Fifteen years after MT unit NH-01987 is commissioned, they designate him defective.
He doesn't know for sure who makes the final call.
Maybe it's the doctor in the long white coat that straps him down onto the table in the laboratory two times a week.
After all, his body's been rejecting the treatments more and more lately. When they tape tubes to his arms and fill his veins with viscous black goop, he vomits it up hours later, until he's a shaking wreck on the floor, heaving nothing but bile.
Maybe it's his training instructor, who drills him nine hours every day, until he's limp and exhausted, panted breaths burning in his lungs.
After all, he's earned failing marks in hand-to-hand combat and 86% of the melee weapons he's attempted. NH-01987 has the best marksmanship scores in his squad, and he's in the ninetieth percentile for speed. But an effective combat unit requires strength and durability, and he's far below average in both.
Maybe it's the guard who mans the storage wing, whose job it is to walk the catwalks between the metal pods where the MT units are kept overnight.
After all, NH-01987 hates those pods. He's slept in them since he was transferred to a proper training squad, maybe four years after his commission date, but he's never gotten past the suffocating closeness of them. NH-01987 isn't big, as far as MTs go. He's short, and he's scrawny, and he has trouble putting on muscle. But the storage pods brush his shoulders when he's in there; he can feel them pressing in on him, when he closes his eyes. He balks sometimes, when it's time to go inside. Twice in the past six months, the guard has needed to push him in and close the door behind him.
So there are plenty of options. Plenty of higher-ups who probably don't think he's worth keeping around anymore.
But whoever it is, NH-01987 doesn't hear about the news. He just finds it, when he returns after training one day.
There's a tag hanging on his storage pod, instead of the clipboard that documents his progress. On that tag, there's a single word stamped in red: defective.
NH-01987's feet stick on the metal of the catwalk. Behind the ever-present metallic mask, his eyes grow huge.
He knows what that tag means. It means that, in the morning, while the other MT units are collected for training, a guard will come for him. He'll be restrained and escorted down the metal corridors toward the east wing, into the double-doors that house the correctional facility. But he won't be up for re-programming, not this time.
This time, they'll strap him down to a table for the last time ever. They'll pick him apart, to try and learn what caused his failures – and he has so very many of them, no matter how hard he's tried.
When they're finished, they'll take what's left to the crematory. That will be the end of him: a pile of ashes and a wisp of smoke.
NH-01987 knows it's not his place to question the will of the Empire. He knows he was commissioned to serve. He knows that the impulses he can never quite suppress, selfish moments of reluctance, are what separates him from the successful units, and that if he'd only managed to contain them throughout the years, he wouldn't be facing this situation now.
His new designation is fact. An MT unit can no more argue against decommissioning than a gun can rebel against its owner.
NH-01987 knows this.
And yet his legs lock, there on the catwalk. His fingers close over the metal railing, so hard his armor leaves a dent in the steel. The guard has to force him back into his storage pod for the evening, and NH-01987 does not go easily. It takes three of them to do it, to hold him in and latch the door, and when at last the metal pod is sealed, taking the light with it, he stands there in the dark, shaking, and thinks of the tag outside that reads defective, and the crematory, and a hundred different ways he could have done better.
He doesn't sleep.
He just breathes, so hard and so fast he starts to get dizzy. When he leans against the back of the pod to keep him up, the closeness of the metal crushes in on him, and he breathes harder still. Beneath the mask, his face feels wet and sticky.
There's nothing he can do. If he wanted to convince them that he was worth keeping, he's far, far too late for that. In the morning, the pod will open, and NH-01987 will be waiting there for them to take.
Unless. Unless he isn't.
It's an idea so shocking – so unthinkably outrageous – that NH-01987 flinches. Once, perhaps five years after commissioning, he tried to run. It was during a training exercise in the courtyard. He hadn't been confined to his armor, yet; he remembers thinking that if he could only get past the walls, perhaps he could hide himself away, somewhere far from his training instructor's corrective punishments and the nightly confines of the storage pods.
Sometimes when he sleeps, NH-01987 sees fragmented glimpses of that ill-advised attempt. He still has the marks from it, all along his back, and his legs, and his arms.
So his first impulse – his strongest impulse – is to shy away from the very idea.
His second impulse, coming in on its heels, is: they're going to cut you apart and then burn you until there's nothing left. What worse could they possibly do?
It's a reasonable question. He turns it over and over, examining it from every angle, there in the dark, in his storage pod.
Nothing, he decides at last. They've marked him as irreparable already. One more defect on top of all the others won't change the new designation.
So, in the morning, when the pod opens, NH-01987 won't be here. That's all.
It seems easy enough, on its surface. But in practice, the pods lock when they close. NH-01987 learned this during the early days, when he was first transferred to the storage wing. Back then, when he was much smaller, he would slam his fists against the metal and call for someone to let him out, over and over, until exhaustion forced him to silence.
Eventually, NH-01987 learned that no one would come.
It's been years since those nightly waves of terror. He's grown more familiar with the pods, in more ways than one.
Sometimes, the guard who patrols the storage wing requisitions NH-01987 after training, to assist with maintenance on the storage units. It's work that NH-01987 never minds. His hands run through the repairs with an ease he never finds in hand-to-hand combat training; the instructions always seem second-nature, the shape of the parts and the placement of the wiring an intuitive thing.
NH-01987 has changed out power cords and put together electrical circuits. He's welded parts together from scraps.
He's also repaired faulty pod doors – and he knows that the hinges face inward.
It takes NH-01987 a moment to decide what he'll use. He doesn't have any tools with him, after all. But he has his armor; he always has his armor. And the slender, rounded puncturing blades meant to take out eyes and soft tissue at close range – he thinks they might fit.
NH-01987 eases one free from its casing. In the dark, he can't see where the hinges rest.
So he takes off the armor plating over his hands, and then the gloves underneath. He feels his way along the cold steel of the storage pod until he finds the hinge pin. Then he presses in the blade, forcing the pin up.
It hits the floor of the storage pod with a clink of metal on metal, and NH-01987 lets out a breath, heart hammering in his chest.
Just one more.
He kneels, and traces his fingers along the edge until he finds the second hinge. Then he works it free.
The door doesn't fall open at once.
The locked end holds it sealed, but when NH-01987 presses against the other side – the side now without hinges – it gives under his weight. He presses harder, and sees a slice of the outside world appear.
It will be a tight fit. If he wasn't in his armor, the metal would probably crush his chest in when he attempted to squeeze past.
He doesn't have a choice.
NH-01987 leans all his weight against the door, forcing the hinge-side open perhaps a foot, in total. Then he wedges his shoulder into the gap, and begins to wriggle through. It's hard going; the door scrapes and drags. He's certain that it's going to crush him after all, armor or no.
But then he's through, standing on the metal catwalk, the only light the dim glow of the overnight backup lights.
He's not familiar with the watch rotation on the night shift, but he suspects the numbers will be low. There are dorms that accommodate the human guards, and the MT units are all in storage for the night.
NH-01987 pauses, something about that observation making him hesitate.
Then it comes to him: the MT units are all in storage for the night. As soon as someone spots him in his armor, bulky and clanking, he'll be stopped and questioned, and then sent back to his storage pod to be decommissioned in the morning.
NH-01987 hesitates, there on the catwalk.
MT units are not allowed to remove their armor, except for required maintenance and periodic scheduled visits to the hygiene chamber.
But then, MT units are not allowed to be out of storage at night. MT units are not allowed to run. MT units are not allowed to ignore a designation, defective or otherwise.
NH-01987 takes a deep breath in and finds the manual catch releases for the plating of his armor. He digs the wiring from his skin, and he works the tubes from their ports, hissing sharply when the one burrowed in near the base of his spine catches and tugs.
But eventually, he manages. Eventually, he stands in nothing more than the thin, black full-body undersuit that serves as required wear beneath the armor. He's shivering, with both cold and pain, but NH-01987's training has accustomed him to discomfort. He ignores it as he hides his armor behind the storage pod, out of sight from any guards patrolling on the chamber's floor.
Then NH-01987 begins to walk.
If he can reach the courtyard, he thinks, he can leave the compound over the walls.
He'll walk slowly, and he'll act as though nothing is amiss. At a distance, without the armor, he might pass as a person for long enough to be overlooked.
His plan, what little plan it is, gets NH-01987 farther than he expects. The storage facility is empty; he doesn't pass a single guard along the way. The only sounds are the sounds of his own footsteps, bare feet on the metal of the corridor floor, and the pounding of his heart, loud in his ears.
Every breath is a struggle. He feels like he does when they strap him down on the examination table to run new experiments: lightheaded and dizzy with fear.
The storage facility gives way to the training wing, dark and quiet at this time of night. The slick, polished floors are devoid of blood, wiped clean of the evidence of the day's drills. NH-01987's training instructor is nowhere to be seen, and the chamber seems empty without the man's harsh voice.
NH-01987 presses on.
He passes a corridor he doesn't know, where a sign indicates that he can turn toward the dorms, and there, for the first time, he hears footsteps.
There are two guards, when he turns to look – both out of uniform, both with white pieces of cloth draped over their shoulders. They're talking together, voices casual, on their way down the hall.
NH-01987 freezes. He's certain they've seen him – certain one of their voices will ring out, any moment now, to demand his identification number and purpose. His feet feel like they're melded to the floor; every individual part of his body is heavier than steel.
But neither guard says a word. They carry on their way down the hall, and NH-01987 stares after them, heart drumming in his chest, fear a bitter taste at the back of his throat. For a moment, he doesn't understand.
And then, just as suddenly, he does: without his armor, they've taken him for another guard. Without his armor, at this distance, they've mistaken him for a person, after all.
The guards turn a corner, and their voices echo back toward him, growing fainter, until the sound of a door opening and then closing again cuts them off entirely. NH-01987 forces his legs to work; they're shaky and weak beneath him, and for an instant, he isn't sure they'll hold his weight. If he was in training, he would have been on the ground bleeding after a lapse like that.
NH-01987 rubs a hand across his face and takes a breath in. When he starts to walk again, he picks up his pace.
He passes the hygiene chamber with its grey tiled floors and the nozzles that spray icy water. He passes the double doors to the east wing, where the correctional facility and the crematory lie in wait. He's making good time; there's no one out here, far less watching eyes to avoid than he expected.
He might actually make it, and that thought causes some strange feeling to swell up in his chest, bright but cautious. NH-01987 doesn't have a name for it.
He presses on, past storage chambers and offices and one room with a bank of monitors that show other parts of the facility. He thinks he knows where the courtyard is, thinks he remembers the path he took with the rest of his squad to reach it, but it's been years since the last time he was allowed to train outside. He takes a left, and then a right, and then another left – wonders, increasingly urgently, whether he remembers as well as he thought.
He passes a door marked RECORDS, and another one that says RESEARCH. With a sinking sensation, he realizes he's never seen these doors before. Somehow, in all the twisting turns, he's taken the wrong one.
He'll have to go back. He'll have to retrace his steps until he finds familiar ground and work from there.
NH-01987 is turning to go when a voice reaches his ears. "Hey," it says. "This place is off-limits after hours."
He turns as though under sedation, horror a vice around his throat. Standing there, mousy hair rumpled, is a man in a long white coat. He's just come through the door marked RESEARCH, maybe five feet away.
The man stares. NH-01987 stares back.
He can see the instant the expression starts to change – can see realization as the man's gaze flickers from NH-01987's eyes, to the black undersuit, to the ports where he unhooked the armor's tubing. This close up, it has to be obvious, all exposed wiring and the remnants of blood. This close up, there won't be any fortunate misunderstandings.
The man opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He staggers a step back, and then another, then slams into the RESEARCH door and disappears inside.
An instant later, an alarm blares to life, the wailing cry of it shaking NH-01987 to his bones.
That's a level four alarm. This very instant, every MT unit in storage is being released to conduct a full search of the facility.
He doesn't have time to find the courtyard – not anymore.
Instead, he slams into the RESEARCH door behind the man in the white coat and pushes his way inside. He does a quick sweep of the room: a station with glass tubing and a lot of rectangular steel desks. The man is crouched behind one of them, speaking into a microphone. He drops it when he sees NH-01987, cries out and shrinks away.
NH-01987 doesn't have time to wonder about that reaction.
He reaches for the man in the white coat. NH-01987 knows, from long years of training, that he isn't supposed to touch real people – but he's desperate, and he needs the man to understand. "Please," he tries to say, but he hasn't spoken in a long, long time. His voice comes out as a rusty creak.
He licks at his lips, and opens his mouth to try again – but the man beats him to it. "Wait," he says. "Don't hurt me."
The words are so far from what NH-01987 expects that he's stymied for an instant. Violence against the facility staff – it's unthinkable. It's the very first conditioning exercise he can ever remember, and it's burned into him in half a dozen places, etched into his flesh in age-old broken bones that still ache when the weather turns cold.
Even the thought makes his skin scrawl.
"I won't," NH-01987 says, and this time, at least – this time he forms words, strange and ragged. "I just." He swallows. "Which way is out?"
The man points a shaking finger toward the other side of the office, and NH-01987 turns to look. And there it is, the most beautiful sight he's ever seen: a bank of glass, looking out onto other buildings, a whole sea of buildings, beset with light and fading into the distance. Above it, the sky is dark and speckled with pinpricks of white.
NH-01987 feels his mouth fall open.
That isn't the courtyard. That's something else entirely.
He lets go of the man and turns toward the glass – crosses the floor at a dead run. He doesn't have time, not with that alarm. Definitely not now that the man in the white coat is picking up the microphone to yell into it, calling for backup in the research wing.
He'd thought there was nothing worse they could subject him to, no punishment more final than decommissioning, but that was before NH-01987 caused a level four alarm in the middle of the night.
They'll make something up.
NH-01987 seizes a chair from behind one of the desks and swings it at the glass. It shatters in a spray of glimmering shards; one catches him across the face. He has just enough time to think that it would be better if he had something to cover his feet, but then the door to the hallway bursts open, and the world is filled with voices raised in anger.
He glances back to see human guards crammed into the doorway. Red spots of light, the swooping pinpoint tips of the laser sights on their guns, skitter toward him along the floor.
Go, NH-01987 thinks frantically. Go now.
He turns and throws himself toward the now-open space where the glass used to be. With every step, the shards on the ground shred the vulnerable skin on the bottom of his feet. The world explodes into sound behind him, the cacophony of a half-dozen guns going off all at once.
Something slams into NH-01987's back, sudden force. Then he's falling, and the ground's rushing up to catch him, and he thinks, desperately: just keep moving. Whatever you do, keep moving.
His left ankle twists under him when he lands, and something hot and wet is spilling down his back, and every step makes his feet feel like they're on fire.
But NH-01987 knows what will happen if he stops.
He keeps moving.
Wow, you guys. The response to the first chapter of this fic was just incredible! Thank you so much, every one of you is amazing. <3
I feel a little guilty over sticking in an immediate timeskip, but the first bit was more of a prologue to help set the scene. Now we'll get into the meat of the prompt, hopefully.
In case it isn't clear, this chapter's set five years later.
There's nothing around Taelpar Rest Area.
After three weeks on the road, traipsing through the wilderness and overnighting in beat up campers, Noctis thinks he's certified to make that call.
The whole place consists of a hotel that looks like its heyday was fifty years ago, a Crow's Nest so utterly devoid of patrons that it could be a movie poster for a horror film, and two weary, hopeful vendors hawking wares out of their trucks. Ignis probably makes the most-gil-ever-spent record when he buys a couple of potions to restock their dwindling supply.
Noct's leaning against the Regalia while the gas pump runs, looking at the map in the dusky light of the approaching sundown. He gives it a little wave as Gladio wanders over.
"There's nothing here," he says.
His Shield jerks a thumb toward the cracked and lonely road stretching away to nowhere. "You think?"
"No, seriously," says Noct. "This place doesn't even have a haven."
Gladio's just leaning over to take a look when Ignis returns, expression neutral, to say, "I'm afraid a hotel isn't in our budget tonight."
Noct just looks at him for a minute. "You're joking," he says, flatly. "After you dropped all that gil on potions?"
Ignis adjusts his glasses. "Curatives," he says, "are a matter of life and death."
"So's a week and a half without a mattress," Noct says, slumping against the car like it can save him. "C'mon, Specs, my back's killing me."
Gladio loops an arm around his neck and shakes, like an overly enthusiastic behemoth pup with a toy, not aware of its own strength. "Cheer up, princess," he says. "No haven – we'll finally be camping for real. Live a little."
"Yeah," says Noct, scowling, and swats at him. "A very little. Like for five more hours, until an iron giant appears in the middle of our tent while we're sleeping."
Ignis frowns and leans in to take a look at the map. "Hm," he says, thoughtfully. "The lack of a haven is rather unfortunate, isn't it?"
For a moment, Noct thinks he'll change his mind about their depleted savings and whether spending some of it on real beds is a waste of money. But he only says, "I suppose we'll have to keep a watch."
Noct groans and runs a hand through his hair. He fixes the setting sun with an accusing stare, silently wondering how much worse this day can get.
Three hours later, he gets his answer.
Ignis and Gladio are out cold by now; Gladio's snores echo from the tent's interior, serving as a background soundtrack to the otherwise still night. The stars are bright overhead, and the golden light of the campfire casts warm, flicking shadows over the high, dark shapes of the hulking boulders that hem in two sides of the area they picked for a camp.
There's been no sign of daemons, so far. It's almost a nice night.
But Noctis wants nothing more than to be curled up in his sleeping bag, dead to the world. He's never been good at late nights – or early mornings – or, hell, even making it through a car trip without a nap. The knowledge that he's forgoing precious sleep time right now eats away at him.
Of course Ignis had wanted him to have first watch. Of course he'd insisted that Noct would be impossible to wake for a later shift. It's probably even true.
That doesn't mean it doesn't suck.
Noctis blinks, eyelids heavy. He pokes a stick in the fire to stir up sparks, just for something to do. After a while, he gets his phone out and turns on King's Knight, hacking his way through a dungeon to kill time and keep himself at least semi-awake.
Daemons are loud enough. If there's anything out there, he'll hear it plenty of time in advance.
He keeps thinking that, right up until something clatters, metal on stone, and Noct jerks his head around to try and find the source. He shuts his game off with a swipe – calls his sword to hand with a glimmer blue light, the magic tingling through him. That's when he spots it: Ignis' ladle, previously on the cook station by the jar with the leftover soup from dinner, has fallen onto the ground.
Could be a hobgoblin, Noct thinks idly, as he rises from his chair to circle around. They get up to low-level mischief all the time.
But he circles the tent and finds nothing at all. He checks under the cook station, and there's nothing there, either. No sound meets his ears but Gladio snoring.
At last, with a shrug, Noctis banishes his sword and retrieves his phone. He has to redo the last two battles because his progress didn't save, and he's just starting the third when another noise reaches him. It's barely there, a soft shift of fabric. Honestly, he's not sure how he picks it out under the steady rumble of Gladio's snores.
But it brushes at the edge of his hearing, just audible, and Noctis glances up, frowning, to see what it is, calling the sword back into his free hand just in case.
He nearly drops his phone.
There's someone standing above Ignis' cook station.
It's a boy about his age, nineteen or twenty – blond hair that's tousled and wild; dirt streaked across a thin cheek dusted with freckles; a sloppy bandage on his forearm, faded and stained with old blood.
He's got on black pants and high black boots, the sort that put Noct in mind of the Kingsglaive uniform, but they're worn down and beat up, going a dusty brown with ground-in dirt. His top was probably a t-shirt, at some point, deep sea blue, though it's definitely seen better days. The sleeves have been ripped off, and part of the hem. A good portion of the left side is stained with old blood, the fabric ragged and slashed through; through the gaps in the cloth, Noct can see bandages, equally bloodstained.
The boy's in the process of reaching out a hand toward something on the cook station, and his arm's a wreck, too: forearm bandaged up with what looks like part of his shirt and stormcloud-dark bruising from elbow to wrist. He's wearing some kind of woven-cloth bracelet a couple inches wide, but it's way too tight with all the swelling.
He freezes when he sees Noct looking his way – eyes wide, completely stock still. His face is an open book, every flicker of emotion bright as day and just as clear, and hell if he isn't absolutely stricken.
By the time Noctis stands up, he's taken a stumbling three steps backward. By the time Noct remembers to put his sword away, the boy's turned to run.
"Hey," says Noct. "Wait!"
The boy doesn't wait. He goes tearing off into the dark, and an instant later, even the sounds of his footsteps are gone.
Ignis has been the voice of reason since Noctis was eight years old. He's mixed up in memories of every cautious reprimand a child doesn't want to hear: eat your vegetables, and don't slouch, and finish your homework before you watch television, Highness, honestly.
Noct feels like that reprimanded child now when Ignis says, dubiously, "You're certain you weren't dreaming?"
"I told you," says Noctis. "I didn't doze off on watch. He's got to be around here somewhere."
Unless, a small part of his mind whispers, you took too long waking Ignis and Gladio when you should have been following him. Unless he got himself eaten by voreteeth, or split in two by an iron giant, or reopened his wounds and is bleeding out on the ground somewhere.
"Face it," says Gladio. "We've been looking for hours, and it's pitch black out here. Guy doesn't want to be found, we're not going to find him."
"Just a little longer," says Noct, for the third time.
He doesn't miss the look Ignis and Gladio share, but dammit, they didn't see the boy. If they had, they'd understand.
"Noct," says Ignis, tone gentler this time. "Perhaps we'd be better served by picking this up in the morning. We'd be more likely to spot him with some light to aid the search."
Noctis opens his mouth to answer, but he never gets the words out. He's too distracted when something crunches under his boot: not the easy give of soil, or even the jagged edges of rock. The texture's different, and he glances down at his feet to see what it is.
It's part of a chain-link fence, one section in a long line that cordons off a large swath of the land here. Only this part, maybe three feet wide, is down; time has ground it into the dirt, but the links of metal are still plainly visible, there on the packed earth.
Frowning, Noct looks up at the surrounding fence. The rest is still standing, the place where the missing chunk was cut away jagged and intentional. The opening seems to beckon, narrow and promising.
"Jackpot," says Noct, and steps inside.
It's another half-hour, though, before they spot anything – another long half-hour of stumbling in the dark, and of narrowly avoided goblins, and of feeling the weight of Ignis' scrutiny.
Then, softly, Gladio says, "Hey. You see that?"
Noct does, when he follows Gladio's gaze. It's a faint glow, nothing more, but Noctis turns toward it, hoping it's not just the ghostly gleam given off by thunder bombs.
It's a low-burning campfire, and as they come closer, the flickering light reveals the remnants of the saddest camp Noct's ever seen.
At some point, the lashed-together tree branches must have been some kind of lean-to or other rough shelter. Now, they're down on the ground, in the dirt, hacked half to pieces by what looks like the broad strokes an axe makes against wood.
There's a mostly-empty bucket of water, and some metal scraps that probably started their days as parts in an old car. An ancient can declares itself the best daggerquill soup this side of Leide, but all that's in it now are a handful of scraggly wildflowers. A mismatched series of screws and rusted nails have been worked into the flat face of a boulder a short way to the right. From them hang battered photos torn from magazines: the pier at Galdin Quay, the sun setting rosy-golden in the background; a soft-focus shot of what looks like strawberry cake; a high-def close-up of a baby chocobo, eyes bright, a piece of gysahl green stuck at the corner of its beak.
It takes Noct a minute to spot the boy who came to their camp.
He's curled up with his back to the rough rock of the boulder behind him, half wedged beneath a small overhang. What looks like the world's oldest tarp is pulled over him like a blanket, and Noct thinks, fleetingly, about how cold the nights get out here, and the fact that he has no sleeves.
Noctis steps forward, pitching his voice low and careful. "Hey," he says.
And he means to say more. But his foot catches on something and he trips – staggers – almost goes down.
There's a jangle of metal on metal nearby, and the instant it sounds, the boy jerks awake, eyes frantic. His hands come up, shaking, to level a gun their way.
Years of combat training insist that Noct call up his sword in response, but he's already seen how poorly the boy takes to weapons. So he just holds his hands up, palms out, and says, "We're not here to hurt you."
There's a tense moment when no one says anything. Noctis is half sure that Gladio, standing behind him, will summon his weapon and send the boy sprinting off into the darkness again. But the seconds tick by, and no one moves.
At last, in a soft, raspy voice, the boy says, "What do you want?"
Noct stays exactly where he is. "Thought you could use a hand," he says. "No offense, but you're looking kind of rough."
The boy's face is so damn expressive. Hesitation and confusion are written in the lines of it, telling a story that Noctis can't bring himself to think too hard about.
"Why?" says the boy. His hands are shaking harder, now; the barrel of the gun dips and wavers, coming away from Noct.
Before Noctis can answer, Ignis cuts in, tone disarming and matter-of-fact. "We've the means," he says. "And plainly, you require assistance. May we approach?"
The boy's eyes flicker between the three of them. At last, the gun dips lower still, and he gives a jerky nod.
"Kay," says Noct. "Incoming." He glances down at his feet, to where his calves are still pressed up against what almost sent him sprawling. It's a tripwire, thin metal probably repurposed from the chain-link fence – doubtless rigged to make noise when triggered. He steps over it carefully, with one booted foot and then the other. Behind him, he hears Gladio and Ignis doing the same.
"Not bad," Gladio says, approvingly, as he circumvents the makeshift alarm. "Bet you get all kinds of wildlife out here, huh? This thing help?"
The gun comes down the rest of the way. Nervously, the boy sets it aside, though he keeps it in easy reach. "Mostly," he says, and his eyes skitter out sideways, to the broken remnants of his lean-to.
Noctis comes closer, Ignis and Gladio flanking him on either side. From this distance, details he missed spring into sharp focus: the clear blue-violet of the boy's eyes, and the way his shirt hangs off his rail-thin frame, and the old scars that pepper his arms, all shapes and sizes. One mark, faded with time, shows a clear bite imprint – a voretooth, unless Noct misses his guess - and there's a white line of a scar across the bridge of his nose, cutting through the freckled landscape like an exclamation point.
"Here," says Ignis and reaches past Noct, a small glass bottle in his hand. "This will help with your injuries."
The boy reaches out for it – hesitates before accepting.
"You can drink it," says Noct. "Or it'll absorb on skin contact. Your call."
It seems to take ages for those thin fingers to work the cap free. When they finally do, the boy gives them each a final, searching look before lifting it to his lips and taking a cautious sip.
Noctis sees it in his expression, when the potion starts to work. A flicker of surprise darts across the boy's face, and then his eyes go wide with disbelief. He takes another sip, longer this time – actually shudders with relief, before he tips his head back and finishes off the rest.
The bruising on his arm goes from a deep purple-black to sickly green; the swelling in his wrist subsides, somewhat, but doesn't abate entirely. Ignis hands him another potion, and this time when he drinks, the marks on his skin fade away. Noct can pinpoint the moment when the pain stops; some of the tension seems to leech from beneath his eyes and the line of his jaw.
"Better?" Gladio asks him.
The boy feels beneath the edges of the bandage on his arm. He picks at the tied cloth, pulling it away to expose nothing beneath but a thin, white scar, the smooth skin around it still mottled with dried blood.
He stares at it for a moment. Then he stares up at all of them, face just this side of awed. "That was," he says, and then cuts himself off, biting at his lower lip. It takes him a minute to decide what he wants to say. "Thanks," he manages, at last.
"Not at all," says Ignis, with a small smile.
The boy's eyes drift between the three of them, gauging. He says, as though with great effort, "You guys wanna, uh. Sit down for a while?"
It's the most awkward attempt at being social Noctis has probably ever heard, and that's taking into the account the fact that he's the prince. His childhood was full of stuttering attempts at conversation, of full-grown adults tripping over themselves trying to talk to him. This one fragmented sentence handily trumps them all, and yet, Noct thinks, it's completely genuine.
The boy's looking up at them, cautious but hopeful. There's something painfully earnest in that expression, and before Noct can give it another thought, he says, "Yeah, sure," and sits himself down cross-legged on the hard-packed earth. "What's your name, anyway?"
Ignis and Gladio join them there on the ground, and the boy glances between the three of them.
It takes the boy a beat too long to answer. "Prompto," he says at last, like he's not really sure, and Noctis takes it in like the final piece to a puzzle: the middle-of-nowhere location, the jumpiness, the hesitation on the name. That's an alias if Noct's ever heard one, and he finds himself wondering who this guy's in trouble with, and why.
"Call me Noct," he says. "This is Ignis –" He jerks an indicative thumb toward his advisor, and then his Shield. " – and Gladio."
"A pleasure," says Ignis.
Gladio lifts one hand in greeting. "Hey."
Noct has about a dozen questions. This isn't the first hunter they've helped out with a well-placed potion or two, but it's the first one they've found who's living on the land, no haven in sight. Everything from "Why are you here?" to "What do you do when an iron giant shows up at midnight and you're sleeping?" is on the tip of his tongue.
Before he can say anything, though, a sound reaches his ears. It's a sound he's heard way too often, lately: the steady drone of an Imperial drop ship's engines.
He curses and looks up, reflexively – and sure enough, there are the red lights, blinking in the sky high above them.
Just like that, Prompto's on his feet, gun in one hand. Noct's never seen anyone move so fast; one second, he's there on the ground, and the next, he's frantically kicking dirt into the campfire, sending sheets of it cascading over the flames. The light flickers and dies, and then the only illumination comes from the circles pinned to their clothes.
Prompto makes a terrified sound, somewhere low in his throat. "Cover them!" he hisses, and three hands clamp over their flashlights.
The engines drone on. Above them, the ship's hovering like whoever's piloting it can't make a decision.
Noct thinks of the axe marks on the wood of the lean-to. He thinks of the weapons some of the MTs wield. He listens to Prompto gasp for breath, practically hyperventilating, and he's suddenly sure he knows who Prompto's hiding from.
"Hey," says Noct. "We got this. If they come down here, we'll wipe the floor with them. Okay?"
But they don't come down. A tense minute later, the ship starts up again and carries on its way.
Noctis glances to Ignis, who appears remarkably composed, a glimmer of concern showing through his diplomat's poker face. He glances to Gladio, who's frowning outright. He glances to Prompto, who won't meet his eyes.
The boy's shaking again, one arm tucked around his torso like it'll hold him together. The other is clutching at the gun like a kid with a security blanket. His shoulders are hunched, and all the tension that drained out of him when the potions took hold is back full force.
"You know what?" says Noct. "How bout we get out of here for a while?"
Gladio takes a good, hard look at the night sky. He takes a good, hard look at Prompto. "Not a bad idea," he says.
And Ignis, smooth and even, says, "I do believe we've space in our budget for a hotel room, after all."
Thank you guys so much for all of the kind comments and kudos. You are amazing. <3
I guess this is the part where I should admit that I don't actually have solid plans for this fic after this chapter? Might take me a bit longer to get the next bit out, because I'm not at all sure where I'm going with it. Sorry. :(a
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"C'mon in," says the man who introduced himself as Noct, and turns the key in the door. He shoves it open and wanders inside, but NH-01987 doesn't follow. He just stands there, on the threshold, struggling to make sense of this latest strange turn in a very, very strange night.
By all rights, NH-01987 should be dead now.
It's common sense: he tried to steal from these men. However hungry – and he's so, so hungry – an MT unit is conditioned since earliest awareness that supplies go to human soldiers first.
It certainly doesn't take rations that aren't given to it. The understanding is buried in him somewhere deep, etched in with the scars his trainer left behind to make that particular point.
In some ways, though, NH-01987 has had to move past that lesson. Out here in the empty backroads of Lucis, there's never any food unless he catches it himself. He eats charred voretooth and round, white roots that he finds in the ground, mostly. Sometimes, when hunting is scarce and he's desperate, he creeps into the small cluster of buildings near his camp in the middle of the night and rifles through the plastic bags of things the people living there no longer want. They put them out on the street, once every other week, for a truck to come and take them away.
So logically, NH-01987 knows – that rule can't apply. There are no rations designated for him, not anymore. If he clings to past restrictions, he'll never eat again.
On top of that, these men don't know he's an MT in the first place. His barcode is carefully covered. His ports and exposed wiring are hidden, closeted away beneath his clothes; they don't even bleed anymore. His skin no longer burns in the sun, and he doesn't vomit black bile the way he used to. His eyes, glimpsed once in a clear, flat puddle of water after a heavy rain, don't have the red tint characteristic of his kind.
He appears human, at least at a glance. His body, always so intent on rejecting the treatments, seems to have finally purged itself of their effects.
So. He knows, logically. He knows these men have no reason to hold him accountable for rules they're unaware he's meant to follow. But logic only goes so far, and there is a much larger part of NH-01987. It's the part that remembers hands on him, holding him down – the sharp blade of a scalpel, bringing cold, clinical agony – long nights encased in metal, hungry and cold and afraid.
He's done nothing for these men besides attempt to take their rations. In return, they've healed his wounds and invited him here, to this human place he's only ever dared to approach during the dark hours of the night. NH-01987 can't quite make sense of that, no matter how many times he tries.
"Prompto?" says Noct's voice, from inside. "You coming, or what?"
It takes him a moment, to remember that the name is his.
He's never had to use it, before now. It's his own invention, carefully planned in those heart-pounding first months after he came ashore at Cape Shawe. He had been so sure someone would realize he was a fake. He'd been so terrified that they would send him back.
So NH-01987 had created a new name for himself, nervously attending to every detail of Lucian naming tradition: words in Latin, taken from objects.
He'd spent sleepless nights worrying over it, trying to find the right source. He'd spent anxious days fretting over his poor translation skills.
In the end, he'd named himself for a gun.
It's the one that still rests in the holster at his waist, sleek and fast and reassuring in his hands. Quicksilver, it says, in scrawling script along the barrel. NH-01987 took it from a dead Lucian soldier when he first arrived, scavenged from some nameless battlefield. It's kept him safe ever since, and the man's pants and boots have kept him warm.
It's a good name, he thinks – but before tonight, no one's ever asked him for it. Hearing Noct call it out, casual and familiar, makes something in NH-01987's chest go a little tight.
He's so busy worrying about the sensation, sudden and a bit alarming, that he nearly forgets people are waiting on him.
"We hang around here much longer, we might as well just stay up and watch the sun rise," says the man Noct called Gladio.
And the man in the glasses – Ignis – says, "Shall we?" He says it almost gently, and spreads his hand toward the door.
"Yeah," manages NH-01987, with difficulty. "Sorry. Sure."
He ducks his head, and he steps inside – and oh. Oh.
The room is incredible.
It looks like the pictures NH-01987 finds sometimes in the floppy books that people throw away: clean and soft and inviting. The walls are dappled teal and tan, and plush, short-backed chairs stand beside a polished table. A round lamp spills warm yellow light across the carpet on the floor.
And the beds are gigantic.
NH-01987 has vague, half-remembered impressions of the dorms in Gralea, years and years ago, back before they moved him to the storage facility. But this – this is nothing like that. These beds are nearly twice the size, and the whole room holds only two of them, instead of three stacks of three.
NH-01987 stands there in the doorway, just staring. His mouth's open a little, he thinks.
"You okay?" says Noct, and NH-01987 remembers that there are people there with him.
His face grows unaccountably warm, and he bites at his lower lip. "Yeah," he says. "It's just – nice. You know?"
Noct fixes him with a strange look. "Yeah," he says. "I guess." He pauses a beat, pressing his lips together. Then he says: "You look dead on your feet. You wanna crash now, or do you want first dibs on the shower?"
"Shower?" says NH-01987, unfamiliar with the word.
They take it for a decision.
Gladio crosses the room to a second door and sticks his head inside. He touches something on the wall, and light floods into a small, white room. "Have at it," he says.
And Ignis says, "You're about Noct's size. After you've cleaned up, perhaps you can borrow a change of clothes until we get yours laundered."
Noct drapes himself into one of the low chairs. "Yeah, sure," he says, and waves one hand, dismissive.
"Um," says NH-01987, because they all seem to expect something of him, and he isn't sure what it is. His eyes flicker between faces. He looks at the small, white room – points a tentative finger toward it. "Should I just…?"
"A moment, if you would," says Ignis, and bends to open the duffel bag casually discarded by the door. From it he produces fabric: some white, some black. He presents it to NH-01987, and he says, "Here you are."
NH-01987's fingers close around it. "Thank you," he says, cautiously, and then he goes into the small, white room.
It reminds him of the hygiene chamber, back in Gralea. There are tiles on the floor, white instead of the grey he's used to. On the wall, a large rectangle of reflective glass shows him his own face: thin and dirty. Like the long-ago puddle, it confirms that his eyes have lost their red tinge. Without it, they're a peculiar shade of blue, edging into violet, and NH-01987 leans forward to get a better look at them.
But he's wasting time, and there are people waiting on him. With effort, NH-01987 pulls his gaze away from the glass and resumes his inspection of the room. Metal fixtures poke from the wall, and he knows that if this is truly like the hygiene chamber, turning them will produce water. The plastic bottle just inside the glass cubicle will hold cleaning liquid. He's not entirely sure why there's more than one knob, or why there's more than one bottle, but Ignis said he should get cleaned up, and he knows what that entails.
Still, NH-01987 hesitates. He glances toward the open door. In the hygiene chamber, he had to remain in the sight of the guards at all times – but this. This is different. When he takes off his clothes, the armor ports will be visible, along with the wiring that he could never quite bring himself to pull from his skin. If they see, there will be questions, and they won't like the answers.
These men hold the Empire in contempt. Perhaps they're even soldiers, judging by their reaction to the drop ship. NH-01987 doesn't want to know what they'll do if they discover they've let an Imperial weapon into their midst.
So he closes the door.
He waits until the count of ten, to see if anyone will protest.
When ten seconds pass to fifteen, and then to thirty, he reaches tentatively to pull his shirt off, then step out of his pants. The new clothes, the clean fabric Ignis pressed into his hands, he sets reverently on the counter.
Then he turns to the knobs inside the glass cubicle. The first one causes water to cascade down from a metal oval high on the wall, as he expected: it's a shock of cold on the skin in such a frigid night, but no worse than the icy, punishing spray he had to stand under in the hygiene chamber. NH-01987 has endured worse.
But there is another knob, and this one he doesn't know what to do with. He turns it, experimentally, and the cascade of water grows marginally stronger. There is no other noticeable change. Perhaps, NH-01987 thinks, it is defective.
No sooner has he had the thought than the water still pouring over his arm begins to change. It's subtle, at first, and then more pronounced; the chill leaches away, until it's pleasantly, enticingly warm.
NH-01987 stares for a moment, transfixed. He can't quite fight down a full-body shiver at the sudden shift in temperature. He all but throws himself into the glass cubicle, and the water sloughs over him, pleasant pressure, blissful warmth.
NH-01987 ducks his head under the spray. He closes his eyes and just stands for a moment, letting it lull him. It feels good. Shockingly good – the first good thing he can remember in a long, long time.
But they're waiting, he reminds himself – and reluctantly, he opens his eyes again to reach for one of the plastic bottles. "Heart of Eos Shampoo," says the first one. "Lavender and sage." The second is identical, save that that word conditioner replaces shampoo. The third label reads body wash.
All three, NH-01987 is relieved to note, have instructions on the back. He follows them meticulously, lathering his hair and rinsing, then leaving in a thick cream while scrubbing the rest of him until the water swirling down the drain runs clear instead of grey. The stuff in the bottles smells fantastic, earthy and slightly sharp. By the time he reaches to turn off the water, the room is full of scented mist, and NH-01987's skin is pink and clean.
Next, he sets his sights on the folded fabric on the wall shelves.
NH-01987 has a passing familiarity with towels. Once, after a training session involving the effects of enemy lightning magic on water, the guards rubbed themselves down until they were dry while NH-01987 lay on the metal ground, muscles still twitching weakly from the shocks.
The towels here look similar, if slightly larger. There are four of them, too: enough so that NH-01987 can use one without depriving anyone else. Besides, if he puts on Noct's clothes without drying off, he'll get them wet. It seems a poor way to repay his kindness.
So NH-01987 takes a towel. He rubs the water away, and then he folds the towel again and sets it on the counter. Noct's clothes, when he puts them on, are slightly too big. But they're clean, and they smell good – some sort of mellow musk. He stares at the steam-blurred shape of himself in the reflective glass for a long time.
Then he steps out of the white room, tentative, his own clothes in one hand.
Ignis and Gladio are speaking in hushed voices, but they fall silent when he reappears.
"Just set them on the table," says Ignis. "I'll see to them in the morning."
NH-01987 glances down at the clothes in his hand. He does as he's instructed, noting that the table's no longer empty. Noct's bootless feet are propped up on the surface of it; he's fallen asleep in the chair, chin tipped up, face slack and unguarded.
He looks very peaceful. Someone's draped a blanket over the top of him.
Gladio sees him looking – snorts a laugh. "Unbelievable, right? He can crash just about anywhere."
And Ignis puts in, "Fortunately for us, that solves the sleeping arrangement quandary. Shall we turn in?"
Sleeping arrangement quandary? NH-01987 hadn't been aware of one in the first place. He thinks about it for a moment – realizes that between Noct, Gladio, and Ignis, there must have been some question about who would claim the beds. Now that Noct's dozing in the chair, he supposes that makes the determination easier. Ignis will sleep in one, and Gladio the other.
It takes him a moment to register that Ignis is still watching him, expectant – a moment more to understand that the man is waiting for an answer. NH-01987 starts, guiltily. He's not used to questions requiring input. He's used to orders, or very occasionally, orders dressed up to look like suggestions.
This, it seems, is neither.
"Yeah," says NH-01987, uncertainly. Ignis' eyes remain fixed on him, considering, and he shifts under the scrutiny, wondering whether the answer was insufficient. He adds, "Sleep sounds good," just in case.
It's the right response. Ignis nods thoughtfully to himself, and NH-01987 lets out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Carefully, he picks his way to the corner of the room.
He lowers himself gingerly to the thin layer of carpeting lining the floor, grateful for the added insulation. He doesn't know how quickly sleep will come: he's been awake for half the night, but a near brush with an Imperial ship always leaves him keyed up and on edge. It's warmer here than in his camp, though, even without the tarp that serves as his blanket, and the floor has some padding. That will help.
He's just set his gun on the floor beside him and is starting to settle in when he feels fingers close around his wrist.
"The hell do you think you're doing?" a voice says, and NH-01987 flinches back. He looks up for what feels like miles, until he catches sight of Gladio's scowling face, towering there above him.
