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Poor Wayfaring Stranger

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“What were you thinking?”

The voice sounds angry. He sits and stares at the floor, listening. Angry, definitely. But far away, as well. Two rooms away. That’s safe enough. Two rooms.

“I could hardly leave him there. He’s a kid.”

The other voice – the voice of the one who ordered him to follow – is less angry. Is calm, for the most part. But there’s still a little anger there, bubbling under, and he knows well enough never to assume that something that’s bubbling under won’t eventually bubble over. Still: two rooms away. Safe enough.

“He’s not a child! You don’t know what’s been done to him.”

The one in the room with him is definitely dangerous. Very tall, very broad. But he doesn’t seem to be angry. He just stands in front of the door, silent. He’s watching, but he doesn’t come any closer. If he’d done something wrong, surely the one in the room with him would have corrected him by now? So perhaps it’s not him the voices are angry about.

“I don't want to speak out of turn, your majesty, but you haven’t seen the kid. If you had, perhaps you’d understand a little better.”

“I have no wish to see him.”

There’s a silence, then. He sits as still as he can, slowing his breath so that he can hear as much as possible. Two rooms away is far enough that the voices are on the edge of his hearing, and if they start to speak more quietly, he won’t be able to hear them at all. He feels a sense of dizzying insecurity at the thought.

“Your majesty. It may not be your wish, but I truly think you should.”

Good. It was only that they weren’t speaking. He doesn’t understand their conversation, not at any level deeper than the words, but still. He is here, in this place that he doesn’t recognise. Any world beyond the hard surface of the bench beneath him and the sound of the voices feels blurred and unreal. If he loses the voices, too – he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

And then: footsteps. The voices are coming. And suddenly he doesn’t want to hear them any more. Two rooms away is safe, but now they’re coming closer, and one, at least, is angry. That is not good – not good, not good. He curls his fingers around the bench, feeling somehow that if he can just keep hold of it, this one thing. This one solid thing. Just keep hold.

The door opens, and the silent one steps away. Two new ones enter the room. One is the one who ordered him to follow. The other is older. He has a beard and carries a club. A stick. Or a club. He isn’t sure. This is the angry one, so – so it’s a club.

“Kid,” the one who ordered him to follow says. This one keeps calling him that: kid. He isn’t sure why, but he raises his head. Should he stand? He doesn’t want to stand. If he stands, he will have to let go of the bench.

The new one stands, staring down at him. He lowers his eyes. He looks at the club, the ornate head of it clasped in the new one’s fist. He watches, waiting to see what the new one will do.

“Boy,” the new one says. “Look at me.”

He raises his head again. He doesn’t want to look – it’s never good to look. But it’s never good to disobey, either. So he looks.

The new one looks back at him. He doesn’t look angry. But he sounded angry, before. Now he just looks – stern. Frowning. He reaches out with the hand that isn’t holding the club, but then stops.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

He blinks. Everything in his mind is fog. The only thing that feels real is the bench under his fingers.

“Zero five nine–” he starts, but then – but then the numbers fade into the swirling fog. He frowns, shakes his head. “Zero five–” he says. “Zero five nine – n- nine–”

The numbers won’t come. They aren’t there. Nothing’s there in his mind but darkness. The only thing that’s real is the bench. The bench. He just needs to keep holding onto the bench.

He swallows. The new one looks upset, now. The new one’s upset because he can’t remember his designation. The new one will be even more upset when he realises how much more is gone from his mind than that.

Where has it gone? He doesn’t know. He lowers his eyes again, stares as the new one’s fingers tighten around the club. He scrabbles, desperately, for the next number. Zero five nine– Zero five nine–

“Five!” he says, loud enough to startle himself. “Zero five nine five – uh – uh –” There’s more numbers than that, a lot more. But they won’t come. And the new one is waiting, waiting for him to obey.

He squeezes the bench as hard as he can. “I can’t remember,” he whispers. “I can’t – I’m sorry–”

There’s silence, then. He waits. He keeps his head down, watching the new one’s fingers flexing around the club. But it’s the other one that speaks. The one who ordered him to follow.

“You’re right, your majesty,” he says. “We don’t know what’s been done to him.”

Another silence. Then the new one sighs.

“I cannot have him here. My son is here.”

“I understand.” Neither of them sound angry any more. The new one’s hand is still clenched tight around the club, though. “I’ll take responsbility for him. Whatever it was they were doing, they never finished it. He’s no danger to me.”

A pause. Then the new one speaks. “Very well. I’ll expect a report in the morning.”

“Of course, your majesty.”

The new one turns, then, and the one who has been in the room with him the whole time follows him out. Now it’s just him and the one who ordered him to follow. The one who ordered him to follow finds a chair and sits down in front of him. He has no weapon – no obvious weapon. He doesn’t seem angry.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to tell this one about the swirling darkness in his mind, the grinding misery in his guts, the dizzying feeling that if he lets go of the bench, there’ll be nothing left to tether him to this world.

The one who ordered him to follow nods.

“You got hit pretty hard,” he says. “Sorry about that. We didn’t know – we thought you were –” he pauses. “We’ll find you some new clothes. Maybe a shower. You can stay with me for now.”

He nods. “Yes,” he says. “I understand.” He doesn’t, not really, but he hopes this one won’t realise.

The one who ordered him to follow stares at him for a moment. He keeps his eyes down.

“You’ll need a name,” the one who ordered him to follow says at last. “You don’t have a name at all? Nothing from before they did–” He gestures. “–this to you?”

He doesn’t know what he means by they, or what they are supposed to have done to him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It starts with – zero five nine five. I know that’s not enough to look it up, I – I don’t know why I can’t remember.” His stomach thrills with fear, and he tries again to find the rest of the numbers, but with no more success than last time.

“It doesn’t matter,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “Hey – hey, listen. Don’t be frightened. It doesn’t matter. We’ll think of something to call you – in the morning.”

He stares, hardly daring to feel the sick relief as it filters through his guts. “It doesn’t matter?” he says.

“No,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “It really doesn’t. You don’t need that number any more. We’ll find something to call you.”

“A new designation?” he asks. He’s never heard of anyone getting a new designation.

“A name,” the one who ordered him to follow says, with heavy emphasis. “We’ll find you a name.” He pauses. “Mine’s Cor, by the way.”

The relief floods through him then, and he lets it. It really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t understand why it doesn’t matter, but that’s not important now. What’s important is making sure this one understands how obedient he is. How grateful.

“Cor,” he says carefully. “I should call you that?”

“You should call me that,” the one who ordered him to follow says. “And you should come with me. Do you need help?”

He’s so grateful that he stumbles to his feet without thinking, lets go of the bench without thinking – and then he’s lost, floating in empty space.

“Hey,” he hears the voice say, somewhere in the space that surrounds him. “Are you all right? Here, let me–”

He feels a hand on his arm, and it’s almost, almost enough.

But it’s not enough, and then he sinks into the darkness.

~

When he wakes up, he’s more comfortable than he’s ever been in his life. He’s so – warm, and the surface that he’s lying on is so soft. So soft. He didn’t know things could be so – soft.

He keeps his eyes closed. He’s astonished, genuinely shocked by this new thing, this warmth and softness. It’s – it’s indescribable, it’s so – so good, but even the fact of it makes him nervous. He’s lying on his side, and there’s a warm cover over him. His head is on a pillow, and the pillow is so soft. But he can’t remember how he came to be there, and he definitely can’t understand why he would be in such a place, in such a position. And that doesn’t feel safe, not at all. So he keep his eyes closed and listens.

Silence. He’s somewhere inside, and outside there are people walking and talking, and vehicles a little farther away. He can hear what some of the people are saying, if he sharpens his hearing the way he’s been taught. Snatches of conversation: –hope it’ll stay nice for Mom’s birthday– –do you think he remembered to– –naw, bro, they’ll definitely win this year–. None of it makes much sense, but none of it sounds threatening, either, and the people out there aren’t moving any closer. In here, in the room he’s in, there’s a quiet hum, but otherwise nothing at all. Nobody moving, nobody breathing.

Cautiously, he opens one eye.

It’s bright, outside his eyelids. It’s bright in a strange way that he’s only seen a few times before. He looks up at the ceiling, but there’s no fluorescents there, and the lights that are there are switched off. He turns his head, and sees the room is small, with nothing other than a table with two chairs, a shelf with books, and the bed he’s lying on. There’s an image on the wall, and he stares at it, hoping for some kind of instruction, information. But it’s just a picture, a wash of blues and yellows and greens. He’s not sure what it’s supposed to be, but if it contains instructions, he can’t decipher them.

He turns his head towards the source of the light and sees it’s a window. On the other side is – outside. He knows about outside, but he’s barely ever seen it. No-one gets trained outside until they’re much farther on in the programme than he is. But there it is. There’s a swatch of grey sky and the edges of some buildings. That’s where the voices are coming from – they’re all outside. There are people out there, somewhere, talking. Walking. There are people outside, under that grey sky.

He feels a sudden swelling feeling in his stomach, bubbly and unfamiliar. Laced around it is the much more customary feeling of fear. Why is he here? How did he get here? He is not supposed to be here. Here, in this bed, this warm, this astonishingly comfortable bed. Here, next to a window, where if he wanted he could just get up and go and look, and he would see outside. This is all a mistake, and when the mistake is discovered, he will be corrected, and it will be the worst correction he’s ever suffered.

So he’s afraid. But he’s not only afraid. The bubbly feeling is something else. And even though he’s afraid, he wants to get up and look out of the window. He wants to see the people whose voices he can hear. He lies still, listening. He sharpens his hearing as far as it will go. He knows that outside the window is outside, but what’s outside the door.

He listens. Listens.

There’s nothing. There’s no sound outside the door. But he’s high up – he realises that now – and below him is another room. And in that room is a person. He can hear them shifting in their seat, and sighing sometimes. There’s something bubbling down there, and the occasional tapping of keys. Nothing else.

Right. Right. He’s in a building, and someone’s in the building with him, but they’re below. They’re not paying attention to him. If they want to come up here, how will they do it? He looks around the room again, but he doesn’t see any way in other than the door and the windows. And if the one down below wants to come up, he’ll have to use the elevator, or stairs. That will make a noise. So if he listens, he’ll be safe.

He lies still a moment longer, wriggling his toes and fingers in the warmth of the bed. He’s so comfortable that he almost doesn’t want to get up to go and look out of the window.

But he really wants to look out of the window.

He closes his eyes, draws a breath, and gets up. The loss of warmth from the bed is immediate, and he sits on the edge of it and shivers. His stomach rolls, and his head spins, and he clutches at the edge of the mattress and hopes he won’t faint. If he faints, the one downstairs will definitely hear the thud. So he can’t faint.

So he doesn’t faint.

After a few seconds – long, long seconds – his head and stomach seem to come right. He still feels like he’s half-floating, but he doesn’t think he’s going to faint or be sick. He flexes his hands on the mattress, then grips the head of the bed and stands up.

The world fades in and out and there’s a buzzing in his ears. He can feel the edge of the bed, though, under his hand. He can feel that. That means it’s real. So he concentrates on that and waits. And eventually, the world resolves itself again. Here he is, standing by the bed. Now he can see more of the buildings through the window. More of the sky. It’s only three steps away. He’s just got to be quiet, so the one downstairs doesn’t realise he’s got out of bed.

He takes a deep breath and lets go of the bed. He walks towards the window, feet as light as he can make them. He’s not wearing his boots, and that helps, though he feels a thrill of fear as he realises he doesn’t remember taking them off and he doesn’t know where they are. But that’s forgotten when he reaches the window and looks out. For a moment, everything is forgotten.

He sees: sky. So much sky, slate-grey and wide and arching and bright, lit with a light whose source seems to be everywhere and nowhere. And buildings – tall, thin, jutting up into the sky like stone fingers. Some of them have lights on in windows, but most don’t. There are hundreds of them, some close by and some further away. And in the distance, in the gap between two buildings, he sees a tower with two parts, like two fingers close together, so much taller than everything around it that even though it’s far away he feels suddenly very small. He’s never – he doesn’t remember ever seeing so much, before. He stares at it for a long time, trying to force it into his memory. Everything else might be murky and foggy in his mind, but this – he wants to remember this.

After a while, he looks down. And there, he sees: a drop of several storeys to the ground below, and there, vehicles and people. Mostly people. The vehicles seem to be forced to drive slowly, making their way through the mass of people. They have different-coloured hair, wear different clothes, and they move, all of them move in different directions. He’s never seen so many people in one place before, and he feel almost mesmerised by the sight. What are they doing? Where are they going?

He sharpens his hearing, and begins to pick apart the skein of sound that drifts up from below. Voices, voices. Some high, some low. Angry, happy, sad. –do we need any more– –I heard that– –no, that place costs a fortune– He can’t make sense of them, so he tries to follow just one thread. But it’s difficult, there’s so many, and people keep moving into and out of the range of his hearing. He’s concentrating so hard that he loses sight of where he is, what he’s doing, and that’s stupid. That’s exactly the same kind of stupid he always is. But he doesn’t realise how stupid he’s being until the door to the room opens and he realises he was concentrating so hard on the people outside that he forgot to keep listening to the one inside.

The door opens, and it feels like an electric shock to his whole body. He spins, and that’s enough to send his head spinning again, and he staggers against the wall even as he’s trying to run back to the bed. So by the time the one from downstairs comes in, he’s pressed into a corner, between the window and the wall, trying frantically to think of a reason for why he’s next to the window while his traitorous mind just swirls with blinding darkness.

The one from downstairs is the one from yesterday, who ordered him to follow. He looks at the bed, and then looks at him, in the corner, sinking even though he keeps telling his legs to hold him up. The one from downstairs frowns at him, and he opens his mouth to try to defend himself even though he still hasn’t come up with an excuse.

“I–” he starts, but then his throat seals up with fear.

The one from downstairs kneels down in front of him.

“Hey,” he says. “Are you all right? What happened?”

He shakes his head. His voice won’t work. His throat won’t work. He can’t – he can’t breathe–

“Hey.” The one from downstairs leans forward and grabs his shoulders. He doesn’t squeeze, doesn’t hurt. But he shakes him. Not so hard his head hits the wall. Is he being corrected? It doesn’t feel like he’s being corrected. “Hey,” the one from downstairs says. “Snap out of it. You’re fine. All right? What are you so scared of? Calm down.”

He blinks. The one from downstairs doesn’t sound angry. He’s frowning, but he’s calm. There isn’t even that undertone of anger that he heard yesterday. And he wants to obey, so badly. There’s bright, coloured blotches impeding half his vision, drifting and floating across his field of view. But he looks past them and sees that calm, frowning face.

“Calm down,” the one from downstairs says again, and somehow, he does. His arms are tingling, and he’s sitting on the floor, now, though he doesn’t quite remember how he got there. But his throat opens and he starts breathing again. It’s hard, at first – he tries to breathe too much and it’s painful in his throat and his chest. But the one from downstairs squeezes his shoulders – not hard, not so it hurts, just a little.

“Slow, now,” he says. “There’s no hurry.”

So he sits on the floor and he breathes. And eventually, it feels normal. Not normal – nothing that’s happened to him this morning has been normal. But at least not like he’s about to pass out. He doesn’t know what’ll happen if he passes out.

Finally, the one from downstairs sits back. “All right?” he says.

He nods. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know I shouldn’t have looked.”

The one from downstairs frowns. “Looked at what?”

He gestures towards the window. “Outside,” he says. He tries to think of an excuse, but there’s nothing but swirling fog. He hasn’t even been corrected for forgetting his designation yet. Are they saving it so that they can do it all at once?

The one from downstairs frowns deeper, then raises his eyebrows as if he’s suddenly understood something. He looks angry, then, and that makes his stomach roll.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, quickly. “It won’t happen again. I was – I didn’t –” But still, the excuse won’t come, and he runs out of words.

“No,” the one from downstairs says, and now he does have that sharp tone in his voice. He falls silent, waiting for the correction, but it doesn’t come. Instead, the one from downstairs sits quietly for a moment, staring at him with a look that he can’t interpret. Then he sighs.

“No,” he says. “You did nothing wrong. You’re welcome to look out of any and all windows, any time you want. Understood?”

He blinks. He wonders if he heard right. No-one is allowed to go outside, not until they’ve reached the correct phase of their training. No-one is allowed to look outside. But here – there’s a window. Right here. And this one says he’s allowed to look out of it, even though it's still a long, long time before he reaches the right level.

“I’m not–” he says, and then chokes on the words. He could just lie. He wouldn’t even need to lie, he could just not say anything and follow orders. But then – but then eventually this one would find out, and that – and then he would be corrected. He doesn’t want to be corrected. It would be a big correction. So he swallows and clears his throat.

“I’m not level five,” he whispers. He’d thought it was obvious. He doesn’t look anything like level five. But maybe this one isn’t used to looking for the signs.

The one from downstairs frowns. “What does that mean?” he asks.

“I’m not – I’m not level five,” he says again. He doesn’t know how else to say it. He didn’t expect the one from downstairs not to understand. “I’m level two. Level twos aren’t permitted to – go outside.” He doesn’t say to look out of the window, because he doesn’t know about windows. He’s never heard anything about looking out of windows, but he’s so rarely seen a window to look out of, it hasn’t been relevant.

The one from downstairs is still staring at him. He doesn’t look angry, and even though he knows it means he won’t be allowed to look out of the window any more, he’s glad he told the truth now, rather than waiting for it to be found out. He sits and waits to see what will happen next. But nothing does happen. The one from downstairs just stares. Then, finally, he speaks.

“Do you understand where you are?” he asks.

He looks around. He doesn’t know what this building is like, apart from this room. It’s not like any room he’s been in before. “A new training facility?” he says, even though it doesn’t look anything like a training facility.

The one from downstairs slowly shakes his head. “No more training facilities,” he says. “You’ve been rescued. You’re free now.”

He doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to say he doesn’t understand. He wants the one from downstairs to think he’s smart, obedient, useful. So he nods. “Yes,” he says.

The one from downstairs frowns again, and he thinks maybe it wasn’t the right answer. But the one from downstairs doesn’t say anything else. He just gets to his feet.

“You should eat something,” he says. “Come with me.”

Chapter Text

Going down the stairs is difficult. His head spins and he clings to the rail. The stairs turn in a half-circle, and they look like they’re moving, even though they’re not. He wishes they’d gone in the elevator. He doesn’t see an elevator, but surely there must be one.

The one from downstairs reaches the bottom when he’s still only a few steps down, then turns and frowns at him.

“Are you all right?” he asks. “What’s the problem?”

“I don’t know,” he says. He really doesn’t. He’s sure it shouldn’t be this hard. But he takes another step and closes his eyes, sure he’s about to fall to his death.

When he opens his eyes, the one from downstairs is standing beside him.

“Hey,” he says. “You feeling dizzy?”

He nods. It makes his head hurt worse.

“All right.” The one from downstairs takes his arm. “Here. I’ll help.”

The one from downstairs takes a step down, then steps back up. “Come on,” he says. “You can’t stay up here all day.”

“Sorry,” he whispers. He’s staring at the wall now, because looking at the stairs makes him feel like he’s falling. He’s starting to feel like nothing’s real again, and he grips the handrail as tightly as he can.

The one from downstairs sighs heavily, then puts an arm round his back.

“Come on,” he says. “Come on. I won’t let you fall.”

He doesn’t want to. But he wants the one from downstairs to see how obedient he is, how strong, how useful. So he takes one step down, then another, and the one from downstairs holds him up, warm and solid beside him. Even so, he almost falls twice, and he thinks the one from downstairs is almost more relieved than he is when they get to the bottom.

“This way,” the one from downstairs says, not taking his arm away. He guides him into another room, lit with the same diffuse, clear, grey light from outside. This room is full of gleaming white surfaces and screens, machines with lights and LED numbers. This must be the training facility, then.

“Sit down,” the one from downstairs says, and pushes him into a chair. The chair is beside a table, clean and blank and white. He closes his fingers around the edges of it and feels the reality there, cool and smooth and solid.

The one from downstairs puts a cup in front of him. Inside the cup is some greasy-looking water with strange chunks and ribbons floating in it. The one from downstairs puts two sticks next to the cup.

“I’m not great with breakfast,” he says. “Sorry.”

He stares at the cup. The smell from it is thick and strange, turning his stomach. His mouth is suddenly full of saliva, and he starts to worry he might throw up.

The one from downstairs sits down across from him. He sits in silence for a moment, but then he frowns.

“What’s the matter?” he says. “You don’t like cup noodles? I thought all the kids loved cup noodles.”

He looks up at the one from downstairs, then looks down at the cup. He wonders what he’s expected to do. Would it be worse to ask, and reveal his ignorance, or guess, and risk getting it wrong?

“What do you like, then?” the one from downstairs asks. “I probably don’t have it in the house, but we can pick something up on the way to the Citadel.”

He doesn’t answer. He didn’t really understand anything the one from downstairs is saying, and he knows he ought to say something, but his stomach’s rolling inside him and it’s taking all his energy to stop himself from throwing up on the table.

“Hey,” the one from downstairs says. He taps on the table and frowns. “We really have to get you a name,” he mutters. “Hey. Did you hear me? What do you like to eat? You must be starving.”

He lets go of the table with one hand and puts it over his mouth. The one from downstairs seems to understand, because his eyes widen a little and he reaches across and picks up the cup, taking it away to another part of the room. The smell dissipates, and his stomach settles, though he still feels distinctly queasy.

“All right,” the one from downstairs says, sitting back down. “Definitely no cup noodles.” He pauses. “Are you going to throw up?”

He considers. He doesn’t think he is, now, so he takes his hand away from his mouth. “No,” he says. “Thank you, sir.”

The one from downstairs snorts and shakes his head. “No sir-ing around here,” he says. “It’s Cor, remember?”

“Yes.” He does remember that, now, though a lot of yesterday is pretty blurry. “Sorry. I remember.”

“It’s fine,” the one from downstairs says. “So. I guess you don’t know what you like to eat, is that right?”

He’s not sure he understands the question. “Yes,” he says. “I don’t know. Cor.”

“Right.” The one from downstairs frowns, like he’s thinking. “What are you used to eating? What did you eat before?”

He still doesn’t really understand. He feels light-headed again, and he holds tight to the edge of the table. Is it that the question doesn’t make any sense, or is it that his mind isn’t working right? If the one from downstairs finds out his mind isn’t functional, what will he do? Correct him? Or maybe just get rid of him?

“Hey,” the one from downstairs says. “Are you listening? I asked you a question.”

He swallows. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t hear.” His voice sounds unsteady. He hopes the one from downstairs doesn’t notice.

The one from downstairs sits still, frowning at him. Then he shakes his head. “Food,” he says. “What food are you used to eating? You know, food? Nutrition? Sustenance?”

Oh. Oh. Yes, yes, he understands. He scrambles to push his chair back from the table and pull up the shirt he's wearing to show this one his port, so he’ll see he isn’t stupid. So he’ll see he can understand, he can follow orders.

The one from downstairs stands up, staring at his port. He comes round to the other side of the table and kneels down, still staring.

“What’s that?” he asks, and now he sounds angry again. That can’t be right. He answered the question, that should have made the one from downstairs less angry, not more.

“For sustenance,” he says, clutching the fabric of the shirt to stop his hands from shaking.

The one from downstairs reaches out, touching the port. it’s in his side, below his ribs, a circle of plastic protruding out from under his skin.

“Can you feel that?” the one from downstairs asks.

“No,” he says. “It’s a port.” He tries not to sound too incredulous. He doesn’t want the one from downstairs to think he’s being insubordinate.

“A port.” The one from downstairs sits back on his heels and stares up at him. “Have you got any more?”

“Yes,” he says. He lifts the other side of the shirt, shows the port for charging. It’s not been used yet, but it will once he reaches level four. Then he leans forward and pulls the neck of the shirt down to show the one for data transfer that connects to his spine just below the base of his neck. The one from downstairs touches each one and asks what they’re for. He doesn’t know already, and that’s – really strange. What’s happened to him so far has been weird, definitely, but he’s starting to think that it’s even weirder than he thought.

Finally, the one from downstairs tells him to put the shirt back on, and he does. The one from downstairs sits back down on the other side of the table, staring at him. He doesn’t know what to do, so he grips the table again and tries not to drift away.

“Did it hurt when they put those in you?” the one from downstairs asks.

“I can’t remember,” he says. There’s a lot of things he can’t remember at the moment – his designation, all but the first four numbers, still sunk somewhere in the thick mud that occupies his brain – but he thinks he wouldn’t remember this one even if everything else came back. He thinks he’s never remembered it, not since it happened. And that must have been a long time ago, because he definitely doesn’t remember a time that he didn’t have the ports.

The one from downstairs nods. “Have you ever eaten anything the normal way?” he asks.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

The one from downstairs nods again. “Have you ever – put sustenance in your mouth and then swallowed it?” he asks.

“No,” he says. The thought makes him feel ill.

“All right,” the one from downstairs says. Then a phone starts to ring. The one from downstairs stands up, taking it out of his pocket. “Yes,” he says.

He stares down at the table, but he sharpens his hearing so he can hear what the voice on the other end of the phone is saying.

“Where are you?” the voice says. “You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”

“Yeah,” the one from downstairs says. He takes a few steps away, towards the window. “There’ve been some complications.”

“That MT didn’t try anything, did it?” the voice says. “The king’s very concerned that it might have killed you in the night.”

The one from downstairs glances at him, then moves further away, through the door back to the staircase, closing it behind him.

He sharpens his hearing as far as it will go. The one from downstairs stays just on the other side of the door, and he can still hear him easily. The voice on the phone is more difficult, but he slows his breathing as much as he can, and he hears snatches of it.

“He’s not an MT,” the one from downstairs says in a low voice. “He’s a kid. A fucked-up, terrified kid. You should see him, Clarus. I swear, I don’t think he’s ever even been outside in his entire life.”

“You found him outside,” the voice says. “...deceiving you.”

“No,” the one from downstairs says. “I’d think the same in your shoes, but you haven’t seen him. These are special circumstances. I’m bringing him to the Citadel as soon as I can. He needs medical attention.”

There’s a pause. Then, “...every thirty minutes... you get here.”

“Understood,” says the one from downstairs. “I’ll see you.” There’s a buzz as he cuts off the call. Then he says, very quietly, “How did i get myself into this?”

Then the one from downstairs opens the door. He comes in, putting the phone in his pocket, and stands on the other side of the table.

“Sorry about that,” he says.

He doesn’t know why the one from downstairs is apologising, so he doesn’t reply.

“Listen,” the one from downstairs says. “Listen – I’m going to take you to see some people. But – you need something. Some water, at least. I don’t want you passing out.”

He doesn’t want to pass out, either. He doesn’t know what’ll happen if he passes out.

“Do you know how to drink water?” the one from downstairs asks. He fills a glass from a tap, and then puts it on the table. “Do you understand what I’m asking?”

“Yes,” he says, but he doesn’t, not really. He stares at the glass. At least this one doesn’t smell.

The one from downstairs picks up the glass, puts it to his lips, and tips some of the water into his mouth. He swallows, then puts the glass down and pushes it across the table.

“Now you,” he says.

He reaches out and picks the glass up. It feels cold to the touch. He puts it to his lips, but his hand shakes and he misses and has to try again. Then he tips it up.

He chokes on the mouthful of water, and for a moment he thinks he’s going to drown. Then someone’s thumping him on the back, and he coughs, coughs and splutters and tries to breathe. And then – when he thinks he’s almost there, he can almost breathe – his stomach rolls violently and there’s acid burning up his throat, thick, warm, slime pouring out of his mouth and spattering, black and viscous, on the shining white floor. He’s horrified, but he can’t stop it. He just heaves, gripping the table and the chair, aware of the one from downstairs standing behind him with a hand on his back, and wondering with a sour thrill of fear what the correction will be for this.

At last, the fit subsides, and he sits back in his chair, swiping his arm across his mouth. It comes away black and sticky, and he stares at it and thinks about how he’s probably never going to be allowed to look out of the window again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – I’ll clean it up, I’ll --” He slips off his chair, kneels on the floor by the pool of black slime, but he doesn’t have anything to clean with. He’s starting to take off the shirt he's wearing when the one from downstairs kneels next to him and grabs his wrists.

“Hey,” he says. “You don’t have to do that. You’re sick, sit down.”

He lifts him back up by his wrists and pushes him into the chair. Then he pushes the chair so it’s further away from the pool of his vomit.

“Stay there,” he says. “Don’t move. That’s an order.”

An order. An order he can understand. So he sits still, he doesn’t move, and he waits. The smell from the vomit is acrid, and the taste in his mouth is worse. But he’s been told not to move, so he doesn’t move. At least he knows now what he’s supposed to do.

The one from downstairs goes away. He comes back a minute or two later with a mop and bucket full of sand. He throws the sand over the pool of vomit, and then he turns and stares at him. He doesn’t speak, but he goes away again and comes back with a cloth. He holds it out.

“Clean your face,” he says.

He takes the cloth and wipes it over his face. It helps, a little. He realises that he’s crying, and forces himself to stop. When he’s finished, he isn’t sure what to do with the cloth, so he sits with it in his hand.

The one from downstairs looks him up and down. “Better,” he says. “Give me that.”

He takes the cloth and stares at it. There’s a hole in it that wasn’t there before, in the middle of a patch of the black slime. “Shit,” the one from downstairs mutters. Then he throws it into the sink and turns back to him.

“You should drink some water,” he says. “But be careful this time. Sip it slowly. Be careful.”

He doesn’t want to drink any more water – not after the first time – but he really needs to show how obedient he can be, after what he’s just done. So he picks up the glass and takes the smallest sip he can. He swallows, aware that the one from downstairs is watching him, then takes another sip.

“Good,” the one from downstairs says. “All right. I’m going to need some help, here, so we’re going to the Citadel. I’ll have to clean this up first, and you need a change of clothes.”

He looks down at the clothes he's wearing. The pants have holes in them that they didn’t have before. He sips the water. It doesn’t feel like he’s drowning, now, and the water is slowly taking the taste in his mouth away, so he keeps sipping.

The one from downstairs goes away, then comes back. He’s carrying a shirt and pants. “They’ll be too big for you,” he says. “We’ll get you something else later. You can change in the bathroom.”

The one from downstairs takes his arm and leads him to a small room tiled in blue and white. He recognises the latrine and sink from cleaning the officers’ quarters, but he isn’t sure about the big white tank. It has a showerhead over it, so maybe it’s a shower, but not like any he’s seen before. He sits on the edge of it and changes into the new clothes. They hang loose on him, his hands disappearing entirely into the sleeves. He rolls the trouser cuffs up four turns to avoid tripping on them. Still, they’re soft and warm, and being swathed in so much fabric makes him feel – safer somehow.

When he goes back into the other room, the one from downstairs is mopping the floor. The pile of sand is gone, and so is any evidence of the vomit, aside from the spatters on the clothes he’s carrying. The one from downstairs takes them from him and gives him another glass of water, then frowns at him.

“We’ll have to do something about your eyes,” he says. He turns away, rummaging in a drawer, and when he turns back, he’s holding a pair of goggles with dark lenses. “Sunglasses,” he says, holding them out. “Don’t take them off unless I say, all right?”

He takes them and puts them on. The room darkens, but he brightens his vision and that solves the problem. It’s good, too – it makes his head hurt less.

“Great.” The one from downstairs looks him up and down, then shakes his head. “We’ll definitely need to get you some clothes that fit,” he mutters. “At least your boots are still intact.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he says. “I didn’t mean to make holes in the other clothes.”

“No, that’s – it’s not your fault,” the one from downstairs says. “That was definitely not your fault. And I told you, it’s not sir, it’s Cor.”

“Yes, sorry,” he says. “Cor.” He’s determined to remember. The one from downstairs is the best commander he’s ever had. He’s determined to do everything he can, obey every order down to the letter, so the one from downstairs – so Cor -- will be happy with his performance.

“All right,” Cor says, taking him by the arm again. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Cor leads him towards the door, and he follows.

~

They go down to the basement of the building – in the elevator, which is a huge relief – and from there they get into a vehicle – a car, Cor calls it. Cor gives him a bottle of water and tells him to keep sipping, so he does. He feels better now than he did before – less like he might float away or faint at any moment.

When they drive up out of the basement, suddenly they’re outside. Not completely – they’re still inside the car – but they’re in the world, driving slowly down the street full of people he saw earlier. He stares around himself, at the people that are all around the car. At first he’s fascinated – they all have different clothes, different colours and styles, and they all look different, all their faces, their hair. Some of them are taller and some are thin. Some look like level twos and even level ones, except they have colourful clothes and all different faces. And they’re all talking and gesturing at each other, smiling and frowning, even some of them laughing. He’s never seen anything like it.

But then one of them glances at the car as it noses its way through the crowd. The glass is darkened, but even so, he’s sure it was him they were looking at. He’s not supposed to be outside – he’s a level two. A level two who’s forgotten his designation and required correction multiple times in the last twenty-four hours, but never received any. Someone else glances at the car, and suddenly he starts to feel cold.

“I’ve been thinking about your name,” Cor says to him. He’s watching the road, all the people, but if he notices them looking, he doesn’t say anything. “I wrote some options down.” He takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and holds it out. “Do you know how to read?”

“Yes.” He takes the paper and looks at the list. All the items are words, not numbers. “I’m sorry, s-- Uh, Cor. I think you gave me the wrong list.”

He holds it out, and Cor glances at it. “No, that’s right,” he says. “Don’t you like any of them?” He maneouvres onto a side-street, this one with hardly any people even at the edges, and none in the middle where the cars are moving much more quickly.

He feels relief loosen his chest even as he feels disappointed that he can’t look at all the different people any more. The combination makes him feel light-headed, so he turns back to the list.

“These are words,” he says. “There are no numbers.”

Cor doesn’t say anything for a moment. “You need a name,” he says at last, “not a number.”

He swallows. His mouth is dry and he sips the water from the bottle. “A designation,” he says at last.

“No,” Cor says. “Not a designation. A name.”

He doesn’t understand. He shouldn’t have a name – he should have a designation. Should have the one that he’s forgotten. But Cor says he needs a name, and Cor – and he’s determined to do everything he can to obey Cor. So he reads the list, carefully. The words are all unfamiliar. He doesn’t know what any of them mean.

“Anything jump out at you?” Cor asks.

He reads them again. “I don’t know,” he says. “Whichever one you want.”

Cor doesn’t say anything. Then he sighs.

“You don’t have to decide now,” he says. “Keep the list. Think about it.”

He folds the list carefully and puts it in the pocket of the pants he's wearing. He thinks about it as they drive in between the buildings. But he doesn’t think about it for very long. Soon, he’s distracted by all the things he sees. He’s almost outside. The sky seems huge overhead, like it goes on forever, and it’s full of that diffuse, grey light. He thinks he’s never seen anything so beautiful. That bubbly feeling he had this morning when he woke up rises up in him again, and he stares and stares. He’d never thought about outside much before. He knew he wouldn’t go there for such a long time. He’d never imagined it might be like this.

“Hey,” Cor says, and he realises the car has stopped moving. “We’re here. Come on.”

Cor gets out of the car, and he follows suit.

And then he’s outside.

He stops, staring up. They’re in front of the building he saw that morning, two towers rising into the sky. A jet of purple light reaches up from between them, travelling up, up, and he cranes his neck but he can’t see the end of it. It goes far, far above the tops of the towers, and above the towers there’s nothing but the huge, grey bowl of the sky.

He feels suddenly dizzy. He stumbles, and he would have fallen if Cor hadn’t caught him by the arm.

“Hey,” Cor says. “You all right?”

He doesn’t have any words to answer Cor. The bubbling feeling is in his throat, now, fizzing in his ears. He gestures dumbly at the sky. Cor looks up at it, then frowns back down at him. Then he puts his head on one side, the frown lightening a little.

“You’ve really never been outside before?” he asks.

He shakes his head. He tries to keep looking at Cor, but his eyes constantly drift, his head constantly turns upwards, to the sky. Cor doesn’t say anything, just keeps hold of his arm. After a while, though, he puts a hand on his back.

“All right, kid,” he says. “There’ll be plenty of time for more sky later.”

He tears his eyes away and nods. They’re going into the building with the two towers, he sees. There’s a lot of steps, and he eyes them with trepidation. But Cor keeps his hand on his back, and he’s steadier now than he was earlier. He makes it up the steps without tripping more than twice, and without falling at all.

When they reach the top, they plunge into the darkness beyond the huge doors. He can’t see anything for a moment, but he remembers he’s supposed to keep the sunglasses on, so he refocuses and brightens his vision. There’s someone coming towards them, and he looks angry.

“Cor,” the person says, and he recognises the voice from the phone earlier. “You were supposed to call me.”

“I was otherwise occupied,” Cor says. “I’m only five minutes late.”

The one who was on the phone glares at Cor, but Cor doesn’t seem to care. Then the one that was on the phone turns his glare on him.

“This is the MT?” he asks.

Cor straightens up. “He’s not an MT,” he says, and although he still sounds calm, that sharp undertone is back. “He needs to see a doctor.”

The one from the phone just stares at him. He keeps his eyes low. Maybe the one from the phone is the one who will correct him. But Cor doesn’t let go of his arm.

“Are you going to help me get this sick kid a doctor, or do I need to go and talk to the king?” he asks.

The one from the phone glares a moment longer, then nods.

“The king told me to give you the assistance you need,” he says. He reaches to take his arm, but Cor holds out a hand.

“I’ll keep hold of him, if you don’t mind,” he says.

The one from the phone looks disapproving, but he turns and leads the way. Cor follows, leading him by the arm and holding him up every time he stumbles. The corridor they’re walking down is huge, wide enough for a battalion, the ceiling high enough to be lost in the shadows. He doesn’t look around too much, though – it’s enough to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other without falling.

The one from the phone walks a lot faster than Cor does. Eventually, he looks back over his shoulder and realises how far behind they are, then comes stalking back.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“I told you,” Cor says, calm where the one from the phone is coldly angry. “The kid’s sick.”

The one from the phone glares for another long moment. Cor looks back, expressionless. Then the one from the phone turns again, stalking away.

But he stalks a lot more slowly this time.

~

Cor takes him to a room with shiny surfaces and metal trays and lots of tools and machines. There’s someone waiting there with a white coat, and he realises this is where he’s going to be corrected. Maybe Cor just didn’t have the right tools before. This facility has specialist correction personnel. That makes sense.

“Sit here,” Cor says, pointing to a chair. He sits. He wonders how much the correction will hurt. He’s done a lot that needs correcting in the last day. It’ll probably hurt a lot.

“I got to talk to the doctor a minute, all right, kid?” Cor says. He gestures, and the one with the white coat gets up and leaves the room. Cor stands still, staring at him. “Don’t move,” he says. “And don’t touch anything.” He pauses, grimacing slightly. “That’s an order,” he adds.

Yes. It’s an order. An easy one, too. He sits, staring at the tools laid out on the metal tray. Thinking about the correction. But the door closes and Cor starts talking, and he sharpens his hearing to listen.

“What are we looking at here?” the one with the white coat asks.

“He’s just a kid,” Cor says. “But – he’s got partial MT modifications.”

The one with the white coat gasps. “You’re kidding?” she says. “He’s a Niff? An MT?

“He’s not an MT,” Cor says. “He’s a kid. He’s sick, and he needs a doctor. If you can’t deal with that, maybe you need to find another profession.”

There’s a pause. “Of course, Marshal,” the one with the white coat says. “What’s his illness?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Cor says. “He’s been dizzy a lot, and he threw up this morning. Not like your normal vomit, either. But I think maybe he’s just hungry.”

“Have you tried giving him something to eat?” the one with the white coat asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Turns out he’s got a – port in his side. For sustenance, he says. I don’t think he’s eaten anything for a long time, if ever.”

Another pause. “We could hook him up to a feeding tube,” the one with the white coat says.

“No,” Cor says. “He needs to learn to eat properly. Look, Doctor, I need you to check him over. See what other modifications he’s got. Do all the scans, all the tests. We need to know what we’re dealing with, here. Then we’ll figure out how to get him to eat something.”

“Understood.” There’s the sound of the door handle starting to turn, but then it stops.

“Hey,” Cor says. “Be nice to the kid, all right? He’s had a hard time. It’s not his fault what’s been done to him.”

The door handle turns, then, and the one with the white coat comes in. She asks him something, but he doesn’t hear it. He’s too busy trying to understand what he heard on the other side of the door. Tests he understands. He’s done a lot of things that require correction since he met Cor. It’s no surprise Cor might think he’s defective. In fact, he’s pretty sure he is defective. If he wasn’t, surely he would remember his designation?

But then Cor said be nice to him, and that he doesn’t understand. If he’s defective, he requires modification. Even if he’s not defective, the things that he’s done require correction. Neither of those things are nice. How does Cor expect the one with the white coat to be nice to him if he requires modification?

He doesn’t understand. But even though he doesn’t understand, he keeps in his mind the sound of Cor saying be nice to the kid, all right? He replays it in his mind, again and again, until the one with the white coat snaps her fingers in front of his face.

Then he realises she’s been speaking to him. He’s so stupid. That’s another correction, after he swore to himself he would obey everything, down to the letter.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t hear.”

The one with the white coat looks down at him, expressionless.

“I asked what your name was,” she says.

“Oh,” he says. “Zero five nine – uh.” He stops, thinking about the list in his pocket. “I don’t know,” he says at last. “I haven’t got one yet.”

The one with the white coat’s expression changes slightly. “OK,” she says. “Can you take the glasses off for me?”

He reaches up, then remembers his orders. He doesn’t want to disobey the one in the white coat, but he wants to disobey Cor even less. “I can’t,” he says. “I’m sorry. I have to keep them on.”

The one with the white coat frowns at him. “Why?” she asks. “Does the light hurt your eyes?”

“Yes,” he says. “Not – my eyes. My head. But I have to keep them on because – Cor told me to.”

“I’m sure the Marshal doesn’t mind you taking them off for an examination,” the one with the white coat says. She reaches to take the glasses off, and he flinches back, holding them on, then jumps to his feet. His chair falls over with a clatter that makes his heart feel like it’s about to beat through his chest, and the one with the white coat makes a noise like she’s surprised – or scared, maybe. He backs away, still holding on to the glasses.

“I can’t,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

The door bursts open, then, and the one from the phone is standing in the doorway, looking furious. There’s two more with him, and they look angry, too.

“Take the MT down,” he says.

He hears the one with the white coat saying something, but whatever it is, it doesn’t penetrate his understanding. Nothing penetrates his understanding, except a sharp pain at the back of his head, and then nothing at all.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, someone’s talking, and they sound furious.

It’s Cor, he realises. He thinks for a moment Cor must have understood that he needs correction, and is angry with him. Then he understands that he’s been, until a moment ago, unconscious; what would be the use of Cor talking to him when he’s unconscious?

Then he notices someone else is talking, too. Shouting. It’s the one from the phone. He’s somewhere near by – high up – and he’s shouting.

“It’s dangerous,” he’s shouting. “It could have killed her.”

“Come on,” Cor says. He’s not shouting, but he is talking louder than usual. “He was just trying to follow my orders. What’s he going to kill her with, the sunglasses?”

His head hurts worse than before, he realises. And he’s not wearing the sunglasses any more. He tried to keep hold of them, but they must have taken them after they knocked him out. He wonders if that’s what Cor’s angry about.

“I never thought I’d see the day when I’d have to warn Cor Leonis about trusting a Niff MT,” the one from the phone says, still too loud.

“He’s not an MT.” Cor’s almost shouting now. “He’s got more reason to hate the Niffs than anyone. You’ve seen what they’ve done to him.”

“No, I haven’t,” the one from the phone says. “That’s the point. None of us know what they’ve done to it. It looks like a maltreated child, certainly – but you know as well as I do how deceptive appearances can be.”

A long pause. Then the one from the phone speaks again, more quietly now.

“I commend you for your kind heart, my friend. I would just prefer not to see it be the death of you.”

“I can’t,” Cor says then. “I can’t just – pass him on to someone else, or put him in detention. I promised the kid I’d help him. I know what you think, but I promised.” He pauses. “We’ll do the tests. We’ll find out everything there is to find out. And I won’t let my guard down. He can barely stand. He’s no threat. But I won’t let my guard down.”

Another pause.

“See that you don’t,” says the one from the phone.

There’s some rustling, some footsteps. Then Cor speaks again.

“Hey, Clarus?”

The footsteps pause.

“Whatever else he might be, he’s not an it. Got it?”

There’s no reply. A moment later, there are footsteps right by his ear, and someone kneels down beside him.

“Wake up, kid,” Cor says.

Obediently, he opens his eyes. It’s bright without the sunglasses, and he dims his vision to compensate. Cor is kneeling on the floor beside him, and the one with the white coat is standing a little further off.

“You all right?” Cor asks. “Head hurt?”

He considers. “Yes,” he says. “The – the sunglasses–”

“I’ve got them.” Cor holds them up. “You need to leave them off for the doctor. I’ll give them back to you when you need them. All right?”

He nods, then winces. Cor reaches out and helps him sit up, then pulls him to his feet.

“On the bed, if you would,” the one with the white coat says, gesturing at a table on wheels covered in a white paper cloth. A spark of memory lights in his mind, and his stomach lurches.

Modification. Of course. He’s defective. What kind of unit forgets its own designation?

Cor puts a hand on his back and leads him to the table. He swallows. He thinks about trying to run, but he knows it won’t be any use. And even if he did escape, he would still be defective.

So he climbs up on the table.

It was good, anyway. Getting to see outside, even if only once. The sky – he’d heard people talk about it, but he’d never really considered what it might be like. And he’d never thought about what people might be like, outside the training facility. If he had, he’d have imagined them all in uniform, all marching in the same direction with the same expressions on their faces. But they’re not like that – not at all. He’s glad he got to see that, at least.

“I’m going to shine a light into your eyes,” the one with the white coat says. “Can you look at me?”

He looks. She shines the light, and he dims his vision to compensate. She frowns and takes the light away, then shines it back in his eye again. He brightens his vision, dims it, watches her frowning.

“Hm,” she says.

“Something wrong?” Cor asks. He’s sitting on a table on the other side of the room, watching them.

“No,” the one with the white coat says. “Just – I haven’t ever examined an MT before. I don’t really know what I’m looking for.”

“That’s the point,” Cor says. “To find out. And he’s not an MT.”

The one with the white coat rolls her eyes. She’s facing away from Cor, though, so Cor doesn’t see her. She doesn’t seem to care that he can see her.

“Now,” she says, holding her finger up in front of his face, “I want you to follow my finger with your eyes.”

He follows her finger, and she moves it sideways, then up and down. Then she turns and points at a sign on the wall. It’s covered in letters, bigger at the top and smaller at the bottom. They don’t make up any words that he knows. Maybe it’s a code.

“Can you read the third row of that out loud for me?”

He does. Then she asks him to read the fifth row. He does that too, and she asks him to read the last row. He has to sharpen his vision a little to do it, so he does, and she frowns at him. He waits for further instructions, but for a moment she doesn’t do anything. Then she picks up a book from the desk and crosses to the other side of the room. She opens the book, peers at it for a second, then holds it up.

“Can you read the first line of this?” she asks.

He sharpens his vision a little more and reads it. As he does so, her eyes widen. But it’s not just her – Cor stares at him, too, and he wonders, suddenly, if he misunderstood the order.

“I’m sorry,” he says, then turns to Cor. “I’m sorry, Cor. I thought she wanted me to read it.”

“It’s fine,” Cor says. “You did the right thing.” He’s still staring like he did something wrong, though.

He waits for the next instructions. He wonders if he should tell them they’re testing the wrong things. It’s not his vision that’s defective. But he doesn’t tell them. They’ve put him on the table, so they must be planning to modify him. But for now they don’t seem to be in a hurry, and he doesn’t mind, even if it does mean he’ll have to live with his stomach clenching in sick fear for longer. It’ll be better after he’s modified, anyway. He won’t be defective any more.

So he doesn’t tell them. The one with the white coat writes some things down, then she starts running more tests. She lifts his arms and moves them around. She taps on his knees with a small hammer. She examines his ports with a frown on her face. She peers into his ears. She weighs him and measures how tall he is. She has him blow into a tube. And on and on.

After a while, she sends him to a small room. She has him stand up against a square plate, then she flashes a light. It’s an X-ray, she says. He knows that X-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but he isn’t sure how what she did is related.

When she leads him back to the main room, the light is bright, and it takes him a moment to dim his vision. He’s feeling light-headed again, and he puts a hand against the wall until he’s sure he won’t fall. When his vision clears, he sees Cor is staring at him.

“Head still hurt?” Cor asks.

“Yes,” he says. He climbs back onto the table.

“Give him a potion, at least,” Cor says to the one with the white coat.

The one with the white coat hesitates, but then she goes and opens a cupboard. She pulls out a bottle with purple liquid in it and brings it over to him.

“Here,” she says.

He takes it. He looks at Cor.

“Drink it,” Cor says. “Slowly.”

He opens the bottle. It smells strange. He doesn’t want to drink it, but Cor told him to, so he raises it to his lips and sips. It doesn’t really taste of anything, and it’s the same consistency as water, which is a relief. Still, it’s hard to stop himself from gagging. But Cor told him to drink it, so he’ll drink it. He sips again. A third time. There’s an itching feeling on the back of his neck, and his headache’s fading slightly. He sips some more.

And then: the itch changes. It’s not sudden, not exactly – he feels it ramp up from itch to blinding pain through a series of intermediate points. But it’s fast – too fast for him to react before the pain becomes crippling. He doesn’t have time to do anything except think – briefly – that this must be the correction. Then he drops the bottle, reaching behind himself, trying to claw at the point where the pain is radiating from. But it’s not just his skin – it’s inside him. It’s his stomach and his back and then – suddenly – his brain, his headache shifting and changing and suddenly the only thing in the entire world. He doubles over, digging his fingers into his temples, eyes closed against the sheer, stabbing agony of it. He’s aware of falling, aware of landing hard, but only on the very edges of his consciousness. Everything else is taken up with the pain. It shines in the centre of his world, brutal, blinding, all-encompassing.

He doesn’t know how long the pain goes on like that. It feels like a lifetime, suspended in that savage light. There’s nothing else there, no thoughts, no feelings, nothing to mark the passage of time. Just the pain.

And then: it starts to recede. The light dims – it doesn’t go out, but it dims enough for him to become aware that the rest of him still exists. He can feel another pain now, in his stomach, and one somewhere in his chest. If he only felt them, it would be enough to make him sob. But because they are so much lesser than the pain in his head, he reaches towards them, tries to concentrate on them for some sense of relief.

Slowly, slowly, he comes to understand that the rest of the world still exists, too. He’s lying on a hard surface, and his wrists are warm. After a little while, he understands that they’re warm because someone’s holding on to them. A little while later, he becomes aware of sound, and gradually it resolves into words, into voices that he recognises.

Cor, he thinks, the thought blurry with pain.

“...check, then!” Cor says. He’s angry again. He’s furious. He’s close by. He’s the one holding his wrists. That’s right? He thinks that’s right.

He hears footsteps, and then another voice, high up. The one with the white coat.

“No, it’s right. Just a standard healing potion. There wasn’t anything unusual in it.”

There’s a pause, then suddenly her voice is closer, lower down. “Could be – I don’t know, a self-destruct mechanism?”

“Did you see something on the X-ray?” Cor asks.

“Yeah, but not – I can’t identify something like that. I’m not an engineer, I don’t know about MTs.”

“He’s not–”

“I know. But he’s got some of that stuff. It’s not – I’ve never had to deal with it. Like – his eyes. You’ve seen them – how they look. What they can do. They’re not like human eyes. But everything so far says they are human eyes, they’re not – implants or anything. This is just – it’s beyond me. We need an engineer to look at it. At him.”

“But you saw something,” Cor says. “Something that could be a self-destruct mechanism.”

There’s a pause. “There’s something in his brain, definitely. But it’s linked to the port on his spine. I don’t know if there’s anything – capable of transmission, or of receiving signals, self-destruct or otherwise.” Another pause. “If he could do that wirelessly – why would he need the data-transfer port in the first place?”

He tries to speak, to explain that he can’t transmit wirelessly, but all that comes out is a shredded-sounding groan. Instantly, the grip on his wrists tightens, then loosens again.

“Kid?” says Cor. “You all right?”

He tries to say yes, but he can’t make his tongue work properly. It comes out sounding like the noise an animal might make.

“Can you understand me?” Cor asks.

“Yyyrrrr,” he says. “Y- yyrrss.”

“OK,” Cor says. “Hey. Open your eyes, all right?”

He tries. And fails. But Cor told him to, so he tries again. Eventually, a sliver of light appears. It’s too bright, and he tries to dim his vision, but the attempt just sends a spike of pain through his head.

“S sbr’t,” he says. “Sbr’t.”

“What?” Cor says. “I can’t understand you, kid, I’m sorry.”

“He’s saying it’s bright,” the one with the white coat says. “Here.” There’s some footsteps, and then something’s on his face, on his nose. The sunglasses, he realises. He tries again to open his eyes, and this time he manages to get one half-way open.

The lights are much dimmer than they were before, even with the sunglasses. He thinks someone must have turned them down. Even with the dim light, though, he can see that the place is a mess. He’s lying on his side on the floor, and the space in front of him is covered in broken glass, glinting in a pool that’s half purple liquid and half black slime. A chair’s overturned, and the white cloth from the table is lying crumpled a few feet away. Cor’s sitting on the floor in front of him, holding his wrists. He looks furious, and he thinks he should have been lying down before the correction started, so he wouldn’t have made such a mess. If he’d known when the correction was going to happen – if he’d known what it was going to be like – he would have lain down first. But he didn’t.

