of the Chosen. Many sacrificed all for the King, so must the King sacrifice himself for all.”

Noctis was nodding as he heard this. It was a verbatim repeat of what he had heard when he was first absorbed by the Crystal, he now recalled. At the time he had been upset and angry at the whole thing, how futile it was. But he had come to accept it and his role in all this. It was true, what Bahamut said: many had sacrificed for him - his father, Gladio’s father, Ignis’s uncle, all the Insomnians that died in the attack, and all those since, Gladio’s injuries, Ignis’s blindness, Luna’s health and her very life, Prompto’s sense of self, all of them. He didn’t want to die, he wanted to help rebuild Insomnia, but if he had to die, then so be it.

Bahamut seemed to sense his resolve and, as he faded from view his voice resounded one last time. “The light waxes full. Go forth to the Kingdom where the Usurper awaits. Reclaim the throne, and fulfill the calling of the True King.”

Behind Bahamut, revealed after he had vanished, was a smaller replica of the Lucian Crystal. As he stepped towards it, however, Gentiana stepped out from behind it.

“Gentiana. Or Shiva?” Noct asked, not sure what he should call the woman-slash-astral.

Gentiana, eyes closed, smiled. “Gentiana is fine, King of Kings,” she said, her voice soft. “Before you continue, I must know one thing. Do you wish to die?”

Noct frowned. “What kind of question is that? Of course I don’t! But if it will defeat the daemons then I am willing to do so. Bahamut already established that.”

“Know that not all of the Astrals agree with his methods. I will ensure you emerge away from where the Crystal is currently located and arrive safely in the Land of Darkness,” she said, and then stepped back, opening the way to the Crystal. “Step forth, King of Kings, and claim your destiny.”

An eyebrow quirked at that - what on earth was the messenger going on about? - but he put it out of his mind for now, sure that all would become clear enough in time. Stepping forwards, he reached out and rested his hand on the final Crystal.



Year 10 - Ardyn Lucis Caelum

Ardyn strode into the throne room and paused, a small smile upon his face. The Crystal was dark. It had been growing progressively dim as the years passed but there always remained a small core of light within its centre. There was no sign of the dear king, of course, but he wasn’t surprised by that. The astrals would do what they could to protect their precious beacon of light.

Ardyn had a few surprises of his own, a few pets who were ready for their final test. Not to mention a pushy astral who insisted on having first crack at the saviour of mankind. Oh he was ready. Now, all he had to do was wait just a little longer for it all to come to him.



Year 10 - Noctis Lucis Caelum

Noctis opened his eyes to the sound of a dog barking. He was sitting on a stone bench in a stone room and the air was cold. Icy even. His first thought was that this wasn’t Zegnautus Keep. His second was that he was really cold! The dog barked again, coming from an open doorway, and he stood to go towards it. His body wasn’t nearly as stiff as he would have expected it to be, and the landscape he peeked through the open doorway was dim, as though it were twilight. Continuing down the stairs revealed more and more of the landscape, and the light grey snow that was falling, as well as the source of the barking: Umbra.

Noctis smiled seeing the familiar canine messenger. He had heard that Pryna had died with Luna, so he was relieved to see her brother still lived and was holding a sheet of paper. Reaching out, he took the paper and gave the dog a scratch between his ears. He felt the fur in a way he hadn’t really felt anything for so long and spent probably more time than he should have just petting the messenger and enjoying the texture before he looked at the page in his other hand.

He frowned. He recognised the handwriting though it was not a hand he ever expected to see again. It was his dad’s handwriting.

Be waiting in Hammerhead.

Nothing else. Did that mean… no, there was no way his dad was still alive. Surely not. If he were alive he would have tried to contact him, Noct was sure. He couldn’t explain the handwriting but Umbra was a messenger, maybe he had something to do with it.

At least he had a destination, and with it the hope that when he arrived he could find out what was going on. First he had to figure out where he was though. Switching his torchlight on, he set about exploring. It didn’t take long. He had awoken in a stone room of some kind and was on an island. He couldn’t see any lights but in the distance he thought he could see what looked like the piers of Galden Quay. And he found a boat.

Noct shook his head in wonderment as he climbed aboard. Not only was the boat in good condition, he also had a full tank of fuel and the keys were in the ignition. Starting the engine, he grinned when it sprung to life and he pulled away from the island, heading towards Galden Quay.

The boat ride was only probably half an hour, the rough ocean slowing him down somewhat. Out here he could clearly see that it wasn't twilight as he had originally thought, but some kind of false light, likely with the sun obscured by the strange grey misty snow that was falling. “World of Darkness, indeed,” he said to himself, recalling the words both Luna and Gentiana had said. There were no lights on at Galden Quay; the seaside town seemed devoid of any life as opposed to the bright and bustling resort it had been.

“Man, how long was I out?” Noctis wondered to himself. Last time he had been with Carbuncle he had been unconscious for a few months, but that time didn’t feel right with how much the world around him seemed to have changed. The raging ocean was nearly overlapping the dock as he pulled up and there was debris everywhere. And was that… clothes? “Oh no,” Noctis muttered. He had seen abandoned clothes like this once before, in Zegnautus Keep, because of the so-called vanishing disease that was really turning humans into daemons. And speaking of which.

Noct summoned his sword and warped forward, attacking the stream of daemons that charged him and destroying them. Coming to the restaurant area there was still no sign of any people, only dust, abandoned clothes, and daemons, and they were tough ! Much stronger than he remembered. After dealing with the goblins, two liches and a naga appeared and he was forced to rely on the ring to take them down.

A blast of green fire from another daemon threw Noct when he didn’t quite dodge fast enough and he gasped, sucking in a mouthful of ash, causing him to stagger and cough. “Damn, too strong!” he muttered. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he dodged around them and took off. There were more on the boardwalk - of course there were more - but he was able to duck and dodge around them as well, warping ahead to get some distance between them. Thankfully they didn’t try to pursue him very far. Even the two iron giants stomping around the carpark were not interested in him if he kept his distance.

“Thank you Iggy for your stealth lessons,” he muttered to himself as he successfully avoided detection. Where was Ignis now? And Gladio, and Prompto? He hoped they were alright. He couldn’t imagine living in a place like this where the daemons were so strong and swarming previously inhabited areas. Hopefully Hammerhead hadn’t met the same fate.

Noctis jogged up over the grassland, dodging the attention of the way-too-strong daemons, past the point where Prompto had taken his first group photo of them when they had circled back to the sea side resort to have a mini holiday. Along the road there seemed to be less daemons so Noct decided it would probably be best to follow it. And that’s when Umbra started barking.

“What is it, boy?” Noct asked, slowing to a walk as what had caught the dog’s attention came into view: the first sign of life other than daemons. Headlights. “Something’s coming,” he said, stepping to the side of the road to wait and see. Surely the daemons hadn’t learned to drive, but honestly, everything else seemed messed up it really wouldn’t surprise him. The ash in the air was tickling his throat and he started coughing as the car approached and then pulled up beside him. A young man wearing a mask over his nose and mouth leaned out the window, eyes wide.

“Uh…” he stammered.

He looked… familiar, Noct thought. Though he couldn’t place him. He was wearing hunters clothes though so maybe he had seen him around at some of the hunter outposts or something. “Yeah?” he said. The man was staring at him and honestly looked as though he had seen a ghost.

“It’s me, Talcott. My grandpa served the Amicitia family?” he said, and Noct reeled.

“Talcott?” he exclaimed. Now that it was pointed out he could see it, but the boy had definitely grown up.

“Yeah,” he said and, though his mouth was hidden by the mask, Noct could hear the smile in his voice.

He shook his head, still unable to believe it. “No way.”

Talcott gave a small laugh. “Yes way. Welcome back, Your Majesty.”

Noct was prevented from saying anything further though when he began to cough again, in earnest this time, and Talcott’s expression turned from pleasure to concern. “Ah, you can’t go out without a mask any more, Your Majesty. Get in, I can take you to Hammerhead or Lestallum if you like. I was heading to Hammerhead to fuel up anyway.”

Noct nodded and moved around to the passenger side of the truck and climbed in. Talcott closed the window and lowered his own mask to sit around his neck. Reaching behind him he pulled out a small portable oxygen tank and a plastic mask attached to it.

Noct shook his head, saying, “I’ll be fine in a minute,” before coughing a little again.

Talcott, however, was insistent. “Please, Your Majesty. The ash can kill people after just a few hours exposed to it without a mask. The oxygen helps.”

Reluctantly, Noctis accepted the oxygen tank, saying, “Only if you promise to stop calling me ‘Your Majesty’. You know I’ve never liked formality.” Talcott only smiled and Noctis fitted the mask over his face, turning the knob to start the oxygen flow, knowing that Talcott would probably never stop being formal with him; he had his grandfather to thank for that.

While Noctis sat back and focussed on his breathing, Talcott pulled out his phone and dialed someone. “Um, Ignis? I have some news.” Noctis broke into a grin to hear him talking to Ignis, knowing that meant the man was still alive. “I found someone on the side of the road. King Noctis.” Noctis chuckled a little; he could just imagine Ignis’s reaction to that. “He’s fine, coughing a bit from the ash, but I gave him my oxygen tank. Shouldn’t be a problem.” A pause. “Yes, sir, that’s right. Hm? Just a second.” Talcott lowered the phone and turned to Noct. “Um, said he wants to have a word with you.”

Of course he did. Had to know for sure he was who he said he was. Noct almost laughed. “He can have it in person,” he said, knowing the snarky comment would be exactly what Ignis would expect.

Almost as though he wasn’t sure if Ignis would be happy to hear that answer or not, Talcott repeated, “He said you can have it in person. Okay. We should be there shortly, sir.” Talcott hung up the phone and started the truck up again, continuing on the road to Hammerhead.

Chapter Text

“Will you stop that?” Gladio growled, slapping a hand briefly on Prompto’s mindlessly bouncing leg before returning to the steering wheel of his rather beat-up pickup truck. Prompto’s knee paused for a moment only to resume its bouncing a few seconds later. Gladio didn’t say anything this time, but his the way his hands suddenly needed to strangle the steering wheel spoke volumes. Ignis said nothing, but the the thinning of his lips betrayed his own irritation. Prompto didn’t understand how they could be irritated. Noct was back. Like back back, for real!

When Talcott had called and Ignis’s face had turned so pale, Prompto had stood ready to leave and help out, figuring something must have gone wrong. Less and less people were hiring chocobos so there were always a few available that he could take across country if needed and they could reach where Aranea’s airship couldn’t.

But when he had hung up, it wasn’t Talcott who they needed to meet, well not only him. “It’s Noct. He’s returned, and is on his way to Hammerhead to meet us,” was all Ignis had said. Chocobos wouldn’t be fast enough, they decided. Gladio had a pickup truck that had been fitted with daemon repelling headlights that the three of them could squeeze into. It would ensure a much faster, smoother trip out to Hammerhead.

And now they were nearly there. Prompto had butterflies drag racing around his stomach, he was so nervous. No, not butterflies, bees. Angry, aggressive bees. What if Noct had changed? What if he hadn’t? What if he didn’t remember them or something? What if he did, but didn’t like the changes they had all undergone in the last ten years? He knew they all looked different from that fateful day in Zegnautus Keep, of course they had. Ten years of hard living with no sunlight would change anyone. They all wore their hair longer - longer hair was warmer - both Ignis and Gladio had girlfriends and Prompto had become a chocobo rancher. But more than that, he still had his spinal implants that had never been able to be removed. Would Noct hate him for that? Think him not really human? Ignis had assured him, many times over the past few years especially in the beginning when he was adjusting to it, that that wouldn’t be the case, but still Prompto worried.

As the lights of Hammerhead began to come into view, Prompto felt his heart begin to pound loudly and he pressed a hand to his stomach, feeling as though he would be sick. Ignis must have heard something because he asked, “Do you have your tablets, Prompto?”

He shook his head. “Na, ran out of them years ago, never bothered to get more. There were people who needed them more than me, refugees and stuff.” Years ago, when Ignis had realised that Prompto’s hypervigilance was having a negative effect on his health, especially in large crowds, he had insisted on providing him with some anxiety medication. Prompto had hated the stuff - taking pills that changed the way he felt was too much like his early training - but they had helped. Still, when he started using the chocobos to rescue stranded refugees, he preferred to give them to them instead of taking them himself.

Ignis gave only a hum, but said nothing more.

“I’m fine Iggy, really. Just… nervous, you know? It’s been ten years. That’s a long time for anyone.”

“Of course. I must admit I am slightly apprehensive myself,” Ignis said.

“You’re both worrying over nothing. This is Noct we’re talking about,” Gladio said. “He’ll be the same ungrateful little shit he’s always been. I bet he’ll act like no time has passed at all and want to do nothing more than to spend the day playing King’s Knight.”

“I hope you’re right,” Prompto said, even though he himself doubted that would be the case at all. Too much had changed and nearly none of it good. There would be a lot to catch up on.

“‘Course I am,” Gladio retorted as he slowed approaching the gates at Hammerhead. Recognising the truck, they guarding hunters waved him through without issue and the three of them jumped out. Talcott’s truck was already there, which meant Noct was too.

And then Prompto spotted him, about the same time that Noct saw them. He was sitting at the table and chairs by the camper they had always stayed at, the same camper that Prompto had woken up in after being trampled by the Asherhorn what felt like a lifetime ago. The day his whole life had changed for the better. Seeing them, he smiled and stood.

Gladio strode forwards but Ignis and Prompto followed at a more sedate pace.

“Prom, what…” Ignis trailed off but Prompto understood what he was asking.

“Same height, but thinner. Not sickly, just more angular. He has a shadow of a beard, and his hair is longer, about your length but not styled. Wearing the same clothes as before. His eyes are the same though, still the same sparkling blue,” he described as Gladio swept his king up in a huge bear hug, lifting him and squeezing tight.

“Thank you,” Ignis said, his voice a whisper.

“Any time,” Prompto replied equally quiet; it was something the two of them had adjusted too. While there was a lot that Ignis was now able to do and tell without his sight, knowing what someone looked like without touching them was not one of them. And even though Prompto was sure Noct would let his old advisor run his hands over his face, it was still somewhat awkward for Ignis. Consequently, Prompto always stepped in whenever he could, as, he supposed, Aranea did when he wasn’t around.

The two of them approached a little more sedately than Gladio, Ignis because that was his nature and Prompto because he was still unsure of the reception he would receive. But Noctis just turned to then, smiling broadly, and said, “My friends. You're all here.” He rested a hand on Ignis’s shoulder, eyes sad for a moment, before they swept to Prompto who found himself nervously shifting back and forth on his feet.

“Of course we're all here,” Ignis said. “Why would you ever think otherwise?”

“It's just… Luna said…” Noct shook his head as he trailed off. “Everything is so different. Even you guys look different to what I remember.”

“You spoke to Luna?” Prompto asked, a little hope in his eyes as he looked around, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of her.

“Yeah, sorta. It's kinda hard to explain,” Noct said.

“Explanations can wait until we are inside, I think. It will snow again soon,” Ignis said.

“Anyone ever tell you you're creepy when you do that?” Gladio said.

“You do. Every time. Doesn't make me any less right,” Ignis replied.

“Doesn't make you any less creepy either,” Gladio retorted, though Ignis just smiled.

“Yeah, what's up with that anyway? Since when can snow make you cough blood?” Noct demanded as he led the way into the camper. At the top of the steps he turned to help Ignis only to have his hand swatted away irritably as Ignis climbed the steps without assistance. Prompto grinned worth amusement at the shocked look Noctis wore.