He's gotten something wrong, somehow. The man's been casual and inoffensive, despite his size – but plainly, he's upset now. NH-01987 runs over the last five minutes with increasing anxiety, trying to find his mistake.
Was it the towel? His answer to Ignis? It's something, he knows. It's always something, and NH-01987 feels a familiar twisting dread in his stomach. His heart is going entirely too fast, slamming in his chest like a piston, the way it always used to at the end of a particularly bad training session. He's twelve years old again, suddenly, knowing he's messed up and that he's going to pay for it, and pay for it, until he swears he'll do better, just please. Please stop.
"Gladio," says Ignis, and there's an odd inflection to his tone. It cuts through the memories playing behind NH-01987's eyes – and just like that, the hand around his wrist lets go.
"Sorry," Gladio says, and holds up both hands, palms out. He takes a step back. "But gods, kid. Get off the damn floor."
NH-01987 blinks up at him, dazed – still processing that he's been let go. "What?"
"You're welcome to the other bed," says Ignis, voice slightly pained. "Gladio and I are quite accustomed to sharing."
He sits there a moment longer, frozen and uncomprehending. They want him to have a bed? All on his own?
NH-01987 opens his mouth as though to say something, but his throat is oddly tight, and the words won't come. He closes his mouth again, and he retrieves his gun from its spot on the floor. He circles around to the second bed, giving them plenty of time to change their minds.
No one says a word.
So he sits down on the edge – feels it give under his weight, plush and yielding. He sets the gun on a small, square table within easy reaching distance, and he sneaks another glance at Ignis and Gladio. They're watching him, still, and their expressions are ones NH-01987 doesn't know how to read.
"Go on, then," says Ignis, kindly.
NH-01987 lies down on the bed. He squirms under the blankets, on his side, and a moment later, a quiet click precedes the light fleeing from the room. All that remains is the glow that filters in through the cloth over the windows, yellow and mild.
Behind him, he hears the other bed creak, presumably as Ignis and Gladio get into it.
NH-01987 lies very still. He has the strange impression that he's dreaming, and if he shifts in just the wrong way, or even breathes too hard, he'll wake up back in Niflheim, in his storage pod, wondering where he ever came up with something so implausible.
The bed is soft beneath him, the sheets cool and smooth like water. But they're already warming with the residual heat from the shower, and the blankets are a pleasant weight above him. NH-01987 takes a sharp breath in, and when it comes out, it's ragged and a little broken. The second one sucks in on its heels, involuntary, mostly silent.
His cheeks are wet. He reaches trembling fingers out to trace, gently, along the clean cotton case of the pillow.
Behind him, he hears Ignis murmur something, a breath of a whisper, too low to make out. NH-01987's shoulders are shaking, the way his training instructor always hated, but he can't quite bring himself to stop.
He thinks that there's no way he'll be able to sleep, now. He'll stay up till past dawn, trying to impress this moment into his memory. A year from now, when he's curled up in his camp, he wants to be able to take this recollection out like a prized picture, turn it over in his mind, and relive it as best he's able.
But NH-01987 is wrong.
It's less than five minutes before sleep pulls him under, tucking him up and folding him away into the best rest he's had in years.
And now. Now is the part where I gush over the art that the incredible rah-bop drew for this fic. Just!! It is everything. EVERYTHING. Please look at it, it is the beeeeest. :D
Now, kindly excuse me while I roll around and shriek for awhile, because this will never not be amazing. :D
You guys are seriously incredible! Thank you all so much for the kind words. <3
In other news: if you missed the art that the amazing rah-bop drew for this fic, please take a look. It is fan-freaking-tastic. :D
A huuuuge thank you to rah-bop, also, for helping me plan out this fic and for about a billion incredible suggestions. <3
Prompto's still in bed when Noct gets up, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted.
He's still in bed when Noct climbs out of the shower, feeling marginally more human, the aches from having spent all night in a chair somewhat mollified by the hot water.
He's still in bed when Ignis, voice pitched at a hush, says, "Noct, a word?"
They pull the chairs over into the far corner – actually lift and carry them, so that they don't make too much noise, scraping along the floor. Then Noct drops back into the place he slept last night, and Ignis seats himself as well, legs crossed primly. Gladio hovers above them.
"We'd best have this discussion before he wakes," says Ignis.
Noctis doesn't have to ask, "What discussion?" His eyes flicker out sideways, to the boy curled up in the bed.
Prompto's hunched in on himself in his sleep, curled up like he's trying to be the smallest possible target. The pillow isn't under his head anymore; his arms are wrapped around it, holding on tight, like a kid with a cactuar plush. Noct notes, idly, that he's still got that filthy cloth bracelet on one wrist. He looks smaller in Noct's clothes, there against the clean white sheets, and there's a weird lump under the fabric, on the left side of his chest.
Some of the tension lines have gone from his face, but he's still way too thin.
"Sure," says Noct. "Got any ideas?"
"A few." Ignis reaches up to adjust his glasses, voice pitched low. "He plainly has no love of the Empire, and those boots and trousers are Lucian-made: Kingsglaive standard issue. His gun, as well. That's a Quicksilver model, favored by a handful of our army's ranged units."
Noct frowns, the sudden possibility a dark glimmer in his mind. "You think he's one of ours?"
"Could be," Gladio puts in. "Kid's kind of skittish for a soldier, though."
"Still, he has the equipment," Ignis says. "If he was taken as a prisoner of war and managed to escape, that would go no small way toward explaining his distaste for Niflheim."
On the bed, Prompto shifts in his sleep. A flicker of unease crosses his face, there and then gone. It's all too easy, suddenly, to picture this boy in some cell in the depths of a Nif base – to imagine that the scars littering his arms and the one slashed across the bridge of his nose are deliberate.
Noctis feels something twist, low in his stomach. "You think they –"
"It's a possibility," says Ignis.
Gladio leans down, intent. "Second one is, his folks got offed in the war. Kid had nowhere to go, started living off the land."
Noct rubs a hand over his mouth. "So he makes himself a new place, and he – what, scavenges?"
Gods, he's honestly not sure which idea makes him queasier – that Prompto's been tortured in some Nif cell, or that, having lost everything, his last resort was a life like this, with nothing and no one. Both thoughts are hard to take.
From a few feet away, Prompto makes a soft noise and shifts again. His face is burrowed into the pillow, now, like he's trying to hide.
At last Noct says, "You guys gave this a lot of thought."
"We discussed it a bit, while you were sleeping," Ignis admits.
Noct considers this for a long moment. He considers all of it, especially the boy curled up in the bed. "So, what are we gonna do with him? I mean, we can't just leave him out there."
Ignis and Gladio exchange a long look. It's the kind of look they use way too often – the kind that seems to communicate some complicated message Noct's unable to read.
"That's up to you," Ignis says, in his diplomat-even tone. "But do bear in mind: we face soldiers from Niflheim near daily."
"And we're flat broke again," Gladio puts in. "Before the day's out, we're gonna need to take another hunt. Do you really wanna drag the kid into the kind of life where he's got to fight maneaters for the cash to eat at night?"
From the bed, Prompto makes a sound decidedly like a whimper, and Noct feels something in his chest go tight.
"Can't be any worse than what he's got now," Noct says, softly. He rubs the flat of his thumb over the plush fabric of the chair, back and forth, thinking.
The thing is, Ignis and Gladio are right: the life they're living isn't exactly safe. They're perpetually low on potions for a reason. Every day is a slog through things with stingers and claws and teeth trying to kill them, and every time they linger too long, the Nifs come after them with a whole unit of MTs, all jerky metal parts and gleaming axes.
But gods. Prompto's a wreck. He looks like he's on the tail end of a long, desperate attempt to hold it together – like he's barely scraping by. If he's living on the edge of nowhere, where the hell is he even getting bullets for that gun? And what's he going to do when he needs it to defend himself and he's all out of ammo?
Noct rubs at his mouth, thoughts chasing each other around and around in circles. It's got to be better, for someone to have his back. Whatever the danger, it beats cowering under some rock in the wilderness, trying to stay out of sight of those damn Nif drop ships. Maybe they can get him out of the area – get him out of range of the base nearby, at least.
Gladio's sister's in Lestallum, and she's always had a soft touch for strays. When they get there, she'll probably be game to help him find somewhere to stay.
At last Noctis says, "We've got to at least offer. If we send him back out there, we're sending him out to die." His gaze shifts from Ignis to Gladio, takes in the grim understanding reflected back at him. They've reached the same conclusion, he realizes – probably a long time before he did. "Maybe we can leave him with Iris, when we finally make it to Lestallum."
Gladio nods slowly. "Don't think she'd mind lending a hand."
Noct's about to add more – opens his mouth to speak. But a sudden sound from the bed intrudes, sharper than the others, more distressed.
He glances over to where Prompto still lies, asleep. The boy's face definitely isn't peaceful anymore, though – brows drawn down, face tight and unhappy. His lips are moving, mouthing soundless words that look uncomfortably close to "please stop."
With a jolt, Noct realizes Prompto's cheeks are wet.
He's approaching before he stops to think it through, reaching out to shake Prompto's shoulder before Ignis' soft, "Perhaps that's not the best idea," can penetrate enough to make sense.
By then it's too late. Prompto comes awake with a gasp, eyes huge and uncomprehending. He jerks backward, straight off the bed – lands with an ungainly thump in a pile of blankets.
Before Noct can say a word, Prompto's scuttling back across the floor, frantic and graceless. He kicks one leg to rid himself of the tangle of bedding – doesn't stop until his back's to the wall, eyes terrified, groping at his waist for the gun that's not in a holster there.
Noct winces. "Sorry," he says. "You were having a nightmare. I thought it might be better to wake you up."
For a long moment, Prompto doesn't respond. His eyes dart around the room, taking in every corner, gaze sweeping over Noct and the others, plainly expecting a threat. There's no recognition, at first. Every thought is splashed over his face, clear as a billboard: where am I, and who are they, and what are they going to do to me?
It's a terrible expression.
It's even worse when, a second later, recognition seeps through, after all. The terror washes out like waves at the beach, leaving behind a shaky, disbelieving sort of smile.
"Oh," Prompto says, softly, like he's surprised to find that this is the real world.
He reaches up, kind of wondering, and touches his own hair – still shaggy, but clean, a paler blond now that the dirt's washed out of it. It seems longer, when it's not sticking up every which way.
"Did you sleep well?" Ignis asks him,
Prompto nods, incredibly earnest. "Yeah," he says. "It was – it was really nice." The boy's hand is still buried in his own hair, rubbing the strands of it between his fingers like he's never felt it before.
Another look passes between Gladio and Ignis, and Noct finds himself wondering whether he missed something last night. But before he can ask, Prompto's standing up slow and not entirely steady.
He still has the blanket clutched in one hand, like he doesn't know what to do with it. After a beat, Prompto ventures back to the bed and sets it on the edge of the mattress. He glances up at Noct's face – sees himself being watched – bites at his lip. He reaches out for the blanket again and folds it, with painstaking care. When he's finished, he looks up again, wary and uncertain.
Who knows what he thinks he sees in Noct's expression? Whatever it is, it prompts him to reach back down and start straightening the fabric out again.
"It's fine," says Gladio. "Just leave it."
Prompto jerks his hands back like the blanket's electrocuted him. "Sorry," he says.
Ignis pins Gladio with a look – decidedly cool and markedly unimpressed. "Honestly," is all he says, but there's so much inflection to his tone that really, that's all he needs.
"Look," says Noct, before they can make it any worse. "We've got to get going today."
Prompto blinks at him.
"We can't stay here," says Noct. "We've got places to be."
Understanding lights up Prompto's face – and on its heels comes the most blatant hurt that Noct thinks he's ever seen. The boy tucks his arms in carefully around his torso. He nods, and he bites at his lip, and he says, "Yeah. Sure." He falters to an awkward halt. "Um. Where should I put your clothes?
Noct's brain replays that conversation. Then it kicks him, hard, for the words that just came out of his mouth.
"Wait," says Noct. "I didn't mean – I just meant – why don't you come with us?"
Prompto's in the process of collecting the gun from the bedside table. He freezes, arm still outstretched, and turns slowly back their way.
"We could get you out of the area," says Noct. "There's a Nif base around here now, right? It's not safe."
Prompto doesn't say anything. He's too busy staring.
"I mean," says Noct. "You'll be taking your chances with us. It'll be dangerous either way. But at least if you stick with us, we'll have your back for a while, and you'll end up somewhere you can start over. What do you think?"
Prompto opens his mouth. He closes it again. His eyes are suspiciously bright, like he might start crying. "What?" he says, helplessly.
"You're welcome to travel with us, for a time," says Ignis.
And Gladio puts in, "If you wanna go as far as Lestallum, my sister's there. She could help you get set up somewhere new."
The look on Prompto's face is going to be the end of him, Noct's sure. His lips are pressed tight together, to try and hide the way the lower one wobbles, but it doesn't quite succeed. "You really mean that?" he says, very softly.
"I really mean it," says Noct.
There's a beat of silence that stretches out too long. Noct's just about to say that Prompto can have a few hours to think about it – that they don't need an answer right away. He never gets the chance.
Prompto's too busy blurting, "I won't get in the way, I swear," all in a rush, like he can't get it out fast enough.
His eyes are raw around the edges, decidedly damp – but gods, that smile is blinding, creeping wobbly and genuine onto his lips. It makes him look like the hero in some fairy tale, whose crumbling life's been saved by the genie who says he has three wishes. Noct's chest is tight, and it only gets tighter when Prompto swipes the back of a hand over his face, scrubbing at the tears there.
"Welcome aboard," says Gladio.
And Ignis, because he's Ignis, and tying up loose ends is kind of his job, says, "Is there anything you wish to retrieve from your camp?"
Noctis remembers the sad remnants of the shelter, with cast-off scraps hoarded in an effort to make it a bit brighter. But to Prompto, it's got to be everything. To Prompto, it's home.
Somehow, he's not surprised when the boy nods. "If it's okay," he says. "It won't take long."
"We still have the hotel room for a few hours, yet," says Ignis. "But when we're done here, we'll make a pass through the area. Does that suffice?"
Prompto nods again, carefully. His hand creeps up to his hair again, brushing along the ends of it like his fingers are exploring. He says, "Yeah. I just – I want to keep the pictures."
Noct thinks back on them: a fetching sunset, and a lovingly shot piece of cake, and the round, soft shape of a baby chocobo. There were others, too – half-glimpsed in the darkness the night before, bright and crisp, like a window into some happier world.
Prompto's face is starting to go red, like he's embarrassed to want them. "They were the best ones, is all. I liked what was in them. And I liked how they looked." He frowns, as though that's not quite what he wants to say. Then he thinks for a minute, and holds his thumbs and index fingers up to make the shape of a square, like he's setting up a shot. "You know?"
"The framing?" Ignis suggests.
And Gladio says, "Sounds like we got a photographer on our hands." He reaches out, casually, to elbow Noct in the side. "Maybe the kid can teach you a thing or two."
Noct rolls his eyes. "You're just mad I cut half your face off."
"Hey," says Gladio. "It's your loss."
Prompto's been following the exchange, growing increasingly bewildered. He stares hard at Gladio for a moment. "Half… your face?"
When Ignis sighs, it's the sigh of the perpetually put-upon. "If you're going to start squabbling again, at least have the decency to show Prompto what you mean."
So Noct digs his phone out of his pocket.
He taps at the gallery, to bring up the shots of their journey: the fish he caught at the pier on Galdin Quay, fire-roasted, Ignis' fingers just visible at the side of the plate; Gladio's face, half out of frame, with what might have been an attractive expression if only he was in focus; the curious rock formation outside of Longwythe, a dark shape against the bright sky.
Noct's not much for pictures. That's all he has, for three weeks of travel, and they're not great. Like hell he's about to admit that to Gladio, though.
"See?" says Noct. "Two out of three's not bad, right?"
But Prompto's busy looking at them like they're the best thing he's ever seen. His eyes are wide and a little awestruck; he's leaning in almost close enough to touch Noct's shoulder in an effort to get a better view of the screen.
So Noct smiles at him. He says, "Want to try? Maybe you can take a better one of Gladio and get him off my back."
And when he holds out the phone, Prompto takes it with trembling fingers. He turns it over in his hands, and he says, "How do I...?"
"Here," says Noct. "Like this."
He has to reach over Prompto's arm to get at the phone – feels him jerk back, just slightly, at the contact. But he doesn't retreat, and he eases into the touch as Noct switches to camera mode for him.
"Just tap that button," he says, and Prompto taps the button.
Gladio, looking way too amused by the shot of Prompto's bare feet, says, "You gotta point it at what you want in the picture first."
"And tapping the screen focuses the image," Ignis puts in.
"Huh," says Noct. "It does?"
Gladio grins – elbows him again. "That explains a lot."
The exchange takes all of ten seconds. By the end of it, Prompto has shots of Noct's face, and of Ignis' hair, and of Gladio looking way too amused. Most of them are even in focus.
"Hey," says Noct, leaning over to look. "Not bad."
And there it is, that grin again – downright brilliant, so earnest it seems to brighten up the whole room.
"He's better than you are," snorts Gladio, "and he's had his hands on the thing all of two minutes."
Ignis' mouth curls up at the corners, fond and amused. "I'll leave you to it and see about heating up the leftovers for breakfast then, shall I?"
"Sounds good," says Noct.
"Works for me," says Gladio.
No third answer comes. Ignis pauses a moment. Then he says, "Is green curry soup to your tastes, Prompto?"
"Um," says Prompto. His eyes are on the floor, staring at the carpet like it might give him an answer.
Suddenly, Noct thinks back to last night: the warm glow of the firelight; the idle absorption of playing games on his phone; looking up to find a strange boy near the cook station, arm outstretched.
For the first time, it occurs to Noct to wonder why Prompto had come at all. For the first time, it strikes him that the leftover jar had been out, exactly where Ignis left it after washing the dishes.
He casts his mind back over Prompto's camp, realizing with a sudden, sickening awareness that he can't remember seeing any kind of food cache. All at once, Noct's kicking himself for not offering the boy something to eat. He's not sure what's worse: that it's only just now occurring to him, or that it's been almost twelve hours since then and Prompto never said a word.
"Um," says Prompto again. The floor might hold the secrets of the universe, for all the attention he has focused on it. "Is that food?"
Ignis' face tries very hard for smooth and unperturbed – doesn't quite manage. "It is," he says.
Prompto's fingers tighten on the plastic of Noct's phone. "Then yes," he says, words not quite steady. "Please – yes."
There's a beat of silence. Noct tries not to let his face give too much away. He doesn't want to think about the kind of life Prompto's been forced to live, but gods, the hopeful edge to his tone makes it hard.
The quiet must stretch too long. Prompto glances up, and his too-expressive face is overrun with worry. "But it's okay," he says. "If there's not enough, or if – if you want to save it for another time. I just, I need to go find something else then."
Noct sees Ignis wince, out of the corner of his eye. Gladio's jaw is clenched so tight a muscle in it jumps.
"Hey," says Noct. "Stop that. There's plenty. Right, Specs?"
"Indeed," says Ignis. "I tend to go overboard, I'm afraid."
And Gladio puts in: "Calm down, kid. We wouldn't've offered if we didn't mean it."
Prompto's throat works as he swallows. And is he shaking?
Ignis must see it, too. His face softens to something remarkably gentle, and he says, "I'll just go reheat the soup. It won't be a moment."
Noct watches him go – watches the door click closed behind him.
"Don't worry," he says. "Iggy's pretty quick."
But Prompto's definitely worrying – staring at the door, a bit dazed, like he can’t quite tear his eyes away. They're going to need a distraction, or this is about to be the longest five minutes of Noct's life.
So he says, "Hey, you know, I've got a pretty good filter app. Wanna see what we can do with those pics of yours?"
And he leans over, so close his shoulder is pressed to Prompto's, to tap at the screen of his phone.
Wow, you guys don't even know how happy the enthusiasm for this fic has made me. :) Thank you all so much; you're incredible!
I finished up my other multi-parter, The Way They Were, so I should be able to be a bit quicker with this one now. Sorry for the wait!
Please check out the end notes for more art for this fic. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The plastic device in NH-01987's hands captures the world around him
It collects the lines of the bed, rumpled from sleep, and the crooked curve of Noct's smile, and the light slanting in through the fabric hung across the window.
Then the filters take what he's gathered and let him change it. With the tap of a button, images grow dreamy and distant, or the color fades away completely, or everything shifts to tones of washed-out cream and gold.
It would be fascinating, any other time. It's fascinating now.
But the promise of food is buried at the back of NH-01987's mind, and it keeps tugging his thoughts away. It's hard to find room for anything else.
He wants to appreciate the images on the screen, and he does. They're absorbing and lovely and he made them.
But however enticing the pictures are – however calm and sweet the morning is – his mind keeps bringing him back around to Ignis' words: breakfast. Leftovers.
They're words that he's heard in passing – conversation between real people, at a distance, when NH-01987 has been brave enough to venture near civilians. They're words that don't apply to him, but oh, does he want them to.
His hands are shaking a little, where they're clasped around the plastic thing that takes the pictures. Maybe they have been for a while.
But Noct seems to notice now, because he says, "Hey. You okay?"
NH-01987 nods, but his legs have gone rubbery and strange, and when he starts to sag, Noct catches him by the elbow. A second later, Gladio's big hand closes on the other side.
Any minute now, NH-01987 is sure, they'll tighten their hold, clench down enough to bruise. He passed out once, during a drill session – his third day without rations, limbs trembling until they finally stopped holding him up.
His trainer took it out of the flesh along his shoulder blades, and NH-01987 regretted not being stronger. Then they suspended his rations privileges for another day, and he regretted it even more.
NH-01987 half expects something similar now – even though he knows, objectively, that they think he's human.
People don't do things like that to other people. His observations have taught him as much: the guards at Zegnautus Keep, during down time, with their flippant words and open grins. The civilians in Gralea, laughing together, leaning on one another, walking close enough to touch. The little girl at Cape Shawe who slipped a small hand into the palm of a pretty lady and called her "mother."
He's never seen a person beat another person until they bleed. He's never seen a person chastise another person for wanting food. And right now – right now they think he's a person. So he's safe. Isn't he?
Somehow, he's still surprised when Noct and Gladio keep their hands on him, steady pressure – supportive, not painful. Somehow, he's still surprised when they walk him over to one of the chairs in the corner and ease him into it.
"Stay with him?" says Noct, hovering restlessly. "I'm gonna see if Iggy's almost done."
"Yeah," Gladio says. "On it."
Noct slips out the door, and for a moment, Gladio stands there, a tower of muscle, face unreadable. Then he sets himself down in the chair next to NH-01987, even though his legs are too long, and the armrests are too narrow, and he kind of has to hunch in on himself to do it.
"Sorry," says NH-01987, faintly. "It caught up to me."
Gladio's eyes glance him over. "Uh huh," he says, and he gives nothing else away. "When was the last time you ate, kid?"
NH-01987 thinks back.
It's been a long time since he brought an animal down; game's been scarce lately. The sleek, spotted creature he shot the night before, the one with the telltale smoking lesions from the scourge on its back, only mangled his arm and then sprinted away before he could finish the job. It was his first chance in a while, and he botched it.
He'd had a small stock of round roots set aside, for hard times. Every day, he'd roasted one and eaten it – working his way through them, slowly, until they'd dwindled and gone. NH-01987 isn't entirely sure when he finished the last one. Two days ago? Three?
Maybe his silence is answer enough, because Gladio grunts and folds his arms over his chest. "Take it slow on the soup. If it's been awhile, going too fast's just gonna make you sick."
NH-01987 nods. That's a lesson he knows all too well. Food comes in waves, dependent on what he can coax from the wilds of Lucis on any given day; he's learned the dangers of weak willpower after scraping by on starvation rations.
The door opens just then, and NH-01987's head jerks up toward the sound. Ignis is standing in the doorway, two bowls in his hands. Noct's behind him, with two more.
"My apologies for the delay," says Ignis, and he steps into the room.
He crosses to the chairs without hesitation, and Noct nudges the door closed with a foot before trailing after him. Then Ignis sets a bowl into NH-01987's hands, and he forgets about everything else in the world.
It smells amazing. It smells better than amazing.
Suddenly, NH-01987's back in Zegnautus Keep, remembering the few unfortunate occasions when his regiment marched past the sign reading Cafeteria on the way to training. The scent had been like a knife in his gut – made him all but ache with longing.
He feels like that now, stomach twisted up, so empty it hurts. His mouth's wet, and his hands are shaking.
The bowl tips, dangerously, and NH-01987 nearly drops it. It's Gladio that keeps it from going over, sliding a single big palm under the bottom.
NH-01987 looks up, dazed – from Ignis, to Gladio, to Noct.
"Go on, then," says Ignis. "No need to stand on ceremony."
In theory, NH-01987 knows how spoons work.
Once, when he was new to the area, he followed a hunter around for a week, always careful to stay out of sight. She was a stocky woman, maybe fifty, hair more grey than brown. She took out more voreteeth in that one week than NH-01987 has before or since, and he learned a lot by watching her.
He found out that you can cook meat over a fire. He learned that some plants can be eaten: the white roots, and the short green ones with the tufted tops, and the squishy ones that are wet inside. He watched her preparing dinner, spoons and all. Some mornings, she didn't pack up very well, and when he set out to follow her he'd discover whole plants she'd forgotten to take along, already trimmed and washed.
NH-01987 ate better during that week than he thinks he ever has. When she finally caught sight of him, just a second too slow in ducking behind a boulder, he'd had to run – but he hadn't wanted to. It was nice to have someone else there, even if she didn't know he was there.
But because of that hunter, NH-01987 knows spoons.
He knows how to hold one, and how they work. It's second-hand knowledge, though, observed from a distance, and his first attempt is awkward. Most of the soup sloshes out because his hands are still shaking.
On the second try, he actually gets some into his mouth.
And oh, gods. If he thought it smelled incredible, that's nothing compared to how it tastes.
For a second, he can't even think. His brain sort of shorts out, and he just sits there, eyes wide. Somehow, it's spicy and sweet and creamy, all at once. He makes a sound, something like a whimper in the back of his throat, but he doesn't care because it's just that good.
NH-01987 shifts his other hand to take a better grip on the bowl. Gladio's still helping hold it steady, but he slides his palm away now, easing the support out from under it.
It gives him leeway to bring the bowl closer, and NH-01987 does, fingers clutched tight at the rim. He spoons up a second bite, and then a third, hunching in over the soup protectively.
"Hey," says Gladio. "Take it easy, remember?"
He remembers. NH-01987 nods, jerkily, and tries to slow down.
But it's so good. It's so good. He can't remember anything ever being this good, before.
Gladio's right, he tries to tell himself, sternly. It won't help anything, gulping it all down just to throw it back up again.
And that's the thought that lets him gather up the tattered scraps of his self-control: the horrifying possibility that all this soup might be wasted. NH-01987 takes an unsteady breath in. He lowers the spoon, and he bites at his lip, and he waits until the count of five. Then he picks it up and starts again, slower, fighting himself every step of the way.
In the end, he's glad he did.
NH-01987 gets maybe halfway through the bowl before he starts to feel – he doesn't know. He's only had it once or twice, after a good hunt: the heavy not-quite-ache of his stomach, almost radiating content. It's such an unusual feeling. The hunger pangs, for once, are actually silent.
He's got a spoonful of soup on the way to his lips, but he hesitates. Sets it down. Picks it up again.
Ignis is watching him do it, expression difficult to read. "You needn't force yourself to finish it all now," he says. "We can always keep it for later."
Later. There's something almost dizzying about that word. There's a promise in it.
Later means there will be a later. It means that they really do intend to take him with them. It means that tomorrow, or maybe the next day, depending on how tight they keep their rations, he'll get the rest of his soup back.
NH-01987 nods, hesitantly.
He's starting to look around for somewhere to put it, maybe for the jar he saw the night before, but before he gets very far, a big hand takes hold of the bowl.
"I got this," says Gladio.
NH-01987 has to remind himself that he'll get it back before he can quite convince his hands to let go. Gladio takes the other bowls, too – empty now, the lot of them – and makes his way to the door, heading outside.
"Thank you," says NH-01987, into the silence that follows. He swallows – tries to find the words. "That was, uh. Really good."
Really good doesn't come close. Really good doesn't even scratch the surface, and he winces a little at the inadequacy of it.
But Ignis is smiling, softly, and so is Noct, so maybe he hasn't messed it up too badly.
"Good to hear," says Ignis.
NH-01987 ducks his head. He picks awkwardly at the cloth band that keeps his serial number from view. With a start, he realizes what he's doing – jerks his hand away, hoping neither of them have noticed.
Jittery with nerves, he tries to redirect his fingers to something less telling.
They find his hair – bury themselves in the warm strands of it. It feels so different, now that it's clean: softer than before. The sensation of it running through his fingers is mesmerizing.
"If it's a bother," says Ignis, "I could attempt a trim. We have awhile yet, before we need to pack."
NH-01987 blinks at him.
"It is kinda long," says Noct. "It'd bug me, too, having it hang in my face like that."
It takes NH-01987 a beat to realize what they mean. Then his hand tests the length of his own hair, tugging experimentally. Noct's right; it is long. Sometimes he hacks some of it off with a knife, to keep it out of his eyes, but it's been awhile.
He doesn't particularly like having someone cut it for him – at Zegnautus, the guards' hands were always rough, rushing through without caring if the blades nicked his scalp or earlobes. He'd rather do it on his own and spare himself the pain.
But Noct and Ignis are both looking at him, expectant. They've been nothing but kind to him, and the thought of disappointing them is almost unbearable.
"Um," says NH-01987. "Sure."
"Splendid," says Ignis. He crosses to one of the bags along the side wall – fishes out a pair of scissors, slim and gleaming. "Noct, if you would be so kind as to fetch a towel?"
"Sure," says Noct, and wanders into the bathroom. He's back a minute later with one – sets it right onto NH-01987's shoulders and smooths it flat.
"Have you any preferences?" Ignis asks, and slides a hand into NH-01987's hair. He holds a few strands up, to check the length – repeats the process on each side.
Preferences? Is this the sort of thing he should have preferences for?
"Shorter?" NH-01987 hazards, uncertainly.
Noct gives a small hum of consideration. He circles around to the front and inspects NH-01987 more thoroughly – a brief glance-over before he leans back and taps at his chin. "You know, you'd look pretty good if you spiked it in the front."
NH-01987 stares at him for a moment, blankly.
His confusion must be obvious, because Noct says, "Like Specs." He lifts a portion of his own bangs, to show what he means – but they're strangely inflexible, falling back into place almost as soon as he releases them.
NH-01987 tries to reconcile the thought of his own face, in the mirror last night, with a portion of the hair sticking up. He can't quite manage it – but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to see. "Sure," he says. "Yeah. Let's do it."
"Shorter in the back, then," Ignis says, mildly. He sets a hand on NH-01987's shoulder. "I'm going to start now," he warns – and then he begins to snip.
NH-01987 tenses up immediately, bracing for the pain.
None comes. Ignis doesn't yank too hard or shear close to the scalp. The sharp metal of the blades doesn't bite into his skin. There's only a steady lift and tug, lift and tug. It's rhythmic – almost soothing.
NH-01987's eyes fall half-closed when Ignis' fingers drift through his hair to rid it of the loose strands. There's a sort of efficiency to the motion, but it's not the kind of efficiency that came in Niflheim, all perfunctory maintenance and military stringency.
It's gentle, and he never would have guessed, not in a hundred years, that having someone's fingers in his hair, soft and careful, could feel so incredible.
He's leaning into the touch before he knows he means to – before he even knows he wants to. Ignis' hands pause, just for an instant; in front of him, Noct's eyes flash upward toward where Ignis is standing, something unreadable in his expression.
NH-01987 starts to feel his face heat up. He fingers close on the fabric of his borrowed jeans, and he kicks himself for ruining this before it's even really started.
He can take the scissors and do it himself. He's done it before.
He's just opening his mouth to offer when the hands resume their careful motion, slower this time. The touch is a bit less brisk, a bit less pointed. It wanders more, and gods. Gods.
NH-01987 sags back against the chair. He lets the breath he wasn't aware of holding slip out, and his eyes fall closed the rest of the way. They're stinging, a little, and he scrubs at them with the back of one hand.
Noct and Ignis give him a minute, maybe even two – just let him sit in silence, with only the soft touches and the measured snip of the scissors.
Then, awkwardly, Noct clears his throat. "So what's your deal?" he says.
NH-01987 opens his eyes. "My deal?"
"Yeah," says Noct. "Like, where are you from? And how'd you end up way out here by Taelpar?"
It's a reasonable question. That doesn't mean it makes NH-01987 feel any less like he's been sprayed with ice water. The shock comes hard and sudden; the words stick in his throat.
"Um," he manages, brain racing for an answer.
Before he can come up with one, Gladio saves him the trouble. The door clicks open, and the big man comes ambling back into the room. "You boys playing salon?" he asks, amused.
"Sure," Noct shoots back. "Wanna give it go? Bet Specs could fix up that mullet."
"Or provide a shave, perhaps," Ignis puts in, smoothly. "You have grown a hair scruffy."
"Says you," says Gladio, smirking and setting himself down on the edge of the bed. "Ask the next lady we run into – guarantee she'll say I'm a cut above the rest."
Noct snorts a laugh. "Trim and fit, right?" he says, tone dry. "You only tell us every day."
NH-01987 turns the exchange over in his mind. Then he turns it over again, and something clicks. The word play slides into place, unexpected, and before he knows it, he's laughing, too.
It's a strange sound, kind of rough around the edges. He hardly recognizes his own voice like that. Noct smiles back at him, and it crinkles the corners of his eyes.
NH-01987 gets a little lost for a while then, in the feel of fingers in his hair and the contented bliss of a full stomach. He lets it wash over him: the warm, sunlit room, and the easy rise and fall of their voices. There's a feeling he gets in his chest sometimes, bright and shivery, when dust motes catch in the lazy afternoon sun, and the edges of the rock arches glow golden, and the world doesn't seem like such a hard place.
He has that feeling now, stronger than he's ever felt it before. It's lodged in his throat, like it's going to choke him, so good it hurts.
But all too soon, Ignis puts the scissors down. He folds up the towel over NH-01987's shoulders, neatly.
Then he says, "I believe my part is done," and he runs his fingers through NH-01987's hair one last time.
"My turn," says Noct, and unzips the duffel bag by the door. He sticks a hand in and pokes around until he comes out with a bottle of something that's summer-sky blue, viscous and gloopy and honestly pretty weird. He squirts some out into his hand and advances on NH-01987, grinning. "Let's make you a rock star."
Before NH-01987 can ask him what that is, Noct's hands have descended, weird blue goop and all. There are no scissors involved – just gentle tugging, and scrunching, and rearranging. It takes him maybe a minute, and then he leans back, clearly pleased.
"You ready for this?" he says, and he takes NH-01987 by the arm, pulling until he comes to his feet. He doesn't know what to expect – not until Noct steers him into the small, white room from the night before and turns him toward the mirror.
He doesn't – he doesn't look anything like an MT.
The white shirt Noct lent him is rumpled but clean. There's a lump on the left side, where the tube from his port sticks up under the fabric, and that's – okay, it's a little weird, but you can't tell right off what it is. His face is unmarked except for the freckles, and his eyes are that innocuous blue-violet, and his cloth wrap covers the barcode.
And his hair. His hair swoops up into some whimsical arrangement, leaning to the side, strange and gravity-defying. It looks like Noct settled for some combination of his own style and Ignis'.
NH-01987 watches his own eyes, there in the mirror, widen with surprise.
"Looks good, right?" says Noct, and nudges him companionably.
NH-01987 lifts his fingers up to explore his hair – finds hard peaks and valleys, still sticky to the touch, not quite dry. Around back, where it's shorter, the hair's smooth and goop-free, the strands plush and soft beneath his fingertips.
He's grinning so hard his cheeks hurt. His eyes are stinging again, and he doesn't care.
"Better than good," NH-01987 says, and he means it.
It's a nice day for a hunt.
The sun's high and bright, the sky's a brilliant, edge-of-summer blue, and Iggy's just arranging the last of the luggage so that it actually fits in the trunk. Gladio's already gone to check them out of the hotel, and Prompto – Prompto's a bundle of nervous energy, practically bouncing on his feet.
"You ready for this?" Noct says to him.
"Pretty ready," says Prompto. That smile's flickering around his lips again – kind of uncertain, but damn near blinding when it really kicks into high gear. "Mostly ready. How, uh. How do we know what we're looking for?"
"We get a list," says Noct. "Then we pick a bounty and go bag ourselves a hunt. We'll swing by your camp to get your stuff on the way. Then when we're done, we head back to the Crow's Nest to collect."
Prompto's smile goes out like a barely-started campfire on a windy day.
Noct glances him over for a minute: takes in the furrowed brows, the way he bites at his lip. "Dude," says Noct. "You'll be fine. Just hang back, like I said. We'll keep you out of trouble."
Prompto nods, but his expression's a dead giveaway – closed off and cloudy. He's picking at that cloth band on his wrist again, and that's a nervous habit, if Noct's ever seen one.
So he reaches out and sets a hand on the boy's shoulder. It's bony and thin beneath the t-shirt, and Prompto starts a little at the contact, but then he eases into it, the way he'd done while Ignis was cutting his hair. Noct says, more gently, "Hey. We've got you. Calm down, okay?"
"Yeah," says Prompto, gaze fixed on the ground near his feet. "Sorry."
Noct gives his shoulder one last pat before he takes his hand back – just in time for Gladio to amble back over from turning the keys in. "We all set?" he says.
"I believe we are," says Ignis. He gives the trunk a final looking over, hums thoughtfully, and then closes it.
"Then it's hunt time," says Noct, and turns for the Crow's Nest.
It's funny, how familiar something can be when you've never seen it. They hadn't set foot in Taelpar before yesterday, but hell if Noct doesn't know the cherry red plastic of Crow's Nest booths, and the smell of frying salmon, and the bright splashes of the posters on the walls.
The man idly wiping down the counter with a wet rag has a thick black moustache and a grease-spattered orange apron. Noct slides onto one of the stools in front of him, and he says, "Got any good hunts?"
"Sure," says the man. "Gimme a sec. I'll see what's still posted."
On one side of Noct, Gladio leans against the counter. On the other, Ignis takes a seat, prim and proper, posture more like he's at a five-star restaurant than some hole-in-the-wall diner in the middle of nowhere.
Noct keeps expecting Prompto to take a seat next to Iggy, but he doesn't. So he cranes his neck to check the other side of Gladio – and Prompto's not there, either.
Noct frowns and twists around on his stool. "Hey, where'd he go?"
"We seem to be a man down," says Ignis, with a nod toward the door.
And there's Prompto, lingering just outside. He's chewing on his lip, looking in like the door frame is some magic barrier he doesn't have the power to cross.
Gladio snorts. He lifts one hand to wave Prompto over. He says, "You waiting for an invitation? Get in here, kid."
Prompto startles like someone's snuck up behind him and jabbed him in the side. His eyes venture toward the counter of the Crow's Nest, then skitter away again. Noct sees the moment he actually steels himself – the way his shoulders square, the slight rise as he takes a deep breath. Then he ducks his head and nods, following them inside.
He doesn't sit himself down on one of the stools – just kind of hovers, there behind Noct, arms folded over each other like he's afraid to touch anything.
Noct frowns, about to ask if he's okay – but the guy who runs the diner's done rustling around in his stack of fliers, looking for the hunt. He comes out with a wanted poster and a map – slaps down a sketch of the ugliest coeurl Noct's ever seen. It's got some kind of weird something on its back. Open wounds? It's just a sketch, so it's hard to say for sure.
"This one's been a barrel of trouble," says the man. "We get our fair share of hunters, out here near Taelpar. But this damn coeurl – this one's no joke. He's been making snacks out of anyone who goes after him."
Noct squints down at the picture. He glances at the map. It doesn't look all that far.
"How much?" he says.
"Ten thousand," says the man, and Noct's eyebrows rise.
"You guys aren't joking around."
The man lifts one shoulder and lets it fall. "It's tough out here. Last thing we need is it getting tougher."
Noct glances toward Ignis, who gives a near-imperceptible nod.
"We'll take it," he says, and reaches for the flier on the counter.
Prompto's camp looks even worse in daylight.
Without the cover of night, it's plain to see exactly how worn down everything is: battered by time and the elements, held together with scraps and hope and ingenuity.
All things considered, it doesn't take the boy very long to say goodbye to everything he's called home. He takes his pictures down with reverent hands – folds them gently, and slides them into his pocket.
Then he straightens up again, and he fixes Noct with a look that's one part nerves and two parts determination. He nods, and he says, "I'm ready."
Noct smiles at him, what he hopes is an encouraging kind of smile. "Then let's move."
The map for the hunt leads them to a battered blue sign that reads Scotham Clough.
It stands at a point where the periodic boulders that dot the area bunch together, growing high and damn near unpassable, a rough stone wall that rises up on either side of a long, narrow pass.
"Oh, yeah," says Noct, peering down it. "This'll be fun."
Ignis adjusts his glasses, frowning. "I should think you hardly need the reminder, but do exercise caution. Terrain like this lends itself to ambushes."
"Yeah," says Gladio. "No kidding. I'm gonna hit more rock than coeurl, every time I try and swing my sword."
Prompto says nothing at all.
Noct glances at him – at the intense way those eyes focus on the opening and how his fingers have already drifted down to rest on the butt of the gun.
"Hey," says Noct. "We got this. Like I said, remember? Just hang back."
Prompto gives a small, cautious nod.
Despite his words, though, Noct knows it's not going to be easy. Ten thousand gil's a lot of money – no way the locals would've put up that kind of bounty, if this was a walk in the park. They've tangled with a coeurl once before, and the experience isn't one Noct's in a hurry to repeat.
Still – ten thousand.
That'll set them up with dinner and a place to stay the night, for sure. Probably curatives for a week or two, on top of that, and man, do they need it. After healing Prompto's arm up last night, they're down to their last two potions.
So Noct says, "Eyes open, guys. Let's do this."
Then he steps into the clough.
It's cooler here, where the high stone walls block the sun's light. Darker, too; it feels less like late afternoon and more like early evening. Here and there, patches of scraggly grass poke up from the soil, and it's weirdly quiet. The only noise Noct hears is the sound of their footsteps.