“S’r – rrry,” he says. “S’rry.”

“What are you sorry about?” Cor growls. Then his face relaxes a little. “Don’t be sorry,” he says. He stares at him for a moment. “If I let go, are you going to try and rip your face off again?”

“Nnnn– o,” he says. He doesn’t remember trying to rip his face off the first time.

“All right,” Cor says. “All right.” He lets go of his wrists and sits back, then leans forward. “Shit, kid. You scared the shit out of me.”

“S’rry,” he says. His head still hurts – a lot – but he’s starting to feel a little more in command of himself.

“No – no,” Cor says. “Not your fault.” He runs a hand over his face. “Just – what happened?”

He blinks slowly. What happened? He was corrected. Cor corrected him. He gave him the drink, and it corrected him.

It’s the worst correction he can remember in a long time.

The one with the white coat appears in his field of view. She’s standing, but then she crouches. She uses a metal rod to scoop up some of the black slime and puts it in a clear plastic tube, staring at it like it’s fascinating. Then she turns to look at him.

“Which parts of you hurt?” she asks.

Everything. No, that’s not true. “Hrrr,” he says. “Uhhhh. My hhhead.”

“Yeah, I got that part,” Cor mutters. But the one in the white coat nods.

“Anywhere else?” she says, writing something down on her clipboard.

“Mmmmy ssto– sssstomach,” he says. He moves his hand, hovers it over where the pain is worst. She frowns, then makes another note.

“And?” she says, like she’s expecting something else.

He swallows – tries to swallow, but his throat’s too dry. “Uhh,” he says. “Uhh, chessst. Chest.” Again, he shows her, and she gives a thoughtful nod.

“I think it was the potion,” she says to Cor.

Cor frowns at her. “You just said it was a standard potion,” he says.

“It was,” the one with the white coat says. “But he’s not a standard patient. Think about it: what does a potion do?”

“It heals your injuries,” Cor says.

“Right,” she says. “And he’s got these foreign bodies in him – here.” She points at the port for sustenance. “Here, and here.” She points at his other ports. “I think the potion tried to heal his body around them.”

Cor sits and stares at her for a moment. Then he turns and stares at him. “Is that what happened?” he asks at last.

He doesn’t think that’s what happened. It was a correction. He thinks it was a correction. He’s done so many things that need correcting, so – surely it must have been a correction?

But it should have been Cor doing the correcting. Cor gave him the potion. But Cor doesn’t seem to know about the correction.

He doesn’t understand.

“Shit,” Cor mutters. Then he leans forward. “Hey – can you sit up?”

He tries. Cor helps him, and somehow, between them both, he sits up. His head spins, slow, pulsing circles. He clutches at Cor’s hands, and Cor doesn’t get angry with him.

The one with the white coat has him take his shirt off. She examines each of his ports, makes more notes. Then she frowns at his arms. They’ve got cuts on them from the glass, and they’re bleeding sluggish black.

“I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way,” she says. She disappears from his field of view for a minute, and comes back with a bottle and some cotton wool. She cleans each of the cuts, then affixes bandages to them. Then she frowns at the cotton wool, black now with blood.

“I need a blood sample,” she says.

She goes away again. He sits propped up against Cor. Every minute that passes, he feels a little better, but his head is still throbbing.

“Bring some water,” Cor calls. When the one with the white coat comes back, she has a bottle and a syringe.

“Here,” she says. Cor takes the bottle from her and opens it, then passes it to him.

“Drink it,” he says.

He hesitates. His hand’s shaking, and water spills out of the bottle. Cor takes it back.

“It’s just water,” he says. “I promise.” He takes a drink from it himself, then holds it out again. “It’ll make you feel better.”

He takes it and raises it to his lips.

“Small sips,” Cor says. “You know the drill.”

He sips. It tastes like water. He leans on Cor and watches while the one with the white coat sticks the needle of the syringe into his arm. She draws out some of his blood, thick and black in the syringe. She stares at it with that fascinated look on her face.

“We really need to get some engineers on this,” she says. “Chemical and mechanical. Probably electrical, too.”

“Later,” Cor says. “Enough tests for one day. Have you got everything you need?”

She pauses, considering him. “For now,” she says. “He’s going to be available for more?”

“Depending on what they are, yeah,” Cor says. “No more potions.”

“No more potions,” the one with the white coat says. Then she crouches again. “Does your head still hurt?”

“Yeah,” he manages. The throbbing’s gone down, but it’s still there. He’s got control over his vision back, he realises, and he dims it even further.

She stands up and crosses the room to a cabinet. “I’m sure I’ve got – huh. Yes, here.”

She comes back with a little bottle. She shakes it, and it rattles.

“Not many,” she says. “Bush medicine. For when you’re stuck with no way to get potions. It’s–” She looks at the label. “Bark pills.”

“Bark?” Cor sounds incredulous.

“Works OK, apparently, though I’ve never seen it myself,” she says. She holds the bottle out to Cor. “I can try and get hold of some more.”

Cor opens the bottle and tips out a small grey disk onto his palm. He peers at it with a puzzled frown on his face, then holds it out.

“Can you swallow this?” he asks.

He’s not sure he can, but Cor wants him to, so he’ll try. He takes the disk from Cor’s hand and manages on his second try to get it into his mouth. He sips some water and swallows a few times, until it’s not in his mouth any more.

“Good,” Cor says. He swipes his arm across his forehead. “This is turning out to be a rough day, huh, kid?”

“Yyess,” he says, because he thinks he’s supposed to say something. He’s still trying to understand about the correction. But Cor doesn’t seem angry with him.

Cor sighs heavily. “I’m done with this place,” he says. “We still need to get you something to eat.” He frowns. “I don’t know – maybe your stomach can’t handle it, after all that. When was the last time you ate?”

He doesn’t understand the question. He starts trying to say so when Cor interrupts him.

“I mean – sustenance,” he says. “When was the last time you had – you know, sustenance.” He gestures at the port for sustenance, as though he thinks he won’t understand.

“Uhhh,” he says. “I don’t – knnoww. I don’t know.”

“Not in the last thirty-six hours, anyway,” Cor says. “Hey – have you got a wheelchair?”

He opens his mouth to say that he doesn’t know what a wheelchair is, but then he realises Cor was talking to the one with the white coat. She appears a moment later, pushing a chair that has wheels on it.

Oh. That makes sense.

“Right,” Cor says. “Let’s get out of here.” Cor gets his shoulder under his arm and then stands. He’s pulled up with him, dizzy with the sudden change in altitude. When his vision clears again, he’s sitting in the wheelchair.

“Drink your water,” Cor says. He stands behind the wheelchair and starts pushing it. He pushes it out of the door. There’s someone standing on the other side of the door. Not the same as the silent one from yesterday, but wearing the same clothes and the same neutral expression. The one from the other side of the door follows them as Cor pushes him down the hallway.

“Hey,” Cor says. “I’m sorry about the potion. If I’d known it was going to do that to you, I’d never have told you to drink it.”

He thinks about the potion. The purple liquid. He’s trying to put it all together in his head, the things Cor said and the things the one in the white coat said. He still doesn’t understand about the correction. He’s trying to put it all together. But his thoughts feel fuzzy and soft round the edges, and every now and then there’s a sharp throb of pain that makes them scatter.

“Thank you,” he says.

“What for?” Cor asks. He sounds surprised.

He realises he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why he said it. It just seemed like the right thing to say.

“For – the water,” he says. He sips it. He thinks it’s helping – his stomach hurts less now, anyway.

Cor doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then he sighs.

“You’re welcome, kid,” he says.

~

They go into an elevator – a big one, with white material on the walls. It looks smooth and silky, and he’s marvelling at it when he gets distracted by something else entirely. There’s sound playing in the elevator. At first he thinks it’s like the chime before an announcement to the facility. But then it keeps going. Like the chime, but with different tones, sometimes low chimes and sometimes high. Sometimes more than one chime at once, and they sound – different to each other. He’s never heard anything like it. He can’t even really describe what it sounds like, even to himself. He’s never heard anything like it. He cocks his head and sharpens his hearing, ignoring the answering shadow of pain.

Too soon, they reach their destination. He wants to stay in the elevator so he can listen to the chimes – he wants it so much it makes his heart hurt. But Cor pushes him out of the elevator, and the one from the other side of the door follows silently. Cor pushes him along a corridor until he comes to a door. It’s dark, made of wood. Cor knocks, and a moment later someone calls something from inside. Cor opens the door and pushes him through.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s me.”

Inside the door is a room. It has chairs made of soft material, one that’s three times as wide as a normal chair, and a floor covering made of some kind of fabric that covers half the floor. The other half is white, like the floor in the room where Cor gave him the water that morning. In that half of the room, there’s a table and the same sorts of apparatus with lights and LEDs that Cor had in the room this morning. There’s also a person, turning towards them. This person is wearing sunglasses, too, but without the dark lenses – the lenses on his are just clear. He looks like a level three, except he’s human.

“Good afternoon, Marshal,” he says. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“You cook a lot for Prince Noctis, right?” Cor says. “You a good cook?”

“I like to think so,” the one with the glasses says.

Cor grunts. “Is he easy to cook for?”

“Certainly not,” the one with the glasses says. He’s looking at Cor, but every now and then he sneaks a glance at him, where he sits in the wheelchair. “He’s quite the picky eater.”

“Good,” Cor says. “Then I’ve got a challenge for you.” He pauses, frowning in thought. “Listen. This kid,” he gestures at him, “he’s been – in a coma. For a long time. He hasn’t eaten anything for a long time, just, you know, feeding tube. So his stomach’s not up to it. He needs something – easy. Really easy. But nutritious.”

“I see.” The one with the glasses comes forward. “I’m sorry to hear you were so ill,” he says. “I hope you’re feeling better now?”

He swallows. He’s not sure what Cor wants him to say. He doesn’t know what a coma is. “Yes,” he says, still slurring a little.

“I’m glad to hear it,” the one with the glasses says. “What sort of food do you like best?”

“No questions, Ignis,” Cor says. “He’s not up to questions.”

The one with the glasses looks surprised. “You expect me to cook for him without knowing what he likes?” he asks.

“Yeah, I do,” Cor says. “I told you it was a challenge.”

The one with the glasses looks confused, but he straightens up. “I see,” he says. “Well – can I at least be introduced?”

“Later,” Cor says. “Right now he needs to eat something.”

The one with the glasses stands still, staring at Cor. Then he looks briefly at him, and then turns away.

“I see,” he says again.

Cor turns to him. “Can you stand?” he asks. “Couch is more comfortable than wheelchair.”

He gets to his feet – tries to. Cor helps him, and when he’s standing Cor puts an arm round his back and stops him from falling down. Cor’s arm feels warm and solid, and it stops him from feeling like he might float away. They walk two steps, and then Cor lowers him down onto the wide chair. It sinks when he sits on it, and when he leans back the chair back sinks, too, soft in a way that he didn’t expect. He presses his finger into the chair beside him, watching in fascination as it sinks in. It’s like the whole chair is made from the pillow he had on the bed this morning. He feels supported and cocooned at the same time.

Cor sits down next to him, on the same wide chair. He pulls out his phone and dials someone. “Yeah, it’s me,” he says.

He leans back into the soft chair. He tries to sharpen his hearing so he can hear the person Cor’s talking to, but he’s suddenly so tired. The one with the glasses is clattering something in the other half of the room, and Cor’s talking in a low voice, and the pain in his head has faded to a dull throb. And the chair is – it’s more comfortable than any chair he’s ever sat on before.

Then, there’s a sound. It’s like in the elevator, but different. Many chimes all at once, but all different tones. He listens, and somehow the sound wraps round him, like the chair. He starts to float, but he doesn’t mind this time, because he’s wrapped up in the sound and in the chair, and it feels warm and soft.

He’s falling asleep, he realises. When he realises that, he forces himself to stop. No-one’s told him to sleep, so he can’t sleep. He sits up, pinching himself and blinking, opening his eyes as wide as he can.

 

“Hey,” Cor says beside him, and he turns, trying to look awake. The chimes are still there, but he sees the one with the glasses reach out and turn a knob, and then they get quieter. “It’s all right to sleep,” Cor says. “I’ll wake you when the food’s ready. Drink some more water first, though.”

He blinks, feeling suddenly, achingly grateful. The idea of sleeping – sleeping here, on this chair that’s so soft – makes him want to cry. He doesn’t understand why Cor is letting him sleep. Doesn’t understand any of the things Cor’s done and said since they met. But he’s so grateful. He’s so grateful.

“Thank you,” he says. He drinks as much water as he can straight after saying it, to show that he’s ready to do whatever Cor tells him. Cor reaches out and takes the bottle before he finishes it, though.

“Not too fast,” he says. “There’s no rush. You don’t have to finish it all.”

“I can go to sleep?” he asks, suddenly sure he must have misunderstood. He’s misunderstood so many things today.

Cor frowns at him for a long moment. Then he nods. “Yeah, kid,” he says. “You can go to sleep.”

He nods and settles back into the chair. He’s drifting almost immediately, but he’s aware enough to hear the chimes get a little louder, and he wonders if the one with the glasses turned the knob again. He wonders what the chimes mean. Then he stops wondering and just listens. He thinks about what Cor said to the one with the white coat. Be nice to the kid, all right? He replays it in his mind. Be nice to the kid, all right?

Be nice to the kid, all right?

Be nice to the kid.

Be nice.

And he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, it takes him a moment to remember where he is. Everything’s so soft, and the chimes are still playing, different now, but no less enchanting. He’s still half asleep, and he thinks he’s never been so comfortable in his life before.

But there’s a hand on his arm and a voice in his ear. “Hey, kid. Time to wake up.”

It’s Cor. He forces his eyes open and sits up, blinking behind the sunglasses. “I’m awake,” he says.

“Great.” Cor points at the table. “Can you get yourself over there, or do you need help?”

He pulls himself to his feet, trying to lean on the soft chair. It isn’t easy – his hands sink into the fabric – but he makes it, swaying a little, but upright. The pain from before is still a dull throb in his head, but mostly gone from his stomach and chest. He feels worse than he did when he got up this morning, but so much better than he did when he fell asleep on the soft chair.

“If you’d care to join me,” the one with the glasses says. He’s standing by the table, and he’s put a cup on it.

He manages the three steps to the table without falling. He feels almost like he’s floating, the feeling of the floor under his feet disconnected from the part of him that’s him. He sits in the chair when the one with the glasses gestures, and awaits instructions.

“It should be easy on your stomach,” the one with the glasses says.

He doesn’t understand for a moment, but then the one with the glasses points at the cup. He looks at it. It’s full of water. The water looks greasy and dirty and slightly yellow. He thinks he understands now: he’s supposed to drink. He’s already drunk a lot of water today, but Cor always wants him to drink more. He doesn’t know why, but it doesn’t matter. If Cor wants him to do it, then he’ll do it.

He looks at Cor, and Cor gestures, raising his eyebrows. Yes, Cor wants him to drink it. So he picks it up and puts it to his lips.

It’s hot – that’s the first surprise. It burns his tongue a little, and he has to work hard not to make any noise. Then he realises that it doesn’t taste like water at all. It tastes – thick and – not right. Dirty. It smells bad, too. He forces himself to swallow, but he chokes a little and has to draw a deep breath before taking another sip.

The one with the glasses frowns. “Don’t you like it?” he asks.

He swallows a mouthful. He’s not sure what the right answer is.

“What is it?” Cor asks. “Here, let me try.” Cor takes the cup. Maybe he’ll keep it and not make him drink any more. He hopes so.

“Chicken broth,” the one with the glasses says to Cor. “It has some vegetables in it, too. I puréed everything.”

Cor takes a mouthful from the cup. “It’s good,” he says, looking up at the one with glasses with a surprised expression. “You’re a good cook.”

The one with the glasses nods. “Thank you, Marshal,” he says, and then turns back to him. “But you don’t like it.”

He swallows. The taste is still in his mouth. He looks at Cor.

“You don’t have to like it,” Cor says. He takes another sip. “Hm. Maybe too salty?”

The one with the glasses stands up a little straighter. Cor raises his hand.

“I’m not saying too salty to taste good. I’m saying too salty for him. He’s not used to it.”

The one with the glasses presses his lips together, then turns back towards the bank of cupboards and equipment along the wall of the room.

“I still have some stock that’s not seasoned, and has almost none of the thicker purée in it,” he says. “I was planning to use it in another recipe.” He pours something from a jug into a cup, and then turns, holding it out. “Try this,” he says.

He takes the cup. He knows it’s going to be hot this time, so he blows on it before he takes a sip. It looks like the other cup, but the water’s clearer, with less floating in it. He sips.

It tastes greasy. But not as strong and dirty as the other one. And it doesn’t smell as bad. He sips again. He knows Cor wants him to drink it, so he drinks it.

Cor raises his eyebrows. “All right?” he asks.

He nods. The other one would have been all right, too. He would have found a way to force it down. But it’s not as hard with this one, and it seems like it pleases Cor just as much. Cor starts drinking the other cup. He doesn’t seem to notice the taste, or the smell.

He sits and sips. After a while, his stomach starts to feel warm and heavy. The warmth radiates out from his stomach, into his chest, his limbs, until he feels like it must be radiating from his skin. He’s had a full stomach before, after being given sustenance, but it’s never felt like this. Even though the water still feels greasy and a little dirty in his mouth, it feels good in his stomach. And he feels – more tethered to his body. Less like he might float away any minute.

He keeps sipping until half the cup is gone. Then he starts to feel as though if he sips any more, he might throw up. He really doesn’t want to throw up again. He doesn’t want to make a mess, and he doesn’t want to ruin the clothes Cor gave him. He swallows, holding the cup between his hands and trying to force his stomach to calm down. He takes another sip, then stares at a spot on the table, determined not to let his stomach rebel.

“Hey,” says Cor. He reaches out and takes the cup away. “That’s enough for now.”

He feels that sense of gratitude again. He wishes he could do something for Cor to show him how grateful he is. He’s never felt this way about anyone before. He’s never, ever met anyone like Cor. He doesn’t know how he came to be in this new place, but he wishes he could – stay here for ever, maybe.

“That’s great, Ignis,” Cor says. “Have you got more? We’ll take it with us. He’s got a lot of strength to build up.”

“Of course,” the one with the glasses says. “I’ll make you some more tomorrow, if you like.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. “That’s great.” Cor smiles at the one with the glasses, and he suddenly feels a pang in his chest. He wants Cor to smile at him. He wants to do something that will make Cor happy, like the one with the glasses did.

There’s a knock at the door, then. The one with the glasses calls out, and the door opens. It’s the one from the phone. He looks at Cor.

“A word,” he says.

Cor stands up and goes outside. He closes the door behind him. The one with the glasses turns to look at him. He sits down opposite him.

“My name is Ignis,” he says.

He’s trying to listen to what Cor and the one from the phone are saying in the corridor. But now he has to pay attention to the one with the glasses. He’s not sure what the appropriate response is.

“Yes, sir,” he says at last.

The one with the glasses looks surprised. It wasn’t right, then. Should he ask what’s right? He doesn’t want the one with the glasses to think he’s stupid or to realise he doesn’t know what to do. He might tell Cor, and he really wants Cor to think he’s smart and useful. He’s starting to breathe too fast, he realises, and his hands are shaking.

The one with the glasses frowns. “Are you all right?” he asks. “Are you feeling ill?”

“No, sir,” he manages.

The door opens again, and Cor comes back in. He looks angry.

“Ignis, you got the rest of that broth?” he says. “Me and the kid are leaving now.”

“Of course,” the one with the glasses says. He holds out a plastic container, and Cor takes it. Cor takes his arm and pulls him to his feet.

“Can you walk?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure he can, but he doesn’t want Cor to think he’s weak. He concentrates on putting one foot in front of another, and it’s not until they’re out in the corridor that he realises the one from the phone is there, too, along with three more who are wearing the same clothes and the same neutral expression. One of them is the one who followed them before. They all follow this time. Cor doesn’t seem to notice, though. Cor just keeps walking, face grim, and he does his best to keep up.

It’s a long journey. They walk down the corridor, then they go down in the elevator, then another corridor. The others follow them the whole way, silent except for the sounds of their boots on the floor. He wonders about them, but most of his mind is occupied with keeping himself on his feet. It’s not until they’re halfway down the next corridor that he almost falls, and Cor suddenly pauses in his stride.

“Huh,” he says, then, “too fast? You could’ve said something.”

He’s not sure what Cor wanted him to say. But Cor doesn’t seem angry, so it can’t have been too important. He slows down, now, too, and that makes everything easier. And a few seconds later, they get to another door. This one’s not dark wood like the one they went through before. It’s metal, and the corridor’s different, too: the ceiling’s lower and the light’s dirtier. It reminds him of a lot of things.

“Here,” the one from the phone says. It’s the first time he’s spoken since they left the room upstairs. Cor stops walking. His jaw’s clenched, and he doesn’t say anything. The one from the phone opens the door and ushers them through. Two of the silent ones go with them. The one from the phone stays on the other side.

The room is small, with unpainted brick walls. It has a small table with four chairs. One side of the table has chains attached to it. He stares at them. Cor stares at them, too. Then he takes his arm and pulls him round to the other side of the table.

“Clarus wants to ask you some questions,” he says. “All right? So just tell the truth and then we can get out of here.”

He pushes him down into one of the chairs, then sits in the other. The two silent ones stand on either side of the door. Nothing else happens. Cor doesn’t say anything, so he just waits. He wonders when the questions will start. Then he wonders if he’s misunderstood what Cor said. He doesn’t want to ask. Cor will think he’s stupid, and he doesn’t want that.

Finally, he hears footsteps in the distance. He sharpens his hearing and hears the one from the phone, talking with someone new.

“...if it’ll work on an MT,” the new one is saying.

“He’s part-human, at least, so Doctor Salus tells me,” the one from the phone says. “Some of the same physiological responses.”

“Even so–” the new one starts, but the one from the phone speaks across him.

“Here,” he says. They’re outside the door, now, and it opens. The one from the phone steps in, followed by another one, who must be the new one. He’s carrying a box, and he stands in the doorway and stares. He looks nervous.

The one from the phone frowns. “He should be on the other side of the table,” he says to Cor.

Cor leans back in his chair. “Well, we’re on this side,” he says. “First come, first served.”

The one from the phone’s frown deepens. But he sits down on the side of the table with the chains. He gestures the new one over. The new one bounces on his feet, then comes forward, setting his box on the table and opening it. He pulls out some equipment and sets it out on the table. Then he picks up a strap and swallows hard enough for it to make a sound.

“Uh – I need to–” he says.

Cor makes a frustrated noise. “I’ll do it,” he says. He reaches over and grabs the strap out of the new one’s hand. “Where does it go?”

“Over his heart,” the new one says. “Make sure it’s tight.”

Cor turns to him, then. “I’m going to put this on you, all right, kid?” he says. “You need to lean forward.”

He leans forward. Cor wraps the strap around his chest, avoiding his charging port, and tightens it. “That right?” he says to the new one.

The new one nods and holds out another strap. “This one should go round his stomach,” he says.

Cor wraps the second strap round his stomach. He wonders what the strap are for. Maybe this is the correction? He hasn’t had a correction like this before, but then, everything seems to be different here.

Cor puts a wider strap around his arm and tightens it until it hurts a little. Then he puts straps on two of his fingers. Then he turns to the new one.

“Done?” he says.

The new one nods. He has a computer in front of him and he’s staring at the screen. “Ready to go,” he says, and looks at the one from the phone. “Ask something we know the answer to, first, so I can calibrate. I need a truth and a lie.”

The one from the phone nods. He turns to him. The he frowns for a moment. Finally, his face clears.

“What is this man’s name?” he asks, pointing at Cor.

He glances at Cor. Cor nods.

“Cor,” he says.

The new one peers at his computer screen. He types something. Then he nods. “And a lie,” he says.

The one from the phone nods. “I’m going to ask you his name again,” he says. “I want you to tell me something else. Something other than Cor.”

He stares. “What should I say?” he asks.

“Anything you like, as long as it’s not the truth,” the one from the phone says. “What is this man’s name?”

His mind goes blank. He can’t think of anything except Cor. He doesn’t know any other names. The one with the phone starts looking angry, and he knows he has to speak. Now, he has to speak now.

“Zero four eight three two eight five,” he says. It’s not even a proper designation – too short – but at least it’s something. Something that definitely isn’t Cor.

The one from the phone looks a little surprised. The new one types something else.

“All right,” the new one says. “It’s calibrated.”

The one from the phone nods. “I’m going to ask you some questions,” he says. “The machine will tell me if you’re lying. So you’d best tell the truth, understand?”

He nods. “Yes, sir,” he says. “I understand.”

“How did you get here?” the one from the phone asks.

He swallows. “Cor brought me,” he says. He looks at Cor to check he’s answering right, but Cor’s face is unreadable.

“I don’t mean to this room,” the one from the phone says. “I mean to Lucis.”

He isn’t sure how to answer the question. “What’s Lucis?” he asks.

The one from the phone frowns. Cor frowns, too. It wasn’t the right answer, then.

“Lucis is this kingdom,” Cor says. “The kingdom you’re in now.”

He doesn’t know what a kingdom is, but he doesn’t want to ask. He thinks it’ll be wrong again.

The one from the phone is still frowning. “When did you leave Niflheim?” he asks.

He feels caught. If he says he doesn’t know what Niflheim is, they’ll be even more angry. But if he just finds an answer to the question – a time, he can make up a time – the machine will know he’s lying and he’ll be corrected. He doesn’t know which is worse. He sits, silent, mouth open, trying to decide.

“He asked you a question,” Cor says. “When did you leave Niflheim?”

He turns to look at Cor. Cor raises an eyebrow. “Do you know what Niflheim is?” he asks.

“No,” he says, grateful for the chance to break the stalemate. Cor will think he’s stupid. He is stupid. He won’t be able to hide it forever, anyway.

The one from the phone glances at the new one, who’s staring at his computer screen.

“Yeah, that was true,” the new one says. He looks surprised. “I thought you said it was an MT?”

He,” Cor says. The new one looks up at him, startled.

“Sorry, Marshal,” he stutters.

The one with the phone is staring at him, now. “Where were you born?” he asks.

“I wasn’t born,” he says. He can answer this question, and he rushes to do so, hoping to make up for his earlier failures. “I was made. In the facility.”

The one from the phone nods. “Which facility?” he asks.

“The – training facility,” he says. It hadn’t occurred to him that the one from the phone wouldn’t know about the training facility. Surely everyone must know about the facility?

“Where is this training facility located?” the one from the phone asks.

He opens his mouth to answer the question, and then realises that he doesn’t know. It’s never even occurred to him to wonder. There’s the training facility, and then there’s outside. The training facility is the training facility.

“I don’t know,” he says at last, because he has to say something.

The one from the phone raises his eyebrows and looks at the new one. He’s still watching the computer. “All true, so far,” he says.

The one from the phone turns back to him. “How did you get from the training facility to the fort where the Marshal found you?” he asks.

Marshal. That’s what people have been calling Cor. And yes, Cor found him. Cor ordered him to follow. He only remembers it vaguely now, like it never really happened. Being somewhere he didn’t recognise, in the dark. The only clear part of the memory is Cor’s voice: Follow me, kid.

“I don’t know,” he says. He tries to remember. There’s an answering pain, throbbing quietly in the centre of his head. “I was at the facility, and then – I was in the dark. And Cor was there.” He’d felt terrible, he remembers. Barely able to stand. Beyond that, all he remembers is Cor’s voice. Follow me, kid.

The one from the phone, sits back, tapping his fingers on the table and frowning. “What are your feelings about King Regis Lucis Caelum?” he asks.

He hesitates. He doesn’t want to admit how stupid he is yet again, but he knows there’s no choice. “I don’t know what that is,” he says at last.

All of them stare at him now, even the new one. Then the new one looks back at his screen.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah. He’s telling the truth.”

The one from the phone leads forward now, glaring at him. “What is your mission?” he asks. “What is your goal?”

This, he knows the answer to. “To follow orders, sir,” he says, trying to sound as strong and determined as he can.

“And what are your orders?” the one from the phone asks, shooting a look at Cor.

“To–” he tries to remember them all. “To tell the truth. And to drink water. And not to take the sunglasses off.”

“Not–” the one from the phone starts, sounding frustrated. “I meant your orders from Niflheim. From the training facility, not from Cor.”

Oh. He got that wrong, as well, even though he was sure he’d got it right. He feels a sickening disappointment at himself. He must be defective. No properly functioning unit would perform this poorly.

“I don’t have any, sir,” he says.

The one from the phone sits back, now, folding his arms. He frowns at him, but it’s Cor who speaks.

“You done?” he asks. “I think that was pretty conclusive.”

The one from the phone inclines his head. “For now,” he says. “One more thing.” He gestures at the new one, who digs in his box and bring out another strap, this one made of flexible metal.

“No,” Cor says, face darkening. “You said if he passed, we wouldn’t need that.”

“I said if he passed, I wouldn’t put him in detention,” the one from the phone says. “I can’t just let him go free, Marshal. It’s too great a risk.”

“You heard him,” Cor says, gesturing at the machine. “He doesn’t know anything at all! He’s not a fucking assassin, Clarus.”

“I heard that the human part of his mind thinks he’s not,” the one with the phone says. “Who knows what’s buried in the rest of it.”

“So we’re going to be as bad as them, is that right?” Cor says. “The kid’s been messed up his whole life by the Niffs, and we’re going to mess him up more?”

The one with the phone stares at Cor. It’s a cold stare, and he’s glad it’s not directed at him.

“We have options, Marshal,” he says. “But none of those options are to leave a major potential threat free in Insomnia with direct access to the king’s inner circle.”

“What are the options, then?” Cor asks.

The one from the phone raises one finger. “Send him back to Niflheim,” he says. He raises a second finger. “Put him in indefinite detention.” A third finger. “Use the restraints.” A fourth finger. “Put him down.” He doesn’t raise any more fingers, just sits looking at Cor. “Feel free to choose, but these are the only options you have.”

Cor’s jaw hardens. He sits in silence for a moment, but at last he lets out an explosive breath.

“Yeah, OK,” he says. “The restraints. I’ll do it, though.”

The one from the phone nods, and the new one holds out the metal strap to Cor.

Cor turns to him. “Kid,” he says. “I’m going to put this round your neck. It’ll stop any signals getting through. You won’t be able to transmit or receive any information.”

“I don’t have transmitting or receiving capabilities,” he says. “I’m level two.”

Cor glances at the new one, who looks at his screen, and then nods. The one from the phone gestures, and Cor sighs.

“Yeah, I got to put it on you anyway,” he says. “And – there’s something else. If you do something – violent, it’ll hurt you.”

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“I mean – if you try to hurt anyone. The guard will have the controller and he can turn it on. It’ll give you an electric shock.” Cor looks angry as he says it. “So – don’t make any quick moves while you’re wearing it, all right, kid? And don’t try to hurt anyone. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Uh – yes – yes, Cor.”

Cor nods. He still looks angry as he leans forward to fasten the metal strap around his neck. It feels cool against his skin.

“We need to test it,” the new one says. “We don’t know if it works on MTs.”

Cor opens his mouth, but the one from the phone raises his hand.

“Agreed,” he says, but he doesn’t look very happy. “Lowest setting only. Cor, I don’t like this any more than you do.”

“That’s pretty hard to believe,” Cor mutters.

The one from the phone turns to him. “Close your eyes,” he says.

He closes his eyes. Someone tries to take his sunglasses off, and he reaches to stop them.

“It’s all right,” Cor says. “It’s me. We just need to make sure your eyes are closed.”

He lowers his hand, and Cor takes the sunglasses from him. He sits in silence for a short time, wondering what will happen next. Then, suddenly: pain. It jolts through him, starting at his neck but suffusing his entire body. This pain is familiar from many corrections. But it’s mild – very mild. And short – it’s barely started before it stops.

“Looks like it works,” the new one says.

“You can open your eyes, now,” Cor says. He does, and the new one flinches.

“Six,” he says. “That’s seriously creepy.”

Cor hands him the sunglasses, and he puts them back on. Then Cor turns to the one with the phone.

“We’re going home,” he says. There’s anger in his voice, though the voice itself is no louder than usual.

The one with the phone nods. “Bring him back tomorrow,” he says. “I’ve arranged for the engineers to look at him.”

Cor pulls all the straps off him, except the metal one round his neck. Then he gets up and grabs his arm, pulling him to his feet. He pulls him through the door and turns down the dimly lit corridor. One of the silent ones follows behind them, but the rest stay where they are.

It’s quiet. Cor doesn’t speak, and so neither does he. There’s no sound but their footsteps, his shuffling and quiet, Cor’s clear and purposeful. He concentrates on keeping up with Cor, and raises a hand to pull at the metal strap so it will settle a little more comfortably.

“Hey,” Cor says. “Don’t do that. If it thinks you’re trying to take it off, it’ll shock you.”

“Sorry,” he says. He lowers his hand to his side and keeps it there determinedly, even though the strap itches. Cor frowns down at him, then slows down.

“I’m sorry about all this, kid,” he says. “You got dealt a shitty hand.”

He doesn’t know what that means. “Thank you,” he says, because he’s not sure what else to say.

Cor grunts. “Don’t thank me yet,” he mutters.

Then they’re outside. He half-falls down the steps, and Cor catches him and drags him to the car. He doesn’t even have time to look at the sky again before they’re inside the car, just like they were that morning. This time, though, the silent one who’s been following gets in the back.

Cor doesn’t say anything to the silent one. He behaves like the silent one isn’t even there. He is there, though, in the back of the car. Watching.

They go back to the building where they were in the morning. The diffuse light of the sky is dimmer now, as if someone’s pulled a thin curtain across the source of the light. There are fewer people, and a few times drops of water fall onto the window of the car, although he doesn’t know where they can have come from. His head’s whirling with everything that’s happened, and how much he doesn’t understand. Something very important has happened to him, but he just can’t find a way to understand what it is. Nothing that’s happened to him today has been anything like anything he can remember. He hasn’t even seen any other units, he realises. Everyone he’s seen today has been human. He’s never seen so many humans in such a short time.

Where are all the other MTs?

Where is the training facility? How far away is it? Is he going back there, or – will he stay here?

He looks up at the grey sky through the window of the car. He wants, suddenly, achingly, to stay here. Even though he’s scared, so scared that his stomach hurts. Even though he doesn’t know what to do and he doesn’t get enough orders to make sure he’s doing the right thing. Today he’s seen the sky. He’s heard the chimes and he sat on the wide seat. And Cor said Be nice to the kid, all right?

He wants to stay.

Cor drives into the basement of the building, and they take the elevator up. When Cor tells him, he sits at the table in the room from that morning, where he threw up. The silent one stands by the door and says nothing. Cor takes out the plastic container the one with the glasses gave him and pours some of the liquid inside into a cup. He opens the door of a machine with glowing numbers on the casing, and puts the cup inside. He closes the door and presses a button, and the machine starts to hum.

“You’ll have to eat as often as possible until you’re up to having full meals,” Cor says.

“Yes, sir,” he says. Cor frowns at him, and he remembers. “I mean – Cor,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Cor sighs. The machine stops humming and beeps, and he opens the door, takes out the cup, then sets it in front of him.

“Small sips,” he says.

He picks up the cup. It’s warm, and he presses both his hands against it. The liquid is the same as earlier in the day – thick and greasy, dirty-looking, but he knows he can swallow it. He knows he can follow orders. So he sips.

Cor opens a white, humming cupboard. He rummages for a while, then brings out a bowl. He makes a disgusted face, then puts the bowl in the same machine he put the cup in. Just like before, the machine hums and finally beeps, and Cor takes out the bowl and sits down opposite him. He has a metal implement in his hand, flat and wide at one end and narrow at the other, and he uses this to scoop up a grainy white substance from the bowl and put it in his mouth. He chews and swallows.

“Stomach not feeling right?” he asks.

He starts. He realises he’s stopped sipping, so intent is he on watching what Cor’s doing. He’s never seen anyone – do that before. He can’t imagine doing it. What is the white substance? Why is Cor doing that?

“Sorry,” he says, and sips. He thinks about the way the dirty water feels, in his mouth, his throat. The white substance must feel quite different. He almost gags thinking about it. He can’t stop watching as Cor puts more of it in his mouth.

Cor raises his eyebrows. Then a look of realisation comes over his face.

“This is eating,” he says. “I’m eating. This is food.” He points at his bowl.

He stares. “Food,” he says. He remembers Cor talking about food earlier. And about eating. Cor’s talked about eating a lot today. He didn’t realise it was this.

“Yep,” Cor says. “Not great food, though. Probably need to try and eat better. Hey.” He looks up, looking at the silent one. “I need to feed you?”

The silent one clears his throat. “No, sir,” he says. “I ate before I came on shift. Someone’ll come and relieve me before I need to eat again.”

Cor shrugs. “One less person to worry about,” he mutters, then puts more of the white substance – food – in his mouth.

He sips. He thinks. It’s hard to think. The fog in his mind isn’t as bad as yesterday – and the warmth that begins to spread from his stomach as he drinks the dirty water is helping – but it’s still hard to make sense of anything. Everyone at this facility is a person. There are no other units – that he’s seen. Why would there be a training facility with no units to train?

Maybe the units are kept somewhere else. Somewhere he hasn’t been. But then, why is he here? Why isn’t he with the other units?

He wants to ask. He’s afraid Cor might think he’s stupid, or too curious. He’s been corrected for being too curious too many times. But Cor hasn’t corrected him so far, and he’s done much worse things than be too curious. And he – he really wants to know.

“Permission to ask a question?” he asks. It sounds so blunt, without a sir, and he tries again. “Permission to ask a question, Cor?”

Cor swallows the substance in his mouth. “Blanket permission from now on,” he says.

He nods, relieved. “Where are the other units?” he asks.

Cor frowns. “Other units of what?” he asks.

“The – other units.” He didn’t expect Cor not to understand. He’s not sure how to make it clear. “I’m the only unit I’ve seen today. I haven’t seen any other units. Just people.”

Cor’s face grows grim, then, and he knows it was the wrong question to ask. But Cor just puts his implement down and pushes his bowl slightly away from him.

“You don’t understand any of this, do you?” he says.

He swallows. Cor’s realised now, how much of his mind is non-functional. “No,” he says.

Cor nods. “Where you were before was – a training facility?” he says.

“Yes,” he says.

“This isn’t a training facility,” Cor says. “You’re not in a training facility now. There are no units. There’s only people.”

He swallows. He looks around. He knows that none of this, all day, has looked like a training facility – apart from the low-ceilinged corridor with the metal door. But it hadn’t occurred to him to think it might be something else. He didn’t even really imagine that – that there could be something else. Even though he knew people existed, a lot more than he’d ever seen, he’d never thought about where they might all be. Just outside.

And now he’s outside. This is where the people are. And it’s not a training facility. But then – what is it?

Cor’s watching him. He speaks again. “This is my apartment,” he says. “This is where I live. I sleep here, I eat here. This is where I am when I’m not at work.” He pauses. “This is my kitchen,” he says, gesturing at the room. “Where I make food. Or heat up food, anyway.”

He sits, unsure how to respond. He’s trying to make sense of what Cor’s saying, but he feels adrift, with nothing to attach anything to. This is a place outside the training facility. This is not a training facility at all. He has no way to understand this.

“Where you woke up this morning,” Cor says, “that’s a bedroom. Your bedroom, for now, anyway. That’s where you sleep. I have my own bedroom, where I sleep. That guy there,” he points at the silent one, “lives somewhere else, in a different apartment.”

“I live in a house, actually, sir,” the silent one says.

“Fine, a house,” Cor says. “All the people you saw today, they all live in houses or apartments. Like this. This is a place where we live. It’s not a facility. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

He stares. He knows he should say something, but all the new words, the new ideas – his head’s whirling, and he can’t think of any words. He opens his mouth, but it just stays open, his lower jaw hanging like he’s lost control of it completely. He’s not sure he hasn’t.

Cor glares at him for a moment, then sighs and covers his eyes with his hand. “Shit,” he mutters. “All right, it’s fine. It’s fine.” He takes his hand away from his eyes. “Take off the glasses,” he says. “This is hard without being able to look you in the eye.”

He takes off the sunglasses and dims his vision slightly. Cor leans his head on one hand, considering him. Then he nods, like he’s decided something.

“All right, we’ll start slow,” he says. “This is the kitchen. Kitchen.”

He manages to close his mouth. “Kitchen,” he says. “This room?”

“Yeah, this room,” Cor says. “This room is for preparing food. People have to eat food, like I’m doing, because they don’t have ports for sustenance. Food is sustenance, but people have to get it by eating it, like this.” He picks up the metal implement and puts some of the white substance in his mouth. He swallows. “Got it?”

Yes. He understands now. Food is sustenance, and humans don’t have ports. He knew already that humans didn’t have ports, but he never considered how they acquired sustenance before. Never imagined they might need it. This method seems – inefficient.

“That’s what you’re doing now,” Cor says. He points at the cup. “That’s broth. Broth is a type of food. Just a really wet one.”

He stares into the cup. “It’s water,” he says.

Cor looks surprised. “It tastes like water to you?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. “Dirty water.”

“Huh.” Cor reaches out and takes the cup, then sips a little. “Dirty water is definitely not how I’d describe that,” he says. “Bland as hell, maybe.” He frowns, passing it back over. “All right. We won’t tell Ignis you said that. Or that I said that, for that matter.”

“No,” he says. He doesn’t really understand, though.

“Anyway,” Cor says. “Water on its own is important, but it doesn’t have any nutrients. Sustenance needs nutrients – carbs, fat, protein.”

“Yes,” he says. “I understand.”

“You know that already, huh?” Cor says. “The broth has a lot of water in it, but it has some other stuff, too. It’s food. It’s a type of sustenance. And you need a lot of it.”

He sips from the cup. He feels it travelling down to his stomach, the warmth it imparts. This is food?

“I don’t require sustenance by mouth,” he says. “I have a port for sustenance.”

Cor shrugs. “We don’t have anything that’ll plug into it, so you’re just going to have to do it the old-fashioned way,” he says.

No. He’s in a place which is for humans, and humans don’t have ports. So humans don’t have any way to plug into his sustenance port. That makes sense.

“I – can acquire sustenance when you take me back to the facility,” he says, feeling uncertain. He doesn’t understand how he came to not be at the facility any more, and he’s starting to think Cor doesn’t, either.

“No-one’s taking you back to the facility,” Cor says. “You’re staying here. No more sustenance. Just food.”

He swallows. He’s not sure he heard right. But he did – didn’t he? Cor said he was staying here? It was what he wanted, before – he wanted it so much. But now – now he’s suddenly terrified. He can barely understand where here is. How will he understand what he’s supposed to do?

“I’m sorry,” Cor says. “I know you had a hard day. It’s better here, I promise. It’ll be better, once you get used to it.”

He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It wasn’t hard. It was good.”

Cor raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?” he says. “What was good about it?”

He thinks. Some things were bad, definitely. The correction was really bad – except he’s not sure any more it was a correction. But other things–

“The chair,” he says. “And the chimes.”

Cor frowns in confusion. “Can you be more specific?” he says.

“The chair,” he says again. “The wide chair, in the room with the one with glasses.”

“The one with glasses?” Cor says. He frowns a moment. “Ignis?”

He remembers the name. “Yes,” he says. “Ignis. And the chimes. With Ignis.”

“Chimes,” Cor says. “Can you describe them?”

How can he describe the chimes? He’s never heard anything like them before.

“They went on for a long time,” he says. “Like chimes before an announcement, but they went on for a really long time. And he – Ignis – he could make them louder and quieter.”

“Music?” Cor says. “You talking about the music Ignis was playing while he was cooking?”

He doesn’t know the word. “The chimes,” he says. “Yes. The chimes were playing with Ignis.”

Cor runs a hand through his hair. “Shit,” he says. “The guys who are supposed to be rescuing you give you medical treatment that makes you pass out and throw up from pain then outfit you with a shock collar, but it’s a good day because you got to sit on a couch and listen to some music?”

“Yes,” he says. “I’m sorry I threw up.”

“Fuck me,” Cor mutters. Then he shakes his head and stands up.

“Come here,” he says. “Bring your broth.”

He stands and walks around the table. Cor turns to face the bank of equipment and cupboards, and he turns, too.

“Time to start getting the hang of all this,” Cor says. “This is a microwave.”

~

Cor teaches him what feels like hundreds of words, and shows him how several pieces of equipment in the kitchen work. There’s a cupboard for keeping things cold, and two for heating things up. There’s a bewildering variety of substances, some that look the same, some that look very different, all of which, according to Cor, are food. There are dozens of implements made of metal and plastics, and vessels of different shapes and sizes. Some of them, Cor doesn’t even seem to know the name of.

“Honestly, I don’t cook much,” he says.

They keep going until he’s finished half of the cup of broth. Then he almost faints, and Cor catches him.

“Long day,” Cor says. “Get some sleep.”

Cor helps him up the stairs and back into the small room where he woke up that morning. It’s much darker now – the grey light is gone, and the sky outside is black. Cor gives him some more clothes to wear, still too big but much softer than the ones he’s had on all day, and then leaves him alone. The silent one stands in the corridor outside the door of the room, but Cor closes the door, and then he’s on his own.

He’s on his own. He sits on the bed and puts on the new clothes. Then he lies down and turns off the light. The bed is just as comfortable as he remembers, and he spreads out his arms and legs and closes his lips tight to stifle the noise he makes. Then he realises that the sky isn’t black, after all. Now that the light’s out, and he’s brightened his vision to compensate, he sees that the sky is a deep, cool blue. He’s never seen anything quite that colour before, and he stares at it from the bed, feeling like he did when he heard the chimes. He feels – lost, and confused. And warm and comfortable. And amazed. And enchanted. And overwhelmed. And frightened. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so many things at the same time before.

But Cor said he was going to stay here. Here, where the sky is outside the windows all the time, and it changes colour, but whatever colour it is it’s beautiful. Here, where sometimes chimes play on and on, and they’re indescribable. Here, where, for the second night in a row, he’s lying on a bed, and it’s so warm, it’s so comfortable.

He swallows, feeling the metal of the strap against his throat. It’s been such a long day. There are so many new thoughts in his mind, it’s almost too much to bear. He thinks it’s been the most confusing day of his life.

And the best.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, he’s standing in front of the window. The sky is still deep, dark blue, but a little lighter now. There’s drops of water spattering against the outside of the glass, as though the sprinkler system's come on. But there’s no ceiling outside, so there’s nothing for a sprinkler system to be attached to.

Perhaps more importantly, he doesn’t remember getting out of bed.

He turns to look. The bed is there. The edges of the blankets are tucked neatly in under the mattress, and the pillow is arranged on top. He doesn’t remember doing that.

He feels dizzy and disoriented. He turns to look out of the window again. The buildings loom, dark, jutting fingers against the deep blue sky. Almost no lights are showing in the windows. Far away, the purple jet of light rises from between the two towers. There are no people on the street, now. Just the water. When he looks down, he sees it’s everywhere, falling from the sky all across the street, illuminated by the lights that are down there. He looks up, but he can’t see the source of it. It seems to come out of nowhere. Like the light that was in the sky earlier, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.

There’s a handle on the window. He stares at it for a moment, then reaches out and touches it. He takes hold of it and flexes his hand. The handle turns a little. He turns it further, and then, experimentally, pushes.

The window opens. It opens all the way outwards when he pushes, and suddenly, outside is right there, almost in the room with him. He reaches through the window, holding his hand out. The water falls on it, cool and wet. It feels – clean. He puts his other hand out, and then leans his head out, looking up, trying to see where the water’s coming from. He can’t see anything except the drops falling from nowhere, even though he sharpens and brightens his vision as far as it will go. He doesn’t move, though. The water falls on his face, his eyes and ears, soaking his hair. But watching the drops endlessly fall towards him against the backdrop of deep blue is – mesmerising. And the feel of the air moving against his face, even though he can’t see any fans that could move it – things happen by themselves outside, he realises. Air moves by itself, water falls by itself, light needs no source, no power. There are no rules, no reason for anything. Things just happen.

The door opens. He stands up straight, wiping the water out of his eyes. There isn’t time to close the window. He doesn’t know if he was allowed to have it open.

The silent one stands framed in the doorway. It’s a different one from before, a different face, but the same clothes, the same expression.

“What are you doing?” the silent one asks. He’s holding a gun. He isn’t pointing it, but he’s halfway to battle-readiness.

He swallows. He becomes aware that the top of his chest and shoulders is soaked. The shirt that Cor gave him. “Looking at the sky,” he says. He doesn’t know if he was allowed to look at the sky. He should have thought – should have asked permission first. He’s so stupid.

The silent one comes into the room. He peers out of the window.

“It’s raining,” he says.

He doesn’t know what that means. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says, hoping it’s the right answer.

The silent one frowns at him. “Were you talking to someone out there?”

He looks out of the window. There’s no-one there to talk to. “No,” he says. “Was I supposed to – talk to someone?”

The silent one stares at him for a long time. Then he grunts. “You got a change of clothes?” he says. “You’re soaked.”

“Yes.” He has the clothes he was wearing yesterday. He didn’t know what to do with them, so he folded them up and put them on the little table.

The silent one nods. He closes the window. “Keep this closed, OK?” he says.

He nods. He feels a pang in his chest, but he ignores it. Now he knows: he’s not permitted to open the window. His stomach churns. He should have asked permission first. He just went and did it. No matter how many times he’s corrected, he’s always stupid in the same way. He always gives in to his impulses to see more, know more. He should have asked, but he didn’t, and now Cor will be angry.

He waits, expecting the silent one to grab him and take him to Cor. Or maybe to correct him himself. But neither of those things happens. The silent one just nods at him then steps back into the corridor and closes the door behind him. He stands, shivering a little in the wet clothes. He remembers the silent one told him to change. Maybe he has to change before he’s taken to see Cor?

He takes off his wet shirt, then stands with it in his hands. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with it. If he folds it while it’s still wet, it won’t dry properly. He thinks about it for some time, hoping against hope that the silent one will come back in and give him instructions. He doesn’t, though, and he doesn’t quite have the courage to knock on the door and ask. Eventually, he hangs the shirt on the back of one of the chairs. He hopes it’s the right thing to do.

He puts the other shirt back on. Then he changes his pants, too. His pants weren’t wet, but he isn’t sure if he’s supposed to wear one item from the first clothes Cor gave him and one from the second. He doesn’t know what any of the rules are. He looks again at the image on the wall, but there are no words on it. There are no rules posted anywhere here. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to know what to do.

When he’s changed, he sits down on the edge of the bed to wait. He waits for a long time. Outside, the sky gradually changes colour: deep blue to lighter blue, and lighter, and finally to grey, like the day before, but a little darker. The water keeps falling against the window. He wants to go and look again, now that it’s lighter, to see if he can see where it’s coming from. But he won’t make that mistake again.

He estimates that he’s been waiting for two hours when someone quietly opens the door. It’s Cor. His stomach starts to churn.

“You’re up,” he says. “I thought you’d still be asleep.”

“No,” he says. Why did Cor think he would be asleep? Didn’t the silent one tell Cor what he’d done?

Cor nods. “Good,” he says. “Breakfast, then. And you should have a shower.” He jerks his head towards the corridor. “Come on.”

He gets up and follows Cor. The silent one is still standing there – the same one who came in and closed the window. He follows them down the stairs. Cor helps him, but the stairs are easier than they were the day before.

“Getting the hang, huh?” Cor says.

When they get to the kitchen, Cor gives him a piece of fabric. It takes him a moment to identify it as a towel – it’s thicker than any towel he’s ever seen before, and a different colour, deep red instead of grey.

“Let me get a look at your port,” Cor says, gesturing. He turns, and Cor pulls down the neck of his shirt and touches his data-transfer port. “Are these things waterproof?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. “They can be immersed indefinitely with no ill effects.”

“Huh,” Cor says. He stands behind him for a moment longer, feeling around his port. Then he steps back. “Well, then, you know where the shower is.”

He stands with the towel in his hands and looks uncertainly towards the room with the latrine. He saw a showerhead in there before, but he doesn’t know if that’s what Cor meant.

“Yeah,” Cor says, following where he’s looking. “That’s right. Bathroom.”

“Bathroom,” he says. Cor gestures, and he goes into the bathroom. Once there, he pauses.

Cor comes in behind him. “Here,” he says. He reaches over and pulls a lever, and water starts to cascade out of the showerhead. “Soap’s here,” he says, pointing at a bottle. “Shampoo. Conditioner.” Two more bottles. “Take care of those.” He points at the bandages on his arms. “Got it?”

“Yes,” he says. He thinks he understands – not all the words, but it’s clear Cor wants to him to clean himself. He takes off his shirt, and Cor steps back quickly.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” he says, and closes the door.

He takes off his pants, braces himself, and then steps under the showerhead. But – it’s warm. He’s so surprised he can’t help but make a noise. The water’s warm – almost hot – and he wonders for a second if he’s imagining things. But no – no, it’s warm. It’s really warm. He stands, feeling the warmth cascade down his body. It feels – so good. So good. He stands there for a long time, just feeling it. He thinks about seeing the water falling from the dark sky. That wasn’t warm, but it felt good, too. Good in a different way. He wonders where it came from, that water. He wonders why this water is warm. His mind is suddenly whirling with questions, and he closes his eyes.