“Prompto, could you run out to the truck and get our bag? There are some things in there that Noctis needs to see later,” Ignis said instead of answering Noct's question.

“Ooh yeah, your mysterious super secret cache. Does that mean you'll finally let us in on what’s so important about it? And what it even entails?” he asked.

“Not if you continue to stand around asking silly questions. Get going or do you want to be put on oxygen again?” Ignis replied irritably, pointedly ignoring the snicker from both Noct and Gladio.

“Fine, fine,” Prompto replied wearily, stomping down the steps and out again.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct was unable to wipe the smile from his face as he sat at the camper's kitchen table, watching Ignis putter around just like old times, albeit with a little more touching.

“Does this snow really affect people so fast that Prom would be on oxygen after such a short time?” he asked.

“Normally no, but Prompto-”

“Was an idiot,” Gladio cut in over Ignis.

“Was in a predicament,” Ignis amended. “He was severely injured and caught out without a mask for several hours before Aranea and I were able to find him, and then another hour with just a makeshift bandage for a mask to get back to Lestallum. Add to that there was a shortage of oxygen cylinders at the time due to a recent refugee influx so by the time he got some, the damage was done. A perfect storm of circumstances if you will. It should have killed him, anyone else it would have, but we suspect his… ‘exposure’ to daemonic influences may have inadvertently built up his resistance to it.”

“So now instead of dying if only a little bit of the stuff tickles my throat I start coughing like a seventy year old smoker,” Prompto said as he climbed back inside the camper, shutting the door behind him and tossing the bag onto the table. “And Ignis is a worry wart who forgets that masks are a thing now,” he added with that familiar cheeky grin, waving said mask in the air to make his point.

“Because owning a mask served you so well last time,” Ignis said dryly.

“That was one time!” Prompto protested.

“What about the time you were supposed to be on a break and went on a hunt with me. Without your mask,” Gladio said.

Before Prompto could respond Ignis added, “Or the time you ran an egg to me because you were afraid it would hatch while you were out picking up refugees. Without your mask.”

“Or the time-”

“Alright, alright, you made it clear, I don't like masks,” Prompto cut in over the top of Gladio's latest addition.

Noctis laughed loudly, looking around at his friends, his brothers, with undisguised affection. “I missed this,” he said. And knowing what was to come made him all the more grateful that he had this time to enjoy before the end. “I missed all of you.”

“The feeling is entirely mutual, Your Majesty,” Ignis said quietly and, though he was the only one who spoke the words, the other two were also nodding in agreement.

The four of them sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, the only sound from within the camper that of Ignis’s cooking. Noctis watched him with unabashed fascination. When he had left, Ignis had barely been able to function on his own; his hearing had been showing signs of improving to make up for the loss of his sight, but he would still often stumble and was unable to do more than pour himself a drink without assistance. And now it was almost as though he could see as well as the rest of them.

“What are you making, Iggy? Learned some new recipehs while I was gone?” Noct asked, grinning at his fair impersonation of Ignis’s penchant for stating every time a new recipe idea occurred to him.

A single eyebrow rose above his glasses at Noct’s tone, but he answered anyway, saying, “A few, yes. Supplies have become hard to come by, as you would imagine, needing to rely on greenhouses for vegetables and a lot of the local fauna succumbing to the daemons. Fungi has actually thrived however, which is what this dish contains a lot of.”

Noctis threw his head back dramatically and groaned. “Mushrooms? Really? My first meal back in the real world and you have to feed me a fungus ? You know they grow between your toes, right?”

“Only if you don’t wash yourself properly,” Ignis shot back just as quickly.

Prompto snorted. “Got ya there, dude,” he said.

“Ten years and he's still complaining about eating vegetables,” Gladio commented.

“Ten years and I haven't eaten anything. I want a nice big fat garula steak,” Noctis said, almost drooling just thinking about that.

“I'm afraid that will be impossible. We haven't seen any garula in the wild for three years now,” Ignis said.

“You haven't eaten in ten years?” Prompto repeated, leaning his chin on his crossed arms on the table. “How are you even alive, man?”

Noctis shrugged a little uncomfortably. “I wasn’t exactly… real. I guess. I dunno. Suppose the Crystal’s energy maintained me or something. Didn’t even think to ask anyone while I was there. It wasn’t important.”

“Ask anyone?” Prompto repeated. Then he sat up straight suddenly. “Oh! You said you spoke to Luna?”

Noct smiled at his friend and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “She was able to manifest, I guess, inside the Crystal sometimes. She was the one who told me that you guys had all survived Zegnautus and were waiting for me to come back.” Prompto seemed to be hanging on his every word. Who would have thought the former Niflheim child-soldier defector would be so interested in the Oracle who was to become Noctis’s bride? But then he remembered, “Oh yeah, you can see her, can’t you? You said something like that, before the whole daemon swarm.”

Prompto grimaced at that memory and shook his head. “Not really,” he said. But instead of elaborating, his mouth clenched up and he looked out the window at the now-falling snow.

So much had changed, Noct found himself thinking as he watched Prompto close up. He had never really done that before, not with Noct. He may not offer up information about an uncomfortable subject, but he was always willing to discuss it if Noctis was the one to broach the subject. Now though, Noct wondered. Was that just his training in always responding to a superior with honesty? In which case he should be happy that Prompto no longer felt that urge. Or was it that he was no longer comfortable discussing anything with Noct as he had in the past?

Wanting to break the awkward silence, Noct started to speak of what he had experienced in the Crystal, of what he had seen and what he had learned. For now, he omitted what he knew of Ardyn’s origins (he didn’t know how Prompto would react to news of the man who had tortured him for so long) and he didn’t even think about his own impending death. There would be time yet for that to come. The evening (or at least he guessed it was evening? It was hard to tell in this constant twilight the world had become) passed easily enough after that. Noct was forced to admit that Ignis’s mushroom dish wasn’t all that bad, even if he did think it would be better with some kind of meat in it, and they talked of basic things like what each had been up to. He learned how Gladio had been heading up the Hunters with Cor and, of all people, Iris, how Ignis was essentially responsible for the survival of everyone in Lestallum which had become the main population hub since the daemons had taken over. And he learned how Prompto essentially ran a chocobo rescue group, not only looking after the birds as he had always expressed a love of doing, but also using them to find people who needed help and getting them to safety. When evening came, Noct was left laying in bed with the impression that he may be pulling his friends away from very important work and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that even as all of them reassured him that this was more important.

“I hope you’re right,” was all he said to that.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto couldn’t move his limbs of his own volition. He wasn’t restrained, but he was encased, head to foot, in metal. Cold, unyielding metal. He couldn’t feel anything except that metal, no brush of the wind, no touch of water, not even the walls he occasionally stumbled against. Nothing. Was he even human any more? Had he ever been human.

And then there was that voice. Ardyn’s voice. The chancellor, and his personal commander and tormentor.

“Oh would you look at that? Still no Noctis come to rescue you. Kind of sad, isn’t it? Not only that you need one of the enemy to rescue you, but that he clearly doesn’t care for you as much as you do for him.”

“Do you remember your friend Arvid? The perfect soldier that one. Or so he let you believe. He begged for it all to stop before the end.”

“Look at the terror in that child’s eyes. He looks like he’s just seen a monster. Oh, but of course he has, he’s looking at you. Kill him.”

And C1094 always obeyed. Nevermind that the child looked almost exactly as Arvid had when they were kids, he died just like the rest of them. A short scream, a squirt of blood and

Prompto was left gasping in bed covered in a cold sweat. A hand flung up and ran over his face and hair, feeling nothing but skin and scar ridges. No metal, no implants. No voices telling him to kill children. It was dark in the campervan and all too quickly all it reminded Prompto was the inside of a storage container. Kicking the blankets off, he rolled out of bed and stumbled out the door of the camper, only just remembering to grab the mask on the counter and fasten it around his face before heading out.

Out here, the air was bitterly cold, especially on his sweat-dampened skin, but it helped to shake the last vestiges of sleep. Hands in pockets, Prompto tilted his head up to stare at the sky. He missed the stars. He hadn’t even seen stars before he went out on that ill-fated assassination mission; he had rarely been allowed outside at night and even when he was, the lights of Gralea obscured the stars. The first time he had seen them, Arvid had been laying on the cold stone of the haven with him, both of them flat on their backs staring up at it with a wonderment. They didn’t even know what they were looking at - why would a Magitek Soldier need to know anything about astronomy? - all they knew was it was new and it was beautiful.

And then they had been reprimanded for staring at nothing instead of taking care of their gear.

It wasn’t until he had been accepted into the Prince’s group that he had been able to learn more and, surprisingly, it was Gladio who taught him. Ignis would sometimes pitch in with a comment and Noct sometimes with a smart arse remark, but it was Gladio who knew the names of the stars, and whether they were stars or planets or comets and it was Gladio who had woken him up in the middle of the night to watch his first meteor shower.

It had been years since Prompto had even seen a star, or even really thought about them. He had been too busy focusing on surviving. But maybe now that Noct was back things could be fixed and he could see them again. Things could be put to right and all the atrocious things his country had done could be corrected.

“Prom? You okay?”

Prompto’s back stiffened in response to Noct's voice behind him before he forced himself to relax. Noct was there, for real. He wasn't about to disappear as in one of his more common nightmares. He plastered a smile on his face and turned. “Yeah man, I'm fine. Just wanted a bit of night air, is all.”

“Nightmares?” Noctis asked, taking a couple steps closer, his voice serious, concerned.

Prompto sighed and have a short nod, looking away a little. “Haven't dreamt of that time for years and now the minute you're back, wham! Like a truck.”

“Prom, I'm… I'm sorry, I-”

“Don't,” Prompto snapped, talking over the top of him. He turned back to Noct and stepped in closer. “Don't,” he said again, softer. “Don't you dare be sorry. You weren't the one who did any of it, so you have nothing to regret. And if you're saying it cause you pity me then you can shove that up your arse as well.” Noct's lips twitched in a smirk at that. “It's done. It happened a long time ago. We've all moved on.”

Liar. If you'd moved on you wouldn't be so afraid of telling him that not all the implants were removed, the traitorous part of his brain whispered, but Prompto shoved that thought down ruthlessly.

“I can see that,” Noct said, his voice sad. “Ten years,” he trailed off with a disbelieving head shake. “It really doesn't feel that long for me. A month maybe, at the most. I thought I would be coming back to see you still, well, changed, and Iggy still struggling, and Gladio still pissed at the world. And instead I find… this. All of this,” he said, waving a hand to encompass all that was around them.

Prompto grimaced; when put like that it certainly did sound like it would be a lot to take in. “Don’t get me wrong,” Noct continued quickly. “I’m happy that things have worked out, that despite the whole world changing, the guys closest to me have come out on top. I mean look at you,” he said with a broad smile. “I wasn’t sure if I would ever see you out of that metal armour and now you’re free. How long did it take?”

“About a year,” Prompto replied. With an incline of his head, he started walking around the perimeter of Hammerhead and Noct walked alongside next to him. “Holly knew of a great surgeon, someone who didn’t insist I had to stay in a hospital to get it all removed. We lived at the Leville while it was being done. Iggy helped a lot.”

A hand clapped on Prompto’s shoulder. “I’m glad, really,” Noct said, and Prompto smiled across at him. “I wish I was there to help as well, but I’m glad you weren’t going through it alone. And I promise you, I’ll make Ardyn pay for what he did to you.”

“Counting on it,” Prompto said and he flashed Noct a grin. Finally, things were almost feeling like they were back to normal.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noctis was sitting at the camper table watching as Ignis cooked them eggs for breakfast. Gladio and Prompto were out for a morning run so it was just the two of them.

“You and Prompto had a rough night last night,” Ignis commented, his tone not a question.

Noctis rose a hand to the back of his neck; he should have guessed Ignis of the super hearing would have heard them. “You heard that, huh,” he said. “Yeah. Prompto woke with a nightmare, stepped outside to get some air and I followed to make sure he was okay. Do those still happen often?” he asked.

“I do not believe so,” Ignis replied. “Perhaps your reappearance awoke some long buried memories. He worked hard, for many years, to put what happened behind him and make a new life with his chocobos.”

Noctis grimaced to himself; he knew Ignis didn’t mean his words as a reprimand, but in many ways they felt it. “And then I come waltzing back and screw everything up again,” he said.

“It is only screwed up if things are not able to be fixed,” Ignis said as he placed a steaming bowl in front of him.

Noctis took a breath then said, “Yeah, about that-” but broke off suddenly when the door to the camper opened and Gladio and Prompto fell in, both grinning like boys and breathing heavily. The moment was lost then.

“Shower, then eat,” Ignis said sharply in a tone so reminiscent of the old days that Noct had to laugh.

“Dibs!” Gladio called, but Prompto didn’t even try to protest. His eye was caught by the books on the table.

“Where on earth did you find those?” he asked, picking one up. Reading the title, a blond eyebrow rose and he then he made an exaggerated yawn and dropped it back down.

“They’re Iggy’s,” Noct said, grinning at Prompto’s reaction, largely because it echoed his own when he first saw them this morning.

“Technically they are yours, Noct,” Ignis said as he sat down next to Noct. “They were taken from the royal archives in the Citadel after all.”

“Seriously? That’s what you brought back from that trip? You were only barely getting around on your own, and you bring Talcott along when he’s only a kid into that nest of daemons, for a couple of musty old books ?”

Noct rose an eyebrow; there was definitely more to that story based on Prompto’s reaction, but Ignis was as calm and collected as ever.  “The books, while interesting of themselves,” Ignis said, pointedly ignoring the undignified snort Noct gave at that comment, “are not the main reason I ‘liberated’ them from the archives. However, I believe this is a discussion we should have after you and Gladio have cleaned up and breakfast has been eaten.”

“Fine, fine,” Prompto replied, slumping back in the chair, only to get up when Gladio emerged from the shower.

“You’re having way too much fun with this,” Noctis commented.

“I get my entertainment where I can,” Ignis replied, a small smile on his face in response.

It wasn’t too long until all four of them were eating breakfast and Noctis pulled the first book towards him, glancing at the cover before flicking it open. “Early History of the Caelum Line,” he read. Then glanced up. “Wasn’t this one of those books you tried to get me to read that I just used to fall asleep to?”

“I am hoping you will be able to stay more awake this time around,” was Ignis’s response.

Noctis grinned then returned to the book, flipping through it, looking for what may have caught his advisor’s attention. Then he found it, a section of the book that had a loose leaf of paper in it covered with some handwritten notes. In a very familiar penmanship. He felt the blood drain from his face, a roaring sound starting up in his ears. “How… how did you find this?” he got out.

Gladio, frowning, reached across and pulled the book towards him where he and Prompto could see. Prompto merely glanced at it then returned his attention to his friend, clearly more concerned with his reaction than a written note he didn’t recognise, but Gladio immediately got the connection. “Shit, Iggy, and you just held on to this?” he said, sliding it back towards Noct.

“Until Noct came back, it meant nothing. Now that he has, however, I thought he would want to read what we found,” Ignis said, though Noct wasn’t paying him much attention. He was too busy reading what his father had written.