The smell is the first warning he gets.
It drifts in slow but insistent, the sick-sweet scent of rot. It's a smell he's only learned recently, discovered with a hunter's corpse next to a dog tag that they stopped to retrieve for the family. When Noct closes his eyes, he can still see the dead man's face; in his dreams, sometimes, he stumbles upon the corpse again, and when he wakes up, the stench of old flesh too long in the sun lingers, close and cloyingly strong.
It's the same scent now, and Noct hesitates for a moment – puts a hand to his nose, trying to block it out. He swallows.
"The hell's that smell?" says Gladio, even though Noct knows damn well he knows.
"A warning," says Ignis. "Be on your guard."
"Something's dead," says Prompto. When Noct glances back, to take in the boy's pale face, he sees that he's already drawn his gun. "A lot of somethings."
Noct nods, slowly. "Let's go add one more."
They find the first dead coeurl maybe twenty feet further on after that, around a tight bend in the rock. It's wedged up against the wall, like it was trying to burrow into a crack to escape something. Its fur is matted with dirt and dried blood, and the stink of rotting meat makes Noct struggle not to gag. There are chunks torn out of the creature, along its back – meaty holes where it looks like something bit in with sharp teeth and tore.
"What could take out a coeurl this way?" says Noct, uneasily.
Then they round the corner, and the question, abruptly, becomes: what could take out five coeurls this way?
Because here they are, four more of them – dead and starting to go off, the smell of them thick and heavy at the back of Noct's throat. Here they are, not killed for food, but for something else. Sport? Territory squabble? He's not sure how animals think, but he can see plain enough that only a bite or two's taken been taken out, here and there. Whatever it was didn't care enough to eat its kill.
He just has time to think that they might be in over their heads. He just has time to think that anything that can take out a pack of coeurls is probably going to eviscerate them – that if they end up having to retreat, the clough is a long, exposed way back with no cover.
Then Gladio's yelling, "Get down!" and Iggy's lance flashes across Noct's peripheral vision, and Noct turns just in time to see the coeurl that he's knocked to the ground struggling to get to its feet.
It's lying down sideways, when Noct first sees it, claws working at the packed earth. There's a new wound across its shoulder blades, a bright, sharp slash from Iggy's lance. Its face is injured, too, like someone shot the thing point blank: part of the muzzle is blown away, exposing wet tissue and a flash of white teeth. A viscous black ichor drips from its jaws, and the left eye catches the light just the wrong way, making it gleam a dull and sullen sort of red.
There are weird lesions on the creature's back, too. They look like – Noct's not sure. Bedsores, maybe, if bedsores had time to spread and go overripe, like fruit forgotten on a counter. They litter the coeurl's back and hind legs; they're smoking slightly, a strange, purple-grey mist in the dimness of the ravine.
It's hard to look at, almost. His eyes keep skidding away, like there's something they don't want to land on. It reminds him of that dualhorn they fought back in Leide – the big one, with the blood red horns and the ugly grey spots on its head. There's something unnatural about it.
As Noct watches, the coeurl twists and shudders – gets its feet under it and lurches upward, some unnatural mix of stunning cat grace and zombie-movie sluggishness.
"The hell is wrong with it?" Noct says.
He's expecting a reply from Ignis. He's expecting to hear about some wilderness infection like rabies.
He's not expecting Prompto to say, "The scourge."
Noct's eyebrows furrow, and he turns to say – something. Ask how he knows that, maybe, or protest that animals can't get infected by the scourge. His gaze slips sideways toward Prompto, and he finds a grim expression, pressed-tight lips.
But then the coeurl's back on its feet – launching through the air, compact and deadly, wickedly sharp claws almost too fast to follow.
Ignis takes a slash across the face; with a sudden sharp cry of pain, four perfect red lines appear in his cheek and begin to ooze. He staggers back, goes to lift his lance, and then Gladio's there with his shield, slamming the creature aside so hard it goes careening off the opposing rock wall.
It doesn't stay down. With a snarl that Noct feels in his chest, the coeurl crouches to pounce, eyes cunning and feral.
It's time to move.
The magic swells inside him when he calls it, and in the space of a heartbeat, Noct's engine blade is in his hand. He sends it flying toward a spot behind the coeurl, and he focuses his mind, and he shifts. Reality bends around him; the between-spaces rise up and pull him in. There's a nauseating moment of disorientation when he comes out of it, just like there always is; then his brain catches up with his body and sets everything in its proper place: walls and ground and the single narrow swath of sky, high above.
Noct slashes at the creature as it rounds on Gladio – catches it along a hind leg and earns growl for his efforts. He adjusts his grip and comes in closer, aiming to flank, but it's too damn fast. No sooner has he gotten into range than the thing is twisting away, taking an idle swipe with one paw as it puts distance between itself and the blade.
He knows he's in trouble when the whiskers start to glow. They don't give you much time; just a faint light, subtle at first and then blinding, and then you're on the ground. Noct learned that lesson the hard way, last time they tried to take one of these things down. Gladio'd had to carry him back to the car, still crispy from the electricity, every muscle aching from the convulsions when the shock tore through him.
It's not an experience he's in any hurry to repeat.
He turns to dodge – finds himself up against the hard stone wall, nowhere to take cover.
Noct gets his sword up in front of him, meaning to rush it – to throw it off its guard. Before he can, a gunshot rings out, the echoes reverberating in the narrow ravine.
There's a spray of blood, hot and close. It spatters against his face, and the coeurl's whisker parts from its body. The tip, close to blinding, goes suddenly dark; the narrow appendage, lively as a whip just moments before, hangs down in a mess of viscera that looks like someone spilled the strawberry jam at breakfast. It's holding on by a thread, just a flap of skin.
The coeurl screams, rage and terror, and it whirls toward Prompto, seeking the source of its pain.
Suddenly, Noct has visions of this boy, this scrawny, half-starved thing, bleeding out here on the ground just hours after his first bowl of soup. The idea puts a hook through his chest and drags – hauls up horror and a twisting spike of something that's very near panic.
"Prompto!" Noct yells. "Run!"
Prompto doesn't run.
He twists sideways, fast as the damn cat – lets it come in close, its massive jaws snapping bare inches from his shoulder. He gets one arm up, the one they healed for him just last night. It's like he means to use it as a shield. Like he plans to stuff it in the coeurl's mouth, to keep it from getting to his neck.
The cat never gets that far.
Prompto fires point blank, and the coeurl falls back, twisting and howling there on the dirt.
When it scrambles to get back up, Noct can see part of its jaw, a flash of white through wet red flesh. Then it stops scrambling, because Gladio sheathes his greatsword straight through the coeurl's spine.
Its hind legs go limp; it hisses and yowls, forepaws still clawing the earth. Then Ignis puts a lance through its neck, and finally – finally – the damn thing goes still.
They stand there for a beat, all four of them just staring at it.
Noct's about to say something, maybe compliment Prompto on the fancy shooting, or tell Ignis to use a potion for his face, stark white and still bleeding.
But the coeurl's not done yet. Its hind quarters start to twitch, like something buried under the skin's trying to get out. The fur begins to bubble, the flesh growing liquid and unsteady and strange. Thick grey and purple smoke coils up toward the sky, and the flesh itself boils like a pot of water on the stove.
"Gross," says Noct, and reaches out to poke it with the tip of his sword.
But where the metal ought to find firm flesh, there's a gelatinous sort of give, unnatural as it is unpleasant. Noct yanks his sword back, just in time to see the coeurl's hind quarters start to evaporate into the air, roiling and twisting until all that's left is a hole, probably two feet long, that peers into raw, wet meat.
Staring down at it, Noct remembers what Prompto said earlier. "The scourge does that?"
Prompto nods, biting at his lip. He says, "We're lucky we got it while it was still only halfway."
Above the livid red claw marks down Ignis' cheeks, his eyes are somber. "Halfway to what, precisely?"
"You know," says Prompto, like it should be self-explanatory. "The change."
Gladio nudges it with his greatsword; the creature shifts, but no more of it dissolves. "The hell was it changing into?"
Prompto squats down like animal corpses with giant chunks of flesh torn out of them are no big deal, indicating the area where the meat boiled away. "A daemon," he says. "See? It was pretty close already."
He says it so off-handed. Like he isn't just casually tossing out a scrap of information Lucian scientists have been debating for literally decades.
Noct's pretty sure he's staring. He's pretty sure Ignis and Gladio are, too, but he doesn't turn to check. His eyes are locked onto Prompto, who stands and straightens, tucking his gun back into its holster. It's not until he's done – not until he shifts his attention back from the dead coeurl – that he realizes how intently he's being watched.
The competence and relative confidence the boy displayed during the fight flickers out like a match at the end of its stick. His eyes flit between their faces.
"Um," he says. "You guys okay?"
"That's –" says Noct, and then cuts himself off before he can follow the thought to its conclusion. "How do you know that?" he says instead.
All at once, Prompto's face goes pale. He picks at the cloth bracelet that covers his wrist, and he won't meet Noct's eyes when he says, "I've been out here awhile. There's – there's more of them than you'd think. That're halfway like this."
Prompto's hunching in on himself, shoulders tucked in like he wants to disappear. And Astrals, Noct can't blame him. Facing something like this, alone at night? Watching something like this shift into a daemon? It's a wonder the boy's even still alive.
He shudders, despite himself. "Well," he says. "This one's dead, at least."
"Small favors," says Ignis. He's pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and is dabbing gingerly at the claw marks on his cheek, trying not to wince.
Noct grimaces in sympathy. "Hey, Specs," he says, digging in his pocket for a potion. "Catch."
"We haven't enough curatives for you to toss them around like a child's toy," Ignis says, disapproving – but he downs the potion, letting the healing magic soothe the wounds from his face.
"Lucky us, it's payday," says Gladio, as he bends to cut the whiskers from the fallen coeurl. They'll need them as proof; too many fake hunters means they usually have to offer up a token of their exploits before tipsters will actually cough up the reward.
"Yeah," says Noct. He flexes his hand; the sword in it disappears in a glittering cascade of blue light. "Let's go cash in."
They're halfway to the mouth of the ravine before Noct thinks to speak again. "Hey," he says to Prompto, giving him a little nudge with one arm. "Nice shooting back there."
He glances sideways at Prompto when he says it, and he's instantly glad he did. The reaction parades across the boy's face like a billboard ad on the roadside: surprise, and then disbelief, and finally a surge of shy gratitude. He ducks his head – rubs at his nose.
"Aw," he says. "It's nothing."
Noct just snorts. "Yeah," he says. "Sure. Taking out a coeurl whisker's nothing."
Prompto's cheeks go kind of pink, and he scratches at the back of his neck. He's smiling, though – a tentative sort of smile, like he's trying hard to tamp it down and can't quite manage.
It's a good look on him: kind of flustered, mostly really pleased.
By the time they come up on the outskirts of Taelpar, Noct knows he wants to see it again.
I'm screaming into the distance F O R E V E R. :DDDD
Look at the amazing art rah-bop did for this chapter: Scourge infected coeurl. :DDDDD
By the time they leave the ravine, the sun is starting to slide back down toward the horizon and NH-01987 is beginning to wonder how much longer his legs will hold him.
He feels a bit light-headed, after the hike and subsequent fight; his knees, every time he takes a step, threaten to wobble. NH-01987 bites down on his lip. He ducks his head and tells himself firmly that it isn't much farther, now. He stares down at his feet, focused on setting one foot in front of the other, step after step, shaky but determined.
Noct said he did a good job, today. The last thing NH-01987 wants to do is prove him wrong.
"Ah," says Ignis, "here we are."
NH-01987 lifts his eyes to see that they've arrived.
The human place that declares itself the Crow's Nest in jaunty lettering rises up before them, bright signs and vibrant red seats and dusty glass. The plastic bird that sits out front, all blank eyes and parted beak, seems to stare at NH-01987 accusingly.
Maybe he won't have to go in this time.
But, no: Noct's hanging back at the door when he tries to linger – saying, "Prompto?" like he expects to be followed.
NH-01987 nods. He braces himself, and he steps inside.
He'll just stay behind Noct again. Or Gladio – Gladio's even bigger. As long as he keeps out of sight, the man behind the counter won't recognize him.
Noct's already handing over the coeurl whiskers, and the man is making a big show out of getting out ten thousand. Ten thousand what, NH-01987 couldn't say, but the important part is that it's keeping him occupied there in the back.
NH-01987 fidgets – picks at the band of cloth around his wrist – takes his hand away, forcibly. He tries very hard not to think of the first time he came here.
It doesn't work.
His mind's chasing itself around in circles – back three years, to a winter when the weather turned bleak and unforgiving, and the rocky ground was dusted with snow. NH-01987 hadn't had his tarp, then. He'd had nothing to wrap himself in at night. He'd only curled up beneath his clumsy shelter of wood and shivered, too cold to sleep, feet slowly going numb, breathing on his fingers to try and warm them.
It was desperation that finally drove him to chance it – but now, in hindsight, he's still not sure why he ever thought it was a good idea.
He'd been so cold, and the wind that day had cut like a blade, strong and driving, ever-shifting, killing any fire he lit before it could take hold. And the building called the Crow's Nest, the one with the plastic bird out front, was always empty at night.
So NH-01987 had left his camp. He'd crept into the little cluster of buildings, white flakes of snow from above sticking in his hair and on his shoulders, melting down the back of his neck.
He'd hesitated outside for a long time – checked every window to make sure none of the lights were on. Then he'd very carefully broken the glass on the door, reached in, and let himself inside.
Gods, it had been warm. And the smell that lingered, rich and savory, had nearly been enough to knock him off his feet. NH-01987 had stood there in the doorway for what seemed like ages, knowing he shouldn't be there – trying to warn himself that it was a terrible idea.
But the alternative was to return to his camp. The alternative was to curl up under his makeshift wooden shelter, back pressed to the rock, while the snow came down in fat, white flakes above him. The alternative was to shake until his bones hurt, and to take his chances on whether he would wake up the next morning.
So NH-01987 closed the door behind him and ventured inside.
The interior was dark and empty; the glossy red backs of the seats seemed to beckon like a welcoming hand. NH-01987 had carefully curled himself onto the one in the far corner.
He wasn't planning to stay long. He could hear the wind howling outside, even through the walls; he'd only take shelter long enough for it to die down.
But it was so much warmer than his own camp. The padded bench was so much softer than unforgiving rock. He'd been asleep in instants, lost to the world until the following morning – when a raised voice woke him.
"Son of a bitch," it was saying. "Of course it's got to be the one time I don't empty the safe."
NH-01987 had jolted into awareness, terror tight in his throat. He'd frozen there, eyes huge and heart hammering, as the voice moved from place to place, grumbling.
"No crime in the country, they said. Don't need to lock your doors, they said." There was a slam, loud and metallic, and NH-01987 bit down on his lip, hard, to keep from yelping. "If I catch the bastard that did this, I'll break his damn hands. Like to see him rob someone else if he can't use his fingers."
Move, NH-01987 remembers thinking, dizzy with fear. You have to move.
So he'd edged himself away from the bench, with infinite care, heart going so hard he could feel the pulse of it in his throat. He'd crept for the door, keeping a watch on the man behind the counter the whole time, scarcely daring to breathe for the extra sound it would make.
He was just reaching for the handle when the man glanced up.
NH-01987 froze. The man froze, too. His eyebrows pulled down, and his eyes narrowed to angry slits, and his face twisted. He reached under the counter, and when his hand came out again, it held a shotgun.
NH-01987 knew shotguns. He had trained on a variety of firearms, so he had first-hand experience with what that kind of firepower could do at this range.
He didn't wait around to see it done to him.
NH-01987 hit the door full-tilt – shoved it open and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Panic was a dull roar in his ears, not quite loud enough to drown out the deafening retort of the gun. He expected the pain to begin at any moment. He expected a replay of his escape from Zegnautus, blood and shivering weakness and crippling agony, not just for a day but for months to follow.
But the man only fired once, and NH-01987 reached the cover of the boulders and kept running.
After that day, he'd stayed clear of the Crow's Nest, even on his occasional scavenging expeditions into the cluster of buildings. He didn't think the man had seen his face in the dim lighting of early morning, but he couldn't be sure. And he knew for certain – living like he did, two broken hands would be a death sentence.
So he'd given the building a wide berth. He'd told himself that what little food he could scrounge from the plastic bags the man put out front wasn't worth getting shot over. He promised himself he'd never go back.
And he hadn't – not until today.
NH-01987 is so busy thinking about it – so busy reliving the past – that he misses the end of the conversation. His first hint that Noct's finished is when he turns toward the door, casual steps that leave NH-01987 exposed.
It's like the icy shock of winter, all over again. It's like the chill winds of that long-ago day are running down his spine. NH-01987 freezes – makes a soft sound of distress – ducks his head and turns to follow.
"Hey," says the man behind the counter. "I know you?"
A fist is squeezing his chest. He goes stock-still, heart working like a piece of machinery on the brink of overheating. He's sure that his legs are going to give up on him; they feel wobbly and strange, and the edge of his vision is fading, blotchy and grey.
One hand gropes unsteadily for the back of a bench – braces against it, even as NH-01987 tells himself urgently not to touch anything. It will only make the man more angry.
"Um," says NH-01987, faintly. "I don't think so."
The man behind the counter squints at him. "Huh," he says. "You look familiar, is all."
When NH-01987 feels a touch on his arm, he yelps – twists away, instinctively. But it's just Ignis, come to stand beside him.
"You must be mistaken," says Ignis, to the man behind the counter. "We only arrived yesterday."
"I guess," says the man.
He doesn't have time to add anything else. Ignis has already taken NH-01987 by the arm, firm but gentle, and steered him out the door.
They get maybe three steps, out in the open air. Then NH-01987's legs buckle; the world seems to be spinning around him, and his breath is coming too fast.
Distantly, he's aware that he's sitting down – aware of gentle pressure on the crown of his skull, and Ignis' voice saying, "Head down between your knees. That's it. Close your eyes."
NH-01987 closes his eyes.
"Is he okay?" That's Noct, close and coming closer. "What happened?"
Everything is cold and strange; dizziness washes over him in waves. The touch on his head seems like the only thing grounding him, keeping him from drifting away.
He keeps expecting the man behind the counter to come barreling out, any second now, to shoot him with the shotgun.
"Overexertion, perhaps," says Ignis. "We pushed him a bit hard, given his current state."
There's another hand on him, now. Noct's, probably; it's too small to be Gladio's, and Noct's voice is right beside him. "Prompto – you could've said. We'd have taken a break or something."
NH-01987 wants to answer. Really he does. But he feels like he might fade to black for a while, and he'd really, really rather not do that. So he focuses on breathing, until the strange, swimmy cold feeling fades away. He keeps his head down until he thinks he can sit up without passing out.
Then he straightens, cautiously, and he says, "Sorry. I'm okay."
"Like hell that's okay," says Noct.
And Gladio looks him over, snorts, and declares, "You look like you're about to go over if someone breathes on you wrong."
He kind of feels like he'll go over if someone breathes on him wrong. But NH-01987 stands up anyway, just to show them he's not that much of a failure.
"Perhaps it would be best," says Ignis, "if we all get settled in the car."
"Yeah," says Noct. He's hovering, like he wants something but isn't quite sure what. "Good call."
So NH-01987 follows them over to the place they packed their equipment away, earlier this morning. He's aware, distantly, that Gladio's a step too close – remembers the man's big hand on his elbow, last time he started to sag, and fights down a wave of gratitude at the thought that he's prepared to do the same thing now.
The car, when they reach it, is a sleek, glossy thing, more like polished black glass than metal. It doesn't have the rounded edges and bright paints of most Lucian vehicles, but it doesn't have the bulky limbs and brushed steel of a Niflheim-made mech, either.
Ignis opens up the door to the right of the driver's seat, and it comes free with a soft click. "In you go," he says.
NH-01987 slides cautiously onto the seat – black leather, warm with the afternoon sun. He closes his eyes again, slumping a bit. There's the sound of footsteps and muffled conversation, too hushed to follow.
It's maybe two more minutes before Ignis says, "Don't drift off just yet."
NH-01987 cracks his eyes open, cautiously – takes in the solemn face peering down at him. "Sorry," he says, and struggles to rise.
"No," says Ignis. "No need. Stay where you are." And he reaches out and presses something into NH-01987's hands.
He looks down at it, cradled there in his palms. It's a glass jar with no lid, a spoon's handle protruding from the top. And inside – inside is the rest of this morning's soup.
NH-01987 goes very still. His eyes flicker from Ignis' face, to Noct's, to Gladio's.
They can't mean – they can't. There's no way.
"Try to eat something," says Ignis. "You need your strength."
His stomach shifts at the suggestion, blatantly hopeful, despite the fact that he fed it just a few hours ago. NH-01987 tries to tamp down on it – reminds himself, firmly, that if he eats the rest now, there won't be any left for later.
It takes a remarkable amount of effort, but at last he makes himself hold the jar out toward Ignis. "I want to keep it," he says. When Ignis just watches him, level and unreadable, he adds, "For tomorrow."
The silence that comes seems to last forever.
It's Noct that speaks first, with an odd inflection that NH-01987 can't place. "You better be careful," he says. "Specs is gonna think you don't want to try his other recipes."
NH-01987 tips his head to one side. "Other... recipes?"
"Sure," says Gladio. "Iggy's a walking cookbook."
Ignis adjusts his glasses. "I'll admit, I know a few. And there's a different variety of soup I wanted to try for this evening. So please, do finish what's left."
NH-01987 tries to wrap his mind around those words. Really, he does. But they seem to get stuck going in. Every part of them feels too big to fit into his brain: different soup, and other recipes. More food tonight.
He scrubs at his eyes with the back of one hand. His throat is tight, and he doesn't trust his voice, so he manages a quick nod in response – reaches for the spoon with shaky fingers.
NH-01987 is still eating when they pull away from the little cluster of buildings, and it's just as good as he remembers.
By the end of the drive, the device that takes the pictures – Noct's phone, NH-01987 learns – is full up with the story of today.
It holds Noct napping peacefully in the back seat, chin up and throat exposed. It holds Ignis, one hand on the steering wheel and one on a can that says Ebony. It holds Gladio, nose buried in a book, caught in the motion of turning a page. After that, there are shots of husky, long-tusked animals on the roadside; and the sun overhead in the bright blue sky; and NH-01987's own face, startled and blurry, captured when Noct woke up and took the phone back, saying, "There weren't any of you."
The pictures document the camp site: flat rock, etched with runes that glow a faint and ethereal blue. They take in the landscape surrounding: the Duscaen arches, away in the distance, sky behind them pale orange with the sunset. They follow Ignis' cooking efforts: the raw ingredients, and deft hands mincing vegetables, and a bowl of the finished product, surface gleaming in the firelight.
That's the last of the pictures.
Now the soup is finished, and the dishes are washed. Now two chairs are full, and one is empty, and Noct's sitting cross-legged on the rocky ground beside him, so he doesn't have to sit there alone.
Now Noct's paging through the pictures NH-01987 took – commenting on them casually. He says, "Is that a filter? The colors are awesome," and "Man, look at the look on Specs' face," and "Nice one. Maybe now Gladio can stop bitching about there not being any of him in focus."
Every time he says something, he turns the phone around to show Ignis and Gladio, and they put in a word or two, as well.
NH-01987's face feels very warm. His chest is heavy and full, swollen up with something so fragile that he's a little afraid it might break and let whatever's inside wash out to drown him.
He never wants to go to sleep. He wants to keep this night, forever, because he's somehow sure that nothing can be better than this: friendly voices, and a shared fire, and offhanded kindnesses.
But by the time the moon's hanging in the sky high above them, NH-01987 can barely keep his eyes open. He stifles a yawn, then fails to hold back another.
"It is rather late," Ignis remarks. "Shall I see about sleeping arrangements?"
"Oh, yeah," says Noct. "We're gonna need to do something, huh?"
"Leave it to me," says Ignis, and disappears into the cloth room that they call a tent.
There's the sound of fabric rustling, and a series of zippers being pulled.
Gladio says, "Don't worry, kid. I'm sure Iggy's got something in mind."
He must. It's less than five minutes later when he reappears, brushing his hands off. "I'm afraid it's not ideal," says Ignis. "But we'll have to make do for the time being."
Noct rises and stretches – makes his way toward the tent – and NH-01987 stays where he is, there on the ground by the fire.
"Hey," says Gladio. "You, too. C'mon, let's call it a night."
So NH-01987 falls in behind Noct, trailing after, and when Noct stops to take his boots off in the entryway, he does, too. He balances on one leg, fighting the laces – wobbles, and squawks, and nearly goes down before Noct puts out a steadying arm for him to brace against.
"Dude," says Noct. "How can you be that graceful in a fight and still be clumsy getting your shoes off?" But the way he says it is warm, and he's smiling; it doesn't sound anything like the way NH-01987's trainers used to sound, when they berated him for being clumsy.
Noct stays there, NH-01987 leaning against him, until both of the boots are free.
The interior of the tent is not terribly big, and most of the available ground has been covered with thick, fluffy fabric. NH-01987 takes a moment to realize that they're sleeping bags.
He hardly recognizes them; they aren't the military drab issued to the human soldiers in Niflheim's army, and anyway, they've been opened up completely, so that they aren't really bag-shaped at all. The only nod to the fact that they're meant to close is the bunched fabric at the bottom, where the feet ought to go, and the zippers running along the sides.
Ignis has laid all three of them out together, to form a thin makeshift mattress across the bottom of the tent. On top, he's placed a handful of blankets.
"Nice," says Gladio, and kicks his own boots off, stooping so that he fits into the tent. He wastes no time in stretching out in the leftmost spot, rustling in his pack for the book he'd had out earlier in the car.
And Noct flops down in the middle, with an off-handed, "Guess you're by me. Iggy likes the wall."
NH-01987 glances to Ignis for confirmation.
He doesn't quite get it. There's a brief flicker of – something in the man's face, there and gone. But Ignis is hard to read, and it's smoothed away so fast he doesn't have time to wonder properly what it might have meant.
"Indeed," says Ignis. "I'm generally the first to wake. We all prefer that I not tread on anyone on the way out." He pauses, just a beat too long. "Let's leave the gun by the door, shall we? I'd rather not have any unpleasant accidents in the night."
NH-01987 glances down at his holster. He rests his fingertips on the butt of the gun. It's smooth beneath his fingers, familiar and comforting. He hasn't slept without it in arm's reach in literally years.
Noct's watching him, expression intent. "Hey," he says. "You've seen us fight." He lifts a hand, and a dagger flickers into it, in shards of blue and glimmers of light. "If anything happens, we've got you covered. Okay?"
NH-01987 nods, slowly. He has seen them fight. He's stood beside them and fired shots in Noct's name. Gladio and Ignis' blades have come to his defense.
"Okay," he says.
NH-01987 eases the Quicksilver from its holster with infinite care. It's his protection and his namesake, and he stands there, staring at it, for a long moment.
But he doesn't need it – not right now.
Not for the first time in a long time.
Wow, you guys are seriously the best. You don't even know how much I appreciate all of the kudos and comments! <333
On an Episode Prompto-related note, this fic is now even more firmly in the realm of AU. I'm going to go ahead with the plot as I'd planned it, but I think I'm probably going to make one change. Next time I post a Prompto-pov chapter (chapter 9, since I'm rotating), I'm going to go back and change Prompto's number from NH-01987 to the unit number given in-game, for both the previous chapters and the ones moving forward. Hope you guys don't mind. ^^
When Noct wakes, he's aware of arms around him.
It's a strange sensation – one he's not entirely used to anymore. The memory of it is buried somewhere back in childhood, when he would sometimes pad down the hall to climb in bed with his father after nightmares. He remembers the chill, polished floor, and the elaborate headboard, engraved with their family crest. He remembers his father tucking him beneath the blankets, everything warm, and quiet, and dark.
It's been a long time since then. Noctis can scarcely conceive of being too young to understand that you don't wake the king over a bad dream.
But here they are, arms around him: not draped protectively, but holding tight, like they're afraid he'll slip away.
Noct's mind, groggy with sleep, wonders vaguely why they're here. After a minute or two, he manages to convince himself that he's only going to get an answer if he opens his eyes – and so, grudgingly, he does.
The arms belong to Prompto. They're wrapped around him, clinging like a small child with a security blanket, the way he was holding onto the pillow in the hotel room yesterday morning.
He's so close that Noct can make out each individual eyelash, pale swoops against fair skin. He's so close that Noct can count the freckles splayed out across his cheeks like constellations. He's so close that the scar slashed across the bridge of his nose seems set in perfect relief, like the crisp, clear lines on a road map.
Noct can feel every bony line of Prompto's thin frame. He can feel the rise and fall of Prompto's chest when he breathes. Prompto's hair is tickling his collar bone; it's not styled any more, but squashed and messy from sleep, a frame for the peaceful face beneath it.
"Hey," says Noct, aware his face is growing warm. "Prompto."
From outside the tent, he can smell frying eggs – can hear the metallic clang of the coffee pot, and the murmur of voices. Ignis and Gladio are both awake, going about their morning routines. The thought that they saw him here, wrapped up in Prompto's arms, makes his face burn hotter.
"Prompto?" Noct tries again.
This time, it's enough. Prompto's eyes blink open, blearily – take in Noct, then dart up to sweep the rest of the tent.
And gods, he's so expressive.
Noct can track the emotions, one by one, as they flicker across his face. Confusion comes first, thick and muzzy with sleep. Alarm follows in its wake, a spike of pure terror, there and gone in no more than a second. And then, washing out both of them: understanding. Relief. Shaky, wondering joy.
That takes up shop and lingers – even as Prompto seems to realize how tightly he's holding on. His face flushes dusky pink and he unwraps his arms, reluctantly, scooting back and sitting up to give Noct some space. "Um," he says. "Sorry."
"It's cool," says Noct, unaccountably flustered. He sits up, too – runs a self-conscious hand through his hair. "No harm done, right?"
Prompto gives a hesitant nod.
"Then quit worrying," Noct tells him. "Now, c'mon. I think Specs is making eggs for breakfast."
They emerge into a world already bright with daylight, filled with a pale blue sky, a half-naked Gladio doing one-handed pushups, and Ignis already at work over the camp stove.
"Morning," says Noct.
"Good morning," says Ignis, and slides some scrambled eggs and a few slices of toast onto a plate. "Your timing's impeccable." He passes it Noct's way, then fills another with more toast and the remaining eggs, holding it out to Prompto.
Noctis almost can't bear to look. It's painful to see the way Prompto shuffles his feet and averts his eyes, like he's not quite sure it's okay to accept. Unbidden, Noct remembers those awful words from yesterday: "I want to keep it for tomorrow."
He can't imagine what kind of life Prompto's lived, if a half-bowl of soup seems like enough food for a whole day. And beyond even that – he'd had to ask what soup was in the first place. Whatever he's going through, he's been going through it for a long time.
There's so much he doesn't seem to know: phones, and pictures, and proper names for food. Of their two theories, the POW one is seeming less likely by the minute. A soldier would have had some kind of normal life before captivity – but Prompto acts like every little act of kindness is a first.
Noct feels something in his chest go tight. He presses his lips together into a line, and he says, "That one's yours, Prom."
"Indeed," says Ignis. "Gladio and I have already eaten."
"Didn't want to wake you two," Gladio puts in with a grin, pushing himself up a final time and then climbing to his feet. "Seemed like a shame to break up the cuddle pile."
Noct's cheeks are starting to go warm again. "Yeah, whatever," he says. "I got to sleep in, and we didn't have to look at your face over breakfast, so everyone wins."
Ignis presses the plate into one of Prompto's hands, and a fork into the other, then steers him toward an empty chair and coaxes him to sit. Noct circles around to sit beside him – scowls at Gladio as he flops into the last remaining chair.
"Lucky you, my workout's finished," Gladio says, and stretches out those freakishly long legs of his. "Guess you get the joy of my face, after all."
Noct snorts – makes a show of turning away, toward Prompto.
It's a mistake. It gives him a front row seat for the way Prompto's eyes go wide and dazzled as he tucks the first bite of egg into his mouth – the way he's holding onto the plate so tight his knuckles are white, like he half-expects someone to try and take it away.
Noctis glances down at the ground. He spears at a piece of his own eggs, and he doesn't look up again.
He says, "So when're we gonna hit Lestallum? Around noon?"
Ignis makes a considering sort of hum. "If all goes to plan." From somewhere behind Noct, there's the soft splash of water, presumably as he fills the wash basin to start the breakfast dishes.
"Guess I oughtta call Iris and let her know we're on our way," says Gladio.
"Is Iris your sister?" says Prompto, around a mouthful of eggs.
It's the first time Noct can remember him jumping into a conversation without coaxing. Thank the gods – maybe he's starting to feel more comfortable around them.
"Yeah," says Gladio. "You'll like her. She's a good kid."
"And decidedly more responsible than her brother, in some regards," Ignis puts in, with a smile in his voice. "You'll be in good hands."
There's a pause, then. Prompto fidgets a little, feet scuffing at the rock of the haven beneath his feet. "Thank you guys," he says at last. "I really mean that."
Noct finally looks up again – takes in Prompto's face, earnest and grateful. "Hey," he says. "You don't have to thank us every five minutes."
"Oh," says Prompto, and ducks his head to stare down at his eggs and toast. "Right. Sorry."
Gladio snorts. "Don't have to say sorry every five minutes, either."
"Right," Prompto squeaks. "Um. Sor –"
He cuts himself off so fast his teeth click when he closes his mouth on the word. Behind them, Ignis heaves a weary sigh. "No terrorizing our traveling companion before breakfast is finished, please."
"C'mon, Specs," says Noct. "What's a little terror between friends?" And when he flashes a smile at Prompto, conspiratory and teasing, the boy gives him one back in return. It's shaky at first, but it grows wider – transforms into a sunshine-brilliant grin.
The rest of breakfast is easy and companionable, dotted with idle conversation – plans for Lestallum, mostly. Prompto only makes it through half his food, but Ignis takes the rest from him, wrapping it dutifully in foil to keep as a snack for later.
Then it's time to pack.
Noct drags his feet even more than he usually does. They haven't had Prompto around for long, but he already knows he's going to miss the way the boy's eyes light up when he smiles.
In a disappointingly short amount of time, everything's away in its proper place. Their tent is slung over Gladio's broad shoulder, and the cookware is in Ignis' arms. Noct's got their personal packs and a few paper bags, and the chairs are left behind for a second trip, just like always.
Prompto threads wiry-strong arms through the crossed beams of the legs, and he picks them up like they're nothing. "That everything?" he says.
The car isn't much of a hike, and they make it in a few minutes – set their gear out on the ground so that Ignis can begin the monumental task of fitting it all into the trunk. Noct lounges against the side door. He turns to Prompto, and he says, "Where do you think you're gonna settle down?"
But Prompto's not looking at Noct. He's gone stock still, all the color drained from his cheeks. His head's cocked a bit to one side, like a bird, and his face is tipped up toward the sky.
"We’ve got to go," he says, voice less than a whisper. “Right now.”
"What?" says Noct. "What's wrong?"
That's when he hears it: the faint rumble of a drop ship's engines.
"Ah, dammit," says Gladio.
Prompto actually whimpers. He draws up close to the car, pressing his back to the metal of the side. He's got his gun out in bare seconds. "There's no cover here. We've got to go."
"Between the four of us," Ignis says, level and even, "they'll find that we're no easy target."
Prompto's eyes flicker between each of them – dart up toward the sky, where dull, steady red lights herald the ship's arrival.
Noct follows his gaze to where the hatch is already falling open – takes in five MTs and a mech, one of those clunky walking ones that Niflheim seems to love so much. He calls his engine blade up in a flicker of light and smiles grimly. "You guys wanna go throw the Nifs a welcome party?"
Gladio's already on his way. "You kidding? I love parties."
Ignis hangs back; Noct doesn't spare a glance, but he catches the words, low and distinct. "Stay behind us and strike from a distance."
If Prompto replies, he doesn't hear it.
Noct's already busy letting the magic swell inside him – letting raw power slip into the cracks in the world with a flash of blue and a crackle of energy that tastes like electricity on the back of his tongue. He draws his hand back and throws his sword; everything shifts and heaves, and Noct's stomach clenches when he comes out of the warp, right in front of the first MT.
He doesn't give the thing time to react – just moves, bringing his blade up through the space between armor plates. On a person, it would have been a vital organ; on a robot, he guesses, it's probably an important bunch of wires, or maybe even the magitek core. The thing jerks and twitches, smoke beginning to rise from it as Noct pulls the sword free.
Then he's on to other things: the MT beside him, all creepy, lurching motion, at once both awkward and unnaturally quick. He parries a blow from its axe – ducks sideways and rolls when one of the others comes in swinging with a katar in each hand.
Then Gladio bellows, "Get down!"
Noct doesn't hesitate. He tucks and rolls, the response hardwired in after years of training. Consequently, the missile from the mech thunders by overhead, two more on its heels. None of them even come close, and Noct's pretty damned pleased with himself, right up until the first one hits the ground not ten feet away from the Regalia.
The explosion blooms out like some strange, fiery flower. The car flips up on its side, then goes over. Noct scowls and turns back toward the mech, anger a low-level burn in his chest.
When he comes in swinging, there's a violent sort of satisfaction in the way his sword squeals against the steel, metal on metal.
He hears a gunshot ring out, and then another: Prompto joining the fight, somewhere behind him. He's aware that Ignis is at his side, covering his back – aware that somewhere to his right, Gladio has one of the MTs down on the ground. He lifts his massive blade up above his head, one of those sweeping, powerful swings, and brings it back down in an arc that nearly severs the thing in two.
Ignis takes a second through the chest, and it falls back, twitching and sparking, to jitter on the ground.
Prompto's gun sounds again, and another falls, electricity spraying out from the damaged face mask: a headshot, clean and easy.
Noct spins and ducks, preoccupied with the mech – fixes onto a point near the top of it and lets his body blur and shift, anchoring himself and pulling. He hits it with the force of his momentum: not enough to topple it, but plenty to drive it down to one knee.
There's a whir of machinery, then: high-pitched and grating, and Noct realizes, just a beat too late, that it has another set of guns mounted in the side, extending on metal arms.
"Hit the control panel!" someone says, and it takes Noct a second to realize that it's Prompto – a second more to realize Prompto's talking to him.
He scans the brushed steel before him – thinks he sees what Prompto means. It's what looks like a hatch set into the metal; there's an indent for fingers to pull it open, and a grating through which he can just glimpse flashing red lights, the same dull glow as the ones on the drop ship.
Noctis rams his sword straight through.
It's like a video game, where the big boss has a single, telling weak point. The mech twitches like an insect, metal limbs convulsing – then it collapses to the rocky ground, abruptly still. It's kind of badass. Shoddy manufacturing, for sure, but hell if it doesn't make for a showy fight, so Noct's not complaining.
The rest is just mop-up work. Gladio brings his sword to bear on the final MT standing, but it moves at the last instant. Instead of taking it through the torso, he shears its arm off at the shoulder, and it goes down in an ungainly pile, sparking and jerking. Its remaining hand opens and closes, dropping the katar. Its head tips back, and black-purple smoke pours from the hole where its arm used to be.
Gladio prods it with the tip of his sword, testing to see whether it will get back up, but the thing's down for the count. "Guess that's the last of them," he says.
"Indeed," says Ignis. "Though I'd have preferred to come through with the car intact."
Noct turns from the downed MT and back toward the Regalia. "She might still run. Maybe we can flip her over and see if she starts."
"We better try something," says Gladio. "No telling whether those Nif bastards radioed word of our location."
They start back toward the car, and with every step, Noct cringes as more of the damage comes into view. The Regalia's in one piece, more or less, but she's not anything near pretty. Seeing his father's car like that, windshield shattered, rearview mirror on the ground twenty feet away, makes something inside him twist and turn over.
Cindy can fix it, he tells himself. It'll be fine.
Noct's so busy worrying about the car that he's gone ten whole steps before he realizes Prompto's not keeping pace.
He's exactly where they left him, there by the fallen MT. It's still twitching against the hard earth, and Prompto – Prompto's face is waxy-pale. He looks like he's going to puke.
"Prompto?" says Noct, but Prompto doesn't look up. He's too busy staring at the MT still on the ground.
For a second, Noct's stymied. What could have upset him so much?
The close call? The possibility of more Nifs incoming?
He takes a mental step back – tries to take in the situation objectively, as an outsider might. And right away, he understands. It looks bad: the MT down on the ground, short an arm, writhing in what almost looks like pain. Their own conversation, callously indifferent, as they turned to walk away.
Everyone knows MTs are robots. Everyone knows they're empty inside, and that the motions when they go down are just wires malfunctioning, some breakdown in the code that tells what to go where.
But Prompto's missing stuff that everyone knows. He doesn't have a frame of reference for soup, or haircuts, or phones. How is he supposed to know they didn't just hack some guy's arm off and leave him to bleed out on the ground?
"You guys get started without me," he says to Ignis and Gladio, fighting down a sudden, sharp pang of guilt. "Lemme see what's up with Prompto."
But he's pretty sure he already knows what's up with Prompto.
He circles back around, steps careful – trying not to spook the boy. "Prompto?" he says.
This time, Prompto looks up. His eyes are wide and stricken, like an anak in headlights. The boy has nothing even close to a poker face; he's seriously freaked, and it shows.
"Sorry," says Prompto, too quickly. "I'm coming. I just -"
"No," says Noct. "Hey, wait. It's okay. They're not Imperial soldiers."
Prompto just looks at him.
"They're MTs," says Noct. "They're not people." He must be doing a bad job of explaining. If anything, Prompto looks even more upset.
"Here," says Noct. "I'll show you."
He kneels down by the fallen MT; it's lying motionless on the ground by now, finally gone still. Noct looks the casing over – wonders, for an instant, how the hell you pry a robot open. But the answer's waiting there for him in the form of manual releases along the front plating. Shoddy design, just like with the mech.
Noct slips his fingers into the opening, on first one side and then the other. He feels around until he finds the release mechanism – pulls up, hard, until it gives a hiss of escaping pressure and comes free.
"There," he says. "See?"
But he's not sure what he's seeing.
Instead of a mess of complicated tech, there's nothing but empty space. From the top side of the casing, a series of wires dangle, ending in triangular plates of metal. There's a tube, too, thick and sturdy, what looks like rubber. It protrudes from the interior of the robot's chest cavity, maybe as wide around as three of Noct's fingers put together. That one has metal on the end of it, too – a triangular rim with numbers stamped in the plain, practical font Niflheim uses to mark machinery. 05976721, it says.