No. No. He’s always doing this. Every time he promises he won’t do it again, but it always comes back. The questions. The curiosity. He needs to stop.

He takes a deep breath. What is his goal? Clean himself. That’s what Cor ordered. That’s his goal. His goal is all that’s important. Nothing else.

He picks up the bottle Cor said was soap. He’s never seen soap in a bottle before. There’s writing on the side, and he reads it.

It’s instructions.

He feels a sudden wash of relief. Instructions, finally instructions. He reads them greedily, then a second time, to make sure he gets it exactly right. The instructions tell him how to get the soap out onto his hand, how much to use, what to do if he gets it in his eyes. He follows them carefully. The soap smells strange – like nothing he’s smelt before. It isn’t – bad, but it’s strange. He doesn’t pause to sniff it though. The instructions don’t say to do that.

When he’s finished cleaning himself, he picks up one of the other two bottles Cor pointed at. Conditioner, it says on the label. And again: instructions. He almost cheers. But these instructions say: first, shampoo hair. Shampoo. Cor used that word – didn’t he? He picks up the other bottle. Yes, here: shampoo. So he should use this one first. And this one has instructions, too.

It turns out that he’s supposed to put both the shampoo and the conditioner in his hair, one after the other. They smell, too – not the same as the soap, but not bad, either. Not like anything he’s smelt before. He doesn’t stop to think about the smell, though. He follows the instructions, putting the shampoo in his hair twice. The conditioner says to leave it for 1-5 minutes before rinsing out. He’s not sure which is better, so he splits the difference and counts his heartbeats for a hundred and eighty seconds before washing it out of his hair. Then he puts the bottle back.

And then there are no more instructions.

He stands under the cascade of warm water for another seventy-two seconds, trying to think of something else he can to do clean himself so he doesn’t have to turn it off. But he can’t think of anything – he feels as clean as he’s ever been – and so he takes hold of the lever and pushes it. The water stops falling, and he feels suddenly cold. But it was good. It was so good while it lasted.

He reaches out and picks up the towel. When it unfolds, he realises it’s the biggest towel he’s ever seen. It’s big enough to wrap around him twice. He stares at it for a moment, then starts to dry off. It’s – soft. So soft, and warm. He wraps it around himself like a blanket, and stands there for a few seconds. But only a few. Cor said to clean himself, and now he’s clean. He can’t waste time. He needs to find out what his next orders are.

He dresses, then folds up the towel and opens the door. Cor is sitting at the kitchen table, looking at a computer. He looks up when he comes in.

“Better?” he says.

He nods, unsure. Better than what? He holds out the towel.

“Should I–?” he asks, but he can’t think of an end to the question.

Cor takes the towel and hangs it on a hook. He looks him up and down. “We really need to get you some decent clothes,” he says. Then he gestures at the table. “Eat your breakfast.”

He sits down. There’s a cup of the dirty water on the table. Broth, Cor called it. He picks it up and starts sipping. Cor stares at his computer screen. If he’s angry about the window, he doesn’t show it.

Outside, there’s still water falling from the sky. His attention drifts that way, even though he tried to stop it. But – Cor said he could look out of the window, didn’t he? Yes, he said that. It’s just opening the window that’s not permitted. So he looks.

“Shitty weather, right?” Cor says, making him jump. He looks around. Cor’s closed his computer, and now he’s looking at him.

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t know what shitty weather means.

Cor watches him a moment. “You want to go and see Ignis again today?” he asks. “Maybe hear some more music?”

Music. That’s the word Cor used for the chimes. “Yes,” he says. He wants to hear the chimes again. He wants it so much his stomach hurts.

“Great,” Cor says. “Listen. I’ll take you there, but we need to be careful. Ignis doesn’t know you’re–” he gestures. “Uh. You know, different. From a training facility and that you’ve got all those ports. He thinks you’re just a regular human.”

He swallows. “He thinks I’m human?” he says. It never occurred to him that anyone might think he was human.

Cor pauses for a long moment. “You are human,” he says.

He stares, mouth open. He waits for Cor to say something else, but he doesn’t. “No,” he says at last. “I’m an MT unit.”

“No, you’re not,” Cor says. “They were working on that, but they didn’t succeed. You’re still human.”

Still. He’s never been human. He doesn’t understand how Cor can have got this so wrong. He’s seen his ports. He’s seen his barcode. How can he think he’s human?

“I – no,” he says, and then realises he’s arguing with Cor. The realisation makes his stomach lurch, and he puts down the cup before he drops it. His hands are shaking. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, it’s fine,” Cor says. He’s leaning forward, frowning. “I’ll get you some water.”

Cor stands up. A moment later, a glass appears in front of him. There’s water in it – clear water, not the dirty kind. Not the broth.

“You all right?” Cor says.

He picks up the glass, but then he’s hit by a wave of panic, out of nowhere, and the glass slips through his fingers. It doesn’t break, but it does spill, all over the table.

“Shit,” Cor says, and leaps for his computer, lifting it up before the water can get to it.

The door opens and the silent one comes in.

“No,” Cor says, pointing at the silent one. “No. We’re fine. He just dropped a glass.”

The silent one stands, surveying the scene. He says something, but he can’t hear it through the escalating buzzing in his ears. His vision’s blurring and his throat closes up. How could he be so stupid? He argued with Cor and then he dropped the glass and now – and now –

His head starts to spin. And then there’s something warm on his arm. On his shoulder. He hears a voice, far away. It’s familiar.

Cor.

He listens. He can’t breathe, and everything in his head is ringing. But he listens to the voice. Cor’s telling him something. Telling him to do something. He needs to hear the voice so he knows what he’s supposed to do. He listens, and after a while he starts being able to make out words over the ringing sound.

“...deep, all right? Just breathe deep. You’re not in trouble. Just breathe. That’s an order.”

It’s an order. So he follows it. It’s not easy at first, but he replays it in his head. That’s an order. That’s an order. And it helps. The breath starts to come a little easier. His vision starts to resolve itself again. The ringing quietens.

When he can see again, he sees Cor kneeling in front of him, gripping his wrist with one hand, his shoulder with the other. Behind him stands the silent one, looking worried.

“Good,” Cor says. “Good. Don’t try to talk. Just breathe for a while.”

So he breathes. After a while, Cor looks back at the silent one.

“Go call Clarus,” he says. “Tell him we’ll be late.”

The silent one nods, then hesitates. “Is the kid OK?” he asks.

“He’ll be fine,” Cor says. “Give us a minute.”

The silent one disappears from his field of view, then. Cor is still kneeling in front of him.

“You all right?” he asks. “Not going to pass out?”

He breathes carefully, deeply. “No,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“Fuck, kid,” Cor says. “I am so sick of hearing you apologise.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, and then feels caught. Did Cor mean to trap him like that?

But Cor just laughs, sharp, like he’s surprised. “Yeah, I know,” he says. He squeezes his shoulder, then stands up. “Listen,” he says. “We’ll talk about it another time, all right? What you are. Not now. It’s not time for that now. We have to go to the Citadel. Clarus has a couple of engineers with your name on them.”

He swallows. “I don’t have a name,” he says.

Cor stares down at him. “No,” he says. “You don’t.” He looks away, out of the window at the falling water, and sighs. “About Ignis,” he says. “Listen, let’s not – it doesn’t matter what you are. The point is, Ignis doesn’t know. He thinks you’re – normal. Kind of. And I want him to keep thinking that, all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He wants to ask why, but he doesn’t. Cor wants it. That’s enough.

“Great,” Cor says. “So, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to wear the sunglasses any time you’re out of this apartment. Don’t ever take them off, all right? If anyone’s got a problem with that, you refer them to me.”

He nods. The sunglasses are on the table from the night before. He picks them up and wipes off the water, then puts them on.

“Good,” Cor says. “Now, we need to do something about your barcode.” He frowns, then walks off. A minute or two later, he comes back with a roll of bandages in his hand. “Roll up your sleeve,” he says.

He does. Cor winds the bandage around his arm, over the top of the barcode. He ties it off and then pulls his sleeve back down.

“All right,” he says. “If anyone asks: you’re from Insomnia. You were in an accident with your parents. You got hurt, real bad. Your parents died. You have brain damage, so you have trouble with understanding and remembering a lot of stuff. Any other questions, you say I don’t know or I don’t remember. Got it?”

“Yes,” he says. His mind’s whirling, but he understands almost everything Cor says, if not the reasons behind it. He repeats it to himself, trying to get it exactly the way Cor said. Cor frowns down at him.

“No-one’s going to ask,” he says. “I’ve told Ignis not to, and you’re not going to see anyone else. It’s just in case, all right? So don’t freak out.”

He nods. “I understand,” he says.

“Good.” Cor sighs and runs a hand over his face. He picks up the cup with the broth. “Drink more of this,” he says. “And let’s get on with it.”

~

It’s the same as the day before: they go down in the elevator to the basement, and then they get in the car. This time, the silent one is with them. They drive towards the towers with the jet of light, but when they’re part-way there, Cor pulls the car off to the side of the road and stops.

“Keep an eye on him,” he says to the silent one. “I got to grab something.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. Cor gets out of the car and goes into a building. It has colourful pictures all over the windows. He recognises some of the items in the images from the cupboards in Cor’s kitchen, though he can’t remember all their names. Others are unfamiliar.

The water’s still falling from the sky. It’s loud on the roof of the car, and in a few seconds, the view out of the big front window is blurred. He watches, fascinated, as water flows down the window in a thin sheet.

“Shitty weather, huh?” the silent one says, making him start. He remembers the phrase from earlier. He still doesn’t know what it means.

“Yes,” he says. He said it before and Cor didn’t seem unhappy or angry, so he thinks it’s probably right.

The silent one stares out of the window for a moment. He can see him in the mirror.

“You OK?” the silent one says then. “I mean – you freaked out a little back there. I thought you were going to pass out for sure.”

“Yes,” he says. “I didn’t pass out.”

“Yeah, I got that,” the silent one says, laughing a little. “I’m just saying. My little brother has panic attacks sometimes so – I know they really suck.”

He’s trying to decide how to respond to that when Cor comes back, hurrying through the falling water. He’s carrying a red bottle in his hand, and when he gets in the car he holds it out.

“Sports drink,” he says. “I asked for the least strong-tasting one.”

He takes the bottle. “I should drink it?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says, starting the car. “It’ll help keep you going while you’re still learning how to eat properly. If you don’t hate it, I’ll get a bunch.”

He opens the bottle and takes a sip. It tastes – strange. Not thick and greasy like the broth. It’s – clammy and – tastes like the shampoo smelt. It’s not pleasant, but he swallows it and his stomach doesn’t rebel.

Cor watches him. He takes another sip, then another. Cor nods.

“All right,” he says, and pulls out into the road.

~

The first place Cor takes him is a room full of equipment. The light is bright and stark, and it reminds him of the facility. There’s two people there, and when he comes in they look up.

“This the one?” says the taller one. He’s wearing glasses and holding a thin book.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He turns to him. “These guys are going to examine you.”

He nods. The shorter one gets up. She’s wearing glasses, too. She walks up to him and looks him up and down.

“What’s with the shades?” she asks.

“Take the sunglasses off,” Cor says.

He does. The shorter one’s eyes widen. “Whoa,” she says. “Hey, Dig. Take a look at this.”

The taller one stands up and comes over. He stares into his eyes, then looks at his book. “Says here they’re human eyes,” he says.

“No way,” the shorter one says. “You ever see human eyes that colour?”

The taller one shrugs. “That’s what the Doc’s notes say.”

The shorter one whistles. “Crazy cool,” she says. She grabs his arm and pulls him over to a table on wheels, like the one from yesterday. “How do I communicate with it?”

Cor frowns. He looks angry. “You can just talk to him,” he says. “He can understand you.”

“For serious?” the shorter one says. “Full AI?”

“No,” Cor says. His voice is sharp, and the look of excitement on the shorter one’s face suddenly fades. “He’s a person. You’ll treat him like a person. Got it?”

The shorter one swallows. “Yeah,” she says. “Got it. Sorry.”

The taller one steps forward, then. “Get on the table,” he says.

He gets on the table. The taller one stares at his book. “Take your shirt off,” he says.

He takes his shirt off. The shorter one whistles, more subdued now. “What’s that?” she says.

“Ports,” the taller one says. “Didn’t you read the notes at all?”

The shorter one bends her head and prods her finger into his sustenance port. She tugs at it, then tries to get her fingernail between the edge of the port and his skin. It stings.

“Any more?” she says. “Take your pants off.”

He takes his pants off. The shorter one walks around the table. The taller one stares into his eyes. Then he pulls out a light and shines it into them, just like the one with the white coat did the day before. He clicks the light off, then on again, then off and on in rapid succession.

“You are so weird,” he murmurs.

~

He spends a little over two hours in the room with the two people. They touch him all over, pressing their fingers into his skin, moving his arms and legs around, testing him just like the one with the white coat did the day before. Sometimes Cor tells them to stop what they’re doing, and they do. But they always start again soon after.

Cor’s angry the whole time. He tries not to look at him. Cor hasn’t given him any orders, and he hasn’t told him to stop following the orders that the two people give him, so he’s not sure why Cor’s angry. But he is. And after two hours, he suddenly stands up.

“Enough,” he says, sharp enough that both the two people flinch. “You’ve had long enough.”

“Respectfully, sir,” the taller one says, “a lifetime wouldn’t be long enough with tech like this.”

“He’s not tech,” Cor says. He looks like he’s about to say something else, but then he clenches his jaw. “You can look at him again once you’ve had time to think over what you’ve seen today,” he says. “No unnecessary tests. You do what you need and nothing else, got it?”

“Sir–” the shorter one says, but Cor doesn’t even wait to hear what she’s going to say.

“Put your clothes back on,” he says. “We’re leaving.”

He puts the clothes back on. He feels less shaky as soon as he does, even though the room isn’t too cold. Cor grabs his arm, and he feels relieved by the touch. After the two people touching him, this is – familiar, and reassuring. And they’re leaving, and that’s good, too. He doesn’t like this room, even though he isn’t sure why.

Cor walks too fast again, but he doesn’t mind. They’re in the corridor now, the silent one following behind. It’s a different silent one now – not the one who closed the window – but with the same clothes. They walk a long way, then they go up in an elevator. It’s the same one as yesterday, with the white fabric on the walls and the chimes playing. When they get out, they walk along the same corridor to the same door. Cor knocks, and the same voice tells them to come in.

They go in. The one with the glasses is there. He turns towards them.

“Ah,” he says. “I was wondering if I would see you today. I’ve made you some lunch.”

Cor stands in the doorway. He lets out a heavy breath.

“Thanks,” he says. He points towards the table, the same chair as yesterday. He sits down.

“Leek and potato,” the one with the glasses says. He puts a cup down in front of him. “I didn’t strain it, but I can, if need be. See how your stomach holds up.”

He looks at Cor. Cor nods, and he picks up the cup. It smells different from the broth, and it looks green and opaque. He takes a sip. It tastes strong, but he’s prepared for that now. He sips again, waiting for the feeling of warmth in his chest, his stomach. It starts to seep into him, and he sips again.

And then: Cor smiles. “You’re doing great, kid,” he says. He stops sipping, feeling a sudden burst of warmth in his chest that he doesn’t think has anything to do with the food. Cor’s smiling. He sips again. If it makes Cor happy, he’ll drink the whole thing, even if it makes him throw up.

He looks at the one with the glasses. He’s not smiling, but he looks satisfied. “I was beginning to worry you didn’t like my cooking,” he says.

Cor laughs, then, short and relieved-sounding. “Speaking of cooking, you got any for me?” he asks.

“Of course, Marshal,” the one with the glasses says. He produces a round flat white item – a plate, he remembers – with a number of items on top of it: small green spheres, a dark brown cuboid, elongated orange half-cylinders. He recognises the green spheres from a picture on a package Cor showed him yesterday, but he doesn’t remember the name. There’s a smell that makes his stomach curdle a little, but Cor sniffs and makes a noise like he’s satisfied.

“I should get you to cook for me all the time,” he says.

The one with the glasses looks pleased. “It’s certainly rewarding when someone actually enjoys eating,” he says. He lays two implements – knife, he thinks, looking at one of them, but the other he can’t remember – down on the table on either side of the plate, and Cor picks them up and begins to operate on his food. He holds the brown cuboid down with the implement whose name he can’t remember, and then cuts a piece off it with the knife. He puts the piece in his mouth and then chews.

“Are you all right?” the one with the glasses asks.

He realises he’s staring. He turns back to his cup.

“Yes, sir,” he says.

Cor makes a slight choking noise. He swallows. “His name’s Ignis,” he says. “Remember? No sir-ing.”

Oh. He hadn’t realised that was with everyone – he thought it was only Cor who didn’t want to be called sir. “Ignis,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“Quite all right,” the one with the glasses says. Ignis. Cor wants him to call him Ignis. “I’m sure you’ve met a lot of new people recently.” He peers at him like he’s waiting for something. Cor raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, he’s having a hard time remembering much at all,” he says. “Because of the accident.”

“Ah, yes,” Ignis says. “The accident. I’m so sorry.” He turns away towards the bank of cupboards, and he suddenly recognises what it is. It’s a kitchen. Like Cor’s kitchen. That’s why there’s food here.

“Hey,” Cor says through a mouthful of food, “put some music on, will you? The kid likes it.”

“Do you?” Ignis says, looking back over his shoulder. “Any particular genre?”

He doesn’t know what genre means. He looks at Cor.

“He likes whatever it was you were playing yesterday,” Cor says.

“Hm,” Ignis says. “Quite unusual – a teenage boy who enjoys classical music.”

Cor laughs at that. “Come on, kid,” he says. “You’re still a teenage boy yourself, even if you don’t always act that way.”

Ignis raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. He turns to the wall, and after a moment, chimes start playing. He stops sipping the leek-and-potato and listens. It’s not the same as yesterday, but it’s similar. He can hear all sorts of different tones of chime, and they interweave with each other, some going up when others are going down, or disappearing entirely then reappearing. Sometimes they reinforce each other and sometimes they seem to almost be talking, one tone speaking and the other responding. It’s – complex, and satisfying. He wants to understand how it works. He gets lost looking for the details.

There’s a sharp snap in his ear, and he starts, then turns to look at Cor. He’s holding his hand out. He made the noise with his fingers.

“Drink your soup,” Cor says.

He looks down at the cup. He’d forgotten it was there. He picks it up and sips. Cor seems happy with that, and so he settles down to try and drink the leek-and-potato and listen to the chimes at the same time. It’s difficult to concentrate on the new taste and the new sounds at once, and it becomes even more difficult when Cor and Ignis start talking and he has to listen to that, too.

“Shit,” says Cor, looking at his phone. He looks up and frowns. “I’ve got to–” He stops. He looks at him. “Hm.”

“Is something the matter, Marshal?” Ignis asks. He’s eating now as well, he sees – the same thing as Cor. He doesn’t know when he started doing that. He needs to pay more attention.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “I’ve got to go.” He looks at Ignis, and then at him.

Ignis looks at him as well. Then he looks at Cor. “I can keep an eye on him, if you want,” he says. “He’s clearly no trouble.”

Cor leans back in his seat. He taps his fingertips on the table, frowning first at him, then at Ignis. Then he leans forward.

“He doesn’t like talking,” he says. “Because of the brain damage. He gets confused. So – remember I told you not to ask him any questions?”

Ignis inclines his head. “I remember,” he says. “I will do my utmost not to upset him.”

Cor watches him in silence for a moment. Then he nods.

“That all right with you, kid?” he asks. “If I leave you here with Ignis for an hour or two?”

He nods. “Yes, Cor,” he says.

“Right.” Cor stands up, but he doesn’t leave straight away. He stands still. Looking first at him, then at Ignis. “You’ll call me if – anything happens,” he says to Ignis.

Ignis nods, and Cor sighs, and then turns. He leaves the room and closes the door quietly behind him.

Ignis turns to look at him. “He’s very concerned for your welfare,” he says.

He’s not sure what the appropriate response is. Thankfully, Ignis doesn’t seem to expect him to answer.

“It must have been a terrible accident,” he says. He stands up, picking up Cor’s empty plate and his own. Then he glances over his shoulder. “That’s an – interesting piece of jewelry.”

He reaches up to touch the metal strap, then remembers that Cor said not to. He lowers his hand again.

Ignis opens a cupboard and puts the plates inside. Then he turns back to him. “Do you like this music?”

“Yes,” he says.

Ignis nods. “Have you heard it before?”

“No,” he says, and then, remembering what Cor told him about how to respond to questions, “I – can’t remember.”

Ignis considers him. His gaze is cool, but not angry. “You’ve forgotten a great deal,” he says.

“Yes,” he says. It’s true, he’s forgotten so much.

“It must be very difficult,” Ignis says. Then he sits down. “The composer’s name is Argentum. A Lucian, though he spent much of his career in Tenebrae.”

He sits, waiting for more information. He doesn’t know the meaning of several of the words Ignis said.

“This piece is called Spring,” Ignis says. “If you listen, you can hear the woodwind opening up, like flowers.”

He doesn’t know spring, woodwind and flowers. He nods, hoping it isn’t too obvious.

“I’ll play it from the beginning,” Ignis says. “It has more impact as a whole piece.”

He stands up, goes over to the wall. He presses a button and the music stops, then starts again, from the beginning. Ignis comes back and sits down.

“Listen,” he says.

~

They listen. After a while, Ignis gets up and begins to perform operations in the kitchen. He tries to remember what Cor called it. Cooking. He doesn’t speak, but he does turn the music up so it’s easier to hear over the noise of him cooking. Some time later, he sits down again.

“Should you be drinking that?” he asks, pointing at the red bottle he’s been carrying with him all day.

“Oh,” he says. He opens it. It’s only half empty. Yes, Cor wanted him to drink all of it. “Yes.”

Ignis watches him sipping at it. “What does the music make you think of?” he asks.

He thinks. Listens and thinks. “The sky,” he says at last. The music changes colours and moods, just like the sky. It’s beautiful, like the sky.

Ignis smiles. “Indeed,” he says. “How interesting.”

He sips at the drink. Ignis doesn’t say anything. Then a ringing noise goes off.

“Ah,” Ignis says. He gets to his feet and opens the cupboard for heating. “Good.” He pulls out a tray with items on it. He looks over his shoulder.

“I cook for the prince,” he says. “I must say, he’s much pickier than you, and unlike you he has no good excuse.”

He doesn’t know the correct response, so he just nods. And then, suddenly, he’s burning with questions. How are the chimes made? Are the ones with different tones made in different ways? Why does water fall out of the sky? Where does it come from? How are different foods constructed? Are they made in a lab? What are the raw materials? How does Ignis know which one to put in which kind of vessel?

He doesn’t ask any questions. He swallows them down and sips on his drink. Ignis continues to cook, and the chimes keep playing.

When the bottle’s empty, he cradles it to his chest. Outside, there’s still water falling against the window. He listens to it, and to the music. And eventually, just as on the day before, he falls asleep.

~

When he wakes up, it’s because Cor’s calling him. He opens his eyes. His body aches in a number of places. The back of the chair is digging into his spine.

“That definitely doesn’t look comfortable,” Cor says. “You didn’t want to sleep on the couch?”

He blinks and wipes his hand across his mouth. His other hand is still clutching the red bottle. He didn’t know he was allowed to sit on the couch.

“Come on, kid,” Cor says. “We gotta go. Thanks for watching him for me, Ignis.”

“He was no trouble at all,” Ignis says. “In fact, it was rather pleasant to have some company.”

Cor doesn’t quite smile, but he looks pleased. “Better not say stuff like that, or I’ll be bringing him back here every day,” he says.

Ignis inclines his head. “I would have no objection,” he says. “Although if you plan to fall asleep again tomorrow, I certainly recommend you do it on the couch.”

He swallows. His mouth is dry, but there’s no more liquid in his bottle. “Yes,” he says. He manages to stop himself from adding sir.

Cor looks at him. “You want to come back here tomorrow?” he says.

He nods. Here, where there’s chimes and warmth and nobody’s running any tests. He wants to come here as often as he can.

“All right,” Cor says. “Ignis, bill the Crownsguard for all the food.”

Ignis’ mouth twitches at the corners. “I already have,” he says.

Cor laughs at that, then gestures at the door. He stands up and follows Cor. When they reach the doorway, though, Cor turns back.

“See you tomorrow,” he says.

Ignis looks up and smiles.

“Indeed,” he says. “I will see you both tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

That night, the water stops falling from the sky.

It wakes him up – the silence. He’d gotten used to the quiet drumming of water against the glass of the window, and when it stops, he’s suddenly awake. He lies in the bed for a while, wondering why the water stopped falling. Why it started falling in the first place. Does it mean anything? No-one seemed alarmed by it. Maybe it happens all the time, outside.

After a while, he feels restless. He stands up and goes to the window. It’s dark outside – the sky not blue now, but black. Like there’s nothing there at all. He contemplates it, wondering why it changes colour all the time.

Then he passes out.

When he opens his eyes again, it’s to the sight of the silent one – the one who closed the window the night before – hovering over him, looking worried.

“Hey,” the silent one says. “You all right?”

He’s lying on the floor. His head hurts. “Yes,” he says. He tries to sit up, but his head spins, and he’s falling again. The silent one catches him.

“Take it easy,” he says. “You’re sick.”

Cor said the same thing. Sick. Sick means defective. He doesn’t think he’s sick. He feels fine. Apart from the passing out. And the dizziness.

The silent one frowns down at him. “Six,” he mutters, then, “Hey, let’s get you back to bed.”

The silent one tries to help him up, but his muscles don’t seem to work at all. Eventually, the silent one crouches and picks him up, lifting him off the ground completely. He staggers over to the bed and lays him down on it. Then he stares down at him.

“Is this an MT thing?” he asks. “Does this – happen a lot?”

He hears the words, but they sound far away. Really far.

“Yes,” he says, and his own voice sounds far away, too. Then he realises it’s not the right answer. “No.”

“I’ll get you some water,” the silent one says. He turns away.

Before the silent one comes back, he’s asleep again.

~

The next time he wakes up, the room is full of light. It’s not the grey light from before – this light is startlingly clear, with a warm hint of yellow to it. He blinks against it, dimming his vision. When he can see, he sees Cor sitting at the table by the bed, frowning at his computer.

He must make some kind of noise, because Cor turns to look at him. His frown deepens.

“Arcis says you passed out,” he says. “You feel dizzy?”

He considers. He doesn’t feel like he did when he was awake in the night. All of that seems unreal, now, like it happened to someone else. But the silent one told Cor about it, so it must have happened.

“No,” he says.

Cor nods. “Get up,” he says. “I want the doctor to look at you.”

He sits up. And sees: blue.

Outside the window, the sky is blue.

He stares at it. Then he looks at Cor. But Cor doesn’t seem to see anything strange about the sky. He doesn’t look alarmed. But why is it blue? Not the deep blue he’s seen before, but a bright, clear blue, a colour he doesn’t remember ever having seen before. How can it be blue now when it was grey before?

“Hey,” Cor says, “you OK? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He swallows. Cor doesn’t think it’s strange. So it must be normal, that the sky looks like that – bright and blue and suffused with a clear light. It’s normal, it must be normal.

Cor follows his gaze to the window.

“Did you see something outside?” he asks.

Yes. Yes, he saw something. He sees something. He feels, suddenly, as though he can see everything.

With an effort, he turns his face away.

“No,” he says, starting to climb out of bed. “Sorry.”

~

They drive to the two towers again. This time, though, he can’t keep his eyes on the road, or the people – even though there’s even more of them than there were the first day. He can’t stop looking at the sky.

It’s different, now. It’s so different from how it was when it was grey. First, it seems like it goes on for ever. He can see no end to it, just blue, blue, blue, and no matter how much he adjusts his vision, the depth seems endless. And second, where before the light was diffuse and seemed to come from no particular source, now the source is very clear: there’s a light in the sky, low down near the horizon. He sees it when the car first pulls up onto the street, and he’s struck dumb. He can’t tell how far away it is, but it’s bright – it’s so bright, even when he dims his vision as far as it will go, he can’t look directly at it. Any attempt leaves shimmering red splotches on his vision that take a long time to dissipate.

He thinks the light is circular, though he can’t look at it long enough to be sure. It’s strong enough that every time they pass into the shade of one of the buildings, the temperature falls a little. He’s never seen such a powerful light, and it’s just hanging – it’s just hanging in the sky, with no visible means of support, no visible source of power.

And Cor doesn’t even look. He doesn’t even seem to notice it, this astonishing thing. This light that is certainly far away but is bright enough to burn his eyes and hot enough to feel its warmth even at this distance. Bu Cor doesn’t seem alarmed, or amazed, or even like he’s aware it exists at all.

They stop at the same place they stopped at before, and Cor goes into the building with the colourful pictures. The light’s behind them now, and he turns to look at it. The silent one is in the back seat. He frowns and turns as well.

“What’re you looking at?” he asks.

“The light,” he says.

“What light?” The silent one turns back to look at him, frowning. “Are you seeing lights?”

Suddenly, he doubts himself. How can there be a light in the sky, hanging from nothing and powered by nothing? A light that no-one seems to notice but him? He looks back again. There it is: shining between two buildings, too bright to look at. But is it really there? Is he hallucinating? Or – is this a defect? Another sign that he needs modification?

The door opens and Cor gets into the car. He’s carrying a white plastic sack with a number of the red bottles in it, and he throws it into the back seat beside the silent one.

“Got a few, so we don’t run out,” he says.

“Hey,” the silent one says. “Listen – I’m kind of worried about the kid. He said he’s seeing lights.”

Cor turns sharply towards him, frowning ferociously. He presses himself back into the seat. He wishes he hadn’t said anything to the silent one about the light. Now Cor thinks he’s defective. Now he’s angry.

“What lights?” Cor says. “Have you got a headache?”

He does – pain is throbbing behind his right eye. He hadn’t really noticed it until now.

Cor leans forward, reaching for him. He tries to move as far away as he can, but he’s up against the car door and there’s nowhere else to go. Cor pauses, then, hand hovering.

“I want to check your eyes,” he says. “I’m not going to hurt you. You get that, right?”

He nods. He didn’t know, but he’s not going to tell Cor that. He doesn’t want to explain that he thought Cor was going to correct him, in case it makes Cor realise he does want to correct him, after all.

Cor reaches out again. He takes the sunglasses, and then leans over him. He pulls out his phone and taps the screen. A bright light starts coming out of his phone. He shines the light in one of his eyes, then the other. Then he sits back, frown deepening. Then he shakes his head.

“Did he hit his head last night?” he says to the silent one.

“I didn’t see it,” the silent one says. “I heard the thump and came in. He was already on the floor.”

Cor nods.

“Doctor,” he says.

And he starts the car.

~

Cor takes him back to see the one with the white coat. She’s in the same room – the room with all the equipment he thought was for correction. He’s not sure any more, but he still feels his stomach sink when he realises where they’re going.

“He passed out last night,” Cor says. “Says he’s seeing lights this morning.”

The one with the white coat nods and gestures to the table on wheels. He climbs up onto it, wondering again if he’s going to be modified now. He wasn’t last time. He feels that knowledge warring with sick nerves in his gut.

The one with the white coat shines a light into his eyes. He doesn’t understand why everyone keeps shining lights into his eyes. But he keeps them open, and watches as she steps back.

“Headache?” she asks.

He nods. It’s worse now. The light in his eyes didn’t help.

“What’s wrong with him?” Cor asks. He sounds angry.

“So far, I can tell you he has a headache,” the one with the white coat says. Cor glares at her, and she shrugs. “His eyes don’t react normally to light. You know that. They’re behaving the same way they did last time he was here. I don’t know if that’s how they’re supposed to behave or not.”

Cor looks even angrier, but he doesn’t say anything. The one with the white coat puts her fingers on his wrist to count his heartbeats. Then she puts a strap around his arm, just like the one he had before when the one from the phone asked him all the questions. She pumps the strap up, then lets it down, and writes something on her clipboard.

“Tell me about the lights you’re seeing,” she says.

He doesn’t want to talk about the light. He wishes he’d never mentioned it. If he talks about it, she’ll know he’s defective.

She raises her eyebrows, waiting. Then Cor speaks.

“She asked you a question, kid,” he says.

So he has to speak. He takes a deep breath.

“It’s only one light,” he says.

She nods, writing something down. “What colour is it?”

“Uh – white,” he says. “Or – yellow. It’s bright – I can’t look at it properly.”

The one with the white coat pauses in her writing, glancing at him.

“Can you see it now?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “It’s only outside.”

“Outside?” she says. She looks at Cor, then back at him. “Where outside?”

“In the sky,” he says. Just hanging there, with nothing holding it up.

She taps her pen against her lower lip. “Is it warm?” she asks.

He nods, surprised. Does she see the light, too, when she goes outside?

The one with the white coat sighs, then, and puts down her clipboard. “He’s talking about the sun,” she says to Cor.

Cor makes an incredulous face. “No, he’s not,” he says. “He didn’t say sun. He said lights.”

“The sun is a light, Marshal,” the one with the white coat says. “You said he’s never been outside before so – is there any reason to believe he’d know what the sun looks like?”

Cor’s mouth opens, but no sound comes out. He turns to stare at him, mouth still open.

“Did you mean the sun?” he says at last.

He shifts, feeling like he’s done something he shouldn’t have, though he’s not sure what it is. He’s heard the word sun before, but he doesn’t really know what it means.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Cor frowns at him. But the one in the white coat steps back in front of him.

“What did you eat yesterday?” she asks.

He tries to remember. “Leek-and-potato,” he says.

“Soup?” she asks.

He nods, though he’s not completely sure. He thinks he remembers Cor calling it soup.

“How much?” she asks.

“Two cups,” he says. “And the red drink.”

She glances at Cor. “Sports drink,” Cor says.

The one with the white coat nods.

“Not enough food,” she says to Cor. “That’s why he passed out. Two cups of soup and a sports drink is not enough to keep a teenage boy going.”

Cor frowns. “He’s finding it hard to eat much,” he says.

“Then he’ll just have to eat more often,” the one with the white coat says. “As often as possible.”

Cor stares at her, then looks at him.

“That can be arranged,” he says.

~

Cor takes him back upstairs after they leave the one with the white coat. They go in the elevator, and Cor walks slowly – much more slowly than usual. The silent one follows behind them.

They’re in the elevator for a long time. The numbers showing the floor go up – and up – and up. Finally, there’s a chime and the door opens. Cor takes him down a long hallway. There’s a tall door at the end, and Cor opens it, then takes hold of his arm and steps through.

And then they’re outside.

He’s been outside before – in the moments between climbing out of the car and going into the building. He’s looked at it through the windows. But now – now, they’re standing on a kind of platform. It projects from the side of the building, and there’s a railing around it. And it’s high up – it’s high, high above the ground. And he can see forever.

And the sky – the sky goes on forever. It arches overhead, a great, blue dome that shimmers slightly. It’s above him, around him, in front of him. And there’s the light – the ball of fire that hangs in the sky. The warmth falls on his skin, and he tilts his head up, closing his eyes.

“Is that what you meant, kid?” Cor says. “The sun?”

He opens his eyes again. “That’s the light,” he says. “You see it, too?”

Cor falls silent. He turns to look at the light. “Yeah,” he says at last. “I see it.”

He feels a sudden rush of relief. He’s not defective – not in that way, anyway. Cor sees the light as well. The light is the sun. That’s what sun means.

He’s never seen anything so beautiful.

Cor sighs. “All right,” he says. “We’ll get you something to eat.”

Cor takes his arm, but then he pauses, frowning at him.

“You all right?” he says. “Are you – crying?”

He is, he realises. The tears are leaking out under the sunglasses (sunglasses, he realises – they’re designed for the sun, because it’s so bright). He wipes the tears away.

“Sorry,” he says.

“What are you crying about?” Cor asks.

He can’t explain it. He points – at the sky, at the sun. “I’ve never seen it before,” he says.

Cor turns back to look at it. Then he runs a hand over his face.

“Shit, kid,” he mutters. “You’re breaking my heart.”

He doesn’t know what Cor means. But Cor stands still, then, and doesn’t take him back inside, and he’s glad – he’s so glad to stand out here, high above the ground, and feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. He closes his eyes again, thinking about the way the warmth feels. But he opens them not long later, because he wants to look at it all. He wants to see. He wishes he could somehow keep an image of this, exactly the way it looks in this moment, in his mind forever. He knows he won’t be able to – no matter how much he tries to remember it, the details will fade or change – but he looks anyway, looks at everything, tries to remember the way the road shines with reflected light, the way the sky shimmers and seems infinitely far away and almost close enough to touch at the same time. He feels – light. Not light-headed, but as if he’s floating in a quite different way. And Cor frowns at him.

“Huh,” he says. “I didn’t know you knew how to smile.”

He realises that Cor’s right – he’s smiling. He tries to remove the expression from his face, but Cor puts a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s good,” he says. “Keep smiling.”

So he does.

~

Eventually, Cor takes him back inside. He takes him down in the elevator, and when they get out he immediately recognises the corridor. They’re going to see Ignis.

Ignis is sitting at a table when they arrive. He has papers piled up beside him and a pen in his hand.

“Good morning,” he says. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Cor says. “I’ve got some things I gotta do, and I’d rather leave the kid here than drag him with me. If that’s all right with you.”

“Of course,” Ignis says. He gestures to the couch. “Be my guest.”

He sits on the couch. It’s even softer than he remembers. He leans back, letting himself sink in. He closes his eyes, remembering the picture he tried to make in his mind: the blue, shimmering sky, the warmth of the sun, the clarity of the light. He hears Cor walking over to Ignis, speaking to him in a low voice. He sharpens his hearing to listen.

“...passed out,” Cor’s saying. “Doc says he needs to eat a lot more. More calories, I guess. I’m sorry, Ignis, I know you’ve got a lot of other things to do.”

“That’s quite all right,” Ignis says. “It doesn’t take much more effort to cook a large batch than a small one. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Great,” Cor says. “Thanks. And if he goes down again, you call me, all right? Don’t hesitate.”

“Understood,” Ignis says.

The footsteps come back towards him, and he opens his eyes to see Cor standing in front of him. He’s holding one of the red bottles.

“Drink this,” he says, holding it out, “and try to eat whatever Ignis gives you. I’ll be back in a few hours.”

He takes the bottle. “Yes,” he says.

Cor nods, and turns away. He leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

He opens the bottle and starts to sip. Ignis rises to his feet.

“Let’s have some music, shall we?” he says. He goes to the machine in the wall that plays music, and a moment later, the chimes sound across the room.

Ignis goes back to his table. “I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot of reading to do this morning,” he says. “I hope you won’t be too bored.”

He doesn’t know bored. “No,” he says. “I won’t.”

And he settles back to listen to the music.

~

He eats a lot that day. His stomach is constantly full, and every time it starts to feel a little less heavy, Ignis is there with another cup. He knows Cor wants him to eat more, so he does his best. Sometimes, though, he barely keeps himself from throwing up, and he sips on the red drink, hoping that Ignis will consider it just as good and stop bringing him cups of soup and broth.

He sleeps, too. He sleeps once in the morning, while Ignis is busy writing at his table, and then again after what Ignis calls lunch. The second time, when he wakes up, he’s lying on his side on the couch, with a blanket over him. He’s not sure whether it’s permitted, and he sits up quickly, but Ignis doesn’t seem to mind.

He spends all day with Ignis, and it’s – easy. Ignis doesn’t ask him many questions or try to run any tests on him. He talks to him sometimes – he explains things about the music, most of which he doesn’t understand, and he talks about cooking – but he doesn’t seem to expect him to say much in response. In the afternoon, the light in the room changes, and Ignis goes and stands in front of the window.

“It’s so pleasant to see the sun after so many grey days,” Ignis says.

He stands up, too. He goes to stand next to Ignis and look at the sun.

“Yes,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

Ignis turns to look at him. He looks surprised. “Yes,” he says. “Indeed it is.”

~

Cor comes back to fetch him, but he brings him back the next day, and the next. He spends a lot of time doing his best to eat, or sleeping on the couch. He drinks the red drink and listens to music. Ignis reads a lot, he discovers. When he’s not reading, he’s cooking. He never seems to be angry, and he never asks many questions.

It’s easy.

On the fifth day that Cor brings him to see Ignis, he falls asleep on the couch after lunch. It’s not unusual – he’s done it every day so far, except the day he fells asleep in the hard-backed chair instead. But this time, he’s woken by the bang of the door, closing harder than it usually does.

“Ignis, who’s in charge of appointing teachers in Lucis?” asks a voice he doesn’t recognise.

Ignis clears his throat.

“Because I swear,” the voice continues, “they only ever pick the oldest, most boring – uh.”

The voice stops when he sits up. It belongs to a new person – one with black hair who looks like a level two, except he’s human. The level two stares at him.

“Who’re you?” he asks.

“Noct,” Ignis says, gesturing, “a word, if I may?”

Ignis takes the level two to the other side of the room. He lowers his voice to a whisper, so he sharpens his hearing to listen.

“This young man is under the – protection of Marshal Leonis,” Ignis says.

“Protection?” the level two says. “What do you means, protection? Who is he?”

“It seems he was in a terrible accident,” Ignis says. “He’s sustained some damage to his brain, and it appears Cor has taken on the burden of caring for him.”

The level two glances at him, frowning. “Brain damage?” he whispers. “Cor’s looking after some kid with brain damage? Why?”

Ignis shrugs. “I have wondered if the young man might be related to him in some way,” he says. “Either way, Cor has asked that he be treated kindly, and not be asked any questions. It seems he has a difficult time remembering many things, and questions may upset him.”

A pause. “OK,” the level two says, “but why is he here? Shouldn’t he be with Cor?”

“Cor asked me to keep him company,” Ignis says. “He needs to eat to regain his strength, and Cor thought I might be able to tempt him with my cooking.”

The level two makes a sighing noise. “Fine,” he says. “What’s his name?”

“Ah,” says Ignis. “Well, that is one of the questions that it seems Cor would prefer we not ask.”

“Seriously?” the level two says. “You don’t even know his name? What is this, some kind of witness protection thing?”

“I have wondered the same thing,” Ignis says. “There’s certainly something strange going on here. But the young man himself is polite and unassuming, and if Cor needs my help...”

There’s another pause, then the level two sighs again, more heavily this time. “Fine,” he says. He turns and walks across the room to one of the soft chairs. He’s carrying a bag over one shoulder, and he drops it by the chair, then sits down, breathing out in a rush of air.

“Hi,” he says.

He swallows. “Hi,” he says. It’s a greeting. He’s heard people saying it over the last few days, and he thinks he got it right.

The level two stares at him. His eyes are dark blue, and they make him feel uncomfortable, like his skin’s itching.

“What’s with the shades?” the level two asks.

He remembers the one who examined his ports saying the same thing a few days ago, right before Cor told him to take his sunglasses off. He doesn’t know what the question means. He remembers what Cor told him – to reply to questions with I don’t know or I can’t remember – but he’s still trying to decide which one might be more appropriate when Ignis speaks.

“I should think the light hurts his eyes,” he says. “Comas can weaken every part of someone’s body, even their eyesight.”

He looks at Ignis. “Yes,” he says. He thinks now that the level two was talking about the sunglasses. Shades, because they shade the light, maybe. “The light hurts my eyes.”

Ignis watches him for a moment, as though he’s considering something. Then he nods.

“This is Prince Noctis,” he says, gesturing at the level two. “You remember I told you I cook for him?”

He nods. He doesn’t want to look at the level two again. He thinks he’s still staring.

“Well, Noct, you’d better get started on your homework,” Ignis says.

“Yeah, whatever,” the level two says. “In a minute.” He looks at him out of the corner of his eye, and he sees that he’s pulled his phone out and is staring at it.

Ignis sighs. He goes back to his table, where he’s been reading through a thick book all day. Now he’s further away than the level two. Now the room doesn’t feel as warm as it did before. He starts to hope that Cor will come to collect him soon.

“What’s with the music?” the level two says, then. “Did somebody die?”

Ignis looks up, raising an eyebrow. “This is some of the most sublime music ever composed in Lucis, Noct. You might try learning to appreciate your heritage some time.”

The level two sighs again. Then he looks at him.

“Don’t worry about Specs,” he says. “He was forty-five when he was born.”

He’s still trying to puzzle out what this statement means when the level two gets up and goes over to the wall where the music apparatus is housed. A moment later, the rich, smooth, swelling sound of the chimes is replaced by something loud, discordant, and thumping. The transition is so sharp and unexpected it makes him jump.

“Turn it down a little, at least,” Ignis says, shouting to make himself heard over the music.

The music gets quieter, but the lowest chimes still throb through his skull, making his headache worse. He sips at the red bottle and keeps his eyes on the ground. The level two drifts back to his chair and starts looking at his phone again.

And everything’s different. It’s the same room, Ignis is still there, there’s even still music. But now he feels nervous, sitting as still as he can, watching the level two out of the corner of his eye, wondering what he should be doing. Every time the level two shifts position slightly, a thrill runs through his stomach. The music doesn’t help, something about the speed of the rhythm and the strange, tortured sound that he thinks is a person’s voice making him feel even more on edge. Everything’s different.

He hopes Cor comes to collect him soon.

Chapter Text

The level two stays for two hours, staring at his phone and exchanging a few words with Ignis, then leaves. Shortly after that, Cor comes to collect him. By that time, Ignis has changed the music back to what it was before, and he’s starting to feel a little less nauseated. He wants to ask if the level two will be there again the next day, but he doesn’t. Cor’s quiet and seems angry, and he doesn’t want to ask him anything at all.

That night, Cor disappears into another room almost as soon as they get home, leaving him alone in the kitchen. He sits there, wondering what he should do. Outside, the light is diminishing. The sky is going from light grey to darker grey, and now he knows that soon it will be blue and then black. The same thing happens every day, and he assumes that for some reason the fire in the sun goes out gradually every evening and then is lit again in the morning. He stares at the window, wondering how it happens. How big is the sun? He isn’t sure, but the amount of light and warmth it produces without any audible noise of burning suggests it must be very far away and therefore also very big. Who is responsible for lighting the fires in the morning and putting them out in the evening? He thinks it must take an army of people. Or MT units, perhaps. Yes, that seems more plausible. He wonders what it’s like, lighting the fires of the sun every day. He wonders if he could be trained for that, or if he’s too defective.

Eventually, the light is gone, and the kitchen is dark, lit only by the LEDs on the cooking machines and the faint light that comes up from the street below. He adjusts his vision so that he can still see most of the room, though the parts in deep shadow are invisible. He considers switching to night vision mode, but it always makes him feel sick, and there’s nothing in here he particularly needs to look at, so he doesn’t.

After a while, the door opens. Light floods in through the doorway, and he quickly dims his vision so he can see who’s there. It’s the silent one – the one who closed the window. He always appears in the evenings and stays until mid-morning, when a different silent one takes over.

“Just checking in for my – uh,” the silent one says. “Why are you sitting in the dark?”

He looks around. “The sun went out,” he says.

“Uh, yeah,” the silent one says. He turns on the light in the kitchen. “What are you doing in here?”

He looks around again. “I’ m not doing anything,” he says. “Am I supposed to be doing something? I didn’t get any instructions.”

The silent one stares at him. “Aren’t you bored?” he says at last.

He remembers that Ignis said something about bored before, but he still doesn’t know what it means. I hope you won’t be bored, Ignis said. So bored is something bad, that he shouldn’t be.

“No,” he says.

“Huh.” The silent one stares at him some more. Then he comes round and sits at the table. He stares for a little while more. Finally, he speaks. “You know how to play Altissian pickup?” he asks.

He shakes his head. The silent one produces a small, flat, oblong box. He opens it, and pulls out a stack of cardboard rectangles.

“It’s simple,” he says. “Hearts are trumps. Each player gets seven cards, then there’s one card on the table. Each player lays down a card in turn, overlapping like this, and if you can make a three, a four, or a straight with the cards in your hand and one that’s in the pile you can pick up every card on top of the one in the pile. First player to get rid of all their cards gets twenty points, but you get points for the cards in front of you as well. Here.”

He starts to put the oblong pieces of cardboard down on the table. First he puts one in front of him, then one in front of himself. He does this seven times, so there are seven pieces of cardboard in front of each of them. They all have the same image on them, a network of lines that forms diamond shapes. Then he puts the rest of the stack down in the middle of the table, picks up the top piece of cardboard, and turns it the other way up. It has seven large red diamond shapes on it and two number 7s in opposite corners with smaller diamonds underneath them.

“All right,” he says, picking up the pile of seven pieces of cardboard in front of him and holding them up in a sort of fan-shape. “I dealt, so you go first. Practice round, till you get the hang.”

He stares at the silent one for a moment, then looks down at the pile of pieces of cardboard in front of him. He picks them up the same way, and holds them like a fan, glancing at the silent one to make sure he’s doing the right thing. On the other side, all the pieces of cardboard are different. Most have symbols and numbers on them, either in red or in black, but some have images of people with two heads and no legs, and those have letters on them instead of numbers. He puzzles over them for a little while, trying to understand what the images are showing, until the silent one clears his throat.

“You go first,” the silent one says.

He doesn’t understand the instructions. He spends a few seconds trying to put all the clues together to see if he can avoid having to reveal his stupidity once again, but the silent one is raising his eyebrows, and he realises that failing to follow instructions for too long is probably worse than looking stupid. So he takes the plunge.

“Go where?” he asks.

The silent one stares at him. He starts to point at the piece of cardboard that’s on the table, the one with the red diamonds on it, but then he pauses, frowning.

“Have you ever played cards before?” he asks.

Slowly, he shakes his head. He doesn’t truly understand the question, but he’s pretty sure whatever played cards is, he’s never done it.

The silent one puts the pieces of cardboard he’s holding down on the table. “Do you even know what cards are?” he asks. He points at the pieces of cardboard. “Playing cards?”

He looks at the pieces of cardboard. “They’re – images?” he says. “A counting system?”

The silent one leans back in his chair. He puts his hands behind his head and interlaces the fingers. He stares.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He knows he’s stupid. There are so many things he doesn’t understand, now that Cor is his commander. He wishes Cor would give him some kind of comprehensive instruction manual, since there are no posters or announcements to help him to learn his new orders.

Abruptly, the silent one sits upright again.

“It’s fine,” he says. He takes the stack of pieces of cardboard and turns it over, then spreads it out so that most of the pieces are visible. “Look,” he says. “These are called playing cards. Or just cards. Got it?”

“Cards,” he says. “Yes, I understand.”

~

The silent one spends a long time teaching him about playing cards. There are fifty-four cards in a pack, of which fifty-two are divided into four suits of thirteen cards each. Each suit has its own symbol, and each suit has the same range of numbers (two to ten) and then four other cards, which are called picture cards and have names instead of numbers. Then there are two jokers. The cards are used to play card games, and each card game has different rules about what can be done with each type of card. The silent one is about to start teaching him the rules of a card game when Cor suddenly appears in the doorway.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” he says, frowning.

He looks up. “Was I supposed to go to bed?” he asks. He doesn’t remember Cor telling him to go to bed – but then, there’s a lot he doesn’t remember lately. He hopes he didn’t forget it.

“It’s late,” Cor says. He seems to think that’s an answer to the question. He tries to decide whether that means he was supposed to be in bed or not. Cor obviously thought he would be, so he must have been supposed to go. Did Cor tell him to go? He thinks he remembers the whole evening, but Cor seems to think he should have known what to do, so maybe he has forgotten something and just not noticed. He feels suddenly unsteady, as though the floor’s shifting under his feet. He stands up.

“Should I go to bed now?” he asks.

“Yeah, kid,” Cor says. “Get some sleep. See you in the morning.”

“Yes,” he says. He leaves the kitchen and goes up the stairs. He still feels off-balance, and he holds tight to the rail so that he doesn’t fall. Behind him, the kitchen door closes, and then he hears the murmur of voices. He sharpens his hearing so he can hear what they’re saying.

“Why was he still up?” Cor asks.

“I didn’t realise it was so late,” the silent one says. “I was teaching him Altissian pickup.”

“You’re not supposed to be teaching him anything,” Cor says. “You’re supposed to be watching him.”

“Sure,” the silent one says. “I didn’t take my eyes off him. Much easier to watch him from in the same room than from outside the door, by the way.”

There’s a silence, and then, sounding significantly less cheerful, the silent one says, “Sir.”

He reaches the top of the stairs and goes into the room where he sleeps. He sits on the bed and takes his shoes off. Then he lies down and closes his eyes. He has to sharpen his hearing a little more to hear what Cor and the silent one are saying now.

“Permission to speak freely, sir,” the silent one says.

“Doesn’t seem like you need my permission, these days,” Cor says. Then he sighs. “Say what you gotta say.”

“When I came in – the kid was just sitting in the dark,” the silent one says. “No idea how long he’d been there. Seems like when the sun went down he just – never turned on the light.”

There’s a pause. “What was he doing?” Cor asks.

“Nothing,” the silent one says. “Says no-one gave him any instructions. So he was just sitting there.”

There’s another pause, longer this time. Then Cor speaks again. He sounds tired.

“Understood,” he says. “Get to your post.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. Then there’s the sound of the kitchen door opening and closing, and footsteps on the stairs. After that, there’s no more talking to listen to, so he lets his hearing come back to normal levels.