He swallowed thickly; his father had known. Dad had known and he hadn’t said anything. And he had lived with that knowledge since however long it was when he first heard the news. He was reminded suddenly of a time long ago when his dad had rocked up at the primary school Noctis had started attending. The king arriving at the school unannounced had caused a huge stir but all he had wanted was to spend the day with Noctis. It had been one of the best days in his memory, skipping school to just hang out with his dad. They had gone to the park, and the pet store where Noct had pined over all the puppies, to a diner where they had shared a huge plate of greasy fries, and then to the arcade where Noct had thoroughly beat his dad at Dance Dance Revolution. And then, exhausted from the day’s activities, he had fallen asleep in the passenger seat of his Dad’s car, the Regalia, surrounded by the warmth and safety of knowing that his Dad was right there.

No explanation had ever been given for that day, nor had it ever been repeated even for special events like birthdays. But now, in a freezing world surrounded by darkness and daemons, Noctis wondered if that was the day that his father had learned of his son’s fate.

“What the hell is this?” Gladio roared, his voice snapping Noct out of his contemplation. Gladio had slid the book back towards him after seeing that Noct had finished reading it and had clearly read it himself. “‘Noctis will die’? What the hell kind of sick joke is this Iggy?”

“It’s no joke,” Noct replied, his voice tight. Looking up he saw the barely contained rage in Gladio’s amber eyes, the hurt in Prompto’s blue ones, even the resignation in Ignis’s milky green ones. “Bahamut confirmed it. While I was in the Crystal. Ardyn is immortal, he can’t die by normal means. A millenia of absorbing daemons saw to that. I’m the only one who can defeat him, with the Crystal’s light in the ring and with the weapons of my ancestors. But that much power is too much for a mortal; wielding it will kill me.”

“Then don’t do it,” Prompto said, his voice cracking. “We can find some other way to defeat Ardyn, or contain him or something. Don’t… don’t throw your life away.”

But Noct was already shaking his head. “There is no other way. If I don’t do this, the skies will never clear, the sun will never rise again. And eventually the daemons will completely take over. I’ve already been gone too long, my absence costing too many lives. If one more death can buy life for thousands then I’m gonna do it.”

“You knew about this, and you didn’t say anything?” Gladio demanded of Ignis.

“I had hoped I would be able to find some more information about it first. Why bring it up until I had more facts? But all records of the prophesy tell of this cost of a life. What is especially interesting in these books however, are King Regis’s words. He knew of the prophesy and actively worked to change it. I believe that letter, journal entry, whatever it was, was specifically placed in that book for us to find. And it was in a section of an early king who bore the name Ardyn,” Ignis said.

“You did say he was immortal,” Prompto said. “And… while I was, well, with him he said he used to be a healer. And his strength was super-human. I didn’t think much of it at the time but now that you mention it.”

“It makes sense,” Noctis finished. “Somehow Luna found out about Ardyn’s past, she showed it to me, in a vision or a dream or something. He was a King, a long time ago, but was betrayed by his half brother.” Noct took a hold of the book, spinning it around so he could read it and skimmed the words. “Yeah, here. ‘Ardyn Lucis Caelum was declared traitor to his people and put to death. He was succeeded by his half brother Izunia Lucis Caelum.’ It’s Izunia’s line I’m directly descended from.”

“That’s something twisted, to take the name of the person who betrayed you,” Gladio commented, unknowingly echoing Noct’s very thoughts on the matter.

“Ardyn was put to death, only he didn’t die cause he was already immortal at that stage. If Dad put the letter here then he may have made that connection somehow,” Noctis said.

“It is possible,” Ignis said, though Noct knew from his tone that it was the same conclusion he had drawn. “The next book is not so easy to decipher, however,” he said and his hand found it unerringly and pushed it towards Noctis.

Taking a steadying breath, Noct opened it and flicked through the pages until he found his father’s handwriting once again. He read it, though had to pause when he got to the last part.

Noctis, if you are reading this, trust that I am doing all I can to counter the prophesy’s outcome. I love you, my son. And may the gods forgive me for what I am about to do.

Tears pricked his eyes. It was as though he were hearing his dad’s voice again through those words. Wordlessly, he handed the letter over to Gladio to read and instead looked at the book and the page that his father had marked. It was about time manipulation and whether it was possible to change the future by knowing what was to come and changing the past to suit. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t understand,” he said.

Ignis grimaced. “I had hoped you might know something else,” he said. “I have had Talcott read that book to me, cover to cover, several times over and that particular chapter even more times. But I do not know what connection your father was trying to make. I had hoped he might have said something to you, something that may make it clearer.”

Noctis shook his head. “No, nothing,” he said. “Though, knowing this now, the fact that my dad’s boat was waiting for me at Angelgard makes a lot more sense if he knew I would need it to return. I wonder what else he may have had a hand in.”

“Doesn’t make any difference if Noct’s still gonna die at the end,” Prompto snapped. Noctis looked up, eyes wide with surprise; he didn’t think he had ever really heard Prompto sound so angry or bitter before. “There’s no point to any of this,” he muttered before pushing himself up and storming out of the camper.

“Prompto,” Noct called and he stood to follow but paused when Ignis laid a hand on his forearm.

“Let him go,” he said quietly.

“But-”

“He just needs some time to process it. He’ll be fine,” Ignis continued, cutting off Noct’s protest.

Reluctantly Noctis sat down again and, with a sigh, pulled the philosophy book back towards him. If he couldn’t help Prompto, he could at least try and figure out what message his dad had been trying to give him.

Chapter Text

Prompto kicked a stone across the ground, watching as it skittered along to come to a sudden stop at the metal fence surrounding Hammerhead. Hands shoved into his pockets, he realised he was out without his mask again but just couldn't bring himself to care. So what if he died coughing up his lungs to this infernal ash? Everything they did, all they went through was for nothing!

Prompto ran his fingers over the chocobo case in his pocket, the unconscious grounding technique one he had never lost over the years. Noct was back. He was really, truly back, this wasn't just some messed up dream to taunt him. He was back and things were supposed to be becoming right again. Together the four of them were supposed to defeat the bad guys, watch the sun rise, then have a coronation ceremony for Noct. As officially King, Noct was going to make Prompto a Lucian citizen, they would rebuild Insomnia and all live happily ever after in the Citadel. If they couldn't have that what was the point of it all?

“Hey there, Sugar, could I get a hand with something in the garage?” Cindy asked from behind him, politely ignoring the way Prompto jumped at her voice and how his hand was yanked out of his pocket and away from his phone case.

“Ah, yeah, sure,” Prompto said, agreeing and following her even though he knew she didn’t really need help with anything in the garage. Cindy had warmed to him the last few years. The first time he had rocked up (well the first time without the Prince’s party to vouch for him) it had been leading a string of refugees, three of which, including a kid, were severely injured. Cid had wanted nothing to do with him, believing Prompto was the one who had caused the Lucian prince to disappear, giving in to his ‘Niff urges’ as he put it and betraying them all. Cindy was the only one willing to talk to him, to find out what really happened and, little by little, to trust him when he didn't have the others there to vouch for him. He was never allowed in the diner and Astrals forbid he even come close to the garage, but he could stay in the camper until the injured people were well enough to continue on to Lestallum. He began to make regular trips there and would help Cindy fix the hunter trucks that came in, eventually winning her trust.

Inside the garage was warm, the radiator against the wall running 24/7, and Prompto shed his jacket, dropping it over the back of a chair. Cindy handed him a piece of machinery and wordlessly Prompto began to pull it apart, cleaning each piece and laying it carefully aside in an order that made sense only to him. He could hear Cindy working under the truck behind him but there was no need for conversation; the two of them could work wordlessly like this for hours and having something for his hands to do was soothing. For a time at least he could focus solely and entirely on the metal in front of him.

 

-l-l-l-



It was with a sense of finality that Noctis led his Crownsguard out of Hammerhead and turned towards Insomnia. They had all been given new uniforms that apparently had been delivered to Cid around the same time Insomnia fell with a note from Regis that said only Please look after these until the they are needed. You will know when the time is right. Apparently that time was now. Somehow his father had known they would be here and would be heading into Insomnia, just the four of them. And somehow he had known that there would be four instead of three and known Prompto’s measurements. Noct had no idea how any of that was possible but after everything that had happened to date he just rolled with it.

They had opted to walk to Insomnia rather than take one of the hunter’s trucks and apparently chocobos no longer responded to whistles with all the daemons about. They had spent the whole ‘day’ walking with only minimal interruptions from daemons, unlike when Noct had first arrived in Galdin Quay. Not that he minded; the more time he got to spend with his friends the better. It may have been only delaying the inevitable but Noct could handle that.

Prompto not so much. Noct glanced behind him towards his friend but Prompto refused to meet his eye, staring determinedly off to the side. Noct wasn't sure what he could do. He had known his friends would be upset by the news of his impending sacrifice - hells, he was upset by it - but he had thought they would at least understand. And it seemed that both Ignis and Gladio did in their own fashion. They weren't happy that they would lose a friend but they accepted that as King it was Noctis’s duty to sacrifice himself for the greater good. It was already in his future if he had taken over maintaining the wall. Plus they had had ten years to adjust to life without their friend.

Prompto hadn't been raised with that expected outcome. He'd never even been allowed to have a friend, a proper, true friend. And, from what Ignis had told him, Prompto had used that friendship with Noct to maintain his sense of self after escaping from Zegnautus.

And now Noctis had returned only to inform him that he would be leaving again in a more permanent fashion. He understood Prompto’s reaction and it only made him want to spend as much time with him as possible before the end which was part of the reason behind the decision to walk to Insomnia. Though that was made somewhat difficult by Prompto trying to distance himself to protect himself from what was to come.

“Heads up, we got trouble!” Gladio called.

Trouble in this case was a pack (was pack the right word? Did daemons travel in packs?) of alvs and snagga. The others kept their preferred weapons on them after the last time Ardyn had blocked them but Noctis utilized a wide variety of arms, too many to keep on his person. As such he summoned his daggers from the ether and warped in. He went for the alvs first; those suckers could use magic and would devastate them if left alive too long.

Ten years of fighting daemons had honed all his companions’ fighting styles, making them much more refined than Noct remembered, their strikes stronger and more precise. But so too had the daemons gained in strength. Snaggas used to be no more than an annoyance. Now they were a real threat.

 

-|-|-|-

 

Prompto hung back on the edges of the battle picking off the daemons that posed the most threat to his friends with skillfully enough that he barely needed to think about it.

The whole thing, their entire situation, had a sense of finality to it, as if nothing they did would change the outcome of what was to come. It wasn't true, of course. Not entirely. Should they all just stop fighting right then and there they would die, and then the sun would never rise. Apparently.

Prompto rolled to the side, dodging two snagga and shooting them as he came to his feet again. He managed to banish one but the other just squealed and skittered away from him. He took the moment to assess how the others were doing. Noct was darting around the battlefield, barely pausing for breath between warps but easily the most effective person against such fast daemons. Gladio was, well, doing his best. His sword was really too slow to be particularly effective against these creatures but he was nonetheless devastating when surrounded. Ignis’s style had changed since losing his sight. Though still deadly with a pole arm, he preferred his daggers or, more specifically, throwing daggers. He now largely kept out of the melee fighting, only slashing enemies when they got too close, though right now he was standing still, an ear towards Prompto.

Then, “Prompto, behind you!” he called at roughly the same time as Prompto felt a burning pain down his back and heard the scrape of metal on metal. The force of the blow more than the cut made him fall forwards onto his hands and knees gasping for the breath that had been knocked out of him. Move. He had to move. Rolling to the side, he only just narrowly missed being skewered as the yojimbo (so that's what it was) stabbed downwards.

Getting his feet under him, Prompto lurched to his feet and started shooting the daemon, but it seemed impervious to his attacks, approaching slowly and relentlessly. Breath coming quicker (finally!) Prompto stepped back as well, only to go tumbling down again when his heel caught a rock, the back of his head meeting an outcropping of a much larger boulder. Stars danced before his eyes and the edges of his vision darkened. His mouth worked, trying to breathe, to scream, something, and he rolled over. The world spun and he felt his stomach rebell. Groaning he rested his forehead on the ground and squeezed his eyes shut. He had to move, he knew he had to move.

But then why bother? He had held out all this time, gone through all the surgeries and detoxing and finding a use for himself on the hope that there would be a life for him and his friends once Noct came back. And now Noct was back but instead of everything working out, it was all turning out crap. His best friend was going to die, the imagined life he had built for him and his friends had gone up in smoke, and who even knew if Noct dying would fix anything? Prompto certainly didn’t believe in prophecies or destiny. If this didn’t solve anything there really wouldn’t be a point.

He opened his eyes and remained where he was, waiting for the final blow to come. At least then he wouldn't have to witness it all, to pretend he was okay with it. The world roared in his ears, pain that wasn't pain enveloping his head, he could hear shouting but couldn’t make sense of the words. It was cold, it was always cold now, but there was a strange warmth as well. And a light, golden and gentle.

“Prompto. Don’t give up, Prompto.”

“Luna,” Prompto murmured, or thought he did, he wasn’t sure if he actually made any sound or not. “I’m tired of fighting,” he said, and he closed his eyes.

“I know, my dear. But we are near the end now. Soon the light will return and all will be well.”

“No it won’t. Noct will be gone. It can’t be well after that.”

“Do not lose faith, dear Prompto. I will not let Noctis fall.”

Prompto frowned at that and opened his eyes, but, as with his time in Gralea, he only caught the briefest glimpse of Luna before she vanished from his eyes. She wouldn’t allow Noct to fall? Did that mean that the prophecy was wrong? He would live? Or something else?

The thoughts were driven from Prompto’s thoughts as a fire raced through his veins. Burning, he was burning! Prompto screamed!

 

-l-l-l-

 

“Prompto's injured, we need to wrap this up!”

Noct heard Ignis’s voice carry across the fight, and the fact that there was no follow up comment from Prompto meant he was hurt bad.

“Not exactly out on a picnic here, Iggy,” Gladio replied, voice tight as he swung his sword in a wide arc. He nonetheless spared a glance back to check, and catching sight of the way Gladio's face tightened a little, Noct also looked their way. Just in time to see Prompto stumble backwards, his head colliding with the jagged outcropping of a boulder. He grit his teeth and sped up the ferocity of his attacks.

It wasn't too much longer till the daemons were dealt with, including the yojimbo that had downed Prompto.

“May have… warped a little too much there,” Noct said, staggering a little as he made his way over to his friends. “Ugh I think I'm gonna be sick.”

“Then do it over there,” Gladio said, giving Noct a light shove off to the side and away from him.

Ignis had his hands running lightly over Prompto's form, feeling for any injuries, but that wasn't what caught Noct's attention. Kneeling next to Prompto was Luna. Noctis started. She had the same glowing golden form she had had in the crystal. She looked up at him, smiled and held a finger to her lips, then faded from view.

“How bad is it?” Noctis asked, finding his voice again and pushing what he had seen from his mind to ponder later.

“Bad,” Ignis said shortly. “Prompto, can you hear me?” he asked, but the younger man have no response.

Ignis made a noise of annoyance. “Gladio, keep a watch for more unpleasant visitors. Noct, I need your eyes. His back wound isn't bad, it didn't cut deep. It's the head wound I'm concerned about.”

“Really?” Noct asked, surprised as he knelt down next to Prompto's prone form and began to look him over. “He didn't seem to fall that hard.”

“I can feel bone shards in his hair and I am afraid to press too solidly to feel more. He must have hit an outcropping of rock and his skull was already damaged from Ardyn’s ministrations. That healed but as all broken bones it is weaker than it should be. I need you to check it, to check his eyes, his-”

“Shit. Shit, shit shit!”