Noct takes all that in in bare seconds, a quick sweep of a glance. Then his attention gets caught by something else, pooling down toward the bottom of the casing – something that boils like black ink before it curls up into the air, smoking, and disappears.
He frowns down at it for a moment, wondering if his eyes are playing tricks. But whatever was there – if it had been there – is gone.
"Like I said," Noct says. "They're just MTs."
It takes Prompto what seems like years to finally give a tiny, tentative nod. He's still got this look on his face, an awful, wary sort of expression – but when Noct sets a hand on his shoulder and steers him back around to the car, he lets himself be led.
He's made a mistake.
NH-01987 tells himself that as they fight to get the car upright again. He tells himself that as Ignis rigs a lever from the metal legs of the fallen mech and positions it under the vehicle. He tells himself that as Gladio heaves it up and they struggle to flip it over, the four of them.
The car's engine starts, but it chokes and sputters like it's dying, and when it starts to move, it limps along on the road like a voretooth with two broken legs. NH-01987 sits in the seat to Ignis' right, and he watches the haven recede into the distance, and he wonders how he could have been so stupid.
He can feel the barcode on his wrist, beneath the bracelet, burning like a brand. He's hyper-aware of the wires and tubes set into his chest, the constant unforgiving press of the metal of his ports – the proof that he's not human.
NH-01987 knows what he is. He's never had any illusions.
Since the moment three benevolent strangers appeared in his camp, he's understood – everything they've done for him is because of a lie.
So it shouldn't make his chest ache or his throat go tight. It shouldn't.
But every time NH-01987 closes his eyes, he can see that other MT, lying there on the hard-packed earth, still convulsing in pain. He can hear Noct's voice, saying, "They're MTs. They're not people."
He digs the blunt, ragged edges of his fingernails into his palms, as hard as he can. He tries to breathe, slow and even – feels a little like he needs to put his head down between his knees and close his eyes, the way he did outside the Crow's Nest.
Even the thought of it, Ignis' hand steadying and gentle against the back of his head, makes the sick feeling in his stomach worse.
You knew all along, NH-01987 tells himself, sternly. Don't pretend it's a surprise. Don't you dare.
He watches the landscape creep by as the car clanks and struggles. He does his best not to think as the world outside the vehicle changes from sharp, diagonal planes of rock to dark soil and the vibrant green press of trees.
His thoughts go around and around in circles; twice, he tells himself that he'll have to slip away before they reach Lestallum, and twice he talks himself out of it. NH-01987 tells himself he's being rational. They have no way to know what he is. It's more suspicious, now, if he leaves them.
But he knows that's not true. He knows he's staying because he doesn't want to go. He knows exactly what they think about things like him, but when Noct digs out the leftover eggs and toast and passes them up to the front for NH-01987 to finish, he takes the plate, and every bite makes the guilt swell stronger.
By the time the car finally judders to a stop and gives up, NH-01987 feels like they've been driving for days.
"I'll call Cindy," says Noct, and pokes around a bit on his phone before holding it to his ear. "Hey," he says. "Think we're gonna need a tow." He pauses – listens. "Uh huh," he says. "Yeah. Well, have her call me. Yeah, sure. Thanks." Then he puts the phone down and taps the screen.
"Not around?" says Gladio.
"Off on some errand," says Noct. "Guess we're walking till she can make it out here."
Ignis is consulting the map spread across his lap. "Fortunately for us, there's an outpost not far from here. Perhaps we'll be able to secure alternative transportation."
"What," says Noct, "Like a rent-a-car?"
"Of the feathered variety," says Ignis. "We seem to be near a chocobo ranch."
NH-01987 glances up from where his gaze is fixed along the side of the road.
He knows that word: chocobo. It was in the writing next to the picture he saved, the one with the small yellow ball of fluff with tiny wings and liquid black eyes.
The writing told him all about the birds: the kind of greens they eat, and how often they should exercise, and how to keep them entertained. He knows that they used to live in the wild, but that people domesticated them, and that they make dedicated and loyal pets. He knows that renowned biologist Sania Yeagre claims they have the intelligence level of a three-year-old child.
NH-01987 has spent hours upon hours looking at that picture, imagining the kind of nest he could make with twigs and dry grass, and planning how he would find the greens to keep a bird fed, and wondering whether, if he took good enough care of it, a chocobo would let him touch those fluffy yellow feathers.
"Great," says Noct, and rolls his eyes. "Sleeping in a tent and traveling with the highest tech from a century ago."
"Don't knock it till you try it, princess," says Gladio. "And anyway, check it out." He nudges Noct in the side – jerks a thumb toward NH-01987. "Like a kid in a candy store."
NH-01987 blinks over at them – takes in the way the put-out expression on Noct's face flickers and fades. It's replaced by something warmer, something NH-01987 can't quite place.
"Guess getting sidetracked's not the worst thing in the world," Noct says. "What do you think, Prom? Wanna go rent some chocobos?"
They can't, it turns out, rent some chocobos.
They can't even see any chocobos. There's a behemoth in the area, making it dangerous for the birds, and they're all being stabled inside.
NH-01987 understands. The old man with the trim cap and tidy vest is doing what's best for the birds, and that's the most important thing. If he had a chocobo, he wouldn't want it wandering the wilds with a behemoth, either.
He glimpsed a behemoth once, from a distance, a hulking form in the snowy slopes of Niflheim. NH-01987 had been half-starved then, barely on his feet, still suffering from the gunshot wounds he'd sustained during his escape. He'd sheltered in a cave for the evening, huddled in on himself for warmth, willing it not to stumble across him while he was injured and unarmed.
In the morning, it had been gone, the only trace of its passing the massive footprints in the snow.
So NH-01987 understands. He does. Behemoths aren't something to be taken lightly, and it's to keep the chocobos safe. It only makes sense.
He keeps telling himself that, trying to tamp down the small spark of disappointment in his stomach. He's almost got himself convinced when Noct reappears, a flier in one hand and a spring in his step.
"You guys ready for another hunt?" says Noct.
Ignis and Gladio fix him with level looks.
"What's up with you?" says Gladio.
And Ignis, expression somehow knowing, says: "I take it the payoff isn't our primary goal?" He reaches out to take the piece of paper – looks it over, then passes it to Gladio without another word.
Both of Gladio's eyebrows go up. "Think this one's for you," he says, and holds the flier out to NH-01987.
He takes it, hesitantly.
It looks a lot like the coeurl flier did – yellowed paper, dog-earred edges, and all-caps lettering. But the sketch on this one shows a hulking behemoth with a massive scar down the right side of its face. "Deadeye?" he reads.
"Figured we could help Wiz out," says Noct. "If we get rid of the threat, then we can rent some birds."
It makes sense. Without the behemoth, there's no danger to keep the chocobos closed up in the stable. NH-01987 isn't sure what renting a chocobo might entail, but he'll be happy just seeing one. He's always wondered what they sound like. The writing by the picture had claimed they have a "distinctive call," but hadn't seen fit to elaborate any further than that.
NH-01987 can feel a smile tugging at his lips. There's something thrumming through him, vibrant and excited, and when he looks up from the flier, he realizes that all of their gazes are on him. Noct's is open and expectant, Ignis' cool and indulgent, Gladio's blatantly amused.
He holds the flier back out to Noct – feels his face starting to go warm. "Yeah," he manages. "That'd probably work."
Noct tucks the flier back away and smiles a slanted smile. "Then let's do this."
It takes them four hours to do it: one and a half to track the behemoth to its lair, through dew-swept grass and mist-shrouded boulders; two to fight it, a dazzling rush of fire and explosions and too-close swipes of gnashing teeth; and half an hour to return to the chocobo post, Gladio hauling one of the creature's massive claws as proof of their success.
NH-01987 feels – bright. Energized. Like there's a vein of lightning running through him.
After the fight, Noct elbowed him in the side and told him he'd been quick on his feet. Ignis had commented, pointedly, that it was nice when someone took strategic direction. Gladio'd slapped him on the back, so hard he'd almost gone down. NH-01987 had been afraid he'd done something wrong, but when he looked up, the big man was grinning, easy and familiar. He said, "Not bad, kid."
And NH-01987 knows.
He knows that he's not what they think he is. But he can't quite tamp down the thing floating inside him that's so good it's half-smothering. He can't quite seem to stop the grin on his face, even though it's been there so long his cheeks are hurting.
He can't keep from bouncing a little, on the balls of his feet, while they wait for Wiz to unlock the stable door.
He's holding his breath – realizes it when Noct says, "Breathe, Prom," kind of exasperated and kind of amused.
Then he stops breathing, because the first chocobo appears in the stable doorway, and all of the air leaves his body in a high-pitched sound he didn't even know he could make.
The bird's big. Way bigger than he expected. Its eyes are intelligent, wide and dark blue; its feet are sure and steady on the packed earth. It's mostly feathers, and it's taller than NH-01987 is, and it bobs its way past him.
There's another behind it, and another – more after that. They flow out and around him, toward the low wooden fences that make up their pen, and NH-01987 trails after them, like a leaf caught in the wind.
He watches as Wiz sets out greens. He watches as the birds snap up their late dinner, and as they finish and begin to entertain themselves in other ways. They run their beaks through their feathers, and they peck thoughtfully at small pebbles on the ground. Several tuck their heads behind their wings and settle to the ground, drifting off to sleep.
But the one in front of NH-01987 doesn't seem tired. "Kweh?" it says, and it tips its head to one side.
And now – now he knows how chocobos sound. His grin feels like it's going to split his face in two. It's like he's drowning in the hot, bright thing lapping against the inside of his chest.
"You're not gonna pet her?" says Noct.
"I – can I?" says NH-01987.
"Chocobos are generally benign creatures," says Ignis. "They don't bite unless given a reason."
NH-01987 stares at the bird. She stares right back at him.
With infinite care, he reaches out his hand out to brush the fingertips against the fluff on her neck. He keeps it there for a moment, not daring to move – waiting to see if he counts as a reason to bite, all on his own.
He's too slow, apparently. The chocobo gives a soft, impatient quark and ducks her head down under NH-01987's hand, nuzzling into it – rubbing her head up and down, to show him what she wants. For a startled instant, he does nothing at all. Then he gives in and strokes tentatively, and she makes a pleased little trill somewhere low in her throat.
She's so soft. The feathers feel like – he doesn't know. Flower petals, maybe, but lighter. The way clouds look, on a day when the sky is wide and blue and the sun is shining.
He keeps petting, and she moves her head where she wants him to rub – under the chin, and along the cheeks, and there in the back, where the neck meets the skull. NH-01987 thinks that he'd stay here doing this all night, if she'd let him.
Gladio snorts from where he's watching, arms folded, a few steps away. "Someone's got a new best friend."
"She's never gonna leave you alone after this," says Noct.
And Ignis puts in: "She does seem to have taken a shine you. Why don't you stay and keep her entertained, while I see about dinner?"
The offer catches him off-balance.
NH-01987 has had more to eat in the past two days than he probably has in the last week and a half, but every time Ignis suggests a new meal, he feels a bit blindsided.
He's grateful – of course he is. Gods, is he ever.
But there's guilt mingled with it this time, that nagging, blade-sharp voice in his mind that insists it isn't meant for him. None of this is meant for him: not the incredible food, or the kind words, or a place to sleep out of the chill night wind. Not even the fact that he's standing here, right now, petting a real, live chocobo.
NH-01987 swallows down the tightness in his throat. He tells himself it doesn't matter.
He'll stay with them another day or two, until they get to Lestallum. Then they'll go their separate ways, and they'll never have to know that they helped something like him.
He might as well enjoy it, while he can. He might as well pretend to be what they think he is, just for a little while. It's frightening, how much he wants that. He can't ever remember wanting something so badly before, with an edge so sharp it borders on pain.
He's taking too long to answer. He can tell because he feels their eyes on him, a prickling weight at the back of his neck.
NH-01987 buries his fingers into the soft down of the chocobo, and he nods his head.
Ignis doesn't cook tonight.
He brings back something he calls sandwiches: bread, and leafy greens, and some kind of meat, and then bread again.
They eat sitting at a rickety plastic table outside of a long car where Noct says they'll spend the night. The sandwich is good – crisp and fresh and satisfying – and when Ignis offers to wrap the other half to save it for later, NH-01987 doesn't hesitate to pass it over, this time.
Above them, the sky's clear and dark and dotted with stars. All around, the trees make a soft shushing noise as they sway in the breeze, and NH-01987 can see the chocobos from here. Even the one he petted is curled up and peaceful in sleep, a soft yellow lump on the ground.
When they're finished eating, Ignis gathers up the plates to return them to Wiz, and Gladio disappears into the long car. He reappears a few minutes later, with a small box in his hands. "Who wants to get their ass kicked at cards?"
Noct leans back, deliberately casual. "You, looks like."
NH-01987 glances between them. "Cards?"
Gladio gives him a considering look – hands the box over to him. "We can teach you," he says. "Go on, open em up."
NH-01987 opens them up. They all have the same back – a series of elaborate swirls in black, beset with swords and axes and shields. The fronts are different: numbers and shapes, mostly, but a few people, too. There are stern, bearded men, and women with elaborate hair, marked with Ks and Qs.
"What do you do with them?" says NH-01987, turning one over. He must be missing something.
"Play games," says Noct. "There's a bunch, but we can start with something easy."
By the time Ignis gets back, he knows the rules to Titan's Burden.
It is easy, and it sweeps him up in the rush and excitement as four pairs of hands struggle to get rid of the cards they're holding. NH-01987 is breathless by round two, laughing out loud by round three. After round four, Ignis suggests a brief hiatus – fetches a can marked Ebony for himself and a small white box with a straw for NH-01987.
The box declares itself milk, and the contents are rich and creamy, and NH-01987 drinks it down while they play rounds five and six.
By round seven, his eyes are starting to feel heavy. By round eight, he's trying not to yawn. He hasn't won a single game, but he doesn't care. It's the most fun he's ever had, and he doesn't want to end it.
But eventually Ignis checks his phone, and frowns at what he sees. He says, "We'd be wise to get a bit of sleep."
NH-01987 doesn't mean to say anything. But before his mouth can consult his brain, he blurts, "Can we play one more round?"
Their eyes turn his way, all at once, and NH-01987 kicks himself for overstepping his bounds. Ignis just said that it was time to go to sleep. He just said, and here's NH-01987, contradicting him – making trouble for someone who's shown him nothing but kindness.
NH-01987 feels his cheeks begin to heat up. If he could, he'd take those words back – snatch them out of the air before anyone could hear. It's no wonder his trainers were always so frustrated with him. It's no wonder his back is all-over scars from corrections that came long after he should have learned his lessons.
He ducks his head; his hand, jjttery with nerves, reaches up to pick at the cloth bracelet covering his barcode. "Nevermind," he says. "Sleep is – sleep is good."
There's a jostle under the table – a sharp sound, as of an impact. NH-01987 glances up to catch the tail end of the look Noct's giving Ignis: a pointed stare, like he means to drill a hole straight through him.
When Noct notices NH-01987 looking, his cheeks go a bit pink, and he glances away.
Gladio's smile is crooked and wide, and even Ignis' mouth curls up at one corner. "On second thought," he amends. "Perhaps bedtime can wait a few minutes longer."
Just like that, Ignis begins to deal for round nine, hands quick and sure.
NH-01987 watches the cards as they flick out to settle on the table. He's holding his breath, waiting for something to go wrong – but when he darts his eyes up to check expressions, he doesn't find any anger, or even impatience. He finds things that he doesn't have a name for, things that curl up in the bottom of his chest like a sleeping chocobo, soft and warm.
They play another round, and another after that. NH-01987 loses both of those, too, but he doesn't care.
By the time Gladio slips the cards back into their box and Ignis leads him toward the long car where they'll stay the night, the low simmer of panic building at the back of his mind has been gentled into silence. In its place, something wholesome has a filled a part of him he never knew was empty.
Hoo boy. This chapter kicked my butt. I've been fighting with this forever freaking ever. I'm just going to wash my hands of it and throw it up before it's the end of me. orz
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Prompto's gone when Noct wakes up.
It's pretty glaringly obvious; the camper's narrow bunk, which once included a boy curled up on his side under a blanket, now holds only the blanket, rumpled from use.
Specs is still sound asleep in his sleeping bag, down by the camper's tiny kitchen. Gladio's snoring loudly from his place on the couch, head braced against one of the cushions, feet sticking off the far end. Noct's on the floor, too, swaddled in his own sleeping bag, and somehow – somehow, they managed to miss Prompto crawling out of bed in the middle of the night, tip-toing past every single one of them.
And it is the middle of the night. Or at least – he checks his phone – early, early morning. 4 am is not a good time to be awake, and it's a miracle and a half that Noct's eyes are open. Even Iggy's still out cold, and Noct's pretty sure he's never dragged himself out of bed earlier than Specs before.
First time for everything, he tells himself, and sits up in his sleeping bag. Right now there are more important things to worry about than a few extra hours of shuteye.
One important thing in particular, and Noct can already feel his groggy brain trying to kick into overdrive and figure out what went wrong.
Did Prompto have another nightmare, and wake early in a panic? Did he hear something outside and go to investigate? Or maybe he just second-guessed himself about the bunk and tried to give it up.
The scene from the night before is still fresh in Noct's mind: Prompto, small and stubborn, standing beside the only bed and explaining, earnestly, that he doesn't mind sleeping on the floor because it's so much warmer in here than outside. Ignis replying, with infinite patience, that they all have sleeping bags, and Prompto has nothing at all, and would he please just humor them and take the cot until they find him suitable bedding?
In the end, with a great deal of convincing, Prompto had taken the bunk. But now it's empty, and Noct's climbing to his feet, heartbeat in his throat.
He steals Ignis' slippers without thinking about it – slides them onto his bare feet and then stumbles, bleary-eyed and sleep-mussed, out into the pre-dawn world.
The sky's starting to go grey in the east, and the air's brisk and clear. From the woods, there come the sounds of some night bird, getting in its last great adventures before the day ruins its fun.
And there – there beside the chocobo pen, frozen still as a statue – is a familiar figure, crouched down on its haunches.
Noctis lets go of a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. The relief is almost palpable, and he lets it wash over him as he clops down the camper steps in Iggy's slippers.
"Morning, Prom," Noctis says, way before he comes too close. He's learned from Gladio's mistakes – caught on to the way the boy goes tense and frightened when someone gets into his space without warning.
Prompto's head comes up – half turns his way.
He's got on a goofy grin, lopsided and kind of wondering. Prompto lifts one hand, like he's afraid to move, and scoops it through the air a couple of times: a frantic come here gesture.
Noct feels an answering smile creep onto his own lips, and he comes over to see what all the fuss is about.
What he finds is a small, yellow ball of fluff, no bigger around than his head. It has bright, lively eyes, and a tiny beak, and stubby yellow wings.
He can practically see the hearts in Prompto's eyes.
"It's so small," Prompto breathes, when Noct is close enough to hear him.
"It's a baby," says Noct, amused.
"I wanted to see if they were awake yet," says Prompto, "So I came over to look. And it just –" He gestures with his hand again, like he's overwhelmed by the fact that this tiny bird has chosen to approach him.
"Yeah," says Noct. "Guess it likes you."
Prompto stares up at him. He stares back down at the bird.
It's like the notion that the creature could have an opinion about him – or that it could possibly be positive – is occurring for the very first time.
"Hey," says Noct. "How bout you keep her entertained, and I'll see if they're selling greens this early? Bet you could give her breakfast."
Prompto says, "Could I?" like the answer is a matter of life or death.
"Sure," says Noct. "Gimme five minutes. I'll be right back."
They're actually not selling greens this early.
The souvenir shop's closed for business until normal operating hours – but Wiz is up, puttering around in the kitchen attached to the store, getting ready for a busy day of tourists passing through.
Noct comes back with a handful of the most expensive greens he sells.
Then he sits on the ground next to Prompto, heedless of the fact that his pajamas are getting dirty, and watches him feed the little chocobo bite after bite, until it finally comes and sits in his lap.
"I'm of a mind to do laundry today," says Ignis, not long after breakfast.
The dishes are done, and he has a cup of coffee in one hand. His tone is so casual that it may as well be disinterested, but Noct knows better. He's had years to learn Ignis' tells, and this one screams: I'm about to go on a cleaning rampage, and woe to he who dares to stand in my path.
Noct glances down at his own clothes, surreptitiously. Then his gaze flicks sideways toward Prompto, still dressed in his white t-shirt. The dirt smudges are more obvious now, after the early morning chocobo snuggle expedition.
"Sure," says Noct. "Go for it."
Ignis fixes him with a cool look. "It may be wise to do a bit of shopping before then."
Noct thinks it over – realizes he has exactly nothing to wear while his dirty clothes are in the wash. Come to think of it, Prompto doesn't either. "Yeah, sure. What do you say, Prom? Wanna see if they've got anything you like?"
Prompto glances up from the table, expression hesitant. "Um," he says.
"It'll be warmer than your old stuff," Gladio says. "Gets too cold to run around here with no sleeves."
Noct snorts and rolls his eyes. "Like you can talk. You don't even have a shirt."
"Hey," says Gladio. "Not everyone can be built like me."
"Cold-resistant?" Ignis muses.
"A show off?" Noct throws in, drily.
"Tall?" offers Prompto.
Gladio grins and leans back in his chair. "Yeah," he says, and threads his fingers together, pushing them out so that the knuckles pop like someone setting off a line of firecrackers. "All of those."
"How is it?" calls Noct, leaning back against the wooden wall behind the bench. He's got to raise his voice to make himself heard; there's no proper fitting room. The place where Prompto's changing probably used to be a closet, so it's got a full door, and a bare lightbulb with a string attached, and one of those wall-to-wall hanging racks.
The door clicks open, and Noct glances over.
Prompto pokes his head out. "It fits," he says.
"C'mon out," says Gladio.
Prompto steps out, cautious – almost shy. He's in a t-shirt about two sizes too big for him. It's white, with friendly bubble letters in the center that read, "I love chocobos," only the word love has been replaced with a sunset-orange heart. The jeans are bright yellow, and his feet, poking out beneath the hems, are bare.
There's a lump below the fabric in the shirt, Noct notes. He wonders idly what it could be.
"Thoughts?" says Ignis, tone even. If he disapproves of how loud the outfit is, he doesn't let it show.
Prompto rubs the shirt between his thumb and forefinger. "I like it," he says. "It's soft."
Noct can see something thaw a bit in the hard line of Ignis' jaw. "We'll keep this one in the running, then, shall we?"
He passes over the rest of what Prompto's picked out, then adds a pack of socks and a shoe box.
"Give these a try, too. Those boots are so worn down it's a wonder you haven't tipped over and broken an ankle yet."
Prompto nods, arms full, looking a bit overwhelmed. Then he retreats back into the changing room like a turtle escaping into its shell.
"Thought we were trying not to scare him off," Gladio puts in, mildly.
"He needs proper clothes," says Ignis.
Noct doesn't say anything. He's trying not to think of the look on Prompto's face, wary and uncertain, when they told him it was okay to pick out whatever he liked. He's trying not to think of Prompto coming back with a single tank top, like even that was more than he expected.
Noct grits his teeth and forces the image from his mind.
They wait a few minutes, and then a few more. At last the door cracks open and Prompto reappears. This time, he's in a navy t-shirt flooded by a cascade of falling yellow feathers. The dark grey sports jacket has yellow piping and a running chocobo on the back, and the jeans are grey, with little bird footprints picked out in yellow embroidery on the left thigh. He's wearing the shoes, too: yellow sneakers with white laces.
It looks good on him.
"Nice," says Noct, and means it.
Ignis gives Prompto a once-over. "How do they feel?"
"Warm," says Prompto. His fingers trail toward the sleeve of the jacket; they trace the place where the fabric covers up his wrist, right above the bracelet he always wears.
"And the shoes?"
Prompto stares down at them, uncertainly.
"He wants to know if they fit," says Noct. "Wiggle your toes?"
The end of the yellow fabric shifts.
"Now walk around a couple steps," says Gladio, and Prompto does. "Anything rubbing?"
Prompto shakes his head.
"Splendid," says Ignis. "Try your last shirt, then, won't you?"
Noct expects him to turtle back into the changing room, but Prompto just stands there, uncertain. He says, "Um."
Ignis lifts an eyebrow – waits patiently.
"I tried it already," says Prompto.
"What," says Gladio. "Didn't feel like modeling for us?"
Prompto's posture is stiff; his shoulders are hunched. "It, uh. It didn't fit."
Noct knows right away that he's lying, because Prompto's the worst liar he's ever seen. And that's saying something, considering Noct's been trained in diplomacy; he grew up around the court. He's seen his fair share of liars.
He eyes the shirt as Prompto holds it out, cautiously, on the hanger.
Noct thought for sure this would be the one he liked best. It's that first tank top he grabbed, bedecked with a baby chocobo. The yellow fuzzball on the front is round and cartoony, and a little word bubble above its head says, "kweh."
Not the design, then. The cut?
Maybe it hangs too loose; the collar scoops low, and Prompto's nothing but skin and bones. He's got an ugly ream of scar tissue that shows just above the collar on a regular t-shirt, and there's that lump beneath the fabric, besides. Could be he's got some old wound he's afraid to show off.
"Doesn't fit, huh," says Noct, thoughtfully. He circles back around to the store's clothing display and comes back with a t-shirt, deep maroon, with the same chocobo chick emblazoned on the front. Not just one, either – nine of them, in a fluffy yellow grid. "This oughtta work. It's the same size as the one you're wearing."
Prompto's fingers close around the shirt. He holds it up to his chest and, sure enough, it's a match for the one on under his jacket. His fingers trace the ranks of tiny chocobos, the hesitation on his face flickering out to be replaced with a newly dawning smile. "Okay, yeah," he says. "This one's like nine times better."
"Well, then," says Ignis, with an amused slant to his lips. "I think we're just about set. Are all the rest to your liking, Prompto?"
Prompto nods so fast Noct's afraid he'll give himself whiplash.
"Come along, then. We'll have the clerk cut the tags, and you can wear that out." They buy the lot of it: shirts, pants, jacket, and socks. Ignis adds a pack of chocobo-print boxers, and stands with Prompto at the counter while the cashier rings them up.
Noct's eyes wander while they do: over strange hanging decorations of curved wood and leather, set with chocobo feathers; over packs of gysahl chips in brightly-packaged bags; over harnesses and saddle equipment for the serious chocobo rider. And finally, there on a shelf beside small knick-knacks plainly intended as souvenirs, is something else doubtless intended to catch a tourist's eye.
Noct picks the box up. He turns it over, and he reads the back.
Then he wanders over to the counter and sets it casually on top of the clothes.
Both of Ignis' eyebrows lift, delicately, toward his hairline. Gladio's got this smirk on his face, knowing and not at all surprised.
"What?" says Noct, a little defensive. "He needs a camera. How else is he gonna get decent shots of all the birds?"
By the time Ignis makes lunch, the camera is full up with the sights of the chocobo post.
It holds Noct with his arms around the neck of a particularly affectionate bird, stroking her feathers. It holds Ignis, shaking out the last of the laundry before he hangs it up to dry. It holds Gladio, down on the ground, caught in the act of one-handed push-ups. After that, there are shots of the trees, an enchanting shade of green; and the sun overhead in the bright blue sky; and Prompto's face, grinning, with the sign that says "Wiz Chocobo Post" behind him.
The pictures document the rough-hewn posts that make up the pen. They take in the stable out back: sun-worn wood and fresh straw.
And they're absolutely packed with birds. There are birds playing, birds eating, birds preening, and birds napping. Some of the birds are fluffy and pleased; some are sleek and offended. Twenty-three are of the chocobo he petted last night, Prompto's disembodied hand scratching under the chin. Seventeen of them are of the little chocobo from this morning, which has taken to following him around the dusty ground in hopes of more greens.
At lunch, Prompto makes his way through two riceballs stuffed with salmon, and he passes the camera around the table to show off the pictures. Noct's never seen him talk so much all at once – but he's been through the instruction manual five times already, and he chatters on about the different settings, and what he's used for which shot, and what the birds were doing when he took them.
Prompto sneaks some of the seaweed off his riceball to the chocobo chick under the table when he thinks no one's looking. It takes the offering from between his fingers, and then it nestles on his foot and stays there for the rest of the meal.
Cindy calls a bit past lunch. "I hear ya got the old girl on the ropes again," is the first thing out of her mouth when Noct answers the phone.
"Yeah," says Noct. "Think we're gonna need a tow. Can you come get us at the chocobo ranch?"
"Be there before nightfall," she assures him, cheerily, and then hangs up the phone.
Ignis is just clearing up the lunch dishes. Gladio's stretched out in one of the plastic chairs outside the camper with his book open. Prompto's intent on mastering the close-up setting on his camera.
He's following the chocobo chick around in an awkward crouch, kind of waddling with his knees splayed out, but it doesn't seem to mind.
"That was Cindy," says Noct.
"Yeah?" says Gladio. "She gonna be able to make it out?"
He catches it out of the corner of his eye – the way Prompto goes still, head tipped to one side. He catches the flash of disappointment, and the crease in between the boy's eyebrows, and the way he bites at his lip.
It kinda sucks, that they've got to clear out so fast. Noct knows that if Prompto had his say, they'd stay awhile longer, and he'd take pictures of the birds and the surrounding woods. He seems happy here – not five seconds away from a panic attack, the way he was in Taelpar.
Still, they've got to get the car seen to. They need to get back on the road. So when Cindy shows up, a couple of hours later, Noct ignores the twinge of regret and follows Ignis and Gladio over to see what the damage is. Prompto trails behind, suddenly shy; he can't seem to look at Cindy for more than a second or two before his eyes skitter sideways and find something else to watch.
"What do you think?" Noct says, after Cindy's had a minute to look over the car. "Can you fix her up?"
He's never seen that particular look on Cindy's face before, and that's his first clue. Then she sets one hand on her hip and turns his way and says, "She's a right mess. This ain't gonnna be a quick patch job, that's for sure."
Noct grimaces. "How long are we talking?"
Cindy circles around the car, expression thoughtful. "Well," she says, "I won't rightly know till I crack the old girl open, but sooner'n a week seems romantic."
"A week," Noct echoes.
"Maybe going on two. I know my work better'n anyone, but I ain't in the business of working' miracles."
"Well, it is what it is," says Noct. "Go on and load her up."
It's not the answer he was hoping for. It'll mean a week out by Hammerhead, in the dusty desert, and that's if they're lucky.
Cindy's nice enough, and Cid's entertaining in his own cranky way, but the time they spent in Hammerhead hunting up enough gil to get down to Galdin Quay was long enough for Noct. It's too damn hot out there, with the sun high and bright, always beating down on the back of your neck.
He's not in any hurry to get back.
The idea blooms in the back of his mind, like a light flickering on in a darkened room. He says, "Hey." Then he thinks it through some more – turns to Ignis and Gladio and Prompto. "How bout we stay here?"
"What," says Gladio, "Like head for Hammerhead in the morning?"
"No," says Noct. "Stay here till the car's done."
He can see the way Ignis' expression changes, just slightly – the spark of understanding, and the way his gaze slides over toward Prompto, just for an instant. "I don't suppose it would hurt. After all, us being present is unlikely to speed the repairs."
"Guess here's as good as anywhere," Gladio puts in with a shrug.
There's a beat of silence. Noct looks at Prompto, who's worked his fingers under the sleeve of his jacket to pick at the cloth bracelet on his wrist.
"Prompto?" says Noct. "What do you think?"
Prompto nods and ducks his head. There's a smile on his face, and it lights up his eyes.
"Then it's settled," says Noct. He turns back toward Cindy. "Just give us a call when the car's ready, okay? We'll come and pick her up then."
"Hey," says Noct, maybe an hour after the chocobo post's lights have come on for the night. "You seen Prompto?"
He's been looking, idly, for at least twenty minutes now – not actively worried, yet, but getting there.
"Have you checked by the birds?" says Ignis. He's standing in the camper's kitchen, inventorying their supplies. He pauses in rearranging a sack of rice to glance up as Noct pokes his head in the open doorway.
"Yeah," says Noct, because he has.
Gladio's sitting out front, tapping away at his phone. He snorts a laugh, and he says, "Not by the birds. By the birds."
Noct frowns at him. "The hell's that supposed to mean?" he asks, and before he can get an answer, he's heading off toward the chocobo pens.
The birds are all bedded down for the night, soft yellow lumps curled up on the ground, beaks tucked neatly into their wings. Noct does a quick scan for Prompto – sees nothing, and turns to head back.
Then he catches sight of it: an oddly-shaped tuft of feathers, poking up over a chocobo's back.
The shape looks awfully familiar.
He circles around to the other side of the pen, careful not to wake the birds. And there's his answer – Prompto, fast asleep, tucked up alongside the wing of the chocobo from last night. In the dim light, the tip of his hair is almost indistinguishable from its feathers.
Yeah, Noct thinks, as he slips his cell phone out of his pocket to snap a picture. He can do a week here, easy.
You guys are the absolute greatest. I mean that. The response to this fic has been absolutely incredible. Thank you so much to everyone who's thrown a kudos or a comment my way. <3
My work schedule is about to get stupidly busy, so my writing time is going to be almost nonexistent for a bit, unfortunately. Please hang in there and I'll try to keep it up with the updates, though they may get less frequent for awhile. Sorry, guys. Thanks for your patience!
After the pretty lady in yellow takes the car away, the days run together like some brilliant, technicolor dream.
The chocobo ranch is the best place NH-01987's ever been, and every hour he spends there seems to get better. Mornings mean Ignis waking them from mounds of soft bedding with the promise of food and coffee. Afternoons are bright skies and lively birds, endless new things to see and do. Evenings promise card games and idle chatter and dinner under the stars.
NH-01987 has had twenty years to see the world, and in all that time, he never knew that it could be like this.
The surface of the pond is glassy and clear; it reflects the sky above them, blue with streaks of cloud. The only sound is the low hum of insects in the tall grass, and the wind rustling the leaves. Everything is still and peaceful.
Noct's sitting there, on the edge of the water, a long stick that he calls a fishing pole in his hands. When he turns the lever on the side, the line comes skimming in, and NH-01987 sits up straighter, holding up his eyes to shield against the sun. There's a shadow there, under the water. It's following the lure.
NH-01987 sucks in a breath, anticipation making him all but vibrate. Noct flashes him a quick smile, and nods toward the pond, and keeps turning the lever.
All at once, the lure bobs and goes under; suddenly, there in the placid water, something squirms and splashes, reflecting like metal in the morning light. It twists and curves and struggles, and Noct drags it ever closer to the side of the pond.
When it's within reach, he sticks his hand down and pulls up the fish, flopping and gleaming. "Guess I know what's for dinner tonight."
"You think?" says NH-01987. "You only caught like six of them."
He's leaning in close, eying the place where the hook's caught in the fish's mouth. He's watching the lure: color, and shape, and size. He's wishing he'd known about this five years ago, this way to prize food from the wilderness without a gun and the threat of a messy, painful death.
He doesn't realize Noct's watching him watch – not until he looks up and sees those eyes on him, dark blue like a summer evening shading into night. "You wanna try?" says Noct, after a moment.
NH-01987 flushes – nods – wonders if his thoughts were that obvious. "Yeah," he says. "Seems like a good thing to know."
Noct's face goes tight, just for a instant, but it's gone just as fast, and he nods and unhooks the fish, throwing it in the bucket with the others.
He hands over the pole. "Okay. So, this is the reel. You're gonna want to turn it until you've got about six inches of line – good, that's the way." Noct's hand settles on top of NH-01987's, and he presses down, gently, on one of his fingers. "Then you hold the line against the rod, like this, and you'll use your other hand to open the bail."
NH-01987 isn't entirely sure what he's doing, but he gets there anyway.
Noct's a patient teacher, and by the time they're done, there are eight fish in the bucket, instead of six. NH-01987 is thinking of how he could make a fishing rod of his own – how he could handle the tricky bits, like the reel. Would a long stick and a line work, if that was all he had? They seem like the important parts. He'd probably need something to use as a lure, too.
When he looks up again, he finds Noct's eyes on him – thoughtful, inscrutable.
It looks like a question's about to be incoming, any second now, so NH-01987 beats him to it. "How'd you learn, anyway?"
Noct snorts, and the corners of his lips quirk up. "Books," he says. "A whole lot of them."
"That's it?" NH-01987 can't quite keep the disbelief from his tone. It seems like a lot to pick up, from words on a page, with no one showing you the way.
"Some magazines, too." Noct lifts one shoulder in an off-handed shrug. "My dad wanted me to pick up a hobby. Said I spent too much time by myself."
"I went for something I could do solo, just to piss him off. Didn't think I'd actually like it so much." Noct falls silent again, expression going distant and closed off.
NH-01987 knows how a family works. It's shaky knowledge, gleaned from overheard conversations and interactions observed at a distance – from passing mentions in the magazines where he found his pictures.
He knows that mothers and fathers teach children, and keep them safe until they're old enough to keep themselves safe. It's something he's sure all real people know – something he's fairly sure Noct will expect him to know. So he ventures: "Why didn't he teach you himself?"
Noct's quiet so long NH-01987 thinks he won't answer. Then, at last, he says: "Even if he knew how, he wouldn't have had the time. He's – he was a busy guy."
It's like a good photo: the line of Noct's shoulders, and the way his head is angled down, and the too-careful blank look on his face all tell a story.
"Oh," says NH-01987, softly.
Noct swallows, and the line of his throat moves. "He was in Insomnia," says Noct, "when the Imperial forces got there."
Insomnia... the capital?
"Wait," says NH-01987. "The fighting’s made it that far?"
Noct glances up at him, the corners of his eyes raw and wet. "Didn't you hear?" he says, voice just this side of bitter. "Insomnia fell. War's over – Niffs think they won."
That's – there's so much wrapped up in that statement that for an instant, NH-01987 can't breathe.
If the war's over, that means Lucis isn't safe anymore, either. Nowhere will be. The Imperial forces will just keep coming, and coming, until there are too many to fight. It'll be the end of him – but it'll be the end of Noct, and Ignis, and Gladio, too.
He's seen enough to know that they need to stay under cover as much as he does. He's seen enough to know that they're being hunted, just like he is.
He can feel his breath starting to come faster; he feels the first prickles of panic starting to creep down his spine. NH-01987 tries to say something, but his throat's too dry. It comes out as a weird little croak.
"Hey," says Noct. "We're not giving up, okay? We're gonna take this whole damn country back."
NH-01987 tries to nod, but it feels jerky and disjointed. He isn't sure when he started shaking, but it's all through him now. He thinks he needs to sit down, before his legs give up – lowers himself to the pier, beside the fishing bucket, and tells himself to breathe.
"Ah, gods," says Noct, and settles down beside him.
NH-01987 feels a hand touch his shoulder, tentative. It hesitates there, and then it rubs in small, soothing circles. It feels nice.
They stay like that for a little while, side by side. Then, quietly, Noct says, "They hurt you? The Niffs?"
NH-01987's throat aches; his eyes burn. He nods again, a slight dip of his head.
The hand on his shoulder stops moving – tugs him closer, instead, and wraps around him in a loose sort of circle. That feels nice, too.
NH-01987 leans into it, and he presses his cheek against the soft, dark fabric of Noct's t-shirt.
"We'll make em pay," says Noct, soft and intent. "I promise."
"But do they like it?" says NH-01987, hesitantly.
"Sure do," says Wiz. "We got a bunch of show-offs round these parts. And this one here –" He jerks his thumb toward the bird that Prompto petted, that first night. "—she's the worst of the bunch."
"See?" says Noct. "Quit worrying. If the dye was bad for them, no way they'd let us try."
Ignis nods, reassuring. "I checked the list of ingredients," he says. "They're entirely non-toxic."
Gladio's peering at the color swatches in NH-01987's hands. "That smoke grey one's boss. I know what I'm doing."
NH-01987 flips through the booklet. Then he flips through it again. He likes the bright colors: eye-catching and cheerful. He likes the warm colors, like a fire against the cold of the night.
"This one," he says at last, and points.
"Hey, kid," says Gladio, one morning after breakfast. "You wanna go a round?"
NH-01987 knows exactly what he means. He's been sparring with Noct for the past half hour; now both of them are wrung out and sweaty, Noct slumped on the camper steps, Gladio with a towel slung over his shoulders.
He doesn't want to go a round. NH-01987 still has nightmares, about some of the harder bouts his trainers put him through – and the aftermath, when he didn't do well enough. Even the thought of matching himself up against Gladio makes his heart skitter into a faster rhythm.
"Hey, newsflash," says Noct, cracking an eye open to fix Gladio with a disinterested stare. "Not everyone's idea of fun is swinging a sword around."
"And not everyone'll slack off all day, if they've got the choice." Gladio turns toward NH-01987. "What do you say?"
Ignis is nearby, pretending not to watch. His eyes are decidedly not on the magazine spread across the plastic table in front of him, though.
NH-01987 tries to swallow. Whatever this training session is, it won't be like the ones he's used to. Will it? Gladio didn't so much as draw blood, when he was up against Noct. And he thinks NH-01987 is a person, too. So it's safe, isn't it?
"Sure, dude," says NH-01987, voice only a touch unsteady. "Bring it."
Gladio outright grins at that. "Hot damn," he says. "You keep picking up slang from me and Noct, you're gonna give Iggy a heart attack." Gladio takes the towel down off his shoulders – wipes his forehead. Then he tosses it aside and banishes his sword, the hard lines of it fading out to glimmers of blue. "You good with hand to hand?"
NH-01987 tips his head to one side, considering. Then he gives a careful nod. He'd expected the same kind of training Noct got, all flashing blades and lightning fast footwork. In a way, he's glad there won't be a sword involved; a misstep will do less damage. On the other hand, he's never been very good at hand to hand. He has flashes of recollections: hitting the floor again, and again, and again. Dead last in his unit, three times in a row, and discovering what that meant, when the training session was over.
There's a cold sweat starting to bead on his forehead, and a sick sort of churning in his stomach. It gets worse when Gladio gestures him nearer.
"Come on, then," Gladio says. " Let's see what you got."
Ignis and Noct are both watching, posture tight. Noct looks ready to get right back up off the camper steps and dive in.