He changes into the clothes he’s supposed to wear at night and gets into the bed. He doesn’t sleep for a while, though. He stares at the ceiling, thinking about the playing cards. The system is pleasingly well-ordered – even the picture cards have underlying assigned numerical values which the silent one didn’t mention but became clear nonetheless through the conversation. The ace card can either be worth one or fourteen, and that’s an anomaly, but at the same time it allows the whole suit to make a closed circle, and that’s pleasing, too. The fact that the rules for use of the cards apparently change with each type of game is concerning, but the fact that there are rules – and that the silent one seems willing to explain them – feels more solid than almost anything else since he came to be under Cor’s command. He still doesn’t understand the purpose of the card games, but he hopes the silent one will teach him the rules to one tomorrow.

With that thought in mind, he drifts off to sleep.

~

The next day, Cor frowns at him while they’re having breakfast.

“You know you’re allowed to do things without me telling you to, right?” he says.

He swallows his mouthful of broth. He doesn’t like this kind – it makes him feel queasy. But Cor told him to drink as much as possible, so he does. “I don’t understand,” he says.

“I mean–” Cor says, then stops, tapping his fingers on the the table. “When I’m not around – like yesterday, when I had to work in the evening. You can do what you want. Listen to music, read a book, chill out. Whatever you like, as long as you stay in the apartment and don’t set fire to anything.”

He tries to take this set of instructions apart. He remembers the conversation he listened to the night before, and wonders if it was wrong for him to be sitting in the dark doing nothing. Why would the silent one have told Cor about it if it wasn’t wrong in some way? But Cor doesn’t seem angry. Still, he’s not sure exactly how to follow the instructions. He doesn’t know how to make music play, and he doesn’t have any books. He doesn’t know what chill out means.

“What should I do?” he asks.

“Like I said,” Cor says, “whatever you want.”

He starts to feel a little sick. The broth sits heavily in his stomach. “I want – to follow orders,” he says. “What are the orders?”

Cor stares at him in silence. It’s clear that he’s not pleased with the response. His stomach starts to churn. He’s said the wrong thing, but he’s not sure what it was he said wrong. He’s supposed to follow orders. It’s the entire reason for his existence. How could he have been wrong to say that?

He drops his gaze to the table. A moment later, Cor sighs heavily.

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” he says. “Finish your breakfast and let’s get out of here.”

So that’s what he does.

~

That day, Cor doesn’t take him straight to see Ignis. Instead, he takes him to a small room with benches along the wall. There’s a tall wooden door, carved with images, and Cor knocks on it. A voice calls from inside. It’s the one from the phone. Cor goes inside and closes the door behind him.

“Clarus,” he says. The door is surprisingly thick, so he has to sharpen his hearing significantly to hear the conversation.

“Marshal,” the one from the phone says. “How’s the boy?”

“Yeah, fine,” Cor says. “Listen – we need to start thinking about what we’re going to do with him.”

There’s a pause, and the sound of someone moving paper around. “In what sense?” the one from the phone asks.

“I mean – he’s in limbo right now,” Cor says. “He’s not free, but he’s not exactly a prisoner, either. Shit, Clarus, the kid doesn’t have the first idea how to be a human being. Are we going to – I don’t know, put him in school or something?”

“We don’t know for sure that he is a human being,” the one from the phone says.

“Don’t start with that,” Cor says. “You’ve seen the reports. Sure, he’s been modified, but most of him’s still human.”

“And yet he bleeds daemon blood and his vision is well outside the range of human capabilities,” the one from the phone says. “And besides, even if he weren’t potentially a serious threat, we can hardly let him loose into the general public looking the way he does. Anyone who caught a glimpse of his eyes or his ports could either start a mass panic or lynch him. Or both.”

Cor makes a sort of growling noise. “Fuck, I could murder those Niffs,” he says. “Who the fuck does this to their own kids?”

“I know,” the one from the phone says. “I understand you’re frustrated, Cor. But you must be patient. We need to learn everything we can about him before we can make a proper plan of action. The engineers have asked to see him again tomorrow.”

“They’ll have to wait,” Cor says. “I’m busy all day tomorrow.”

“I’ll have them call you to make an appointment,” the one from the phone says. He pauses a moment. “The faster they can understand him, the faster we’ll be able to – rehabilitate him.”

“Yeah, sure,” Cor says. “Everyone’s got his best interests at heart.”

The one from the phone sighs. “I feel for the boy,” he says. “But the safety of the king and the kingdom is my first priority. As it should be yours.”

“It is,” Cor says. “You know that. Just – you don’t have to see him every day. Talk to him. See what they’ve done. Six, the kid thinks I’m his commanding officer.”

“And what do you think you are?” the one from the phone asks.

Cor doesn’t answer.

~

Cor takes him to see Ignis. He feels his stomach start to churn again as they approach the door, but when they step through, he sees the level two isn’t there. It’s just Ignis, chopping a type of food which he thinks belongs to the class of vegetable, although he’s still only perhaps seventy percent accurate with the categorisation of foods. When he sees that, his stomach starts to calm again. Perhaps the level two won’t come here again. He hopes not.

Cor stays for a short while and eats a food that Ignis gives him, which looks like a long, pale-brown tube and is otherwise unidentifiable. Cor enjoys it, though, and tells Ignis so. Then he leaves.

He sits on the couch. Ignis continues to cook. There’s music playing – the normal kind, not the kind that the level two played yesterday. He lets himself sink into the seat. Yesterday was unusual, then. Maybe it won’t happen again.

He closes his eyes. After a while, the noise of Ignis cooking stops. Then he hears footsteps coming towards him. He opens his eyes again. Ignis is standing in front of him, frowning thoughtfully.

“I apologise,” Ignis says. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“I wasn’t asleep,” he says.

“I see,” Ignis says. He sits down on one of the soft chairs. “What were you doing?”

“Nothing,” he says. “Do you want me to do something?” He’s beginning to think that doing nothing is not considered to be appropriate in this regimen, but he doesn’t have enough information to be sure.

“Not if you’re happy as you are,” Ignis says. “I just wonder if you aren’t rather bored.”

That word again. “No,” he says, sure now that it’s a negative thing. “I’m not bored.”

“Indeed,” Ignis says. “How interesting.” He looks at him like he’s fascinated. He wishes he would look away.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “Why is it interesting?”

“Well, most young men your age get bored extremely easily,” Ignis says. “And yet you, it seems, never get bored at all.”

His stomach curdles. Bored isn’t negative, then. Bored is something he’s supposed to be. That’s why everyone keeps asking him about it. They’re expecting it from him, but he’s not doing it. He can’t do it, because he doesn’t even know what it is.

“I do think that this can’t be very good for your rehabilitation,” Ignis says. “Sitting all day doing nothing, with no mental stimulation. Would you like a book to read?”

“Yes,” he says immediately. He’s not sure what the connection is, but if Ignis suggested it in the context of their conversation, then maybe reading a book has something to do with being bored. Maybe if he reads the book, he’ll be bored. Then Ignis will be pleased with him.

Ignis looks pleased already. “What kind of books do you like?” he asks.

He swallows. He doesn’t know any kinds of books except instruction manuals, but from the way Ignis says it, there must be other kinds, too. But – an instruction manual. He wants an instruction manual that will explain how he’s supposed to behave. He wants it so much.

“A manual?” he says.

The pleased look fades from Ignis’ face, replaced by confusion. “I’m sorry?” he says.

That was wrong, then. He scrambles to try and rectify his mistake. “I d– I don’t remember,” he says. That’s what Cor told him to say. He should have remembered that, instead of trying to answer questions by himself. He’s so stupid.

“Oh, of course,” Ignis says. He nods, but there’s still the hint of confusion in his face. “Well, I’ll find you something and we’ll see if we can’t rediscover what you like.”

He stands up and disappears into another room. A minute or two later, he comes back. He’s holding a book – much smaller than the ones he’s used to. He holds it out.

“Try this,” he says. “I remember enjoying it when I was your age.”

He takes the book. It has a colourful cover, with an image of what he assumes is a vehicle moving over a wide area of water. On it are printed the words SPIRIT OF THE HYDRAEAN.

“Thank you,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” says Ignis. “Now, let me make you some soup.”

Ignis turns away, towards the kitchen part of the room. He looks at the book in his hand. There’s something else on the cover, too, in smaller letters. PHASMA MARUM. He doesn’t understand the words. He opens the book to the first page.

The first page of the book is concerned with instructions for the reproduction, copying and sale of the book. He reads them carefully, although he doesn’t intend to reproduce, copy or sell the book. Still, it’s important to be aware of the content of posted instructions, even if they don’t seem relevant at the time. After that is a page which repeats the same words as on the cover. Then a third page which is headed Chapter One. The rest of the page is covered in small, close-spaced type. There are no bullet points or figures. He frowns, but starts to read anyway.

After the first page, he realises he can’t understand the book at all. He reads the page again, trying to categorise the problems. The first is that there are many words he doesn’t know. Even on one page, he counts thirty-five. The book has three hundred and fifty pages in it, and so even if some of the words are repeated often (he flicks through and finds that they are), that still suggests a very large number of words that he won’t understand. Then, there are also phrases in which he understands all the words but still doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrase they form. There are seven of these on the page. And finally, he doesn’t understand the purpose behind the text. It’s hard to make out exactly, given all the words and phrases he doesn’t understand. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem to be addressed to the reader in any way. Instead, it describes a person doing various things, including speaking to another person and thinking. There’s no clue in the page he reads as to why the person is being described and what instructive purpose the description might serve. He turns to the next page, but find more of the same. He reads it carefully for clues, and then, thinking that perhaps he’s misunderstood, turns to the back and reads the last page. It doesn’t help. The last page is the same as the first: a description of the same person, this time thinking about someone she knows that has died.

He closes the book, frowning at the cover. Then he opens it again and starts from the beginning. The first page is easy: the instructions about reproducing, copying and selling. He reads this page twice, relieved by its simplicity. Then he takes a deep breath, and tackles the next part again.

After five pages, he has to pause. He feels bewildered, both by the barrage of words he doesn’t understand, and by the whole experience of reading the book. He’s starting to feel dizzy, and he puts down the red bottle he’s been sipping from. He wants to rub his eyes, but he can’t take off the sunglasses. He closes them instead, as tight as he can. Then he opens them again. Ignis told him to read the book. So he’ll read it.

He reads seventy-five pages before Ignis stops cooking and comes towards him with a cup in his hand. Ignis looks surprised.

“You’re getting through that very fast,” he says. “Are you enjoying it?”

His head is spinning. He feels overwhelmed by all the words he’s read, and by the sense of a complete lack of understanding, both of the parts and of the whole. He swallows, and Ignis frowns.

“Oh – don’t get upset,” he says. He puts the cup down on a small table that stands by the couch. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he says. There’s a strange waver in his voice.

“I see.” Ignis sits down next to him again. He stares at him for a long time, and then he reaches out for the book.

“May I look at it?” he asks.

He gives him the book. He feels glad to have it out of his hands, though he’s sure Ignis will return it soon and he’ll have to read the rest. Ignis opens it to the page he’d been reading and scans down the page with his eyes. He frowns a little – but it’s not angry, it’s a thoughtful frown. Then he looks up.

“This was difficult for you, wasn’t it?” he says. “Reading this, I mean.”

He doesn’t want to say yes, because he doesn’t want Ignis to think he’s incapable of carrying out orders. But he doesn’t want to say no because Ignis might find out he’s lying.

“I can do it,” he says instead.

Ignis nods. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sure it will take a little time for your cognitive faculties to fully recover.”

Yes, he thinks. His cognitive faculties are damaged. Ignis knows he’s defective. But then he remembers that Ignis thinks he’s human, and he’s not sure any more what Ignis means.

“Give me a moment,” Ignis says. He rises to his feet and disappears back through the same door he went through to fetch the book. When he comes back, he’s not holding it any more. Instead, he has a much larger book – more the size of the books he’s used to – and he walks over and holds it out.

“Perhaps you’ll like this one more,” he says. “But you must certainly tell me if you don’t. There’s no reason for you to read something you’re not enjoying.”

The cover of this book is much shinier than the other. It’s all black, and there are silver words on it. Lucis by Night, it says, and then underneath, Laus Venustas. He opens the book. The first page, again, contains instructions regarding the reproduction, copying or sale of the book. These are very similar to those in the first book. Then, a page with the same words as the cover. But when he turns the page again, he’s startled. Instead of a page full of words, he finds an image. It fills the whole of the page. It’s an image of an object he doesn’t recognise, like a pole but with a branching shape and some kind of fabric pieces forming a semi-structured crown. The object is partially lit, but around it is darkness. Above it, the image is a strange wash of blue and green and black, and covered with thousands of tiny white points, like lights.

He stares at the image. He understands almost nothing about what it shows. But it’s beautiful. It’s arresting, striking. Startling, even. It makes something in his chest ache, but the ache is somehow – pleasant. He’s never felt that way before.

Ignis is hovering at his shoulder. “Ah yes,” he says. “A very fine photograph.”

He looks up at Ignis, then down at the image. The branching pole. Is that what Ignis meant by the word photograph?

“What is it?” he asks, forgetting that he’s not supposed to ask questions. A moment later, he remembers, and wishes he could call the words back. But Ignis doesn’t seem angry.

“A cenibrus tree,” he says. “See?”

He points to a corner of the image, and he sees there are words on the page after all. There are only a few, barely noticeable in one corner of the large page.

Cenibrus tree, near Hammerhead, they read.

The only word he understands is near. But there are so few words. The image is surely what’s important. He doesn’t understand the image, either, but he stares at it all the same. He wants to stare at it for as long as he can.

“Astonishing, what can be done with cameras these days,” Ignis says. Then he picks up the soup and holds it out. “Why don’t you see what’s next?”

He takes the cup. He turns the page – reluctantly – but on the next page he finds another image. This one is more familiar: a street with buildings and a few people walking. It looks like the view out of the window of the room where he sleeps at night. But somehow, it’s so much more beautiful. It’s somewhat familiar and yet entirely strange. He looks at the corner. The words read: Insomnia, asleep.

He stares at the image for a long time. But if both the first two pages have images, maybe there are more. He wants to see them all – suddenly, he has a desperate desire to see them all. He doesn’t know how long Ignis will let him read the book for. So he turns the page, even though he wants to keep looking, and wants to go back to the first image and keep looking at that as well.

Ignis rises to his feet. “Much better,” he says, and walks away.

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure if it’s the right thing to say, but he isn’t really thinking about the right thing to say. He’s just thinking about the image. The lower half of the image is black, but filled with yellow and white points of light. The upper part is the deep blue of the sky before it turns black. The words say Galdin Quay from above. He doesn’t really understand the words. He doesn’t understand the image, either. But he doesn’t mind.

He doesn’t mind.

~

Later – hours later – he falls asleep over the book. He doesn’t mean to – he wants to keep looking at the images – but he can’t help himself.

As he's slipping into sleep, he has a vision of a strange, branching object under a sky studded with a million points of light, and with the vision comes a remarkable sense of peace.

Chapter Text

He wakes up when he hears Ignis talking.

It takes him a moment to realise where he is. He’s not on the couch any more – he’s standing up, by the kitchen table. Ignis is looking at him like he just asked him a question. But he doesn’t remember what the question was. He doesn’t remember standing up and walking over to the table, either. But here he is.

Ignis frowns at him. He swallows.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I asked if you needed something,” Ignis says. He looks like he’s trying to understand a difficult problem. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He feels disconnected from himself. He wishes he wasn’t standing up. He thinks he’d feel safer if he was sitting down.

When did he stand up?

“You look quite pale,” Ignis says. “Perhaps you should sit down.”

“Yes,” he says again, feeling a wash of gratitude. He sits down on the nearest chair – one of the hard-backed kitchen chairs – and feels the floor undulating beneath him. He closes his eyes, holding onto the chair. There’s a soft thunk, and he opens his eyes to see a steaming cup in front of him.

“Camomile tea,” Ignis says.

He doesn’t know what camomile tea is, but he picks it up and sips it. His hands are shaking, but he wraps them around the cup and concentrates on not spilling anything. The liquid tastes slightly bitter, but otherwise almost of nothing. The warmth of it in his stomach makes him feel a little steadier, and he sips some more.

He’s still sitting there when Cor arrives perhaps ten minutes later.

“Hey Ignis,” Cor says. “Hi, kid.”

“Hi,” he says. He’s sure that’s right, now. Cor is holding a piece of equipment in his hand. It looks like a small phone. He holds it out to Ignis.

“I got this,” he says. “Can you put the music he likes on it?”

“Of course,” Ignis says. He takes the equipment and turns away. He goes over to his table and sits down, opening his computer.

Cor turns to look at him. “Did you eat enough today?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. He ate a lot. He stayed awake a lot longer than he does most days, and that gave him time to eat. He’s not sure why he sleeps so much lately, but he’s grateful that no-one seems to be angry about it.

“You can take the book with you, if you want,” Ignis says from behind his computer.

“What book?” Cor asks, glancing at Ignis, then looking back at him.

He’s not sure if Ignis means the first book, SPIRIT OF THE HYDRAEAN PHASMA MARUM, or the second book, Lucis by Night Laus Venustas. He looks at Ignis, and Ignis looks up and gestures at the couch.

“The photography,” he says. “You seemed rather taken with it.”

Cor frowns, then goes over to the couch. He picks up the book, flicks through a few pages, then looks at him.

“You like this?” he says.

Cor’s still frowning, and he’s not sure what the best answer is. He wants to say yes, because he likes the book more than almost anything he can think of. But Cor’s frowning, so maybe he’s not supposed to like it.

Cor looks at Ignis. “I can borrow this?” he says.

“Be my guest,” Ignis says. He stands up, holding out the device that Cor gave him. “That’s everything we’ve listened to so far.”

Cor nods, taking the device. “Thanks,” he says. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” Ignis replies.

~

When they get into the car, Cor holds out the device to him, along with a wire that splits in two partway down. At each of the two ends of the split wire is a small round rubber object.

“So you’ve got something to do at home,” he says.

He takes the device and the wire. “Thank you,” he says, even though he’s not sure what it is. Is it a phone? He doesn’t have anyone to call. What’s the purpose of the wire? He rolls it between his fingers, trying to discover the purpose without making it obvious that he doesn’t know.

Cor starts the car and pulls out. After a minute or two of driving, he glances at him.

“You can put it on the stereo, if you want,” he says. “Here.”

Cor picks up the end of a wire that’s trailing out of part of the front wall of the car. He holds it out, steering with one hand.

He takes the wire. It has a jack at one end. So there must be a socket somewhere he’s supposed to plug it into. He thinks for a moment, then examines the device Cor gave to him. After a few seconds, he finds a socket that fits. He plugs in the jack. Good.

There’s a short silence. Then Cor reaches over and turns a knob just beside where the wire is trailing out of the front wall of the car. He turns it some more. Then he frowns.

“Is it playing?” he says. “I don’t hear anything.”

“He hasn’t turned it on,” says the silent one in the back seat. It’s not the same silent one who taught him card games; this silent one has never said anything in his presence before.

Cor glances at him. “Press the button on the front,” he says.

He finds the button and presses it. The front of the device lights up: a screen. There’s a list of words, arranged a few words to a line – sometimes only one, sometimes as many as six or seven. Some of the words he recognises, but most of them he doesn’t. One of them, though, he remembers. Spring. Just the one word. He doesn’t know what it means, but he remembers it from when Ignis first played music to him.

“Tap the one you want to play,” Cor says.

So he taps Spring. A second later, the music starts playing in the car, so loud it almost hurts his ears. Cor says something that sounds angry but is inaudible over the sound of the music, and his hand darts out, turning the knob back in the other direction. The volume reduces, but his heart-beat takes longer to slow down.

When it does, though, he realises the device in his hand is playing the music. The same music he heard when Ignis played it to him the first time. Spring. The device is connected to the car, but the name of the music is on the screen of the device.

“I’ve heard this before,” Cor says. “Who’s it by?”

He’s not sure he understands the question. “The device,” he says, hoping he’s right.

Cor frowns and glances at him. “Excuse me?” he says.

He holds up the device. “It’s playing the music,” he says. “Isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Cor says, slowly, drawing the word out. “But I asked about the composer.”

Oh. He hadn’t realised. “The composer is Argentum,” he says. He remembers Ignis telling him. He doesn’t know what composer means, but he thinks Argentum is a name, like Cor or Ignis.

“Huh,” Cor says. “Yeah, sounds about right.”

“Yes,” he says.

There’s silence for a moment or two. Then Cor glances at him.

“It’s called a music player,” he says. “Because it plays music.”

“Oh,” he says. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, no sweat,” Cor says. He’s quiet for another few seconds. “You’ve never seen one before?”

“No,” he says. He wonders if he should say it looks like a phone. He’s seen phones before.

“What about the headphones?” Cor says. “You seen headphones before?”

He thinks as quickly as he can. Cor gave him two things: the device – the music player – and the wire. He’s told him about the music player, and now he’s asked about something else. So it must be the wire.

“This?” he says, and holds up the wire.

“Yeah,” Cor says, and he feels a spark of relief. He was right. Good.

“It’s headphones,” he says. It doesn’t help him decipher what the purpose of the wire is. He sees, though, that the wire has a jack on the non-split end, the same as the one from the wire that attaches the music player to the car. So maybe the headphones are supposed to plug into the music player.

“Yeah, kid,” Cor says, laughing a little. “You put them in your ears. So you can hear the music.”

He looks at the wire. He thinks he understands: the jack goes into the socket on the phone, and the two rubber objects connect to his ears, to wire him directly to the player. But he doesn’t have any ports in his ears that will fit them. He’s never heard of anyone having ports in their ears.

“Try it,” Cor says.

He tightens his fingers on the music player. Cor wants him to, so he has to do it. But he knows that trying to connect cables to incorrect ports may result in serious system problems. And he knows that serious system problems hurt a great deal.

But Cor wants him to do it.

He takes a deep breath and picks up one of the rubber ends of the cable. He grits his teeth and inserts it into his ear. It sits just inside. There’s no satisfying click that tells him it’s correctly connected. Of course there isn’t. There’s no port in his ear.

He puts the other one in his other ear. Then – looking at Cor to make sure he’s doing the right thing – he disconnects the car wire from the music player. He picks up the jack of the headphones, breathes in through his nose, closes his eyes, and plugs it into the socket.

And then the music is in his head.

He’s so ready for pain that it takes him a moment to realise that the electrifying feeling isn’t pain at all. That the sound of Spring is suddenly inside his head, as if it’s his own mind creating it. When he does realise, he opens his eyes, astounded.

He’s in the car. The world is still there, still the same. But there’s music in his head.

Cor grins at him. He says something, but he can’t hear it over the sound of the music. He reaches up, fumbling for the end of the wire in his ear, and when he pulls it out, suddenly the music isn’t in his head any more. He still hears it, but it’s coming from outside him, the side that is still wired to the music player.

“I didn’t hear,” he says. His voice sounds breathless in his ears.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cor says. “I can tell what the answer is.” His smile flashes again. “Listen to your music, kid. Don’t let me disturb you.”

He nods. He puts the wire back into his ear, and the music is in his head again. He sinks down in his seat and lets it surround him, flowing through him. He thinks: how may days ago was it, that he didn’t even know what music was? Not many. Not many. Everything’s changed so fast.

Everything’s so much better now.

~

He listens to the music all evening. After some experimentation, he learns that he can manipulate the music player to show him more than simply a list. The list is the names of pieces, but he can also see them sorted into groups. He doesn’t fully understand the categorisation system yet, but one category is composer, and if he taps on this category he can find all the pieces that belong to the Argentum group. There are other groups, too, but he likes Argentum best. He wonders if Argentum is a person or a thing.

Later in the evening, the silent one who taught him about cards returns. He stops listening to the music, then, because the silent one wants to teach him Altissian pickup. At first, he doesn’t understand, but the silent one explains the rules to him a second time without him needing to ask. Then the silent one says they should play the game and it will be more obvious.

And it’s true. Once he’s played the game through once, the rules are clear. They’re so clear. They’re not the simplest rules, but there’s a satisfying intricacy to them, as though they all click into place with each other.

“Play again?” the silent one asks.

“Yes,” he says.

The silent one nods. “You deal,” he says.

He carefully lays out seven cards for each of them, just as the silent one did: first card goes to the silent one, the next to him, and then alternating until each of them has seven. Then he lays down the remainder and turns over the top one. Then he picks up his cards and looks at them.

There are fifty-four cards in the pack. He knows where eight of them are: seven in his hand and one on the table. He engages the statistical element of his brain and begins to calculate.

Fifteen minutes later, the silent one sits back.

“Wow,” he says. “You’re a fucking hustler, kid, you know that?”

He looks at the silent one. He doesn’t know what fucking hustler means, but he’s not sure it’s a good thing.

“Did I do it wrong?” he says, nerves thrumming in his stomach. He’s sure he followed all the rules.

“Uh, no,” the silent one says. “You did it right. Like, really right.” He leans over his piece of paper. “Six, it’s going to take me forever to calculate how many points you got.”

“Four hundred and thirty-seven,” he says.

The silent one looks up at him, then at all the cards laid out in front of him. He considers a moment, then sighs. “I’ll take your word for it,” he says. “I guess you know how many I got, too?”

“Sixty-four,” he says.

The silent one groans. “I’m never coming back from this,” he says. “I definitely shouldn’t have let you have a practice round.”

He’s not sure – he’s not sure. What the silent one is saying makes him sound angry. But he isn’t saying it in an angry way. He’s even smiling – in a strange way, rubbing the back of his head.

He’s not sure.

“All right, kid,” the silent one says, still smiling. “Rematch, because I’m a sucker for punishment. And then you’d better get to bed, before papa bear comes in and tears me a new one.”

The silent one picks up the cards and shuffles them. Then he starts to deal them out. He picks up the cards. The silent one said he did the right thing. And he’s smiling. So he should do the same thing again.

So he does.

He wins the second game by more than the first. The silent one asks him the scores, then laughs.

“I know when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” he says. “Next time I’m teaching you something that’s pure chance.”

The silent one tells him to go to bed, so he does. He lies on his back, staring at the ceiling. After a while, he hears Cor climbing the stairs. He pauses outside the door.

“Everything all right?” Cor asks, whispering so he has to sharpen his hearing to hear.

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. “Kid’s a genius at cards, by the way.”

A silence. “Noted,” Cor says.

And the footsteps walk away.

~

The next day, the level two comes back.

He’s awake this time. He’s looking at a new book Ignis gave him. This one is images, like Lucis by Night Laus Venustas. These images are of organisms. Some of them are familiar, like bugs and rats. Others, he’s never seen before. He’s fascinated by how many different kinds there are, and all the ways the images show them. But also by the things that are around the organisms. Almost every image is full of green, in different shades and shapes. He’s never seen so much green. He wonders if the person who made the images had a collection of green objects that he or she placed around each organism. He doesn’t recognise any of the objects. But the green looks inviting. It makes him want to reach out and touch the image, to see if he can feel what it’s like. It looks like it would be cool and smooth.

And then the level two comes in, and he stops thinking about the green.

“Hey, Ignis,” the level two says, then turns to look at him, a slight frown appearing on his face. “Oh. You’re still here.”

Ignis clears his throat, and when the level two turns to look at him he raises his eyebrows.

“I mean – hi,” the level two says. “How’s it going?”

“Hi,” he says. He’s not sure how to answer the question, but the level two doesn’t seem to care. He lifts his shoulders a little and then goes to sit on the soft chair across from him. He pulls out his phone. Then he frowns at him.

“Cor give you those shades?” he asks.

Shades are sunglasses. He nods. “Yes,” he says.

The level two shakes his head. “Pretty dorky,” he says. “Thought he was cooler than that.”

He doesn’t know what dorky means. He knows cool, but he’s not sure he understands what the level two means when he says it.

“I have to wear them,” he says. He hopes the explanation will help with whatever objection the level two has to the sunglasses.

“Yeah, I got that,” the level two says. “Guess you’re stuck looking like a dork, then.” He sighs and glances at Ignis, then pauses, raising his eyebrows.

“What?” he says.

Ignis rises to his feet and makes a gesture. The level two mutters something under his breath that he doesn’t sharpen his hearing quickly enough to hear, and then gets up, too. The two of them go into the room where Ignis gets the books and lower their voices.

“You might try to be a little more friendly,” Ignis says.

“What?” the level two says. “I’m being friendly! I’m making conversation.”

“You’re being rude and insensitive,” Ignis says. “That young man is my guest, and he’s had a very difficult time.”

“What am I supposed to talk to him about?” the level two asks. “Sports drinks? Brain damage chic? Best time of year to have a head injury?”

There’s a pause. Then the level two speaks again. “Yeah, sorry,” he says. “That was kind of a dick thing to say.”

“Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t say anything at all,” Ignis says. “I’m sure Cor will come to collect him soon, and your training session is in half an hour anyway.”

“Is it?” The level two says. “Oh, shit. Hey, I’d better go change. See you later, Specs.”

The level two reappears. He gives a half-hearted wave in his direction. “Gotta go,” he says. “See ya.”

And then he’s gone. He feels something in him loosen. He wishes he knew when the level two would be here. Maybe he could ask Cor to send him somewhere else when the level two is here. But no, he can’ t do that. Cor told him to be here, so here is where he should be. And most of the time, he wants to be here. He just hopes –

–he hopes the level two doesn’t come back.

~

But he doesn’t get what he hopes for: the next day, the level two arrives much earlier than the other two times he’s seen him, just after lunch. He’s wearing different clothes: before he had a dark blue jacket and pants the same colour, and a strip of fabric hanging from his neck. Now he’s dressed all in black, and his clothes look less well-kept.

“Seriously, it’s raining again,” he says as he sweeps through the door. “Oh. Hi.”

“Hi,” he says.

The level two stands in the middle of the floor for a moment, frowning at him. Then he abruptly turns to Ignis.

“You’re playing this music again?” he says. “It’s Saturday.”

“What does the day of the week have to do with the music I play?” Ignis asks. He’s in the middle of making a cup of the strong-smelling drink he likes.

“I don’t know, like, maybe boring music is only for school-days,” the level two says. “You can do whatever you want on Saturday, right?”

“And what if what I want is to listen to this beautiful music?” Ignis replies. He’s not smiling, but he looks like he might any minute.

The level two sighs heavily. “Sure, knock yourself out,” he says, and goes to sit on the soft chair opposite. Only he doesn’t sit – he throws himself down onto it, sighing once again.

“I’m bored,” he says.

Ignis sips at his drink. “You could do your homework,” he says.

“Ha ha,” the level two says. He sits sprawled on the chair for a few moments, then pulls out his phone and starts staring at it.

After that, it’s quiet for a while. Ignis is writing something at his table. The level two is staring at his phone. He looks at the book of images of organisms. But he can’t concentrate. He sees the images, but he doesn’t feel them the way he did before. His attention is on the level two. The level two is unpredictable. He understands very little that the level two says, and he knows that the level two might ask him more questions, even though Ignis told him not to. He sits on the edge of the couch, feet ready on the floor, even though he knows he can’t run anywhere. But he needs to feel ready. Just in case.

Half an hour passes. Forty-five minutes. His shoulders ache from tension. And then: the level two drops his phone and stretches back over the chair, legs up on one arm, head cushioned on the other, staring at the ceiling.

“Gah, I’m so bored,” he says.

That word again. The level two says it like it’s not a good thing. He’s trying once again to puzzle it out when the level two sits up a little.

“Hey, Ignis, want to play a game?”

Ignis looks up from his writing. “I’m afraid I must finish this report,” he says.

“Seriously?” the level two says. He puts his arm over his eyes. “What’s the point of Saturday if there’s not even anything to do?”

A moment later, though, he takes his arm from his eyes and turns his head, looking speculatively at him.

“Hey,” he says. “You want to play a game?”

Ignis frowns and looks up, but doesn’t say anything. He considers; he needs more clarification.

“A card game?” he asks. It’s the only use of game he knows, but perhaps there are more.

The level two shrugs. “Sure, why not?” he says. “Specs, you got any cards?”

“In the drawer,” Ignis says, pointing. He looks at him. “Do you know how to play cards?”

He nods. “I know Altissian pickup,” he says.

The level two grins. “Good game,” he says. “I’m pretty good at that, though. Just so you know.”

Ignis clears his throat. The level two looks at him, and Ignis raises his eyebrows. “Go easy,” Ignis murmurs. “Remember his brain damage.”

The level two waves his hand dismissively. He finds the cards and comes to sit at right-angles to him on a different chair.

“I shuffle, you deal,” he says.

He nods. He waits until the level two holds the cards out, then deals them carefully, the same way he did when the silent one taught him. The first card on the table is the three of spades. He looks at the cards in his hand and engages the statistical element in his brain.

The level two takes a card from the top of the stack. He considers it for a moment, then lays it down overlapping the three of spades. It’s the five of hearts. This was in the pack, not in the level two’s hand. He constructs a set of probabilities. There are some uncertainties: he doesn’t know the level two’s level of skill or strategic mindset. Still, there are two main options:

A. The level two has nothing in his hand which can pair well with the five of hearts.

B. The level two has something to pair with the five of hearts and is playing strategically, waiting until there are more cards to pick up.

He estimates probabilities for each of these two options, and then probabilities for the values of the cards in the level two’s hand based on each option and the nine cards that he already knows the location of. At present, this early in the game, there are a large number of options.

He takes a card from the pile, and the options grow narrower.

They play for another five minutes, and then the level two picks up the five of hearts and all the cards that are on top of it. These include another five, which he has been watching carefully. The level two lays down the two fives in front of him, along with two others that must have been in his hands already. Now the level two has fifteen cards in his hand. Ten of them are those he picked up, so he knows all of them. The other five are unknown, but given what he’s seen so far, he’s narrowed them down to a small range of options. He has also learned that the level two is a strategic player.

The level two grins. “Sorry,” he says. “Told you I was good.”

“Yes,” he says. He calculates how many points the level two would have if the game were to end now. The range is negative one hundred and thirty-four to negative four hundred and two. But the level two doesn’t think the game will end soon, or he wouldn’t have picked up so many cards.

Strategy: end the game soon.

Three minutes later, the level two stares in horror as he lays down all his cards in front of him. He has three eights and a four-card straight. He has no cards left in his hand. The level two still has twelve.

“What?” the level two says. “No way did you beat me.”

Ignis looks up at that. “Oh, did you beat him?” he says. “Well done.”

“Stay out of this, Specs,” the level two says. “Six, I’ve got fucking three aces in my hand. Three aces! You can’t beat three aces with three eights!”

He swallows. “You didn’t put them on the table,” he says. He hears a crack in his voice. His mouth is dry. “I thought – aren’t those the rules? You have to put them on the table, otherwise they count against you?” He didn’t want to make the level two angry. He didn’t want the level two to pay any attention to him at all.

“Huh?” the level two says, looking up at him. Then he frowns. “Yeah,” he says. “Those are the rules. Yeah. You won. By, like, a million points.” He narrows his eyes. “Fine, we’re not counting that round,” he says. “I was going easy. I thought you wouldn’t be any good.”

“Noct,” Ignis says, sounding annoyed. The level two sighs.

“I mean, really,” he says. “You don’t look like a card sharp, is all I’m saying. Not in those shades.” He gathers up the cards from the table, then recombines them into a pack.

“Rematch,” he says. “This time for real.”

~

He wins the rematch as well. Not by as many points – the level two is more careful this time, pays more attention to what he’s doing. But he still wins by more than a hundred, and although he’s following the rules as he’s been told, the realisation that he’s going to win again sets up a pit of dread in his stomach. If the level two was angry last time he won, how will he be now?

But the level two just slumps in his chair, groans and shakes his head.

“I’m good at this game,” he says. “I’m really good. Right, Specs? You haven’t been losing on purpose all this time, right?”

“Very rarely,” Ignis says with a small smile. “You are quite good at Altissian pickup. But it seems our guest is better.”

“Yeah, it really does,” the level two says. “Man, hey, we could have a game of chase the dragon.” He turns to look at him. “You and me against Ignis and Gladio. You’d be my secret weapon. You know chase the dragon?”

Slowly, he shakes his head. The level two doesn’t seem angry. He seems – neutral. And his stomach starts to churn a little less.

“Can’t play with only two,” the level two says. “I’ll teach you some other time.” He stretches his arms out behind him and yawns. “Man, I’m fried. Not enough brain for strategy games. That’s probably why I lost.”

“I’m sure,” Ignis puts in.

The level two rolls his eyes. “Want to play a phone game?” he asks.

He hasn’t played a phone game before. He’s not sure how it might be different to a card game. “I don’t have a phone,” he says.

“Seriously?” The level two looks amazed. “How come? Never mind – Specs, I need your phone.”

“Does it occur to you that I might need my phone, as well?” Ignis asks. But he holds out his phone to the level two, who takes it and passes it to him.

“OK, here,” he says. “It’s called Shoot the Messenger.”

He stares at the phone. He’s not sure what he’s expected to do, but there’s a button like the one on the music player, and he presses it in the hope it will turn the screen on. It does. Now there are rows and columns of brightly coloured symbols, each with a label in small text. One of them reads Shoot the Messenger, and he taps his finger on it.

“Yeah, that one,” the level two says. He’s sitting up against the arm of the chair, now, leaning over to point at the phone. He still feels tense, but something’s changed. He’s ready, but he’s not afraid any more. The level two was angry about the game, but – nothing happened. And maybe he wasn’t even angry. And he didn’t change the music today. The level two asked him to play the phone game, and even though he’s not sure what the phone game is, there’s an odd sort of feeling in his chest, like a little pool of warmth, just because the level two asked him. It feels a little like he felt when Cor smiled at him and told him he was doing well, but much more subdued. It’s a nice feeling, and he focuses on it, hoping it will grow.

“So, OK, I’ll show you how it works,” the level two says, leaning even further over the phone Ignis gave to him.

And he nods. “Thank you,” he says.

Chapter Text

He turns out not to be very good at phone games.

The level two teaches him two: Shoot the Messenger and Barrel Roll. The rules are simple for each, but to play the games requires fast reflexes and dexterity. He has neither of these qualities. In fact, he discovers that he’s quite sluggish, especially compared to the level two, whose thumbs dance over the phone screen at remarkable speed. And so, the score on his screen quickly falls below the score on the level two’s screen. He tries hard to catch up, but he can’t close the gap. He worries about whether the level two will be angry with him; but then the level two’s score climbs above ten thousand and the level two clenches his fist and makes a movement as if he’s pulling on some invisible string.

“Yes!” he says. “I’m way ahead of you.”

It’s true: the level two is way ahead. And the level two seems to be happy about it. So he lets himself relax a little. It doesn’t matter if his score is low – the level two will be pleased anyway. He focuses on the screen of the phone, doing his best to make his thumbs dance the the level two does. He doesn’t succeed, but he feels some satisfaction each time he destroys one of the simulated opponents. It’s not so different from the full-immersion simulations from the training facility, except that here everything is much faster and it doesn’t seem to matter if he does poorly.

At last, the level two’s phone makes a chiming sound, and he leans back in his chair.

“That’s it,” he says. “I totally beat you.”

His own phone freezes at the same time, and a message appears: Game Over.

“Yes,” he says. “You beat me.”

“Very impressive,” Ignis comments. Even though it’s a compliment, there’s something odd about his tone, and the level two glances at him and rolls his eyes.

“Hey, I’ll teach you some tricks,” he says. “Here, look – if you do this with your thumb,” he slides his thumb quickly backwards and forwards over the screen, “sometimes you catch the bad guys as soon as they appear, before they have the chance to do that flickering thing.”

He tries to imitate the movement. The bad guys are the simulated opponents – at least, he thinks that’s what the level two means.

“No, like this,” the level two says. He demonstrates again.

He tries again to imitate, but his thumb doesn’t seem to be as manoeuvrable as the level two’s thumb. His attempt is passable, but certainly not excellent.

The level two stares at his thumb and frowns a little. “Hey – that whole brain damage thing,” he says. “What’s that like, anyway?”

“Your Highness,” says Ignis, his tone suddenly sharp. He doesn’t say anything else, but the level two sits up straighter, looking suddenly tense. He rolls his eyes again, but it’s half-hearted, like he’s pretending something he doesn’t feel.

“Calm down, Specs,” he says. Then he turns to him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “That was kind of – uh.”

He doesn’t understand why Ignis is suddenly angry, nor why the level two is suddenly worried.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t remember lots of things. And the light hurts my eyes.” He can’t think of anything else Cor’s told him to say about having brain damage. He assumes brain damage is like being defective, but for humans. But he’s not sure if being defective for humans feels the same as being defective for MT units, so he doesn’t want to risk describing his actual defects. Besides, he doesn’t want anyone to know his actual defects. So far, Cor doesn’t seem to have noticed them, and he hopes, with a stupid, pointless hope, that maybe he never will and there’ll be no modification.

Impossible. But still – he hopes.

The level two’s phone chimes again. He glances at it, then gets to his feet.

“Shit,” he mutters. “I’m late for training.”

Ignis raises an eyebrow. “I’m sure Gladio will understand if you tell him you were playing phone games,” he says.

“Yeah, thanks,” the level two says. He sighs, then turns and looks at him. “I gotta go. Are you gonna come here again?”

He nods. “I come every day,” he says. “Cor brings me.”

“Yeah,” the level two says. “OK, well – see you, then.”

He leaves. After he’s gone, the room seems suddenly much quieter. Ignis stands up and comes over to him. He holds out his hand for the phone.

“Perhaps you could ask Cor for one of your own,” he says as he takes it.

He opens his mouth to explain that MT units don’t have possessions, and then closes it again when he realises what he’s about to say. A slight frown crosses Ignis’ face.

“I’m sorry about Prince Noctis,” he says. “He can be quite rude sometimes, but he certainly didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

He’s not sure what rude means, though he remembers that Ignis told the level two not to be rude yesterday. The level two is many things, but he doesn’t know which one of them is rude.

“Yes,” he says, hoping it will be an appropriate response.

Ignis nods and turns away. He sips from the red bottle Cor gave him in the morning and thinks about the level two. The level two is – difficult. He makes him feel tense and wary. But the level two didn’t mind when he won the card game, and the level two didn’t mind when he lost the phone game. He doesn’t understand the level two at all. And the level two might come back – he came yesterday, and again today. But somehow, that thought doesn’t make his stomach churn the way it did before. He even thinks it might be good – to play the phone game again, to maybe get better at it. He could learn the manoeuvre the level two showed him, and maybe the level two would be pleased to see him get it right.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

~

The level two does come back. He comes back the next day, sweeping in in the afternoon. He’s wearing his blue clothes again, and he looks around at the couch as soon as he comes through the door.

“Hi,” the level two says. “Do you ever go anywhere else?”

He nods. “I go to Cor’s house at night,” he says.

The level two laughs, a shallow, breathy laugh. “Yeah, you need to get out more,” he says. “Hey, Ignis.”

Ignis greets the level two, and the level two drops himself onto the soft chair opposite, just like he did the day before, draping himself over it. He pulls out his phone and stares at it for a few minutes. Every now and then, the level two glances at him under his eyelashes. Then, abruptly, he sits up.

“Hey, Prompto,” he says, “how about a rematch on Shoot the Messenger?

He sits up a little. “Yes,” he says. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Yeah, I know,” the level two says. “Ignis, I need–”

He doesn’t finish his sentence: Ignis is already standing, heaving a sigh. He holds his phone out. “What did you call him?” he asks.

The level two shrugs. “If he’s not going to tell us his name,” he says, and then points. “He’s always got one of those things surgically attached to his hand.”

He looks down at the red bottle in his hand. It says PROMPTO! on the side in embossed lettering.

Ignis frowns. “You can’t call him after a sports drink,” he says.

“Better than hey, you, right?” the level two says.

Ignis looks angry. He looks at him. “Please, feel free to object,” he says.

He’s not sure what he’s supposed to object to. He looks at the level two.

“You want to play, or what?” the level two asks.

“Yes,” he says.

So they play.

~

That night, he lies in bed and thinks. Cor wanted him to call him Cor, and to call Ignis Ignis. Cor thought it was good for him to use those names rather than sir. Before he was supposed to call all humans sir, but now he’s not sure any more. Is it just Cor and Ignis, or should he call all humans by names? The level two wanted to call him by a name – and the level two thinks he’s human. And Cor said he should have a name, even though he’s not human. So names are important – to Cor, at least, and maybe to the level two.

The level two has a lot of names. Ignis calls him different things at different times. But most of the things he calls him have the same word in: Noctis. The other words aren’t always the same, but Noctis comes up again and again. So that’s what the level two is called: Noctis.

He doesn’t know the names of any of the other humans he sees often: the two silent ones, the doctor, the one from the phone. But he can at least think of the level two properly, as he thinks Cor would want. Noctis.

He thinks about the fact that Noctis gave him a name. He knows it’s because Noctis thinks he’s human, and he thinks he should feel bad about that. He’s deceiving Noctis – even though Noctis should be able to tell easily that he’s not human – and Noctis is so deceived that he’s even given him a name, because humans seem to need names. He should feel bad. But he remembers Noctis leaving earlier in the day. See you, Prompto, he said when he left. And he doesn’t feel bad. He feels a tiny spark of warmth in his chest. See you Prompto. Maybe it’s not really him that Noctis is talking to – Noctis is talking to the human he thinks he is – but if he just lets himself pretend a little bit – if he just lets himself pretend –

He lies awake, staring at the ceiling, and lets himself pretend.

~

The next day, he waits for a long time for Noctis to come. But he doesn’t come. He looks at the books that Ignis puts on the table in front of him, and he drinks his red drink. He listens to the music. But after lunch, he can’t concentrate very well any more. He thinks Noctis will come, and he sharpens his hearing, listening for footsteps outside.

But he doesn’t come.

That evening, Cor frowns at him.

“You all right, kid?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor sits and watches him for a moment. Then he taps his fingers on the table.

“Hey – I know this is frustrating,” he says. “You must be pretty bored. I know it’s not fair on you, all of this.” He makes a gesture, like he expects him to know what he means. “I’m trying to move it forward, so you can have some more freedom. It’s not an easy situation.”

He’s not sure what Cor’s talking about. “Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

Cor sighs. “Don’t thank me yet, kid,” he mutters.

~

He looks out of the window that night. In the distance, he sees the two towers with the jet of purple light between them. He wonders if Ignis is there now. He wonders if Ignis lives in the room he always goes to, or if he lives somewhere else and just goes there during the day. He wonders where Noctis lives and why Noctis comes to see Ignis.

All the humans he’s seen must live somewhere, he realises. They must all have houses, like Cor, with kitchens and bedrooms. It’s a strange thought. He thinks about all the humans he’s seen on the street – there are so many of them. He thinks about Cor, and the silent one who taught him Altissian pickup, and Noctis, and Ignis. All of them are different – they behave in different ways, they use different words, they respond differently to the same situation. Sometimes they disagree with each other. Often he doesn’t understand what they’re saying, but it’s clear at least that they don’t all say the same thing. In the training facility, there were few humans, and they all agreed with each other. Humans had to be obeyed without question. But here, there are lots of humans, and if they don’t all agree, then they can’t all be obeyed at once.

He thinks about what the chain of command must be. Cor is at the top – that’s straightforward. He thinks Ignis must be next, then Noctis. He’s not sure about the silent one. He needs to observe the silent one interacting with Ignis and Noctis to know where he falls in the hierarchy.

It niggles at him, the missing place for the silent one in the chain. But he can’t solve the problem now, so he focuses instead on watching the purple light. It’s beautiful, but it also makes him feel pain in his chest – like when he saw the sun, but not as strong. It feels like he sometimes feels when he’s looking at the images in the books Ignis has, or listening to the music. He wonders how all of it comes to be – what is the source of the light? How does the music happen? Where do the images come from? He feels a sudden, swelling bubble of questions in his stomach, in his chest, so many questions that for a few seconds he can’t breathe. He grips the edge of the window, then turns away, closing his eyes.

No. His purpose is to obey orders. Nothing else is important.

There’s a part of him that protests. A part of him thinks other things might be important – music, and images, and the names humans give to each other – but the part of him that isn’t defective shoves all of that aside.

Obey orders. Obey orders. That’s all. That’s all there is.

Maybe if he can remember that, Cor won’t find out he’s defective. He doesn’t want to be modified. If he’s modified, maybe he’ll forget about music, and images. He thinks that maybe the ache in his chest is a defect – why would he feel pain looking at something beautiful? – but he doesn’t want the defect to go away.

The thought shocks him. To want to be defective – surely that must be the worst defect of all. Surely something is terribly wrong in his brain. He should tell Cor – should tell him everything, so that he can be modified and function correctly in future.

But he doesn’t tell Cor. He doesn’t even plan to tell Cor.

Maybe Cor will never find out.

~

The next day, Noctis comes back. He says Hi, Prompto. But he doesn’t ask if he wants to play a game. Instead, he sits down with a sigh at right-angles to him and takes a book out of his bag. Then he takes out paper, and pens. Then he opens the book and starts staring at it like he’s angry with it.

He sits back in his chair. He feels an odd sort of upleasant feeling in his stomach, but he can’t identify it. He wonders if maybe Noctis will ask him to play a game when he’s finished staring at the book.

But Noctis doesn’t finish. He writes some things on the paper, scribbles them out, and sighs again. He flips the pages of the book backwards and forwards. He runs his hand through his hair. He sighs again.

“I’m sure it can’t be that bad,” Ignis says. He looks normal, but he sounds like he might be about to laugh.

“Seriously,” Noctis says. “Math is the worst. How am I expected to know this stuff?”

“You’re expected to pay attention in class,” Ignis says.

“Come on, Ignis, give me a break, here,” Noctis says. He looks up at him. “Hey, Prompto, you any good at math?”

He shakes his head. The mathematical element of his brain has never functioned as well as it’s supposed to.

“Yeah, you know my pain,” Noctis says. He points at the book. “I mean, look at this shit.”

He looks at the book. There’s an equation there. It’s quadratic. Solve for x, says the text beside it. He engages the mathematical element of his brain.

“X is thirty-two point eight,” he says.

Noctis rolls his eyes. “Ha ha,” he says.

“You’d get it done faster if you stopped talking to Prompto and actually concentrated,” Ignis puts in.

“Slave driver,” Noctis mutters under his breath. But he turns back to his paper and starts scribbling again.

He waits for Noctis to solve the equation. He’s not sure why he’s using paper and a pen instead of just accepting the answer he provided. It takes a long time. Eventually, Noctis looks up at him.

“Dude,” he says, “I can’t concentrate when you keep staring at me.”

He looks away. “Sorry,” he says.

Then he stares at nothing for a while, wondering about the book and what Noctis is doing. At last, Noctis sits back.

“Done,” he says. “X is a hundred and sixty-four.”

“Let me see,” Ignis says. He gets up and comes over to the soft chairs. He sits down beside Noctis, and Noctis hands him the paper. He examines it for some time, then frowns.

“You’ve made a mistake here,” he says, pointing. “You need to divide both sides by five, not just one.”

“Six, why is it so complicated?” Noctis asks. But he picks up his phone and taps on it. “A hundred and sixty-four divided by five is–” He pauses, then frowns, turning to stare at him. “Thirty two point eight,” he says.

There’s a short silence. Both Ignis and Noctis are staring at him now. He’s not sure why.

“Yes,” he says. “It’s thirty-two point eight.”

Noctis keeps frowning. “How did you know that?” he asks.

He’s not sure he’s understood the question. It seems so simple that it shouldn’t need asking.

“I looked at the book,” he says. “The equation was there. It says solve for x. So I solved for x.” He looks from Noctis to Ignis and back. “Was it wrong?”

“Uh, no,” Noctis says. “That’s the weird part. You got it right without even thinking about it. Are you some kind of math genius, or what?”

He opens his mouth to explain that the mathematical element in his brain functions poorly, but then remembers that he can’t. He doesn’t think humans have mathematical elements in their brains. He knows very little about how human brains work.

Noctis doesn’t wait for an answer, though. He shoves the book towards him. “Can you do the rest?” he asks.

Ignis reaches out before he can obey and takes the book. “Ahem,” he says. “I believe the point of homework is that you learn something.” He smiles at him, then raises his eyebrows at Noctis and holds out the book to him.

“Why, though?” Noctis asks. “If Prompto can just do it in his head, why do I need to know how to do it? If I ever need to know what x is, I can just ask him.”

“And what if Prompto doesn’t happen to be there when you need to solve for x?” Ignis asks, folding his arms.

“Great,” Noctis says. “So, give me an example of a time I’ll need to solve for x and I won’t be able to ask him.”

“Hmm, let me think,” Ignis says, tapping his fingertips against his chin. “Ah! I have it! During your exams.”

Noctis stares at him for a long moment. Then he sighs heavily.

“Fine,” he says, and leans back over the book again. He sighs a lot, but he doesn’t ask for help again. Eventually, he stops writing.

“Done,” he says. “Hey, can you check it for me?”

Ignis looks up. But Noctis isn’t holding the paper out to Ignis. He’s holding it out to him.

He takes the paper. It’s hard to read – Noctis’ handwriting is almost indecipherable, and the equations are set out in no kind of order that he can determine. Eventually, though, he manages to make some sense of it.

“This one is incorrect,” he says, pointing at the third one. “X is–”

“Ahem,” Ignis says. “Don’t tell him the answer, please. It’s enough for him to know that he’s wrong.”

Noctis mutters something very quietly. He sits back. He thinks Ignis is higher in the chain of command than Noctis, so he obeys the order and doesn’t tell Noctis the answer.

“Traitor,” Noctis says to him.