“Noct-”

“He's not breathing, Iggy!” Noct snapped. He reached into the ether and pulled a precious phoenix down. Without any thought as to the consequences of his actions, he placed it against Prompto and held his breath, hoping it wasn't too late. Phoenix downs were exceptionally rare, previously reserved only for the elite Crownsguard and Kingsguard, accessed only through the ether. They couldn't return life to someone who has died; once their spirit has completely separated from their body, it is too late. If administered fast enough, however, they could serve to harness the soul as it were, fasten it to the body while the worst of the life threatening injuries were healed.

For a moment, Noct feared it was too late, but then the feather seemed to be absorbed into Prompto and the telltale flames began to wreath his body. He sighed out his relief when Prompto began to scream even as he felt guilty for it; he knew from personal experience just how painful it was, feeling as though you were being burned alive. But if he could scream he would live.

“Thank goodness,” Ignis breathed, feeling the same relief.

Noct smiled tightly and ran his fingers through Prompto's hair soothingly, careful to avoid the wound of course, murmuring softly to him until he settled and his eyes blinked open.

“What the… the hells was that?” Prompto gasped, his eyes flicking from Ignis to Noct then squeezing shut.

“A phoenix down,” Ignis replied, only the slightest tremble in his voice the evidence that he had been as shaken by the whole thing as Noct was.

“Dunno what that is but… never do that again,” Prompto said, pushing himself to a sitting position.

Noct gave a short laugh, and quipped, “Then don't go dying on me.”

Instead of the expected response and laugh though, Prompto opened his mouth as though to say something, then closed it again only to mutter, “Right.”

Noctis frowned, concerned, but it was Ignis who spoke. “Regardless you’re not out of the woods yet. The phoenix down would only have healed your life threatening injuries, we shall have to use more mundane methods for the rest.”

“It’s nothing, just a scratch,” Prompto said, brushing it off.

“Prompto, you nearly died ,” Noct said.

“Yeah, but that’s fixed now, right? So it’s just the little scratch on my back, nothing to- OW!”

“Hurts, does it?” Ignis said mildly, his fingers pressing lightly on Prompto’s back.

“Sadist,” Prompto muttered, but Ignis simply smiled.

“Quit your whining,” Gladio finally piped up. “There’s a haven not far from here that mostly works. I say we pitch camp there, I can set up the tent and Noct can patch you up.”

Prompto accepted Noct's hand to help him up but when he said, “Iggy can do it,” and stumbled towards where Gladio was walking, Noct froze and stared, hurt blooming in his chest that he tried not to acknowledge.

“Iggy can not. Not if you would like to eat tonight,” Ignis replied, apparently not needing his eyesight to understand what was going on. Perhaps even more than Noctis did since he rested a hand unerringly on Prompto's shoulder and leaned in to murmur something that Noct couldn't hear in his ear.

He sighed and grit his teeth as he followed the others. There was something going on, something he wasn't privy to, and he didn't like it.

 

-l-l-l-

 

“It'll be fine, Prompto. He's more accepting than you're giving him credit for and you're his friend,” Ignis murmured in Prompto's ear, causing him to hunch his shoulders a little, ignoring the pain that caused in his back.

He wanted to believe Ignis, he really did, but he just couldn't silence that little voice in his head that kept saying “what if”. He was scared, terrified, that Noctis, the one who had trusted him all those years ago, stood up for him when no one else would, who had spared his life when he had no reason to and then taught him how to be a normal human, would see him as nothing more than a machine now. Before he had been human, trained since childhood to be a killer, yes, but still human. But after Zegnautus he wasn't human. He was part human, part daemon, part machine. The daemon was gone, expelled by his body's natural defences as soon as it got the chance, but some machine parts remained. Bad enough that they were walking his friend to his death, but if that was to be their final interaction? If Noct saw them and thought him as little more than an MT, then what? He bit back a groan; the whole situation was making his already throbbing head hurt all the more.

“Alright, spill. What's going on, Prom?”

Prompto jumped at the sudden voice and didn't answer, just balled his fists, lowered his head and kept on walking. His heart was hammering in his chest but he didn't dare look back, didn’t think he could handle the hatred and disgust that was sure to cloud Noct’s eyes.

“Prompto, stop!”

The order was given so forcefully that Prompto stopped walking before his brain even caught up that he was responding in the ingrained obedience that once used to control him. In a softer voice, Noct said, “What have I done to make you hate me like this?”

“Hate you?” Prompto repeated, shocked. Was that truly what Noct thought? “I don't hate you, I could never hate you. I just… it's… ugh! Just come on,” he eventually said, and he kept walking to catch up with the others. He would see soon enough and then, at least, Prompto wouldn't have to wait in fear of him finding out.

By the time they made it to the Haven, Noct was forced to hold Prompto's arm to keep him upright. That painful curative, whatever it was, phoenix up or something, may have brought him around but it did nothing for the pain. Made it worse, Prompto reckoned. He felt dizzy and sick and he just wanted to crawl into the tent and go to sleep but instead he was guided towards the fire Gladio had just made and sat down, back towards the flames.

While Ignis started cooking dinner and Gladio pitched the tent, Noct gently pulled Prompto's sliced shirt away from his back. Prompto grit his teeth and stared determinedly at the faded runes of the haven. He heard the indrawn breath, felt the hands freeze. He waited, waiting for the condemnation, the rejection, the declaration that he could never be friends with something like that, the-

“Oh, Prom, is this all you were worried about?” Noct said, his soft voice cutting over the inner monologue. His hands returned to what they were doing, moving the torn shirt aside and using a damp cloth to clean the blood away to better inspect the fresh wound. Prompto didn't answer the question, but he didn't seem to need to; as he had when they were traveling together, Noct seemed to always understand how he felt without him needing to speak the words. “You're still my friend, Prompto, my best friend. This doesn't change any of that, it's just another scar and we've all got plenty of them now.” Lightly he ran a hand over one of the plates and Prompto shivered. He couldn't feel it exactly, not in the traditional sense, but he was aware of it in a way that he couldn't explain. “Do they hurt you?”

Prompto shook his head. “Not,” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Not any more. They're just, they're fused to my spine so can't be removed.”

“Then you can probably thank them for protecting you from that sword slice, it's nowhere near as deep as it could have been because of them.”

“I’d rather not thank Ardyn for anything,” Prompto said darkly.

“Ah- of course not,” Noct hurriedly said. “I only meant-”

“I know,” Prompto cut in, feeling bad for making Noct uncomfortable so soon after he had just been so accepting of him. He half turned around to look at him and rested a hand on Noct’s forearm, giving it a squeeze. “Thank you,” he said, sincerely and, turning back around he pulled the ruined remains of his shirt over his head to better expose his back, including the full range of plates and previous scars.

Noct said nothing, merely continued to clean the wound then help him bandage it. What Noct had said wasn’t wrong, the plates had ensured the slice didn’t go deep. It probably should have been stitched but such skills were beyond Noctis’s ability, they were too far from a doctor’s and, while Ignis had managed to stitch him up before while blind, it had been somewhat poorly done and had to be redone when they had returned to Lestallum. Besides which, when push came to shove, none of them knew what would come when they returned to Insomnia. As much as Prompto would rather not think about it, he knew they had a job to do, the three of them. They had to get Noctis to the throne room alive. He hated it, hated every part of it, but what if his hallucination of Luna had spoken true?

I will not let Noctis fall she had said. Prompto still had no idea what he was seeing, both then and in Zegnautus. During the months of his surgery recovery he had discussed what he saw with Ignis at length. Ignis believed that it was a hallucination largely caused by the way his mind had fractured or splintered in order to deal with what he was going through. The way he explained it made sense, it still often felt as though there were two people inside his head: Prompto and C1094. But he hadn't had a reason for the same delusion to occur this time.

Maybe it was just a hallucination caused by his wish that somehow Noct would survive. But that just didn't ring true. There was one way to know though, there was someone else with them who had seen Luna, knew what she looked like when she appeared now, after her death.

“Hey, Noct, um…” He broke off with a hiss of pain feeling fingers in his hair, pressing lightly on his head.

“Sorry,” Noct apologised. “Looks like the phoenix down did a good job though. Can't see any more skull shards at least, and your words aren't slurring. Here.” He pulled a potion from the ether and handed it over. “This should help with the pain at least.”

“Thanks,” Prompto repeated, and he downed the option quickly, grimacing at the taste and turned around so he was actually facing the fire now. Gladio had finished setting up the tent and was reading one of his old novels by the fire light, letting Noct and Prompto talk quietly amongst themselves, giving the illusion of privacy. And Ignis was putting on the last of their dinner. It was just like old times. Peaceful and calm, even if there were more daemons hanging around. If he forgot about all their changes, forgot about his visions of Luna, he could almost pretend it was like that long ago time.

“What were you going to say, sorry?” Noct asked.

“Ah,” Prompto hesitated suddenly. What if it was just a hallucination and in speaking of it he gave false hope? Was false hope better or worse than no hope? “No, nothing. I've forgotten,” he eventually said.

Noct didn’t believe him, he could see that in the downturn of his lips, but he didn’t press and that was what was important. Prompto could live with the hope, he needed the hope. If it turned out to be a false hope, then he would just deal with that at the time. Or, more likely, not deal with it at the time and completely fly off the rails. But that was then, and this is now. Noct had accepted his fate, it wasn’t for Prompto to perhaps falsely make him think he could change it. For now, he would just enjoy what they had while they had it.

Chapter Text

The four men, brothers in arms if not in blood, stood at the entrance to Insomnia, looking out over the darkened destroyed city that was to be a salvation to some, but a tomb for one. Ahead of them lay combat, struggles, and daemons aplenty. But behind them lay everything else that led them here. All the good times, the exploration, the joking, the fishing and relaxing. And all the bad times, the fighting, the heartache, the pain, injury and death. All of it led them here. To now. To this city ready to claim it all back.

“So. This is Insomnia, huh?” Prompto said, looking out over the destroyed city.

“It was,” Gladio did, his voice dark even as his eyes were sad.

“And shall be again,” Ignis added.

“Come on,” Noct said, his own voice giving away nothing of his emotions as he led the way through the outskirts of his ruined capital.

Prompto looked around as they walked. If he was perfectly honest, this part of the city at least didn't look all that special. Certainly not enough to warrant the prolonged war. If he imagined the buildings whole, it didn't look all that different to Gralea, he thought. More glass (well judging by the shattered remains) and less steel than his own home city but still very much the same.

He glanced at his sombre friends. This was their home. He tried to imagine what out must feel like but he just couldn't. Prompto had never felt any kind of attachment to any one place. Attachments of any kind were not so much forbidden as used against you if found out when he was growing up. Ignis had once described having a home as feeling comfortable and at peace. And after joining up with Noct, he felt the most comfortable, the most at peace when he was in the company of his friends. That could be a hotel room, a cramped tent, or even just a wet, dirty cave. So Insomnia the city meant nothing to him.

Insomnia the idea, however, Insomnia the goal. That meant everything. That meant a new life, a new beginning, and a chance to make things right. As long as he could keep Noct alive, Prompto thought, glancing across at his best friend.

Moving through the city, they were forced to fight a lot of daemons, a lot of former citizens who had eked out a living and later turned. For the most part they could handle them easily enough and, when they found an entrance to the subway that hadn’t collapsed they had an easier time of it.

“It may be worn down, but it’s still the same,” Noct said, looking around as they strolled through the echoing tunnels.

“Just like I remember,” Gladio added.

“Always did come in handy,” Ignis mused.

“For what?” Prompto asked, curious. Surely being either royal or heavily involved with the royalty they could have just drove everywhere.

“I seem to recall a certain young prince fading into the anonymous crowd to go sneaking off to arcades and diners in order to avoid his studies,” Ignis replied and Prompto grinned at the image. Maybe his childhood and Noctis’s had more in common than he thought since he also enjoyed sneaking off to explore. At least until he had gotten caught.

“Yeah, but then it used to be filled with people,” Noct said.

“It will be again, I’m sure of it,” Prompto said, trying to remain positive and from the small smile Noct gave it was worth it..

Emerging from the subway a mere block from the citadel, Prompto was finally starting to see the beauty of the city that Ignis had once described to him. Yes, the buildings were still in ruins, there was glass and broken concrete everywhere smashed and abandoned cars, even what looked like a few skeletons with the remnants of what was probably clothing. Enough remained of the city though that Prompto could mentally reconstruct what it must have once looked like. One day, he thought, those buildings would be rebuilt. The barren garden beds would be full of flowers once more, the cracked fountains would be repaired and have crystal water flowing from them. He could see it all, but he wanted Noct to see it too.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Making their way through the city felt surreal to Noct. Everything was like he remembered and yet at the same time everything had changed. It was nice, in a way, that he got to return home before the end. It felt as though it brought his whole journey in a full circle. A pity he wouldn't get to see it all rebuilt but at least this was something. It made the impending end just that little bit easier.

And it was hard. Every step forward felt more weighted than the last. After all they had gone through for it to end like this? He had left to get married, for Astral’s sake! A sort of bachelor party road trip. When he returned to his city it was supposed to be with a bride. He was supposed to return with Luna, then the two of them would be officially recognised, his father would step down as king and Noctis would step up to take his place, with Luna, his oldest friend and closest confidant, as his queen at his side. And although his friends had had an extra ten years to get used to the idea that it had all gone wrong, Noct still felt twenty years old.

His body definitely didn't feel twenty though, he thought ruefully as he absently rubbed his knee, the genetic degeneration bothering him more now than it ever had. His father had even foreseen that, however; his raiment was complete with a knee brace like his father had worn and it fit perfectly. A fact he was ever more grateful for as they fought daemon after daemon, drawing ever closer to the Citadel.

“This place could be really nice. You know, without the whole daemon infestation sense of style,” Prompto said as they approached the large wrought iron and gold gates.

Noct smirked. “Trust me, the daemons will be the first thing to go. Just for you, of course.”

“Thanks buddy, appreciate you looking out for me like that. We don't want my new home to feel too much like my old one after all.”

Noct chucked at that. It all felt… so normal, joking about stuff like this with Prom. His mirth soon faded, however when he saw what was waiting for them beyond the gate.

“This looks like trouble,” Gladio said, reading his sword as Noct pushed the gate open.

“What is it?” Ignis asked.

“Ardyn,” Gladio replied, his voice dark.”And some kind of daemon with him.”

“That's not a daemon. Not yet anyway,” Prompto said, his voice tight. “He… he used to show me his experiments, his toys. This is-”

“Ravus?” Noct cut in, recognising the shambling form before them.

“What?” Ignis demanded sharply. “I thought he was dead. The video showed him dead.”

“The video showed him fall, not land,” Gladio countered, both of them being careful not to mention that it was Prompto who had shot Ravus, knocking him over the ledge. “He was going to return His Majesty's sword,” he said, looking expectantly to Noct.

“Yeah he was there with his sword. I thought he was dead, but I didn't pause to check,” Noct said, his voice a little rattled. If he had checked, if only he had made sure-

“It's not Ravus any more,” Prompto said, cutting through Noctis’s thoughts and readying his gun. “Those things, they're just monsters now. No humanity left. The kindest thing is to kill 'em.”

Noct glanced across at Prom as he said that - his voice sounded so cold, yet knowing; he was sure there was a story there - but then back to both Ardyn and Ravus, leading the way forward.

“Your Majesty,” Ardyn called out, spreading his arms wide to encompass the Citadel’s courtyard with his usual flare for dramatics. Noctis frowned; he thought he saw movement in the shadows behind Ardyn, but he couldn't be sure. Ardyn gave him no chance to consider further. “Your precious throne awaits you. To liven things up, I thought I’d take you on a stroll down memory lane. Of course, memories decay with time and it has been ten long years.”