"Just... go?" says NH-01987.
"Whenever you're ready," says Gladio.
He takes a breath, and then another. Then he forces himself to move.
It's like charging a behemoth – two parts terror, one part desperate will to survive. Every part of him wants to run the other way, but he comes in anyway, crouched low, eyeing his opponent. Gladio's got him on size, and on strength, but maybe he can get in low and sweep his feet out from under him to throw his balance. If he can get him on the ground –
NH-01987 is still coming up with a plan when Gladio lunges.
He yelps – stumbles – falls back, right arm up in front of him like a shield. It's a bad angle; it's a bad block. He's about to be on the ground spitting blood.
But Gladio just draws up short. He says: "There. That," and reaches out to take him by the wrist. He turns NH-01987's arm a little – glances him over and takes him by the shoulders to adjust his stance.
NH-01987 just looks at him, bewildered.
"Your aim's great, and you're damn quick on your feet, but you don't block for shit." Gladio steps back and looks him over, then gives a sharp nod. "You just about shoved your arm in that coeurl's mouth the other day, trying to keep it off you while you took your shot. That's a good way to get yourself killed."
"I..." says NH-01987. "What?"
He's heard exactly that criticism thousands of times before. He's had trainers try to beat it into him. He's failed, and suffered the consequences, and failed again.
But Gladio only says, "Let's go again. Kinda don't want to see your hand get chewed off. You know?"
So they go again, and again after that. They keep it up for half an hour, until NH-01987's breathing hard from nothing but exertion.
Gladio doesn't land a single hit on him. Not one.
He pulls up short every time, and he shows NH-01987 what he could be doing better. They walk through three different kinds of blocks, and two deflections.
And when they're done – when Ignis says, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to break the two of you up for lunch," and calls an end to it – Gladio claps him on the back.
"Not bad," he says. "Wanna go again tomorrow?"
NH-01987 wakes to a tangle of cloth, soft and clinging.
There's not much light, here in the camper, but some creeps in through the plastic slats on the window, in stripes of gold.
It's just enough to see by: just enough for him to make out Gladio's thick arms, lax with sleep; and Ignis' hair, uncharacteristically mussed; and Noct's face, a pale oval in the dim lighting.
His chest feels full and heavy; his whole body is practically radiating content. Ignis made green curry soup again tonight, and NH-01987 finished a whole bowl.
He presses his face against the pillow, to stifle the helpless smile on his lips, and he closes his eyes, and he waits for sleep to pull him under again.
"Are you fond of cake?" says Ignis, one morning after breakfast, seemingly from nowhere.
NH-01987 is helping him wash the dishes in the camper sink. He has one of the plates, the peculiar kind with partitions, still in his hands. "Cake?" says NH-01987.
He rinses off the soap, and he sets the plate carefully to one side; then he takes another.
"A confection of flour and sugar," says Ignis. "Sometimes topped with icing or fruit."
NH-01987 is getting better with food words. Ignis has taught him a lot already, patiently answering every stupid question about what this is, or where it comes from, or why it tastes so good when you put it together with this other thing. But he doesn't know sugar, and he doesn't know icing, and he freezes there, by the sink, water dripping from the plate.
"Like in your magazine clipping," says Ignis, kindly. "The triangular one, with the red berry."
All at once, NH-01987 knows what he means. It's one of his favorite shots, done in bright lighting, with what he now knows is soft focus. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the red thing – the berry – glimmers like it's been brushed with water. He'd always suspected it was some kind of food. The fork just visible in the foreground gave it away.
But now he has a word to go with it: cake.
Ignis is still waiting for him, patiently – expecting an answer, he remembers with a start.
"Right," says NH-01987. "Cake. Um." He scrubs at the plate in his hands to buy more time. "It looks pretty?" he hazards, at last.
Ignis' face doesn't give much away, but NH-01987 is learning to read the tells. The skin around his eyes gets tighter, when he hears something he doesn't like, and his lips press flat.
"When we're finished with the dishes," says Ignis, "how would you like to help me make one?"
The magic Ignis can do with food is almost as impressive as the magic Noct uses to store weapons away in thin air. NH-01987's gun is there now, with the swords and spears and daggers. He's still getting used to its weight not being by his side, but Noct showed him how to get it out as soon as he needs it. It's faster than drawing it from a holster ever was.
But Ignis – Ignis can take raw ingredients and transform them into something better. He creates small masterpieces, every day, three times a day. NH-01987's camera is full of examples, and every meal is something incredible.
NH-01987 could watch him work for hours.
He nods, already eager. "Dude, you know it."
Ignis stifles a small smile, and finishes drying the final dish.
They start work on the cake an hour later, in the camper's kitchen. Ignis sets out all of the ingredients, and washes his hands, and has NH-01987 do the same. He gives instructions, and NH-01987 follows them, devoutly, all his concentration bent to the task.
When they're finished, it goes into the oven to bake.
They wait for it, Ignis leaning against the counter and NH-01987 lingering in the doorway, one foot propped up behind him, arms folded over his chest. The smell of the cake cooking, sweet and light and warm, seems to fill him up inside.
"It's rather nice here," says Ignis, idly. He's looking out the window, at a view of the chocobos and the cloud-spotted sky.
NH-01987, whose position affords him the same view, nods in agreement. "It's pretty great."
Ignis takes a breath in and lets it out in something that's not quite a sigh. "I feel as though I should thank you," he says. "This respite has done wonders for our spirits. In all honesty, you've done wonders for our spirits."
NH-01987 is certain, for a moment, that he's misheard. His face starts to go hot. "I didn't do anything."
"You've made Noct laugh again," says Ignis, firmly. "That, all on its own, seems the work of the Astrals."
They sit without speaking for a moment, the only sounds the ticking of the oven and the distant quark of the chocobos outside.
"We've had our own poor luck with the Empire, you know," Ignis says at last. "We've all lost a good deal."
NH-01987's hand drifts, of its own accord, to pick at the cloth bracelet hidden beneath the sleeve of his jacket. "Noct's dad, right? He, uh. He mentioned something."
"Among others," says Ignis. "Gladio's father, as well. And my uncle."
The thought of it strikes something deep in the center of him – sends him staggering off-balance. All those people. Was Insomnia as big as Gralea?
In his mind's eye, he sees the civilians he passed, while he fled the capital.
He sees them all dead.
"I'm sorry," NH-01987 whispers.
He can picture the dropships touching down – picture the MTs flowing out of them, row after row, weapons of war. That would have been him, if he'd never been scheduled for decommissioning.
What right does he have to stand here, in this kitchen, and say he's sorry?
"What's done is done," says Ignis. "There's nowhere to go from here but forward."
"That doesn't make it better," says NH-01987, softly.
Ignis hesitates for an instant. His eyes, that peculiar pale green, are thoughtful. "Whatever history you have with the Empire, you should know that you have a sympathetic ear. Unless I miss my guess, you've plenty of your own experience with the sort of damage Niflheim can inflict."
The words cut in deep – wedge there beside the port in his chest, like a blade.
NH-01987's eyes come up, wary; they search Ignis' face, and find that the expression there is mild and tired, worn around the edges.
He doesn't suspect. None of them do.
NH-01987 thinks back to what he told Noct. He thinks about Insomia falling, with Noct's father, and Gladio's father, and Ignis' uncle still inside. He thinks of Noct saying, "We're not giving up, okay?"
If NH-01987 is going to help them – and he wants to help them, he realizes with a sudden surge of urgency – they'll need to know they can trust the information he's got. They'll need to know he has a reason to have that information, and he'd better make it good.
It's a risk to say anything at all.
It's a risk NH-01987 is willing to take.
"I, um," says NH-01987, but the words come out hoarse and strange. He swallows, and he tries again. "I was there for a while. For – for years."
He's watching Ignis' face for the change – sees the instant when the brow starts to draw down.
Oh, gods. Oh, gods, this was a mistake.
"I didn't want to be," he blurts out, all in a rush. "I left. I got – I got out, and I came here."
When did it get so hard to breathe? His chest is heaving, hard and fast, and he feels light-headed, like he might slump to the floor at any second.
"Prompto," says Ignis, firmly.
NH-01987's knees are starting to wobble. He slips, and a warm hand catches him below the elbow, and Ignis says, "Perhaps we'd best sit down for a bit. All right?"
He manages to nod, head still reeling, as Ignis walks him over to the small plastic table and helps him to sit.
"There we are," says Ignis, tone soft and soothing. "Put your head down for a bit, hm? That's the way. Close your eyes."
NH-01987 closes his eyes.
Everything is cold and strange; dizziness washes over him in waves. The touch on his head seems like the only thing grounding him, keeping him from drifting away.
The sun's long down, but the lights along the racetrack still glow, the warm golden beams slanting off between the trees and into the woods. NH-01987 holds on for dear life, one hand on the reins, one hand on the red-orange fluff of his chocobo's neck.
She jumps into the air, as though sensing his excitement – flaps the last five feet to the finish line, where three other riders are already waiting. He's last again, but NH-01987 doesn't care. He could do this until the sun rises, and he'd never get tired of it.
"The hell?" Gladio's saying. "No way you lapped us! I call foul."
Somehow, Ignis manages to look prim and proper, perched atop his chocobo. "I have control over my bird," he says. "That's all."
NH-01987 doesn't have control over his bird. She quarks and shuffles, seeming to pick up on his nervous energy. He leans forward in the saddle and scritches her on the chin, like he did that first night.
"If you're gonna call fowl," Noct drawls, "call them to the start line and let's go another round."
The corners of Ignis' mouth twitch upward. "Don't egg him on, Noct. We'll be here all night, and I for one have chores to see to."
They're doing it again: the game with the words. NH-01987 looks up from his bird, grinning – waiting for the next one.
Gladio doesn't let him down. "Sometimes you just gotta break a schedule, Iggy. You know – live life on the fly."
NH-01987's chocobo fidgets, practically thrumming with enthusiasm. NH-01987 knows how she feels. The energy's running through him like a lightning storm; he can feel the smile pulling at his own lips.
Before he can think about it too hard, he's saying, "You sure you wanna ruffle Iggy's feathers? He beat you three times already, dude."
Noct gives a sharp bark of laughter and wheels his chocobo around to the starting line. "You better watch out, Gladio."
Ignis stifles his smile behind a gloved hand. "Indeed. Our young companion seems to have a knack for predicting the future."
Gladio huffs a sigh, like he's mad, but NH-01987's learning his tells, too. His face is soft around the edges, and his eyes are bright, like he wants to laugh but he's holding it in. "Okay, kid. You want trouble? You're on. All of you are on."
They line up again, four birds and four riders. Then Noct says, "Ready? Get set."
When he calls, "Go!" they're off like a bullet from a gun, into the dimly-lit evening, not a one of them looking back.
Annnd, overtime false alarm? It's been postponed, so that means this fic will keep going at a decent clip for awhile yet. o7
(If I drop off the face of the planet, though, assume that work ate me alive.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Once, when Noct was very small, he had a dream that the world was frozen.
He walked through the halls of the Citadel, and every person he passed was stuck in place, in the middle of what they were doing. He remembers Ignis in the kitchen, stopped in the middle of filling a pie. He remembers Gladio in the training room, standing stock still mid-swing. He remembers his father, seated at the long dining table where they sometimes took their meals together, paused with his mouth open as though he'd been in the process of asking Noct a question.
It wasn't a frightening dream. Noct couldn't have been more than five, but he remembers the feeling it gave: curious, and oddly peaceful. The scenes were all domestic ones, stripped of loneliness, or difficulty, or hurt.
That's how the past two weeks have seemed – exactly like that dream. Each new call from Cindy to say the car's taking longer than she expected pulls it out a bit further, like blown glass stretching around heated air.
It's as though everything's been put on pause, suspended in some strange cocoon while the world goes by around him.
They've all had a chance to breathe, for the first time since they hit the road. And Prompto – every day, Prompto opens up a little more, like a flower in the sun.
When Noct looks at him now, he can scarcely recognize that scraggly, frightened boy who crept into their camp back by Taelpar. It's like time and care have cracked open a door that's been locked a long time, and there was this new version of Prompto inside, peeking out.
He still has nightmares that wake him screaming. There are still moments when he shakes and shivers and has to sit down and put his head between his knees. But most of the time, he's relentlessly cheerful. Most of the time, he throws himself into whatever the day brings with enthusiasm and a sunshine-bright grin.
That grin's out in full force right now.
Prompto's hovering over the plastic table out front of the camper like a kid hanging around outside a candy shop, peering down at the thing on top of it.
"This," he breathes, "is just about the coolest thing ever."
His fingers actually twitch, like he can't wait to get ahold of it.
"Yeah?" says Gladio, curious. He's reading on the front steps, legs splayed and feet planted.
"Yeah," says Prompto, fervent. "Dude, can I?"
"Be my guest," says Noct, not entirely sure what he's agreeing to, and Prompto sets into the circular saw like it's a gift from the Astrals themselves.
He gets his first clue when Prompto flips the thing over, examines the screws holding the bottom plating in place, and starts twisting them loose with his thumbnail.
Noct shares a look with Gladio, whose eyebrows have climbed so high they look set to invade his scalp. "What're you," says Gladio, "a mechanic?"
Prompto flushes, but he doesn't stop working at pulling it open. "Nah," he says. "Don't worry, though – I got this. I'll get it back together in one piece."
Ignis drifts back over with a fresh cup of coffee around the time Prompto gets the panel open. He hums, considering, and asks, "Servicing our weapons, are we?"
"I was," says Noct, and lifts one hand in a half-shrug.
"Well," says Ignis. "Do oil the guns. And Prompto's as well, if you're tidying up the Armiger."
Noct rolls his eyes. "Yes, sir."
But he gets the guns out, and he runs through maintenance while Prompto works on the saw. An hour in, every moving part on the thing is spread out on the table, detached. Prom's taking pictures of it, in great detail, and Noct's just about accepted the fact that he'll never be able to use the thing again.
Three hours in, it's all back together, spotless and gleaming.
Prompto's not so spotless.
He's got grease streaked across his face and hands, and a smile the size of Longwythe Peak.
"Kweh," says Prompto's bird, from inside the chocobo pen.
Prompto's leaning on the wood railing, looking in at her, sucking on one of those godsawful cinnamon hot candies they sell at the souvenir stall. How the hell he puts them on his tongue for more than five seconds is a mystery and a half; Noct can't so much as get them near his mouth before they start scalding him.
"So what're you gonna call her?" says Noct.
They're heading out today for a ride – rented the birds for the occasion. To no one's surprise, Prompto called dibs on the chocobo he petted that first night, the red-orange one that's taken to preening his hair and trying to follow him into the camper.
"I dunno," says Prompto. "I guess it should be something Latin, though, right?"
Noct snorts out a laugh. "She's your bird. You can call her whatever you want."
"Anything?" says Prompto, looking skeptical.
Prompto reaches for another candy. "No way I'm calling her Anything. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
Noct rolls his eyes so hard he's sure Bahamut can see it from the heavens. "You know what I mean."
The twitch of Prompto's lips and that sidelong glance says he damn well does know what Noct means. He goes to pop the candy into his mouth – but he only gets halfway. The bird twists her neck around, fluffs up her cheeks, and steals it straight out of his hand.
Noct reaches over to elbow Prompto amiably in the side. "Oh, man," he says. "You had that coming."
The bird crunches on the candy – tips her head back to swallow it down. Instead of fleeing from the tongue-burning abominations, like a rational being, she noses her way around to Prompto's pocket, where he's keeping the rest.
Prompto's lips are bright red from the candy; his tongue is, too. He digs out another of the cinnamon balls of fiery death and offers it to the bird. She crunches her way through that one, too.
"Well," says Prompto. "Guess that answers that question."
"What question?" says Noct.
"You know," says Prompto. "The name."
Noct watches as the bird comes back around for thirds, feathers sleek, beak catching carefully at Prompto's pants pocket. "What're you gonna call her? Candy Thief?"
"Nah," says Prompto, and fishes another one out for her. "Cinnamon."
"Why's this a good idea again?" says Noct, eying the absolute mound that comprises their camping gear.
Gladio snorts, already bending to heft the tent over one shoulder. "Cause someone wants a three-day fishing trip."
"You realize," says Noct, "that we're actually standing in the middle of a chocobo post. Don't you?"
"Yeah," says Gladio. "Your point? We'll be there in like an hour. Suck it up and walk like a big boy."
"Or we could take the birds and be there in half the time." Noct turns to one side, where Ignis is attempting to fit three days' worth of cooking equipment into a bag that physically should not be able to contain it. "Specs? You're the voice of reason. Be reasonable."
"I've already packed a picnic lunch for the trip," Ignis says. "It would be a shame to reach our destination too quickly to enjoy it along the way."
Noct turns toward where Prompto's rubbing Cinnamon's cheeks, saying his goodbyes. "Prompto. C'mon, buddy. Help me out here."
Prompto's eyes dart toward him. "I dunno," he says. "All that stuff's heavy. What if she hurts her back or something?"
"What if the bird hurts her back," Noct intones, deadpan.
Gladio slings an arm around Prompto's neck, one big hand ruffling the carefully styled blond hair. And maybe all those training sessions have paid off; Prompto only goes tense for a second, and then he relaxes into it, grinning.
"You see?" says Gladio. "Don't break the kid's heart. Chocobos need vacations, too."
Prompto's walking a few steps ahead, camera in both hands, his left arm looped through the folding camp chairs.
"No," he's saying. "Dude. This lady must have been right there. She took the shot so close you could see this garula's eyelashes."
He's talking about his new nature magazine, of course – the one they picked up at Wiz's souvenir stand last night. He's read it twice already, and honed right in on the photos. He spent half of breakfast trying to decide, out loud, what filter they'd been using for the shots of the wyverns on Mt. Ravatogh.
He turns back over his shoulder, toward Noct, to add something else – misses a step, trips on a rock, and almost goes down. Noct's got the paper bag full of cookware tucked under one arm, so the other's free to catch Prompto by the elbow before he eats dirt.
"Camping's not gonna be much fun if you twist an ankle," Noct points out.
"Says you," says Prompto, and actually turns around to walk backward for a few steps, keeping pace just to prove that he can.
"Says everyone reasonable," Ignis corrects. "While I'm sure Gladio could carry you back, it's in all of our best interests that he not have to."
"Kinda don't want to see you busted up," says Gladio. The tent's slung across one broad shoulder like it weighs nothing, and he shifts it, adjusting the load. "It'd be like watching someone kick a damn puppy."
Anytime someone says something like that, Prompto still gets this look on his face. It announces, plain as anything, that he can't quite figure out why they'd care.
Noct hates that look.
"Here," says Noct, and reaches into his pocket. He digs for a minute, then comes out with a potion, the bottle cool and smooth against the palm of his hand. "How bout you hold onto this one, just in case?"
Prompto's face goes a dusky pink, the freckles all but disappearing under the flush. "Dude," he says, "I'm not that clumsy." But he takes the potion and crams it in the pocket of his jeans, and he turns around to walk facing front again.
"Better safe than sorry," says Ignis. And then, in the very next breath: "Ah. There it is."
It's everything Wiz promised.
The water reflects the tops of the trees, turning the surface of the pond a pretty moss green. It's hemmed in by boulders and broad, flat rocks, but the grass on the far side slopes up and away, a gentle rolling incline. Someone's thought to add a pier: a flat piece of plywood strapped to some empty metal drums. Noct wonders, idly, what kind of fish there are to catch.
"All right," says Gladio. "But before this trip turns into all fishing, all the time, what do you say we put this place to some real use?"
Noct's eyes flicker back his way. "The hell're you talking about?"
Gladio's already dropped the tent and is halfway through shucking off his jacket and letting it fall, rumpled, to the dusty ground. "Swim break."
A swim break is definitely appealing. It's hot today, the sun high and bright. Noct's been hauling around Iggy's pots and pans for what feels like years; the sweat's sticking his hair to the back of his neck.
"It might be wise to stop for lunch at some point," says Ignis. "We still have a ways to go before we reach the haven."
Noct can read between the lines: Prompto's doing a lot better than he was, but he's still not up to a healthy weight. Specs has been plying him with snacks between meals, and now that he's managing full portions, they've been working on getting him used to the concept of taking seconds. Most likely, the picnic Ignis mentioned is for his sake, more than any of them.
"Yeah," says Noct. "Yeah, sure. Why not."
It's like Gladio was just waiting for permission. His pants join the jacket on the ground a second later – and then the Shield of the King of Lucis, clad only in black briefs, canonballs into the pond. Whatever fish are in there are probably cowering down at the bottom, fearing for their lives.
"Nice," says Noct, when he comes up for air. "You only slopped out half the water. We've still got a puddle left to play in."
"You want a dunking, brat? Sounds to me like you want a dunking."
"Oh, you're on," says Noct. He sets down his share of the camping gear and strips his own shirt off over his head. When he kicks off his shoes and his pants fall into a rumpled pile beside them, he ignores Ignis' long-suffering sigh and heads toward the water. "You coming, Prom? We can totally take him."
He turns to look back over his shoulder – pauses at the sight that greets him. Because Prompto's not coming. He's standing frozen beside the spot where Ignis is unfurling the picnic blanket. One arm's still holding the camp chairs, and the other's pressed to chest. It's right where the lump is, that weird shape that pokes up through the fabric of his shirt.
Noct can read the conflict straight off his face: he wants to go, but he can't stand the thought of losing the clothes. Noct wonders, briefly, what kind of scar could be so bad he's worried about them seeing it – wonders what kind of injury leaves that kind of raised impression in the skin in the first place.
Shrapnel still caught in the chest? An ugly old bone break? Astrals, he hopes not. Either of those would've been hell to live through.
Whatever it was, though, Prompto doesn't need to be worrying about it now, when they're supposed to be having fun. So Noct calls, "What, you shy or something? Just leave it all on. You can change in camp, and we can always wash it later."
"Except the shoes," Ignis amends. "Those will be harder to get the mud out of."
So Prompto takes off the shoes, and his socks, and the jacket. He lines them up carefully at the edge of the picnic blanket, where Ignis has folded everyone's clothes already. He sets the camera on the blanket, with careful hands – glances up when he's done, as though seeking approval. Ignis gives him a small smile and a smaller nod.
That's all Prompto needs. He grins and takes off for the pond.
He doesn't canonball so much as bellyflop. And he doesn't swim back up so much as resurface, flailing and gasping, until Gladio gets a hand under his arm and steadies him.
Gladio fixes Prompto with a long, intense look, and he says, "You can swim, right?"
"I can totally swim," says Prompto. And he can, if you count an awkward doggy paddle that barely keeps his head above water.
It's plenty for them to double-team Gladio, though – and that's the important thing. They try to take him head on, and that falls flat. Then Noct grabs the tiniest blade he owns out of the Armiger to start warping in for surprise strikes, and their luck turns.
Prompto's up on Gladio's shoulders, trying to dunk him, and Noct's getting ready to dive down underneath to upend his feet when Ignis says, "Lunch is ready."
"Aw, man," says Noct. "We almost had him!"
"Wh – Whoa!" says Prompto, as Gladio breaks his hold and sends him splashing back into the water.
Ignis lifts a single eyebrow.
"Almost," says Noct again, feeling his face start to go hot.
They make their way out of the pond to see what lunch is – discover a whole platter of cheese and crackers, trimmed on the edges with olives and tiny pickles and glistening red peppers. Beside it, there are sandwiches no more than two inches across, each pressed painstakingly into a circle or a diamond or a star. For dessert, there's orange cake, spicy-sweet and soaked with honey, and a whole pitcher of iced tea to wash everything down.
"Man, Specs," says Noct, stretching out on the blanket when he's done. "Kinda outdid yourself this time."
"Compliments to the chef," says Gladio.
Prompto's mouth is still full of cake, but he nods – swallows hastily – gulps some iced tea. "Everything was amazing," he says, when he can talk again, in that completely earnest, half awestruck way he still gets about Iggy's cooking.
"So now that your grand presentation's done," says Noct, casual as he can manage, "that means you're gonna go swimming with us, right?"
Ignis pauses in packing the cheese platter away. "If it's to be a competition," he says, "I'm afraid the lot of you will end the day thoroughly soaked."
"Still wet anyway," says Prompto, cheerfully – and he is. His whole section of the blanket's drenched, from his still-dripping clothes.
"Well," says Gladio. "That settles it. You ready to go down?"
"I feel it appropriate to remind you of a saying," says Ignis, locking eyes with Gladio as he deliberately undoes every button on his shirt. "I believe it goes, 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall.'"
There's something to be said for the wisdom of the ages.
Gladio goes down hard, not just once, but five times. By the time they climb out of the water, dripping and bedraggled and exhausted in the best kind of way, Ignis hasn't even gotten his hair wet. It's still perfectly coifed, the gel doing its job like a champ.
After he's toweled off and gotten dressed again, it looks as though he's just come out of a business meeting, crisp and put together.
"Man," Gladio says, rubbing his hair dry. "Someone remind me never to piss Iggy off for real."
"Never piss Iggy off for real," says Noct – then ducks the half-hearted swipe that attempts to pull him into a headlock.
Prompto's hovering over his still-dry jacket and shoes, looking uncertain. "We, uh. We got a bag or something? I'm kinda still –" He gestures to his clothes, absolutely dripping.
It's probably good they're leaving now, Noct reflects as Prompto shoves the jacket and shoes into the cloth bag Ignis hands his way. If they stayed out past sundown with him like that, he'd be freezing.
They're packed up in no time, though, camping gear in hand. They circle back to the street and walk along the roadside toward the spot where the haven's supposed to be, watching as the landscape changes to the left and right of them. The trees seem darker here, even with the afternoon sunlight streaming golden in between the branches. There's a different scent in the air, too – pine, and something else Noct can't quite place. Something older, like these trees have been growing in this soil for thousands of years, and they're just passing through, leaving footprints that'll be gone by morning.
The path to the haven, when they spot it, is nothing but a dirt trail, winding into the woods from between two edges of a chain link fence. They're barely two steps in when Prompto says, "Man, do you see that?"
Ignis glances over – makes a soft, considering sound. "Perhaps there used to be town here."
Noct's already left the path, wandering over to get a better look. "I dunno, Specs," he says. "Looks pretty big to be a regular house."
It's true; he can pick out a stone wall, through the foliage. It stands taller than he does, and the sharp, well-cut stone of the corners are pocked with age but remarkably intact. It's huge, but even more than that – it doesn't look like a house. The top looks a bit like the wall around the Citadel, top finished for decoration more than support.
Prompto's got his camera out – snapping away, at least fifteen shots already. "This light is great," he breathes, drifting toward the structure like a magnet's reeling him in.
Noct follows in his wake, and with every step away from the road, it's like they're walking farther into a whole different world. The trees seem to close in around them, coming up behind; they're barely ten feet into the wood before he can't see the highway anymore. The soil's dark, and rich, and there's that smell again: old growing things. A bird calls from the treetops, the sound sharp and swooping, strangely mournful.
Along the side of the path, a pale sign, battered with age, reads simply: "The Fallgrove."
"Wonder why Wiz didn't mention any ruins around here," says Gladio.
"Dunno," says Noct. "Maybe he wanted it to be a surprise?"
"Perhaps," says Ignis.
"Hey," comes Prompto's voice from up ahead, bright with excitement. "What're you guys waiting for? You've got to see this!"
Noct feels the corners of his mouth pull up at the edges. "Coming!" he calls back, and pushes through the low-growing bushes and into the Fallgrove.
Anyone who's read my other fics might recognize Cinnamon from "The Way They Were" and "Mother Hen." :)
You guys are all fantastic. Thank you so much to everyone who's still with me on this thing! <3
This chapter kicked my butt a little. And by a little, I mean a lot. Endless thanks to rah-bop for all the incredible suggestions and support they sent my way. <3
And also for the amaaaaaaaaaazing art, which you should totally check out in the end notes after you've read the chapter. 8D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It's like a spread straight out of the pages of NH-01987's nature magazine.
The trees go up and up forever, into the deep blue of the afternoon sky. Their branches are straight, and strong; there aren't leaves on them, but narrow fingers, dark green, that stretch out and waver in the breeze, like the ones on the trees in Niflheim. There's a sharp smell here, bright as the first breath of air on a chill morning, and under his feet, the ground is plush with growing things. All around, the air is suffused with a warm glow; the light slanting down through the branches seems thick and hazy, dust motes picked out in spots of liquid gold.
And the ruins.
The ruins are incredible.
At first, all NH-01987 had thought was here was the wall that lured Noct from the path, but the farther he walks, the more he sees. There's a small chamber with an open ceiling, the arched doorways on every side facing out to the forest. There are high pillars, half-toppled and beginning to crumble, like fingers pointing up toward the tops of the trees.
And there – there behind the obscuring press of the forest – is something much bigger.
NH-01987 freezes in place, looking up at it, hands tight around his camera. He's been snapping pictures nonstop: of the trees, and the sky, and the remnants of whatever used to stand here. But for an instant, all he can do is stare, camera forgotten.
The tower is massive. It looms over the trees, dozens of empty doorways open to showcase the bright blue sky behind them. Every curve is regular and even; every arch of pale stone rises and swoops with stately grace.
"Oh," NH-01987 says, softly, voice half gone with awe.
When Noct steps up beside him, he's barely aware of it. "Look at the size of that thing."
Behind them, someone – probably Gladio – gives a low whistle.
"Remarkable," says Ignis. "Unless I miss my guess, this must date from Solheim's heyday."
NH-01987 doesn't know what Solheim is, but apparently it had a heyday that involved really cool buildings, and that's enough for him. If he wanted to know more, he could probably stay and listen; Ignis is murmuring something that sounds educational, and Gladio's hanging back to hear it. But Noct's moving forward to check out the tower already – and that? That seems way more interesting.
NH-01987 lifts his camera and steals a shot of the high arches as he follows. He takes another of the solid line of the walls and a third of what must have been the entryway, at some point.
The lighting is amazing.
He's still wet from the swim break, but suddenly the chill of the damp clothes clinging to him doesn't seem to matter. NH-01987 could stay out here for days; it's just that pretty.
He gets about fifteen shots of the ruins before it occurs to him that there's a way to make them even better.
"Hey, Noct," calls NH-01987, and lifts the camera. "Strike a pose."
Noct strikes the worst pose ever: legs braced wide, one arm up, hand pressed flat and half-covering his face.
"Dude," NH-01987 laughs. "Strike a better pose."
"The hell are you talking about?" Noct says, with that slanted smile NH-01987 has grown so fond of. "That's the ultimate pose."
But he plays along anyway, like he always does. He strikes six poses, one after the other, and NH-01987 keeps snapping away – pulls back, grinning, to suggest they round up Ignis and Gladio and do a group shot, all four of them.
The words never leave his mouth.
NH-01987 catches movement out of the corner of his eye: a strange, sinuous sort of glide, on the ground amid the foliage.
He crams the camera into his back pocket – lifts his hand and holds it out, pressing against the air. It's still not a natural motion, the way reaching for his holster is, but Noct's patient instruction has helped. The space around his fingers shimmers and blurs, and suddenly the Quicksilver is in his hand, ice-bright tingles from the magic still running through his palm.
NH-01987 doesn't hesitate. He says, "Look out!" and he pulls the trigger.
He sees Noct's eyes start to go wide with comprehension – sees him twist, and duck sideways to face what's behind him.
The bullet hits bare seconds later. The thing amid the bushes, the one that had been barreling straight for Noct, rears back on its many, many hind legs.
For a second, NH-01987 stands frozen with horror.
The creature's long and spindly, and the surface of it is weirdly slick. The legs all twitch and jitter, and the front end, what he assumes is the head, is fitted with a pair of pincers as long as his arm, jagged and razor sharp.
NH-01987 swallows against the bile suddenly at the back of his throat – ignores the gut-deep impulse to pull away – and lifts his gun, hands steady, to squeeze off another shot.
From the corner of his eye, he catches sight of more motion in the bushes: something slithering, pressed in close along the ground. He just has time to think that they might be in trouble before suddenly, all around them, there are eight of the creatures instead of just one.
"Noct," says NH-01987, voice tight with strain.
Noct's already moving. His sword materializes in his hand, sleek metal on the blade and incongruous mechanical parts at the hilt. He closes his fingers around it, but only for a second; then he's bringing his arm back to hurl the weapon toward NH-01987.
Three weeks ago, he would have flinched back and tried to dodge.
Now, he takes the action for what it is. He waits as Noct flickers out of sight in a flash of morning-sky blue – waits as he reappears beside NH-01987 to catch the blade.
An instant later, Noct's circling around to the other side of him – taking up his stance, weapon at the ready, like they've had each other's backs a thousand times before.
"Man," says Noct. "I ever mention I hate bugs?"
"Kinda big to be bugs, aren't they?" says NH-01987. He's got his gun trained on the nearest one – tracks its motion and squeezes off another shot. He misses, grimaces, and fires again. They don't move the way mammals do; there's no bunch of muscle below the skin to tell him when they'll lunge, or in which direction.
Noct snorts, twists sideways, and hacks off a couple of the front legs from the creature that's drawn too close to him. "Don't think they got the memo."
NH-01987 opens his mouth to reply, but before he gets the chance, another voice rings through the clearing.
"Noct?" calls Ignis, from somewhere behind a wall of trees. "Prompto?" He must have heard the gunshots; there's an edge to the tone, tight with worry.
"Here!" calls Noct – and a moment later, Ignis and Gladio are barreling into the clearing, weapons drawn.
They don't hesitate. They just wade right in, blades flashing silver in the afternoon light, and a good half of the bugs turn toward the new threat.
"Hey, Specs!" calls Noct. "The hell are these things?"
"Hundlegs, unless I miss my guess," Ignis returns, skewering the one nearest him with a lance. "Large blades are likely to be our best option." NH-01987 has to turn away to face the creature nearest him, but he hears the rest: "They're said to be poisonous. Do be careful."
It's like some kind of signal.
The hundlegs all surge at once, a roiling mass of segmented bodies and churning legs rushing toward them. Noct's sword flickers out to be replaced by another, much larger. He brings it up just in time to parry – and then NH-01987 is too busy with the two creatures in front of him to pay much attention to all the rest.
They're in a bad position.
It's great for photographs, sure. The lighting is wonderful; so is the view. But for a fight, they couldn't have picked a worse spot. They don't have the high ground, and there's nothing to keep the creatures from getting around behind them, except each other.
Every instinct in NH-01987's body is screaming for him to fall back. He can't handle a fight like this, against two of these things, at a range this close. But Noct's right behind him; if he moves, Noct's back will be wide open.
So instead of buying himself more space, NH-01987 lifts the Quicksilver. Instead of making for the ruins to take cover, he squeezes off a shot, and then another – flinches back as the first hundlegs rushes in. He jerks aside at the last instant, and it misses him by maybe two inches. Maybe less.
Those mandibles really are as long as his arm, and suddenly he's got an unobstructed view of every wicked nook and cranny of their serrated edges.
But the hundlegs isn't sitting idle, waiting for him to admire it; it whips back around, all supple speed, and NH-01987 sidesteps and twists away – executes a high-kick that overbalances the thing and sends it careening off into a bush.
That was one of the deflections Gladio taught him, damn near perfect execution, but there's no time to celebrate.
The second hundlegs darts in with all the speed of a snake; in a heartbeat, it's practically on top of him, the length of its segmented body blotting out the light of the sun when it rears. If he stays put, he's right in the path of those pincers.
If he stays put, he's got a great shot at the unprotected underbelly.
NH-01987 plants his feet. He presses the barrel of his gun directly against the creature's shiny-slick surface. He pulls the trigger and feels a warm spray of fluid, and he braces with his shoulder to tip the weight of the creature out and away, using its own momentum against it.
It drops to the forest floor, leaking and twitching among the foliage, but he's not done – not yet.
The first hundlegs is righting itself, now, swinging back around. NH-01987 fires at it, twice in a row – clips the shiny curve of its back both times. The creature rears up and rushes in, veering at a sickening speed toward his gun arm.
NH-01987 twists, and ducks, and twists again, thanking Gladio with every step he takes. Those training sessions have saved his life three times by now, he's sure; those mandibles are every bit as strong as a blade. When they close, he can hear them coming together, the solid clack of something spring-loaded snapping shut.
If that thing closes on his arm, he's going to lose the hand.
Stay on the offensive, NH-01987 tells himself. Don't give it time to attack.
He lifts the Quicksilver, and he shoots, again and again, but the bullets ricochet off the chitinous surface and do little damage. NH-01987 has never been more grateful for Noct's Armiger than he is right now. He should be having to reload, but instead he's taking another shot, the bullets exactly where they need to be, when they need to be there, with the help of a little magic.
The hundlegs misses his arm as a bullet finally penetrates; it jerks back in pain and undulates to the other side, pincers opening wide.
Then it spits, foul purple fluid that sprays into the air.
It's thick, the color reminiscent of meat that's gone rancid. NH-01987 stumbles back a step, trying to avoid the spray – bumps into Noct, and shoves him out of range, too.
"Prompto?" says Noct, voice tight with alarm. Noct can't turn to look – is too busy unsheathing his sword from between two segmented sections of a hundlegs' body.
"I'm okay," says NH-01987.
But he might not be okay for long. The hundlegs is rearing up, like it means to spit again – and this time, there's nowhere for him to go, not unless he wants the creature's poison to spray Noct, instead.
NH-01987 throws his arm up in front of his face, exactly the way Gladio told him not to. It might not be much of a shield, but it'll take the worst of the poison.
When NH-01987 shoots, this time he does it blind; he pulls the trigger once, twice, three times, but the noxious purple spray never comes.
The noise is his first clue that he's miscalculated. The hundlegs slithering in that close sounds like the rustle of dead leaves, and NH-01987 yanks his arm down just in time to see that the creature isn't getting ready to spray, after all. It's closed in for another swipe with the pincers.
NH-01987 wrenches himself sideways, driven by a surge of terror – but he's too close, too slow, too overwhelmed by the sight of those massive, jagged mandibles yawning wide around his torso.
The pincers snap shut, clamping down like the steel-toothed traps the hunters near Taelpar used to use.
The searing shock of impact knocks his breath from him; the mandibles meet in the middle, ripping straight into his side like a voretooth's fangs.
NH-01987 screams, pain and horror gushing up out of him like water from a spring. For a moment, his mind goes blank with the agony; he scrabbles to get the creature off, but comes up against the hard, chitinous curve of its surface.
The hundlegs lurches backward, dragging him with it – works its pincers open and closed, gnashing restlessly. It twists to one side, and NH-01987 clutches at the mandible, hand slick with blood, trying to hold it steady.
Make it stop moving, the rational part of his mind hisses, through the haze of agony, and there's enough of him still coherent to realize that's the only way he's getting out of this alive.
NH-01987 lifts the hand with the gun – presses it point blank against the creature's head and pulls the trigger. He fires again for good measure, and again after that, and all at once the hundlegs goes still.
In the silence that follows, he can hear his ears ringing. NH-01987 stares down at the creature – at the place in his own torso where the pincer disappears into flesh.
The hundlegs starts to slump, and he realizes what's going to happen about three seconds too late to do anything about it. Suddenly, the creature impaling him is dead weight; suddenly, it's going down, heavier than a pile of rocks, and NH-01987 can't move fast enough to stop it from dragging him with it.
Pain crashes over him like a summer storm; it greys out his vision and leaves nothing but white noise in his ears. The weight is incredible; his legs tremble and then give, and suddenly NH-01987 is down on the ground, twisted sideways, every ounce of awareness focused on the hurt radiating out from the center of him.
The hundlegs gives a little shudder, and NH-01987 moans in terror, aware in some instinctive part of him what's coming next. He scrabbles at the pincer still stuck inside him, but before he can even begin to get a grip on the slick surface, the creature's body seizes, sharp and sudden.
The death throes come on violently, a series of lurching twitches that wrench the serrated surface still embedded in his side. NH-01987 screams – shoves at the thing – feels the pressure grow worse with every passing second.
Panic laps at the edges of him, and pain gives him strength; he strikes at the exposed mandible near where it enters his body, as hard as he's able, fighting to get free. In desperation, NH-01987 brings his gun to bear, slamming metal against chitin.
He feels it when it finally cracks – a deep, visceral sensation that reverberates through the whole of him as the pincer gives way, separating from the creature's body.
When the hundlegs finally falls aside, still twitching, NH-01987 knows a wash of unspeakable relief. The gun falls from numb fingers; desperation propels him a few feet from the thing's corpse, on hands and knees, before his arms start trembling too hard for him to keep moving.
There's a lot of blood. There's blood all over the ground, and all over him.
His new t-shirt, NH-01987 thinks hazily, is ruined.
He closes his eyes, and tries to think, but it's hard. It's like every portion of the world is a different piece of a puzzle, and they haven't quite been put together the right way.
He's aware of breathing like it's some combat skill he's failed at training for.
His palms are pressed to the dark, rich soil.
Hands are on him, turning him face-up, and a voice is in his ear, low and frantic.
It's Noct. Did he kill the rest of the creatures? He must have, because he's here, and he's saying, "Prompto. Prompto, gods. Let me see."
His fingers are prying NH-01987's hands away from the wound – from the still-embedded mandible. He reaches for the hem of NH-01987's shirt, and starts to pull up.
NH-01987 doesn't think. He just moves – tries, clumsily, to shove him away. Even through the pain, even through the panic, the thought of Noct seeing what's under that shirt strikes him like the scourge: cold as ice and black as night. "Don't," he tries to say, but the only thing that comes out is a whimper.
"Hey," says Noct. "Hey, shh. It's okay. I just need to get a look at it. We're gonna fix you up."
He reaches again; NH-01987's fist closes, hard as he can hold, around the bunched up fabric of his own shirt.
"Please," NH-01987 manages. "Just – close it, okay? I'll be fine."
He won't be fine. Even if Noct uses one of those bottles full of healing liquid to close the wound, he'll still have a pincer sticking out of his side. But the bleeding will stop, and no one will need to pull his shirt up to get a better look, and he can – he can do something. Make another plan. Something.
"Oh, Astrals," says a voice, from somewhere nearby.
Is that Gladio? NH-01987 opens his eyes and wonders, vaguely, when he even closed them. Gladio and Ignis are standing above him, now, grim and pale.
Is the battle over? Their weapons aren't out anymore.
"Prompto," says Ignis. "If we heal you now, the wound will close around the mandible. It needs to come out first. Do you understand?"