He swallows, but suddenly his mouth is dry. The word seems to echo in his head. He’s not a traitor. He’s not a traitor, is he? He’s done what he’s supposed to do. He’s followed orders, except now, because the orders were contradictory. How can he follow contradictory orders? But–

“Dude,” Noctis says. “Are you all right? Hey, are you all right?”

He blinks. Noctis is leaning forward. He looks worried. Ignis is standing behind. He realises his head is spinning. His breath is caught in his throat.

“Here,” Noctis says. He picks up the red bottle and holds it out. “You OK?”

He takes the bottle. He sips the red drink. Noctis doesn’t seem to be angry with him. He said he was a traitor, but he doesn’t seem to be angry with him. His head is still spinning, but he feels his breath coming a little easier.

Noctis sits back. He still looks worried. “What was that?” he says. He’s looking at Ignis. “Is that, like – a thing from the accident? What happened?”

Ignis is frowning at him. “I don’t know,” he murmurs, almost under his breath. Then he straightens up. “Homework later,” he says, speaking at a normal volume again. “Prompto – would you like to play a game?”

He swallows a mouthful of the red drink. “Yes,” he says. His voice comes out sounding strange.

“Yeah,” Noctis says. He sounds shaken. “Barrel Roll?”

But Ignis shakes his head.

“Cards,” he says.

~

That night, when they’re sitting at the kitchen table, Cor’s phone rings. He pulls it out and looks at the screen. Then he frowns and gets to his feet, going out into the hall and closing the door. He sharpens his hearing, and hears Cor answering the phone.

“Your Highness,” he says.

“Hey,” says the person on the other end of the phone. It’s Noctis. “Can you put Prompto on?”

“Excuse me?” says Cor, and then, “I’m sorry, Your Highness, you must have dialled the wrong number. This is Cor Leonis.”

“Yeah,” says Noctis. “I know that. I had to call you because Prompto doesn’t have a phone. Can you put him on?”

There’s a pause.

“Prompto?” Cor asks.

“Oh – yeah, sorry,” Noctis says. “The kid. The one who’s staying with you? I don’t know his name, so I’ve been calling him Prompto.”

Another pause, this time longer. “You’ve met him?” Cor says at last.

“Yeah,” Noctis says. “He’s always hanging around Ignis’ place.” He pauses. “So... can you put him on?”

There’s another brief pause, then Cor says, “He’s asleep.”

“Huh,” Noctis says. “Well... can you get him to call me back when he wakes up?”

“He’ll sleep till morning, now,” Cor says. “He needs a lot of sleep to recover from the accident.”

“Oh, right,” Noctis says. “Yeah, so – OK, I guess.”

A pause. “Did you want to tell him anything specific? I can give him a message.”

“No, not really,” Noctis says. “Nothing specific. Hey, tell him to get a phone, though, seriously. What kind of person doesn’t have a phone?”

“I’ll pass it along,” Cor says. “Was there anything else, Your Highness?”

“No, that’s it,” Noctis says. “Night, then.”

“Good night,” Cor says. The call ends, and then there’s complete silence from the hall. It lasts for a long time, so long that he starts wondering if he’s somehow missed the sound of Cor’s footsteps walking away. He wonders if he should do something. He doesn’t know what it would be, though.

Then the door opens. Cor comes in. He sits down on the opposite side of the table. He stares at him. He doesn’t speak for a moment or two, and he feels his stomach start to churn. Something’s not right.

“You’ve met Prince Noctis,” Cor says at last.

He nods. “Yes,” he says.

Cor closes his eyes for a moment. “How many times?” he asks.

He thinks. “Five times,” he says.

Cor nods. “At Ignis’ place?”

“Yes,” he says. “He taught me phone games.” He’s not sure why he feels he has to explain, but he does.

Cor lets out a breath. His mouth twists a little. “Does he know what you are?” he asks.

“No,” he says.

“Does Ignis know what you are?” Cor asks.

“No,” he says again. He’s followed Cor’s orders, all the ones he’s given.

There’s a long silence, then. Cor stares at him, and his stomach starts to hurt more. He’s done something wrong, but he doesn’t know what it is.

At last, Cor pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“We gotta go to the Citadel,” he says. “I’m sorry, kid. I know it’s late and you’re tired.”

Cor’s the one who sounds tired. “Yes,” he says, getting to his feet. “Now?”

“Yeah, now,” Cor says.

He nods and waits for Cor to lead the way. Before they leave the apartment, though, Cor takes a jacket down from a peg in the hall.

“It’s cold out,” he says. “Put this on.”

“Yes,” he says. He puts the jacket on. It makes his stomach hurt a little less, though he’s not sure why.

Cor stands there, staring at him. He closes his eyes. “Shit,” he mutters, very quietly. Then he opens his eyes again.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

It’s cold in the car. Cor turns the heat on, but he feels cold anyway. He’s glad he has the jacket. It’s too big for him, like all the clothes Cor gives him to wear. He feels like he might disappear in it. He thinks maybe that would be a good thing.

Cor doesn’t speak all the way to the Citadel. He stares at the road. His face looks angry. He’s done something wrong, but he doesn’t know what it is. He wants to ask Cor, so he knows not to do it again. He’ll be corrected this time, he’s sure – that must be why they’re going to the Citadel at night, the first time they’ve done that. But if he can find out what it was he did, maybe he can avoid being corrected again.

He thinks about what he heard. Cor spoke to Noctis on the phone. Then he came and said they had to go to the Citadel. But all Noctis said was that he needs to get a phone. He can’t get a phone because he’s an MT unit. MT units don’t have possessions. And even if he could, he would only get a phone if Cor gave him one. So surely Cor can’t be angry with him for not having a phone? No, that doesn’t make any sense.

He’s still thinking about it when they arrive at the Citadel. His stomach hurts worse now. He hopes he doesn’t vomit. He hasn’t vomited for a while. He doesn’t want to make Cor even angrier.

They climb the steps. He’s never been here at night before. The purple light is spectacular up close. But he can’t focus on it. He can only focus on Cor – on what he’s done to make Cor angry.

There are guards at the top of the steps. They look at them in surprise.

“Late for you two to be here,” one of them says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He glances at him with that angry expression. “There’s something I have to do.”

He thinks about the room where the one with the white coat examines him sometimes. He thinks that room is where corrections must happen. He shivers.

The guards let them through.

~

“What were you thinking?”

He’s sitting in a small room. It’s the same room he was in two weeks before, when he listened to the one with the club and Cor talking two rooms away. They’re talking again – two rooms away again. But the one from the phone is there with them now. He’s the one who asked the question.

“I take full responsibility,” Cor says. “I honestly assumed that Ignis always went to see Prince Noctis, not the other way round. It didn’t occur to me that they would meet each other.”

“Ignis never mentioned it?” asks the one with the club.

“No,” Cor says. “But he had no reason to. He doesn’t know what the kid is.”

The one from the phone makes a frustrated noise. “I placed a great deal of faith in your ability to keep the threat contained, Marshal. If I had known you would be so careless, I would never have let you take the boy into your custody.”

There’s a silence. Then Cor speaks. He sounds careful and slow, like he’s thinking about each word.

“Your Majesty,” he says. “Clarus. I am not trying to excuse my mistake. But I firmly believe that there’s no threat here. I’ve seen no evidence of violent tendencies or even negative emotions aside from fear and sadness. He doesn’t even entirely realise that he’s not among his people any more. I don’t think he really even has a sense that he has people. Whatever he may be, he’s not a fanatic for the cause of the Empire.”

“Or he’s a very good actor,” the one from the phone says.

“No,” Cor says. “He’s not a good actor.”

The one from the phone starts to say something else, but the one with the club interrupts and the one from the phone falls instantly silent.

“Cor,” the one with the club says, “you say my son called you to ask to speak to the boy?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Cor says.

“What exactly did he say?” the one with the club asks.

“Not much,” Cor says. “He told me the kid should have a phone. He said he didn’t want to talk to him about anything specific. And he’s given him some kind of nickname.” He pauses. “I asked the kid about it – he said Prince Noctis taught him how to play phone games.”

“You make it sound like they’re friends,” the one with the club says.

A short silence. “Yeah,” Cor says. “That’s what it sounded like to me. As I said, I take full responsibility.”

“Not what I meant, Marshal,” the one with the club says. “I am simply... rather surprised. My son does not generally tend to make friends.”

“Your Majesty, we cannot allow this association to continue,” the one from the phone says.

Another silence, then the one with the club heaves a sigh. “Agreed,” he says. “There is no sense in arguing about who’s to blame. We must put a stop to it.”

A silence. “Understood,” Cor says. “I’ll make sure they don’t see each other again.”

“Thank you, Marshal,” the one with the club says. “How are the investigations into the nature of the boy’s modifications and programming continuing?”

“They’re not, at present,” the one from the phone says. He sounds calm, but underneath it there’s something sharper. “The engineers are currently waiting for Marshal Leonis to make room in his schedule to allow them to conduct more tests.”

“Cor?” the one with the club says.

“I’ll arrange it with them directly, Your Majesty,” Cor says.

“You understand it’s necessary,” the one with the club says.

“Yeah, of course,” Cor says. Then he sighs. “I just hate how they treat the kid like he’s a new chew toy.”

A pause. “Clarus?” the one with the club says.

“I’ll instruct them to be more sensitive, Your Majesty,” the one from the phone says.

“Thank you,” the one with the club says. Then he sighs. “A regrettable situation, all round,” he says. “I hope we can help the boy.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Cor says. Then there’s the sound of footsteps, getting quieter and further away. There’s silence for a few moments. Then the one from the phone speaks.

“You look tired,” he says. “Are you getting enough sleep?”

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Yeah, just – this whole thing is shit. It’s pretty obvious I don’t know what I’m doing. For all I know I’m making it worse.”

The one from the phone sighs. “Let the engineers do their work, my friend,” he says. “How can you expect to be successful when you don’t even know what’s been done to him?”

“I know enough,” Cor says. He sounds angry again. Then he sighs. “It was helping, I think,” he says. “Seeing Ignis. Helping a lot more than I’ve been able to. The kid’s been – so much less blank these last few days.”

“You know we can’t allow it,” the one from the phone says.

“Yeah, I get that,” Cor says. “I know it was a mistake. You don’t need to tell me that the security of the kingdom is more important, Clarus, you know I know that.” He sighs again. “I just think – maybe I’m not the right person for this.”

“We can take him into detention,” the one from the phone says. “I give you my word he won’t be mistreated.”

“No – no, I don’t want that,” Cor says. “I’m not saying I want to get rid of him. Just – I wish I knew how to help him better. He’s like a robot sometimes and it’s – it can be really frustrating.”

There’s a short silence. “There’s no way to be prepared for these things,” the one from the phone says. “I certainly had no idea what I was doing with Gladio. Some days in his early teens I felt like dropping him off at the nearest orphanage. And Iris – well, she’s young yet, but of all the things I’ve been afraid of in my life, the idea of making the same mistakes with her as I did with Gladio is very high on the list.”

Cor laughs. “Yeah, you got yourself a couple of handfuls there,” he said. “Take after their mom.”

“They do,” the one from the phone says, his voice suddenly softer.

“But they’re kids, Clarus,” Cor says. “They’re your kids. This is different.”

Another silence. Then the one from the phone speaks again.

“Perhaps not as different as you might think,” he says.

~

The conversation stops after that. Cor doesn’t come to collect him, though. He waits, looking at the silent one. It’s the daytime silent one. He wonders if the silent one who taught him cards will know to come and find them here, or if he’ll go to Cor’s house.

Then the door opens and the one with the club comes in, and he stops wondering.

The one with the club limps over and stands in front of him, staring down. He has a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Good evening,” he says.

“Hi,” he says. He hopes it’s right. No-one’s ever said good evening to him before, but Ignis says good afternoon and good morning sometimes, and Cor and Noctis say hi in response, so he thinks it must be similar.

The one with the club smiles a small smile. “Indeed,” he says. He pulls up a chair and sits down facing him. “I’m told you know my son?”

He swallows. “I don’t know,” he says. He doesn’t know what son means.

“Ah,” the one with the club says. “Prince Noctis. You know him, do you not?”

“Yes,” he says. “I know him.”

The one with the club nods. He eyes him thoughtfully. “Tell me,” he says, “what kind of a person is he to have as a friend?”

He doesn’t know what friend means, though he’s heard it before. It must show on his face, because the one with the club speaks again.

“I mean to say, how does he treat you?”

He considers it. How does Noctis treat him? He talks to him, and asks him to play games. He teaches him things. He says things sometimes that are frightening. He sounds angry but he’s not angry. How does Noctis treat him? He doesn’t know. Noctis is complicated.

“He played card games with me, and he didn’t get angry when I won,” he says. He thinks maybe if he gives examples, that will be better than trying to describe what Noctis is like. He doesn’t think he can describe what Noctis is like. “But then he was happy when he beat me at phone games.” Noctis is complicated.

The one with the club smiles again. “Do you play games together often?” he asks.

He nods. “Usually when he comes to see Ignis,” he says. “He asks me to play.”

“And do you like playing games with my son?” the one with the club asks.

He thinks about it. “Yes,” he says.

The one with the club nods. “I’m glad,” he says. Then he looks sad. “I hope–” he says, and then stops. He sits silent for a moment, staring at him. Then he sighs and gets to his feet.

“I’m sorry you had to meet him under such circumstances,” he says. “I hope that the circumstances will change in the future.”

He doesn’t understand. “Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

The one with the club leaves, then, and a few minutes later, Cor comes to collect him.

Neither of them says anything on the way home.

~

He doesn’t sleep much that night. He lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, picking over the conversation he heard, and the one he had. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand. But he understands that the one from the phone wasn’t happy that he’s been seeing Ignis and Noctis. The one from the phone – he isn’t sure where he stands. Whether he’s higher in the chain than Cor or not. His first instinct is to think not. Surely Cor is the commander. But when he thinks about it carefully, Cor usually does what the one with the phone says. So maybe he’s wrong.

And Cor said I’ll make sure they don’t see each other again. He thinks that means him and Ignis. Or him and Noctis. He thinks that’s what it means, and the thought makes him feel a strange sort of feeling in his stomach. He doesn’t know how to describe it, exactly, but it’s not pleasant.

But then there’s the one with the club. The one with the club came to talk to him. He asked him about Noctis. And he seemed pleased. He smiled. It seemed like he was pleased when he talked about Noctis. But the one with the club – Cor and the one from the phone both did what the one with the club said. The one with the club interrupted the one from the phone, and the one from the phone fell silent immediately. It doesn’t make sense, though – the one with the club is quiet and gentle, much more than the one with the phone. So the one with the phone ought to be the commander. And the one with the club was pleased about him talking to Noctis, but the one from the phone wasn’t. And Cor said he would make sure he didn’t see Noctis again.

He doesn’t understand.

He doesn’t understand. He thinks and thinks all night until his head aches with it, but he still doesn’t understand. He wishes he could go back to yesterday, when everything was easier. He helped Noctis with math and they played cards. And he didn’t have this feeling in his stomach like he has now. He wishes he could go back.

But he can’t go back.

~

The next day, Cor doesn’t take him to see Ignis. He takes him to a different place, somewhere else along miles of corridors. There’s a room with a couch and soft chairs, a table, some empty shelves, a window. There’s nothing else there. Cor opens the door and sighs.

“OK, kid,” he says. “Can you hang here till I get back?”

He goes into the room. He looks around. There’s no-one here.

Cor points at the couch. “You got your music player?” he asks.

He fumbles in his pocket and produces the music player.

“OK,” Cor says. He looks around the room and frowns. “I’ll get you some books to look at. Maybe a TV.”

He sits on the couch. “Thank you,” he says.

Cor looks at him for a moment, then looks around the room again. He runs a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry about this, kid,” he says. “I hope you won’t be too bored.”

“No,” he says. “I won’t be bored.”

Cor nods. He still looks worried. “Just knock on the door if you need something,” he says. He points. The silent one is standing outside the door. “Lacertus will get it for you.”

“Yes,” he says.

“All right,” Cor says. He stands in the doorway. “You’ll be all right.”

“Yes,” he says again.

Cor keeps standing in the doorway, though. He stands there for long enough that he thinks he must have forgotten something. But then he leaves.

After Cor closes the door, he hears him sigh.

~

He sits in the room all morning. He listens to the music player for a while. He closes his eyes and tries to sink into the music. But the gnawing feeling in his stomach never quite goes away. He thinks now he won’t see Ignis today. The thought makes the gnawing worse, so he carefully stops thinking about it. But the gnawing gets worse anyway, as the morning goes on.

After two hours, he stops listening to the music. Then it’s very quiet.

He looks out of the window for a while. He’s a long way up. Today the sky is grey, dark, dark grey. It seems very low, like it’s grazing the tops of the higher towers. He wonders why the sky changes colour, why it seems to rise and fall on different days. Then he thinks he shouldn’t wonder. He doesn’t know why he’s not supposed to see Ignis any more, but he must have done something wrong. This isn’t a correction, but it is a consequence. He thinks he would prefer a correction. But he doesn’t know what he did wrong. The only way he can think of to improve matters is to try to be better in every part of his life. And that means he needs to stop asking questions, even in his mind.

No questions. He can be better.

He sits on the couch. The room is very quiet. He sharpens his hearing, but he can’t hear anything outside, either, except the silent one breathing. Sometimes he catches a snatch of distant footsteps or voices. But beyond that, it’s quiet.

Time passes. The light in the room is grey and dull. It doesn’t change. He feels his limbs growing heavy. His mind begins to fill with fog. He presses his fingers into the soft fabric of the couch. Then he presses them into his thighs. But the fog wraps itself around his thoughts.

And then the door opens. It startles him. He should have heard the footsteps coming, but he didn’t hear anything. And now Cor is in the doorway. He speaks, but for a moment it’s like he’s underwater. He can’t hear anything.

Cor frowns. “...all right?” he asks.

He blinks. “Yes,” he says. “Hi.”

Cor shakes his head. “Hey, kid,” he says. He sounds tired. “I brought you some things.”

He comes to sit on one of the soft chairs. He’s carrying a bag, and he pulls two books out of it.

“Ignis gave me these,” he says. “Thought you’d like them.”

He looks at the books. They’re about the same size as Lucis by Night Laus Venustas, but he hasn’t seen them before. The top one is called Faces of Eos Mens Miror. He can’t see the bottom one.

“Thank you,” he says.

Cor grunts. He pulls a large blue tube out of the bag. “Ignis made you some soup,” he says. “He says you like this kind best. It’ll stay warm in here. Drink as much as you can, all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He wonders where Ignis is. Whether he was surprised this morning that they didn’t come.

Cor looks around the room. “Six,” he mutters. “I’ll get you some more things, all right? I can’t let you have a phone, kid, but I’m sure we can get you something to keep you busy.”

“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

Cor frowns at him. He doesn’t say anything else, though, just gets to his feet.

“I’m sorry about this,” he says.

But he doesn’t know what Cor’s sorry for.

~

The afternoon is long. He drinks the soup, and the red drink. He looks at the bottle. PROMPTO!, it says. He thinks about Noctis, saying see you, Prompto. He said it like that, casual, like it was normal. It made him feel – strange. And warm. Even though he knows it wasn’t right, it felt good – to have Noctis want to give him a name. To call him by it. Like he was a person.

He’s not a person. Maybe that’s what he did wrong. He started to wish he really was a person because of the way Ignis and Noctis treated him. He doesn’t know how Cor knew he wished that, but now he’s on his own in this empty room. He remembers Ignis smiling at him and Noctis being so happy to beat him at phone games. And there’s that gnawing feeling in his stomach. It’s worse now.

He drinks his red drink. When he finishes the bottle, he hides it under the table so he can’t see the word PROMPTO! any more. He looks at the books Ignis sent for him, but he doesn’t open them. He doesn’t want to see what’s inside them. He wants to go back to being how he was before. When he was in the training facility, he would have been happy to spend all day in an empty room, with no orders and nothing to be afraid of. He wants to go back to that, and stop pretending he can be anything more than what he is. If he can go back, maybe he’ll stop feeling the gnawing feeling.

He’s defective. That’s why he’s feeling the wrong things. That’s why he feels bad now. If he wasn’t defective, he would never have let himself pretend, even for a moment. And then he wouldn’t feel bad now. So he should tell Cor about his defects, and then Cor will modify him and he won’t feel bad.

But when Cor comes back, hours later, he doesn’t tell him.

~

The next day, Cor takes him to see the engineers again. It’s the same two: the shorter one and the taller one. The shorter one stands up when he comes into the room. “Finally,” she says. The taller one doesn’t stand up. He looks him up and down. It makes his skin itch.

“You’ve got forty-five minutes,” Cor says. He looks angry. He’s looked angry ever since he collected him from the emtpy room yesterday. Cor talked to him a lot the night before, but he looked angry the whole time, and it made his stomach churn.

The taller one gets up, then. “Clothes off,” he says. “Let’s look at you.”

He goes to the table and takes off the clothes he's wearing. They make him lie down on his front, and they run a sensor all over him, up his arms and down his back and legs. It beeps, and there are readouts on a monitor that he doesn’t understand.

“This is the main CPU,” the shorter one says. She squeezes the back of his neck, above the port. “How wired in do you think his brain is?”

“Pretty wired in,” the taller one says, writing something down. “What I don’t get is what the daemon blood has to do with all this. If he’s a cyborg – why isn’t he just a cyborg?”

The shorter one puts her hands on either side of his head and turns it from one side to the other. She peers into his eyes. “The eyes aren’t mechanical,” she says. “So – maybe the daemon blood is the interface? It allows the inorganic parts to work with the organic ones?”

The taller one makes a dissatisfied noise. The shorter one keeps staring at his eyes.

“Keep your eyes open,” she says, moving so that she’s blocking his view of Cor, standing by the door. “That’s an order.” Then she extends her index finger and moves it slowly towards his eye. He keeps his eyes open, and eventually she touches his eyeball. It hurts, and his eyes water. She takes her finger away.

“Wow,” she says. Then she looks at the taller one and lowers her voice. “Unusually strong impulse control,” she says. “Or no defense mechanisms. One or the other.” She looks back at him. “You don’t have to keep your eyes open any more,” she says. Then she reaches out to touch his eyeball again. He blinks. “OK, impulse control, then,” she says. “Wow.”

The taller one stops writing. He moves as well, so his back’s to Cor. “Do you think they come out?” he murmurs.

“What, like – we could just pop one out and have a look at it?” the shorter one asks. She’s whispering, but he can hear her.

The taller one shakes his head. “They’ll never let us do that,” he murmurs. “Anyway, I’d rather crack his head open.”

The shorter one laughs soundlessly. “Right,” she says. “You think they’d let us do that?

“Hey,” Cor says then, voice sharp. “What are you two muttering about?”

They turn to look at him. He raises his eyebrows. “Tick tock,” he says.

They step back. The shorter one goes to fetch a large beaker. In the beaker is a thick, pink substance. They lean over him and start doing something to the back of his neck. He feels something cool and wet on his skin. Then there’s a sort of suffocating feeling, like a blockage in his sinuses, but somehow located at the back of his head. It increases, and he feels a stunning pressure at the base of his skull. His vision starts to blur.

“Hey, turn on your back,” the taller one says. He struggles to understand the words. The taller one reaches out and takes his shoulder, turning his body. He understands, then, and does his best to turn over. His eyes are watering.

The shorter one leans over and peers at the port for sustenance. Then she takes a metal implement and starts transferring the thick, pink substance into his port. The pressure on his skull is joined by a new pressure in his abdomen. His stomach cramps painfully.

The taller one takes a different implement and starts transferring the pink substance to his charging port. This one results in no change in pressure in his body. Dimly, he thinks it must be because his charging port is not yet in use. But he can barely think at all between the pressure in his head and the cramps in his stomach.

The two of them stand back, then. The shorter one gets out her phone and stares at it. The taller one stares at him and makes notes. He lies still on the table. His eyes are still watering. He feels cold, without any clothes.

“OK, five minutes,” the shorter one says at last. “On your front.”

He manages to roll onto his front. The pressure in his abdomen changes a little, and he fights not to vomit. The shorter one leans over him, and there’s a scraping sound which vibrates through his skull, setting his teeth on edge. Then, suddenly, blessedly, the pressure in his head is gone.

“It worked OK,” the short one says. She sounds like she’s a long way away. “I can’t see any residual in the port.”

“Great,” the taller one says. “Let’s get the others. Turn over.”

He turns over. His head is still throbbing, even though the pressure is gone. He sees that the shorter one is holding something pink in her hand. It’s shaped like the inside of his port. They made casts, he realises. That’s what the pink substance is.

The taller one is scraping at his sustenance port. After a few seconds, the pressure in his stomach disappears. The taller one steps back with another cast.

“Make sure to label these properly,” he says, handing it to the shorter one. “We don’t want to get them mixed up.”

The taller one takes out the third cast, then. The shorter one steps back, busy with the labelling. Cor stands up.

“Time’s up,” he says. “Put your clothes back on, kid.”

He sits up. His head spins, and he thinks he might throw up. He fights the feeling down and gets dressed. It’s not easy. His hands are shaking violently. The taller one stares at him the whole time, and he feels like there’s something thick and greasy on his skin. It feels better when he’s dressed, but only a little.

Cor comes and takes his arm. He pulls him towards the door. He looks back over his shoulder at the two engineers. His face is furious.

“Not even going to thank him for his help, huh?” he says.

The taller one looks up from his notes.

“Thank you for your help,” he says.

Cor shakes his head and pulls him out of the room. When he closes the door behind him, he closes it hard.

~

Cor takes him back to the room where he spent the day before. Cor walks too fast, and he almost falls twice. Each time, Cor slows down, but after a while he speeds up again. His face is still furious.

When they get to the room, Cor points to the couch. He sits on it. His head aches. His stomach aches. Cor is angry with him, and he doesn’t know why.

Cor stares at him. He tries to swallow, but his mouth is dry. Then Cor sits down.

“Those guys,” he says. “They’re dicks, OK? I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t understand what Cor means. “Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. “I know it sucks,” he says. “We gotta get the hang of you, kid, or I’m never going to be able to let you have more freedom. They’re assholes, but they’re smart assholes. If I knew someone else who could figure you out, I’d kick them out so hard they’d be feeling it for the rest of their lives.”

His head is spinning, the room turning in lazy circles. He can’t make sense of anything Cor’s saying. “Yes,” he says again.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He sits in silence for a while. His hands are clasped and he stares down at the floor. At last, though, he sits up.

“We’ll figure it out,” he says. “I promise. This isn’t forever, OK?”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor stands up. “I’ll get some more food for you,” he says. “Drink your drink, all right?”

He puts a bottle of the red drink on the table. Then he leaves, closing the door behind him.

He stares at the red bottle for a long time. PROMPTO! it says, the letters large and clear. He knows he’s supposed to drink it. But instead he takes it and hides it under the table.

His head throbs. His stomach still aches, too – not as bad as before, but still a continual ache. And now here he is, in the silent room. He looks at the books on the table, at the music player. At the sky outside the window. Everything in him aches, and he doesn’t know now how much of it is because of what the engineers did and how much isn’t.

He thinks about what the engineers did. He thinks about being there, on the table, with no clothes on. He’s used to people examining him. He’s used to being naked. But now he feels – greasy. He thinks of the shower at Cor’s house – how hot it is, how powerful. He thinks of the soap that smells of something strange, but not unpleasant. He wishes he could go there now.

After a while, he realises he’s crying. He tries to stop, but it doesn’t work. He doesn’t want to be here, in this room, all the hours that stretch ahead of him. He knows now he won’t be going back to see Ignis again. He won’t play games with Noctis any more. Now he’s just here, in this empty room. He’ll come back tomorrow, he’s sure of it. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. All those days. All those hours.

He pulls his legs up onto the couch. No-one’s here, no-one can see. He’s supposed to be being better, making himself better. But he’s so tired. He’s so tired.

So he presses his face into the soft arm of the couch and lets himself cry.

Chapter Text

On the fourth day he spends in the empty room, he sleeps.

He falls asleep in the morning, and wakes up perhaps an hour later. He lies on the couch, staring at the ceiling. He feels heavy. His mind moves sluggishly. But sleeping was good. Time moved more quickly. When he was asleep, he didn’t have to think, or feel the gnawing feeling in his stomach, or stare at nothing.

After a while, he closes his eyes. He keeps them closed for a long time. But he doesn’t fall asleep again.

He sits up. He drinks some soup. He stares at the wall.

He lies down again and closes his eyes. But sleep won’t come.

Experimentally, he closes down some of his functions. The mathematical and statistical elements, for example – he doesn’t need those to be in ready mode. Normally he would disengage them to save energy but keep them easily accessible.

He doesn’t need them to be easily accessible. He’ll be in the room for hours yet. He won’t need them. So he closes them down.

His mind feels quieter. But sleep still won’t come. He thinks about his mind, about his functions. He’s not doing anything. He’s not doing anything at all. Does he need any of his functions? Not many of them, certainly. He knows it’s not safe to shut down too many of them at once. But how many is too many?

He’s not sure. He shuts down a few more. His mind starts to drift. But he still doesn’t sleep. His eyes are closed, but he can still hear the silent one breathing outside the door. It seems louder now that so many fewer processes are running in his brain. So he shuts down his hearing.

Then it’s silent. And after a little while, he sleeps.

When he wakes, it’s because someone’s shaking him. He opens his eyes and sees Cor. Cor’s mouth is moving, but there’s no sound. Cor looks angry. He tries to sit up, tries to understand why there’s no sound. But no part of his body seems to work. It takes him several long moments to remember why, and in the meantime Cor’s staring, talking, looking more and more angry.

And then: he remembers. His mind’s moving so slowly. He knows why. He starts up his hearing again. It takes too long coming back online. Cor’s standing up now. The silent one has come inside and is staring at him. Cor’s got his phone out.

“...need a medical team,” Cor’s saying into his phone.

He swallows. “Cor,” he says. His voice comes out sounding strange. He starts to go through the other processes, restarting them one by one.

Cor turns sharply to look at him. He kneels down by the couch.

“Kid,” he says. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” he says. His motor control has come back online. He sits up. The room spins sickeningly.

Cor’s face changes. He lets out a heavy breath. “Shit,” he says. “Kid, you scared the shit out of me.”

He clears his throat. “I was asleep,” he says. There’s pain throbbing behind one of his eyes. It’s dangerous to shut down too many of his processes at once. He knows that. But he slept all day and now Cor’s back, and he didn’t have to sit through those hours.

Cor shakes his head slowly. Someone’s speaking on the other end of his phone – he tries to sharpen his hearing to listen, but it sends a spike of pain through his head – and Cor puts it back to his ear.

“Cancel that,” he says. “He’s all right.”

The silent one is still staring at him. He lowers his eyes. He starts up the last few processes. He should be fully functioning now. But he feels shaky and cold, and his stomach’s cramping.

Cor ends the call. He’s still kneeling on the floor. He stares at him.

“What happened?” he asked. “Are you sick?”

He shakes his head. It makes his head throb. “I was asleep,” he says again.

Cor just stares at him for a few seconds. Then he gets to his feet.

“OK,” he says. “We’re going to see the doctor.”

~

It’s a long way to the room where the one in the white coat works. His mind feels disconnected from his body, and when he walks, it feels like he’s floating. Cor walks slowly, and he’s glad. But Cor still looks angry.

The one in the white coat examines him just like before. She frowns at him when she tests his eyes.

“His reactions are sluggish,” she says to Cor. “What have you eaten today?”

It takes him a moment to realise the question is for him. He thinks. The early part of the day is suffused in a kind of fog in his memory.

“Soup,” he says.

“How much?” she asks.

He tries to estimate. “A quarter of a cup,” he says.

The one in the white coat sighs heavily, then turns and raises her eyebrows at Cor. “Here we are again,” she says.

Cor frowns at him. “Why didn’t you eat more?” he asks. “You know you’re supposed to finish the flask.”

His throat’s dry. He failed to fulfil his orders, and now Cor’s angry. “I was asleep,” he says. It comes out in a whisper.

Cor runs his hand through his hair. “Kid,” he says. “You need to eat. You need to eat or you’ll die, understand me?”

“Yes,” he says. He knows that. Without sustenance, he will die. “I understand.”

“Has he been eating enough in general?” the one in the white coat asks. “He hasn’t lost any weight.”

Cor shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “I assumed – Six, I don’t fucking know.”

The one in the white coat turns to him. “Is that usually the amount you eat in a day?” she asks. “A quarter of a cup of soup?”

He starts to shake his head, then remembers the pain and stops. “No,” he says. “I have two flasks of soup and two bottles of sports drink.” It makes him feel uncomfortable sometimes, so much liquid sitting heavily on his stomach.

She nods. “Sounds all right,” she says. “You slept all day?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Do you usually sleep all day?” she asks.

“No,” he replies.

She nods again. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” she says to Cor. “But you need to make sure you eat properly. Understand?”

The question is for him again. “Yes, I understand,” he says.

Cor’s shaking his head, though. “That’s not all it was,” he says. “When I came in – he looked like he was dead. His heart was barely beating, and when he woke up he just stared at me like he wasn’t even in there.”

The one in the white coat frowns. “He doesn’t normally sleep that way?” she asks.

“Absolutely not,” Cor says. He says it emphatically. He’s shifting from foot to foot, like he can’t keep still.

The one in the white coat looks at her notes. “His heart-rate is fine now,” she says. “Blood pressure fine. Reactions are a little sluggish, but that’s probably the low blood sugar.” She looks at him. “You feel OK?”

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t want to tell her about the floating and the pain. He doesn’t want her to know he shut down too many processes. Doesn’t want Cor to know.

She nods, then frowns at her notes. Cor watches her. His hands are clenching and unclenching at his sides.

“Right, here’s what we’ll do,” she says. She opens a drawer and pulls out a green rubber strip. “He can wear this. It’ll keep track of his heartbeat, and if it falls below a critical threshold, or starts beating irregularly, it’ll send you an alarm. I think this was probably just a weird one-off, but it’ll help keep your mind at rest. OK?”

Cor frowns. “Isn’t there a scan you can do?” he asks. “Check if his heart is damaged?”

“His heart sounds fine,” the one with the white coat says. “Look, Marshal, the human body is a weird and wonderful thing. Sometimes it does inexplicable stuff. We’ll keep track of his heartbeat for the next month. If it doesn’t happen again...” She shrugs. “Try not to worry so much.”

“Easy for you to say,” Cor mutters.

The one with the white coat turns to him. “Hold out your arm,” she says.

He does. She fastens the rubber strip around his wrist, under the shirt cuff. She adjusts it, then presses something.

“Keep it on,” she says.

“Yes,” he says.

~

That night, he can’t sleep. He can hear his heart beating in his ears. He can’t stop thinking about how angry Cor was because he couldn’t wake him up. It’s his fault – he knows it’s his fault, he knew he shouldn’t close down all those processes but he did it anyway. He wonders how angry Cor would be if he found out what really happened.

He thinks he would be really angry.

He’s been lying in bed for three hours when he hears footsteps coming up the stairs. The silent one murmurs a greeting.

“Late night tonight, huh?” he says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “I’m just gonna–”

The door handle turns. He closes his eyes. He’s supposed to be asleep. He doesn’t want to make Cor even angrier.

Cor comes in. He stands by the bed. Then he leans down and presses two fingers against his neck. He waits for approximately fifteen seconds. Then he takes the fingers away. He stands there for a little while longer. Then he sighs.

“Six, kid,” he murmurs. “What am I going to do with you?”

He doesn’t answer. He hopes Cor still thinks he’s asleep. Then Cor leaves. He closes the door quietly. Outside, he speaks to the silent one.

“Arcis, can you check in on him a couple of times tonight?” he says. “Make sure he’s – I don’t know. Breathing.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. “I heard about what happened. Lacertus said the kid looked – really bad.”

There’s a pause. “Yeah,” Cor says at last. He sounds tired.

“He seems OK now, though,” the silent one says.

“Yeah,” Cor says again. “Just – check in on him.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says.

~

The next day, he’s in the empty room again. Cor brings in a screen in the morning. “Can’t let you watch live TV, kid, I’m sorry,” he says. “There’s a pretty big movie library on here, though.” He points at a device that looks like a hard drive. It’s attached to the screen. “You can watch anything you want,” he says. “Here’s the remote.”

Cor holds out a flat black box, covered in buttons. He takes it. “Thank you,” he says.

Cor nods. He looks angry. “Yeah, no problem,” he says. “Make sure you eat something, OK?”

After Cor leaves, he drinks all the soup as quickly as he can, so that Cor won’t be angry with him for not eating again. It makes his stomach churn, but he manages not to throw up. Then he sits. He sits there for an hour, and then a second hour, and everything hurts. It’s not physical hurt – though there’s still some lingering aching from shutting too many of his processes down – but it doesn’t make a difference. It hurts anyway. He feels dull and sluggish, and he thinks of that oblivion the day before, when he was here all day but he didn’t have to feel it. It had been so much easier.

But Cor had been angry. He’d been angry. He hadn’t told him not to sleep today, but if he’d known what he’d done – he would have forbidden it. He certainly would have forbidden it.

He can’t do it again.

He lies down. Maybe he can fall asleep without shutting down his processes. He stares at the ceiling, then closes his eyes. He barely slept in the night. He ought to be tired.

He doesn’t fall asleep.

It’s been an hour, and he’s wrestling with it – maybe he can just close one or two processes down, maybe that won’t have the same effect – when he hears a scraping noise in the corner of the room. He sits up immediately, all thoughts of sleep gone. His heart’s thudding in his ears, and he looks at the strap around his wrist and wonders if someone, somewhere can see the change.

The scraping comes again. It’s coming from behind the wall, behind the empty shelves. He leans forward, about to get to his feet. But then, part of the wall swings outwards. Just a small part, maybe a metre squared. Behind it is a person, who makes a complaining noise and struggles through the hole, movements awkward and ungainly. The person lands on the floor, then immediately stands up, dusting himself off with an air of nonchalance. The person looks at him.

“Hey,” he says.

It’s Noctis.

He stares. Noctis turns and closes the hatch that opened in the wall. Then he comes and sits in one of the soft chairs. He looks around.

“Wow,” he says. “Some rehabilitation.”

He blinks. “Hi,” he says.

Noctis looks at him. He raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, hi,” he says. “How’s it going?”

He’s not sure how to answer the question. “Going where?” he says. Then he looks at the wall. He can’t see the edges of the hatch. He sharpens his vision, and eventually makes out a minute crack in the wall. He wonders if he’s hallucinating. “You came through the wall.”

“No shit,” Noctis says. “Cor said you were being rehabilitated. So... that’s not true, huh?”

He’s heard it before. Rehabilitated. “Yes,” he says, not quite sure. “I’m being rehabilitated.”

Noctis raises his eyebrows. “In an empty room with a guard on the door?” he says. “You know, I’m not sure Cor knows what rehabilitation means.”

He swallows. “You came through the wall,” he says again. He feels like none of this can be real.

Noctis sighs. “Yeah,” he says. “I figured – great, you’re being rehabilitated, right? I mean, you obviously need it. No offence.” He pauses, looking sideways at him, like he’s expecting a response to that.

“Yes,” he says. “I need it.” Noctis isn’t the first person to say that. So he needs it, whatever it is.

“Yeah, exactly,” Noctis says. “So – I don’t know, it sucked because I was definitely gonna beat you at Altissian pickup next time, but whatever. But anyway – and then I was just – you know, wandering around the Citadel, because – I don’t know, there wasn’t much going on. And I saw that guy.” He points at the door. “Lacertus. He was outside Ignis’ door whenever you were in there. And then he was outside this door. And, like, there’s nobody here, in this part of the Citadel. So I figured something was going on.”

He blinks. The explanation is long, and doesn’t seem to explain anything. “You came through the wall,” he says.

Noctis rolls his eyes. “Yeah, turns out growing up in a place, you find out all its secrets. Even the ones the people in charge of security don’t know.” He gestures at the wall, where the invisible hatch is. “This place is jammed with hidden passageways, I swear. My ancestors must have been pretty damn paranoid.”

He understands perhaps sixty percent of the explanation. Noctis saw the silent one, and knew he was in here. Noctis knew how to get in here because – he knows all the hidden passageways, somehow. He doesn’t know why Noctis came here.

“So, you wanna blow this joint?” Noctis asks. “You must be bored out of your skull.”

“No,” he says. “I’m not bored.” He doesn’t know what blow this joint means.

Noctis snorts. “Right,” he says. “You’ve got two whole books there. This place is like entertainment central.”

He stares. Noctis stares back.

“I mean, seriously,” he says. “We could go to the arcade or something. We’ll go through the passage, Lacertus’ll never even know you were gone.”

Now he understands: Noctis wants him to leave.

“Cor said I have to stay here,” he says.

Noctis laughs. “Right,” he says. “Well, Cor’s the marshal, and I’m the prince, so who are you going to follow?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Cor,” he says.

Noctis stares at him, eyebrows rising. He looks surprised. “Seriously?” he says, after a short pause.

He doesn’t understand why Noctis is always asking about whether things are serious. “Yes,” he says.

A strange expression comes over Noctis’ face then. He sits back in the chair. “Huh,” he says. “Wow.”

He sits, waiting. He wonders what will happen next. He didn’t want to disobey Noctis, but he can’t obey both Noctis and Cor at the same time. He hopes Noctis won’t be angry.

But Noctis doesn’t look angry. “Fine,” he says, standing up. He goes to the hatch and opens it. He climbs inside. And then he’s gone, the hatch closing behind him.

He stares at the wall, the hatch invisible now. He sharpens his hearing and hears Noctis travelling through to the next room, muttering and thumping. Then he hears Noctis cross the next room and open a door. He listens as his footsteps diminish, sharpening his hearing as far as it will go, even though it hurts a little with an echo of yesterday’s pain. Eventually, the footsteps move out of the range of his hearing.

He sits back on the couch. He feels suddenly like he might cry again. He fights with the tears, but some spill over anyway. The gnawing feeling in his stomach is intensified. If he’d gone with Noctis – but no, he couldn’t go. Cor told him to stay here. He has to stay here, even though there’s nothing here and even though Noctis wanted him to go somewhere else. He has to stay here, and he wishes he could shut down all his processes, all of them.

But he can’t. He can’t. And even though he can’t, he’s still thinking about it. He’s still thinking about it when he hears a thumping in the wall. He turns and stares at it. His heart seems to jump in his chest, and his breath catches in his throat. The hatch opens. And Noctis tumbles through.

“Hey, Prompto,” he says, sitting up and brushing himself off. He looks back at the hatch. “Maybe need to get a ramp or something,” he mutters.

He swallows. “You came back,” he says.

Noctis looks at him. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “I was just going to fetch this.” He holds up a small bag. “Didn’t I say?”

He shakes his head. “I thought you’d gone,” he says.

“What, to the arcade?” Noctis shrugs. “Sure, maybe I’ll go later.” He looks at him sideways, under his eyelashes, then looks away, at a spot on the wall. “Pretty boring by yourself, you know?”

He doesn’t know. “Yes,” he says.

“Exactly,” Noctis says. He gets up, closes the hatch, and comes over to the couch. He sits down next to him. He opens the bag and pulls out a piece of equipment. “Figured – hey, phone games are cool, and all, but console games are so much better,” he says. He pulls out two smaller devices and holds one out. “Here, let me attach it to the TV.”

He takes the device that Noctis holds out to him. It’s a silver-grey colour and made of plastic, with several buttons on it. It’s somewhat like the flat black box Cor gave to him earlier, but it’s shaped differently, wide instead of long, and more irregular.

“Thank you,” he says.

Noctis glances back from where he’s connecting cables to the screen. “Whatever,” he says. He comes back to the couch and sits down. “You ever played King’s Knight?” he asks.

He shakes his head. Noctis grins. “I figured,” he says. “Here.”

He presses a button, and the screen leaps into life. Noctis turns around to face him on the couch.

“OK,” he says. “So, the story is there’s this princess...”

He listens to the explanation of the game. He doesn’t understand all of it, nor what the purpose of the game is. But he listens intently. Noctis came here to play this game with him. There’s no other explanation. He went away to fetch the equipment, and he brought it back to play the game with him. He’s animated now, explaining the game, in a way he’s never seen him before. He’s here, in this empty room. He came here on purpose.

He listens to the explanation, and he feels a swelling feeling in his chest. It swells and swells until he thinks it might choke him. But it’s not a bad feeling. It feels good. It overwhelms the gnawing feeling in his stomach, and then, for the first time in days, that feeling is gone. He feels good.

Noctis stops speaking. “You OK?” he says.

“Yes,” he says. “I’m OK.”

“Great.” Noctis picks up the small device. “I’ll show you how to use the controller. You ready?”

And he nods.

“I’m ready,” he says.

Chapter Text

King’s Knight is complicated. There are lots of rules, and he finds it hard to understand why some of the things in the game happen. Every now and then there’ll be a scene where the avatars that represent him and Noct talk to each other, or to other simulated people. He’s not sure why these scenes exist. The people don’t truly exist, and the scenes seem to be to explain why the avatars are assigned their various tasks. This strikes him as unnecessary and inefficient; surely it would make more sense for the programme simply to assign the tasks and expect them to be completed?

Most of the game is running and fighting, though. He finds the controller easier to handle than the phone, so even though he’s still slower than Noctis, the gap between them isn’t so large. And they’re playing together now: their avatars are both on the same side, rather than trying to beat each other. He worries about performing poorly, since his performance will affect Noctis, but nonetheless, he feels less unsettled cooperating with Noctis than he did trying to defeat him.

The best thing about the game is how pleased it makes Noctis to play. He keeps his voice low – because of the silent one outside the door – but he has an energy about him that he hasn’t seen before. He makes that gesture like pulling a string when they complete a task, and after a particularly difficult simulated battle, he whisper-shouts yes and turns to grin at him, his hand raised, palm outwards.

He’s not sure what the gesture means. After a moment, he thinks to try smiling back. Noctis frowns at him, and he removes the smile from his face. That wasn’t correct, then.

“High five?” Noctis says, like he’s confused.

He tries to decipher what the phrase might mean. He looks at the screen: perhaps it’s some kind of score. But the screen is paused and there are no numbers on it. He looks back at Noctis.

“You don’t know what a high five is?” Noctis asks. “Seriously?”

He feels suddenly stupid. It’s not unusual for him to feel that way, but after the last hour or so, when he’s been performing, if not outstandingly, then at least adequately, the sudden change makes his heart feel like it’s sinking in his chest.

“Wow,” Noctis says. He lowers his hand. Then he shakes his head. “Hey, it’s not a big deal,” he says. “You don’t have to look like someone’s run over your puppy.”

He didn’t know he was looking like that. He’s not really sure what that looks like. But he tries to change his expression into something else, in the hope that it’ll be appropriate.

Noctis looks startled. “Uh,” he says, “did you hurt yourself or something?”

He gives up. None of his facial expressions are appropriate. But Noctis is speaking again.

“It’s a thing,” he says. “Like – when you’ve done something cool. You put your hand up like this.” He demonstrates. “And the other person puts their hand up, too, and then you slap hands. It’s called a high five.”

He blinks. He wants to ask why, but he doesn’t want to look even more stupid. “When you’ve done something cool?” he asks. Noctis says things are cool a lot, and he’s starting to think it has nothing to do with temperature.

“Yeah,” Noctis says. “Like, winning that battle. That was cool, right? So: high five.”

Noctis raises his hand. He raises his own, tentatively, hoping that he’s correct. Noctis slaps it, palm to palm, and grins.

“High five,” he says.

“High five,” he replies. Noctis has lowered his hand, so he lowers his own.

“Now you’re getting it,” Noctis says.

He nods. “Yes,” he says.

Noctis raises his eyebrows. He turns back to the game, and looks like he’s about to start playing again, but then he turns back.

“Hey – why do you talk like that?” he asks. “You always say yes.”

He doesn’t quite understand the question. “What – should I say instead?” he asks.

“I mean – yeah,” Noctis says. “Nobody says yes all the time. You sound like Ignis.”

“Yeah,” he says. It feels a little strange in his mouth, so he tries it again. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Noctis says. “Much better.”

He picks up his controller again. “Yeah,” he mutters to himself. He’ll try and remember. But there’s a question, now, and he wonders whether he should ask it. He thinks maybe Noctis will think he’s stupid, but on the other hand, he needs clarification so that he doesn’t keep speaking inappropriately. So he takes a deep breath.

“It’s bad to sound like Ignis?” he asks. Ignis speaks clearly and gives detailed instructions. He thinks it ought to be good to sound like Ignis.

“Yeah,” Noctis says. “I mean – not if you are Ignis, obviously. He can get away with that shit because – uh, because he’s Ignis. But when you talk like that you sound – like a robot.”

Cor said the same thing about him. He’s like a robot sometimes. He’s not a robot. MT units are significantly more complex than robots.

“I’m not a robot,” he says.

“No shit,” Noctis replies. “We just gotta get you into the groove a bit more, you know? This whole brain damage thing–” He shakes his head. “I don’t know what this is, witness protection or whatever, but you’re not going to get back to being normal by spending all your time talking to Cor and sitting in here.” He glances at him. “I mean – where are your clothes?”

He glances down. He’s still wearing clothes. “They’re here,” he says.

Noctis raises an eyebrow. He looks him up and down. “Yeah, but I mean,” he gestures, “they’re not your clothes, right? They’re too big. And they’ve got Cor Leonis written all over them.”

He looks down at the clothes he’s wearing. He doesn’t see Cor Leonis written on them anywhere. “Oh,” he says. He wonders if Noctis is using some different mode of vision. He switches to infrared, then night mode. But he still doesn’t see it.

“Yeah, exactly,” Noctis says. He shrugs. “So yeah – I’m not gonna ask what happened to your clothes.” He glances sideways at him. “I’m just saying. You’re not blending in.”

“Oh,” he says again. He didn’t know the clothes were inappropriate. But Cor gave them to him and told him to wear them. He wonders why. He wonders what sort of clothes he’s supposed to be wearing.

Then Noctis nudges him. It feels warm.

“Hey,” he says. “Are we playing, or what?”

And so they play.

~

In the early afternoon, Noctis’ phone chimes. He reaches for it blindly, still staring at the game, then glances at the screen. Then he pauses.

“Shit,” he says.

The game suddenly stops. Noctis jabs at buttons on his controller, and a message appears: Saving progress...

“Sorry, man,” Noctis says. “I gotta go. I’m late.” He turns off the screen and scrambles across the floor, disconnecting all the cables and shoving the console device in his bag. He grabs the controller out of his hands.

“Forgot the time,” he says.

He sits and watches. In less than a minute, Noctis has all of his equipment back in his bag. Noctis heads for the hatch in the wall. He begins to feel a sort of dead feeling, like there’s a weight in his chest. Noctis opens the hatch, then glances back.

“Hey, so – I’ll come back tomorrow after school,” he says. “OK? Are you still gonna be here?”

“Yes,” he says, then, “Yeah.” He sits up straighter. He doesn’t know when after school is, but Noctis said tomorrow. He said he would come back tomorrow.

“Cool,” Noctis says. “See you, Prompto.”

And then he disappears into the hatch. It closes behind him, and he sharpens his hearing to listen as Noctis makes his way through and moves away, further and further away until he’s gone. He listens for a little longer, just in case, but then he brings his hearing back to normal levels.

Noctis is gone.

But the dead feeling is gone, too. The gnawing feeling is gone. The room is empty, just as it was before. But Noctis came here to play the game with him, on purpose. Noctis instructed him how to talk more appropriately and how to do high five. And Noctis said he would come back tomorrow. He said he would come back tomorrow.

He finds his red drink, where it was hidden under the table. PROMPTO!, it says on the side. He traces the letters. “Prompto,” he whispers. Then he takes the lid off and drinks some.

It’s quiet in the room. But it doesn’t seem like it did before. It’s like there’s an echo of something else in here, now. He looks at the blank screen and remembers playing the game. He looks at the empty couch and remembers Noctis whisper-laughing.

On the table are the books Cor gave to him from Ignis. He hasn’t looked at either of them – hasn’t even opened them. Now he reaches out and takes the top one. Faces of Eos Mens Miror. He opens it.

Inside are images. But these images are different from the ones he’s seen before. These images aren’t of landscapes, or of organisms. They’re of people. Of people’s faces. None of them are colour images, all just greyscale. He flicks through, glancing at the faces, wondering when there’ll be something else. But then he stops. The image he stops on is an image of a person. She doesn’t look like any person he’s seen before. Her skin seems not to quite fit right on her face. It sags under her chin, and it’s covered with lines and folds, some deep, some shallow. Her hair is very pale. She looks out of the image. She has dark eyes. He feels, somehow, that she’s looking at him, even though he knows it’s an image and not a person. She’s not smiling, but somehow he feels that she’s pleased.

He stops. He looks at the image. He looks at it for a long time.

He wonders who the person is. He looks for the words in the corner of the page. They read: Ella: Lestallum. He doesn’t know what the words mean. So he looks back at the image. Who is she? Why is she pleased? Does she know about the image? Does she know that he’s here now, looking at her?

She can’t know. But he feels, somehow, that she does. That she’s seen him, just like he’s seen her. He knows it’s not true. But he feels it anyway.

He frowns. He turns the page. The next picture is of a level one. He smiles. He’s missing one of his front teeth. His eyes sparkle. The words read Marcus: Accordo.

He stares at the image for a long time. Then he turns the page.