A rasping voice sounded from the husk that was Ravus. “Kill me… End it…”

“You bastard,” Noct muttered and he drew his blade, throwing and warping to it, towards Ravus. It didn't matter that he had never liked the man, nor that he had seemed to be working against them at every turn, no one deserved what Ardyn had done to him.

The fight, as it turned out, was more of a battery than something that required skill and precision. Whatever Ardyn had done to Ravus had made him physically stronger and able to withstand their attacks but it had also slowed him. But batter they did, knowing they had to win for the sake of everything they loved.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto lowered his gun as the body of the monster Ravus had become began to fade away in wisps of black smoke. He watched, trying to ignore the small voice in his head that said that could have, should have, been him.

The sound of a slow clap made Prompto look up.

“Such an ignoble end to the Flouret line,” Ardyn declared, clapping twice more before allowing his arms to drop to his side.

“Ardyn!” Noctis growled but as he made to charge the man, Ardyn held up a finger. From the shadows behind him a figure darted forward to stand in front of Ardyn, arm blades held before him, ready.

“Ah ah ah, not so fast,” Ardyn said in that tormenting sing-song tone. “You wouldn't want to have the desert before enjoying all the main courses I have worked so hard to prepare for you. This one, in particular, should be a lot of fun.” His amber eyes shot to Prompto. “Right, C1094?”

Prompto stared. The one in front of them, the MT unit, was small, a child still and not yet fully changed. But he had the same implants and the same arm blades that Prompto had when he had got out of Zegnautus Keep. But, the was more.

The MT child had his face.

It wasn't exact, of course. For a start he had the red eyes Prompto hadn’t been cursed with for years now, and there were scars on his face that Prompto also didn’t have. But that was where the differences ended. It was easy to imagine himself looking like that and perhaps that’s how he had looked after some of the Inurement sessions.

As he stared, more children emerged from the shadows, six in all, and all of them wearing a younger version of Prompto’s face. Clones. They were clones.

“Gods,” Noct muttered, a horrified look on his face.

“Aren’t they beautiful? Young still, of course, but no less deadly. These are the cream of the crop. The creme de la creme as it were. Family,” Ardyn said, looking directly at Prompto as he said the final word.

Prompto swallowed and closed his eyes. He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t . But he could. He knew he could because he had done it before. When he opened his eyes again his face was still, blank and cold.

“What is it?” Ignis asked, his voice quiet, knowing that, somehow, this was worse than whatever had befallen Ravus.

“MT units,” C1094 answered, before anyone else could. “Rushed through their training. There are six of them.” He rose his gun and fired in a fluid motion. The bullet struck home, a small hole in the forehead and a large one at the back of the head and the child fell to the ground. “Five.”

“Prompto!”

“What the hell?!”

Both Noctis and Gladio shouted at him simultaneously, but they didn’t get much more of an opportunity to do or say anything else as the bullet signaled the others to surge forward, to attack. The others took up defensive stances, Gladio abandoning his sword entirely in favour of his shield, Noctis using his sword to block any attacks coming their way, and even Ignis wasn’t actually striking out, merely dancing out of the way whenever an MT came close. With a growl of frustration C1094 realised it was up to him, only he was able to see them for what they were: rushed MT units that should never have survived in the first place. They were not children to be pitied, they were a threat. So it was up to him to fire his gun, fatally shooting them one by one.

So focused on the blonde MT’s as he was, he didn’t hear the one that came up behind him, a weight slamming into his newly stitched back and knocking him to the ground. There was pain, but C1094 didn’t notice it as he rolled over to face this new threat.

“Prompto.”

He froze and stared. This one was different to the others, dark hair and a smattering of freckles, very few scars. He sat across C1094’s hips, leaning forward, staring into his eyes. And when he spoke it was painful, physically painful in his chest even though there were no injuries.

“Prompto. Remember your name, Prompto, don’t let them take it.”

Prompto stared up at the boy on top of him, his throat feeling tight. “Arvid,” he choked out. There was no way. It was impossible! Arvid was dead, Prompto had seen him die, had seen his body, had looted his body for supplies. And Arvid had been older, nineteen. This boy was no more than twelve or thirteen.

But it was Arvid. That was his voice, his words, and his touch as he reached forward to brush some of Prompto’s hair from his face. That was what he always did when Prompto came back from Inurement lost within himself. And that was Arvid’s smile, the same smile he always gave when he succeeded in reminding Prompto of who he was.

And then the smile faded, and hatred shon in his eyes. “You killed me,” Arvid said.

“What? No, I-” Prompto started, but he was cut off.

“I was hurt and you left me there to die under that baking sun. I gave up everything for you and you left me for dead!”

Tears pricked as Prompto shook his head. He didn’t! He couldn’t have, could he? He was sure Arvid was dead, Noct’s blade had sliced through his throat. But then, what if Arvid’s inurement had protected him against something like that? Was it possible? Had he left his first true friend to die?

“I-” he started, but his own throat closed up, cutting himself off.

“And now. Now you will pay for that betrayal!” Arvid growled with an anger he had never shown towards Prompto before. He raised his fist, bladed arm pointing directly at Prompto’s chest, unwaveringly above his heart. Prompto closes his eyes to wait; if he really did abandon Arvid, abandon his friend, then he deserved this.

The splash of hot blood on his face without the expected pain causes Prompto’s eyes to shoot open to be met with the view of Arvid starting down in shock at the lance pierced through his chest, his eyes slowly glazing over.

“Iggy,” he whispered, his voice choked as he started up at his friend. Ignis, moved his lance to the side, pulling Arvid's body off of Prompto then sent the weapon to the ether, job done.

Ignis held a hand out which Prompto took and was pulled to his feet. He looked down at the crumpled body then determinedly away. He didn't let go of Ignis's hand just yet, needing the touch of something familiar, something that was just Prompto .

“Prom, you okay?” Noct asked, jogging over with Gladio.

Gladio clapped a hand on Ignis's shoulder as Prompto answered. “Yeah. Yeah I'm fine,” he said, taking a deep breath and forcing himself to believe it, to push away everything that had just happened.

They didn't get a chance to do or say anything more, however before Ardyn spoke up again, his voice easily carrying across the courtyard. “Oh well done,” he called. “Encore, encore! And I believe I have just the thing. Ifrit, the Infernian. He seems a little impatient with your unwillingness to die and doesn’t share the Glacian’s fondness for mankind. But you can expect a… warm welcome.”

“This guy thinks he’s so fucking hilarious,” Gladio muttered.

Already the air around them began to heat up dispelling the normally chilled atmosphere and Prompto quickly checked and reloaded his gun. This fight was going to be tough.

“I shall await you above,” Ardyn called as he turned with a wave and ascended the stairs.

“Stay cool guys; he’s gonna bring the heat,” Noct said.

Prompto smirked even as Ignis groaned at the terrible joke, but they each spread out, ready to take on this new and hopefully final threat before dealing with Ardyn once and for all.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto rests his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. That was… intense. It was the first astral they had fought that he had been there for the whole fight and damn how did Noct do it? He straightened and looked over to him when he heard Shiva’s voice speak in some kind of unintelligable language, though Noct gave a single nod to her words.

“What did she say? You looked like you understood her,” Prompto asked.

“Told me to bring back the Light,” he replied.

“That’s a lot of words just to say that,” Prompto said, not really believing that was all she said.

“There was more, but it’s not important,” Noct replied. “What’s important is that we deal with Ardyn.”

“That’s our next stop,” Gladio said.

“On we go,” Ignis said.

Prompto frowned, not liking Noct not telling him what was said, but followed regardless; it wasn’t as though he could force his friend to say.

Approaching the doors of the Citadel, Prompto craned his head up, taking in just how tall the building was. He couldn’t tell if it was as tall as Zegnautus Keep or not, probably not, but it was definitely more beautiful even damaged as it was. What it must have been like to live here, to grow up here.

“At long last. The Citadel,” Ignis said, echoing Prompto’s thoughts.

“The throne room is… just up ahead,” Noct said, his voice soft, sad.

Prompto reached out to rest a hand on Noct’s shoulder, reassuring him that they were there at least, they would stay with him. He was rewarded with a small smile and a nod before Noct pushed the doors open and took a few steps in before stopping and staring.

The entrance hall was just as stunning as the outside of the building was, all tall columns and marble floors (albeit cracked and damaged). Everything in black and gold, official the colours of the Lucian monarchy. But more than that all the lights were on.

“It’s all lit up,” he said. “But there’s no generator sound.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me if the electricity still works here. There’s just too many daemons to warrent people coming here to use it,” Ignis said.

“Guess he turned the lights on for us, expecting company,” Gladio said.

“He wants this as bad as we do,” Noct said.

“You think the elevator’s working?” Gladio asked, leading the way to it.

Prompto followed and looked at it. The arrows and lights were flashing. No red lights that he was used to indicating there was a problem. Of course whether elevators worked differently in Insomnia compared with Gralea he had no way of knowing, but an elevator was an elevator, right? He pushed the Up button and the doors opened with a ding. “Looks like it,” he said.

“He really is taking us by the hand. I don’t trust it,” Ignis said.

“Me neither, but it’ll save our legs the walk,” Noct said, absently rubbing his knee as he leaned against the elevator’s wall.

Gladio pressed the button for the throne room and the doors shut. Prompto instinctively backed himself into a corner, making the small enclosed space feel bigger than it was. Nevermind that the elevator was way bigger than a storage container, it was still cramped and enclosed. And Gladio wasn’t exactly small. It didn’t take long though for the elevator to stop, ding again, and open its doors. But still no one moved. Now that the time had come, to face down Ardyn and knowingly walk their friend to his death, no one wanted to take the plunge. Even Noct, for all his determination and bravado earlier, was clenching and releasing his fists, trying to convince himself to just move forward. Prompto bit his lip and looked away.

“The throne room waits outside,” Gladio said, prodding but not with any real force behind his words.

“Yeah. And so is Ardyn,” Prompto said, bitterness creeping into his voice.

“Acting like he owns the place,” Gladio added. Prompto glanced to the larger man and grimaced, catching on. Right, they were supposed to be supporting Noct, reassuring him, convincing him to do what needed to be done.

“It’s time to take it all back,” Ignis said, joining in. The two of them had been trained since childhood for this, each knowing almost on an instinctive level now what Noct needed to be pushed to do what was required of him. Prompto hadn’t and he hated what they were doing.

But then, he was sure, so did Gladio and Ignis. Just as they had been trained since childhood to do this very thing, they had also been with Noct since childhood. It had to be hard for them too. Prompto resisted the urge to sigh when Noct took a deep breath and let it out slowly, steadying himself before stepping out of the elevator into the throne’s receiving room.

“Remember how nervous we were before King Regis the day we left?” Gladio said, a hint of a smile playing about his lips.

“That was the last time we were in here,” Ignis said.

“Feels like forever ago,” Noct added.

Prompto remained silent, not really having anything to say. He never got to meet Noct’s dad, if he even would have been willing to meet him given his background, but he had heard stories of the man, both as a dad, a boss, and as a king. And he had seen pictures, of course, during his general briefings on the enemies of Niflheim. Looking around, it was easy to imagine them all here, dressed in their fancy kingsguard uniforms that they were wearing, the room bustling with people anxious to have a meeting with their king. He wanted to see it back to that, wanted to see what it was, what it could be. And he wanted Noct to see it too.

At the large double doors to the throne room, Noct hesitates.

“Well. Shall we, Noct?” Ignis asked with a false sense of bravado that Prompto was able to see through easily.

“Yeah but, ah, hold on a sec,” Noct said, turning to face them. “Prompto. Can I see your photos?”

“Um, yeah, sure,” he said, surprised by the request.

“I just need one. To… take with me,” Noct said, meeting Prompto’s eyes briefly before looking away.

Prompto felt that like a punch to the heart. A photo. A final photo to take with him. To the grave. Blinking rapidly to keep the threatening tears at bay, Prompto said, “Oh… yeah, I get it. You can take whichever you like.” He swallowed hard. Strong. He needed to be strong. For Noct. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope that was filled with printed photos. Before they had left Hammerhead, Prompto had shown Noct the print room he had set up in a broom closet in Cindy’s garrage. He had printed a few photos to try it out and brought them with him, though he left the camera behind, not wanting to risk it. He handed it over to Noct, who took it with a nod and started flicking through them.

Prompto watched the play of emotions over his best friend’s face as he looked at them all, each one triggering a memory of his own. Most of the time there was a sad smile, perhaps a comment here and there remembering. But then Noct smirked.

“Really? You printed this one?” He asked.

Prompto looked over and couldn’t resist the snort of laughter. Gladio leaned over to view what was so funny and his eyes widened. “You little shit! You told me you deleted it!” he growled.

“Um, I lied?” Prompto tried.

Ignis, despite not being able to see the photograph in question, was smiling but, best of all, Noct was laughing. It was worth it, Prompto thought, just for that alone.

“I think I’m taking this one,” Noct declared.

“No way! Gimme that!” Gladio snaps, snatching the photo out of Noct’s hands and shoving it into his own pocket. “Pick another.”

Noct was grinning as he turned his attention back to the photos. His mirth faded, but the set of his shoulders was more relaxed and eventually he settled on one of the four of them together in front of the Regalia.

“Can’t beat that. A shot of all four of us together,” Gladio said approvingly.

“Five,” Noct said. Prompto peered at it, half expecting to see Gentiana photobombing it, but there was no sign of her. “It’s silly but I kinda felt like dad was with us with the Regalia. It was his car after all.”

“Five of us,” Prompto agreed with a nod.

“Through it all, we had each other,” Ignis said.

“Then it’s settled. That’s the one? No backsies?” Prompto asked.

“Yeah. That’s the one. Thank you, Prompto,” Noct said before turning and pushing the doors open while he still had the courage to do so. He only took a few steps in before freezing though, a look of horror spreading over his face.

Stepping to the side so he could see around Noct’s back, Prompto’s own eyes widened in shock at what he saw. Ardyn was lounging on the throne, acting for all the world like he belonged there, and the Crystal was mounted behind him, dim and inactive, nothing more than a hunk of rock now. But that wasn’t what drew all their attention.

Suspended from the ceiling was four bodies. Prompto recognised 3 of them - King Regis, Emperor Iedolas, and Luna. The fourth was a Kingsglaive he didn’t know but the others seemed to recognise him judging by their reactions. And yes, he could hear Gladio describing it quietly to Ignis, naming the unknown man as Nyx Ulric. Ignis’s face seemed to darken slightly with each name and he reached out to rest a reassuring hand on Noct’s shoulder.

“It’s not real. It’s impossible,” Prompto said, his voice firm. “I saw Luna’s body, Noct, back in Altissia. That can’t be her.”

“Yeah… yeah…” Noct said, but he still was unable to tear his eyes from them. Prompto saw his adam’s apple bob slightly as he swallowed.

Through all this, Ardyn watched them. Leaning back in the throne, he said, “I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The throne brings you here?” He laughed. “It seats only one.”

Prompto’s eyes narrow, hatred for the man simmering just below the surface. He knew he was only saying those things to rile Noct up - in the past ten years that Noct has been gone, never once did Ardyn make any claim on the throne. Noct knows it too, and he doesn’t rise to the bait, instead saying only, “Off my chair, jester. The king sits there.”

“Ardyn sits the throne?” Ignis asked quietly.

“Not for long,” Noct replied.