NH-01987 understands. But he says, "Just close it up. Please. Please."
"Hey," says Noct, and touches him on the shoulder. "We're gonna be quick. Okay? It'll be done before you know it."
NH-01987 blinks, and suddenly Ignis is beside him, Gladio hovering overhead. Their mouths are flat, uncompromising lines, and Ignis reaches for the hem of his shirt.
A sound drags itself from NH-01987, some wordless noise of pain and terror, and he goes to shove Ignis away. "You can't," he says, voice reedy and thin. "Oh, gods – you can't."
Ignis closes his eyes briefly. When he opens them, he says, "Gladio, if you would?"
Big hands close around NH-01987's wrists and lock there. "C'mon, kid," says Gladio, almost apologetic. "Hands off for a minute, okay? Let the man work."
He drags NH-01987's hands upward – slow and inexorable, like machinery.
NH-01987 feels his grip on his shirt pried loose, inch by inevitable inch. He whines, low in his throat – yanks downward, as hard as he can, but it's like fighting against solid steel. There's no give, not so much as an indication of effort, even when NH-01987 struggles to pull away.
A hand touches his hair, carefully. It's Noct, and he's saying, "Hey, shh, it'll just take a second. We've got the elixir ready, okay? As soon as he's done, you won't even be able to feel it anymore."
Ignis is trying to maneuver the fabric of the t-shirt over the end of the pincer, but it's caught on the snags. A dagger flickers into his hand, blue brilliance, and then he's taking hold of NH-01987's shirt and cutting the cloth away from the wound.
"There we are," says Ignis. "Now, let's see what we're up against."
He pulls up, and up, and NH-01987 outright whimpers. However bad the wound is, however much pain is washing through him, there are worse things in the world – and one of them is about to happen.
But Ignis, thank all the gods, actually stops. He grows paler yet at the sight of the wet hole in NH-01987's side, but he sets his jaw, and he tries to take a grip on the slippery edge of the mandible that's still protruding. "I'm going to be quick about this," he says.
He can't be quick about it.
The shirt's sliding down again, now that he's let go. The fabric's in the wrong spot, bunching up, making it hard to see the wound. Ignis says, "Noct, a bit of assistance?"
So Noct grabs hold of the shirt and pulls it up again – hands shaky, motion rushed. In his haste, he pulls higher than he really needs to.
He pulls just high enough.
From this angle, NH-01987 can see how much is visible: the dangling edge of loose wires; the thick scar tissue; the flat silver edges of a port. He's dizzy with the blood loss, reeling from the pain, but nothing could possibly feel worse than looking down and seeing everything that's laid out before them.
He's sure he knows what's coming next. He's seen what they do to things like him, after all.
NH-01987 thinks of them turning away from the MT writhing on the ground, short an arm – thinks of Noct's voice, usually so kind, saying, "They're just MTs."
Maybe they won't notice. There's a lot of blood; maybe they'll be too focused on the wound.
Maybe he still has a chance.
But no: Noct sucks in a sharp breath of air, and Ignis' eyes go narrow and intent, and Gladio's saying, "The hell is that?"
And NH-01987 knows. All at once, he knows.
Everything's over, now.
Oh my goodness. I'm so sorry for the wait on this one, guys. This chapter fought me like hell and needed a ton of heavy duty scrap-it-all-and-rewrite sessions. A thousand thanks to the incredible rah-bop for helping me hammer it out into what it is today. <3
Speaking of rah-bop being incredible!! Remember that chapter where Prom goes clothes shopping at the chocobo post? Rah-bop took the descriptions and actually made the shirts!!! Aaaaah, look at how cute these are!!! 8D
Okay, now the time for cuteness has passed. Prepare yourself for a world of hurt. :) Have fun, guys!
It's been years since the night when Noct's whole world turned upside down.
He's worked through the nightmares – through the physical pain – through the lingering weakness that seizes him on one side, turning too-long sprints into a bone-deep ache and limping exhaustion.
He hasn't quite worked through the blood.
That's his strongest memory: lying on the ground, stomach down, agony in his back and no feeling at all in his legs. Blood on his face, and in his hair. Blood pooling underneath him, more than he's ever seen in one place before.
Noct still lives that night in dreams, sometimes: breathing in and smelling the coppery-thick scent; opening his mouth to try and scream, but only tasting the hot metallic tang.
He remembers the swimming sense of horror that swallowed him up in dizzying slow motion. He remembers how helpless he felt, there on the ground, watching his father fight a daemon among the flickering flames.
He has that feeling now, looking down at Prompto. He has that sickening sense of the world turned upside down.
The hundlegs mandible snapped off in Prompto's side is poking out the back, a good inch or two visible on the other end, and the blood – the blood is everywhere.
"Noct," says Ignis. "A bit of assistance?"
Noct blinks down at the place where Ignis is trying to take hold of the protrusion, hands already stained red with the effort.
It takes him a beat to realize that Prompto's shirt has slipped down again, obscuring Ignis' view. It takes him a beat longer to actually move in response to that – grasp the fabric with shaking fingers and pull it up.
They need to hurry. They need to work that thing free and get Prompto closed up again, or he's going to bleed out right here on the ground.
But Ignis doesn't start the extraction, and Gladio – Gladio rears back and says, "The hell is that?"
A present from a too-eager hundlegs, Noct wants to snap. Where have you been?
The words are on the tip of his tongue. They're poised to come tumbling out, but he glances down before he says them – catches sight of what Gladio's actually talking about, and stares in stunned silence, instead.
It looks like something out of a grainy old sci-fi horror movie, only this is in high def and living color. The scarring by itself is horrific: thick swaths of pale tissue that cut through Prompto's chest and edge up toward the collar bone. But more than that: there are things set into the flesh.
Two steel plates are embedded above the ribs on each side, the scar tissue that surrounds them prominent and ugly. Higher than those, just under the collar bone, triangular rims of metal are labeled with numbers stamped in a plain, practical font: 05953234. There's something familiar about that writing – something Noct can't quite place. But before he can figure out what that spark of recognition means, his eyes are racing onward to take in the rest.
Small, dark holes riddle the implants; they sprout a series of wires, the endings raw and splintered at the edges. There's a tube of what looks like rubber, thick and sturdy, snaking out of the triangular plate on the left-hand side.
It's equipment, sterile and impersonal. Seeing it there, buried in the chest of someone who's become his friend, is like a punch to the gut.
Noct doesn't mean to recoil, but he does; his fingers, suddenly numb, let go of the shirt.
Before he gets a chance to say anything at all, Prompto yanks his hands downward, sharp and sudden, freeing them from Gladio's hold.
It takes Noct five seconds too long to realize that Gladio must have loosened his grip – must have been barely holding on. By the time those seconds are up, Prompto's already lurched to his feet and ducked into a listing run.
He's making for the treeline, shoulders hunched, arm clamped to his side – and he's fast.
"Prompto," Noct calls after him. "Wait!"
He doesn't wait. He doesn't even falter. He ducks his head and runs harder, and gods dammit, if he keeps this up he's going to hurt himself.
"Prompto!" calls Noct again, an edge of desperation in his voice.
Prompto doesn't so much as glance back. He's almost to the edge of the clearing, now.
He's not going to stop, Noct thinks, numbly. Move, you idiot – go catch him.
Noct curses and fumbles in his haste – summons up the engine blade just as Prompto disappears into the treeline. When he thows it, the world blurs around him; everything shifts sideways in a strange, wavering glimmer of blue, and the warp yanks him forward.
He doesn't stick the landing – lurches, one leg coming down too hard.
It's a stupid mistake. It's the kind of mistake he used to make starting out – or the kind of mistake he sometimes still makes, in a battle they're overmatched for, panic lapping at his heels.
It only loses him a second, but it's a second too long.
By the time he looks up again, Prompto's gone.
It's past midnight.
Noct has no idea when it got so late.
All he knows is that his legs ache from tramping through the undergrowth all evening, and his chest feels hollow and heavy, and somewhere out there, not that far from them, there's a boy that's injured and probably dying, and they can't godsdamned find him.
"We should be looking for him," says Noct, for what feels like the seventeenth time in ten minutes.
And Ignis says, calm and even: "We've been over this, Noct."
They have. They've been over it every time he brings it up.
There's no way Prompto got very far, with an injury like that. He has a potion with him, though, so chances are good he'll make it to morning. In the meantime, they're stumbling around in the dark, with next to no chance to find him.
Better to stay where he knows they'd planned to camp. Better to stay within sight of the place they lost him, and light a fire, and hope it draws him out of the darkness.
So here they are, at the haven. Here Ignis is, sautéing the peppers and measuring out the coconut milk for the green curry soup Prompto loves so much.
Here they are, hoping for a repeat of that first night, when the smell was enough to lure him, battered and half-starved, to their campsite.
"I hate this," says Noct, and throws himself down into his camp chair.
"Join the club, princess," says Gladio. "You're not the only one who's worried."
"Why did he run away in the first place?" Noct says, ignoring him. "He ought to know by now that we're trying to help."
"So one would think," says Ignis.
"I mean," says Noct. "I mean, he was bleeding all over the place. He had to know he was better off with us than out in the woods somewhere. Right?"
Gladio folds his arms, face hard as granite. "Pretty sure he wasn't thinking straight. Soon as we saw that bullshit planted in his chest, he just about lost his mind."
Ignis selects a long-handled spoon from his kitchen supplies. He sets to stirring the curry, almost absently. "Seems a bit of an overreaction to an old scar."
He says it mildly, the way he used to point out leaps of deduction in Noct's Lucian history textbooks. He says it with that particular shade of inflection he always seems to have, when he's hoping Noct will peel back the edges of something and find what lies underneath.
Noct watches Ignis' face, looking for hints – finds none.
"So the kid's self-conscious," says Gladio. "Maybe he had surgery and didn't like what got left behind."
It fits, in some ways. In the changing room, Prompto shied away from showing off the shirt that would expose the embedded metal. At the swimming hole, he'd balked at stripping.
Self-conscious isn't a strong enough word, though – not for this.
"You don't run away when you're bleeding everywhere because you're self-conscious," says Noct.
"Agreed," says Ignis, and taps the spoon on the side of the pot. He lays it out on the paper towel folded up beside the camp stove.
Noct watches him do it, eyes narrowed. He says, "What?"
Ignis gives a small hum of consideration. "There are a good many things Prompto avoids talking about. Perhaps you've noticed."
Noct stares at him. It seems stupidly obvious, and Ignis isn't the kind of person to state the stupidly obvious – not unless it's a building block to something else.
So Noct gathers up his thoughts. He looks at what they know. He says, "You think he ran so he wouldn't have to talk about it."
"What's there to talk about?" says Gladio. "Old scars – old news."
They might be old news, but they were enough to put that awful look on Prompto's face: pale and frantic, wide eyes tinged with desperation.
Noct's got a scar on his back, left over from the daemon attack that almost killed him when he was a kid. He has the surgery scars next to it, where they tried to patch him back up again. He doesn't like people looking at them, but he doesn't panic at the thought of someone seeing them, either. Not the way Prompto panicked over those chest implants.
That kind of fear's on a whole different level: raw and painful, the kind of mindless terror he hasn't seen from Prompto since – since the last time they spotted a Niff drop ship overhead.
The puzzle pieces floating around in Noct's mind shift. They turn sideways, and suddenly they slide together in a whole different pattern. From this angle, the jigsaw looks very, very different.
"What if," says Noct, slowly, "it wasn't surgery to help him?"
"The hell else would it be?" says Gladio, irritably – but he stills almost instantly, maybe answering his own question.
"What if it was done to him," says Noct, "and not for him?"
There isn't any safe place to look. He doesn't want to see Ignis' expression, or Gladio's. So Noct stares at the runes on the stone of the haven instead, so hard he feels like his eyes could bore through solid rock. The swirls and dips and careful shapes are intricate, and Noct fills his thoughts up with the way they look – tries to distract his mind before it can provide any mental pictures.
If he imagines how it must have happened, he thinks he might throw up.
"The Empire," says Ignis, quietly, into the long silence that follows.
Noct blinks against the stinging in his eyes. He thinks about the surface of a pond, glassy and clear, and the hum of insects in tall grass. He thinks about the feel of Prompto's head against his shoulder, and a silent admission.
"He told me they hurt him," says Noct.
Gladio's hands are in fists at his sides, now.
Ignis, somber, picks up the spoon to stir again. "He was kept in Niflheim for a time, against his will."
No wonder Prompto's such a wreck. And somehow they messed it up – scared him off, instead of giving him the help he needs.
Noct swallows against the tightness in his throat. "Guess we were right on the POW front, after all."
He's not doing very well at not coming up with mental pictures. The images parade across his mind: Prompto, face pleading, strapped down to a metal table. Prompto, closeted away in some dark little cell. Prompto, waiting for help that doesn't come.
Ignis sets down the spoon again – leaves the curry to bubble. "Perhaps," he says. "Though I admit, I find myself caught up on the mathematical implications."
Gladio's watching him, expression grim and considering. And maybe he can read Ignis' tells as much as Noct can, because he says, "Just spit it out, Iggy."
Ignis nods. "How old would you say Prompto is?"
It's nothing like what Noct was expecting. He blinks, taken aback, and considers. "My age, I guess? Nineteen or twenty."
"Indeed," says Ignis. With a steady hand, he begins to add the coconut milk to the curry. "He's come from Niflheim, where he was held for long enough to undergo surgery. Unless I miss my guess, work that major would have to be performed in increments. Let's be conservative and say two years, with recovery time."
"Okay," says Gladio. "Your point?"
Ignis pauses – stirs in the coconut milk. "Before that, we'll assume the standard year of training for a member of the Kingsglaive. Give him, oh, two months to be transported to Niflheim after capture."
He's going somewhere with this. Noct recognizes that same late-night-tutoring-session tone again.
"They operate, and Prompto escapes," says Ignis, as he sets the spoon aside. "Niflheim to Cape Shawe by boat, then on foot to Taelpar. We'll say a year. Then he lingers in the wilderness for long enough to establish a camp and grow familiar with the area."
The more Ignis speaks, the more Noct's brain clamors for him to pay attention. By the end of it, he's leaning forward, eyes narrowed.
"Wait," says Gladio. "That would mean –"
"Indeed," says Ignis. "That our young friend joined the Kingsglaive at the tender age of fifteen."
Noct frowns – sits back, thinking it over. "So?" he says. "Cor got into the Crownsguard at fifteen, didn't he?"
"Yeah," says Gladio. "And it was a big damn deal. The Council took six months to approve it, and it made all the papers. My dad told me about it."
Noct sets out the facts in his mind, all in a row. He puts what he knows for sure side by side, and he considers.
"So we were half right," he says at last, slowly, trying it on for size. "Prom was a civilian. They took out his family when he was a kid, then carted him back to Niflheim."
He has to pause at that, to collect himself. Every time he thinks this can't possibly get any worse, he proves himself wrong. "All the perks of being a POW," Noct says, bitterly. "None of the actual being part of the war."
The curry must be done. Ignis is taking it off the heat and getting out a serving spoon. Noct watches, dully, as he puts some into a bowl and holds it out in offer – makes his fingers curve around the rim.
He stares down at it, steaming and picture-perfect. He thinks of Prompto, somewhere out there in the woods with nothing to eat.
Gods. Prom can't afford to miss a meal. They'd been trying so hard to get him up to a healthy weight.
"That's what I thought, too, at first," says Ignis, as he starts dishing up another serving. "But his marksmanship is really quite remarkable, if he was taken captive as a civilian child." He holds out the second bowl – and Gladio accepts it, thoughtful.
"That kid's got training," says Gladio. "If he's never served in the military, I'll eat my whole damn boot."
Noct sits quiet for a moment. The heat of the bowl is a steady presence against his palm, and he stares into the curry like it holds the answers. There are still too many pieces that don't quite fit. All the words Prompto ought to know but doesn't – all the everyday experiences he's never had.
"Well," says Ignis. "Given the timeline, we've determined that it's unlikely he was Lucian military."
Noct's head jerks up so fast he almost drops the soup. Is this what Ignis has been nudging him toward? The words are on the tip of his tongue, but Gladio beats him to them.
"What," says Gladio. "You think he's a Niff?"
Ignis purses his lips together – helps himself to a third bowl and fills it before he replies. "I imagine a defector would have good reason to fear them."
Gladio scowls. "It'd give him plenty of reason to fear us, too."
It would. That's the hell of it. All those times they thought they were being reassuring by telling him they'd kick Niflheim's ass, maybe Prompto was worrying they'd lump him in with all the rest.
It makes a lot of sense, except for one thing.
"Do they even have regular foot soldiers?" says Noct. "I mean, we fought that commander at the Norduscaen blockade, but mostly they use MTs."
"Can't all be MTs," snorts Gladio, and starts in on his curry. "How the hell would you control an army of robots without any real people?"
"They're not robots," says Noct.
Ignis sets aside the serving spoon. He fixes Noct with a considering look, and he circles around to the empty camp chair and sits. "Aren't they?"
It's a good question.
They're – partially mechanical, anyway. But he knows what he saw, and a robot would've had most of the interior crammed with electronics and wiring.
"I opened one up to show Prompto. Remember?" Noct rotates the bowl in his hands, idly. "The inside was mostly empty, except for some kind of black stuff down at the bottom."
"Some kind of black stuff." Gladio rolls his eyes. "Sure. Thanks for clearing that up."
Noct shoots him a glare, but he's already trying to think of a better explanation. It's hard to put words to: slick and black, but that's really all he has. It bubbled away before he could get a decent look.
The worst part is, he doesn't know if he can compare it to anything. It's like nothing else he knows, strange and liquid and wrong. Like night, a little. Like shadows. Like –
"It looked a little like that infected coeurl," he says, struck by sudden inspiration. "The one Prompto said had the scourge."
And it's true. Now that he's drawn the comparisons, the resemblance seems obvious. They were both that same unearthly shade; they both had the same strange, liquid quality; they both hissed and boiled away.
A thought strikes Noct, then, as his mind is busy cataloging how very similar they seem, in retrospect.
It's not a good thought.
It's a thought that has to do with why a person-shaped mechanical casing might need to be empty inside.
He sits very still, and he stares at his curry, and he tries to wrap his mind around the idea. He really, really doesn't want to ask.
But he says, "Hey, Specs," and he takes a breath in, and he makes himself keep going. "Do people look like that, when they get the Starscourge?"
"The symptoms are consistent," Ignis says. "Yes."
His gaze is fixed on Noct, sharp and intent, but Noct can't pay attention to him just now. He's trying to remember how to breathe.
"The dissolving and everything?" he manages.
"Hypothetically," says Ignis, after a moment.
Suddenly, Noct feels dizzy. Suddenly, he's sure he's going to throw up, after all.
He says, "So if. If they're not robots." The end of the sentence seems stuck in his throat. No matter how hard he yanks, it won't come out, but that's okay. In the silence that follows, he can see Ignis and Gladio working through the rest on their own.
"Ah," says Ignis softly, after the silence has stretched too long. "It would seem the Empire's found a way to make its soldiers deadlier still."
Noct rubs at his mouth with one hand. He can taste bile at the back of his throat.
He can't put a number on how many MTs he's cut down, but it suddenly seems like way, way too many.
Did Prompto know they were people, all along? Is that why he was so upset, after Noct opened up the armor to show him there was nothing inside?
He watched them cut down a whole shipful. He watched one lying there on the ground, without an arm, while they threw stupid banter back and forth, not knowing it was dying.
Had the MT been alive until Noct pried it open?
Had Prompto known?
Noct can picture it like it happened just a minute ago: Prompto's face, stricken and too-pale. His own blithe unconcern. Wires, and a sturdy rubber tube, and a triangular steel rim stamped with numbers.
The memory blindsides him with the angular curve of the plain, practical font; with the precision etching; even with the number of digits.
Because he's seen it all more recently. He's seen it all today.
"Noct?" says Ignis.
He really is going to be sick. He shoves the bowl of curry away, with shaking hands – leaves it there on the cookstation and presses a palm against his mouth.
"Hey," says Gladio. "Talk to us. What's up?"
He remembers his own words, trying so hard to reassure.
What did he say? "They're MTs. They're not people."
Noct closes his eyes. And he says, "I know why Prompto ran away."
They get started early the next day – an hour before sunup.
Noct hasn't seen this side of the sunrise since the morning when he stumbled out of the camper to find Prompto doting on a chocobo chick.
His thoughts keep circling back around to that day, to the brief flash of terror at the idea that Prompto might have slipped away in the night. He keeps replaying the relief he felt when he found the boy sitting cross-legged on the ground instead, all his trembling excitement focused on the little ball of feathers in front of him.
Please gods, Noct thinks. Please gods, let it be that easy this time.
It's not that easy.
They comb the area until noon. They fill the woods with Prompto's name, shouted again and again, in increasing desperation.
At last, near two, Ignis makes them sit down for a five minute break. He presses a breakfast bar and a bottle of water into Noct's hands and waits until he's consumed both.
Then he says, "Perhaps we should call Wiz."
It's a good idea. It's a great idea.
They should have done it last night.
Noct's hands shake a little as he dials; his voice isn't quite steady as he explains the situation. Wiz says of course he can get a search party going. And they'd best hurry, too – hundlegs poison can kill a man, easy, if it's left untreated for more than a day or so.
Noct thanks him.
He hangs up the phone.
He says, "We need to get moving," and he's surprised when his voice is steady.
They search the forest surrounding the ruins; they poke around inside those stone walls. They backtrack to the pond, and Noct feels a fierce, sweeping sense of longing as he looks out at the surface, green with the reflected treetops.
The last time they were here, Prompto's face had been bright with laughter. He'd kicked his feet, stretched out on the picnic blanket, and helped himself to a second piece of orange cake.
How was that only yesterday?
How could so much have changed since then?
"You had no way of knowing," says Ignis. "At the time, none of us did."
Noct stares into the campfire and doesn't reply.
The flames are flickering high and bright; the evening has given way to full dark. It's the second night Prompto will be on his own out there.
"We'll find him," says Gladio. "He can't be far."
But is that true? If he'd kept moving, he would have had a full day and a half to put distance between them – and if Noct was him, he'd have run as far and as fast as he possibly could.
In hindsight, everything is crystal clear. The skittishness. The fear in Prompto's eyes when anyone so much as looked too long at that lump under his shirt. The way he'd acted after the incident with the MT, wary and withdrawn.
Gods, he must have been terrified. He must have been worried half to death that they would find out.
When Ignis hands over a plate of skewered fish, Noct takes it on reflex. He doesn't want to eat; his stomach is too twisted into anxious knots for hunger. But he takes a reluctant bite, anyway. They'll be searching all day tomorrow, too, and he's going to need the energy.
"He hasn't summoned the gun, yet?" says Ignis.
Noct presses at that place inside him, where the Armiger dances along the edge of his consciousness, like a child working his tongue into the place where a lost tooth used to be.
There it is: Prompto's Quicksilver, exactly where it returned after he dropped it.
He'll feel it, if Prompto takes it out: that steady pull and tug of the magic at the back of his mind. It wouldn't give him a location, but it would be reassurance that Prompto's alive, at least.
"Not yet," says Noct.
There's a beat of silence. Then Gladio offers: "Well, that means he hasn't run into any daemons or anything, right? Small favors."
Noct takes another bite of fish. He chews mechanically, and he doesn't answer that. If he does, he knows he's going to snap something he'll regret, and he doesn't want to fight with Gladio, on top of everything else.
So he works his way through the fish, careful to avoid the bones; he ignores the subdued conversation Ignis and Gladio are sharing in the background.
He stares into the fire until the glare makes his eyes water, and he tells himself that's all it is.
Then he hears it, from the darkened woods beyond the camp: a sharp snap, like someone not quite cautious enough stepped on a twig.
Noct's eyes jerk up; he stares out into the darkness, searching, for an endless moment. Beside him, Gladio and Ignis freeze, words breaking off mid-sentence.
"Prompto?" says Noct.
He sets aside the plate and moves toward the source of the sound – vaults down from the haven. Fumbling fingers coax the light clipped to his jacket to life, and Noct swings it in a wide arc, searching among the trees.
"Prompto?" Noct says again, more strained this time.
The sound had been close. He walks a few more steps, into the treeline.
"Prom, please," says Noct. "If you're out there, just show us where you are."
His chest feels tight; his eyes are burning. He realizes he's holding his breath, waiting for a response, and forces himself to inhale.
Please gods, he thinks. Please.
His only answer is the birdbeast that hops out of the foliage, its tiny black eyes reflecting green in the cast-off glow of his flashlight.
It opens its beak and trills at him – hops again, dislodging a stick.
Noct digs his nails into his palms.
He turns around and climbs the stone slope back up to the haven. He sits there until Ignis and Gladio have finished their fish, and then he sits there longer, until they rise and turn to the tent for the night.
Ignis pauses on the threshold. "You won't help him by depriving yourself of sleep, you know."
"I know," says Noct.
Ignis fixes him with a long look – nods, reluctantly, and follows Gladio into the tent.
And still Noct sits, slumped and unmoving, until he can hear Gladio's snores filtering out through the thin canvas.
Only then does he reach for his phone – tap the screen to life, and open up the gallery. They're all there: the memories of that first day.
There are shots of their hotel room, and Gladio's smile – of Ignis with his hands on the wheel, and Noct sleeping in the back seat.
And there it is: the one picture of Prompto. The windshield's behind him, and behind that is a wide, bright sky. He looks bewildered, and the shot is out of focus and off-center, but Noct can make out the scattered points of his freckles and the curious blue-violet of his eyes.
Noct stares down at his phone screen, there by the dying fire, until the tears standing in his eyes blur the picture away to a watercolor smudge of nothing.
It rains the following day, great black clouds that choke the sky. What starts as a drizzle in the early morning hours deepens to a steady downpour as the morning turns into afternoon.
They search again, but this time they look for places that might present shelter from the wet: the overhangs in the old ruins, and the places where the tree branches press together the thickest.
By noon, the rain's sheeting down from the sky in buckets, and lightning streaks between the clouds at intervals, thunder rolling in its wake.
By evening, the sky is mostly blue again, and Noct's voice is gone from calling Prompto's name.
The fourth day dawns bright and clear.
Noct helps himself to one of Iggy's cans of Ebony, just to kick his brain into gear, but sleep's been hard to come by, these past couple of days. His thoughts keep chasing themselves around and around in circles, getting muddier and uglier with every passing hour.
He's aware of Ignis and Gladio talking behind him in hushed tones – plans for the search party, from the sounds of it, but every time he tries to pay attention, his mind skitters away and refuses to focus.
Out in the forest, everything is silent. It's that calm period, just after the sun has banished the daemons but before the birdbeasts have started up their dawn chorus.
It's peaceful, almost. It's going to be a beautiful day.
He wonders if Prompto's even still alive by now.
Maybe they'll find what's left of him a week from now, curled up under some bush. Maybe they passed by him thirty times already, and never saw.
Noct blinks down at the can of Ebony in his hands – realizes he's holding the coffee so tight that there are dents in the aluminum. He makes himself relax – rotates it a little to hide the evidence, the metal smooth and cool against his palm.
The morning is so still. The air feels fresh and expectant, the way it always does after a storm.
Noct closes his eyes, just for a minute, and bows his head.
Behind him, Ignis and Gladio have fallen silent. There's no sound at all, except for his own breathing. That's when it comes: a faint rustle from the bushes near the haven.
With a wave of bitterness, Noct remembers that second night – the surge of hope that washed over him, unfounded. He remembers the birdbeast in the light of his flashlight, and its little black eyes, and its trilling call.
Noct opens his eyes again, anyway. He turns toward the bushes, a dull ache inside him.
And he stares.
Oh, boy. Where to start? First of all, overtime has hit at my work and hit hard, so I apologize for delays. I currently have about two hours at home and actually awake per day right now and will for quite some time. I'm still working on fic. I'm just.... very, very slow due to time constraints. orz
I want to thank the amazing and kind (and patient!) rah-bop for helping me so much with this chapter, both in terms of ideas and also with some seriously extensive betaing. Thank you so much, it is much better for your input! <3
Finally, there is some amaaaaazing art by rah-bop and losebetter in the end notes. You guys are so good to me. Thank you!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Noct's voice echoes through the woods behind him, a sharp edge to it that NH-01987's never heard.
Gladio and Ignis join in not thirty seconds later, and NH-01987 bites his lip, ducks his head, and ignores the agony searing through his side to try and run faster.
Every step is white-hot pain; every gasp for breath tastes like rust and copper. If he stays, they'll kill him. NH-01987 has stared down death more times than he can count, but he doesn't know if he can handle Noct holding the sword, that crooked smile gone hard and unfeeling with hate.
He's clear of them, he thinks. He has the cover of the trees. Now he just has to hide – find someplace to rest. Every step sends the world tilting around him, dizzying lurches that threaten to drop him to his knees.
That's when he spots it.
It's a slab of rock, pressed up against a corner where two massive boulders intersect. Bushes grow around the edges, thick and wild, and he thinks maybe – maybe they'll be enough to hide him from view.
NH-01987 has to duck down to squeeze past the catching branches, but there, in the back, up against the rock wall, everything is dim and quiet. He can't see out through the leaves, so maybe no one will be able to see him, either.
He lets his eyes slip shut, just for a minute – reels, and lists hard to one side, and realizes that if he doesn't do something about that wound, and fast, he's not going to have to worry about them finding him. He won't make it that far.
NH-01987 sags into the corner, and his hands move, shaking and uncertain, to the pincer embedded in his abdomen. He still has the bottle of healing liquid Noct gave him earlier.
All he has to do it pry the mandible free, then down the bottle. Easy.
His hand digs into his pocket to find the rounded glass – works it out, trembling and uncertain, to leave it beside him on the ground. When he's finished, he'll need easy access.
NH-01987 takes a long breath in and lets it out slow.
He reaches for the protrusion gingerly, feeling his way with the tips of his fingers, and even that cautious contact is almost too much. He feels the slight shift all the way through him, pain and nausea roiling inside like a storm.
It's okay, he tries to tell himself. He's tended his own wounds before. This time is the same.
It has to be the same.
NH-01987 struggles to take a better hold, but the mandible is slick with blood, and he slips and scrabbles, searching for a decent grip. His fingers feel dull and clumsy, but finally he finds a fingerhold.
You can do this, he tells himself, already dizzy with the blood loss. He takes three deep breaths, trying to brace himself for the pain.
Then NH-01987 closes his eyes, and he pulls.
He knows right away that it's a mistake.
The pincer shifts with the pressure, and it's all he can do to stifle his scream, biting down hard so that only a strangled whimper escapes. He tries to tell himself to be quiet – tries to tell himself that they'll hear, and he doesn't have the strength to run away again – but he just can't seem to stop.
The soft whining sound goes on and on, even as his hands reach, mindless and desperate, for the bottle that rests on the rock beside him. He uncaps it with shaking fingers – lifts it to his lips with so much haste that he gets half of it down the front of his shirt.
But it helps. It helps, and that feels like the best thing in the world right now.
That mind-searing agony peels back a little, there at the edges. The whimper dies in his throat as the pain recedes from incomprehensible to just this side of unbearable.
It still hurts.
He waits for the rest to fade away, the way it did with the injury on his arm all those weeks ago, but nothing happens.
The pain lingers – sets up shop inside of him, there next to the still-embedded mandible, throbbing in time with his heartbeat.
NH-01987 squeezes his eyes shut. He's lying on the ground, and he's not sure when that happened.
He wants to get up. He has some vague idea that he should keep going, because they're going to find him for sure, if he stays here. He can still hear their voices, calling out. They're moving away from him now, he thinks. It would be the perfect time to go.
But he's nauseous, and his head is spinning, and he his hands and feet feel numb and distant, like they belong to someone else.
He'll rest awhile. If he lies down for a bit, he'll be strong enough to go on.
So NH-01987 maneuvers himself, carefully, to lie on his side. He draws his knees up, and he wedges himself into the shadow of the rock, behind the sheltering branches of the bushes.
He'll only rest a moment. He'll be on his feet again in no time.
But when NH-01987 closes his eyes, darkness rushes up to drag him under, and he doesn't move again for a long time.
When NH-01987 wakes again, it's very dark.
Pain is the first thing he knows, and the second thing, and the third. It floods through him like the black touch of the scourge – leaves him weak and shaking.
The stone beneath him is chill and unforgiving, and for a bleary moment, he doesn't know where he is. He has some vague notion that someone's left the door to the camper open, and the chill night wind has crept inside, and he blinks blearily into the dark.
"Noct?" he mumbles, voice a quiet rasp. "Can you shut the door?"
But Noct doesn't answer.
Noct keeps not answering, and gradually, the pieces shift around in NH-01987's mind, trying to form a coherent whole.
His feet are bare. His clothes are stiff with dried pond water. His side burns like someone's pressed a log from the campfire against his skin and left it to smolder. There's hard stone beneath him, and the blood on the ground is no longer hot and sticky but crusted and flaked.
It comes back all at once: the hundlegs attack, and hands on his shirt, and the horror in everyone's eyes at the sight of the ports set into his chest.
NH-01987 can hardly blame them.
He's known all along that the only reason they spared him their kindness was because of a lie. Now they know better.
NH-01987 lies there for a long time, unmoving. He stares blearily into the darkness. Eventually, he tries to sleep, but sleep won't come; the pain swallows him up and consumes him whole.
He thinks he hears a sound in the distance: a quiet murmur, like voices.
He blinks his eyes open again – peers out through the branches. There's a soft yellow glow that wasn't there before, what looks like the flickering of a campfire.
That's when the breeze shifts and blows his way: the faint scent of green curry soup, spicy and sweet.
NH-01987 closes his eyes. He presses his lips together in a tight, wobbling line.
Sometimes, when he was much smaller – back when they first moved him to his storage chamber – NH-01987 would lie awake at night, the metal and the darkness pressing in around him. He would stay awake until it felt like his chest was going to collapse under its own weight, and his breath came in hitching gasps, and his eyes leaked so much that his face got sticky.
After a few years, NH-01987 stopped doing it. Whenever he felt like starting, he reminded himself that it did no good. He only ever felt worse when he finished.
But he finds himself doing it now, that same hitched breathing, and the same inconceivable pressure on his chest, and the same hot tracks running down his face, turning it sticky.
NH-01987 buries his face in his arm.
He tries to tell himself that it's a waste of time. He tries to tell himself that it will do no good – that he'll only feel worse when he finishes.
But that thought only makes the hitched breathing crack and shudder. It only makes his breath leave him in a whine, so loud he's afraid that someone will hear.
It only makes him curl in tighter, and bite down on his thumb to stifle the noise.
NH-01987 is right.
When he finishes, he only feels worse.
By morning, the pain has spread.
There's a dull ache, not just in his side, but everywhere. It seems strongest in the joints; he can feel it burrowing into his knees and settling there.
It's hard for NH-01987 to keep his eyes open.
But when he closes them, snippets from yesterday's fight play in his mind, an endless loop of recollection that trips and stumbles over what he could have done to stop this. Over how this could have ended a different way.
Now the hundlegs rears up, mandibles spread wide. Now Ignis' voice, clear and distinct, says, "They're said to be poisonous. Do be careful." Now the oily purple liquid sprays forth, spattering the ground – catching in the tines of the creature's jaw.
Those tines are in his body still, NH-01987 realizes distantly.
The oily purple droplets are, too.
NH-01987 licks at his lips. His head is throbbing, and his throat is dry, and his eyelids feel too heavy to lift.
He tries to open them anyway – discovers, when he does, that the sun has shifted. It's warm, and the light slanting in through the cover of the leaves is at a new angle.
NH-01987 struggles for a moment with the dizzying sense that he's lost time somehow.
He licks at his lips again – finds them drier now. He stares blankly out through the tiny gap between the branches, toward the circle of stone where they were meant to have camped.
There's no motion in the woods. He hears the low, barking yowl of a voretooth, somewhere in the distance, and he has just enough presence of mind to hope that it stays that way. A birdbeast is calling somewhere nearby, too, high and sweet, but NH-01987 can't see it.
All his sees is thick, waving grass, and the scraggly bushes that hug the ground, and – and a glint of something catching the light. Glass? It looks almost like glass.
NH-01987 cranes his neck a little, to get a better look.
And when he realizes what's causing the reflection, the blood in his veins turns to ice.
It's his camera, lying there on the ground, amid the bushes. It's his camera, not twenty feet from where he's hiding.
Suddenly, he can feel every heartbeat, trying to pound its way out of his throat.
If they look long enough, they're sure to spot it. And if they bend down to pick it up, and chance to glance his way?
NH-01987's thoughts kick into overdrive. They skitter and scramble, tripping over one another.
He has to get the camera, before it gives him away. If they find it, and then find him, he won't have the strength to run again. But that's the problem: he doesn't have the strength. He's going to have to stand, and walk down the sloping rock, and make his way through the foliage. He can barely endure the pain holding still, and he's going to have to move.
But if he has the camera, he'll have everything still inside it.
He'll have Noct's slanted smile, and Ignis' talented hands fixing dinner, and Gladio leaning back in a camp chair, reading his book. He'll have Cinnamon's new feathers, a dusky red-orange; and round baby chocobos, bright-eyed and excited over a handful of greens. He'll have the Duscaen arches, and green curry soup, and the fishing hole where they ate lunch yesterday.
When he weighs some pain against all of that, it's hardly a contest.
NH-01987 waits until the sun goes down.
He waits until he sees the faint flicker of flame from the direction of the campsite. He waits until he smells something cooking that makes his empty stomach clench and turn over, cautiously hopeful that he'll feed it. He waits until he can hear the soft sound of voices on the air.
Then he makes his move.
It's painstaking and cautious and still, somehow, excruciating. He eases himself up to his hands and knees, every motion making him woozy.
When he gets that far, he rests a moment, panting – thinks that maybe he doesn't need to walk. Maybe this is good enough.
If he was in less pain, he would be humiliated to even consider it. His trainers would have made an example of him during practice, if he'd ever dared to show so much weakness.
But no one is here to watch him fail, and that – that makes it easier.
NH-01987 pushes out past the bushes that form his shelter. He feels his way down the stone slope with the palms of his hands, letting the moonlight guide his path.
With every gradual movement – with every inch forward – he's afraid that someone will hear. He's become very good at moving quietly through the wilds of Lucis, but he feels clumsy and distant, like his body doesn't belong to him. The rustle of every leaf seems too loud in his ears. Even his own breathing seems like a beacon to draw watchful eyes.
The camera creeps closer: ten feet away, and then five.
Then NH-01987 is stretching out his hand for it. The plastic beneath his fingers feels smooth and welcoming – like a promise of something better.
His eyes fall closed, and he takes a shaky breath in. His lips turn up at the corners, just a little.
The hard part's finished. Now he just needs to get back.
NH-01987 turns, slow and careful. He shifts his weight – feels something under his knee give with a sharp snap. His eyes go wide; he holds his breath.
Just when he's certain that no one's heard, Noct's voice says, "Prompto?" from the direction of the campfire.
He presses himself as low to the ground as he can get, without jostling his injury. His breathing is too loud in his ears, rasping breaths that aren't quite steady.
"Prompto?" says Noct again.
There's rustling up ahead, and a figure appears in the tree line, a backlit silhouette against the soft glow of the firelight. NH-01987 holds his breath. There's an edge to Noct's voice that he's never heard before, and he cringes a little to think that he was the one to put it there.
No wonder he's mad. All NH-01987 has done since the day they met is pretend to be something he isn't.
"Prom, please," says Noct. "If you're out there, just show us where you are."
NH-01987 has no illusions about what will happen if he complies. He's seen the damage first hand. He won't stand a chance against a sword that can cut through metal.
So he doesn't answer – just bites down on his lip, hard, and waits as the silence stretches out for what seems like years.
If Noct steps forward, he's done for. The flashlight will pick out his makeshift hiding place with no trouble at all, and everything he's ever struggled for will end right here, tonight.
Just turn around, NH-01987 begs silently. Just go.
But it's not Noct that moves.
It's a birdbeast, hopping out of the foliage not five feet to the right of him. Its tiny black eyes reflect green in the cast-off glow of the flashlight.
It opens its beak and trills – hop-flaps closer to Noct, dislodging a stick.
Noct's head angles toward it. He lingers a moment more – stands there waiting, tense as a coeurl seeking prey. Then the line of his shoulders goes slack, and he turns and walks back toward the fire.
The trees swallow him up again, and all that's left is NH-01987 and the birdbeast.
NH-01987 remembers how to breathe. With shaking limbs, he turns himself back in the direction of the bushes – mouths a quiet "Thank you," to the little creature as his movement scares it flapping off into the night.
Then he starts the trip back.
Each motion seems to take hours. He's starting to feel light-headed, and he doesn't know whether that's from the wound, or because he's breathing in frantic, too-shallow gasps, trying hard not to make noise.
Finally – finally – he reaches the cover of the bushes.
With shaking arms, he pulls himself inside and collapses in his spot on the rock. The world feels swimmy and strange around the edges, and his head is reeling, but he can't let himself sleep.
NH-01987 lifts the camera with careful hands. His finger finds the on button, and he waits, breathless, for the logo to flicker to life on the screen.
It seems impossibly bright. The glow seems to chase back the darkness.
Then it fades away, and in its place all his best memories are spread out across the screen, there for him to see.
Here are Ignis' talented hands fixing dinner, and Gladio leaning back in a camp chair, reading his book. Here are Cinnamon's new feathers, a dusky red-orange; and round baby chocobos, bright-eyed and excited over a handful of greens. Here are the Duscaen arches, and green curry soup, and the fishing hole where they ate lunch yesterday.
And here's Noct's slanted smile, so different from the ominous silhouette by the campfire.
It's uncomplicated and easy; his eyes are crinkled at the corners, cheeks lightly flushed with sun. For twenty long years, NH-01987 never imagined a person could smile like this, looking at him – unguarded and genuine, almost fond.
He stares at the picture for a long time, even after his vision goes blurry and wobbly.
He stares until the flickering campfire goes out in the distance and the battery symbol starts to flash in the corner of the screen.
He stares until the images of happier times blink out and leave him to the darkness.
The crack-boom of the thunder wakes him, and NH-01987 starts out of slumber in a bleary sort of panic.
He struggles to sit – hisses as the pain floods in – flails, and gasps, and goes right back down onto the rock.
While he's still lying there, teeth gritted to keep from crying out, the rain begins to fall.