~

Eventually, he falls asleep. He doesn’t close down any of his processes. He doesn’t even lie down and close his eyes. He’s looking at the images, and then he falls asleep. He only knows he’s done it when he wakes, a warm hand on his arm and a voice in his ear.

“Kid, hey,” Cor’s saying. “Wake up.” There’s a sharp note in his voice.

He opens his eyes and sits up. Cor’s face is angry. He shouldn’t have fallen asleep. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to.”

Cor stares at him. “Didn’t mean to what?” he asks.

“Fall asleep,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Cor sits down on the table. He stares at him for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. He wonders if Cor will correct him this time.

Then Cor suddenly makes a noise. It’s a strange noise, like he’s hurt himself. He shakes his head and closes his eyes.

“I’m not angry with you, kid,” he says. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “You freaked me out, that’s all. After yesterday – you scared me.”

He stares. He scared Cor? How can he scare Cor? He can’t correct Cor. He can’t do anything to Cor.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

Cor runs his hand through his hair. He sighs. “After yesterday,” he says. “When you wouldn’t wake up. I came in and I thought – maybe it had happened again.” He stands up. “You don’t have to apologise. It’s my fault.”

He stands up, too. He wants to tell Cor that he just fell asleep normally this time, that he didn’t close down any of his processes. He doesn’t understand why Cor was scared, but he wants to make sure Cor knows he doesn’t need to be scared. But then he’ll have to tell Cor that he closed down his processes yesterday, and he doesn’t want to do that. So he stands. He thinks. But he can’t think of a solution.

Cor looks him up and down. “You feeling all right?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. Then he remembers Noctis. “Yeah.”

Cor raises an eyebrow. “Huh,” he says. Then he looks down at the table. The book is still open. The image it shows is the woman whose skin doesn’t fit right. He went back to that after looking at the other images. “You like that book?” Cor says.

“Yeah,” he says.

The corner of Cor’s mouth twitches. He looks suddenly less angry. He’s been looking angry for days, but now he doesn’t look angry any more. “Good,” he says. “That’s great.” He reaches out. He puts a hand on his back, between the shoulder blades. It feels warm.

“Let’s go home,” Cor says.

~

That night, something new happens.

They sit down at the kitchen table, like they do every night. Normally he drinks some more soup and Cor eats something. But today Cor puts a bowl in front of him. It has a white substance in it. It looks like viscous liquid, but it has white grains floating in it, like the ones he sees Cor eat sometimes. He knows Cor’s told him the name of the grains, but he can’t remember it.

“Rice pudding,” Cor says. “Don’t worry, I didn’t make it – I asked Ignis to make some for you.”

He stares at the rice pudding – rice, that’s the name of the white grains – and wonders what Cor wants him to do. There’s an implement beside the bowl, and he looks at it until his brain supplies the word spoon.

“Time to start getting you onto solids, kid,” Cor says. “Soup’s not going to keep you going forever.”

He swallows. He picks up the spoon. He’s seen Cor do it lots of times, but even so it takes him two attempts to get it correctly situated in his hand. He puts the spoon into the rice pudding and then lifts it up. His stomach turns over as he imagines putting it into his mouth. Soup is almost water, but the idea of putting something solid into his mouth and chewing it – swallowing it – he can’t understand how anyone can do that. Even having watched Cor and Ignis and Noctis do it, he can’t understand how.

But Cor told him to. So he has to do it.

He closes his eyes. Maybe if he can’t see the rice pudding, it won’t be so bad.

He puts the spoon in his mouth.

It’s strange, the feeling of metal on his tongue. It reminds him of lying on his back, staring up into bright lights. He feels a pain in his side that he’s sure isn’t really there. He removes the spoon as quickly as he can. But then the rice pudding is inside his mouth. It feels sticky and glutinous, full of lumps. He chews as little as possible and swallows hard. The rice puddingslides down his throat, but then it feels like it gets stuck in his chest, a hard, painful lump.

“You’re doing great,” Cor says. “Keep going.”

He picks up another spoonful. He does the same thing as before. He tries to keep the spoon from pressing against his tongue, but even so, the feel of it brings the flash of lights, again, and the echo of pain in his side, near his sustenance port. He swallows without chewing this time, and that makes it easier.

When he opens his eyes, though, Cor’s staring at him.

“You OK, kid?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. It comes out sounding odd. He puts the spoon back into the rice pudding. He lifts it up again. He puts it in his mouth. He closes his eyes.

When he opens his eyes again, it’s because Cor’s put a hand on his arm.

“That’s great,” he says. “You did great. You don’t have to eat any more.”

He stares at him. He’s holding the spoon so hard his hand is shaking. “I haven’t finished it,” he says.

“Yeah, I know,” Cor says. “It’s a start. OK? You don’t have to finish it.”

He doesn’t argue any more. He puts the spoon down. There’s relief somewhere, but there’s also the feeling of nausea in his stomach, and the sense that the rice pudding is still stuck somewhere in his chest.

Cor leans back in his chair. He’s frowning at him. “It makes you feel bad, huh?” he says.

He swallows. His mouth feels thick and sticky. He’s supposed to eat it, but it makes him feel bad. Will Cor be angry if he says yes?

“Yeah,” Cor says, like he answered the question, even though he didn’t. “OK. I’ll talk to Ignis. We’ll try and find something that doesn’t make you feel bad.” He pauses. “You’re going to need to learn to eat solid food sometime, though, kid.”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor shakes his head. “I’m sorry, kid,” he says. “I know you were having a good day. I didn’t mean to make you do something you don’t like.”

He thinks about this. He was having a good day. Was he?

He thinks about Noctis, tumbling through the hatch. Coming to play a game with him. Teaching him to do high five.

“Yeah,” he says.

~

That night, his stomach churns for hours. He lies awake, feeling it cramp and gurgle. He tries not to think about the rice pudding. He hopes he won’t throw up.

Long after midnight, Cor comes up the stairs. He stops outside his door.

“You going in?” the silent one asks, voice low.

There’s a silence. Then Cor sighs.

“No,” he says. “Let him have his privacy.”

“Seemed like he was feeling better tonight,” the silent one says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Something happened. I don’t know what. But he’s better today.”

“Good,” the silent one says. “Hated to see the kid looking so down.”

Another silence. Then Cor speaks.

“Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”

~

The next day, he can’t sit still.

He stands up and goes to the window. Then he sits down. He looks at the book with the images of faces. But he can’t concentrate on it. He stands up again. Sits down again.

The morning passes. He can’t sit still. But there’s a feeling growing in his chest. A dull, heavy sort of feeling. Like the way he felt the day before when Noctis was leaving, before he said he would come back. It grows and grows. And as it grows, the restless energy fades. He starts to understand, as time ticks on into the middle of the afternoon: Noctis isn’t coming.

He isn’t coming.

He sits. He stares at the wall. He tries to understand. And then he stops trying to understand. Noctis said he would come. But he hasn’t come. Maybe it was some kind of test. But if so, he doesn’t understand the purpose of the test.

If so, he thinks he’s failed the test.

And then: the sound of footsteps in the next room. A muffled thump in the wall between the two. He turns, suddenly, heart jumping in his chest.

The hatch opens. Noctis appears, half-falling out of the wall.

“Sheesh,” he says, getting up and dusting himself off. “They really could have put that thing closer to the floor.”

He tries to speak, but no words come out. Noctis turns to him and raises his eyebrows.

“You OK?” he says. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He swallows. “I thought you weren’t coming,” he says.

Noctis shrugs. “Said I’d come after school, didn’t I?” he says. “I came straight here.” He glances at him, then looks carefully at the wall. “I mean, if you don’t want to play, though–”

“No, I want to,” he says. “I want to.” His voice comes out higher-pitched than usual.

Something loosens in Noctis’ shoulders. “Great,” he says. “I’ve got that game saved, and it’d suck if I had to ditch all that progress.”

Noctis pulls the game equipment out of his bag and starts to connect the cables to the screen. He hands him the controller, and he feels the weight of it in his hand. It fits his hand, like it’s meant to be there. And the dead feeling in his chest lifts.

~

They play. After an hour or so, they pause. He drinks some of the red drink. Noctis drinks something he’s brought with him, in a black tube-shaped can.

“Hey, so,” Noctis says, “you forgot a lot of stuff, right?”

He blinks and turns to look at him. “Yeah,” he says. He scrambles to remember what he’s supposed to tell Noctis. “Because of the accident.”

“Yeah,” Noctis says. He taps a fingernail on the top of his can. “I mean – but really a lot of stuff, right? Like – high fives. You must have known how to do those before the accident, right?”

He sips his red drink. “I don’t know,” he says. It’s one of the answers Cor permitted him.

“Huh,” Noctis says. He’s draped over the couch, half-sitting, half-lying down. His eyes are only half open, like he’s thinking about falling asleep. But they’re bright. They’re watching him. “Must be weird.”

“Yeah,” he says. It is weird. Everything’s weird, now.

Noctis pulls at a stray thread on his shirt. He looks away. But his eyes are watching, looking at him sideways. “What about your parents?” he asks, sounding like he doesn’t really care.

“My parents died in the accident,” he says. He doesn’t know what parents means, but it’s what Cor told him to say.

“Shit,” Noctis says. He’s looking at him straight on now. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to pry.”

He doesn’t understand why Noctis is apologising. He doesn’t know the appropriate response, so he doesn’t say anything.

Noctis looks away from him. He stares at the screen, which shows the paused game. He doesn’t restart it, though.

“My mom died, too,” he says. “I know how much it sucks.” He glances sideways at him. “Sorry.”

He nods. He hopes it’s the right thing to do. It seems like it is, because Noctis sits up.

“Play some more?” Noctis says.

“Yeah,” he says, relieved.

And they play.

~

The next morning, he’s prepared. He knows now that Noctis won’t come until the afternoon. That’s what after school means. He still doesn’t know what school is, but when it is is becoming clearer. So when he arrives in the empty room, he doesn’t feel the same inability to concentrate that he had the day before. But there’s still some of that energy. It lasts him until mid-morning. Then, without warning, he falls asleep.

When he wakes up, it’s dark. He thinks at first that somehow he’s managed to sleep until night-time. But he’s not on the couch any more, either. He’s curled up in a tight space. He reaches out his hands, and finds a smooth, cool surface in front of him. A similar one behind. He feels a sudden fluttering of fear in his chest; it seems to him that the surfaces are coming towards him – that the small space is growing smaller. He pushes against the surface in front of him, trying to stop it from moving forward and crushing him.

And the surface gives way. It swings open, revealing a square of light. He surges forwards, gasping for air. He falls, landing hard on his shoulder. He blinks up at the ceiling.

He’s in the empty room.

He sits up, rubbing his shoulder. He stares at the yawning black hole out of which he just fell.

The hatch. The secret passageway. He was in the secret passageway.

How did he get in there?

He doesn’t know.

He reaches out and closes the hatch. Then he gets to his feet. He feels disoriented, like his limbs are too long for his body. He goes back to sit on the couch. Wasn’t he on the couch before? He remembers sitting on the couch. And then – what?

And then he was in the secret passageway.

He doesn’t understand.

~

He’s still thinking about it an hour later, when Noctis falls out of the hatch onto the floor. Then he stops, because Noctis is there, and now he can think about something else.

“Hey, Prompto,” Noctis says.

“Hi,” he says in return.

“New goon on the door today,” Noctis says.

“Yeah,” he says. Today there’s a new silent one. Cor said that the other one had a day off.

Noctis is wearing his blue clothes again, with the string hanging from his neck. He loosens the string and comes over to the couch, sitting down beside him.

“You should get Cor to get you some more books,” he says. “You’re always looking at the same one.”

He looks at the book. It’s open to the picture of the person whose skin doesn’t fit right. “It’s good,” he says.

“Whatever,” Noctis says with a shrug. “I can bring you some comics, if you want.”

He doesn’t know what comics means. “Yeah,” he says. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Noctis says. “Hey, I got you these.”

He turns to look at what Noctis is holding. It’s a pair of sunglasses, like his but smaller, slimmer, in a different style. He’s frowning at them, wondering why Noctis brought them when he already has sunglasses, when Noctis suddenly reaches out and takes the sunglasses from his face.

“These ones make you look like a–” he starts, and then he stops. He sits for a moment, mouth open in the act of forming the next word. Then he drops the sunglasses. They fall on the floor with a clatter. Noctis jumps to his feet. He jumps backwards, eyes fixed on him. He’s reaching down, reaching for the sunglasses so he can put them back on – he’s supposed to have them on all the time, Cor told him to – but they’re too far and he has to stand up to reach them.

“Stay back,” Noctis says. He says it very loud. He’s holding out his hand, and suddenly there’s a flash of blue light and he’s holding a knife that’s much bigger than any other knife he’s seen.

He wants to stay back. But he needs to put the sunglasses back on. Cor told him to always wear the sunglasses. So he takes a step forward to reach them.

Noctis jumps back again. He collides with the screen. It falls over with a crash.

The door opens. The silent one is standing in the doorway. He’s carrying a huge knife, too.

Noctis points at him. “He’s an MT,” he says, voice shaking.

Then there’s a buzzing, tingling feeling in his neck that quickly escalates to a blinding white pain and spreads across his skin and through his veins to everywhere else in his body.

And then: nothing.

Chapter Text

Someone’s talking.

It’s the first thing he becomes aware of: a voice. He can’t make out the words. But the voice is there.

The next thing he becomes aware of is pain. His head is throbbing. His back and limbs ache. His heart is pounding.

The third thing: he can’t move. Or, no, not entirely true. He can twitch his fingers. His toes. But the rest of his body is leaden, heavy, and he has no strength in him. He’s lying on something hard, and he’s aware now that he’s cold. He’s cold. But when he tries to open his eyes to see where he is, nothing happens, except that his head aches a little more.

“...says he’s just a kid,” says the voice. It’s nearby – in the same room. It’s not a familiar voice.

Then another voice: “Yeah, a Niff robot kid. I can’t believe they’ve been letting him just wander round the place.”

“Well, maybe not any more,” says the first voice.

Then they fall silent. After that, there’s nothing but the quiet hum of some kind of equipment.

He’s cold.

He tries again to open his eyes. This time, they open the barest amount. The world outside is bright. His sunglasses are gone. He closes his eyes again.

He’s not sure whether he passes out or not. He’s not sure how much time passes. Some of it, at least, he’s awake for. Long minutes of aching pain and cold. Nothing about his bodily situation improves. His thoughts are muddled, skittering along the surface of his mind, barely able to think about much more than how his body feels. He wonders how long it will be cold for. He wonders if it might be cold forever, now.

And then, some amount of time later, he hears another voice. This voice is not in the same room. It’s muffled. He tries to sharpen his hearing, but there’s no response from his systems. So at first he can’t hear what the voice is saying. But it gets louder. The words still aren’t clear, but he realises he recognises the voice: it’s Cor. And he’s angry.

There’s the sudden sound of a door opening. It crashes against something. Then there’s footsteps.

“Sir,” says one of the two voices from before.

There’s no response. The footsteps come suddenly faster, coming towards him until they’re only a metre or two away.

“Six,” Cor says, his voice urgent. “Kid? Kid, can you hear me?”

He wants to respond, but he can’t. He tries to open his eyes again, but nothing happens.

There’s a rattling sound, then Cor’s voice comes again. Now he sounds furious.

“Open this door,” he says.

“Sir,” the other voice says, “our orders–”

“Fuck your orders, I am ordering you to open this fucking door,” Cor says, voice rising.

There’s a brief silence. “Sir–” the voice starts again, sounding uncertain.

“Do not make me come over there and take those keys from you, Crownsguard,” Cor says. His voice is so cold with fury that it makes his insides twist up. Cor’s angry. He’s so angry.

There’s the sound of more footsteps, then, and then a key turning in a lock. A door opens – very close by – and then suddenly someone’s beside him, pressing warm fingers against his neck.

“Thank all the astrals,” Cor mutters. Then suddenly, he’s enveloped in warmth. There’s something warm pressed all along his chest, lines of warmth along his back, lifting him up from the surface he’s lying on, warm breath in his ear. There’s pressure from the lines of warmth on his back – arms, he thinks vaguely, they’re Cor’s arms, but he can’t quite comprehend what they’re doing there – but it’s good, it doesn’t hurt. It feels so warm.

“Shit, you’re freezing,” Cor says in his ear. Then the warmth disappears. He’s lying on the surface again, and the loss of warmth hurts more than his head, more than anything else. He wants to speak, to beg for the warmth to come back. But he can’t speak.

He hears a rustling sound, and a moment later something warm wraps around his shoulders. It’s not like before – it’s fabric, and there’s no pressure, and it’s not as warm as Cor’s arms were – but even so, the relief is almost painful. He makes a noise without even trying – quiet, little more than a puff of air – and feels hands gripping both his shoulders now.

“Hey, you awake?” Cor asks. “Kid. Hey, can you open your eyes?”

He tries. They open – just a crack, but enough to let light in. It’s bright.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He’s visible as a blurry dark shape moving in front of him. “That’s good. That’s good, come on.”

He tries to open his eyes wider, but he can’t. He makes another noise without meaning to. It’s quiet, but it sounds cracked and painful. The blurry shape moves closer.

“OK, all right,” Cor says. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Let’s get you out of here, OK?”

Then there are arms underneath his back and knees, and warmth pressed all along one side of him. He tries to turn towards the warmth, but he succeeds only marginally. His vision is filled with darkness that he identifies as Cor.

Then he’s being lifted. There’s air moving on his face. Footsteps underneath him.

There’s a voice. One of the voices from before. It sounds nervous.

“Sir, the Shield–”

“Tell the Shield I don’t give a shit what he thinks,” Cor says. “Get that door.”

A door opens and then closes behind them. A new voice speaks, sounding surprised.

“Sir, you can’t take him out of here.”

“Try and stop me,” Cor says.

Nobody tries to stop him.

They go through another door. Now Cor’s footsteps are muffled by carpet. And then there’s a voice shouting in the distance.

“Hey,” it shouts. “Hey!”

Running footsteps, muffled by carpet. The sound of someone breathing hard. And then: “What the fuck, Cor?”

It’s Noctis.

“Your highness,” Cor says. He hasn’t stopped walking. His voice sounds cold.

“Hey!” Noctis says. He’s behind them now. He runs to catch up. “Are you gonna tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Ask Clarus,” Cor says. “I’ve got other things to do.”

Hey,” Noctis says. He’s right in front of them now. “You owe me an explanation. What, you have your own MTs now?”

Cor stops walking, then. “He’s not an MT,” he says. He sounds calm, but his voice is so cold it makes him shiver. “He’s a sick kid. And he’s sicker now because of you. So, Your Highness, are you going to get out of my way so I can get him some help, or are you going to let him die?”

He hears Noctis draw in a sharp breath. Then there’s a shuffling sound. Then Cor starts walking again. He doesn’t hear any other footsteps, so he assumes Noctis isn’t following.

Not long after that, he passes out.

~

For the next little while, everything is confused. Sometimes he’s unconscious – maybe mostly unconscious – but sometimes he hears voices. He recognises some: the one with the white coat; the taller of the two engineers; Cor. He almost never understands the words they’re saying. It feels like he’s standing at the bottom of a deep hole in the ground, listening to voices coming through the walls. Once or twice, he tries to open his eyes, but the light is so bright that he closes them again. He remembers other times, other bright lights, other pain, the memories as confused as the present.

And then, after what he thinks must be a long time, he comes to himself in a place that’s warm and soft and quiet. He’s lying on his side, and there’s a warm weight covering him, and something soft underneath him. There’s light outside his eyelids. He hears the sound of cars from somewhere distant, and the sound of someone breathing slowly nearby. He doesn’t hear anything else, and he doesn’t try to sharpen his hearing. The pain in his head and body is still present, but dulled, a low ache that he can put to the back of his mind.

He tries to move his fingers. He feels them twitch, then move. It’s an effort. He’s still weak, and his body still feels heavy. But his systems are coming back online.

He tries to open his eyes. At first, the light seems bright. But when he has them open a little wider, he realises that it’s dim – it’s a lot dimmer than it was before. He opens them halfway. Everything’s still a little blurry. He turns his head. He’s in the room he sleeps in. The curtains are pulled across the window to close out the light. They glow, a deep green. Somewhere outside, the sun is shining.

Inside, it’s dim and quiet. Cor is sitting at the little table. He’s asleep, arms folded, head on his chest. He breathes slowly. Even though he’s asleep, he looks tired. His shoulders look tense.

He watches Cor for a while. He tries to make sense of all the things that have happened. But his thoughts dissolve like water when he tries to grasp onto them. So after a while he stops trying. He just lies still and watches Cor and thinks about how warm he is.

He’s so warm.

~

He wakes up again. It’s dark now. The door to the room is open, and dim light falls through from the corridor. He sees the silent one leaning in the doorway, looking at his phone. Cor is no longer sitting at the table. There are voices downstairs. He tries to sharpen his hearing. It hurts. But he keeps trying until he can make the voices out.

“...to see if Prompto is all right?” says the first voice. It’s Ignis.

There’s a silence. “He’s been better,” says the second voice. It’s Cor.

He hears the sound of a chair scraping. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Ignis says. “But he’s not in any serious danger, I hope?”

Cor sighs. “Hell if I know,” he says. “No-one knows. No-one gets how the kid works. He’s alive. He was conscious at least once. But what effects it might have had on him...” He trails off.

“Because he’s some sort of machine,” Ignis says.

“He’s not a machine,” Cor says, voice suddenly sharp.

There’s a pause. “I see,” Ignis says. “Then why don’t you explain to me what he is? Noctis seems quite confused about the matter.”

Another pause.

“I don’t know,” Cor says. “No-one knows. He’s got – wires in his brain. But he’s not a machine. He’s human. That’s what MTs are. They’re human – or they were once. He’s just not all the way there yet.”

“But he’s from Niflheim?” Ignis says.

“Yeah,” says Cor.

“I see,” Ignis says. His words seem even more precisely enunciated than usual.

There’s a silence, then. It goes on for some time. There are sounds like cups clinking and someone drinking. Then Cor speaks.

“Did you know Noctis was sneaking in to see him?” he asks.

“I did not,” Ignis says. “Did you?”

“Are you kidding?” Cor asks. “You think I would have let that happen?”

“It seems to me you let rather a lot of inadvisable things happen,” Ignis says. His voice is as neutral and calm as it always is, but there’s something a little sharper underneath it now.

“Excuse me?” Cor says. The sharpness in his voice is not hidden at all.

“Well, let me see,” Ignis says. “You sent that young man to my apartment more than a dozen times without telling me what he was. You also failed to tell me that the collar he wore was so dangerous. When you discovered he was fraternising with Noctis – a fact, by the way, that should have been entirely predictable to you – you removed him without any further explanation and for some inexplicable reason assumed that Noctis would make no effort to find out what had happened. And now you tell me you have no idea what effect the collar that you put on him might have on his system. You’ll excuse me, Marshal, for being somewhat surprised that you have been permitted to be his caretaker.”

There’s a dead, suffocating silence. When Cor speaks, his voice is even.

“That’s what you think, is it?”

“Indeed it is,” Ignis says. “Meaning no disrespect.”

Cor laughs, then. It’s not a happy sound.

“Finish your coffee and get out of my house,” he says. There’s the sound of a chair scraping back and footsteps. Then the footsteps pause. “Don’t be here when I get back.”

There’s no response from Ignis. The footsteps come up the stairs. Cor appears in the doorway.

“He all right?” he asks the silent one.

“Still breathing,” the silent one says. “Hasn’t woken up.”

Cor closes his eyes. He pinches the bridge of his nose. The silent one puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” he says. “He’ll wake up.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. He leans in the doorway, his face in shadow. He doesn’t try to sharpen his vision, or turn on night mode. He doesn’t want to see what Cor looks like.

Downstairs, there are footsteps. A door opens and closes.

“Was that Ignis?” the silent one asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Wanted to know if I knew Prince Noctis was sneaking in.”

The silent one laughs quietly. “What, he thinks you would have let that happen?” he asks. “Kids, right?”

Cor sighs heavily. “I don’t know anything about kids,” he mutters.

Then he comes inside. He stands by the bed for a moment. Then he sits down at the table.

He wants to speak. His throat is dry. He manages to make a noise, but it isn’t a word.

Cor leans forward immediately. He pulls his chair to the bed. “Kid?” he says, voice low. “You awake?”

He swallows around the pain in his throat. “Yes” he whispers.

“Oh, thank the six,” Cor says. He puts a hand over his eyes for a moment, the movement visible in the dim light from the door. “Thank the six,” he says again, almost whispering. Then he leans forward again. “How are you feeling?”

He licks his lips. It has no effect. There’s no saliva in his mouth. “Fine,” he says. It comes out sounding soft and grating, with no tone behind it.

“Shit,” Cor says. He pulls the chair closer. “Here. You need to drink some water.” He puts an arm behind his back and lifts him up. The arm feels solid, warm. Cor moves the pillows until they’re piled up, then lets him back down, so now he’s propped up on them. Even though the pillows are soft, he feels a little cold when Cor takes his arm away.

“Here,” Cor says. He’s holding a glass in his hand. It’s too dark to see what’s in the glass. He tries to take it, but even though he can lift his arm now, his hand goes wide, missing the glass by inches. His arm twitches, thudding against Cor’s arm. He’s about to try again, but Cor puts a hand on his arm and pushes it back down.

“Here,” he says again. He puts the glass to his lips. He tips it up, just a little. Water trickles into his mouth. It feels cool and clean and better than anything he’s felt for a long time. He opens his mouth for more, but Cor tips the glass agonisingly slowly, barely more than one drop at a time.

“You’ve got to take it slow,” he says. “All right?”

Yes. Those are the orders. Take it slow. So he does, even though he wants to take the glass and drink all the water in one swallow. Cor glances back over his shoulder.

“Arcis,” he says, “get more water.”

~

It’s some time before he’s drunk enough that the pain in his mouth and throat is mostly gone. There’s a light on, now – a small one with a shade, so the light in the room is still dim. But now he can see Cor’s face, his expression. He has dark marks under his eyes.

“All right?” he says when he finally takes the glass away.

He swallows. At last, he can swallow. “Yes,” he says. His voice still sounds cracked and papery. But it hurts less to speak now.

Cor nods. He runs a hand over his mouth. He leans forward, elbows on his knees.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, listen, I’m –” He stops, closing his eyes for a moment. “I’m really sorry, kid. I’m so sorry.”

He doesn’t understand what Cor is sorry about. He thinks he should be sorry. He let Noctis take the sunglasses away from him, and then he was corrected. It was a bad correction – one of the worst he’s had. The sunglasses are very important. He understands that now.

Cor is staring at him. He wants him to respond. He’s not sure what the appropriate response is.

“The sunglasses,” he says. His mind is still muddled. He meant to say something clearer, but he didn’t.

Cor frowns. “Sunglasses?” he says.

“Yes,” he says. He licks his lips. “Noctis took them.”

Cor shakes his head. “That doesn’t matter now,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to them – we can get you some more if you want.”

Cor doesn’t understand. He needs to speak more. It’s difficult – it seems to take a lot of energy.

“Noctis took them,” he says again. “That’s why.”

“Why what?” Cor asks. He’s still frowning. “You’re not making any sense, kid.”

He tries to form the words in his mind that will make sense. He knows what he wants to say. But the words won’t stay in one place. They flicker and dart about. His vision is becoming blurry again.

“Hey,” Cor says. “Hey, no, don’t cry. Are you hurt? How can I help you?”

His throat feels thick. He realises his vision is blurring because of the tears. Cor told him not to cry, so he tries to stop, but he can’t. He tries, but he can’t.

“Hey,” Cor says again. “Hey, no. Come on, kid. Come on.”

Then Cor leans forward and covers his body with his own. He wraps his arms around him and holds him. His heart lurches, and he wonders what Cor is going to do. If this is some kind of correction for crying when he was told not to. But Cor doesn’t do anything. There’s no pain. Cor just holds onto him. There’s pressure from his arms, but it doesn’t hurt. It feels warm and solid. It feels good.

“I’m sorry,” Cor says, close to his ear. “Hey. Shh, hey. I’m sorry.”

Cor put his hand on the back of his head. And somehow now, he’s crying harder, even though he’s trying so hard to stop. But Cor doesn’t seem angry. Cor’s not hurting him. He’s just – holding him. He’s holding him, and he doesn’t know why, but it feels – so warm. So solid.

“It’s all right,” Cor says in his ear. “It’s all right.”

Cor says it’s all right. So he’s not doing anything wrong. Even though Cor said he shouldn’t cry, now he says he’s not doing anything wrong. Cor says it’s all right to cry.

So he cries.

~

The next time he wakes up, it’s daytime. The curtains are covering the window, but there’s enough light to see the room by. The daytime silent one is sitting at the table. He has cards laid out in front of him in long columns. He’s never seen him inside the room before.

He swallows and shifts. His body is easier to move now. The daytime silent one looks up. He raises an eyebrow and nods.

“Need some water?” he asks.

He moves his tongue inside his mouth. It’s very dry. He nods.

The daytime silent one helps him drink some water. He does the same thing Cor did the last time he woke up. But he doesn’t look as tired as Cor did, and he doesn’t talk.

Downstairs, a chime rings out. It’s sharp, abrupt. It makes his heart jump in his chest, and the water spills down his front. The silent one puts the glass down and produces a piece of tissue paper. He presses it to the wet spots on his shirt.

Downstairs, Cor speaks. “Yeah?” he says.

He sharpens his hearing. Another person speaks. She sounds tinny, like she’s on the other end of a phone. “Delivery for Cor Leonis?”

“I’ll come down,” Cor says.

The door opens and closes. He sharpens his hearing more, but Cor moves out of range. So he concentrates on drinking the water until the door opens and closes again.

The silent one stands up.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He leaves. He listens to his footsteps on the stairs, listens to him going into the kitchen.

“Kid’s awake,” the silent one says.

“Thanks,” Cor says. There are noises like he’s tearing something.

“What’s that?” the silent one asks.

“No idea,” Cor says. There’s more tearing noises. “It’s – tupperware?”

“Return address says Ignis Scientia,” the silent one says.

There’s a silence.

“Soup,” Cor says.

“Arcis said you and Ignis had a fight,” the silent one says.

A pause. “Yeah,” Cor says. “We did.”

“Huh,” the silent one says.

~

Not long after that, there’s the sound of the microwave. Then clinking of implements for eating. Then Cor’s feet on the stairs. He comes into the room. He’s holding a cup.

“Still awake?” he says. “You should eat something.”

He sits up. He can manage it by himself now. He raises his hand for the cup. It’s shaking, but he grasps the cup in both hands and manages not to spill anything.

“Let me know if you need help,” Cor says. He sits down at the table, glancing at the cards laid out there.

The soup feels very warm through the cup. It’s the green one. Leek-and-potato. It smells different, though. It smells much more pleasant than usual.

He blows on the soup and takes a sip. It’s warm in his mouth. And then – it tastes. It tastes different. It tastes like nothing he’s ever tasted before, like nothing he can even describe. He swallows, frowning, and peers into the cup. It looks the same. But he’s never – he’s never tasted anything like that.

“Something wrong?” Cor asks.

“What is it?” he asks. His voice sounds creaky.

“Soup,” Cor says. “Leek and potato. Ignis says you like that one.”

He does like it. Before it was tolerable, but now – it tastes good. It tastes so good. He takes another mouthful. It’s not the same, he’s sure. He’s had it lots of times, leek-and-potato. It’s never tasted like this.

“It’s not the same,” he says. “It’s not the same one as before.”

Cor frowns. “Is it off?” he says. “Let me taste.” He reaches out and takes the cup. He tastes it. “It’s fine,” he says. “It tastes the same.”

He wants to argue. It doesn’t taste the same. It tastes so much better. Before it tasted like green water, but now – now there’s all sorts of richness in there, tastes of all kinds blended together. He can’t describe it. He’s never tasted anything that good before. He’s never tasted anything he would even put into the same category.

Cor’s still frowning at him. “You don’t like it?” he says. “Is your stomach upset?”

“No,” he says. He takes the cup back and takes a swallow. His stomach’s churning, true – it’s been churning since he first tasted the soup. But it’s not upset. It’s something else. A strange kind of growling, empty feeling that he doesn’t really recognise. It’s a little painful, but as he drinks more soup, the pain starts to die down. So he drinks more. He drinks more, because it tastes so good. And before he knows it, the cup is empty.

Cor’s staring at him. He looks surprised. “Take it easy,” he says. “Don’t make yourself sick.”

He nods. He wishes he had drunk the soup more slowly. Then there would still be some left. The taste is still in his mouth. He hopes it stays for a long time.

Cor takes the cup. He frowns down at it. Then he pulls out his phone. He dials a number and holds the phone up to his ear.

He sharpens his hearing to hear the phone ringing. After four rings, a voice answers. It’s Ignis.

You’ve reached Ignis Scientia. I’m afraid I can’t answer at this moment, but please leave a message.

There’s a beep. Cor sighs.

“Ignis,” he says. “Listen–” He pauses, then shakes his head. “Thanks for the soup,” he says. “I appreciate it. And – the kid does, too.”

He ends the call. Then he stares at his phone for a long moment. Finally, he shakes his head again, then looks up.

“Still hungry?” he asks. “There’s more soup.”

More soup. Yes, he wants more soup. He nods.

“Right,” Cor says. He stands up. But before he leaves, he reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder. He grips gently. It feels warm.

“I’m really glad you’re OK, kid,” he says.

And then he’s gone.

Chapter Text

Later that day, Cor receives a phone call.

He knows about it because he’s awake. He’s been asleep, but now he’s awake – at least partly. He’s lying in the bed, not really thinking about anything except how warm and comfortable he is. His eyes are half open, and the light coming through the curtains makes patterns on the ceiling that he watches without paying much attention. Cor wasn’t here when he woke up, but he can hear him typing in the kitchen. The door’s closed, but he can hear the silent one breathing outside it.

Then Cor’s phone rings.

Cor answers it on the third ring. “Clarus,” he says. He bites off the end of the word.

“How is the boy?” It’s the one from the phone. He sharpens his hearing a little more to hear the words past the hum of the machinery in the kitchen. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did before: his systems are regaining function.

“Recovering,” Cor says. “If you’re calling to chew me out, don’t bother. I’ll take any sanctions you deem necessary, but I am never going to apologise for getting that kid out of the cell your idiot soldiers threw him in. When he was unconscious and sick half to death, Clarus, for fuck’s sake.”

There’s a silence. “Have you finished?” the one from the phone asks.

“Not hardly,” Cor says. He sounds angry. “But I don’t have the time, and neither do you. So. Why are you calling?”

“Firstly,” the one from the phone says, “to apologise. I was not aware that the boy’s condition was so serious, or I would not have permitted him to be kept in the prison block. I have also been informed in no uncertain terms by the prince that the boy did nothing at all to threaten him or to encourage his – visits. It seems there have been a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, coupled with some less-than-ideal behaviour on the part of His Highness.”

A pause. “Huh,” Cor says. “Wasn’t expecting that.”

“What were you expecting?” the one from the phone asks.

“Pretty much for you to try and rip my head off through the phone,” Cor says. “I was all geared up to rip yours off right back.”

“Well, I’m glad I avoided that, my friend,” the one from the phone says, with a quiet laugh. “Though if you’d spoken to me yesterday, it probably would have gone that way.”

“You were pissed,” Cor says.

The one from the phone sighs. “This situation,” he says. “It’s becoming untenable. We need to rethink our approach and regain control. Soon.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. “No arguments here.”

“Good,” the one from the phone says. “I’ve scheduled a meeting with the king tomorrow morning.”

“I don’t know if the kid’s going to be up and about by then,” Cor says.

“If you need to leave him behind, so be it,” the one from the phone says. “His presence is not required.”

A pause. “Listen, Clarus – I’m not leaving him anywhere for a while. OK?”

A longer pause. “I understand you’ve become attached to the boy,” the one from the phone says, “but your duty–”

“My duty can cope with a conference call, if necessary,” Cor says. “I’m saying no, Clarus. I hope you get that.”

Then comes the longest pause of them all. He thinks for a moment that the call’s ended. But then the one from the phone speaks.

“I’ll call you again tomorrow,” he says, sounding strained. “We’ll take stock of the situation.”

“You do that,” Cor says.

Then the call really does end. He hears Cor make a sort of growling sound. It may contain words, but if so, he can’t make them out. Then there’s a quiet thud. Then silence.

He lies on his back, staring at the ceiling. He’s fully awake now. He’s trying to make sense of what he heard. His thoughts are sluggish. The first part of the conversation made no sense to him at all, except that Cor was angry and the one from the phone was sorry for something he’d done. The second part – Cor said he wasn’t leaving him. Him, they were talking about him. And Cor said he wouldn’t leave him.

Why?

Maybe Cor doesn’t trust him. He’s always followed orders when Cor’s been away, but then – but then he let Noctis take off his sunglasses, and after that he was corrected. So maybe now Cor doesn’t trust him.

But Cor’s downstairs. He’s not here, in the room with him. He could do something now, and Cor wouldn’t know. He’s not sure what he could do – Cor’s given him so few orders, and he doesn’t even have the sunglasses any more – but he could do something, he’s sure. And Cor wouldn’t know. So if Cor doesn’t trust him, why isn’t he here?

And then: the one from the phone said you’ve become attached to the boy. He’s not sure exactly what it means. But he thinks about Cor, the night before. About how Cor said it was all right for him to cry, and then – how Cor held him. He doesn’t understand why Cor held him, but it felt so warm. Even thinking about it makes him feel warm. It makes him feel a sort of ache in his chest, and he wishes Cor was here. Maybe if Cor was here, he would hold him again.

Why does he want Cor to hold him again?

You’ve become attached to the boy. That was what the one from the phone said. And Cor said he wouldn’t leave him.

He prods at the pieces of information, tries to connect them together. He feels like the answer is there, it’s obvious, but it’s just out of his reach. He thinks of all the scenarios he can, but none of them quite fits with all that’s been said, all that’s been done.

He lets out a sigh of frustration, then clamps his hand over his mouth, hoping that the silent one didn’t hear. His self-control has suffered from the correction. He cried last night, and now he’s allowing feelings to cloud his thoughts, to make themselves known outside his head. It’s not appropriate. He knows better. He has direct experience of the consequences for behaviour like this.

But last night, Cor said it was all right to cry.

He closes his eyes. Nothing makes sense. Nothing at all makes sense. He wants to go downstairs and demand an instruction manual from Cor. Surely it’s not appropriate for him to spend this long in a new facility without an instruction manual?

Cor said he wasn’t in a facility, he reminds himself. And he knows it must be true. Sometimes he goes outside. Sometimes he sees the sun. Sometimes he listens to music. But there are no exercises. There are no simulations, aside from Noctis and his games. There are no tests. There are people everywhere, and no other MT units.

But then why is he here? Why is he here?

He doesn’t know. No matter how much he thinks about it, he doesn’t know.

Eventually, he gives up and goes back to sleep.

~

He’s woken by the sound of a chime. It takes a few moments for his systems to come fully online, and before they do, he hears Cor says, “Yeah, come up.” He tries to sharpen his hearing to hear the other half of whatever conversation it is, but it’s too late, and his hearing is sluggish, only responding to his command after a few seconds.

There’s a knock at the door downstairs. He hears it open.

“I got your message,” says a voice. It’s Ignis.

“Come in,” Cor says.

Footsteps. The sound of clinking in the kitchen. A chair being scraped back.

Silence.

“Is there a reason you wanted me to come here, or did you just want to stare at me?” Ignis says.

“Wow,” Cor says. “You’re a real smartass sometimes.”

“And you are stalling,” Ignis replies.

There’s a sound like a cup being put down on a table. Cor sighs.

“Listen,” he says. Then he doesn’t say anything else.

“I’m listening,” says Ignis after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah,” Cor says. “Listen – I know we’re not on the same page about the kid. I know you’re pissed at me about what happened. I’m sure you know I’m pissed at you about what you said. Fuck, I’m pissed at everyone right now. But – I need help.” He sighs again. “Ignis, I’m drowning here. I don’t know what I’m doing. You know the kid, and – you know kids. You look after Noctis.” He pauses. “I really need some help.”

There’s a silence. The sound of someone drinking. When Ignis speaks, his voice is much warmer than it was before.

“I see,” he says. “It’s true your situation does seem quite – complicated.”

“You’re telling me,” Cor says. “I don’t even know what the fuck the kid is. I never meant this to be a permanent thing, Ignis. I just took him in for a couple of nights because – I don’t know, the way he looked at me. He looked so – I couldn’t just throw him in a fucking cell. You get that.”

“But now it’s more than a couple of nights,” Ignis says.

A long pause. “Yeah,” Cor says. “Now it’s more.”

“And you say you don’t know what he is,” Ignis says. “But you told me he was human. You sounded quite sure.”

“Yeah, he’s human,” Cor says. “I mean – they’ve done some things to him. He’s – off. You’ve seen that. But he’s human. I may not be sure of a lot of things, but I know that much.”

There’s the sound of drinking again. “Hm,” Ignis says. “The rest was untrue, but you were serious about wanting him to be rehabilitated.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. “And he was better. I mean, when he was spending every day with you. He was getting better, he seemed – more alive.”

“Because of Noctis,” Ignis says.

There’s a silence. “You think that’s what it was?”

“I noticed it, too,” Ignis says. “He became much more animated once he and Noctis made friends. Still not very animated, you understand, but it’s all relative, of course.”

Cor makes a thoughtful noise. “He went downhill fast after I separated them, but then – then he suddenly started to seem happier a few days ago.”

“Because Noctis started sneaking in to see him,” Ignis says.

Cor draws in a breath. “Shit,” he mutters.

“Indeed,” Ignis says. He’s silent for a moment, but then he speaks again. “You asked me to help because you think I know how to deal with young teenagers. I’m not sure how much help I can be, as my only experience is with Noctis. But that experience has taught me that – it’s very important for boys his age to have friends. That loneliness is a difficult fate indeed.”

“Does Noctis have many friends?” Cor asks.

Ignis doesn’t answer straight away.

“He has Prompto,” he says.

~

He wants to keep listening, but he’s too tired. His hearing starts fading in and out, and he brings it back down to normal levels to avoid a system failure. His mind is tired, too. Thoughts keep chasing themselves round and round. He already knows Cor thinks he’s human. He’s said it, over and over again. He doesn’t really understand why Cor thinks he’s human, and sometimes he thinks he should ask Cor about it, make it clear to him. But he’s already made it clear. He told Cor on the first day that he stayed in this house that he was an MT unit. But Cor still insists he’s human. He wonders if Cor means something different when he says human. But the idea that, along with all the many, many words he doesn’t know, the words he does know might have meanings he’s not aware of makes him feel dizzy with uncertainty. So he stops thinking about it.

He can still hear the murmur of voices downstairs. Then there’s the sound of people moving around, eating implements clinking. He drifts in and out of sleep. He becomes aware of footsteps on the stairs and tries to wake himself up properly, looking at the door so he’ll see when Cor comes in.

But it’s Ignis who comes in.

“Hello,” he says. He’s carrying a tray. He pauses in his steps when he meets his eyes, and his face seems to lose a little colour. But then he straightens his shoulders and continues, putting the tray down on the little table. “Cor said you were feeling better?”

He opens his mouth. His throat feels dry. “Ignis,” he says. It’s been days and days since he’s seen Ignis.

“I suppose you’re surprised to see me,” Ignis says. He picks up the glass of water from the table by the bed and holds it out. “I do leave my quarters occasionally, you know.”

Ignis smiles. He takes the water and drinks. He drinks it fast. Soon the whole glass is gone.

“Well,” Ignis says, looking at the empty glass, “it’s a good thing I brought you some orange juice.”

He picks up a jug from the tray. It’s clear glass, and inside it is orange liquid. He’s had it before, once. It tasted like battery acid and he had a great deal of difficulty swallowing it. So now he watches as Ignis pours it into his glass and feels his heart sinking in his chest.

Ignis holds the glass out. He takes it. His hand shakes a little, but he doesn’t spill any. He stares at it. It looks ugly, thick and orange and bright. He puts the glass to his lips and takes a sip.

It tastes – bright. There is an acidic tang to it, but it’s different, it’s nothing like battery acid. It tastes bright, and clear. He pulls the glass away from his mouth and stares at it. It smells pleasant, too – fresh and light.

“Something wrong?” Ignis asks. Then his face changes. “Oh – I remember, you don’t like it. How remiss of me. Here, give it to me.”

Ignis reaches out to take the glass back. And he–

And he–

He puts the glass to his lips and swallows as much of it as he can. He does it before he even realises what he’s doing. Before he can stop himself. Two-thirds of the glass is gone before he comes to his senses and pulls it away. He stares at it, tasting the brightness in his mouth.

Ignis told him to give it to him. But he didn’t.

But he didn’t.

His hand starts to shake. The liquid sloshes in the bottom of the glass, the level of it too low now to spill. Too low, because he drank most of it. He drank it after Ignis told him to give it back.

His fingers slip. Ignis leans forward and seizes the glass, pulling it from his hand before it can fall. “Prompto?” he says.

He starts. His hearing’s starting to fade again, replaced by a loud ringing. Ignis puts the glass down on the table and frowns at him. Ignis reaches out towards him and–

–he scrambles backwards across the bed. He finds himself pressed into the corner, wedged between the wall and the thick slab of wood at the end of the bed. His breathing is functioning incorrectly – too fast and too shallow. He sees Ignis in front of him and every part of him flinches.

And then Ignis has moved. Somehow, he’s moved from the chair to the bed. He’s kneeling on the bed. He’s holding him by the arms. It doesn’t hurt. It feels warm. Ignis isn’t correcting him. He’s just kneeling on the bed, holding his arms. He’s talking. But he can’t hear what he’s saying. The ringing sound in his ears is too loud.

Then Ignis takes his hand. He takes it and presses it against his own chest, palm flat. He can feel Ignis’ heart beating. He can feel him breathing. He’s breathing deeply, slowly. He feels warm.

Ignis points at him. Then he points at his own chest. He breathes slowly.

And he understands: Ignis wants him to breathe slowly, too. He wants to breathe slowly – he knows his breathing is malfunctioning, and that if it continues much longer he’ll pass out. He’s been trying. But now – somehow the feeling of Ignis breathing under his hand, the warmth against his palm, gives him something to focus on. He focuses. When Ignis breathes in, he breathes in. When Ignis breathes out, he breathes out. He focuses on that. Nothing else.

It takes a little while, but the ringing in his ears dies down.

“There,” Ignis says. It’s the first thing he’s been able to hear him say, even though his mouth has been moving all the time. “Good.”

Ignis sits back on the bed. He doesn’t let go of his arms. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says.

He swallows. Ignis isn’t angry. Ignis is holding his arms, but it doesn’t hurt. It feels warm. He disobeyed a direct order, and Ignis isn’t angry.

He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand.

Ignis lets go of his arms. He frowns at him. But he doesn’t look angry. He just looks thoughtful.

“Why don’t you tell me what that was about?” he asks.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t know what it was about. He doesn’t know why Ignis isn’t angry. He doesn’t want Ignis to be angry, but he wants to know why. He wants to know why. Why will no-one give him proper instructions? How is he supposed to know what’s appropriate?

Ignis tilts his head on one side. “You’re angry with me,” he says. “I’m afraid I don’t know what I did wrong.”

His heart lurches in his chest. No. He’s not angry. No, he’s not angry. Anger is not part of his functions. MT units don’t get angry. He’s not angry.

He swallows. “I’m not angry,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse. He realises he’s arguing with Ignis. No, no. He’s not arguing. Ignis hasn’t understood. He’s not angry. MT units don’t get angry.

“I see,” Ignis says. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. I imagine it must be rather painful to talk about, but please, Prompto, I must ask that you explain to me what caused that attack. I would very much like to avoid a similar scene in future.”

“Attack?” he asks. He didn’t see an attack. He didn’t hear anything.

Ignis stares at him. Then he adjusts the cuffs of his jacket.

“You were frightened,” he says, still looking at his cuffs. “Please tell me what frightened you.”

He feels himself start to shake again. He doesn’t understand why Ignis wants him to do this. Ignis must already know. But Ignis gave him an order. He can’t disobey a direct order. Not again.

“I thought you would be angry,” he says. It comes out in a whisper. Ignis should have been angry. But he’s not angry.

Ignis pauses in his inspection of his cuffs. He frowns and looks at him sideways.

“What did you think I would be angry about?” he asks.

He swallows. Ignis is going to make him recite his dereliction of duty. Perhaps he wants to prove that he knew he was doing wrong. “Because you told me to give you the glass,” he says. “But I drank it instead.” The bright taste is long gone from his mouth, now. He wonders what he was thinking, to risk so much for something so fleeting.

Now Ignis turns to look at him. There’s an expression of surprise on his face. “The orange juice?” he asks.

He nods. His hands are shaking. His shoulders. Ignis puts his hands on his arms again and he thinks: now. Now Ignis will take him to be corrected.

But Ignis’ hands don’t tighten on his arms. They’re just there, holding him steady. “You were afraid because I told you to give me the glass of orange juice, but you didn’t?” he asks.

“Yes,” he whispers.

Ignis nods. “What did you think I was going to do to you?” he asks. He sounds calm. Neutral. Not angry.

He closes his eyes. Behind them, there are bright lights. Metal against his tongue. A cold, hard surface under his back.

He opens his eyes again. Here, in this room, there’s a soft bed, and dim green light, and the warmth of Ignis’ hands on his arms.

“I thought you would correct me,” he says. His voice cracks halfway through. Why hasn’t Ignis corrected him?

“I see,” Ignis says. He sits back. “Prompto–” he says, but then he doesn’t continue. He takes one hand off his arm to adjust his glasses. He’s frowning at something. Then his attention comes back to him. “That wasn’t an order,” he says. “When I asked you to give the glass back, it wasn’t an order.”

He stares at him. “Yes, it was,” he says, before he can stop himself. Give it to me, that was what Ignis said. That’s an order. It’s clear. It’s one of the only clear things that he’s heard for a long time.

Ignis nods. “This is rather difficult,” he says. “I think I understand – a little more, at least. I misspoke. I did not intend for it to sound like an order, though I understand now why you thought it was one. It was my fault.”

He doesn’t understand. Of all the things he hasn’t understood, this is one of the strangest. How can an order not be an order? He feels like the floor’s shifting under him.

“I thought you didn’t like the orange juice,” Ignis says. “I wanted you to give it back to me only because I thought you didn’t like it. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to drink it. But it was a request, not an order. Do you understand?”

He takes a deep breath. “Yes,” he says. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand anything at all. But he can’t say that. He’s already disobeyed a direct order and then tried to escape from correction. He can’t do anything else wrong today.

Ignis watches him. His mouth is turned down at the corners. “Good,” he says at last. “Let’s get you out of that corner.”

Ignis moves back across the bed. He keeps a hand on his arm, and pulls gently. He follows. Ignis pulls him back to the edge of the bed.

“You should–” Ignis starts, and then stops. He stands still, staring down at him, frowning. Then he opens his mouth again.

“Would you like to eat something?” he asks. “If you would prefer not to, please speak up.”

He looks at the tray. His stomach feels strange again. It’s – not churning. That’s not quite right. It feels hollow. There’s a sort of grinding in it. He felt that way earlier, when Cor gave him the soup, and then he felt better.

“Yes,” he says.

Ignis’ mouth becomes less tight. “Good,” he says. “I made something new for you.”

He holds out a cup. The liquid inside is red. He hasn’t had red before.

He takes the cup. The smell makes his stomach gurgle. It’s loud enough that he’s sure Ignis must have heard it. But Ignis only smiles at him. So he drinks a mouthful.

It’s good. It tastes good. Different from the leek-and-potato, but with the same warmth and consistency, the same rich blend of different tastes. It tastes very different from the orange juice. That’s three things now, and they’ve all tasted different. All different, but all good. He doesn’t understand why suddenly everything tastes so – so strong. And so good.

He’s swallowed half the cup before he realises it. He pauses, looking at Ignis. But Ignis seems pleased. So he drinks the rest. He tries to slow down this time, so that he’ll have the taste in his mouth for longer. But it’s still gone too fast.

Ignis is sitting back in his chair, now. He looks very pleased. “Well!” he says. “I’m glad to see you’ve found your appetite at last.”

He wants to ask Ignis how he managed to make this soup taste so different from the leek-and-potato. And why the orange juice is different again. And why they taste different now from how they tasted before. He’s seen Ignis cooking, lots of times, but he’s never really understood why the preparations for food are so complex. But now – now, if different foods all taste so different – he understands why someone would spend such a long time making one food instead of another food. He wants to know how cooking works.

“Thank you,” he says, and holds out the cup.

Ignis takes it.

“Now,” he says. He pulls out a notebook and opens it, holding a pen poised over it. “Please tell me, which do you like best: the tomato or the leek and potato?”

He swallows. The taste is still in his mouth. He doesn’t know what tomato means, but he knows what leek-and-potato means, and he thinks he can deduce the meaning of the question Ignis is asking: which is better, the red soup or the leek-and-potato? But neither of them is better. They’re different. They’re both – they’re both better than anything he’s tasted before.

“I like them both,” he says at last.

Ignis nods. He doesn’t look angry that he couldn’t answer the question. He looks pleased.

“Excellent,” he says, writing something down in his notebook. “Now, about that orange juice.”

~

Eventually, he drinks as much orange juice as he can fit into his stomach, and Ignis leaves. He’s tired again, exhausted, heart still beating too fast, although the soup has helped a lot. He lies down on the bed and stares at the ceiling, thinking about Ignis. About how strange Ignis is.