Ardyn, meanwhile, had stood and slammed a foot onto the throne’s seat contemptuously. Even from where he stood, Prompto could see the anger, the fury at those words and he had to fight the instinct to shrink back from it. And if what they found in that book was true, that Ardyn really did used to be king before he was usurped, Prompto could almost understand that anger. Almost.

“Oh Noct. how I have waited for this. Longer than you could ever know,” Ardyn said, his voice back to silken honey once more.

“I know,” Noct said. “I know all about your time as king. How you were usurped by your brother and then set on a path of vengeance. I know how you were Luna’s ancestor and how you used your oracle abilities to grow stronger with the daemons you absorbed. I know it all. But your time is up. You should have been dead a millenia ago and now I am here to right that mistake.”

“Mistake?!” Ardyn roared furiously. Then he seemed to calm like a switch was flipped, and he laughed a little. “Tonight, the dreams of the blood royal come to an end.”

Even Prompto could tell how ambiguous that was - did he mean Noct’s dreams or Ardyn’s own? - but that was as far as he got before Ardyn’s arm shot out, throwing purple-blackness at them, one of which struck Prompto, coiling about his neck, tightening. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe! Mouth open, trying to suck air in, nails clawing at his throat, Prompto dropped to his knees then his side as his ears roared and the world grew dim. As darkness closed in around him, he saw Noct leaning over him, shouting. Then nothing.

Chapter Text

Noctis Lucis Caelum was floating. Or he wasn't. He existed but he didn't. He was blind but he could see. Everything was a contradiction and yet everything aligned perfectly. It made sense even as it didn't.

He saw or was shown his father (and yet not his father) going against the gods’ wishes, and fulfilling their desires. He saw loops and twirls and changes, wheels turning, following a rut, repeating history over and over and over and… He saw a wedge lodged in the rut, throwing the wheel out, changing it, changing history, changing the future.

And yet not.

He could see his friends entering the throne room, all three crying as they beheld his impaled body, Ignis with his hand on Prompto’s shoulder, for support. No, to hold him back. No, Prompto wasn't there at all, he never existed, never joined their party, was just another nameless MT killed in action.

Only two entered the throne room, the shield and the blind man. One was howling his rage, the other stonily silent.

The shield entered the throne room. Alone, the sole survivor of a world gone mad. He took his own life - a shield should never outlive his king. No, he began the work of rebuilding alone. No, Ignis was there, organising and coordinating, describing in meticulous detail how the Citadel was to look. It should be a monument to the past. No, it should be designed for the future. No, it should be abandoned and built elsewhere away from the memories.

Prompto was helping to rebuild, to clear the rubble. No one knew he was from Nifleheim,everyone accepted that he was a Lucian. No, word got out that he was a rogue MT, he was killed and his friends couldn't stop it. No, his friends refused to stop it. No, they sheltered him and hid him away and no one found him. No, no one ever learned the truth and he was accepted into the honourary Crownsguard. No, everyone learned the truth but he became a symbol of the peace, of what could be achieved with true and lasting peace.

“All of these pasts, all of these futures, all of these possibilities, and I only wanted one thing out of them. For you to remain my son, and live a full and happy life.”

Noctis’s body was lying in a crypt of his own, built by his people, directed by his friends. People visited daily, then monthly, then yearly, then once in a lifetime, then not at all as the crypt lay forgotten, falling into ruin. No, Noct never made it to the throne room, the daemons of the world, powerful beyond recollection, devoured him and he had not the royal arms to save himself. No, he volunteered to change places with Prompto,to become the monster so he could know a free life. No, he set off alone but met an ignoble end in a car accident. No, he never left Insomnia and died when rubble fell on his head. No, his back, he was paralyzed. No, he left Insomnia early but was captured by the Empire, held for ransom, and was responsible for the utter destruction of his home and people.

“It took countless attempts and may yet take more. Are you happy, Noctis?”

Happy? Yes, he was happy. And sad. And lost. And elated. And ambivalent. And depressed. And content. And…

“Noctis, you must focus.”

Luna. He and Luna were to be married, but she died in Altissia from Ardyn. No, she died in Altissia after forming the covenant with the Hydraean, her body unable to take any more. No, she died in Insomnia, her body cradled by the Kingsguard Nyx Ulric who had taught Noct to warp. No, she had died in Tenebrae as a child, her body burned. No, she had lived in Tenebrae but her body was badly burned, disfigured, no, her and Noctis had never met, but she fell in love with a Kingsguard named Nyx Ulric, no, her and Noctis succeeded in overthrowing the Empire together and they wed. She died in childbirth, no from an assassin’s blade no from old age-

The infinite possibilities of all pasts and futures spun away from him, plucking at his very being, drawing him away, apart, tearing at the seams. And then he was enveloped by a golden warm light that was at once bright and loving and dark and vengeful. It held him tightly and loosely and gathered him up, collecting what had spun away.

“Noctis, Noctis,” her voice said, repeating the word over and over as she pulled at him, reined him in. “Noctis, focus on your sense of self, on who you are.”

Noctis. Yes. That was what he was called. Noctis. Noctis Lucis Caelum officially, or Noct unofficially, or Princess if Gladiolus wanted to get a rise out of him, or Drama Queen if Ignis was growing frustrated with him, or Sir if Prompto needed him in that role. He was prince, and king, and friend, and commander, all rolled into one, he was that and that was him. “Yes,” he said with words that were not words.

Another familiar voice, male this time, asked him again, “Are you happy, Noctis?” Regis, the man who was his father and not his father, who raised him and didn’t. He needed to know, it was important, that was the only certain thing. “This loop, this rotation. Are you happy with it?”

This loop. It was the most recent. The threads lit up showing him without showing him what it was that had happened. Learning about the attack on Insomnia, longing to charge it but knowing it would be pointless. Losing his father. Fighting the MTs and sparing Prompto. Becoming friends with Prompto. Gathering royal arms and forming covenants with astrals. Ignis losing his sight, Luna losing her life, Prompto losing his sanity. So much was hard and painful. He hated it.

But so much was good as well. Watching Prompto learn to become a person, to thrive out of the Empire’s oppression. Seeing Ignis’s face light up when he finally mastered the Tenebrae tart from Noct’s childhood. Witnessing Gladio’s pride at how Noct handled himself when facing down Deadeye. Exchanging letters with Luna in the notebook. He laughed and shared relaxing evenings with his friends. They had grown so much more comfortable with each other, each a part of the other. All in all, this cycle had been good, and they had succeeded. He knew it would take countless more cycles to improve upon it and even then they may never succeed, this may be the best they could get and still banish the daemons from the world.

In the end, Noctis Lucis Caelum, King of Light, knew that this was it, the final cycle. There needed to be no more. His father could rest. “Yes,” he said. “Let it be done.”

His father’s face smiled before him, relieved and pleased. The glow that had enveloped him, that held him in place, eased and stepped aside, Luna forming before him. There were others too, he saw now. Some he recognised - Nyx Ulric, Jarred - and many he did not. All those who had died in order for him to succeed. Gentiana was walking towards him / Shiva was walking towards him.

“Go with Gentiana, Noctis,” Luna said.

Gentiana waited, one hand held out to take Noctis’s own. But he hesitated. “What of you?” He didn’t understand it exactly, but he knew that taking Gentiana’s hand, allowing her to lead him, would be a severing of sorts. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

“I will stay with you. But it is time for your father to rest. He has earned it, don’t you think?”

“Noctis, you have made me proud. May you always know happiness. Walk tall, my son.”

Gentiana’s hand took his own and the world shattered in a fountain of blue crystals.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Prompto blinked up at the ceiling but otherwise didn't move. He hurt, his whole body hurt. But pain meant he was alive. He was sure he was dead, sure that Ardyn had finally killed him. He remembered dying, the choking, suffocating sensation of Ardyn’s magic around his throat, inside his lungs. Remembered seeing Noct over him, shouting but unable to hear the words. And then nothing. Not that he didn’t remember, but that there literally was nothing. No bright light to lead him away, no afterlife, just… nothing.

Until there was something. A pulling, tugging, strong and insistent but not painful, too powerful to ignore. It lifted him, drawing him towards… something, but away from what he had thought of as himself. And yes, looking down, if that were even a direction, he could see three crumpled bodies on the floor, one of which he had called his own, and another sitting on the throne, a sword thrust through his chest holding him in place.

Strangely, he felt nothing at the sight, though he thought he should. He was given no time to ponder it, however, before he was pulled further and the world around him faded into a swirl of colours. Gladio and Noct stood either side of him, and Ignis and King Regis to Noct’s other side. The five of them were there, and before them, was Ardyn. Noct didn’t seem to be aware of them, but Ardyn was, he saw them, standing or floating beside their king. And then Luna was there too, trying to heal the darkness, still trying to do right by everyone she came across. Prompto had known it would not make a difference, Ardyn was too far gone for that, but he admired Luna for trying.

And then, arm out, a blinding light burst forth from the Ring of the Lucii, immediately burning up Noct’s arm, though he didn’t seem to notice. Prompto felt it then, felt the pull. It was the ring that was pulling him, pulling all of them. Even as the weapons physically burst from Noct’s form, summoning the Kings of old, Prompto and the others stood with them and, as one, they charged at Ardyn.

There was another burst of light, a burst of pain and, with a gasp, Prompto had opened his eyes to here.

He rose a hand, staring at it in front of his face. He didn’t know what that was he had experienced, didn’t even know if it was real or some kind of dream conjured by his oxygen starved brain, but he could breath now, was breathing now.

Lowering his arm, he turned his head to the side and saw his friends beginning to stir as well. He smiled slightly; they were alive too. But then the smile fell and he sat up with a gasp. They were alive, but what of Noct? His eyes fell to the throne and he stared.

“Noct,” he whispered. He was there, exactly as he had been in his dream, sitting on the throne, slumped forward, sword thrust through his chest, his black clothing not quite hiding the blood. “No,” Prompto gasped out as he staggered to his feet. “No, Noct!”

“Prompto!” Ignis called out, but Prompto ignored him as he half-ran half-staggered towards the throne, towards his best friend. He was dead, he knew he was dead, he had been around enough dead bodies, killed enough people, to know what death looked like, what it felt like, that complete absence of life, that same absence he now felt from Noct.

“No, no, no,” he was murmuring over and over as he ran his hands first over Noct’s unresponsive face, then down to the sword. He had to get it out, they could heal him if they could just get it out. Taking a hold of the hilt he pulled, but it was stuck fast and he couldn’t bear the thought of holding a foot against his friend’s body to pull it out.

“Gladio, the sword, I can’t,” he choked out.

“Prom, buddy, he’s… he’s gone, it won’t-” Gladio started only to be cut off by Prompto.

“No!” he shouted, heedless of the tears that streaked down his face. “We can heal him, use that, that phoenix up or whatever it was.”

“We can’t,” Gladio said, though he had moved closer.

“It’s too late for that, Prompto. It only works-” Ignis tried.

“Just get it out!” Prompto screamed at them. “Luna… Luna said, she, she promised! She…” he trailed off as his voice caught, a sob escaping. “She promised,” he whimpered, turning back to Noct, his hands cupping his face once more.

“Do it, Gladio. Regardless, we… we can’t leave him like this,” Ignis said, his own voice catching slightly.

Gladio gave a nod and, hand wrapping around the sword’s hilt, he pulled sharply, pulling it out and leaning it against the throne, letting Prompto catch Noct’s body as it slumped forwards. With help he was able to lower it gently to the ground, to lay him out.

“The… the phoenix up thing, where-” he started, a hand hovering over the wound in Noct’s chest as though to stop it bleeding, ignoring the fact that it already had.

“Prompto, it’s too late, it-” Ignis tried again.

“Just do it!” Prompto shouted, but still Ignis shook his head.

“Even if it were to work, we have no more. Noct used the last one we had on you earlier.”

Prompto stared at Ignis in stunned silence at that. Noct had used their last one? On him? He was the reason that they couldn’t bring him back? He shook his head. Another way, there had to be another way. “Electricity,” he said.

“What?” Gladio demanded.

Prompto just shook his head; both of them were staring at him as though he were mad but he didn’t have time to explain how the scientists in Zegnautus had used electricity to bring a unit back to life if they expired unexpectedly, usually during Inurement. “It can bring him back, we just have to find some electricity!”

“There is no need for that, Knight of Lucis.”

At the unexpected voice, all of them spun around to look at the throne. The woman that stepped out was wearing an old fashioned black and white robe and had long black hair. She looked vaguely familiar but it wasn't until Ignis spoke her name that Prompto was able to place her.

“Gentiana,” Ignis said, clearly recognising the voice.

The woman gave a slow nod and walked towards them, or maybe floated; her legs moved but there was no perceivable bounce to her stride, all grace and elegance and the whole thing made Prompto uneasy.

“Fret not, Knights of Lucis. All is not lost where hope remains,” she said.

“Hope of what?” Gladio demanded, his voice bitter. “Noct is dead.”

Prompto winced at that, but Gentiana merely smiled. “Yes,” she said.

“And you're happy about that?” Prompto demanded, feeling more tears flow. Damn all the astrals and their thrice-cursed plans!

“Yes. The sun has returned and daemons are gone from this land thanks to the King of Light's sacrifice.” Prompto curled in on himself at those words. Yes, the sun had risen, he could see the light streaming through the broken stained glass windows of the throne room, which meant that the daemons would be gone too. But that really didn’t mean anything to him. It would mean a lot to a lot of people, but for Prompto, the thought of a world where Noct would never be was too much to bear. Gentiana continued, “And now, the time has come for the King of Light to work on rebuilding.”

Prompto’s head shot up at that and a traitorous trendal of hope began to unfurl.

“But… the prophecy…” Ignis said, his voice tinged with the same uncertainty and hope that Prompto was feeling.

“The prophecy has been fulfilled, the sacrifice has been made. But there is no prophecy about what must come after,” Gentiana said, an almost teasing smile playing about her lips. She held out her hand and in it were the crumbled remains of the Ring of the Lucii. As she lowered her hand the broken metal fell to the floor but the three remaining shards of the crystal hovered in the air between them, rotating slowly as Gentiana continued to speak. “Three shards of the Crystal. Three Knights of Lucis. As you assisted the King of Light to defeat the Immortal Accursed, you were bound to the ring’s crystal.” The crystal shards began to move towards each of them. As each of them caught them, the shards lit with a brief blinding light. “Through your will the shards are active and, through your will, they may be joined and restore life to one who has lost it. For a time.”

“You're saying these shards can bring Noct back?” Ignis asked, and this time his voice definitely sounded shaken.

“Yes. But only if all three are joined. There is great power in the Crystal, even small shards such as these,” Gentiana said.

Before she had even finished speaking, Prompto's hand shot forward, his own crystal shard slipping into the wound on Noct’s chest, his hand holding it in place. He looked expectantly at the other two and it was only a second that passed before both of them added their own shards, Ignis fumbling only a little in finding the wound.

Prompto felt more than saw the three crystal shards coming together, merging and fusing with Noct's damaged heart. In his mind’s eye he saw the crystal extend tendrils out, attaching itself to all the damage, not healing it exactly but rather replacing the damaged flesh. And then it stirred, his heart began to beat, his lungs to suck in air, and in that exact moment a blue explosion ripped out, blowing the three of them back.

Prompto gasped in pain as he landed on his injured back and it took a few moments for him to convince himself to move, though he found it a hell of a lot easier when he heard Noct's voice rasp out a strangled, “What?”