It starts as something almost gentle – a faint pattering on the leaves of the bushes above him. In a matter of minutes, though, the sky turns dark as night, and the thunder rolls again. The soft droplets turn into a punishing sheet of water, and the leaves above NH-01987 begin to drip slowly and then leak in earnest.
All at once, he remembers how thirsty he is. All at once, his throat feels like something left out to bake in the sun all day.
NH-01987 swallows, and it goes down like gravel, hard and unforgiving. He wedges the camera into a crack in the rock, up off the ground, to keep it as far from the water as he can. Even if he can't look at the pictures it holds anymore, he can't bear the thought of it being ruined.
Then he cranes his neck upward and opens his mouth to the rain.
The droplets patter down onto his tongue, cool and welcome. He licks at his lips, and swallows, and opens up for more.
He thinks about sitting at a round plastic table and playing a game of cards. He thinks about losing ten rounds, and not caring because he's breathless with laughter. He thinks about Ignis handing him a small white box with milk, creamy and good, and he imagines that's what the water is, spilling drops onto his tongue
The thought makes his chest go tight and heavy, and his eyes begin to burn. He tries to swallow, but his throat sticks. It feels like something's caught inside, thick and aching.
He has to take a breath and try again – has to remind himself that just the water is good enough.
But the taste of it on his tongue is bland and thin, and his ears still echo with laughter that he's never going to hear again.
Maybe that's what drags him back out of a fitful sleep.
His thoughts are swimmy and disjointed, but he thinks the rain pattering down on him has lessened, just a little. The air is a warmer, and everything smells like growing things.
NH-01987 drifts for a while, somewhere between waking and sleeping. The pain is a constant, throbbing presence now, making everything else seem less important, but he hears a rustling noise, as though from a very great distance.
With considerable effort, NH-01987 opens his eyes.
The sight before him is all vivid color and ultra-sharp detail, like the photographs from the nature magazine Noct bought him.
Up above, the sky has started to clear, and the sun poking through the clouds shades the rain in shimmering hues of yellow. The light catches on the leaves and turns them a pale, translucent green, like new things in spring.
And there, not five feet away from him, is a voretooth, nose to the ground as though following an interesting scent.
As NH-01987 watches, it lifts its head, long tongue unspooling from its mouth. The sunlight gilds the quills across its back; it transforms the creature's fur into spun gold.
It's going to tear him apart.
For an instant, NH-01987's mind attempts to force him to action. Sit up, he tries to tell himself. Call for the gun. You still have a chance.
But he's tired. He's so tired.
What if he just stayed here, instead? It will hurt at first, but then the pain will be gone.
NH-01987 thinks he would like that.
He breathes, slow and even. He makes no move to summon up the gun. The voretooth is watching him, mysterious white gaze blank and staring, and for a long moment, neither of them move.
Then, finally, the creature turns and pads away, as easy as it came.
NH-01987 closes his eyes again, and this time the droplets that stream down his face have nothing to do with the rain.
The sun goes out in a blaze of golden glory, and in its place, the moon's chill light fills the world.
NH-01987 lies on his side, cheek pressed to the rock, and stares blankly out into the woods through an opening between the branches.
The rain isn't falling anymore. He thinks that if he shifted just slightly, part of the rock where he's lying might be a bit drier, but he just can't seem to muster the energy to move. The pain is a part of him, as much what makes him up as his skin or bones or blood.
When he first paused to rest here, shaking and desperate, it was only going to be for a moment – just until he regained his strength and the hurting stopped.
But it never stopped.
Instead, it settled into the core of him. It makes every breath a struggle, and every moment stretch out into eternity.
The world seems very clear, tonight. The air is still and fresh. NH-01987 has drifted into a lucid period, aware of every noise out beyond his shelter.
He hears the faint hum of the glowing purple daemons that explode on impact, somewhere not terribly far away. He hears the soft rustle of movement, perhaps some small woodland creature – or the voretooth, hunting for prey that's not riddled with hundlegs poison.
At some point, he'll need to get up again. He'll need to make a new shelter. Find food. Live.
He's been waiting to regain his strength, so that he can get back to his feet and stagger onward.
He's been waiting to start over, the way he has so many times before.
He'll find a spot somewhere in the wilderness, and make a roof of wood and bark to keep the rain out. At night, he'll visit small clusters of buildings and help himself to the things that no one wants anymore.
NH-01987 can see it playing out like images on a camera roll. He can see the next weeks, and months, and years.
He can do it. He's done it before.
But when he reaches inside himself to find the reserve of stamina that's kept him going all this time, it isn't there anymore. In its place, he finds something hollow, and hurting, and small.
He's still waiting, but not because he wants to get up anymore.
He's waiting for the pain to end.
NH-01987 hears voices, familiar and muted. If he concentrates enough, he can almost make out what they're saying.
He listens for a long time.
It helps to hear them talk. It makes it easier to imagine he's sitting beside them, cross-legged on the stone by the fold-up chairs. He knows how the heat from the fire feels, warm against his side, and the way soup tastes against his tongue. He knows what it's like to listen to their voices, warm with affection, calling him "Prompto."
NH-01987 listens to them talk until the flickering light of their fire fades away and everything goes silent.
He discovers that, in that place inside where there was nothing, there is something after all.
He knows what he has to do.
Stand up straight, NH-01987 tells himself.
And he wants to. He does. He knows that he won't have to do it for long.
So he relaxes his body. He forces his hunched shoulders back. His legs are already trembling with the strain, and the pain is eating him alive, but that's okay.
It'll be over soon.
Their faces are the last thing he'll see, and he wants that. He wants that more than he's ever wanted anything.
All he has to do is stand up straight for a little longer. They made quick work of those MTs. They'll do the same for him.
But they aren't moving. They're just standing there, motionless. Their faces are blank and slack, and their weapons don't appear in their hands.
NH-01987 swallows, with great effort. His legs are starting to feel wobbly and unsteady beneath him. He thinks he might be swaying.
Some part of him, the part that dragged him up to his feet in the first place, hopes they'll hurry. He wants to go out standing. There's something better about it, that way.
But they're still not moving, and NH-01987 feels himself start to break.
One leg gives out and folds, and the rest of him follows. He's aware of a shout, and of Noct's voice in his ear, and of Noct's hands clutching at him.
Noct goes down with him, and nothing about that makes sense.
It could have been over already. He's seen the way Noct's sword comes when it's called, a flash of blue brilliance. He's seen the way Noct cuts through his enemies, one swipe kills. Why isn't he doing it now?
The fabric of Noct's shirt is pressed against his face. He can feel the warmth of Noct's chest through the cloth, feel the rise and fall of his breathing. "Please," NH-01987 tries to say, but it comes out as a croak.
Please hurry, he wants to tell them. Everything hurts; the agony is everywhere, is all of him. His eyes are leaking again, and he's not sure when that started.
He's ready for it to be over.
Noct's saying something, but the words are distant things, garbled and strange. There are hands on him again; he's going over backward. NH-01987 scrabbles for purchase – finds nothing, and hits the ground on his back.
The jolt of pain that lances through him when he touches the ground feels like he's being split in two around the wound in his side. His mouth opens in a harsh gasp; his eyes stare up toward Noct's face, hovering there above him. Ignis and Gladio are there now, too.
"Please," he says again.
Please hurry. Please make the pain stop.
But still there's no flash of crystalline brilliance. Still no weapons come.
Instead, hands reach out to hold him down. There are voices, all talking at once, but NH-01987 doesn't know what they're saying.
One of those hands takes hold of the mandible protruding from his side. Even the first brush of contact is breathtaking agony – and then the pressure starts, as those steady, inexorable fingers pull it free.
NH-01987 shrieks and arches his back, trying to break away, but they're holding him too tightly. His vision swims around the edges, and for one brief moment, he's certain he'll pass out.
But consciousness clings to him, and the hands holding him down remain. The pressure relents, at long last, as the pincer rips loose; the spill of blood from the wound is suddenly a hot gush over his ribs and down his side. NH-01987 subsides, limp and exhausted – panting open-mouthed.
Be still, he tells himself. It's almost over.
He won't have to do this for much longer.
There's a strange, drifting sort of sensation lapping at him now. It's almost peaceful. NH-01987 lets it come – makes room for it, and welcomes it, and tries to follow it down into the darkness on the edges of his vision.
Before he can, a jolt of cold liquid on his skin draws him back to the world. It slides along the tattered edges of his abdomen, where the mandible used to be – spreads through his body, a rush of tingling sharpness so sudden that it leaves him reeling with disorientation.
All at once, the pain relents. The relief is immense, like the crushing weight of a boulder lifted away, and NH-01987 gulps air into his lungs, staring up into three watching faces with incomprehension.
He knows this feeling. He knows it. It was the same feeling from that first night in his campsite, when the bottle Ignis gave him knitted together his mangled arm.
Suddenly, fear floods in to replace the relief.
Another cooling splash of liquid rushes through him, and NH-01987 understands, with a hot, sick bolt of horror, what they mean to do. He whines and strains upward, fighting against the hands holding him in place.
How could he ever have thought this was a good idea? How could he ever have thought they'd make this fast?
He knows what people do to MTs. This will be like it was with the men in white coats in Zegnautus. They'll hold him down and pull him apart to learn more about how he works.
They're making him whole so that they can deconstruct him again.
Panic makes NH-01987 frantic: he strains and bucks and struggles, but his limbs have no strength left.
He should have stayed in the woods. He should have waited for the end there. He's done nothing but lie to these men, masquerade as a friend after things like him slaughtered their families. Why did he think they'd show him mercy?
How could he be so stupid?
"Don't," NH-01987 rasps, gaze flickering from face to face. Everything's blurry with the wet stinging at his eyes, but their expressions are set and frowning. He can tell that much. "Please, don't."
He strains against the hands holding him; his fingers scrabble in the dirt.
"Prompto, stop," says Noct's voice, half commanding, half pleading.
NH-01987 doesn't stop. He can feel Noct's hands still pressing into him – feel that they're shaking. He twists and tries to pull away, but his strength is gone, and they hold him with no effort at all.
"Prompto," says Noct, and his voice is thick and uncertain. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
Those words don't make sense.
NH-01987 closes his eyes and drags in a harsh, shaky gasp. It hitches out long and uneven, and another follows on its heels, rougher and louder.
All at once, the fight goes out of him. He lies back on the ground, shaking, eyes streaming, letting those restraining hands have their way. He's not strong enough, anyway. If they want to pick him apart, he has no way to stop them.
Another wave of cool, liquid relief rushes through him. It's bright and burning and so, so good. He's almost dizzy, now, with the lack of pain. After the last few days of constant agony, the sudden absence of it makes his head spin.
"Shh, hey," says Noct. "You're okay." One of the hands on NH-01987's shoulder, the one holding him down, lets go. It comes up to his forehead, instead. The touch is lighter this time – gentle. "We've got you."
The hand slides slowly up over NH-01987's hair, smoothing his bangs away from his face. Then it returns to his forehead, and the gesture repeats. "It's okay," says Noct. "It's okay."
Noct's voice is so soft it's almost a whisper. Those careful fingers thread themselves through NH-01987's hair over and over, careful and rhythmic.
NH-01987 doesn't know why this is happening – why Noct's touching him this way. He knows the kind of reception he expected to receive, and it's not this.
It's nothing like this.
But the gentle hand stroking his hair doesn't let up, and despite himself, NH-01987 closes his eyes and leans into it.
He's aware, in a distant, swimmy kind of way, of murmured words – not to him, this time. "He's freezing," says Noct. "His shirt's soaking wet."
"I'll get the tent ready," says Ignis, and then there's the sound of brisk footsteps retreating.
"Here, gimme space," says Gladio, from somewhere nearby.
Noct's hand gives one final stroke and then withdraws, and NH-01987 opens his eyes again. He finds that Gladio's hovering just above him, and he cringes back, expecting the pain to start.
But Gladio says, "Hey, calm down. I'm just gonna pick you up. Okay?"
NH-01987 waits for Gladio to move – but he doesn't. He just sits there, expectant, while NH-01987 stares with dazed eyes.
"Okay?" says Gladio again.
NH-01987 blinks, blearily – realizes, too late, that he wants an answer. There's something important in that, he thinks. There's something unusual buried in those words: the opportunity to refuse.
He can't remember the men in white coats ever once giving him the option to say no.
NH-01987 nods, shakily – feels Gladio's arms slip under him at the shoulders and knees. He lifts, and NH-01987 goes up like he weighs nothing at all.
There's no pain, just warmth.
Gladio's arms are warm around him, and Gladio's chest is warm where he presses up against it, and NH-01987 feels himself starting to drift, eyes slipping closed again. Noct and Ignis are talking, he thinks, but it's background noise, something far away and unimportant.
He feels a hand press against his hand, and fingers squeeze his fingers, but he can't force his eyes open to see who it is. Everything feels heavy, and close.
He ought to stay awake, NH-01987 thinks muzzily. He ought to find out where they're bringing him. He ought to try to explain himself – to tell them that, even though he lied, he never meant them any harm.
But it feels so good to be warm. The lack of pain makes every breath taste sweet, makes him feel floaty and strange.
He ought to stay awake, he thinks again – but it's his last thought before sleep pulls him down into the waiting darkness.
Here comes the art! Please excuse me while I roll around on the ground in delight and shriek eternally into the abyss. Thank you guys both so, so much! :DDDD
First up, one from losebetter:
And some from rah-bop:
Don't mind me, I'll just be over here in a happy puddle forever. 8D
Sorry for the long delay on this one, guys. It's taken absolute ages, I know. I hope people are actually still interested in seeing where this goes. orz
Please check out this beautiful art from the very kind and talened Puffbird for the last chapter, though! It is so, so lovely, thank you again so much! <33333
And as always, thank you SO much to Rah-bop, for infinite help and patience and kindness, and for getting me to pick this up again in the first place. ^^
Also possibly of interest, for folks who enjoy the Running Behind!verse: Chapter 18 of my drabble collection features Running Behind Prompto, from back before he met the boys.
Prompto looks awful.
More than awful: he looks dead, sickly pale and terrifyingly still. He dangles from Gladio's arms like he'll never move again – and that, more than anything, hits Noct like a bucket full of ice.
Even that first night, when they found him crouched in his camp, arm mangled and half-starved, there was still life to him. The next day he joined them on a hunt when he should have been resting, but hell if he didn't kick ass and take names.
Now there's nothing. Not so much as a twitch. There are dark circles under Prompto's eyes, and the rise and fall of his chest is too shallow. The fabric of his t-shirt and jeans are soaked through from last night's storm; they're probably freezing, pressed up against his skin. He hangs limp – sways a little with every step Gladio takes. Noct keeps pace, heart pounding in his throat and stomach twisted into knots.
He reaches out for Prompto's hand – touches the fingers, clammy-cold, and gives a little squeeze, just for the reassurance that Prompto is here, and alive, and mostly in one piece.
Then Gladio says, "Get the tent," and he has to let go to hold the flap open for them.
Inside, the fabric floor's turned into a mound of cloth. Ignis already has a sleeping bag unrolled, blankets piled on top of it. He straightens, expression grim, to consider Prompto as Gladio maneuvers him into the tent.
"Set him down by the door," he says.
So Prompto doesn't go straight into the sleeping bag, or even onto the blankets. Instead, Gladio puts him flat on the fabric of the tent floor, right by the entrance, with nothing to cushion him.
Noct wants to argue – every impulse he has is insisting they should be bundling Prompto up in those blankets right now – but he remembers that long-ago first-aid class Ignis made him take, back when he was still in high school. It'd covered basic CPR, and how to bandage a wound, and what to do in case of hypothermia.
He's already moving for his bag by the time Ignis says, "Fetch your pajamas, and let's get him into something dry."
The pajamas are bundled at the bottom of the pile, thick black cotton that buttons up the front. By the time he fishes them out and turns around, Prompto's bare from the waist up, and Ignis is working at the buttons on his jeans.
For a second, the sight freezes Noct in place; his feet stick to the ground, and he stands there staring, like if he looks long enough it somehow won't be real.
He's glimpsed parts before, but never the terrible whole. Now that it's all laid bare, he can see the scars that slash across Prompto's shoulders and the ones set into his torso, raised white lines that tell a lifetime of pain. The ugly metal embedded in his chest gleams harsh and unnatural against the too-pale skin, and the scar tissue radiating out from around it looks more like a butcher's work than surgery. The shape of Prompto's ribs are clearly visible, the jut of his collarbone too sharp.
Worst of all, the wound in Prompto's side, where they pried the mandible free, isn't fully healed. The center is wet and congealed, like an injury on the verge of recovery. It's only about a quarter of the original size – better than it was, by a long shot – but gods above, it still looks bad.
Noct hisses a sharp breath in between his teeth and fumbles in his pocket for another elixir. "Specs," he says, and hands it over.
It takes Ignis all of about five seconds to unscrew the cap and pour the liquid over the wound.
Faint green shimmers fill the air; some of the scarring fades, just slightly, but the injury itself remains.
"We're gonna have to go old school on this one," says Gladio. "Took us too long to get to him."
Noct knows. He has firsthand experience with the way healing magic becomes less effective over time. He very nearly never walked again because of the delay in seeing to the back injury he received as a child, and Gladio's got a scar damn near the length of his face for the same reason.
It doesn't make it any easier to look at Prompto's side, wet and red, and know he can't do anything about it.
"There are bandages in my pack," says Ignis. He sets the empty elixir bottle down, brisk and businesslike, and shimmies Prompto's jeans and underwear down over his hips.
And gods – his legs are just as bad. They're a patchwork of old scars, and the sight of his feet makes Noct wince and turn away. He rubs at his mouth and tells himself he needs to get it the hell together and start helping.
By the time he looks back, Gladio's cleaning out the wound. It doesn't look that gentle – looks thorough, more than anything – and he's suddenly, fiercely glad that Prompto isn't awake for this.
Ignis has a towel in his hands. He's patting Prompto gently dry, legs and torso and arms. He pauses when he comes to the right wrist – reaches out considering fingers to check the cloth band that Prompto habitually wears.
It must be wet, too. Ignis wastes no time in slipping it off, working it gently free from Prompto's bony hand.
Then he stills, lips pressed into an unforgiving line, face harder than granite. Noct's known Ignis most of his life, and he can't ever remember seeing an expression quite like this one before.
"What?" says Noct. "What is it?"
Ignis doesn't answer, though, and Noct twists a little, sideways, to get a better view.
It hits him like a freight train. There are ruler-straight lines of ink etched into the skin, and a number noted beneath them.
"What the hell is that," says Noct, voice unsteady.
He doesn't really need an answer. It's not a question.
He knows damn well what it is. It's a barcode, the kind you'd find in a store on one of those stickers they put on merchandise. It's something you use to inventory things, and seeing it there on Prompto's pale wrist makes his stomach turn.
Gladio's just finishing up the bandage – smoothing the last of the tape into place. He must glance over, because when he speaks his voice is gravelly and thick with the promise of violence: "Son of a bitch."
Ignis lifts Prompto's limp hand, carefully. He dries the skin where the wet fabric had been, and his motions are stiff and mechanical. He still has that expression on his face, the one Noct's never seen before.
"Noct," he says, tone scrupulously even, and holds out a hand.
Noct passes over the pajamas, then kneels down on the tent floor to help get Prompto into them. When it's time for the shirt, Gladio slips a hand behind Prompto's back and levers him up to sitting so that they can maneuver the pajama top over his arms.
Ignis' fingers skim down the buttons, quick and careful, covering up the rest of the scars; then Gladio scoops Prompto up again, gently, to carry him the three extra steps to the sleeping bag.
He looks so small and still, lying there as Ignis' fingers pull up the zipper; the fabric, thick and dark green, swallows him up.
The sleeping bag is Gladio's; they all are. They're rated for use in temperatures down to negative 20 degrees, and Noct still remembers the day Gladio bought them, in some upscale department store in Insomnia, back when their only camping destinations were carefully cultivated plots of forest inside the Wall. Noct had laughed at him for being over-prepared, that day – teased him relentlessly, for more than a week.
Now he's just glad that Prompto has something so warm.
Ignis weighs Prompto down with blankets, a mound of fabric that leaves only his face visible through the hole in the sleeping bag. Then he steps back. "That will have to do," he says. "For now, at least."
For now. That sounds like Ignis has a plan already – and Noct's brain, still reeling from the past half-hour, leaps on the possibility. "What about when he wakes up?
"Ply him with warm liquids," says Ignis. "Water at first. We should mix in an analgesic of some sort, and an antidote for the poison. As soon as he's recovered somewhat, we'll move him somewhere more comfortable."
"Back to Wiz's?" says Gladio. He hasn't looked away from Prompto yet. There's an edge to his expression that Noct knows too well; it's the expression that means he wants to stick his sword through someone, and he's pissed off because the target he wants isn't anywhere in range.
Noct knows how he feels. He can think of some nameless assholes over in Niflheim that he wouldn't mind sticking a sword in, himself.
"Indeed," says Ignis.
"I'll get the chocobos," says Gladio. "Kid's gonna need to ride with someone, but at least he won't have to walk."
Ignis nods, somber. "We'll stay with him, in the meantime."
Noct doesn't glance up when he hears the sound of the tent flap, or Gladio's booted footsteps, carrying him away. He just eases himself down to the ground, there beside Prompto, and settles in to wait.
Prompto wakes up no more than thirty minutes after they get him settled.
His eyelashes flutter and he stirs, making a soft sound in the back of his throat.
"Prompto?" says Noct.
But Prompto's dazed – barely conscious – and there's no flicker of recognition at Noct's voice. Tears swim at the edges of his eyes, and the wetness spills and runs down his cheeks.
"Hey, Ignis," calls Noct, raising his voice to be heard. "He's awake!"
It takes Ignis all of ten seconds to appear in the tent's entryway, holding a tin cup. "How is he?"
"Out of it," says Noct, and reaches up to take the cup Ignis presses into his hand. It's warm, and the liquid inside is faintly cloudy – the aspirin Ignis smashed up, probably, or the antidote, or both.
"Yes," says Ignis, absently. "Hardly surprising." He kneels on the tent floor, just beside the sleeping bag. "Prompto," he says. "I'm going to sit you up now."
When there's no response, Ignis slides a careful arm beneath the mound of blankets. "Up you go," he murmurs. "There we are."
Slowly – painstakingly – Ignis levers him upward.
When he's finally upright, the whole weight of him leaning into Ignis for support, Noct says, "So, do I just –?"
Ignis nods. "He'll need your help, yes."
So Noct lifts the tin cup, cautiously, to Prompto's lips. He tips it back a little, until some of the liquid slips into his mouth – until Prompto makes a soft sound and swallows, eyes sliding closed.
"Okay," says Noct, and tips the cup back down to give him breathing room. "Okay, you're doing fine, Prom. You're okay."
Prompto doesn't answer, but he blinks his eyes open again, bleary and uncertain, and that – well. He'll take what he can get. Noct gives him more of the water, a sip at a time, hyper attuned to every tremble and hesitation.
They get through barely half the cup before Prompto closes his eyes again and doesn't reopen them – goes still and quiet, breathing evening into something deep and steady.
"I think he's out again," says Noct, and sets the cup to the side.
Ignis leans forward to check Prompto's face – nods, reluctantly. "Better some than none at all. Let's get him settled again."
Between the two of them, they get Prompto set up in his nest of blankets, there on the tent floor. The tear tracks on his cheeks are drying now, but Noct reaches out, carefully, to wipe the rest of the moisture away.
Noct watches his face for a long moment – the ashen pale of the cheeks, the splotches of freckles smattered across the bridge of his nose. Prompto's lips are cracked and dry, and he's so still that Noct has to keep an eye on the rise and fall of the blankets, just to be sure he's breathing.
"He's gonna be okay," says Noct. "Right?"
"With time and care, most likely."
So not a guarantee. And small wonder – Noct remembers the size of that wound, and the way Prompto swayed on his feet before collapsing to the ground.
He's been through hell, these past few days.
But they've got him back now, and that's the important thing. He's safe, and Noct plans to keep him that way.
Prompto wakes up twice more before Gladio returns with the chocobos.
The first time, he slurs something that almost sounds like Noct's name, but by the time they sit him up to coax some more warm water into him, he's already unconscious again.
The second time he cries, barely coherent, and promises that everything's okay because the camera's not out in the rain. He struggles halfway from the sleeping bag and pats at the blankets – lifts the corners of the fabric to peer underneath. "S'here," he slurs, words indistinct and shaking. "Where – where is it?"
"Hey," Noct tells him. "Don't worry about the camera."
And Ignis says, "It's all right. Hush, Prompto."
But he doesn't calm down until Noct reaches out, with hesitant fingers, to stroke his hair.
Prompto relaxes at that, all the tension slipping away. His eyes fall closed, and he leans into the touch. "You found it?"
"It's gonna be fine," Noct tells him. "You're gonna be fine."
Prompto's sleeping when Gladio gets back.
Noct hears the words drift through the cloth walls of the tent, thick with gruff concern: "He okay to move?"
"We'll need to be careful," says Ignis. "And he won't be able to ride on his own."
A few seconds later, the tent flap pulls wide open, and Gladio's face appears in the opening. "We're getting out of here," he says. "You ready to ride?"
Noct is. Prompto takes some work.
They bundle him up in a blanket and Noct's spare jacket – roll two pairs of socks onto his feet. When they're done, Noct swings up into Cinnamon's saddle and scoots all the way back, making space for an extra passenger.
But when Gladio goes to lever Prompto up to join him, Cinnamon balks.
At the last second, she backs out and away – takes two quick scuttling steps sideways and swings her head toward Gladio.
"Hey," says Noct, and sets a steadying hand on her back. "Easy, girl."
She's not taking it easy. She's noticed that the bundle of blankets in Gladio's arms has a familiar tuft of blond hair sticking out the top, and she quorks an inquisitive sound and comes in to investigate.
"Hey Iggy, you want to hold her?" says Gladio.
But Ignis only says, "Give her a moment."
So they give her a moment.
She preens gently at Prompto's hair, and then presses her beak to the pale skin of his cheek. When he doesn't stir, she quorks again, more distressed this time.
"You see?" says Noct. He buries his fingers in the red-orange feathers along the back of Cinnamon's neck and scratches, gently. "That's why we gotta get going."
This time, when Gladio circles around to the side to hoist Prompto up into the saddle, she doesn't move an inch.
It's awkward at first. Prompto lists hard to one side, and Gladio snaps, "Get your arms around him!"
Noct does, careful to avoid the injured side – grasps his own wrist, to provide extra support. Prompto leans back hard against him, head tipped against Noct's shoulder, still dead to the world.
From the other side, Ignis offers Noct the reins so he doesn't have to lean forward and get them, himself.
"Comfortable?" Ignis asks, and when Noct nods, he presses: "Sustainable?"
"I'm fine," says Noct. "Let's just go."
Ignis does a final once-over – glances at Noct, and the bird, and Prompto, there in his arms.
"If you feel him beginning to slip, say something immediately."
"I will," says Noct.
"And if we hit trouble," says Gladio. "I'll take care of it. Whatever happens, you just keep riding."
"Yeah," says Noct. "Sure."
He's never been more aware of another person before: of the heavy weight pressed against his chest, and the lax pressure on his shoulder, and the gentle motion when Prompto breathes.
It seems to take an eternity for Ignis and Gladio to climb into their saddles, every second dragging for days. While he waits, it occurs to Noct, fleetingly, that they'll have to come back and do something with their camping equipment at some point, but that's a consideration for another time. He doesn't have space to worry about it right now; he's too busy worrying about everything else.
Ignis and Gladio are barely on their chocobos before Noct's saying, "You guys ready?"
He doesn't wait for a reply – just nudges Cinnamon into a gentle trot. His arms hold tight to Prompto, and the fingers of one hand clutch at the reins.
The saddle's not meant for two, and every time Noct's arms drift too low, he's terrified he's going to jostle Prompto's wound. He's hyper aware of the bulky blankets, and whether or not they're providing enough warmth – finds himself adjusting his hold, again and again, to try and keep them tucked in closer.
But Prompto's still breathing, and that's got to mean something.
He's a wreck right now, but they have time.
They've got a chance to set this straight – to get Prompto settled in the camper out front of the chocobo post, and feed him green curry soup, and let him play with the chocobo chicks he loves so much.
Noct has a chance to make up for what he said.
It's not perfect. In the grand scheme of things – however many years Prompto spent in Niflheim, and however long he's been living out in the wilderness, after that – it might not even make much of a dent.
But Noct holds Prompto tighter, and he tells himself that it's enough.
Holy wow. I... honestly didn't expect so many people to still care about this fic?? Thank you guys all so much. The enthusiasm is SO very appreciated. <333
Thanks again also to Rah-bop, whose support and suggestions have absolutely made this fic what it is. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When NH-01987 wakes up, everything hurts.
His thoughts are hazy and distant, but he's sure there's something wrong with that. The hurting was supposed to have stopped, by now.
He'd had a plan.
But the more he thinks about it, the more it slips away, and he's too tired to try and chase it down right now.
Besides, there are other things to wonder about. There's the strange warmth that's settled over him, peaceful and pleasant and all-encompassing. There's the soft give of fabric beneath him, instead of unyielding rock. There's the careful feeling of something touching his hair, rhythmic and soothing, over and over.
NH-01987 makes a sound and leans into the contact.
Then Noct's voice says, "Prompto?"
There's something wrong with that, too. Noct isn't supposed to be here.
NH-01987 should be – somewhere else.
For a few seconds, he's not sure why, and then he remembers a rock, and pain, and the hungry, angular face of a voretooth. He remembers crushing disappointment, and pain, and dragging himself toward the camp, step by shaking step. He remembers – he remembers everything, the pain a common thread through it all, monumental and overwhelming.
By comparison, the pain he's in now seems almost trivial.
"Prompto?" says Noct again. The touch against his hair pulls away, and something slides beneath his shoulders, instead. There's gentle pressure, urging him upward. "C'mon, buddy. Up you go."
It's all wrong.
He remembers their shocked faces looking down at him, when they first caught sight of his ports. He remembers the way they all stared as he staggered back into camp. He remembers expecting Noct's sword, quick and clean and deadly, and not getting the mercy he'd hoped for.
But when his eyes flicker open, there are blankets below him, and walls around him. Noct's pressed up against his side, warm and steady and reassuring. An arm is looping around his shoulders, helping him to sit up, and his own thin form is dressed in Noct's pajamas instead of his tattered t-shirt and jeans.
Noct presses a cup to his lips, and NH-01987 drinks, reflexively. It's water, chalky and warm and slightly bitter, but he's so thirsty he doesn't care. He swallows it all down, and when it's gone he takes a minute just to breathe, trying to get his thoughts into some kind of coherent order.
It doesn't work. No matter what angle he considers it from, none of this makes sense.
They saw his ports, didn't they? There was no hiding the wires, especially not if they cleaned him up and changed his clothes. They saw everything.
But Noct's face doesn't look angry, or disgusted, or anything but gentle. And that – that can't be right.
NH-01987 glances down at himself – at the neat row of black buttons running along the front of Noct's pajamas. He takes in the state of his own skin, clean and dry, no longer caked with blood. He notes his wrist, pale and bare.
And his thoughts come crashing to a halt, because there it is: the barcode, exposed for all the world to see.
It stands out like a Magitek ship, all hard lines against a clear blue sky. That row of harsh black bars spells out exactly what he is. It labels him, and numbers him, and sets him in place – and Noct's seen it.
Abruptly, NH-01987 goes still. He looks again to Noct's face, watching frantically for some hint of a reaction. There's nothing – no hate or anger or even distaste.
And that – that doesn't make any sense. He has to have seen it. He knows that NH-01987's only been pretending to be a person, this whole time.
So. So there has to be another explanation.
They've seen all of the component parts – the ports, and the wiring, and his number – but maybe they don't understand what it means. Noct knows that MTs aren't people, but maybe he doesn't know how to identify one.
Maybe – oh, gods, please – maybe, somehow, they still don't know.
NH-01987 glances up toward Noct's face again. He takes in the creased brow and the gentle expression.
His eyes dart away, and NH-01987 thinks, a little desperately: act normal. Act normal, and keep it together. The possibility that they still don't know – that there might be some scenario in which he can return to the things he'd thought were gone forever – thunders through him like a herd of stampeding garula.
Noct's still got an arm around him – is easing him back down, carefully, to the smooth sheets of the bed.
"What," NH-01987 manages, voice a scratchy whisper. Then he changes his mind, and instead he asks, "Where are we?"
Noct is in the process of tugging the blankets back up over him, but he pauses at that. "Back at the chocobo post," he says. He's watching closely, intent and careful.
NH-01987 glances away. He feels laid bare under that stare, stripped to the bone. "How'd we...?"
"On chocobo back. You don't remember?"
NH-01987 shakes his head, cautiously.
"Yeah," says Noct. "I'm not surprised. You were really out of it." He reaches up, almost hesitant, to stroke a strand of hair back from NH-01987's forehead. "How're you feeling?"
Hurt. Hungry. Terrified that he'll do something to give himself away, now that he somehow has another chance.
But more than all of that, better than he's felt in four days.
"Good," says NH-01987, because it is good. He's warm, and he's dry, and Noct's hand is on him, and somehow, against all the odds, they still think he's a person.
"You think you can stay up long enough to eat something?" says Noct.
NH-01987's stomach twists at just the thought, hard and sharp, and he swallows against the sudden wetness that floods his mouth. "Please?"
"Okay," says Noct. "Sit tight a sec."
He stands and walks to the door – now that NH-01987 is paying attention, he recognizes the comfortable closeness of the interior of the caravan – and pokes his head outside.
"Hey, Ignis," says Noct. "Think he's really awake this time."
There's a quiet murmur of reply, too soft to make out words, and then Noct says, "Yeah, sure."
He shuts the door behind him and comes back to perch on the edge of the bed again. "Specs says he'll be just a second."
NH-01987 nods. His eyes are burning, and his throat is tight. He never, ever, in a thousand years dreamed he'd get another chance. He needs a plan, in case they ask what all the implants are from. He needs a plan in case they ask about the barcode.
There's silence, for a long, long few seconds. At last Noct says, "I don't know if you were awake enough to hear it, last time. But I wanted to say – I'm sorry."
"For what?" NH-01987 can't quite bring himself to look at Noct's face, so he looks at the worn blanket on the caravan bed, instead. His fingers pick at the spot where the threads have started to fray, working idly at the soft blue fabric.
When Noct takes a breath in, it sounds shaky and uncertain. "I said – I can't believe I said that. I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
Terror slips in beneath his skin, like a voretooth's fangs. It digs in deep and taints his blood with poison. His heart is slamming so hard he thinks there's no way Noct isn't able to hear it, and the edges of his vision are a little fuzzy, suddenly, slipping out to grey.
"Know what?" NH-01987 croaks, over the chokehold of his own horror.
"That you're an MT," says Noct, and NH-01987's whole world ends.
He can barely hear Noct, over the rushing in his own ears. "I always – they always said MTs were just robots. That there was nothing inside." Noct laughs, or tries to. It's brittle and unsteady, and NH-01987 flinches at the sound. "I didn't know, Prom. I'm so sorry."
But NH-01987 doesn't answer. He's too busy trying to reconcile himself to the fact that he's just lost everything, all over again.
It's a lot, all at once. He doesn't know why Noct hasn't summoned up the sword to run him through yet.
He remembers, with a dizzying sort of dread, that he'd been so sure they were going to hurt him. That he'd been afraid they would take him apart.
Maybe that's why he's still breathing. Maybe they still mean to.
Half-frantic, he shoves himself back up to sitting – ignores the pain that shoots through his side at the sudden motion, then wobbles and almost goes down. He could try to make a break for the door. His path will take him straight by Noct, but if he's fast, he might make it.
"Prompto?" says Noct, and there's an edge of alarm in his voice.
NH-01987 doesn't answer. He's shaking, and he can't seem to stop.
"Hey," says Noct. "Hey, calm down. You're okay."
It feels like there are steel bands wrapped around his chest. It feels like he's not getting any air. It feels like the whole world is spinning, in slow loops, and he squeezes his eyes shut against the sudden dizziness.
He's aware, dimly, of the door clicking open – of Ignis' voice saying, "What's happened?"
"I don't know." That's Noct, tight with alarm. "I told him I was sorry, and he just – he shut down."
Footsteps sound, brisk and purposeful. "Prompto," says Ignis. When NH-01987 looks up, he's there beside the bed, expression calm and businesslike. "Head between your knees, and I need you to breathe for me. Can you do that?"
Can he –? Why would Ignis care? Why does it matter?
Before he can ask, Ignis' hand touches the crown of his head, gently – presses down, steady and firm, until NH-01987 puts his head between his knees. The pain in his side pulses in and out with his heartbeat, but with the position comes the memory of another day: brilliant afternoon sunlight, and the smell of baking cake, and Ignis' calm voice beside him.
NH-01987 gasps in a breath, and then another.
"There you are," says Ignis. "That's the way."
His tone is so mild – so normal.
NH-01987's chest heaves, and then it heaves again. If they want to hurt him, he wishes they would just get it over with. His eyes are leaking, and his cheeks are wet. He's breathing, but it's coming in strange, unsteady hitches.
"Hey," says Noct, and settles a warm hand on his back, between the shoulder blades. "Shh. You've got this." The palm rubs, in slow circles. It feels wonderful.
NH-01987's chest only hitches harder.
"Why," he gasps. "Why are you waiting?"
There's a long pause.
At last, Ignis says, "Waiting for what?"
NH-01987 buries his face against his knees. The fabric of Noct's pajamas is damp from the moisture dripping down his cheeks, and he knows a moment of regret for that, on top of the regret for everything else.
He can't answer, though – not now. He just fights for air, and waits for the pressure in his chest to loosen its hold. Noct's hand is still gentle on his back, and Ignis' palm is a steady weight on the crown of his head.
At some point, the door clicks open again, and Gladio's voice reaches his ears. "How's he doing?"
"About as well as can be expected," says Ignis.
NH-01987 hardly registers the exchange – is scarcely aware when the bottom of the bed creaks with Gladio's weight as he sits down.
It's hard to calm himself, this time; the steel bands around his chest are crushing the life out of him, and his throat feels like someone's squeezing it closed. But they stay, all three of them – stay until the hitching stops, and the wet trails down his cheeks go sticky and dry.
"Prompto?" says Noct, at last.
NH-01987 takes a long, careful breath in. He lets it out slow and shuddery.
"That's not my name," he says at last. "I made it up."
Silence falls over them like night, heavy and dark. NH-01987 doesn't want to see their faces right now. He's sure he knows exactly how they're looking at him.
It's Ignis that finally replies, something hesitant about the words. "Because you didn't want to give away your secret."
NH-01987 nods, carefully. He says, "My designation code is NH-01987." He turns his wrist, so that the barcode faces outward, and he swallows around the lump in his throat. Then he waits for the reaction.
He doesn't have to wait long.
"That's bullshit," says Gladio, voice a growl.
NH-01987 flinches back from the anger in the tone. He waits for the hands on him to turn violent, but they stay where they are, warm and gentle.
"That's not a name," says Noct, and he sounds angry, too. "That's a number."
NH-01987 nods. "Because I'm not a person," he says, words muffled by his own knees. "I'm an MT. MTs don't have names."
He lifts his head then, cautiously – risks a glance at their faces. It's a mistake. The horror in their expressions hurts to see, even though he's expecting it.
"Prompto," says Noct, voice wavering.
It's not fair. It's not.
He wishes they would just do what they're going to do, but instead they're drawing it out – making it harder.
"That's not my name," NH-01987 says again, and his voice breaks on the last word.
In the silence that follows, his own ragged breathing is too loud in his ears.
"To hell with that," says Noct, finally, a stubborn intensity behind the words. "Your name's whatever you want it to be."
Whatever he wants it to be.
Whatever he wants it to be.
NH-01987 thinks of the sturdy weight of a gun in his hand, solid and sure, keeping him safe during the endless days that led to this one. He thinks of his care in choosing something that would suit a citizen of Lucis, long hours spent trying on options and discarding them, like shirts in the changing room of Wiz's gift shop.
He thinks of what it would mean, to keep this name for his own – truly keep it, instead of using it as a disguise.
He thinks of what it would mean to have a person's name – to have a person's life.
NH-01987 wants that so badly his vision wobbles and his throat seizes.
But he's not a person, no matter how much he wants it. The evidence is written into his flesh, spelled out in metal and ink. Surely they can see that. Surely they must know.
"But," says NH-01987. He offers up his wrist, where the barcode is etched into the skin as irrefutable proof. "But MTs have numbers. They already assigned me one."
"And if you choose to disregard it," says Ignis, clipped and precise, "that decision is yours to make."
Gladio nods. His arms are folded over his chest, and his face is ominous and grim. "Anyone tries to say otherwise, they better be ready to come through us first."
For a long moment, NH-01987 doesn't say anything at all. His thoughts are a whirling mess of fragments, half formed, tumbling around in circles.
There's a disconnect here, somewhere. There has to be. There's a misunderstanding, and NH-01987 doesn't know what it is.
"But I'm not a person," he tries again, a little helplessly.
In the silence that follows, he can hear Noct take a shaking breath in. "Don't say that."
"But it's true," says NH-01987.
"It is not." Noct's voice is rough, suddenly – so far from his usual mild tone that NH-01987 flinches back, dislodging the hands still on him. But Noct's not done; the words are tumbling out like he can't control them.
"You breathe, and talk, and bleed, and – and you take a hundred dumb pictures of everything you see, and you like Iggy's green curry soup." All at once, Noct's voice gives out. His hand, the one that had been on NH-01987's back before he flinched away, comes up to tentatively rest on his wrist, right over the barcode. "You're a person."
For a moment, NH-01987 sits frozen, stunned. There are no words to say to that, even if he knew what kind of words he could say to that. He stares, wide-eyed and stymied, at Noct's earnest expression – has to look away at last, overwhelmed by the determination he sees there. By the belief.
His thoughts spiral in dizzy circles, around and around, trying to make sense of this – trying to figure out what it means.
An idea strikes him then, sudden and brilliant, like a spear of sunlight straight through his chest. It seems like some strange, distant improbability – like a beautiful dream.
"So," says NH-01987, carefully. "Are you not going to?"
He looks at them each in turn: Gladio, grim and glowering; Ignis, calm and slightly pained; Noct, earnest and intent.
"Going to do what?" says Ignis.