He doesn’t think about it for long. There are voices in the kitchen, and he stops thinking and sharpens his hearing to listen.

“You were up there a long time,” Cor says.

“We had a lot of catching up to do,” Ignis says. There’s a sound that he thinks is Ignis putting the tray down on the table. “I must say, his eyes are – very disconcerting.”

“You get used to it,” Cor says. “He eat?”

“He did,” Ignis says. “And he even seemed to enjoy it, for once.” There’s a brief pause, then Ignis says, “Marshal, I need to tell you something–”

Then there’s a pain in his head, and a buzzing sound, and then his hearing shuts down.

He puts his hands to his ears. He tries to restart the process, but nothing happens. Everything is silent. He swallows, but he can’t hear it. He closes his eyes. He remembers his instructions. Stay calm. Count to one thousand. Restart the process. Repeat. If five repeats are unsuccessful, report the defect for modification.

He counts to one thousand. He restarts the process.

His hearing comes back.

He sags against the bed, suddenly feeling weak. He can hear again: the quiet hum of the cars. The muffled sound of voices in the kitchen. He can’t hear the silent one breathing outside the door. But he doesn’t sharpen his hearing. He keeps it low, as low as it will go.

He doesn’t fall asleep for a long time.

~

That night, Cor brings him more soup. It’s the red soup again. It tastes just as good as it did before.

Cor watches him drink it. He doesn’t say anything until he’s finished. Then he takes the cup away.

“How’re you feeling, kid?” he asks.

“Fine,” he says. It’s true: he still feels weak, but most of the pain is gone. His hearing’s functioning, although he hasn’t tried to sharpen it since it malfunctioned. He knows he should tell Cor about the defect, but he doesn’t.

Cor nods. “I’ve got some things I gotta do tomorrow,” he says. “I was thinking – maybe you might like to spend some time with Ignis? If you’re feeling up to it.”

He sits up a little. He feels a warm feeling in his chest. He thought that he wasn’t permitted to spend time with Ignis any more, but now – he’s seen him today and maybe he’ll also see him tomorrow. He wants to ask if Noctis will be there, too, but he doesn’t. He remembers last time Noctis saw him he behaved so poorly that he was corrected. He doesn’t think Noctis will want to see him again.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor smiles, then. “Good,” he says. “That’s great. I’m glad you like him.”

He nods. He feels a spark of warmth in his chest. He’s done the right thing. Cor is pleased with him.

“Hey,” Cor says. He leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Listen, Ignis said–” He stops and shakes his head. “I’m not great at this,” he says. “OK? I’m trying to get better. And – you’re doing a great job, kid, all right? I know this is – really confusing for you. And I guess we’ve got a lot of shit we need to talk about. But right now – I haven’t said it before, because I didn’t realise – ah, shit.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m just trying to – you’re doing good, OK? You’re doing great. So – don’t be scared, all right?”

He swallows. The warmth in his chest grows from a spark into a quiet flame. “Yes,” he says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He reaches out and grips his shoulder. “We’re gonna figure this out, you and me,” he says. “OK?”

He feels the warmth of Cor’s hand on his shoulder. It feels solid. Like if Cor wanted to keep it there, nothing would be able to move it.

“Yes,” he says.

Chapter Text

He wakes up when he hears someone shout. He’s asleep at first, then he’s awake. He’s asleep when the shout happens, and when he wakes up, he knows it happened, but he doesn’t know what it sounded like. His heart is beating fast. He sits up. He wonders what he should do. Did Cor hear the shout? Should he go and tell Cor? Or – the silent one must have heard it. The silent one is awake all night. So if someone needs to tell Cor, the silent one will do it.

Then he hears a door open, and footsteps. He hears harsh breathing.

“Hey – you OK?” the silent one says outside the door. He doesn’t hear a response, though. Then, the door opens.

Cor stands in the doorway. He’s the one who’s breathing harshly. He stares at him for a long moment. Then he crosses to the bed, leans down and holds him, like he did before, putting his arms all the way round him.

He doesn’t understand what’s happening. His heart’s thumping loudly enough that he can hear it in his ears. But Cor’s arms are warm around him. Cor feels warm and solid, even though his breath is loud and too heavy. Cor’s heart is beating fast as well, he realises.

Then Cor stands back. He leaves one hand one his shoulder. He passes the other over his face.

“OK,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse. “All right.”

He swallows. He wonders what Cor wants. Whether he wants him to do anything.

“You OK, kid?” Cor asks.

He nods. “Yes,” he says. He sees that the silent one is standing in the doorway, watching.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Yeah. You’re OK.” He squeezes his shoulder. “Get some sleep.”

Cor lets go of his shoulder. He lies down. He still doesn’t understand why Cor is here. He was asleep. He was asleep and then he woke up and Cor came to tell him to go back to sleep. Did Cor know he’d woken up?

He closes his eyes. He tries to sleep. Those are his orders: get some sleep. It’s not easy. Cor’s still standing by the bed. Watching him. Waiting for him to follow orders. It makes him feel very awake.

He concentrates on breathing slowly. He counts to four with each inhale and then four again with each exhale. He wonders if maybe he should shut down a few processes to help him get to sleep. Even though he’s breathing slowly, his heart’s still beating fast. Every time it starts to slow a little, his mind reminds him that Cor’s still watching him, waiting, and it speeds up again with an unpleasant jolt. He’s beginning to feel the stirrings of panic in his stomach when he feels the faintest brush of a hand on his forehead, and Cor sighs heavily.

“Shit,” he mutters.

Then he leaves the room.

The door closes behind Cor. He feels it like a crushing weight has been lifted from his chest. He realises that his hands are clenched under the cover. He spreads out his fingers. He counts. He breathes.

“You OK, sir?” the silent one says outside the door. He speaks in a low voice, but he hears it anyway. His hearing is working better now.

“Fine,” Cor says.

There’s a pause. “Permission to speak freely?” says the silent one.

Cor grunts. “Granted,” he says.

“Respectfully, sir, you look like shit,” the silent one says. “Let me make you a hot drink.”

There’s a much longer pause. Then Cor sighs.

“I didn’t mean that freely, Arcis,” he says.

Then there’s the sound of footsteps. Two sets, going downstairs. Cor and the silent one.

He sharpens his hearing a little. He knows he’s supposed to be getting some sleep, but he hopes that Cor might talk to the silent one about his orders and why he was holding him. He counts his breaths at the same time. He’s trying to go to sleep. His heart is just still beating too fast.

He hears the clinking of food implements in the kitchen. A quiet rushing sound that builds up until it’s loud, then suddenly stops with a click. Water pouring. A chair scraping.

“My kid brother gets nightmares sometimes,” the silent one says. “Has since he was little. Mom always gives him this.”

“I’m not a kid,” Cor says.

The silent one laughs. “Believe me, sir, no arguments here.”

Silence. The sound of someone drinking.

“It’s good,” Cor says. He sounds a little surprised.

“Mom knows her shit,” the silent one says.

More silence.

“You dreamed about the kid, huh?” the silent one says.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cor says.

“Understood,” the silent one says.

More silence.

“That bracelet,” Cor says. “The one that measures his heart rate. It’s supposed to send me an alarm if it gets too low.”

“Yeah,” the silent one says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. A pause. “When Juvenis shocked him, it shorted the bracelet out. It sent me a message that said his heart had stopped.”

Another pause.

“Shit,” the silent one says. His voice is quiet.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” Cor says. “And when I saw him in that cell, looking like that – I didn’t know until I checked his pulse.”

The silent one makes a noise like he’s blowing out his breath. “He’s OK, though,” he says. “He’s fine.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. He sighs. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this shit.”

“Me neither,” the silent one says. “It’s kind of weird, to be honest.”

Cor laughs, then, like he’s surprised. There’s the sound of someone drinking something. Then a chair scraping.

“Thanks for the tea,” Cor says. “Back to your post.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says.

Then there are footsteps on the stairs again. His heart speeds up, and he tries to go to sleep as quickly as possible in case Cor comes in and sees he hasn’t followed orders. But one set of footsteps stops outside his door, and the other goes into the room where Cor sleeps.

He lies still, waiting to see if anyone will come in. But no-one does. After a while, he touches his wrist to see if the strap that measures his heartbeat is still there.

It isn’t.

~

The next day, they go to the Citadel. It’s the first time he’s gone since he was corrected. They drive the same route they always drive. Cor stops at the building with the bright images and fetches some bottles of the red drink. He looks into the bag when Cor puts it on his lap. Each bottle says PROMPTO! on the side.

It feels familiar.

Cor holds his arm as they walk along the corridor. The grip doesn’t hurt. It’s firm, but not tight. It feels warm. Cor doesn’t walk too fast. He looks angry, but he doesn’t squeeze his arm too tight.

There’s a voice coming from round the corner. It’s loud – shouting. And then, all of a sudden, Noctis appears. He’s walking fast, shoulders hunched. He looks angry. When he sees them, he stops. His eyes widen. Cor stops, too. His grip on his arm tightens.

“Hey,” Noctis says. Then he starts walking again, more slowly, like he’s not sure which direction he wants to go in. He stops a few paces in front of them. “You’re OK,” he says.

“Yes,” he says. His stomach starts churning a little. Last time he saw Noctis, he failed to follow orders so badly that he was corrected. And Noctis was angry with him. Noctis doesn’t look angry now. But he isn’t sure. He isn’t sure.

Then a new person comes round the corner. The new person is very tall, with broad shoulders. He has images drawn on his arms. He looks furious.

Noct, don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you–” the one with the images says. Then he stops short. He frowns at Cor, then at him. Then he takes another step forward.

“Wait, is this–?” he starts.

“It’s Prompto,” Noctis says. He hasn’t looked at the one with the images. He’s only looked at him, a little sideways.

The one with images stares at him for a long moment, frowning deeply. Then he puts an arm round Noctis’ shoulders.

“We’re late,” he says. “Come on, princess.”

Then he starts walking. He’s significantly taller and broader than Noctis, and the force of him walking, his arm around Noctis’ shoulders, seems to simply pulls Noctis along.

“Hey, wait,” Noctis says. But the one with the images doesn’t wait.

“You’re the one who’s late, I’m the one who’ll get it in the neck,” he says. “Keep moving.”

They’ve passed them now, carrying on down the corridor. He turns to watch them go. Noctis looks back at him.

“Hey, I’ll catch up with you later,” he calls.

Then the one with the images pulls him round the corner, and he’s gone.

Cor’s hand loosens on his arm.

“We gotta keep moving too, kid,” he says.

So they do.

~

Cor takes him to see Ignis. It’s been days and days since he’s been to Ignis’ rooms. When they get out of the elevator, he recognises the corridor immediately. His stomach’s been unsettled since he saw Noctis, but now it starts to feel a little better. They walk along the corridor, the silent one behind them, and Cor knocks on Ignis’ door.

“Come in,” Ignis calls from inside. Cor leads him inside. Ignis is there. He’s sitting at the table holding a cup. He smiles. “Good morning,” he says. “I’m glad to see you up and about.”

“Hi,” he says. Cor gestures, and he sits down in a chair at the table. Cor lets go of his arm. It’s the first time he’s let it go since they got out of the car.

“You OK with him for an hour?” Cor asks.

Ignis nods. “Of course,” he says.

“Prince Noctis knows not to come here?” Cor asks.

“Ah,” Ignis says. “More like Gladio has instructions to keep him away.”

Cor nods. “Good,” he says. He turns to him. “You OK to stay here with Ignis, kid? I won’t be too long.”

“Yes,” he says. He feels a sort of loosening in his arms, his shoulders. It feels familiar, here with Ignis. He thought he wouldn’t be permitted to come here again.

“All right,” Cor says. He stands there for another moment or two, not saying anything.

“I’ll call you immediately if anything happens,” Ignis says.

“Yeah – thanks,” Cor says. He walks away, and a moment later the door closes behind him.

Ignis looks at him across the table. “Well,” he says. “Here we are again.”

“Yes,” he says. Outside, water is falling from the sky. It patters against the window. He still doesn’t know why the water falls, but whenever it does, it makes that noise. It makes him feel calm, somehow.

“Now that I know a little more about you, perhaps we could be reintroduced,” Ignis says. “My name is Ignis.”

“Yes,” he says. He knows Ignis’ name.

Ignis waits. He wonders what else he should say. “I know,” he says. “Cor told me your name before.”

“Indeed,” Ignis says. “But he didn’t tell me your name.”

He frowns. Ignis hasn’t understood. “I’m an MT unit,” he says. “MT units don’t have names.”

Ignis frowns, now. “They must have called you something,” he says, “wherever you were before you came here.”

He nods. “Zero five nine five–” he trails off. “But I forgot the other numbers.”

Ignis sits back in his chair. He has a strange expression on his face.

“You don’t have a name,” he says.

“No,” he says. The closest thing he has is what Noctis calls him: Prompto. But now Ignis looks strange, and he starts thinking that maybe Ignis won’t want to call him Prompto any more. The thought creates a quiet ache in his chest.

“Hasn’t Cor given you a name?” Ignis asks. He looks strange still.

“No,” he says, but then he remembers the paper that Cor gave him, with names written on it. He folded it up and put it in his pocket, and he’s carefully transferred it from pocket to pocket whenever Cor tells him to change clothes. He reaches into his pocket now and pulls it out. He opens it up and smoothes it on the table. “He said I should look at the ones on here,” he says. The names were written in pencil and now many of them are smudged. He hopes Cor won’t be angry with him for not taking better care of the paper.

Ignis reaches out and takes the paper. He reads down the list. “Did you like any of them?” he asks.

He doesn’t feel anything about any of them. They’re just words. “They’re all good,” he says.

Ignis holds the paper and stares at him. Then he puts the paper down and picks up his cup.

“I’ll talk to Cor about it,” he says. “Now, I need to start making His Highness’s dinner. Would you like something to read?”

~

Ignis brings him the book, Lucis by Night Laus Venustas. He hasn’t looked at it since last time he was here. Ignis turns up the music, and he looks at the images. It feels familiar. His stomach settles, and his shoulders feel loose and comfortable. Ignis starts to cook. He wonders what Ignis is cooking. How does the cooking procedure work? How does Ignis know which foods to cook and what they will turn into? He supposes to make red soup you need red foods and to make green soup you need green foods, but beyond that, he has no understanding of the process. So he stops looking at the images and starts watching Ignis instead.

Ignis is stirring something in a vessel which sits on top of the stove. He concentrates for a moment, and remembers the word saucepan. He pours some white liquid into the saucepan and continues to stir it. How did he know to pour the liquid in? What liquid is it? What effect will it have on the end result?

He wonders what Ignis is making. Ignis makes lots of things. Soup and broth for him, but also other foods for Cor and Noctis. They come in all shapes and sizes and colours, liquids and solids. He wonders if they all taste different from each other.

Ignis glances at him. He smiles, then looks back to his saucepan. Then he glances back again.

“Are you all right?” he asks. “Do you need something?”

“No,” he says. He doesn’t need anything. It’s warm, here, and there’s music playing, and he can watch Ignis cooking. He doesn’t need anything.

Ignis is still looking at him, though. “Would you like to help me cook?” he asks.

He sits up. “Yes,” he says. Yes, he wants to learn how cooking works. Why foods taste different.

“Excellent,” Ignis says. He thinks for a moment. “Well, we will certainly need to fry some onions,” he says. “They’re in the cupboard there.” He points.

He gets up. He goes to the cupboard and opens it. It’s a tall cupboard with shelves inside. The shelves are full of objects. Some of them he recognises as foods from when Cor showed him his kitchen. Some of them he hasn’t seen before. There are jars and cans and bottles and packets, and also foods just sitting on the shelf. He stares at them and realises he doesn’t remember which one is onion.

He remembers the word. Cor said it to him the day he showed him the kitchen. But there were lots of words, lots of new things, and Cor hasn’t shown him again, and it was weeks ago, now. He knows he ought to remember, but his memory’s been functioning poorly since he first met Cor, and although he can recall snapshots of foods, he can’t match all of them up with names.

He takes a deep breath and reaches out. He sees a round, red food that he doesn’t remember the name of, but he knows he’s seen before. He takes it and turns, holding it out to Ignis.

Ignis looks at him, then frowns.

“Hm,” he says. “Did I say tomato? I apologise, I meant to say onion.”

He swallows. It’s wrong, then. The round red food is tomato. He remembers that Ignis said the red soup was tomato. That makes sense. The red food makes red soup. He wonders if the red drink is also made of tomato.

Ignis is still looking at him, frowning a little. Then he steps away from the stove and comes over to the cupboard. He picks up two brown spheres.

“Here they are,” he says. He holds them out. “Onions.”

Onions. He takes them, trying to fix the word to the image in his mind. He puts the tomato back. Ignis closes the cupboard. He looks at him for a moment, like he’s thinking about something. Then he speaks.

“Could you chop those for me?” he asks. “There’s a knife and a chopping board over there.”

He looks. On the counter is a flat board and a knife. He goes over to them and puts the onions down on the board. Then he considers. Ignis asked him to chop them. He’s familiar with chop as a term for cutting off protruberances. You chop off an arm, or a head. But the onions don’t have protruberances. Apart from a small cone-shaped extension on one side, they’re spherical.

He picks up the knife and considers it. If he was asked to chop an enemy with no protuberances, what would he do?

Cut them in half.

Good. He takes hold of the first onion, holding it carefully so it won’t roll away. Then he chops it in half, through the middle of the cone-shaped extension. Inside, the onion is white with the palest hint of green. It has lines on it that follow the curve of the outside. It smells sharp and strange. He takes the other onion and chops it in half as well. Now he’s chopped both onions, so he lays down the knife and waits for further instructions.

After a few moments, Ignis looks over at him.

“Do you need some help?” he asks.

“No,” he says. “I’ve chopped them.”

Ignis comes over to the counter. He looks down at the onions. Then he looks up at him.

“Have you ever cooked before?” he asks.

“No,” he says.

Ignis nods. He taps his fingers on the counter, a thoughtful expression on his face. “What did you eat before you came here?” he asks. “I mean, to Lucis.”

He’s heard Lucis a lot in the last few weeks. He thinks it’s the name of the place he’s in now. So Ignis is asking what he ate when he was at the training facility.

“MT units don’t need to eat,” he says. He lifts up the side of his shirt. “I have a port. For sustenance.”

Ignis looks at his port. He looks at it for a long time. “I see,” he says. He sounds a little faint. “Then – you never ate anything until you came here?”

“No,” he says.

Ignis starts to look like he’s in pain. “I see,” he says again.

Something’s happened. He understands that. He doesn’t know what. But he expected Ignis to give him more instructions, and instead he’s just standing, and he looks like he’s in pain. He doesn’t know what to do to correct whatever it was that happened. “I eat things now,” he says. “Cor says there aren’t any feeding tubes that will fit my port. So I eat things now. All the things you make.”

Ignis nods slowly. “You’ve only ever eaten my cooking,” he says. And now some of the pain is gone from his face. “How extraordinary.”

Good. He said the right thing. He corrected whatever happened. He waits for more instructions.

Ignis stands up a little straighter. “Well – I will certainly take on that challenge,” he says, though quietly. And then, more loudly, “Prompto, you have a wonderful culinary journey ahead of you.”

He nods. He doesn’t understand. He hopes Ignis will give him more instructions soon.

But Ignis picks up one of the onion halves. “Now,” he says. “Some types of vegetable – do you know what vegetable means?”

He nods. Cor pointed at things and called them vegetables when he showed him his kitchen. Vegetables are green and all sorts of shapes. The onion isn’t green on the outside, but it’s faintly green on the inside and he thinks it’s probably a vegetable.

“Good,” Ignis says. “Some types of vegetable have parts which are not particularly pleasant to eat. We remove those parts before we eat the vegetable. In an onion, the skin and the two ends are not edible, so we remove them. Let me show you.”

He watches. Ignis takes the half onion and cuts off the cone, and then the other end as well, where there’s a mess of fibres protruding out of the onion. Then he strips off the skin. He does it so fast and cleanly that he isn’t quite sure what the technique was. Now there’s just the inner part, bulbous and white.

“And then, when we chop something in cooking, it usually means into slices or cube-like shapes,” Ignis says. “Watch carefully.”

He watches carefully. Ignis makes a series of parallel cuts through the onion until it’s in slices. Then he turns the board around and does the same in the orthogonal direction.

“The good thing about onions is that they have layers, which means that the slices in the third direction occur naturally,” he says. He taps the half onion with the knife, and it falls apart into small pieces that have an approximate cuboid shape. “There.”

Yes. He understands. And he feels an itch to be allowed to chop the rest of the onions. Ignis gave him clear instructions and a demonstration. Ignis is the only person he’s met since he came here who gives him such clear instructions.

“Would you like to do the rest?” Ignis asks, holding out the knife towards him.

“Yes,” he says, as fast as he can. He takes the knife. “Thank you.”

Ignis smiles. It’s a thoughtful smile. “I should be thanking you,” he says. “You’re the one who’s helping me.”

He doesn’t understand what Ignis means. But he understands his instructions. He takes the next half onion and cuts off the cone and the mess of fibres. Then he starts to peel off the brown skin. It’s not as easy as Ignis make it look. But eventually he succeeds. The half onion sits in front of him, pale and bulbous. He raises the knife and makes slices in one direction. Then he turns the board and makes slices in the orthogonal direction. Then he taps the onion with the knife.

It falls apart. The pieces are cuboid shapes. Yes.

He turns to see that Ignis is watching him. Ignis smiles.

“Excellent,” he says. “I see you’re a natural.”

He nods. Yes. He performed adequately. Ignis said excellent. That means he performed better than adequately. He performed well.

He performed well.

There’s a quiet, warm glow in his stomach. He hopes Ignis will let him help with more things. He takes the next onion half and begins the procedure again.

~

He chops several more foods after the onion. Ignis tells him the name of each one – zucchini, bell pepper, carrot – and he’s grateful, even though he knows Cor has told him the names of some of them before, and some he even remembers. Ignis tells him that all of them are vegetables. He has to revise his categorisation of vegetables. Onions are at least a little green inside, but carrots are orange (he wonders if the orange juice Ignis gave him is made with carrots) and bell peppers are many different colours, only some of them green. Vegetables isn’t an obvious category, then. He’ll just have to learn the categorisation of each food individually. Each vegetable also has a different chopping procedure associated with it. Ignis explains each one and demonstrates it. Ignis is so clear. He hopes Ignis will give him more instructions in future.

Ignis is still stirring his saucepan. He pours in a stack of thin flakes of something yellow. “Cheese sauce,” he says. “I’m hoping that Noctis won’t notice the vegetables if I cover them with enough cheese.”

He remembers Cor showing him cheese. He wonders if cheese is also a vegetable.

Then there’s a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Ignis calls. The door opens, and Cor comes in. He looks angry. He looks so angry.

His stomach twists inside him. Cor’s not alone. Behind him is the one from the phone. And then the one with the club. They all come in. The one with the club closes the door.

Ignis straightens sharply. Then he inclines the top half of his body.

“Your Majesty,” he says. He looks quickly around at the room. He sweeps the peelings from the vegetables off the counter and into a container. “To what do I owe this honour?”

“Ignis,” the one with the club says. He makes his way to the table and sits down. “I’m hoping for a word with Prompto.”

“Of course,” Ignis says. He puts a hand on his back and pushes him towards the table. He sits down opposite the one with the club. Cor stands beside him. He puts a hand on his back, between the shoulder blades. The one from the phone stands behind the one with the club. He looks angry, too.

The one with the club looks at him. He doesn’t look angry. “We meet again,” he says.

He swallows. His mouth is dry. “Yes,” he says.

The one with the club nods. “Clarus,” he says.

The one from the phone steps forward. “Why did you come here?” he asks.

“Cor brought me,” he says. He looks up at Cor, but Cor’s looking at the one from the phone.

“Not to this room,” the one from the phone says. “Why did you come to this kingdom? Why did you come to Lucis? What is your purpose here?”

Lucis is the place where he is. “I came because Cor told me to follow,” he says. The first question he doesn’t understand, but that answers the second question. The third question is easy. “My purpose is to obey orders.”

The one with the club nods. “Whose orders?” he asks.

“My commanding officer,” he says. He’s glad the questions are mostly easy.

“Who is your commanding officer?” the one from the phone asks.

“Cor,” he says. He looks at Cor again. Cor’s face twitches, but he doesn’t look at him. But the hand on his back moves to his shoulder and squeezes. It feels warm.

The one with the club nods. He sighs. Then he looks at the one from the phone. “Clarus?” he says.

The one from the phone steps forward. He puts an object down on the table. It’s flat and round, and it has a dial on one side and a button in the middle.

“Do you know what this is?” he asks.

He looks at it. “No,” he says.

“Do you know what happened to you two days ago, when Prince Noctis sneaked into the room where you were being held?” the one from the phone asks.

“Yes,” he says. “I took my sunglasses off, so I was corrected.”

Cor’s hand tightens on his shoulder. The one from the phone raises an eyebrow. “How were you corrected?” he asks.

He remembers the pain of it, so sudden. The memory makes his heart beat even faster. “I was shocked,” he says. He touches the metal strap around his neck. “The strap gave me an electric shock.”

The one from the phone nods. “This is the controller for the collar,” he says, pointing at the flat, round object. “The user turns the dial to an appropriate level of severity and then presses the button to administer the shock. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he says. The device seems simple enough.

“The guard who shocked you had the dial turned up to the second highest level of severity,” the one from the phone says. “It almost killed you. I presume it hurt.”

“Yes,” he says. “It hurt.” The metal strap suddenly feels tight around his neck. He can feel it when he swallows.

“The highest level of severity is designed to kill,” the one from the phone says. “If the guard had turned it up that high, it would have killed you. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he says. He knew that the strap was a correction device. Of course it’s possible for it to kill him. He doesn’t understand why the one from the phone is asking him these questions.

The one from the phone nods. He takes the flat object and turns the dial. “Now it’s set to the highest level of severity,” he says. He pushes it towards him. “Cor?” he says.

He looks up at Cor. Cor’s not looking at him. He’s looking at the one from the phone. He looks so angry. “Clarus–” he starts.

“Cor,” the one from the phone says. His voice is sharp. “We’ve discussed this.”

Cor closes his mouth. He closes his eyes. He shakes his head.

Then the one with the club speaks. “Cor,” he says. His voice is gentle.

And Cor nods. He looks suddenly exhausted. He opens his eyes. He looks down at him.

“Press the button, kid,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse.

His heart jumps in his chest. He looks at the device on the table. The dial is set to the highest level of severity. If he presses the button–

But Cor told him to press the button.

He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand. Except he does. He’s been waiting for this. He’s done so many things that need correcting and he was stupid, he was so stupid to start to think – to hope – that maybe Cor was never going to correct him. That all those things he’s done would just be ignored. It’s been weeks, and he doesn’t understand why it’s taken so long. But maybe the system is different, here. Maybe here, instead of a small correction each time, all of the errors act cumulatively until it reaches a point where functionality is considered irretrievably impaired.

He picks up the device.

Cor’s hand tightens on his shoulder. It hurts now. He looks up at Cor, but Cor’s eyes are closed again. The one from the phone is watching him closely. The one with the club watches him, too. His face is sad.

He swallows. The device feels cool under his fingers. He’s been waiting, and now it’s time. Cor gave him an order, and he has to follow it. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to follow it. He thought – He thought–

He thought things were different now. He thought it. Hoped it. He should have known. He should have known it wasn’t really different.

He closes his eyes. He realises he’s crying, and he tries to stop. He wonders what they’ll do with his shell, once he’s pressed the button. Will they repair it and make a new MT unit? He hopes not. He thinks they wouldn’t want another unit in the same shell that’s proven to be so poorly functioning.

He hears movement in the room. “Cor,” the one with the club murmurs.

“Press the button,” Cor says again. He sounds like he’s in pain.

He thinks about the sky. The sun. He got to see them, and it was good.

He takes a deep breath and presses the button.

Nothing happens.

He hiccups. The tears are coming faster now. He opens his eyes and stares down at the device. He presses the button again. But nothing happens. Again. Nothing happens.

“Kid,” Cor says. He’s kneeling down now. “Kid, hey.”

He hasn’t fulfilled his orders. He jabs at the button. His heart’s thundering in his ears. He can’t see through the tears. And now Cor’s putting an arm around his back. Cor takes the device from his hands even when he’s trying to press the button again. He throws the device across the room. He puts a hand on his face.

“Kid,” he says. “It’s OK. It’s all right. It wasn’t real. I’m sorry, I’m – really fucking sorry.”

He stares at him. “I don’t understand,” he says. His voice comes out cracked and wavering.

Cor looks like he’s in pain. “It was a test,” he says. “And you passed it. Right, Clarus?” His voice changes on the last phrase, becoming suddenly deep and furious. He looks at the one from the phone. The one from the phone nods.

“I’m sorry we had to put you through that,” the one with the club says. “But I am very impressed with your loyalty. Very impressed.” He nods. “Clarus, I think perhaps we are not entirely welcome at this moment.”

The one with the club stands up. He and the one from the phone leave. The door closes behind them.

He’s still crying. His heart feels like it’s being squeezed in his chest. He can’t stop.

“I’m sorry,” Cor says. “I’m sorry. Come here. Come on.”

Cor holds him, then. It’s difficult because he’s sitting down and Cor’s kneeling. But that’s not all. It doesn’t feel solid like it did before. Cor’s arms are warm, but he feels cold anyway. He wishes Cor would stop holding him.

“It’s OK,” Cor says. “You’re all right. It wasn’t real, none of it was real.”

None of it was real. He wipes his hand across his eyes. Is any of this real? Why is all of this happening? Why isn’t he at the training facility? Why is Cor holding him? No-one ever held him before. No-one ever made him eat food before, or let him go outside, or taught him how to play games. But no-one ever ordered him to kill himself, either. If they’d wanted him terminated at the facility, they would have done it themselves.

He brings his hand down. And he pushes. He doesn’t mean to. He does it without thinking. He pushes at Cor’s arm, where it’s lying across his chest.

He doesn’t push hard. He doesn’t mean to push at all. He didn’t think about it. He didn’t mean it. But it happened anyway.

And Cor sits back on his heels. He pulls his arms away. The warmth is gone. But he doesn’t mind. It feels better now that Cor’s not holding him any more.

Cor runs a hand over his face. He looks like he’s in pain. He doesn’t look angry. He doesn’t correct him for pushing. He doesn’t say anything at all. He just looks at him, with that pained expression.

And then: Ignis. Ignis has been there throughout, though he’s stayed silent and out of the way. Now he reappears. He stands behind Cor. Cor’s kneeling and Ignis is standing, and Ignis looks very tall. He has his arms folded across his chest.

“With respect, Marshal,” he says, “perhaps he might need a little time.” His voice is very cold.

Cor looks up at him. Then he runs a hand through his hair. He sighs.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

He gets to his feet. He stands silently for a moment, staring at nothing. Then he walks towards the door. When he gets there, he turns back.

“I really am sorry,” he says. “I–” He stops. He shakes his head. “I’ll see you later,” he says.

Then he leaves.

Chapter Text

It feels cold inside Ignis’ room, even though he knows it was warm not very long ago. He wonders if the temperature has been reduced. But he thinks it hasn’t. He thinks the cold is coming from inside his own body. He feels dull and heavy and – cold. His eyes feel sore from crying. His throat feels sore, even though there’s no reason for that.

“Here,” Ignis says. He’s been cooking something, and now he puts a cup down next to him. It’s water. No, it’s not water. It’s camomile tea. Ignis made it for him before. But it smells different now. It smells strange and fragrant.

He picks up the cup and sips it. It feels warm on his throat. After a few sips, the warmth spreads to his stomach. It settles a little.

Ignis sits down next to him. He puts a hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t leave it there long, but it feels warm.

“Prompto,” he says. He adjusts his glasses. He doesn’t look at him. “What happened just then – the test – that was very unfair. I want you to know that I think it was very unfair to you.”

He looks at Ignis. He’s not sure what Ignis means. “The test?” he says. “But Cor said I passed the test.”

“Yes, you did,” Ignis says. “You did, there’s certainly no doubt about that.”

He sips his tea. Good. He passed the test. But even thinking about the test makes his throat start to ache again. He focuses on the tea instead. It tastes like it smells, soft and fragrant.

Ignis is looking at him now. “Do you understand what was being tested?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. His ability to follow orders was being tested. He’s been thinking about it, since it happened. Thinking about it makes his throat ache, it makes him feel cold and dull and heavy. But he wants to understand it. They wanted to see if he would follow orders, even when it would mean being terminated. And he’s realised: they don’t have access to the results of the tests from the facility. That’s why they did the test. Because if they had access to the results, they would know he can follow orders. He has some malfunctions, certainly. He’s probably defective – though he hopes they don’t know about his defects – but he can follow orders. He’s been tested before and it’s been a long time since he failed.

“I see,” Ignis says. He sips at his own drink. “Why don’t you tell me, then?”

He wonders if Ignis doesn’t know what was being tested. But no: Ignis seems to know everything. So it’s another test. To see if he’s stupid.

“To see if I could follow orders,” he says. He swallows. “I can follow orders.” He knows Ignis saw the test, but he wants to make sure Ignis knows. He’s obedient. He can be useful.

Ignis sips his drink. “That’s partially correct,” he says. “But it’s not everything.” He gives him a thoughtful look. “What has Cor told you about your – place here in Lucis?”

He thinks. “He told me I’m not permitted to see Noctis,” he says. “And – I should keep the sunglasses on. But I don’t have them any more.” Cor hasn’t rescinded the order, but he hasn’t given him any new sunglasses, either, so he assumes that the order is now superseded.

Ignis frowns a little. “That’s all?” he asks.

He nods. Then he remembers something else. “He told me to say I was in an accident and my parents died,” he says. He still doesn’t know what parents are. He assumes this order is also superseded, since Ignis clearly now knows he isn’t human.

Ignis puts a hand over his eyes. He sighs. “Honestly,” he mutters. Then he takes his hand away from his eyes.

“Prompto,” he says. “What you are is – very unfamiliar to us. We understand very little about how the inorganic parts of your body work, and how they affect the organic parts.”

He nods slowly. The engineers ask questions about those things. They seem not to know very much. Maybe they don’t have access to the records from the facility, either.

“Do you know who the man who was sitting there is?” Ignis asks. He points across the table, at the place where the one with the club was sitting.

He hesitates, then shakes his head. He hopes Ignis will start asking him questions he knows the answer to soon.

“His name is Regis Lucis Caelum,” Ignis says. “He’s the King of Lucis.” He looks at him. “Do you know what that means?”

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. He got the last few questions wrong, or not completely right, anyway, and then he didn’t know the answer at all. He doesn’t want Ignis to know how stupid he is.

“I see,” Ignis says. “Can you explain to me what it means?”

His heart lurches. He’s trapped himself. He’s so stupid, he’s trapped himself and he didn’t even see he was doing it. He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.

Then, there’s a solid, warm weight on his arm. It’s Ignis’ hand.

“There’s no need to be afraid,” Ignis says. “You’re not in any trouble. I only want to make sure you understand.”

His heart’s still beating too fast, but Ignis’ voice is very calm, and his hand feels warm. He doesn’t take his hand away, and his heart starts to slow a little. But he still hasn’t explained what King of Lucis means, even though Ignis told him to.

King means supreme commander,” Ignis says, as though he hadn’t even asked him to explain it in the first place. “Regis Lucis Caelum is our supreme commander. And the other man who was here is Clarus Amicitia. He is the second in command.”

He swallows. His heart feels like it’s beating in his throat. “Yes,” he says, like he knew that all along. “He’s the supreme commander.” He tries to fit the information into what he already knows. He remembers he thought about the hierarchy before. He thought the one from the phone was higher than Cor. He wasn’t sure about the one with the club. But now he knows: he’s the supreme commander. And he tested him personally. His stomach lurches again. He’s glad he didn’t know he was the supreme commander when he was being tested.

“Indeed,” Ignis says. “And Prince Noctis is his son.”

He nods. He doesn’t know what son means.

“You understand that the safety of the king and his son is of vital importance to all of us,” Ignis says.

“Yes,” he says. Yes, of course the supreme commander must be kept safe. And Noctis, because he’s – associated with the supreme commander in some way.

“Good,” Ignis says. He sips his drink. “Clarus is concerned that you may be a threat to their safety.”

He frowns. Ignis was making sense, but now suddenly he doesn’t understand again. How can he be a threat to the supreme commander?

Ignis must realise that he doesn’t understand, even though he tries to keep it hidden, because he explains. “Because you have some – inorganic aspects, Clarus was concerned that you might have a program hidden inside your brain which was designed to make you harm Regis or Noctis,” he says. “He thought even you might not know about it.”

He considers this. He doesn’t think he has programs in his brain that he doesn’t know about. But suddenly he remembers waking up inside the secret passage, and his stomach feels like it turns over inside him.

“Hence the test,” Ignis says. “If there was a program that was waiting for a chance to harm the royal family, it would surely have tried to protect itself by preventing you from pressing that button. But it didn’t. And so you passed the test.”

He stares at Ignis. Ignis looks back at him.

“Why don’t they just look?” he asks.

Ignis frowns. “I don’t understand,” he says.

He shakes his head. “Why don’t they just – look in my brain?” he asks. “If there’s a program there – they can reprogram me.” He doesn’t want to be reprogrammed, but it’s better than being modified. It’s better than being terminated.

Ignis stares at him for a long moment. “Because – we don’t have the capacity to do that,” he says. “No-one here knows how to do that.”

He sits back. He stares at Ignis. He tries to understand what he’s hearing.

“It was still unfair,” Ignis says. “You have every right to be angry.”

Angry? No. No, he’s not angry. He’s an MT unit. MT units can’t get angry. He’s – stunned. The test wasn’t what he thought it was at all. But he understands. He does understand. For the first time – what the engineers were looking for. That they don’t know anything about his systems. That they can’t simply check his programming and rewrite it if necessary. Because–

–they don’t know. They don’t know how to. It was obvious all along, but he’d never thought – he’d assumed –

Where are all the other MT units?

“Are you all right?” Ignis asks. He feels himself nodding. His mind is spinning. The floor feels like it’s shifting under him. Everything feels like it’s shifting. Why is he here? Why is he here?

Ignis puts a hand on his arm. He feels it, warm and heavy. Solid. He focuses on it. He was at the training facility. At the training facility, he understood his purpose. But here, everything is – strange. But it’s good. It’s better. Even when – even when it’s terrible, when it’s terrifying, it’s still better. Even if nothing good happens to him again, it will still have been better than anything that ever happened before.

He passed the test. He passed it. He feels suddenly dizzy with relief. What if there’d been a program in his brain? What if he’d tried to harm the supreme commander? What would have happened then?

But that didn’t happen. He passed the test. And he’s still here. He’s still here, with Ignis, and the music is still playing and the cooking is in the oven. It smells rich and warm, like nothing he’s ever smelt before.

Ignis stands up. “You know,” he says, “I think we should make a salad. Would you like to help me?”

He nods. He feels as though his head is floating away from his neck. He stands, and staggers a little. Ignis puts a hand on his back.

“Steady,” Ignis says. He says it quietly, but it makes him feel steadier all the same. The tea’s warm in his stomach and Ignis’ hand is warm on his back and he’s steady. Everything’s shifting around him, but he can be steady, because Ignis wants him to be.

“We’ll need tomatoes,” Ignis says. “Could you fetch one for me?”

He knows what tomato looks like. He straightens up. He knows how to do this. He can do this.

He can do this.

~

He makes salad with Ignis. Salad is a bowl full of vegetables. These vegetables aren’t covered in cheese sauce like the other ones. He’s beginning to think almost all foods are vegetables. He chops tomato and some new things – cucumber, olives, another type of onion that’s red inside instead of green – and the dull, heavy feeling that makes his throat ache recedes a little. When he’s finished, though, Ignis tells him to sit on the couch. He gives him the book of images to read. But once he sits down, his throat starts to ache again.

And then the door opens.

He starts, his heart jumping in his chest. But it’s not Cor. It’s not the supreme commander or the second-in-command.

It’s Noctis.

“Hey, Ignis,” Noctis says, walking through the door with a wave of his hand. Behind him comes the person he saw before, with the images on his arms. Noctis turns to look at him, where he’s sitting on the couch.

“You’re here,” he says. “Cool.”

“Your Highness,” Ignis says. He bites the ends of the words off. “May I ask what you think you’re doing here?”

“Cool it, Specs,” Noctis says. He drops himself down on the couch at right angles to him, sprawling across it. “Dad said it was OK. And before you ask, his dad said it was OK, too.”

He points at the one with the images. The one with the images is still standing near the door, arms folded across his chest. He looks angry.

Ignis turns to look at the one with the images. The one with the images shrugs.

“Yeah,” he says. “With conditions.”

“He said something about you passing some kind of test,” Noctis says, glancing at him. “Honestly, I don’t know why he was such a dick about it in the first place.”

“Huh, guess you’re not as smart as you look, then,” the one with the images says. “And you don’t look that smart.”

Noctis rolls his eyes.

“What conditions?” Ignis asks. He’s frowning.

“Nothing important,” Noctis says.

“We gotta babysit,” the one with the images says to Ignis. “Any time His Highness and blondie have a playdate, you and me have to be present. And you’ll need this.”

He holds something out. Ignis takes it. It’s a flat round device. Like the controller for the metal strap.

Ignis stares at it. His face gets paler. Then he holds it out.

“I don’t need this,” he says.

The one with the images shrugs. “Too bad,” he says. “Those are the conditions. We’ve all got one, Noct too.”

“Yep,” Noctis says. He pulls another flat, round device out of his pocket and stares at it. “Stupid,” he mutters under his breath. Then he shoves the device back in his pocket and turns to look at him. “I’m not gonna use it, though,” he says. “It’s just to get my dad off my back.”

He swallows. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Ignis putting his own device in his pocket, holding it gingerly between his finger and thumb. Noctis is here. He’s behaving as though nothing happened. But lots of things have happened. He let Noctis take the sunglasses. And then he was corrected, and now Noctis knows that he’s not human.

Noctis is staring at him. At his neck. He reaches up and brushes his fingers against his own neck.

“Does that thing hurt?” he asks.

He reaches up to touch the strap. But he doesn’t touch it. He thinks about the shock racing across his skin. He thinks about the test, and his throat feels like it might close.

“No,” he says. “Only when it’s activated.”

Noctis suddenly sits up straighter. He stops sprawling. He leans over the arm of the couch towards him.

“Hey,” he says, and then stops. He taps his fingers on the arm of the couch. He looks away, at the floor, at the table.

“Hey, listen,” he says. “Listen, about – uh. I didn’t mean for – that thing to get – activated, I guess.” He’s staring at the arm of the couch now. “I didn’t realise – I mean, it was a shock, you know?” Suddenly, his cheeks flush. “Not – shit, I didn’t mean that like a joke. Six, I’m just – sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt, I was just startled.”

He stares at Noctis. Noctis’ eyes creep up from the arm of the couch until they catch his. Then he looks away.

“I mean – are we OK?” he asks.

He doesn’t understand what Noctis means. He doesn’t understand what Noctis is sorry about.

“Yes,” he says.

Something loosens in Noctis’ shoulders. “Great,” he says. “Yeah – cool. I just thought I’d say, you know?”

“Yes,” he says again. He’s not sure that Noctis’ question had any semantic content.

Noctis raises an eyebrow at him. “Yes?” he says.

He remembers, suddenly. It feels like a long time ago. “Yeah,” he says.

Noctis grins. “Great,” he says again. He’s suddenly sprawling once more, like he doesn’t have the energy to keep himself upright. “Hey, have you met Gladio?”

He points at the one with the images. He’s leaning against the wall, now, watching them both.

“Gladio, Prompto,” Noct says. “Gladio’s my Shield.”

“Oh,” he says. He knows what a shield is, but he’s not sure how a person can be a shield.

The one with the images grunts when he looks his way. He frowns at him.

“Wow,” he mutters. “Those eyes are really fucking weird.”

Ignis clears his throat. He raises his eyebrows at the one with the images. The one with the images sighs.

“Yeah, nice to meet you,” he says. He doesn’t say anything else. He just leans against the wall and watches.

Noctis seems to have lost interest in the one with the images. He’s looking at him.

“They are pretty weird,” he says. It take him a moment to realise he’s talking about his eyes. He’s staring at him now with a fascinated expression. “Does everything look red to you?”

“No,” he says. “Things are all different colours.”

“Yeah?” Noctis says.

“Yeah,” he says. He looks at Noctis’ eyes. They’re dark blue. He wonders if everything looks dark blue to him. Is that how human eyes work? It must be strange.

“So – like, what’s going on with you, anyway?” Noctis asks. “I mean, Cor says you’re not an MT, so – why are your eyes like that?”

He frowns. “I am an MT,” he says. “I’m an MT unit.”

Noctis laughs. “Seriously, though,” he says. “MTs don’t play videogames, so.”

“Noct,” Ignis says. “Prompto has had a hard day. Try not to badger him.”

He remembers the test all of a sudden. His throat starts to ache. He’d almost forgotten it until Ignis said that.

“Whatever,” Noctis says. But he falls silent. He sits there on the couch, frowning at nothing for a few seconds. Then he turns to look at him again.

“Hey, is that why you didn’t know about high-fiving?” he says. “I guess they don’t high-five in Niflheim, huh?”

He doesn’t know where Niflheim is. He wonders whether yes or no is a more appropriate answer.

“Prompto has had a very confined upbringing,” Ignis says before he can decide. Ignis is sitting at the table, holding his cup of drink. “He’s lacking quite a lot of knowledge.”

He feels his heart sink in his chest. Ignis has realised how stupid he is. How much he doesn’t understand. He tried to hide it, but of course Ignis realised it. And now he’ll tell Cor.

“Yeah?” Noctis says. He looks at him sideways. “Don’t worry, Specs says that about me, too.”

“Yes, well, unlike Prompto, you have no excuse,” Ignis says.

The one with the images snorts. Noctis rolls his eyes. Then he looks at him again, sideways, like before.

“Hey,” he says. “If there’s something you don’t know, you can ask, though.”

He nods. He’s still thinking about how stupid he is. How Ignis has realised, and now he’s told Noctis, and he’ll tell Cor, too.

Noctis sits up. He leans over the arm of the couch. He’s looking directly at him now.

“I’m serious,” he says. “You can ask. No-one’s going to think you’re stupid.”

He blinks. He wonders if Noctis could somehow hear what he was thinking. Then he hears the words again. No-one’ s going to think you’re stupid. Ignis just told Noctis that he doesn’t know anything. But Noctis doesn’t think he’s stupid.

Why not?

Suddenly, it doesn’t matter why not. Noctis already knows that he doesn’t know anything. That he doesn’t understand anything. Ignis told him. But Noctis doesn’t think he’s stupid. And – Noctis said he could ask. If he had a question, he could ask.

His head spins. All the questions crowd into his mind at once, bewildering in their variety. He has so many questions. There’s so much he doesn’t know. There’s too much. It piles up behind his eyes, and he opens his mouth but nothing happens. The questions are jammed in his throat. None of them escape.

Noctis frowns at him. “You OK?” he says. “Prompto?”

His heart starts to pound. Suddenly, he doesn’t care about revealing his stupidity any more. He just wants to know. He wants to know so many things. And if he doesn’t ask now, maybe he won’t get this chance again. He needs to ask something. Anything at all.

“Why does the sky change colour?” he asks. His voice sounds breathless.

Noctis sits back. He raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?” he says. “That’s what you want to ask?”

It was the wrong thing. He asked the wrong thing. And now he can’t take it back. He opens and closes his mouth. And then Noctis shrugs.

“I dunno,” he says. “I guess – the sunset makes it go orange.”

He stares. He didn’t expect Noctis not to know. How can Noctis see the sky every day and not know why it changes colour?

Ignis stands up, then. He comes over to where they’re sitting, in the half of the room with the soft chairs. He sits down opposite him.

“When the sun shines, the light is scattered by particles in the sky,” he says. “The scattering makes it look blue. But when the sun is close to the horizon, the light passes through more particles before it reaches our eyes. Then the scattering makes the sky look orange.” He glances at Noctis and raises an eyebrow.

Noctis shrugs. “We haven’t got to that part in physics yet,” he says.

The one with the images makes a muffled noise that sounds like a laugh.

The explanation isn’t what he was expecting. He hasn’t seen the sky look orange. “Yeah,” he says. “Thank you.”

Ignis considers him for a moment. “Was there something else you wanted to ask about the colour of the sky?” he asks.

He opens his mouth to say no. But instead, he says, “Why is it grey sometimes?”

Ignis glances at the one with the images. Then he settles himself slightly further into his chair.

“It’s grey when it’s cloudy.” He pauses. “Do you know what clouds are?”

He hesitates. He wants to say no, so Ignis will explain it to him. But he wants to say yes, so Ignis won’t think he’s stupid.

Ignis sighs quietly. “Prompto,” he says, “if there are things you don’t know, that’s no reflection on you. Not knowing things isn’t something you should be ashamed of. The only thing to be ashamed of is not learning when you have the opportunity.”

He blinks. Ignis is saying – Ignis is saying that if he says he knows something when he doesn’t, that’s worse than being stupid and not knowing in the first place. Ignis is saying that – it’s all right not to know things. Is that what he’s saying? It’s hard to believe, but he thinks that’s what he’s saying.

He speaks before he has time to think about it too much. “No,” he says. “I don’t know – clouds.” He braces himself, waiting for Ignis to look angry. But Ignis doesn’t. Noctis draws in a breath, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look angry, either.

“I see,” Ignis says. “Well, clouds are made of water vapour. When water evaporates from the ground, it rises up into the sky. When it gets high enough, the water recondenses into very small droplets. Those droplets form clouds. They look grey from below, and that’s why the sky is sometimes grey – because it’s covered in clouds.”

He tries to understand this. How can water be in the sky? Water’s too heavy to be in the sky. It would fall down, like –

–like water falling out of the sky.

He stares at Ignis.

“Are you all right?” Ignis says after a moment.

“Does the water fall down again?” he asks.

“Yes,” Ignis says. He looks a little surprised. “That’s why it rains.”

He looks at the window. There’s no water falling now, though there was earlier. Rains. Does that mean water falling out of the sky? It comes from nowhere. But – it comes from clouds? And the clouds come from the ground? But then – why doesn’t it just fall out straight away? Water’s too heavy to be in the sky. And – why does the water on the ground evaporate?

“Do you understand?” Ignis asks.

No, he doesn’t understand. But for the first time, there’s something. There’s a glimpse, as though maybe he could understand. It’s not inexplicable. Water falls from the sky for a reason, and Ignis knows what the reason is. The sky changes colour for a reason, and it’s the same reason. Ignis knows all the reasons, and he’s not angry that he doesn’t know. And Noctis said he can ask about anything he wants to. He feels a swelling in his chest, like it’s opening up. But not in a bad way. It’s like there’s suddenly more space inside him. He has a sudden vision of the ground, and the sky, and water somehow rising up and falling down, and himself, tiny, standing and looking up at the falling water. Understanding. And all the space. The whole world is full of space.

“Prompto?” Ignis asks.

His mind is whirling. He feels dizzy. But it’s good. It feels good.

“Why does the water go up from the ground?” he asks.

And Ignis explains.

~

Ignis explains:

The sun is hot. The heat evaporates the water. Like a saucepan on a stove, or a kettle boiling. (He hasn’t observed these, but he’s aware of boiling water and of steam, so he understands.) The water vapour rises up because it’s hot and hot things weigh less than cold things. But it gets colder as it goes up. Eventually, it gets cold enough that the water condenses. But the droplets are very small. They’re so small that they don’t fall out of the sky. They only fall out when several droplets join together to form a heavier droplet. Then it rains. The water falls back to the ground. The sun shines. And it all starts again.

He sits back in his chair. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect cycle. It makes the sky change colour and water fall out of the sky, but in the end, nothing changes. Everything changes but nothing changes. He’s astonished by the simplicity.

Noctis is looking at his phone. He looks up. “You guys done?” he asks.

Ignis looks at him. “Is there anything else you wanted to ask at this point?” he says.

He blinks. He’s still lost in contemplating the cycle. He’s imagining himself, on the surface of the earth. There’s so much space. He’s so small, under the sky that goes on for ever. He didn’t even know about it. The feeling of it – of being so small, of the great expanse of everything else – it makes him feel calm. Settled. And amazed.

“Prompto?” Ignis asks.

And he realises: this is his chance. He doesn’t know if there’ll be another chance. And there are still so many questions. Suddenly, the calm feeling is gone. The questions crowd his mind again, each scrambling to be first out of his mouth. But his eyes fall on the low table. There’s the book he was looking at – Lucis by Night Laus Venustas – but there’s the other book, too. The book with the pictures of organisms. He grabs it, opening it fast, before Ignis can change his mind. He points at the green material that appears in every image.

“What’s this?” he asks.

Noctis leans over and peers at the image.

“It’s a rabbit,” he says.

“Yeah,” he says. It’s printed on the image, in the corner. RABBIT. He thought rabbit was the organism, not the green material.

Ignis frowns at him. He frowns at his finger. “Do you mean – the grass?” he says.

He points. “This,” he says. “The green.”

“The grass,” Ignis says.

“Grass,” he says. “It’s all–?” He turns the page. There’s an image captioned GARULA. There’s green there, too. “It’s all grass?”