 

-l-l-l-

 

Noct blinked up at the broken ceiling, trying to adjust to his limited vision. He knew what had happened even as it left him feeling confused and disoriented. For a few moments he wasn't Noctis Lucis Caelum, he just was . The same as he had been before and after, after he died and before he woke.

The feeling passed fairly quickly. Most of it, anyway. He still felt different, somehow, but he knew who he was, could feel the limits of his physical body.

A face appeared in front of him, a golden aura but just as solid as she had been in the Crystal, different to how she had appeared when Prompto had been hurt. Luna.

“What?” he croaked out, voice harsh and throat dry.

At the sound of his voice he heard other movement, and then there were three more grinning faces above him, his brothers and best friends, not a dry eye between them.

“It… it worked,” Prompto said, wonder in his voice even as he sniffed and futilely wiped an arm over his eyes.

Noct's eyes drifted to Luna again who simply smiled and said, “They cannot see me. Pretend I am not here for now.”

Noct nodded; Luna would know it was directed at her, but the others took it as affirmation of Prompto's comment.

“Ardyn?” he asked, voice still strained; if he was brought back then that meant Ardyn could have as well, right? He started to push himself up but froze with a hiss when the movement hurt his chest.

“Easy, Majesty,” Ignis said, his arm going behind Noct's shoulders to brace him and ease him into a sitting position.

“Ardyn's not here, just you and Gentiana,” Prompto said, but when he looked over his shoulder he frowned. “Huh? Where'd she go?”

Noct looked to the throne where Gentiana was standing, clear as the daylight streaming through the window, then back to Prompto and Gladio who were both seeming to stare right through her. He shook his head, but no, she was still there.

“We have much to speak of,” Luna said. “But it can wait. Focus on your friends. Enjoy the sunlight. We shall find you later.” She stood then and walked over to join Gentiana. Looking over her shoulder to him only once as the two women walked away, she smiled brightly, as she had when they were children before her smile became tinged with sadness, and Noct felt his heart flutter.

“Want me to do a sweep, make sure he's not here?” Gladio said, the concern in his voice bringing Noct's attention back to his friends.

“Yeah. Yeah,” he got out. Rubbing his aching chest he added, “We fought mostly in the courtyard. He should be gone, I watched him die but…” he trailed off but Gladio gave a nod of understanding anyway.

Standing, the big man clapped a hand on Noct's shoulder and said, “Welcome back, Your Majesty.” Huge sword over one shoulder, he headed out, his stance ready even though the shouldn't be any more danger.

“How are you feeling, buddy?” Prompto asked, his scared face earnest.

“I…” Noct trailed off shaking his head slightly. “Strange,” he settled on, rubbing his chest again. “I'm supposed to be dead. I was dead. But I'm here, alive, in my own body,” he said, wonder in his voice. “How? Not that I'm not grateful, I am, I wanted to live, I told them that,” he said, remembering that strange contradictory place where he had seemed to know and be everything and nothing. “But physically, how? I felt dad's sword, felt it pierce my heart.”

“Your dad's sword?” Prompto asked, clearly not having recognised the blade. He began to look around wildly. “He's alive?”

But Noct was already shaking his head. “No, it was… it's a long story. I'll tell you when Gladio gets back. Why don't you fill me in on your side first,” he said.

As he listened to what had happened after his friends woke up, he opened his shirt and examined his chest where his dad's sword had been. There was a scar there now, the skin healed over but tinged slightly blue. And, if he really focused, he could almost hear the hum of the Crystal inside him, rising and falling with each beat of his heart.

It was only when Gladio returned to say he found no sign of life in the courtyard or the Citadel itself that Noct allowed himself to relax somewhat.. It was done. Truly done. What he had seen, what he had experienced, had all been real. Ardyn was defeated, not only in this physical world, but in the afterlife as well. The sun had risen and the light had banished the daemons.

The light.

Noct found his gaze drawn up to the large broken window, the same one he had pursued Ardyn out of what seemed like both moments ago and a lifetime ago. “I think it’s time we enjoy the sunlight,” he said, holding a hand out to Gladio to help him up. The world spun a little but he had three pairs of hands on him to steady him and when he had his balance once more, he led the way up the stairs, past the throne and to stand looking out the window.

Noctis Lucis Caelum, King of Lucis, King of the Light, stood with his brothers at his back at the window, looking out over his kingdom. He breathed deeply and turned his face to the sun, its warmth washing over him.

A new era was about to begin.

Chapter Text

The Long Dark ended in an explosion of light. Cindy was fixing up a hunter's truck that got damaged pretty badly by a daemon when it happened. The whole parking lot lit up with blue light and a wind blew over them from the direction of the city. It only lasted a second or two but when it died down, leaving everyone blinking spots from their eyes, the air was clear. The caustic ash that had been killing people as readily as the daemons had gone. And, as she watched, the sky to the east began to lighten as it hadn’t done for many years. Not knowing if Prompto and the others were even alive, Cindy dashed inside to take up the camera they had left behind; her photography skills may be nearly non-existent but if they were alive they would want photos.

The Long Dark ended in an explosion of light. Aranea stared in wonderment towards Insomnia where it came from, temporarily distracted from training with Talcott. “Well, damn,” she muttered quietly. “They actually did it.” She started to reach for her phone, but then stopped herself. She didn't want to know if he still lived. Not yet anyway.

The Long Dark ended in an explosion of light. Iris had to admit, this fight wasn't exactly going to plan. Already two of the hunters with her had been forced to retreat, one of which was carried away, too badly injured to walk. And even Daemon Hunter Iris had blood running down her side from a rather deep gash to the side of her face. The daemons out here were becoming just too strong, hunters were falling to them faster than the new recruits could be trained. And the then that odd light explosion and the daemons they had been fighting against, losing against, just moments before seemed to evaporate before their very eyes. The three of them left standing just stared. And then as the sun began to rise, Iris let out a whoop of joy, shouting, “Yeah! Way to go, Gladdy!”

The Long Dark ended in an explosion of light. Anastasia stepped out of the bathroom just in time to see it flash through the windows and a grin spread over her lips as she watched the first signs of a sunrise. “We better go see your daddy, I think he'd like to know about you now,” she murmured quietly, resting a hand on her still-flat stomach.

 

-l-l-l-

 

A strangled cry ripped from his throat as Prompto launched himself upwards. His eyes darted around frantically, searching out the threat. He heard voices but his mind categorised them as his friends and dismissed then as irrelevant. But the threat was here, he was sure of it, they were surrounded! He turned in a circle, searching, but could see nothing. He couldn't kill them, he couldn't, it was it was wrong and cruel and worse than they deserved in their short lives and-

“Prompto.”

Ignis's voice cut through the terror, his touch on his shoulders forcing him to focus, to breathe normally. Ignis was standing in front of him, not wearing his glasses, blind eye seeming to stare intently at him. Ignis's hands trailed along his arms, following them, surrounding his hands and gently pulling them away from where they had been gripped in his hair, a nervous tick he had developed when trapped in a nightmare that he hated. He allowed his hands to be lowered and tried to slow his breathing.

“Tell me what you saw,” Ignis said. It wasn't a question, it never was; Ignis knew he responded better to orders when he was like this so that he didn't have to think for himself. It was better this way, the words came easier.

“Arvid. He… I- I-” he stammered to a stop and forced himself to take a breath. Ignis was patient, but orders were orders. “I left him to die,” he whispered. “Back in Leide, on that plateau. He was always there with me, through all of it, and if he couldn't be there at the time he was afterwards. But I just… abandoned him.”

“Prompto, you saw him die, did you not? You saw Noct's blade kill him. You felt nothing at the time. What has changed?” Ignis said, his voice still calm and soft, soothing.

“But… Arvid said it. He told me that he didn't,” Prompto said. His conflicting memories were causing a headache and he rose a hand to rub it, pressing along the line of scar tissue.

Ignis was frowning now. “That wasn't Arvid you were talking to.”

Prompto shook his head, still rubbing the scar tissue. He knew that, logically he knew it, but his dream had been so real ! “I… I dreamt that after I abandoned him without any food or water or ammunition the Chancellor picked him up, took him back to Niflheim, fixed him. It made him younger but… but it was still him. It had to be.”

“Why did it have to be?” Ignis asked.

“He knew. No one else knew the things he said.” Prompto briefly closed his eyes but they snapped open again when he saw Arvid’s face once more behind his lids. “I don’t know if I told you, but he would help… remind me of who I was, to try to let me be me. And… that one… Arvid from before, he knew that. He said what he said.”

“What did he say?” Ignis pressed. Why was he pressing? What did it matter?

“To… to remember my name. To not let them take it. Only Arvid said that to me. So… so it has to be him.” Unable to stop it, Prompto’s hands rose once more, to tug on his hair as he bent a little at the waist. What had he done? After everything, after all Arvid had done for him, after learning that he had willingly gone through reassignment just to stay with Prompto. And he had just left him to die like that under the scorching Leide sun and-

“Prompto, is the sun rising?”

Prompto blinked, the sudden change of topic throwing him briefly. He glanced towards the large Citadel windows that ‘opened’ onto a balcony, broken now though no doubt once beautiful. “Yeah,” he said, voice strained. He blinked again, the light blinding after so long used to darkness.

“Let’s go sit out there. I would feel the sun once more,” Ignis said, and he waited for Prompto to lead the way.

Out here it felt hot, stifling so after the coldness of the never ending night and both Prompto and Ignis shed their Crownsguard jackets, leaving them by the doorway. Ignis sat on the ground, face tilted up towards the sun and, not knowing what else to do, Prompto joined him, sitting close so that their knees touched.

It was easier, Prompto thought, with the sun warming their bodies, to shed the nightmare, to even pretend that the last fight had been nothing more than a part of that nightmare. He no longer felt that panic he had woken up with.

“I knew that the final MT we fought looked like Arvid,” Ignis suddenly said, face still tilted towards the sun. Prompto turned to stare at him. “That's how I knew that… you wouldn't be able to kill him. You are hard in many ways, Prompto, but in some areas you are just as gentle as the rest of us and you would not want to harm someone who was kind to you.” Ignis paused, then said, “You know that… you were created as a clone, that many of the Empire's soldiers had your features?” Prompto nodded and, even though he couldn't see it, Ignis knew that Prompto remembered that fact. “It stands to reason, does it not, that DNA from other boys who joined the Niflheim military would be taken for other clones?” Ignis continued.

Prompto looked down, staring at his hands, as he thought it over. His fingernails were dirty, torn and with blood caked under them. He picked at them as he turned over the idea that the young Arvid was a clone like the others, like he was. “If he's a clone, then how would he know the things he knew, about before?”

“Perhaps it is what he was told. Maybe it was repeated to him often enough that it became true to him. Or maybe he had been given orders to say those things specifically by Ardyn with the sole purpose of hurting and unsettling you. Ardyn was sure to know that the rest of us would struggle to kill children but that you were capable of tapping into C1094’s personality to do so.” Ignis smiled coldly then and added, “What he didn't count on was the friendship that you and I have built through mutual hardship and the fact that, where you falter I can lift you up as you did so often for me.”

Prompto blinked and looked up at Ignis. Yes, he thought. Prompto had stood by Ignis, especially after his injuries were still fresh. And in reverse as well, when everything started going to shit, Ignis was always the one to pick him back up and set him on the right course again. Like when he had remembered what he was told about who his mother was and that they had unknowingly killed her. And when he couldn't tell if he was a person or a machine. When he was unable to do anything but stand still in the room and await orders, Ignis had been the one to realise what was happening and ensure he received the orders he needed to eat, drink, sleep, toilet and rest.

The image in front of him wavered as tears sprang up and he sniffed and looked away, still uncomfortable with such displays of emotion even though he knew he would no longer be reprimanded for it. Feeling a hand clap on his shoulder, he looked back at Ignis but his friend still had his face turned up to the sun, so Prompto took the lead from him and turned his own face to the sun, letting the warmth wash away the last vestiges of the nightmare.

 

-l-l-l-



Noctis was supposed to be resting, he had promised his friends that he would, but he really didn’t feel the need to. Instead he lay back on his old bed, the musty moth-eaten blankets striped and dumped in a corner, not needed with the warmth of the sunlight. The events of the last few hours kept replaying in his mind over and over. Not just his death and what he experienced with that, but what happened to his friends, what they had told him. And what he could feel. Rising a hand, he ran his fingers over the scar ridge in his chest, feeling the unnatural warmth in there and grimaced.

Feeling someone watching him, he turned his head to the side and smiled when he saw Luna approaching. “I was wondering when you would reappear,” he said, sitting up even as Luna sat on the bed next to him. He noticed that she didn’t sink into it, but seemed to perch on it. He pushed aside what that meant.

“I wanted to wait until the others were asleep. They cannot see me so you speaking to me would appear quite strange,” Luna said.

“Not even Prompto? He said he could see you sometimes, seemed surprised that no one else could.”

Luna shook her head, her expression downcast. “He can only see me in times of great stress, when he is in severe pain or is unsure of his identity. It has been many years since he has been able to see me, a fact I am glad of.”

“Me too, when you put it that way,” Noctis replied with a grimace. “So, I’m guessing Gentiana didn’t tell Bahabutt to shove it for no reason and she wants me to actually do something with the life she’s given me.”

But Luna shook her head again, though this time with a smile. “It was not Gentiana who bought you back-”

“Shiva then, whatever,” Noctis interrupted with a dismissive hand wave, misinterpreting what Luna was trying to say.

“It was neither of them,” Luna said patiently, “but your companions. All Gentiana did was provide them with the remaining shards of the Crystal to do with as they wished. The shards, diminished though they were from the original, still held great power for your friends to use however they liked. They could have used it to continue to access the Lucian magic, Ignis could have used it to regain his sight. It could have even been used to assist the rebuilding of Insomnia. They chose instead to unite the shards and use them to restore your life. They did not even hesitate.”

Noctis smirked at that, his fingers still running over the scar ridge on his chest. “If Gentiana knew them at all, she would know it was never really a choice for them. And I would have done the same for any of them in their position.”

Luna smiled and nodded. “I told her as much, but she insisted that the choice must be theirs alone. They want you to lead them, Noct, in this new age you have created.”

“Helped create,” Noct corrected absently. “Well. I guess if that’s what they want, then that’s what I should do. Wonder if Iggy knows some people who can help rebuild. One question though,” Noct said. “Why can I see you? You said Prompto only saw you when he was, well, not well. But I feel fine now.”

“The Caelums of old have always had a strong connection to the spirit world. Over time and generations and through Ardyn’s manipulations, that talent has been weakened, watered down. Your death, or the Crystal inside you, or the combination of them both, has you partially connected to the spirit world once more, reconnecting you to that part of your lineage. I believe that you will be able to see any spirits who wish to be seen. And perhaps some other abilities that have yet to surface, I am not sure. We are beyond what was prophesied, making your own future now.”

“Well that’s something, no more greedy gods telling me I’m gonna die before I’ve even really lived,” Noctis said, unable to keep the hint of bitterness from his voice.

“Unfortunately it is not so simple. The Cyrstal will not sustain you forever, but it will give you some time at least,” Luna said.

Noct sighed. Of course not. Though he didn’t want forever, he just wanted a normal life now that he had been given that chance. As normal as a king could be anyway. Though, perhaps he was just being greedy; he wasn’t even supposed to be alive now so even this was a boon. He should be grateful. He leaned back on the bed and tucked his arm under his head. “Well I guess that doesn’t matter right now. No doubt it won’t be long before Iggy starts pestering me to think about my lineage and all that but I won’t be mentioning it any time soon. So… what about you? How long will you be staying for?”