NH-01987 tells himself to breathe. If his eyes start leaking again, or if his chest closes in – it doesn't matter. It won't change anything.
"What you always do with MTs," says NH-01987. "And – and whatever you want to do before then."
"Prompto," says Noct, and his voice is strangled.
NH-01987's vision is blurring again, and he blinks hard against it. He says, "If – I mean, if you think I'm a person."
He can feel their stares like scalpels, digging down below his skin. He doesn't understand the looks on their faces, shocked and off-balance.
But they haven't said no, and that has to count for something, doesn't it? They haven't laughed at him outright for even asking.
"Or at least," says NH-01987, all in a rush. "Can you – can you wait on the other stuff till after I can't feel it?" NH-01987 ducks his head. "Please?"
"Till after you can't feel it?" growls Gladio, and the bed creaks alarmingly as he shifts his weight. "What the hell are you expecting us to do?"
NH-01987 isn't sure, exactly. He doesn't know all the details.
They never explained to him what happened in the labs – only strapped him down and spoke over his head, complicated terms he wasn't familiar with. Data, though: it was always about data.
How effective a specimen he was, and whether there were physiological causes for his defects, and what new tests could be devised to prevent such failures in the future. On two pulse-pounding occasions, men in white coats had chatted, at length, over the benefits of a vivisection while NH-01987 lay on the table less than a foot from them.
"Tests?" NH-01987 says. He doesn't mention the vivisection. If by some grace of the gods it hasn't occurred to them, he doesn't want to put the idea into their minds.
"Prompto," says Noct again, faintly.
When Noct's hold slips from his wrist to his hand and the fingers squeeze, it's all NH-01987 can do not to pull away.
Now it will come. Now that he's conscious enough to give verbal feedback and respond to external stimuli, they'll begin their work. He was wrong to ask. Of course they won't grant him mercy. Of course they don't really think he's a person.
How could they?
But the grip on his hand only drags him nearer, so that Noct's other arm can loop around his shoulders, a touch that's oddly gentle.
Noct's trembling. NH-01987 feels it where they're pressed together, chest to chest.
"No one's going to hurt you," Noct says, roughly, voice a warm whisper of air against his ear. "Gods, Prom – we were worried sick. I thought you were dead."
NH-01987's mind catches on the words. It stumbles over itself, clumsy, and falters to a stop.
"No one's going to hurt you," sounds like an impossible promise, the kindest thing he's ever heard. Dead is a word for people, not for decommissioned MTs.
Carefully, NH-01987 lifts his hands to loop them around Noct in return. He closes his fingers on the fabric of Noct's shirt, and he holds on like he'll fall from an impossible height if he dares to let go.
"Prompto," says Ignis, low and intent. "We're not going to harm you. We're certainly not going to kill you. Do you understand?"
Kill. The word sticks in his mind. Kill, like he's not some replaceable component, to take apart when it's convenient.
"What about the tests?" says NH-01987, in a small voice.
But Gladio says, "To hell with the tests. There's not gonna be any tests," like even the idea makes him want to break something.
NH-01987 makes a sound, somewhere low in his throat. He eyes stare over Noct's shoulder, at Ignis' face – at Gladio's.
"I," says NH-01987. "But I'm just –"
He trails off, helplessly. His mind plays what they've told him, again and again, on slow, dizzying repeat. Is he still asleep, out there on the rock, in the rain? Is this all something his mind's making up, to soften his last few hours?
Noct's arms around him feel so real, though. NH-01987 can feel the rise and fall of his chest, and the heat from his body, and the twinge of pain where he's squeezing too tight and putting pressure against the wound.
"Do you mean that?" says NH-01987, softly.
"Yes," says Noct, and "Certainly," says Ignis, and "Damn straight we do," says Gladio, all at the same time.
Somehow, his eyes are leaking again. Noct's hand strokes gently over his back, soothing circles, and he buries his face in the crook where Noct's shoulder meets his neck.
NH-01987's brain keeps trying to stumble back into motion, but every time he gets a step further, the disbelief cuts the legs out from under him. His head's reeling, and there's something warm growing in his chest, so bright it aches.
He swallows against the lump in his throat, and he leans more of his weight into Noct. He can't quite make sense of this new, strange version of the world he thought he knew – but he thinks he wants to.
And now: the art! 8DDDDD
First up, this lovely soft depiction of the snuggling at the start of Chapter 8, by burbled-xv. Oh my god, they are so cuuute! Just look at them. I love their sweet faces!!! <3333
And next, some beautiful pictures by error-404-fuck-not-found, featuring Prom's ongoing recovery and the scene when Prom gets the haircut and his new style. They are both SO lovely!!! <333
Helping Prompto drink some water
Thank you guys both again, SO very much! I love everything to pieces! <3333
We're almost there, folks. One more chapter after this.
Thank you all SO much for the incredible support for this fic, and for waiting for me even when I took forever and a day. I hope you enjoy the rest of it. <3
Also, please check out this adorable art by the very kind kyoguru:
And also this HILARIOUS comic by error-404-fuck-not-found for the last chapter:
Thank you guys both so much! <333
Prompto's arms are latched around him, wiry-strong, and Noct can feel him shaking.
The grip's almost desperate – and gods, Noct wishes he didn't know why.
The whole world was so much simpler four days ago, before he knew why Prompto ran away from them. It's one thing, to put the pieces together and realize he must be afraid. It's another thing entirely, to watch him trying not to hope when he asks whether there's a chance they won't kill him.
Noct's mind can't quite get past that. It keeps tripping over Prompto's words, again and again: "Can you – can you wait on the other stuff till after I can't feel it?"
That was what he asked for.
Not a plea not to kill him in the first place. Just the request that they wait to run tests on him until after he's dead.
Noct remembers the marks on Prompto's body: thick, white scars. He remembers the hard metal lines of the embedded ports. He tries to imagine how much pain those would have caused, when the damage was still fresh, and his thoughts shy away from even the possibility.
Prompto's still shuddering, pressed up against him – still clinging for all he's worth.
They gave him a number, and they picked him apart. It makes Noct feel dizzy with horror – like he wants to storm out of this camper, right now, and keep going all the way to Niflheim, until he finds every last person who ever put their hands on Prompto.
Instead, he holds on tighter.
They sit like that for a long time. They sit like that until Prompto's shaky sobs subside into wet snuffles – until his breathing evens out, and some of the tension in his muscles bleeds away. After what seems like hours, he goes limp and boneless, all his weight slumped forward, the hands clinging to Noct's shirt releasing their hold.
"And he's out," says Gladio.
"So it would seem," says Ignis.
Noct eases Prompto out and away – levers him down, carefully, to the rumpled sheets and pulls the blankets up over him.
He feels like he should say something. There's got to be something to say.
But the words, if there are any, won't come. They're all coiled up inside him, somewhere he can't reach.
It's evening before Prompto wakes again, bleary-eyed and dazed.
Noct's in the middle of dinner when it happens – leaning up against the camper's wall, eating standing up. His back's killing him from a day slumped over on the edge of Prompto's bed, but the thought of lying down on the mini-couch crammed up against one wall, like Ignis keeps pushing him to do, seems like a betrayal.
So he's got the bowl in one hand, and the spoon in the other. His hips are canted forward a little, and his back's pressed flat against the wall. It helps the ache that's settled in – and this way, he's not that far from Prompto.
It means he's close enough to hear it, when Prompto makes a soft sound and shifts beneath the covers. It means it takes him all of five seconds to shove the bowl up on a shelf and be back at Prompto's side.
"Hey," says Noct. "Welcome back."
Prompto blinks up at him, slow and unsteady. His face is painfully expressive; the emotions parade across his features, as easy to read as the bold print of a newspaper headline. Confusion comes first, and then uncertainty. In an instant, both are washed away by fear, which lingers for five endless seconds until finally – finally – Prompto glances down at his own wrist, where the barcode stands, stark and uncovered.
It must remind him. Some of the tension seems to run out of him all at once, and when Prompto looks up again, there's nothing in his expression but gratitude, nakedly earnest.
Noct swallows, hard, and glances away. "You, uh. You thirsty? C'mere. Specs says you're still dehydrated."
He gets an arm around Prompto – sits him up, slowly and carefully. This time, he's conscious enough to try and take the glass.
Noct eases it into his hand, carefully. "You got it?"
Prompto bobs his head. "Yeah."
He doesn't have it. The cup drops as soon as Noct lets go, and he's barely fast enough to keep it from upending all over the blankets. Only a little sloshes out, but Prompto flinches back like it's burned him.
"Sorry," he says. "Sorry. I didn't – I thought –"
"Hey," says Noct. "It's just water. No big deal."
But Prompto's watching him, wary and wide-eyed, while he sets the water aside to mop up the wet patch on the blankets. He's still watching when Noct says, "See? All done."
The second time, it goes better. The second time, Noct holds the cup, and Prompto leans against him and drinks, and by the time he's finished, most of the wariness has gone away. He's just kind of slumped against Noct's side.
"How're you feeling?" says Noct.
Prompto seems to think about it. His mouth works for a minute, like he can't quite figure out the answer he wants to give. "A lot better," he says, finally.
Noct gives him a good, long looking-over. He looks better. There's a bit of color to his face, and he doesn't have that awful greyish cast to his skin, the way he did when he first staggered out of the trees by the haven. But he's still too pale, and way too thin, and –
Noct's thoughts skitter to a stop. Too late, he remembers that Prompto asked for something to eat the last time he was awake, and that he'd cried himself back to sleep before he ever actually got it.
"Hey," says Noct, nudging him gently. "You hungry?"
Prompto's eyes flicker up, intent and hopeful. He bites at his lip, and he nods. He's trembling a little; Noct can feel it where they're pressed up against each other, side to side.
Noct's bowl is still balanced on the shelf near the bed, and Noct reaches for it without thinking. It'll be quicker than asking Ignis to bring a new one; it's only about a third full, but they can always get more when it's done.
It's quillhorn soup: rich, savory broth, meaty and satisfying. There aren't any chunks that need chewing, either, which is probably a good thing, considering how weak Prompto is right now.
Noct considers for a beat – takes the spoon out and sets it to one side, back up on the shelf. He cradles his hand under the bowl, and he lifts it to Prompto's lips, the way he did for the cup that held the water.
Prompto gets maybe a mouthful in before his hand comes up, shaking and uncertain, to clutch against Noct's wrist. It takes a few seconds before Noct realizes why. When he moves to draw back and give Prompto space to breathe, like he's been doing for the water, Prompto whimpers, and tightens his fingers, and holds him in place.
"Hey," says Noct, and tips the bowl up for him, obliging, so he can have more. "Easy. You're okay."
But the expression on Prompto's face hurts to look at, some awful mix of gratitude and utter relief. No one should ever look like that over a bowl of soup – but here's Prompto, acting like this one small act of kindness means the world to him.
Noct blinks against the sudden stinging at the corners of his eyes, and he takes a shaky breath in. He helps Prompto down the remainder of the soup, all desperate gulps and trembling hands, and when he's finished, Noct sets the empty bowl aside. "Better?"
Prompto nods, a little unsteady. "Can. Can I –?"
His voice catches midway. He breaks off – can't quite seem to get through the rest of the sentence.
"Have some more?" Noct guesses.
Prompto's eyes dart to his face, then away again. He licks at his lips, and he gives a quick jerk of a nod. "Please?"
"Yeah," says Noct. "You got it."
He picks up the empty bowl, and he makes for the camper's door, and he very carefully doesn't think about the way Prompto tripped over those words, afraid to ask.
The second day, Prompto's doing better.
Noct finally gives in and lies down on the mini-couch, back flat, while Ignis sits by Prompto and helps him through a bowl of vegetable soup. He dozes a while, and when he wakes, Gladio's there, changing Prompto's bandages.
In the evening, Ignis gives Noct a stern look, a glass of water, and a couple of pills for his back. He swallows them down, and says, "It's fine, Specs." Then he goes back to sitting by Prompto's bed.
By dinner time, Prompto's awake again, looking owlish and much more alert. Gladio covers up his wound with a plastic bag and some tape, to shield the bandages, then helps him to the bathroom.
The rush of the shower fills the camper, and while hot steam billows out to fill the small space, Ignis changes the sheets on the bed.
When Prompto reappears, clean and damp, they put him in Ignis' pajamas, this time. They're comically large on his narrow frame, and they swallow up his hands and his feet, but Noct knows Ignis' taste. However austere the things look, they'll be comfy as hell, and that's the important thing.
After Prompto's settled again, they have dinner: riceballs, still warm, wrapped in crispy seaweed.
Prompto eats his without help, sitting propped up against an absolute pile of pillows against the headboard.
Before twenty minutes are up, though, Prompto's nodding off, still sitting upright. He murmurs, soft and sleepy, when Ignis takes the rest of the riceball from his hand – doesn't stir when gentle hands lower him back to the bed.
Noct finishes the rest of his own meal, and he takes up his spot on the edge of Prompto's bed. He thinks he might even get away with it, right up until Ignis says, "You ought to be lying down."
"I will in a little bit," says Noct, and he doesn't meet Ignis' eyes, because he doesn't really plan to, in a little bit.
Gladio snorts. "Quit being an idiot."
"What," says Noct, bristling. "You saying we ought to leave him alone?"
"I'm saying you're both toothpicks," says Gladio. "Just share the bed already. You'll fit fine."
Noct turns the idea over in his mind. He turns it over again.
"Yeah," he says. "Sure. Okay."
Gladio scoots Prompto sideways, to make space, and Noct climbs in next to him. It is a lot better than sitting up; the muscles in his back, angry that he was trying to put more tension on them, relax into something more reasonable.
"Mind your back," says Ignis. "And mind his injury. And if you need more painkillers –"
"In your bag, in the back pocket. Yeah, I got it."
"C'mon, Iggy," says Gladio. "They'll be fine. If there's anything Noct can handle, it's naps."
"Hey," says Noct, mildly offended – but Ignis and Gladio are making for the door to the camper already, dirty dishes in their hands.
When Noct wakes, he's aware of arms around him: holding tight, like they're afraid he'll slip away.
He registers them vaguely, in a distant, pleasant sort of way. It takes him much longer for his brain to catch up, groggy and half-aware, and remember why they're here, and who he's with, and that he probably ought to see if Prompto needs water.
Prompto's right there when he opens his eyes, so close that Noct can make out each individual eyelash, pale swoops against fair skin. He's so close that Noct can count the freckles splayed out across his cheeks like constellations. He's so close that the scar slashed across the bridge of his nose seems set in perfect relief, like the crisp, clear lines on a road map.
Noct can feel every bony line of Prompto's thin frame. He can feel the rise and fall of Prompto's chest when he breathes. Prompto's hair is tickling his collar bone; it's not styled any more, but squashed and messy from sleep, a frame for the peaceful face beneath it.
The moment seems to drag out forever, warm and sweet and soft. The position is hell on his back – somehow he twisted onto his side, in his sleep – but the thought of disentangling himself from Prompto's clinging arms seems like a betrayal.
So Noct closes his eyes and tries to drift off again. He almost makes it – is just starting to doze when Prompto shifts slightly, and then goes abruptly still.
"Prompto?" says Noct.
Prompto's arms loosen their hold all at once, as though he's been caught at something inappropriate. He scoots back – puts enough distance between them that Noct can see the sudden flush across his cheeks, and the way his eyes, that curious shade of blue-violet, dart guiltily away.
"Sorry," says Prompto.
"S'okay," says Noct. "Sorry I took over half your bed. My back was weird."
Prompto hesitates a moment. "I don't mind," he says at last, carefully.
"Well," says Noct. He can feel his own face starting to warm up, across the cheeks. "I don't mind, either. About the, uh. You know."
Prompto doesn't say anything for a long, long moment. He's just kind of looking at Noct, waiting, like he expects him to change his mind.
Finally – hesitantly – Prompto scoots back in. Very carefully, he lifts an arm to wind it back around Noct, where it had been before.
A long few seconds pass. Noct focuses on keeping still and relaxed, more attuned to Prompto's body language than he thinks he's ever been to anything in his life. At last, cautiously, Prompto eases the rest of the way in, so that his hair's tickling Noct's collar bone again.
When Noct lifts his own arm and slings it over Prompto's shoulders, up high so that he doesn't jostle the wound, he feels the vague pressure from the inhale, slow and shuddering. He feels the way Prompto's shivering a little bit. And when he lifts his hand, carefully, to stroke gently through Prompto's hair, he doesn't miss the way the slender frame against his own shudders and presses in nearer.
"This okay?" says Noct, voice subdued.
Prompto bobs a nod that he feels more than sees. "It's nice," he says, very quietly.
So Noct keeps it up, slow and steady, until Prompto is boneless against him, a soft warm weight. He keeps it up until Prompto's breathing goes even with sleep, and the grip on Noct slackens, just slightly.
He keeps it up until he falls asleep himself, curled up there in the rumpled blankets of the camper bed, hand resting gently on back of Prompto's head.
"Visiting hour," says Gladio, kicking the camper door open just after lunch the next day, and Noct sits up straighter, grinning, because he knows what to expect. Sure enough, it takes Gladio all of about two seconds before he's edging his way inside with his arms full of squirming yellow fluff.
Prompto and Noct are still sitting up in bed, holding onto their empty plates, but that doesn't stop him; he just plops the chocobo chick straight onto the blankets covering their legs.
Noct can see Ignis in the doorway, expression mild – noting the dust on the chocobo's feet and making plans to wash the sheets again, probably. But Prompto's eyes go almost comically wide with delight, and no one dares suggest that Gladio take it back outside again.
"Kweh," says the little bird, as it noses its way around the new space.
It trips over Prompto's ankle, hidden beneath the bedding, and goes down face first. Apparently it likes the mattress, though, because it just stays down – settles right in, fluffing up to about twice its actual size.
Prompto looks like he might keel over.
His hands are hovering, helplessly, like he's not sure what to do with them. His smile's brighter than the sun, and he keeps glancing between the three of them – Noct, then Gladio, then Ignis. He reminds Noct of a kid seeing snow for the first time, checking to see if his family's as amazed as he is.
"It's sitting on me," Prompto whispers, soft and awed, like if he raises his voice it will break the moment.
"Guess it likes you," says Noct and bumps their shoulders together, companionably.
"Lucky you," says Gladio. "That's only half the surprise."
Ignis steps into the caravan, expression fond. "I imagine you'll want to commemorate this," he says, and holds out what's in his hands.
Prompto gasps, and reaches out, shaking, to take the camera.
Ignis must've cleaned it up; Noct saw it the day they brought it back, and it was looking pretty shabby. Now it's almost good as new, the screen clean and clear, the caked-in dirt washed away.
Prompto turns it on with trembling hands. He says, "How...?" and his fingers start navigating back through time.
From the spot beside him, Noct can see every picture as it flickers into view.
Here are Ignis' talented hands fixing dinner, and Gladio leaning back in a camp chair, reading his book. Here are Cinnamon's new feathers, a dusky red-orange; and round baby chocobos, bright-eyed and excited over a handful of greens. Here are the Duscaen arches, and green curry soup, and the fishing hole where they ate lunch, and Noct's own slanted smile.
"You talked about it, when you were half awake," says Gladio. "Seemed pretty broken up about it."
"We felt it appropriate to do a little reconnaissance, when we went to retrieve the camping equipment," says Ignis.
Noct's heard the story. "A little reconnaissance" is about the understatement of the century. They were looking for hours, and that's with knowing the direction Prompto approached the haven from, and that he couldn't possibly have come far, injured as he was.
So Noct knows all about the place, thanks to Ignis: somber words, describing an outcropping of rock hidden behind thick shrubs.
The hell of it is, looking back, Noct thinks he remembers the place. How many times did he walk past it, looking for Prompto, without giving it a second thought?
Prompto'd been there the whole time, close enough that he could probably see their campfire at night. He'd almost died there – would have died there, if he hadn't approached them.
But here he is now, paging back through pictures of their time together. His eyes are damp at the corners again, and his smile is watery and uncertain. He's leaning up against Noct's shoulder, like he can't quite get enough of the contact.
"Dude," says Noct, and nods toward the baby chocobo. "You gonna take a picture, or what?"
"Yeah," says Prompto, voice rough. "Yeah, I. Good call."
He lifts the camera, and it fills up with shots of a small bird nesting in blankets; and Noct and Prompto, grinning, pressed side by side in the bed; and Gladio and Ignis, fond and bemused, standing in the camper's narrow hallway.
Cindy calls about the car two days later, while they're sitting at the plastic table outside the caravan.
"Sorry to keep ya'll waiting," she says. "The old girl's good as new."
Noct stares around at the faces of his friends, seated beside him. There are playing cards in their hands, and a half-finished breakfast in front of Prompto: a bowl of oatmeal, laden with brown sugar and bananas, and a box of milk with a straw sticking out, the kind kids get with their school lunch. He's still working on demolishing the oatmeal, with clumsy enthusiasm, while trying simultaneously not to set the playing cards down.
It's his first time stepping back into the outside world since they recovered him. He's bundled up in Gladio's too-big jacket, and he's wearing Ignis' slippers on his feet. The cloth bracelet's back on his wrist, clean and dry now, and a helpless kind of smile keeps washing over his face, like he still can't quite believe this is happening.
For the first time in a long time, it occurs to Noct that they can't stay here forever. That eventually, they'll have to move on, toward Lestallum.
Iris will be waiting there. She knows to expect them – Gladio's been keeping her updated, by phone. They'll spend a few days there, while Prompto gets to know her. Then it will be time to say goodbye and press on with their trip.
They have to. Noct knows that. The delay's been substantial already.
But the thought of pressing on, suddenly, blindsides him with regret. The thought of leaving Prompto behind feels like a betrayal, even though it's what they've planned from the start.
It will be better for him, Noct tells himself. Prompto doesn't deserve a life that's constantly on the move. They're in danger all the time, from Niflheim's forces and unruly wildlife both.
Gods know Prompto's lived enough of his life without any kind of safety or stability.
Gods know he deserves that now, and the sooner they can get him there, the better.
But when Noct answers Cindy, he finds that what he says is, "Sorry, Cindy. Think we're gonna need a few more days."
They're a great few days.
Prompto still sleeps more than anything else, but when he's awake, he seems like he's trying to make up for lost time. He gives the camera a workout, filling it with so many shots of the chocobo post that Noct buys him another memory card from the gift shop, just in case. Prompto sits out on the fence by the racetrack while Gladio tries to beat his own time, and he trails after Ignis while he's tending to their supplies, and he shares the camper bed with Noct at night, a steady warmth pressed up against him.
Ignis makes green curry soup, and it's met with so much enthusiasm that he feigns exasperation, smiles a fond smile, and makes it again the next day.
On the night Prompto falls asleep next to Cinnamon, curled up under a protective wing in the chocobo pen, Gladio carries him back to bed.
Prompto nuzzles into the contact, and murmurs softly in his sleep, and clutches loosely to the lapel of Gladio's jacket, when he tries to put him down.
They head out for Hammerhead on the morning of the fourth day.
Prompto's getting around without too much trouble by then; his wound's scabbed over, and he's eating full portions again, and he's awake for longer and longer stretches of time. All the signs are good ones.
Still, they don't want to push him too hard, too fast.
"You're sure?" says Noct, for about the twelfth time.
"It doesn't look that far," says Prompto, peering down at the map.
"Even so," says Ignis. "You're still recovering. We'll stop halfway to camp for the evening so that the ride isn't too taxing, but if you feel poorly at any time, you need only say the word."
"Kid's tougher than he looks," says Gladio, sounding almost proud.
And Prompto says, "Dude. We're gonna take a trip on chocobo back. I think I'll be okay."
His grin's so bright that Noct believes it.
The only sound in the tent is the rattling shake of Gladio's snores, and the softer sound, much more subtle, of Prompto breathing, pressed so near that Noct can feel the rise and fall of his chest.
It's not steady breathing. It's too quick, and too jagged, and Prompto's restless motion is what woke Noct up in the first place.
"Prom?" He reaches out a careful hand and sets it on Prompto's shoulder. "Hey – Prompto."
Prompto jolts awake all at once – flinches, and jerks back, and stares wildly in Noct's direction, expression empty of recognition for an endless few seconds.
Noct can barely see his face in the dim light from the dying campfire outside, but what little he can make out is wide-eyed and terrified, lower lip wobbling like he's about to cry.
"Hey," says Noct. "Calm down. You're okay."
He can feel it when the tension starts to bleed out of Prompto's body – when relief floods in to replace the terror, and Prompto sags against him, limp and trembling.
Noct gets an arm around his back and rubs small circles there, across the shoulder blades, the way he knows Prompto likes.
"Bad dream?" he says, softly.
Prompto makes a wet snuffling noise. "It was like I never left," he says, finally. "They just. They shut me up in storage, and." He voice sticks. He sucks another shaking breath in. "And they came and got me in the morning. I never got to – to be here, or to meet you, or –"
He's crying. Noct can feel the tears, wet at his collarbone. Prompto's shoulders shake, and his hands make fists in Noct's pajamas, and jagged sobs wrack his too-thin body.
"Hey," says Noct, and draws him in close. "Hey, shh. You're here now, right? You're okay."
Prompto's saying something, between sobs. It's a breathy little whisper, so soft Noct almost doesn't catch it at first. He tips his head in closer, so that his chin's pressed to the soft, artless tumble of Prompto's hair.
And he can just make out the words.
"Thank you," Prompto's saying, again and again. It sounds like a prayer, whispered here in the dark of the tent. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Oh, man. It has a been a wild and very long journey. Thank you all SO much for taking it with me.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this fic, especially those who left kudos or comments. Thank you SO much to those of you who took the time out of your busy lives to draw me beautiful art. The outpouring of support has been incredible, and I love you all.
For those of you who have asked if I write original fiction, I do! Please come follow me on Tumblr. I'm hoping to get back to editing my novel sometime soon, and I would be tremendously flattered and so incredibly happy if some of you would take that journey with me, too.
And finally, last but DEFINITELY not least, extra special thanks to rah-bop. This fic would not be what it is without their unwavering support, amazing suggestions, and general awesomeness.
You guys are the best. <3333
Lestallum is beautiful.
It bursts into view after the long dark stretch of the tunnel, colorful and lively as a daggerquill in flight.
The buildings lean together like they're sharing a secret, and improbable trees and flowers sprout from boxes set into the walkways. There are cars everywhere, lining the street and clustered together on pavement marked with lines, all brilliant hues and shining chrome.
And the people.
There are so many people. There are more people here in one place than he's seen since Gralea: shirtless men lounging in the shade of doorways, and well-built women baked tan from the sun, and a gaggle of barefooted children, shrieking laughter as they barrel up the stairs.
NH-01987 – no, Prompto – takes it all in with wide eyes, staring from the passenger seat of the Regalia as Ignis carefully maneuvers the vehicle between two white lines.
"Rise and shine," says Gladio, from the back seat, and reaches over to prod Noct between the ribs. "We're here."
Noct groans and goes to swat him away – murmurs something indistinct.
It's the perfect opportunity, if Prompto's ever seen one. He twists all the way around in his seat, elbows on the headrest – lifts the camera dangling from the strap around his neck. He snaps three shots in quick succession: Noct, arm up to shield him from the sun; Gladio, smirk wide and eyes gleaming; Ignis, just beginning to glance backward, expression bemused.
"Really, Noct," says Ignis. "There will be time for a nap later. We've kept Iris waiting quite long enough, I think."
"Yeah, yeah," says Noct, and struggles upward to sitting. "I'm awake."
They pile out of the Regalia and leave it behind, there in the row of other cars – ascend the stairs up into the wide street that stretches before them.
Everywhere Prompto looks, there's motion.
Everywhere Prompto looks, people are going about their lives.
He keeps waiting for someone to notice him – to point an accusing finger his way, or to recoil in disgust, or to somehow sense that he's dared to claim a name he has no right to.
But no one does. A woman on the steps smiles at him and nods, and Prompto stares after her, helpless, until she rounds the corner and disappears from view.
"Hey," says Noct, and bumps his shoulder against Prompto's, casual and easy. "You're doing fine. Don't worry."
He is doing fine.
The sights are more exciting than frightening, and with every step he climbs, here at Noct's side, he feels like he's leaving pieces of the past behind.
Iris isn't anything like her brother.
She's smaller than Prompto, with a delicate face, quick hands, and dark, clever eyes. She takes Prompto's hand in both of her own, and she presses it, and she says, "You must be Prompto."
Prompto's eyes dart to Noct's face at that – to Ignis, and to Gladio. He wants to answer, but the words all seem to catch below his tongue.
Noct reaches over to nudge him, casually. He nods toward Iris, and gives a reassuring kind of smile. He's waiting.
Prompto swallows. He shifts his weight to the other foot.
He tries the words on to see how they feel.
"That's right," he says. "I'm Prompto."
They're the best words he's ever spoken.
Iris is easy to be around.
Prompto likes her open smile and her wicked sense of humor. He likes the way she teases Gladio, without shame or apology. She's fun to talk to, and her excitement is contagious.
So he doesn't know why, when that first endless day of wonder in Lestallum's sprawling streets comes to a close, his chest feels so heavy.
The bed beneath him is a marvel, all clean sheets and plump pillows. The blankets are so much softer than the ones in the caravan at the chocobo post, and beside him, Noct is lost to sleep already, eyes closed and lips slightly parted. In the dim lighting, the strands of his hair that hang down in front of his face seem very dark.
Not three hours earlier, they were sitting out in plastic chairs, enjoying the warm night breeze and the golden glare of the city lights, working through a platter of meat on sticks, spicy and glistening. Prompto's full now; he's content. The pain from his healing wound is almost gone. He's warm, and he's safe, and Noct is beside him.
In the other bed, Ignis and Gladio are sleeping, too. He can hear Gladio snoring: a slow, reassuring rumble that helps to settle Prompto when he wakes in the night from half-remembered dreams.
The room feels close and comfortable. Everything is still, and soft, and good.
Prompto doesn't understand how, even now, something can still hurt.
It's a constant ache, there behind his ribcage. It feels like something's missing, even though he has more right now than he's ever had in his entire life.
Tomorrow, they'll have one full day here together, to enjoy the city. Prompto will sleep curled up beside Noct, and in the morning Noct's arms will be around him.
Then three people will climb back into the Regalia, and they'll drive away, and Prompto will still be here.
Stop, Prompto tells himself, roughly, when his eyes start to sting. Don't you dare.
Because really, what right does he have to be upset? They've done everything for him. He's never had this before: kind words and endless encouragement. He's never dared to imagine what it might be like, to have someone discover what he is and just not care.
Now he has three someones.
For all of one more day.
There in the dark, Prompto bites down on his lip, hard, to keep the wet at the corners of his eyes from spilling over. He scoots in closer to Noct, so near that he can feel the gentle rise and fall of his chest when he breathes.
He takes a few steadying breaths of his own, shivery and strange.
Then he closes his eyes, and tells himself to sleep – but sleep is a long time coming.
The sun wakes Prompto, streaming in through the window with streaks of gold and motes of dust floating idly in the air.
Someone's opened the curtains already, and the door to the balcony besides; down below, a vendor calls that fresh-cut flowers are for sale. The scent of cooking drifts in on the warm morning breeze, and Prompto's ears catch a faint, pleasant rhythm on the air, the sound of someone's voice rising and falling along with it, keeping time.
"Good morning," says Ignis, and glances up with a small smile from where he's seated at the room's only table, head bent over a black notebook.
"Morning," says Prompto, and smiles back at him, bright and earnest.
The rush of water means that Gladio is in the shower; the silence from the other side of the bed means that Noct is still asleep.
"I'll just be another minute or two," says Ignis. "Then we can rouse Noct and see about breakfast. How's that?"
"Sounds great," says Prompto. "But, uh. No rush."
He must give himself away somehow, because Ignis' smile creeps a touch wider, and he nods toward the open balcony doors. "Go on, then. Don't let me stop you."
Prompto ducks his head and laughs softly. Then he takes the camera from the bedside table and rises, padding barefoot over to the balcony to peer outside.
It's a beautiful view.
It's a beautiful city.
Looking out at it, he knows he should want to stay here.
He takes pictures of it all: the people clustered on the streets below, talking amiably or casually linking arms. The appealing angles of the crooked streets. The small, furred creature perched up on the roof, swishing its tail and enjoying the sun.
It's all incredible. Any other day, Prompto thinks, he would want to stand out on the balcony, taking in the sights. Any other day, he'd be tempted to climb up on the roof and find out whether the small, furred creature is as soft as it looks.
Instead, he comes back inside.
Ignis is scratching away with the pen in his hand, brows furrowed in concentration. Gladio's reappeared, still damp from his shower, and he's sitting on the side of one bed, pulling on his socks. Noct's still half-buried in pillows and blankets, the only evidence that he exists the shock of black hair that peeks out over the bedding like an improbable tuft of wild grass.
Prompto lifts his camera.
He could go back out to stand on the balcony. He could take more pictures of the city. But honestly – honestly, the pictures he wants the most are the ones that are right here.
Whatever happens, Prompto misses it. He's busy hanging over the ledge to get a better look at the power plant, eyes drawn by the crystalline structures that glimmer in the shadows down by the base.
His first hint that something's wrong is when he hears Noct say, "What?" in a tone that's decidedly defensive.
Prompto doesn't think he's ever heard Noct use that inflection before. He pulls himself back up and turns – takes in the averted eyes and the thin line Noct's lips make, pressed together like that. His arms are folded over his chest, and he's not looking at anyone. He's not even looking at the power plant, and that's why they're here.
"I didn't say a word," says Ignis, levelly.
Prompto blinks at the both of them, blank and uncertain. He swivels his head toward Gladio, curious, but Gladio just says, "They'll sort it out. C'mon. Let's go grab a table at the curry place for lunch."
Then he slings an arm over Prompto's shoulder and steers him away. Iris flanks him on the other side, all bright smiles and easy reassurance, and the three of them walk to a building in the center of town. There, they sit in a room with a slowly rotating fan, drinking something thick and cold and incredibly sweet out of tall glasses until Ignis and Noct join them, twenty minutes later.
Prompto catches the look that flashes between Ignis and Gladio – a brief exchange that consists of nothing more than shared eye contact and the tiniest of nods.
Before Prompto can ask what it means, Noct scoots into the booth beside him.
He smiles at Prompto, but there's something uncertain in the expression. "You guys order yet? Iris swears the curry's great here."
The curry is great.
So is the squishy flat bread that comes with it, which Iris calls naan.
But the curry is nothing like the curry Ignis makes, and halfway through the meal, it occurs to Prompto that he's probably never going to have Ignis' curry again. That milestone came and went when he wasn't looking, and now the chance is gone for good.
With it comes the slow spread of violet across the sky, and the faint orange of the setting sun, visible between the rooftops. The stars are hard to see, when they start to appear. The glow from the windows washes them out, until they're nothing more than a suggestion of light, there up in the sky.
Whatever happens, Prompto misses it again.
The next thing he knows, Ignis is setting a hand on his shoulder. He gives Noct a pointed sort of look, and he says, "We'll give the two of you some time, shall we?"
Prompto isn't sure what they need time for, but before he can ask, everyone has gone, leaving him alone with Noct.
"Uh," says Prompto, because he feels like he should say something, but he isn't sure what.
Noct just looks at him. Then he says, "Wanna check out the view from the hotel roof?"
Prompto isn't sure why everyone had to leave for them to go look at the view, but he nods anyway. He follows Noct back to the hotel, through winding streets filled with lively voices. Then he follows him up the stairs, up past their room and back out into the warm night air.
Noct's right. The view is better up here. With all the city lights below them, Prompto can almost see the stars.
He takes a few pictures of the streets of Lestallum, all lit up, and the power plant in the distance, glowing even more furiously in the darkness. Then he takes a shot of Noct, there in the oncoming night, face half hidden in shadow. The lighting makes his skin glow, and the way he's standing, head slightly bowed, turns him into something graceful and fragile – something that makes the breath catch in Prompto's throat.
He's glad he got the shot. Years from now, he wants to remember this moment.
Prompto holds the camera out – turns the view screen around toward Noct. "Looking good, dude. Love the lighting."
It takes Noct a minute to answer. "Yeah," he says, but there's something off about the tone. "Pretty badass." He pauses, and the pause grows uncomfortable. "Hey," he says at last. "Can we sit down?"
Prompto doesn't know why they wouldn't be able to sit down, but he says, "Sure," anyway.
They sit there on the edge of the hotel, feet dangling, gritty roof tiles biting into the backs of Prompto's knees. He can't read the look on Noct's face, not even a little bit.
"Hey, uh," says Prompto, and bites at his lip. "You okay?"
"I have to tell you something," says Noct.
It takes Prompto way too long to realize that Noct's eyes fixed on him like that, so intent and searching, means he's waiting for permission.
"Go for it," says Prompto
"My name," says Noct. "My full name, I mean. It's Noctis Lucis Caelum."
He pauses and waits, like he expects a reaction.
For a few seconds, Prompto doesn't have one. He stares blankly, wondering if he's supposed to recognize the name.
And then, abruptly, he realizes he does. The recollection jumbles into his mind all at once, gleaned from scraps of paper – from magazines. He knows they're called magazines, now.
In those long, dark nights with no one to keep him company, he took what comfort he could from tattered pages that no one else wanted. His favorite parts were the pictures, of course; he still has the shot of the chocobo, and the sunset, and the cake, tucked away with the rest of his things. But there were words, too, that came with the pictures. There were words describing places Prompto had never seen, and things he'd never done, and people he'd never met.
There were snippets of events from far-away cities, and one returns to him now – slots neatly into place and settles there in his mind, like a light flickering on in the dark.
It's the description of a party, to celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of the birth of King Regis' son. Prompto remembers, because he kept those pages for a long time. He read them again and again, delighted that people would come together, not for training or studies or war, but to celebrate. It's how he knows the word: party.
Half of the words were missing from the article, because the magazine had been ripped in two. There was only one picture – the rest, presumably, torn away with the remainder of the story.
But the image that survived was a good one. It's still folded up in Prompto's pack: the cake, shot in soft-focus, decorated with what he now knows are strawberries. The caption beneath, no longer attached, once read: "The prince's trusted retainer contributes to preparations for the celebration."
Prompto feels his eyes go wide.
It was Noct's cake, all along.
Noctis Lucis Caelum, the firstborn son of King Regis. Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the throne of Insomnia, whose father died when the city fell.
Noct, who lost his whole country when the MTs came in waves, destroying everything they touched.
Prompto remembers an idle day not long after they met, spent learning how to fish: the glassy surface of a pond, and a sky blue with streaks of cloud. He remembers the sound of insects in the tall grass, and the wind rustling the leaves. He remembers Noct's hands on his, coaching him how to cast and reel.
But more than all of that, he remembers the way Noct's eyes looked, the corners raw and wet.
He lost everything.
And somehow here he is, sitting with Prompto under the stars. Somehow, they're side by side, shoulders touching, even though Noct has more reason to hate the Empire than anyone else in the world.
For a moment, the depth of the understanding steals Prompto's breath away.
It's a wonder any of them have stayed with him this long. It's a wonder they've managed to forgive him at all.
He's found the three best people in the world – stumbled upon them, and been fortunate enough to get to keep them, even for a little while.
Noct's eyes are locked onto his face again, intent and searching.
"Um," says Prompto, and finds that his voice is too thick. He has to clear his throat and try again. "I don't know – I mean. I don't know the right title. What should I call you?"
Noct lets out a breath, and the hard line of his shoulders relaxes. "You better not stop calling me Noct."
"Noct, then," says Prompto. His throat feels too tight, suddenly; he swallows against the lump that's lodged there.
"Cool." Noct flashes him another smile, crooked and more complicated. "So, uh. That's part one. Iggy said you needed full disclosure first."
Prompto considers him carefully. "Full disclosure?"
"Yeah," says Noct. "It's not gonna be easy. I mean, we've still got the Empire after my head. And I'm not gonna let them keep Insomnia."
The tangle in Prompto's chest would be impossible to sort through, even if he had a hundred days and a dictionary to put words to all of the feelings. He just nods, not sure he trusts his voice to come out steady.
"But you've got to know," says Noct. "We're gonna have a rough time. There's – there's a lot of fighting. And sometimes we don't have money for hotels and stuff."
"You guys'll be okay," says Prompto. "I've seen you fight."
"I just mean," says Noct – and then cuts himself off, with a soft noise of frustration. "If you stay here with Iris, you can sleep in a bed every night. You'll be safe."
Prompto's thoughts stutter to a stop.
"What?" he says.
"So," says Noct. "So, full disclosure. Iris will take good care of you. Honestly, that's probably the better choice."
Prompto is outright staring, now. He thinks he knows where this is going, but he can't know where this is going.
There's something building in his chest, so bright and hot it's suffocating. Noct isn't looking at him – is focused on the lights of the city, spread out below them – but Prompto can't tear his gaze away from Noct's face.
Those soft, dark eyes are averted; the soft, dark strands of his hair hang into his face. The distant streetlights paint the outline of his profile in gold.
"But I just wanted to ask," says Noct. "Do you want to come with us, instead?"
Prompto feels the smile take over his face one trembling second at a time. It grows, and grows, buoyant and disbelieving.
Before he knows what he's doing, he's making a grab for Noct, arms spread wide, clinging and squeezing, hard enough that Noct's laugh sounds a little breathless.
"That a yes?" says Noct, so fond and relieved that the corners of Prompto's eyes prickle.
"That's a hell yes," says Prompto.
When Noct brings an arm up to loop it around his back and tug him even closer, Prompto buries his face into Noct's shoulder, and he grins so hard it hurts.
Early the next morning, they eat breakfast at a cafe, and they pack their bags. They stop by a store whose sign proclaims it the OUTDOOR EMPORIUM to buy another chair. They pick up a fourth sleeping bag, and some extra cutlery, and when they're done, Iris walks them to the car.
She hugs her brother goodbye, and she pats Prompto on the hand and says it was nice to meet him. She waves, and she turns back toward town.
Then the car doors slam, all in a row: one, two, three, four.
Noct leans up from the back seat to poke Prompto in the side, and his smile is crooked and warm. "Guess you're on radio duty. Save us from the classical station, kay?"
Gladio gives an amused snort of laughter. "You're in trouble now, Iggy."
"Astrals preserve us all," says Ignis. When he turns the key, the Regalia hums to life.
"New station," says Prompto, "Coming right up."
And he reaches out to turn the dial, looking for something a little brighter.