“I have always been with you. You or Prompto when he needed me. Sometimes Ignis after he was hurt but things were still… confusing then. You just couldn’t see me,” Luna said, flashing that cheeky smile that still made Noctis’s heart pound even after all this time. “But to answer your question, I will be here as long as you need me. I can advise you, warn you of threats you may not be aware of, assist you in ways that we have not discovered yet. It will be a new age for Lucis, and all of Eos.”

“It will indeed,” Noctis said quietly, smiling, looking forward to the future.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Six months after the Light Returned

 

Prompto paced back and forth in the passageway, hands rhythmically clenching and unclenching, jaw tightening and loosening as he fought to keep control of his breathing. He could do this. It wasn’t that bad. He was dressed normally, no one would notice him.

Except everyone knew who he was now.

His breathing started to speed up again, coming in gasps and feeling as though he still couldn’t get enough air in.

“No, come on, you can… you can do this,” he whispered to himself. Folding his arms across his chest, his hands gripped his arms tight enough to bruise, to try to ground himself in the present instead of in his irrational anxieties. Three steps in one direction. Three steps in the other. A glance at the closed doors then away again. Damn it why did this have to be so hard! He would rather fight a behemoth than make his way through the crowd of people outside to get to the waiting chocobos. It wasn’t like he had to actually had to make a speech or anything. All he had to do was open the door, and walk towards the exit.

And somehow politely tell the countless people milling around out there to leave him the hell alone without actually drawing a gun on them and causing a riot this time.

Or maybe he should, that would be easier and it would clear the room fast. So what if Ignis and Gladio would be pissed at him, he could just jump on his chocobo and ride on out of there before they even got a report as to what had happened. Noctis would probably even find it funny.

And thinking of Noct, there was the man now, striding towards him with a small smile on his face, wearing casual clothes like Prompto was; he didn’t have any more official meetings for the day.

“Hey there Prom,” he said as he approached.

Prompto dropped his arms, trying to act natural, as though nothing was wrong, saying, “H-Hi Noct,” and mentally cursing the stutter.

Noct though, bless him, didn’t mention it and just slouched against the newly repaired wall. “You heading back out with the chocobos?” he asked.

Prompto grimaced a little; Noct knew that he was planning to do just that but, as always, he was able to help break through Prompto’s training to asking the right questions that would get results. He was grateful, truly, even if he was annoyed that he still needed that. “Yeah, um, I was,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the closed doors then back to Noct. “It’s just…”

“There’s a lot of people out there?” Noct guessed, and Prompto nodded, relieved. “No problem,” Noct said, straightening back up. “I’ll just go out there first, draw all their attention, then you can slip out behind.”

And just like that it was as though an invisible weight was lifted of his chest and Prompto broke into a huge grin. “Thanks Noct,” he said, the relief evident in his voice.

Noct took a few steps forwards but instead of going to the doors like Prompto expected, he stopped right in front of the blonde and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, Prom. Why don’t you… take some time away from Insomnia?” he said, his voice gentle.

Prompto’s head shot up at that (it had been absently staring at the ground) and he stared at his friend with a frown. “What?” he asked. It was there again, the panic right below the surface threatening to overwhelm him. “Don’t you… don’t you want me here?” he asked, his voice cracking a little bit.

Of course he doesn’t want you here, you’re one of the few remaining things left of Nifleheim, the enemy. You’re not even fully human any more. Why would he want something like you polluting the rebuilding of his beautiful city?

“Of course I want you here,” Noct said, his voice cutting through the mental self-hating monologue. “But, well, you’re not happy here. I can see that. And I get it. There’s a lot happening real fast, the city is growing by the hundreds every day and Iggy told me how you sometimes got freaked out in Lestallum.” Prompto looked away again, embarrassed, staring out through the huge stained glass window off to the side. “And, it’s okay,” Noctis continued. “Really, I get it. I just don’t want you to push yourself too far, to take on more than you’re ready to. Iggy, Gladio and I, we grew up here, surrounded by this. We’re used to having people all around all the time and not really thinking about it. You grew up in a training facility, kept away from most people, and then you joined up with us and while we visited cities, we never stayed long. And even after I… well, you know, you only stayed in Lestallum for a few years, till it started to get really crowded with refugees. And now I’m babbling, but what I’m trying to say is I get it and it’s fine. But if you wanna go help Wizz set up his chocobo post more full time then you should go and not worry about things here.”

“You’re sure?” Prompto said slowly, carefully watching Noct’s face, looking for any hint that he may not be being entirely truthful, that he was saying all that just to either placate him or to get rid of him. But all he saw was ernest honesty and, truthfully, that was all Noct had ever been towards Prompto.

“Definitely. Besides, it’s not like you’ll never come back here. I’ll expect you to come back when Gladio’s kid is born for one thing, and then there’s still your citizenship ceremony to organize and carry out which no doubt Iggy will want you nearby for rehearsals,” Noct said, smiling that half smirk of his that Prompto had learned to love all the while. “Does that… sound good to you?” Noct asked and, for the first time, he actually sounded uncertain with what he was saying.

Prompto smiled and gave a solid nod. “Yeah,” he said. “It does. And Wizz could do with the help I think; he’s not as young as he used to be, or so he keeps telling me.”

“Great!” Noct said, all grinning confidence once more. The hand that had been on his shoulder moved to wrap around Prompto’s shoulders, pulling him into a hug which Prompto eagerly returned, no longer uncomfortable with being touched, not by his closest friends at least. When he stepped back, Noct said, “Keep your phone on and let me know when you get to Wizz’s place, okay?”

Prompto nodded again. “I will,” he promised, then turned to watch as Noct made his way through the doors to the entrance hall and the throng of people, effectively drawing everyone’s attention as the King of Light walked through their midst, allowing Prompto to slip past completely unnoticed.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Two years after the Light Returned

 

Prompto tugged at his jacket nervously, glancing at himself in the full length mirror. Today was the day, promised long ago when he didn't even feel human but secretly held as a hope for the future. Today was the day he would officially be recognised as a Lucian citizen. He couldn't decide if he was nervous or excited or apprehensive or any other emotion, he felt all of them all bundled up at once in his stomach. It was enough to make him feel sick.

“It'll be fine,” Noct said from where he stood behind him, his eyes a dark blue today. “You really don't need to worry so much.”

“Says you,” Prompto replied. “You were raised for this kind of stuff, have been making fancy speeches and grand gestures for years now. I'm just a malfunctioning MT and a Chocobo herder.”

“You’re also one of the people who helped end the eternal darkness, remember,” Noctis said, smiling despite himself.

“Yeah and then promptly ran away from all the fuss back to my birds,” Prompto muttered, ignoring the laugh Noctis gave at that.

The fact was, Prompto was simply more comfortable with his “country lifestyle” as Ignis had called it when he called to tell him to return to Insomnia as soon as possible. After Noctis had encouraged him to leave that first time and finding that his friends really didn’t mind that he wanted to get away from the city, he returned as little as possible. Once soon after Gladio’s kid had been born, a little girl they named Stella for the newly arisen sun and who already had Gladio wrapped around her little finger. And again a couple months later when Gladio and Anastasia had decided to wed. That was a party he wouldn’t soon forget! Gladio had tried convincing Ignis and Aranea to be next but they were both stoutly denying it. For now at least.

“We've practiced it several times, you know what you need to do,” Noct said reassuringly.

“Yeah with just the four of us,” Prompto said, turning away from the mirror with a huff. “A Niff, age old enemy, being granted not just Lucian citizenry but a position in the coveted Lucian Glaives? I’m gonna start another riot.”

Noct snorted in a rather un-king like manner. “Yeah you are good at them. No guns this time. I don’t think Iggy’s heart could take it.” That at least got a temporary smile from Prompto, before he went back to worrying at his bottom lip. “Hey,” Noct said, his voice softer as he stood and he rested both hands on the blonde’s shoulders. “You got this. We’ve practiced it, you know the whole procedure backwards, you did after it was first shown to you. Iggy and I will be there to nudge you in the right direction should you falter, and Gladio will be there watching over security. Not to mention all the new Glaives he’s hired and him and Cor have trained themselves. Okay?” Noct asked, waiting for a reply as he gave Prompto’s shoulders a squeeze.

Prompto closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could do this. Like Noct said, his friends were all going to be there. There wouldn’t be any trouble and even if there was, Gladio knew of his anxiety around crowds and would keep it all away from him. He trusted them even as he didn’t trust himself. Opening his eyes he gave a single nod and said, “Alright. I’m ready.” Then he cocked a small smile. “After all, my commander is relying on me.”

“Damn right he is, need you to make me look good,” Noctis replied with a laugh. He stepped back. “Alright, I better go. A King mustn’t be late. I’ll see you in there,” he said turning with a wave and taking his leave.

After he was gone, Prompto turned back to the mirror, looking over himself once more, searching for any imperfection, any hint of the metal or scars that would mark him as something other than human. His hair was still white where it grew through the scars on his head, but it was difficult to notice in amongst the blonde. And in the light of the throne room he knew it would be practically invisible unless one knew to look for it. The scars on his hands and wrists were covered by beautifully crafted black gloves with silver stitching, very soft and supple, nothing like the leather work gloves he normally wore. He wore a black t-shirt with the royal crest on its back but that wasn’t visible beneath the formal jacket he was wearing. It was a cross between the old Crownsguard and Kingsglaive uniform, to honour both companies. There was to be no more separation of Insomnian-born and foreigners as, Noctis believed, that separation was one of the reasons everything fell apart so completely in the capital when his father was still alive. This new order was to be known simply as the Lucian Glaives and was to serve both the royal family, and the general public in matters of military security. Anyone was able to join regardless of birth, so long as they showed enough of an ability and had the right aptitude, vetted by Noctis and his unique gifts. Prompto didn’t really know much more than that, but he was happy to leave it to those who did. That he was being brought into its ranks was more than just a symbolic gesture. Noctis wanted Prompto to essentially be his visible eyes and ears out west, someone the people could reach out to without needing to come into the capital. And he was to be a symbol of the peace, a former Niflehiem soldier being accepted into the ranks of the Lucian Glaives.

He looked nothing like that Nifleheim MT now, something that he was grateful for. In the knee-length black military jacket, silver skull embroidery and silver chains denoting a high rank, black pants and black knee length combat boots complete with shiny silver buckles, he looked a lot more Lucian. If it weren’t for his fair skin and blonde hair, anyway.

“Lookin’ good,” a familiar voice said from the doorway.

Prompto turned with a smile. “You know it,” he said with a bravado he didn’t feel. “You’re going to be my escort?” he asked Gladio.

“Yeah. Noct said you could do with a familiar face, even one as ugly as mine,” Gladio said with that cheeky grin that was so familiar. Instantly, Prompto felt a rush of gratitude towards his closest friend; this whole thing will be so much easier with someone he trusted as much as Gladio by his side. “You ready?” he asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Prompto said.

“You’ll do fine,” Gladio said, slapping the smaller man roughly on the back. “Come on.” And he led the way out of the dressing room and along the hallways towards the throne room.

Most of the Citadel was completely finished by now, as was large sections of the city. As soon as Noctis had made his first official announcement that the demons were banished for good and that the light returned as normal, he called for the assistance of the people to rebuild. This was one of the first buildings to be completed. Now there was very little evidence of the destruction it had fallen under. The walls were crisp and white, huge windows whole and allowing the sun to shine in, plush carpet underfoot. Prompto had even poked his head into the throne room earlier and seen huge prints of some of his best photos blown up and hanging on the walls. It looked stunning and, not for the first time, Prompto wondered if Ignis really could see and was just pretending to be blind to have pulled off such wonders.

All too soon for Prompto's liking they were standing outside the double doors leading to the throne room. There were two newly appointed Lucian Glaives standing either side of the door and, while they both saluted Gladio both also wore a smile for Prompto, one he hesitantly returned. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Maybe everyone won't hate him for his origins.

Or maybe they're smiling because you're about to walk into a trap and they'll be glad to be rid of a blight such as yourself.

Prompto forced that voice away as Gladio spoke. “Nearly time. You ready? Put your gun away so you're not tempted to use it?” he asked, the smile he wore supporting the teasing tone.

Prompto groaned. “That was one time! Are you ever gonna let me live that down?”

Gladio just laughed. “Not on your life,” he said and, before Prompto could respond in any way the double doors swung open and a sea of faces turned towards him.

“Shit,” he squeaked, starting wide eyed at them all, trying to remember what he was supposed to do.

Walk. That's right. Walk down the red carpet path, between the crowd of people to either side. Focus on Noct and walk.

“Good luck,” one of the Glaives whispered as he passed and Prompto shot him a shaky smile before turning all his attention on Noct who was standing in front of his throne.

With his eyes locked on Noct's smiling face, doing his best to ignore the whispers of the people either side of him, he put one foot in front of the other, spine rigidly straight as it hasn't been for years since leaving the Niflheim military. His throat was dry, his palms sweaty, and it was so damn hot in this uniform!

And then he reached the bottom step of the dias, and Noct was smiling at him, and Ignis was smiling at him, and Gladio retook his position on the other side of the king and was smiling at him too. His friends when he was created to not have any. Prompto smiled as well.

Ignis cleared his throat softly and Prompto suddenly remembered, right, he was supposed to bow! His arm twitched and it was only through a force of effort that he remembered he was not supposed to bow in the Niflheim fashion, first to heart as had been drilled into him since before he could remember. No, he was a Lucian now, he was supposed to bow in the Lucian fashion. He was a Lucian now. That thought made him grin widely even as Noct bade him to rise.

Prompto didn't even really hear the words that were spoken, though the gathered crowd did as they erupted into loud cheers. Prompto was too busy grinning his face lighting up the room even more than the sunshine streaming through the huge windows.

It was real. It had really happened.

Prompto Argentum was now a Lucian.

 

-l-l-l-

 

Fifteen years after the Light Returned

 

“The Crystal that sustained the life of Noctis Lucis Caelum, King of Light, finally failed soon after his forty-fifth birthday. He was aware that his end was coming, said his goodbyes and passed peacefully in his sleep,” Ignis recited to Talcott, the tapping of the keyboard the only other sound in the room as he took down what was dictated. He leaned back in his chair and swallowed, giving Talcott time to catch up before continuing. “His legacy lives on not just in his Son, Regis the Second, but also in the rebuilding and restructuring of the land of Lucis, and in his reputation as a just and fair ruler. Aided by the Crystal embedded in his chest, he was able to see into the very souls of his subjects, to know when they were lying or being less than faithful. This allowed us to avoid the crisis that befell his father with the Kingsglaive as all Lucian Glaive were regularly screened with regards to their loyalty.”

“I didn’t know that,” Talcott said as he typed.

Ignis smiled. “Most didn’t. If they did it was possible they could work to hide such sentiments, rendering the skill useless. The only ones who knew of it were his closest friends, and his wife and son of course.”

“Did he use it on Queen Alyssum? I can’t imagine she would have been very happy about that,” Talcott asked.

“No, indeed not,” Ignis replied dryly. “Unfortunately, it is not something he can simply turn off and on at will, which was not something that the young Queen appreciated at all. But they made amends and she understood the use of such a skill. Perhaps I should write an amendment to Noctis’s biography to include that encounter. But later. I believe it is about time for your lesson with our young King, is it not.”

“Mmm, guess so,” Talcott said, not sounding at all enthused by the idea. “I bet King Noctis always did his work enthusiastically, unlike his reticent son.”

Ignis couldn’t help it, he laughed loudly. “Oh you have no idea.”