“No, those are trees,” Ignis says. He sits forward in his chair. “Vegetation. It’s different types of vegetation.”

“Come on, Specs,” Noctis says. “He’s not going to know what vegetation means.” He turns to look at him. “It’s plants. You know plants, right?”

He swallows. He shakes his head.

There’s a silence. “Fuck me,” mutters the one with the images.

Noctis stares at him. He looks blank. Then, suddenly, he gets to his feet.

“OK,” he says. “Come on, then.”

He stands up. Ignis and the one with the images stand, too. Ignis is frowning. The one with the images looks angry.

“Going somewhere?” the one with the images says. His voice sounds very deep.

“Yeah,” Noctis says. He glances at him and grins. “We’re going on a field trip.”

Chapter Text

They walk down the corridor to the elevator. Ignis, the one with the images and the silent one are walking behind. They’re talking about something, and they sound angry, but they’re talking in whispers and he can’t hear. He wants to sharpen his hearing so he can listen to what they’re saying, but Noctis is talking to him as well and he can’t listen to both at once.

“Why are you walking like that?” Noctis asks. He’s looking at him as they walk, frowning a little. “Did you hurt your back?”

He tries to look down at how he’s walking. He doesn’t think he’s walking any differently from how he usually walks. His back doesn’t hurt.

“No,” he says.

He looks at how Noctis is walking. Noctis is walking like a human. He seems to flow rather than walk. Most humans walk that way, he’s discovered since spending so much time around them. MT units don’t walk that way. But Noctis knows he’s an MT unit, so the question is strange.

Noctis’ frown deepens. “Huh,” he says. He looks like he’s thinking about something. But before he says anything else, the one with the images catches up with them. He glances back and sees that the silent one and Ignis aren’t arguing any more. Now they’re both typing quickly on their phones, walking without looking.

“I’m not saying I’m behind this idea,” the one with the images says. He’s talking to Noctis. “I still think it’s dumb. But since apparently you’re into being dumb today, the kid’s gonna need sunglasses. Unless you want to start a riot, anyway.”

“Shit,” Noctis says. He puts his hands in his pockets, pats his clothes, then turns, walking backwards now, to look back at Ignis. “Ignis, you got any sunglasses?”

Ignis, still typing on his phone, puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a pair of sunglasses. He holds them out without looking. Noctis takes them, then turns back to face forwards.

“Huh,” he says, looking at the sunglasses. Then he holds them out to him.

“Here,” he says. “These are the ones I got for you, anyway. You know, before–” He makes a short gesture, but doesn’t explain what he’s referring to. His cheeks darken a little.

He takes the sunglasses. He puts them on, and brightens his vision to compensate. They’re not the same as the sunglasses Cor gave him. They’re a different shape, more curved, and the lenses are reflective on the outside. They look the same from the inside, though.

“Cool,” Noctis says. He looks at the one with the images. “Happy?”

The one with the images grunts. He’s watching him. But he doesn’t say anything.

They go into the elevator. They go down to the ground floor. They’re going the same way he goes with Cor when they leave Ignis’ apartment and go to Cor’s apartment. Thinking of Cor makes his chest hurt. He wonders if Noctis is taking him back to Cor’s apartment. He wonders if Cor will be there. His chest hurts more.

They’re almost at the doors that go out to the steps when they see another group coming from the other direction. There are two people wearing the same clothes as the silent ones, and the one from the phone. The one from the phone strides forward. Noctis stops walking, so he does, too. Then Ignis steps from behind him. Ignis takes two steps forward and to the side, so that he’s a little in front of him. He folds his arms. He stares at the one from the phone.

The one from the phone looks at Noctis.

“Your Highness,” he says. “What’s this?”

Noctis shrugs. “We’re going to the park,” he says.

The one from the phone raises his eyebrows. “Are you sure that’s wise?” he says.

“Is there any particular reason we shouldn’t go?” Ignis says. His voice sounds stiff, like his tongue isn’t quite working properly. “The weather is becoming quite pleasant, after all.”

The one from the phone looks at Ignis. Then he looks at him. He’s aware that his stomach’s churning. There’s sweat on the back of his neck, and on the palms of his hands. His heart’s thudding in his ears.

Finally, the one from the phone stops looking at him. He looks at the one with the images. He raises an eyebrow.

The one with the images shrugs. “Kid’s never seen plants before,” he says.

The one from the phone stands in silence for a long moment. Then he sighs.

“Gladio, Lacertus, you’re responsible,” he says. “Keep your phones on.” He looks back at him. There’s an expression on his face that he can’t decipher. He keeps looking, and Ignis move slightly further in front of him.

The one from the phone sighs again. “Lacertus, I will expect a full report,” he says.

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says.

Then the one from the phone turns around. He walks away, and the two others go with him. Something loosens in Ignis’ shoulders, and he rubs a hand on the back of his neck.

“That was weird,” Noctis says. He looks up at Ignis. “You guys have a fight or something?”

“Certainly not,” Ignis says.

“Huh,” Noctis says. He frowns down the hallway, where the one from the phone is still walking away. Then he looks at Ignis again. “Thought you thought this was a bad idea, anyway,” he says.

Ignis starts walking. “My feelings are... complicated,” he says.

The one with the images grunts. He’s looking at Ignis with a thoughtful expression.

Noctis glances at him and shrugs. He’s not sure what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by the shrug, so he doesn’t respond to it.

And then they’re outside.

~

They go in a car he hasn’t seen before. Ignis drives it. He sits in the front seat. The other three sit in the back. There isn’t really enough space.

“Could’ve got one of the trucks,” the one with the images says. He’s in the middle. He looks like a plug that’s about to burst out of a vessel under too much pressure.

“Hey, I said Prompto could sit in the back,” Noctis says. “He’s, like, half the size of you. We’d all be more comfortable.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” the one with the images says. But he doesn’t say anything else after that, and neither does anyone else.

They don’t drive to Cor’s apartment. They drive a different way. There’s no water falling out of the sky any more – rain, he remembers, and the word feels satisfying in his mind, like something clicking into place – but the sky is still grey. Clouds, he thinks, looking up through the window of the car. The sky’s a light grey, and the underside has a sort of uneven appearance. It’s water, up there. Somehow, it’s water. He wonders how high up it is. He tries to imagine it. But he can’t, not really.

They turn into a broad flat area with lots of cars. Then they stop. They’re next to a high wall. There’s a sign. Royal Botanic Park and Gardens, it says, and underneath, in smaller letters, By Grace of His Majesty the King. He doesn’t know what most of the words mean, but he remembers that king means the supreme commander, and that the one with the club is the king. He wonders if this is where the king lives.

They get out of the car. The one with the images rolls his shoulders.

“Someone’s walking back,” he says.

“Sure,” Noctis says. “You could probably use the exercise.”

The one with the images scowls at Noctis. The scowl makes his heart jump in his chest. The one with the images is very tall. His shoulders are very broad. Noctis is much smaller. He thinks the one with the images could easily hurt Noctis, if he was angry with him. And if he hurt Noctis – what would he do? What should he do? No-one’s instructed him on his duty with regards to the supreme commander, but he feels sure he must be supposed to protect him at all costs. And Ignis told him that Noctis also has to be protected, because he’s associated with the supreme commander in some way. More than that – he feels it himself. It’s not just that Ignis has told him. If the one with the images tries to hurt Noctis, he will have to act. He feels it. But acting without a clear protocol established could lead to a serious error.

He doesn’t want to make a serious error.

And then: the one with the images stops scowling. The scowl disappears, as though it was never there. He doesn’t look angry. He doesn’t even seem to be paying attention to Noctis. As though he forgot whatever it was that made him angry in the first place.

He stands, willing his heart to stop thundering in his ears. He feels light-headed. He’s outside, he realises, on the side of the road. There’s people nearby, and all the silent, empty cars. No-one’s given him any instructions. What if something happens? Cor’s not here. He won’t know what to do. And – and the one with the images was angry, and then he stopped being angry, and there was no reason for any of it. The sky suddenly seems dangerously far away, and everything underneath it is muddled and confused.

“Prompto?” says a voice beside him. He turns. It’s Ignis. Ignis puts a hand on his arm. It feels solid.

“Come with me,” Ignis says. “I wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

He feels a thick rush of gratitude. Noctis is walking towards a gate in the wall, now. Ignis puts a hand on his back and steers him in the same direction. The one with the images is following Noctis. The silent one comes behind him and Ignis. They’re all going to the gate in the wall. He concentrates on Ignis’ hand on his back. It makes him feel steadier. It makes the space above him seem less dizzying.

Noctis disappears through the gate. The one with the images follows. Ignis leads him up, and they turn inwards.

And everything inside is green.

He stumbles, and beside him, Ignis stops moving. They stand still. And he looks.

He sees: the ground is green. It’s not grey or black stone like it is in all the other places he’s seen outside. It’s green. It’s covered in something that’s green and somehow almost hairy, like green hair growing out of the ground. It looks hairy close by, but further away it looks smooth. The ground surface curves, and there are no steps – everything’s just smooth.

He sees: there are many tall objects dotted around the green surface. They’re shaped like poles and pillars rising from the ground. On top of each pole or pillar is a profusion of green, in all different shades. He looks more closely and sees that this green isn’t hairy. This green is made up of many small, flat green objects. The pillars have branching structures at the top, and the small green objects are attached to the branches. The ones that are close enough to make out are lens-shaped. He sharpens his vision, and he sees that some are closer to circular while others are more elongate. Some have a shape with multiple points. Others are arranged in radial groups. The complexity, the sheer range of shapes and types of green, is astonishing.

He sees: splashes of colour, mostly at the bases of the pillars. He sharpens his vision and sees that these patches of colour, too, are composed of multiple small objects, many different colours and shapes. The colours vary widely, from deep purple to bright white, with yellow, orange, red and blue all represented. He’s never seen so many colours in one place all at once.

He’s never seen so much green.

“Yeah, so,” Noctis says. He’s standing next to him, but he sounds very far away. He makes a gesture with his arm, encompassing the view. “Plants.”

He turns to look at Noctis. Noctis gives him a half-smile. He turns back to look at the green. And suddenly his head starts to spin. The space is so – wide. So open. The sky is very high overhead. And there’s so much – there’s so many things to look at. He’s never – he’s never seen so much before.

“Hey, whoa,” Noctis says, and he realises he’s staggered into him. Noctis grabs his arm, and Ignis puts an arm across his back, gripping his shoulder.

“You should sit down,” Ignis says. He steers him a few steps to a wide seat. It’s made of wooden slats. He sits on it, gripping the edge. Noctis sits next to him. Noctis turns towards him. He stares at him.

“You OK?” he says.

He blinks. Ignis is standing beside him. Ignis’ hand is on his shoulder. The silent one and the one with the images stand nearby, watching. In front of him, everything is green. Everything is wide and open and green.

It’s beautiful.

“Yes,” he says. His voice comes out sounding strange. Noctis frowns at him. Then he frowns at Ignis.

“He OK?” he says.

“I think he needs a moment,” Ignis says.

He needs a moment. He needs many moments. There’s so much to look at. So much to understand. He never imagined that a place like this might exist. He knew for a long, long time that there was a place called outside. But here it is. Here it is.

He looks down. The seat faces all the green. There’s so much of it. But if he looks down, he just sees a small amount. The green hair that covers the ground. It’s beautiful. Each hair is long and narrow and flat, wider than head-hair. He sharpens his vision and sees that each hair is divided into two parts, with a small tube running down the middle. He wonders what the tube is made of, and what the flat part is made of. It looks like some sort of fabric. Plants, Noctis said. He doesn’t know what plants are.

He looks at Noctis. Then he looks back at the ground. Noctis is sitting back on the seat, one arm extended along the back of it. He raises an eyebrow at him.

“Hope you’re not gonna spew,” he says.

Sometimes he doesn’t understand what Noctis says. That’s true of a lot of people, but it seems to be worse with Noctis for some reason.

Noctis leans forward. He points at the green hair.

“Hey,” he says. “This is grass. Like in the photo. You asked about it, right? Here it is. But you’ve seen it before, right?”

He shakes his head. Grass. He remembers that Noctis said he could ask questions. His head suddenly spins with questions. But he forces them away. He forces himself only to think about this: this is grass.

“All of this?” he asks. His voice is hoarse. He makes a gesture at all the green.

“Nah,” Noctis says. “Just the stuff on the ground.” He points at the nearest pillar. “Those are trees.”

He remembers, suddenly, the first image from Lucis by Night Laus Venustas. The pole with the green fabric. Yes. It’s the same.

“Cenibrus tree,” he says.

“Huh?” Noctis says.

“No, that’s not a cenibrus tree,” Ignis says. “That’s a Duscaen sycamore.”

He blinks at Ignis. Ignis smiles.

“A sycamore tree,” he says. “There are many different types of tree. They’re called species. Cenibrus is one tree species. Duscaen sycamore is another.”

He turns to look at the pole. It’s a tree. Like the pole in the book. But different.

He looks around. He sees that the other poles and pillars – the other trees – are different. Yes. He can see the differences. He realises that the shapes and colours of the flat green objects attached to the branching structures have a systematic differentiation. Each pillar has only one type of green objects. But the green objects of neighbouring pillars may be different to one another. He remembers the image from Lucis by Night Laus Venustas. The green fabric pieces attached to the branching pole. What shape were they? Different, he thinks.

“The – species,” he says. He points high up, to where the green objects flutter in the moving air. “The different – fabric?”

Ignis looks confused. “Fabric?” he says.

He sharpens his vision to look at the fabric. “The green,” he says. “The green objects.”

Ignis looks at him for a long moment. Then his face clears. “The leaves,” he says. Then he lets go of his shoulder. He walks to the nearby tree – the Duscaen sycamore. He pulls off one of the fabric pieces. It’s wide at the end that’s connected to the branching pole, and then it splits into several points. He walks back over to him.

“Here,” he says. He holds it out.

He takes it. The broad, green fabric piece is attached to a narrow wire. The wire is what was attached to the branching system. The green is darker than the grass.

“They’re called leaves,” Ignis says.

He touches the leaf. Then he frowns. He touches it again. He brushes it against his palm. It doesn’t feel like fabric. It’s cool and smooth, a little leathery. He looks more closely. He sees that the leaf is defined by a complex network of delicate, branching lines, all extending from three main lines that branch out in turn from the wire that once attached the leaf to the branching system of the pole. The lines grow thinner the closer they get to the edge of the leaf. They must be wires, too, he decides. They’re what maintains the fabric in its shape, so that it doesn’t sag. But the network is much more complex and comprehensive than ought to be required for such a function. The edge of the leaf isn’t smooth, but has a series of jagged teeth. All of it is complex, which suggests that it must have an important function. And no matter how much he sharpens his vision, he can’t see any stitches.

His mind is full of questions. So many questions, and at the back of his mind, he’s aware that he has so many questions about this one object, and that there are thousands and millions of objects in this place. He grips the edge of the seat to steady himself.

“What’s it made of?” he asks. He looks at Noctis.

Noctis looks at the leaf. “Uh,” he says. “I dunno. It’s a leaf. It’s... made of leaf, I guess.”

Ignis sighs very quietly. “It’s made mostly of cellulose and lignin,” he says. “The tree synthesises the materials as it grows.”

He looks at Ignis. He does’t know what cellulose and lignin are. But he knows what grows means. Humans grow. MT units grow. Rats grow. Pillars do not grow. Fabric does not grow.

He looks back at the leaf. He doesn’t understand. He feels as though there’s something important on the edge of his understanding. But he can’t bring it into focus.

Then Noctis says, “Yeah, it’s like, photosynthesis. The tree makes leaves out of sunlight and air. It’s kinda cool, actually.”

He looks at Noctis. He thinks he must have heard wrong. How can the tree make something out of sunlight and air? Sunlight and air are nothing. They’re insubstantial. How can something be made out of nothing?

“I’m glad to hear you’ve been paying some attention, at least,” Ignis says to Noctis. But he sounds very far away. It’s hard to hear him over the sound of his heart, which is suddenly pounding very loudly in his ears. His chest feels too tight, and he can’t pull in enough air. He doesn’t understand. Here, in this place, he realises how very little he understands. About the trees, the grass, the sky. About the world. How little he understands about the world.

“Hey,” Noctis says. His voice is sharp. “What’s the matter?”

He tries to swallow, but his mouth is dry. Ignis’ hand is on his shoulder again. He focuses on it. It’s solid. It’s something solid. He feels his chest expand a little.

Noctis puts a hand on his other shoulder. “Prompto?” he says. “You OK?”

He coughs. “Yeah,” he says. His voice sounds even worse than before.

“Sure, I’m totally convinced,” Noctis says. “Seriously, plant science isn’t that bad.”

Noctis’ hand on his other shoulder feels solid, too. He feels pinned to the seat, one hand on each shoulder. His head stops feeling like it might float away.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Ignis says.

“Not like there’s going to be a test,” Noctis says. He turns to him. “You get that, right?”

His throat starts to ache. His eyes are prickling. Then Noctis’ eyes widen.

“Wow, shit,” he says. “No, don’t cry.” He holds up his hand with the palm towards him. He shakes his head. “Uh,” he says. “Ignis, do something.”

Ignis crouches down next to him. He puts an arm across his shoulders. It’s like when Cor was holding him, except Ignis is only half-holding him. But it doesn’t feel like it did last time Cor held him. It feels warm. He doesn’t want to push Ignis away.

“Can you tell me why you’re crying?” Ignis asks. He sounds very calm.

He swallows. He doesn’t know why he’s crying. He already knew he was stupid, that he didn’t understand anything. He’s never functioned as well as the other MT units. But he didn’t realise the sheer scope of his stupidity. He remembers that the people here don’t even know how to reprogram him. They don’t know how his system functions. So they won’t be able to fix him. He thought they would know. He was wrong about that. And now there’s all this, too. He doesn’t understand anything at all.

“How can trees make something out of nothing?” he asks, because he can’t think of what else to say. At least if he understands this, he might not be quite so stupid any more.

Ignis looks surprised.

“It’s actually rather complex,” he says. “But the simplest answer is that they use the energy in sunlight to remove carbon atoms from the air. Then they use these carbon atoms to construct new tissues for themselves.”

He blinks. He expected an answer that he didn’t understand at all. But this – he understands that gases are made out of substances. He understands that carbon is a substance. He didn’t know that carbon could be in air, but if it can – and he knows that any mechanical process must have a power source. He doesn’t understand exactly how plants can use the sun as a direct power source, but it seems plausible. He doesn’t understand any of the fine details of the process Ignis described, but it all seems plausible. And then – it’s like the rain. It seemed impossible that water could simply fall out of the sky. And then Ignis explained how it could happen, and it didn’t seem impossible any more. And that was the sun, too. It’s all because of the sun.

“Do you understand?” Ignis asks.

“Yeah,” he says. He swallows. He tries to think of what to ask next. He understands now that the trees contain a mechanism that allows them to create their own parts, and this seems like an extraordinary advance in technology. But it seems strange it should be used on objects that, so far as he can tell, simply stand still. He can see no weapons or moving parts. The trees seem to be anchored to the ground. He wonders why they were constructed.

“What’s the purpose of the trees?” he asks.

Ignis frowns at him, but he doesn’t look angry. He looks thoughtful. “Ultimately, to reproduce,” he says. “Just as with all other living things.”

He’s had the feeling for some time that he’s on the edge of something. And now he falls over that edge. He feels his stomach swoop.

“Living?” he whispers.

Ignis nods, smiling as though he’s understood something. “Yes,” he says. “The trees are living beings. The grass, too. Everything you see here. It’s all alive. It grows and reproduces, just like people.”

He opens his mouth. Then he closes it again. He turns and looks. He sees: the grass, thousands and millions of green hairs rising up from the ground. The trees, dozens of pillars, all rising up from the ground. Each tree branching, and each branch covered in hundreds of leaves, and each leaf with its own shape, and perhaps its own network of delicate, branching wires. And the trees made those leaves themselves, out of sunlight and air. The grass is alive, and the trees are alive, and the trees make their own bodies out of sunlight and air.

He knows: humans are alive, and MT units are alive, and rats are alive, and there are other organisms, too, though he doesn’t know many. And now he knows that that’s not all. That’s only the beginning. It’s the beginning of something enormous, too big to fit into his mind. It’s the beginning of this, all of this that he sees in front of him.

All of this green.

“Hey,” Noctis says. He jabs at his arm with the tip of his finger. “You’re freaking out again.”

He doesn’t know what freaking out means. But Noctis doesn’t wait for a response. He grabs his arm.

“Come on,” he says.

Noctis stands, and he stands, too. Noctis pulls him over to the tree. Duscaen sycamore. They walk past it, beside the pillar, underneath the branching system. He hears sounds, now. The rush of the leaves as the air moves through them. There’s no air-conditioning system, no fan. It’s like the rain. It must be like the rain. There’s an explanation for the air moving, he just doesn’t know it yet. And other sounds: like chimes, but irregular, high, sweet. Like music, but less organised. He doesn’t know where these sounds are coming from. But there’s an explanation. He just doesn’t know it yet.

He looks at the pillar as they pass. Its surface is light brown, and uneven. It’s covered in runnels and it swells in some places. Above, the first branches split from the pillar, thicker around than his leg. They taper as they travel further from the pillar. And there are the leaves. So many leaves. When he looks up at them, he sees how they move in the moving air. They make patterns – complex, irregular, but he has a sense of a deep, underlying regularity. The light shines through some and reflects off others, and it’s – beautiful.

And the tree is alive.

“Hey,” Noctis says. “This way.”

He follows Noctis. Behind them, the silent one and the one with the images are following. But they stay a few paces back and they don’t speak. Noctis goes out from under the tree. He walks across the grass – it feels soft and springy under his feet, nothing like the pavement or the road or the floors inside the buildings. They pass another tree, and another. Here is one of the patches of colour. It’s even more bright and varied close up. He sees that the coloured objects are attached to the ground by green wires. Everything green is attached to the ground, like the grass. The grass is like hair growing out of the ground. And it’s alive. So – perhaps it truly is growing out of the ground. Perhaps all these – these plants are growing out of the ground. As though the ground’s alive, too. As though the whole world is a great, living, breathing organism.

Noctis passes through a green curtain. The curtain is made of leaves. They’re attached to branches that are so thin that the weight of the leaves causes them to hang down. The leaves trail on the ground. He passes through, and the leaves brush against his face, against his arms. He reaches out to touch them. They feel cool and soft.

And now they’re underneath this tree. It’s smaller than the others, only twice his height. The branches hang down on all sides, the leaves making a green curtain all around the tree. The light makes the leaves look bright and fresh. The inside of the curtain is filled with it, a strange, dim, green light. It’s like being inside, even though it’s outside. He wants to stay, to breathe in the strange green scent, to look at the green light, and at the tree, and at the leaves.

But Noctis is passing back out through the curtain, and he follows. He reaches out to touch the leaves as he passes. They brush against his face. He feels a swelling in his chest.

On the other side of the curtain, Noctis has stopped. There’s a pool there. It’s not like pools he’s seen before. The sides aren’t made of concrete or metal. The water isn’t clear. The edges aren’t sharp and square. The ground slopes down, and in the depression, there’s dark green water. It’s opaque, and there are leaves floating on the surface. All around the pool are trees like the one they just walked through.

“This is cool,” Noctis says. “I’ve seen some monster fish in here.” He glances back at the silent one and the one with the images, then lowers his voice. “You can get here direct from the Citadel, if you know where all the shortcuts are. I’ll show you some time when we can ditch these guys.”

He understands about half of what Noctis says. But Noctis doesn’t seem to be waiting for a response. He sits down heavily on the grass by the pool, then gestures like he wants him to sit down, too. So he does. The grass feels soft underneath him. He puts the palms of his hands down and feels how cool it is. It feels strange, all the individual hairs against his palm. He threads his fingers through. It feels strange. And good.

Noctis leans back on his own hands. “Do you think Ignis thinks about photosynthesis and cellulose every time he looks at a plant?” he asks, his voice still low. He sighs and smiles a little, then glances back to where Ignis is emerging from the green curtain. “Sometimes you just want to enjoy it without thinking about it, you know?”

He doesn’t know.

And then he does. He looks at the pool of green-black water, and the green curtains of the trees all around it, and the uneven grey sky up above. He smells the strange green scent, and he hears the rush of the leaves and the irregular chimes. And he doesn’t really understand any of it. He knows that it’s mysterious, and astonishing, and that he doesn’t even know how much more there is that he doesn’t understand. But suddenly, that doesn’t feel bad. It feels good, all of it, swelling in his chest until he thinks it might burst. The whole world is alive. The whole world. There’s so much. He hasn’t even started to understand yet. But he can look at it already. He can look at it without understanding it. Maybe he can even look at it without thinking about it, like Noctis said. Maybe that’s a way to start.

He takes a deep breath.

And he starts.

Chapter Text

They sit there for a long time. The one with the images and the silent one stand behind them and watch. Ignis goes somewhere else. He can’t see through the green curtains of leaves to see where Ignis has gone. He wants to ask a question, but since Ignis isn’t there, he has to ask Noctis.

“Why is the water that colour?” he asks.

Noctis frowns at the pool. “Um,” he says. “Because – to hide the fish.” He glances around. “Where did Ignis go?” he mutters.

“I don’t know,” he responds. He stares at the water. He doesn’t know what fish means. There could be anything in the water, it’s so dark. He wonders how deep it goes. He wonders how big the fish is.

Noctis is staring at him. “How come you’ve never seen plants before, anyway?” he says. “Where did you live before?”

“In a training facility,” he says. He thinks about the training facility. There were no plants there. Everything was made of metal and plastic, and there were no windows. Thinking about it makes him feel cold. He looks up at the sky and sees that there’s a hole in the uneven grey surface, and through the hole he can see blue. Yes, it’s like Ignis said: the sky is blue, and the grey is clouds covering the sky. He can see that now. Seeing it makes him feel less cold.

“Huh,” Noctis says. He turns to look at the water again. He’s quiet for a little while. Then he says, “You didn’t ever go outside?”

He shakes his head. “I’m a level two,” he says. Level twos don’t go outside.

Noctis glances at him and raises an eyebrow. “O...K,” he says. “And that means what, exactly?”

He stares at Noctis. He didn’t expect Noctis not to understand. “I’m a level two,” he says. He doesn’t know how else to explain it.

Noctis raises both eyebrows, now. “Yeah, still not getting it,” he says.

He stares at Noctis. Noctis stares back. He tries to think of how to explain it. If he were Ignis, he would be able to explain. Ignis is good at explaining. But he doesn’t know how. He’s never even thought about it before – what it means, to be a level two. He thought everybody knew about levels. But he remembers that Ignis said they don’t know how to reprogram him. And there are no other MT units. He hasn’t seen a single one. So maybe they don’t know anything about MT units here.

“I–” he says, but there isn’t anything to follow. He stops and thinks. “It’s – you start at level one and you don’t go outside until you’re level five.”

Noctis frowns. “How long does it take to get to level five?” he asks.

He doesn’t know how to answer the question. “It takes – five levels,” he says. “You have to go through five levels.”

“Yeah, obviously,” Noctis says. “But, like – how many years?”

He knows what year means. It belongs in the phrase production year, which refers to part of the identification code marked on each MT unit’s arm. He tries for several seconds to make this fit with the way Noctis used the word. But he can’t. He doesn’t want to ask Noctis what he means by how many years, because he knows he definitely ought to know. He feels suddenly trapped. The open feeling in his chest starts to disappear.

Noctis puts his head on one side. “Like – how much time,” he says. “Right? How much time does it take?”

Oh. How many years is the same as how much time. But he doesn’t know how to measure how much time. Many, many days, but he doesn’t know how many. More than he can keep track of, certainly. He doesn’t know how many days he was a level one before he became a level two. He doesn’t know how many days he’s been a level two.

“A lot,” he says at last. “A long time.”

Noctis seems mostly satisfied with this response. He taps his fingers on his knee, frowning at him. Then he sighs.

“That really sucks,” he says.

He doesn’t know what Noctis means. He knows what all the words mean individually, but he doesn’t know what they mean when combined in that way. He tries to think of possible meanings, but none of them seem to fit. Then he remembers: Noctis said he could ask questions if he didn’t know something. And he has asked questions, and Noctis hasn’t been angry. And Noctis doesn’t seem to be disgusted by his stupidity. And–

And he wants to understand what Noctis says. Talking to Noctis is confusing, but it also makes him feel good. He’s not sure why. But he thinks he would feel even better if he understood what Noctis was saying. So he takes a deep breath.

“What does it mean?” he asks.

“Huh?” Noctis has turned back to staring at the water. Now he looks around. “What does what mean?”

That really sucks,” he says. “What – what does it mean?”

“Oh.” Noctis stares at him for a moment. “Yeah, shit, sorry – I guess – I should have figured you wouldn’t know.”

He feels his face start to get warm. Noctis understands that he doesn’t know many things. He knows that. But even so, he wishes he hadn’t asked. He’s just reminded Noctis of how poorly he functions.

“Hey, no, I didn’t mean it like that,” Noctis says. “It’s OK not to know. It’s not like you’ve had much of a chance to be around – uh, normal people, right?” He shakes his head. “It means it’s bad. It sucks means it’s bad.”

“Oh,” he says. He thinks about what he said, and what Noctis said in response. “It takes a long time because there’s a lot of training and enhancements.”

Noctis looks confused again. “What?” he says.

He swallows. Even though Noctis told him what that really sucks means, he’s still finding this conversation difficult to follow. “That’s why it takes so long to get to level five,” he says. “Because there’s a lot of training and enhancements. Level five MT units have to function perfectly. It takes a long time.”

Noctis stares at him. Then his face clears. “That’s not what I meant,” he says. “I didn’t mean it sucks that it takes so long to – get to level five, or whatever the hell. I meant it sucks that you never got to go outside or see any plants, even. That sucks ass, dude. Seriously.”

He frowns. Now he understands: Noctis thinks it was bad that he was in the facility, that he wasn’t allowed to go outside. He’s not sure what sucks ass means when compared with simply sucks, but they’re probably closely related. He’s also not sure why Noctis thinks it was bad. All MT units are kept in the facility until they’ve begun to function perfectly, or until they’re found to be defective and terminated. Maybe Noctis doesn’t know that. He doesn’t seem to know very much about MT units.

A thought suddenly strikes him that makes him feel very cold. If the humans here don’t know about MT units, if they don’t have access to the reports from the facility, maybe they don’t realise that he’s supposed to be in a facility? That he’s not supposed to go outside, or do any of the things he’s been doing for the past little while? Maybe that’s why he’s here. He’s here because no-one except him knows he’s not supposed to be here.

He should tell someone. He knows he should. He even opens his mouth to tell Noctis. But then he doesn’t. No words come out. If he tells someone, he’ll be taken back to the facility. He’ll certainly be corrected and most likely modified for failing to inform anyone earlier. He may be terminated. Even if he isn’t terminated, he’ll be back in the facility. And even though he knows that’s where he’s supposed to be, sitting here, on the edge of this pool, looking at the sky and the trees – the thought of going back makes him feel like his chest is being crushed.

So he doesn’t say anything. Noctis doesn’t seem to notice his hesitation. He’s staring at the water.

“No fish today,” he says. He gets to his feet. “Come on, there’s some other cool stuff over here.”

He stands up. He tries to think of something other than the fact that he should tell Noctis about the facility. He wants to keep talking to Noctis. He can’t think of anything to say. So he thinks about all the things he doesn’t understand. Maybe he can ask Noctis questions. He thinks of a question.

“Why does it sucks mean it’s bad?” he asks. “Suck means to exert pressure by forming a vacuum. Is it bad to do that?” He doesn’t want to make an error and do something that’s considered bad.

Noctis turns to stare at him, eyes widening. Behind him, the one with the images makes a sound like a muffled snort.

“Uh,” Noctis says. His cheeks are darkening. “It’s because – it’s –” He looks wildly around. “Fuck, where’s Ignis when you need him?”

The one with the images laughs openly now. He slaps his hand on Noctis’ shoulder.

“Jerk,” Noctis mutters. Then he shakes his head. “It’s just a saying. It doesn’t mean it’s bad to – uh, to suck... things.” He coughs, and the one with the images makes a sort of wheezing sound. “Fuck, let’s go, come on.”

So they go. They pass through the green curtain again, and the green scent intensifies. He wants to stay there and look at the way the light shines through the leaves, but Noctis is still walking, so he follows. They pass out through the curtain, and instead of going back to where they were, they turn left, walking through a place where there are many more trees and they’re much closer together. Here the light is dim and the ground is covered with smaller leaves rather than with grass. He wonders if the smaller leaves are also made by the trees or if there is another mechanism. In some places, there are spots of light on the ground, and these move when the leaves above shift in the moving air. He stares at the moving spots of light. It’s beautiful.

“Hey, come on,” Noctis says. He realises he’s stopped moving. Noctis is a few paces ahead, looking back at him. He hurries to catch up. Noctis frowns.

“Are you sure there isn’t something wrong with your back?” he asks.

He shakes his head. If there was something wrong with his back, he feels sure he would feel it.

“Walks like an MT,” the one with the images mutters.

“Yes,” he says. He is an MT unit, so he walks like one. He’s not sure why Noctis thinks this is strange.

Noctis makes a dismissive noise. “Come on,” he says.

They keep walking. After a few paces, the trees start to get thinner again. Then they come out onto a wide stretch of grass. It’s the same one they were on before, he sees, but now they’re further from the entrance gate. He looks back to where they sat when they first arrived, and he sees Ignis is there. He’s sitting on the wide wooden seat. Next to him is Cor.

“Huh, there he is,” Noctis says. But he doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, he turns the other way.

His chest hurts. His heart is beating in his throat. But he follows Noctis. He sees there’s something half-hidden behind a group of trees. That’s what Noctis is heading towards. When they come close enough to see around the trees, he sees it’s another pool. This one, though, is raise and made of stone. It has a stone facsimile of a person standing in the middle of it. The person has their head tilted back, and water spouts from their mouth up into the air, then lands in the pool. It’s a very energetic spout, and the water is white with bubbles. Part of the sky is blue, now, and the water looks very white against the blue and the green.

“Here, look,” Noctis says. He points into the pool. There are large round leaves floating on the surface, but the water isn’t as dark as in the other pool. Below the leaves, he suddenly sees a flash of white and orange, moving in the depths of the water.

“There!” Noctis says. He grins at him. “Did you see it?”

He saw it. He stares. “What is it?” he asks.

“Uh, a fish,” Noctis says. He frowns. “Wait, you don’t know fish, either?”

Slowly, he shakes his head. He didn’t catch a clear enough glimpse of the object in the water to see what it looked like.

“Seriously,” Noctis mutters. Then he sighs. He turns to stare at the pool. He waits. Then he points.

“There,” he says. “That’s a fish.”

He looks. He sees: a white and orange shape moving through the water. The shape is lensoidal, like the leaves, but not flat: it bulges at the sides. There are flat, wide blades at the back end and at the sides that ripple in the water. At the front end, there’s a hole where bubbles come out and two small round buttons or lights (currently extinguished).

He stares at the fish. It moves apparently under its own power, and it’s able to bend in the middle with great suppleness. He wonders what it’s made of. He wonders what its purpose is. It’s far too small to contain troops, but perhaps it has weapons attached to it, controlled remotely. Or perhaps it’s some kind of reconnaissance device.

“I mean, it’s an ornamental one,” Noctis says. “Wild ones are way cooler, plus they’re more of a challenge. These guys’d be no fun, even if you were allowed to catch them.”

He nods. He watches the fish for a while. But he’s not really thinking about it. He’s thinking about Cor. Cor is sitting at the other end of the green stretch of grass with Ignis. He turns to look at them. Ignis is standing, now. His arms are folded. He’s staring down at Cor. Cor is sitting with his head in his hands.

He sharpens his hearing. He hears the end of a word, and then suddenly water splashes on his face. He starts, turning sharply, to see Noctis staring at him. One of his hands is in the water. He realises that Noctis splashed the water at him.

“Are you even listening?” Noctis asks. He looks like he’s trying not to smile.

He puts his hand up to where the water landed on him. His hair is wet. He feels cold. Was this – a correction? Did Noctis correct him for not listening? But – it wasn’t very pleasant, but it wasn’t like a correction. It didn’t hurt. So – why did Noctis splash him?

The one with the images is sitting against the edge of the pool a few paces behind Noctis. Noctis has his back to him. The one with the images leans over casually, and then brings both his broad palms together and scoops at the water. A plume of water rises and collapses over the back of Noctis’ head.

Noctis jumps and turns. “Hey, what the hell?” he says.

The one with the images grins at Noctis. “Sorry,” he says. “Thought we were splashing people.”

“Oh, yeah?” Noctis says. He drops his hand into the water and throws some of it at the one with the images. The water catches him full in the face. The one with the images splutters and leans forward, and he starts to think maybe he’ll have to act. He has no understanding at all of what the splashing means, but Noctis did it when he didn’t listen, so it must be bad. And now the one with the images is doing it to Noctis. He doesn’t know how bad it is, but he feels sure he should protect Noctis from it. He doesn’t want to get it wrong, though. He doesn’t want to get it wrong.

Then, Noctis laughs. He’s splashing the one with the images, and the one with the images is splashing back, and Noctis is laughing. The one with the images laughs, too. And he realises that it’s not bad. It can’t be bad because they’re both laughing. He sits back. His heart is beating very fast. He doesn’t understand what’s happening.

Noctis raises his hands. “OK, all right,” he says. “I surrender.”

The one with the images stops splashing. “Wimping out already?” he says. “Thought you were made of sterner stuff.”

“Sure, whatever,” Noctis says with a shrug and an eyeroll. But when the one with the images takes his hand of out the water, Noctis suddenly leaps forward. He pushes his hands into the water, and a huge wave rises, crashing over the one with the images.

The one with the images sits still and silent. His hair is plastered to his head. His shirt is soaked. He spits out a mouthful of water.

“Well played,” he says.

“You guys are scaring the fish,” says the silent one. He’s sitting by the pool a few paces away. Noctis and the one with the images turn to look at him. He shrugs. “Just saying,” he says.

Noctis sighs and leans back against the edge of the pool. “Wow, I’m really wet,” he says. He doesn’t sound angry, though.

He doesn’t understand what happened. But the splashing – it seems like Noctis found it pleasing. The one with the images found it pleasing, too. And Noctis did it to him. So – what does that mean?

He sits back, trying to think about it. But he’s distracted by what he sees. At the other end of the stretch of grass, Ignis is sitting next to Cor again. Ignis has a hand on Cor’s shoulder. Cor still has his head in his hands. As he watches, Ignis takes a notebook out of his pocket. He hands it to Cor. Cor takes it and opens it. He sharpens his hearing, but neither of them is saying anything. Cor sits and reads the notebook. Ignis sits beside him. Neither of them says anything.

Then Cor stands up. He hands the notebook back to Ignis. He starts walking across the grass towards them.

His heart speeds up again. His hands are sweating, and he clenches them into fists and holds them at his sides. He watches Cor coming closer. Noctis turns to him.

“Guess it’s hometime, huh?” he says.

Then Cor arrives. He stands in front of them. He has to crane his neck to see him, and the light’s behind him so his face looks dark. His heart’s pounding in his ears, making his head ache.

“Your Highness,” Cor says. “Gladio. You guys mind giving me a minute with the kid?”

“Come on,” the one with the images says. He stands up, and Noctis stands, too. He swallows, but his throat is dry. He wants to ask them to stay. But he doesn’t. He just watches them walk away. The metal strap around his throat feels like it’s tightening. His heart feels like it’s inside his head, trying to fight its way out through his skull.

Cor sits down on the grass. His face is clearer now. He sits with his knees bent and his arms resting on them. He stares at him.

“Ignis says you had a good day,” he says.

He thinks. He’s learned so many things today. Seen so many things. The world is so much bigger than he ever realised. The space inside his head seems bigger, too, except that now it’s filled with his thundering heart. But before, at the beginning of the day, the test – but no, he understands that. They had to determine if he was a danger to the supreme commander and Noctis. He understands that.

“Yeah,” he says. “It was good.”

Cor nods. He smiles, but he doesn’t look like he usually does when he smiles. “He says you like plants.”

“Yes,” he says. He opens his palm, feels the grass underneath it, all the little hairs. It helps a little.

Cor sighs. He runs a hand over his face. “Kid,” he says. “I’m sorry about what happened. I know it was – awful. You didn’t deserve that. I’ve got no excuses, I’m just – really sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He doesn’t know why Cor’s sorry. He understands the purpose of the test. Why should Cor be sorry, to run a necessary test? It doesn’t make any sense. The metal strap feels tight around his neck. His throat burns. He doesn’t understand why Cor’s sorry.

Cor stares at him. He doesn’t know how to respond. He’s worried that if he opens his mouth, he’ll make some kind of sound instead of speaking. So he keeps his mouth shut and tries to swallow around the burning in his throat.

Cor runs a hand through his hair. “Let’s go home,” he says. He stands up. He holds his hand out.

He’s not sure what the hand is for. He stands up, too. Cor takes his hand back. His mouth turns down at the corners.

“All right,” he says. His voice sounds strained. “Let’s go.”

They go. They walk back towards Ignis along the stretch of grass. Overhead, the clouds are breaking up into smaller patches of grey. He wants to look at it, but he doesn’t want to take his eyes off Cor. He wants to make sure he does everything right, so he doesn’t need to be tested again.

Noctis catches up with them when they’re almost to where Ignis is sitting.

“Hey,” he says, walking beside him. “You going home?”

He looks at Cor.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Sorry to break up the party.”

Noctis shrugs. “Whatever,” he says. They’ve reached Ignis now, and they stop. “You’ll be around tomorrow after school, though, right?”

He looks at Cor again. Cor nods.

“The kid and I – we’re going to hang out tomorrow morning,” Cor says. “Spend some time together. But after school should be OK.” Cor looks at Ignis. Ignis smiles faintly and gives a slight nod.

“Cool,” Noctis says. “See you.”

“See you,” he says, because that’s what Noctis always says when one of them is leaving. Then Cor takes his arm and starts to lead him away. He has to concentrate not to pull his arm away, but after a moment, Cor lets go anyway.

“Sorry,” Cor mutters.

He doesn’t know why Cor keeps saying he’s sorry.

But he doesn’t ask.

~

They drive back towards Cor’s apartment. But partway there, Cor takes an unfamiliar turn. He drives down a road, makes another turn, then drives some more. Finally, he drives into another flat, wide area where there are lots of cars. He stops the car.

“We’re going to drop in here for a few minutes,” he says. He pauses, looking at him. “Keep the sunglasses on.”

“Yes,” he says. He gets out of the car and follows Cor towards a building. The building’s door is open, and they walk in.

Inside, there’s an unusual smell. It’s a little like the green scent from the place with all the plants, but not quite the same. There’s a darker undertone to it, and the air is more humid. They pass through a large room filled with all kinds of objects, most of which he doesn’t recognise. He doesn’t have time to look at them, though, before they’re passing out through another door into a much larger room. This room has a very high ceiling, and the windows are enormous. The room is filled with light. It’s also filled with objects that he hasn’t seen before. But he recognises the type of object they are: they’re plants. They’re not grass or trees, but they have leaves and green wires, and some of them have the colourful parts attached to them that he saw before. There are hundreds of different kinds, and each one rises out of an individual vessel, rather than out of the ground.

“After what Ignis said, I thought you might like one for your room,” Cor says.

He doesn’t understand what Cor means. But Cor isn’t Ignis or Noctis – he can’t ask Cor. So he just nods. “Yes,” he says.

“Great,” Cor says. He looks around. “Shit,” he mutters. Then he waves a hand at a person walking past. She’s wearing a green shirt.

“Hey,” he says.

“Can I help you?” the one with the green shirt asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “I want to get a plant for my – uh.” He stops. “My–” he says again, and gestures towards him. “I don’t know anything about plants. Neither does he. But he wants one. So – what’s a good one?”

The one with the green shirt smiles at him. “I definitely approve of getting into plants,” she says. “What colour would you like?”

He swallows. Cor looks at him. It’s clear he’s supposed to respond. “Green,” he says. Looking around the room, he sees that some plants aren’t green. Not just the colourful parts, but even the leaves aren’t all green. But green is the most common colour. And green makes him think of the great expanse of grass and the trees and their moving leaves.

“Well, that’s easy enough,” the one in the green shirt says. She starts walking, and they follow her. “Now, I do recommend cacti for beginners,” she says. “But if you’d prefer something more leafy there are plenty of easy-care plants to look at.” She stops in an area where there are lots of vessels, but the objects in them don’t look like plants. They’re mostly green, but there are no leaves or wires. Instead, they seem to be mostly globular greenshapes, spheroidal or ellipsoidal. Sometimes there are multiple shapes which are all attached to one another, sometimes there’s only one shape. Most of them are covered in sharp-looking spikes.

“You want one of these?” Cor asks.

He looks around. He’s still not sure exactly what Cor is expecting from him. The globular shapes are strange, and the spikes are unappealing. He doesn’t know what the function of these objects is.

“This one’s very popular,” the one in the green shirt says. She points to a small, spheroidal object with many spikes.

“You want that one?” Cor asks.

He knows he needs to respond. “Yes,” he says. The one in the green shirt smiles wider.

“Excellent,” she says. She picks up the vessel, with the spheroidal object in it. “Now, this one needs watering about once a month or so. There are instructions on the label.”

Instructions. She says there are instructions. Good. Maybe once he can read the label, he’ll understand what he’s expected to do.

They start walking back towards the door they came through. They pass a lot of plants on the way. One they pass has deep red leaves with a green border. He stares at it. He’s never seen anything quite that colour before.

Cor stops walking. “You like that?” he asks.

He looks at the plant. The colour makes something in his chest hurt. But it feels nice. Not like how his chest hurts when he looks at Cor.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. “We’ll have that, too,” he says.

“Well, that’s a little more difficult to look after,” the one in the green shirt says.

“We’ll cope,” Cor says. “The kid can have whatever he wants.” He turns to him. “Hey. You tell me when you see something you like, all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He looks around. He likes everything. All the plants are beautiful. He’s not sure what Cor wants from him. He wishes Cor would be more clear in his instructions. He tries to find something he likes more so that he can follow orders without making Cor angry. He sees a plant with yellow coloured parts. Each yellow part has five-fold symmetry, with five thin plates, each triangular and slightly curved, extending from a pit in the centre. The yellow parts are maybe half a centimetre across and the yellow is very bright among the green leaves.

“That one?” he says.

The one in the green shirt smiles. “Excellent choice,” she says. “That one’s very hardy.”

She reaches out and picks it up. Now she’s holding three vessels, two with plants and one with the spheroidal object.

Cor nods. “Anything else?” he says to him.

He breathes in. He’s starting to feel exhausted from his heart beating too fast all the time. It feels as though days have passed since he got out of bed in the morning. He wonders if Cor will keep making him choose plants until there are none left to choose.

“Perhaps three is enough to be going on with,” the one in the green shirt says. She’s smiling at him. “Wait till you find out whether you’ve got a green thumb or not, hm?”

Cor’s looking at him. The one in the green shirt is looking at him. He’s not sure how to respond. He already knows his thumbs aren’t green. His throat starts burning again.

“Yeah, OK,” Cor says. “We’ll take those. Maybe we’ll come back for some more another time.”

He starts walking again. They go through the door back to the smaller room with all the objects. The one in the green shirt sets the plants and the spheroidal object down on a table. Then she presses some buttons on a device that sits on the table. The device makes sharp, bright chimes when she presses the buttons. There are numbers on an LCD screen at the front, and these change, going up as she presses the buttons.

“That’ll be fifteen thirty,” she says.

Cor pulls an object out of his pocket. He opens it like a book and pulls out a rectangular piece of plastic. He presses the plastic to a small device that’s on the table next to the chiming device. There’s another chime. The one in the green shirt smiles.

“Thank you,” she says. “And now, water them as soon as you get home, and don’t forget to follow the instructions.”

“Don’t worry, he will,” Cor says. The one in the green shirt puts the plants and the spheroidal object in a bag. Then she holds the bag out to Cor. He takes it, and holds it out to him.

“OK,” he says. “Let’s go home.”

~

In the car, he sits with the bag on his lap. He holds it carefully to make sure the vessels inside don’t fall over. His heart’s still beating too fast, and he’s aware every time Cor moves or sighs in the seat beside him. But he peers down into the bag and he sees the leaves and the yellow objects with their symmetry. It makes him think of the wide open sky and the trees with the green curtains by the pool. And that makes his chest hurt less.
When they get back to Cor’s apartment, Cor tells him to put the vessels out on the kitchen table.

“Let’s look at these,” Cor says. He takes a white piece of plastic out of the vessel that contains the spheroidal object. He peers at it, grunts, then holds it out. “I hope you’re better with plants than I am, kid,” he says.

He takes the white plastic. It’s covered in small writing. He sharpens his vision.

They’re instructions.

He grips the plastic harder. Water thoroughly, it says. Check soil every week. When soil is dry, water thoroughly and allow to drain.

They’re instructions. But he’s not sure what they mean. He knows what water is, but here it seems to be used in a different sense.

Cor turns to the sink. “She said to water them all when we got back, so–” He fills a glass with water. Then he pours the water into the vessel with the plant with red leaves. Then he fills the glass again and does the same to the plant with yellow parts.

He watches carefully. Water here means pour water onto. He reads the instructions again. He understands.

Cor looks at him. “You’re going to have to be in charge of these, if we want them to survive the night,” he says. “That OK with you? Just follow the instructions and hopefully they’ll be fine.”

“Yes,” he says. He understands: his orders are to follow the instructions on the white label. He sees the two plants have white labels, as well. He hopes they have instructions on them, too. His chest feels suddenly a little less painful. He has orders, and he knows how to implement them.

“Great,” Cor says. He pours water in the vessel belonging to the spheroidal object. Then he sighs. “Kid,” he says, “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to buy your forgiveness. OK? You don’t owe me anything for this. I just – Ignis said you liked the plants, so I wanted to get you something.”

He doesn’t understand. “Yes,” he says.

Cor stares at him. Then he sighs. He covers his eyes with one hand.

“Shit,” he mutters. “This has been such a fuck-up of a day.”

He’s not sure if Cor wants him to respond. After a moment, Cor swallows and takes his hand away from his eyes.

“Take your plants up to your room, kid,” he says. “Make it feel more like it’s yours.”

He picks up the vessels. He frowns down at them. He looks up at Cor.

“Mine?” he asks. He wants to make sure he understands what Cor wants, so he doesn’t make an error.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “They’re yours, now. Look after them, OK?”

He looks down at the plants. Something starts to unfold in his chest. But he doesn’t let it, not yet. He pushes it back down. He turns and goes out into the hall. He climbs the stairs, the silent one following behind him. He goes into the room where he sleeps. He closes the door. He puts the plants and the spheroidal object on the table. Then he sits in the chair and looks at them.

They’re yours. That’s what Cor said. He even confirmed it when asked for clarification. They’re yours.

The thing in his chest starts to unfold again. MT units don’t have possessions. Nothing is his. Nothing belongs to him.

But Cor said they’re yours. He said your room. Make it feel like it’s yours.

He looks around at the room. It’s familiar, now: the window, the bed, the table, the image hanging on the wall. He can’t quite grasp it, what Cor meant. But the thing in his chest unfolds and unfolds.

He reads the labels from each of the plants. Both contain instructions to place the plants somewhere with lots of light. So he puts them on the little ledge beside the window. He puts the spheroidal object there, too. The light from outside shines through the leaves of the red plant, and the colour looks bright and deep and rich, all at the same time. The yellow parts of the other plant remind him of the sun. Even the spheroidal object looks better now that Cor’s said they’re yours.

He touches the leaves of the red plant, and then of the one with yellow parts. He touches the yellow parts, too, and finds that they’re soft and very smooth. He touches the spikes on the spheroidal object. They’re remarkably sharp.

They’re yours, Cor said.

He sits down on the bed and stares at them, lined up along the window. His orders are to follow the instructions on the labels. To look after them. And he will.

He will.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up in the morning, the first things he sees are the plants and the spheroidal object, lined up against the window. The light comes in at a low angle at this time of day, and it shines through the leaves of the red plant, making them look like they have a deep, glowing light of their own. He lies still for a number of seconds, watching them. Inside, he feels very quiet.

He gets out of bed and goes to check the plants. The instructions for each plant were different, but all of them instructed him to check them to see if they were dry. The red plants needs to be checked every day; he understands this. The plant with yellow parts needs to be checked every week. He doesn’t know what week means, but he got up several times in the night to check it, in case week is quite a short period of time. But the material out of which the plant grows was still quite damp each time, so now he thinks perhaps a week is quite a long time. The spheroidal object also requires checking each week.

He checks all three, touching the material out of which they’re growing. All are still damp. The instructions don’t say to do anything else, so he doesn’t. Instead, he touches the leaves of the red plant. They feel rough under his fingers. When he looks closely, he sees they’re covered with thousands of tiny hairs. The hairs seem to sparkle in the light. He touches the leaves of the plant with yellow parts; they’re very smooth, like plastic. He considers the spheroidal object for some time, wondering where it fits in. Then he realises the light is changing: he should go downstairs.

Cor is sitting at the kitchen table, drinking the strong-smelling drink he and Ignis like. He stops in the doorway, willing his heart not to speed up too much. Cor nods at him.

“Morning,” he says. “Sleep well?”

“Yes,” he says. He goes to sit down at the table. The vessel with soup in it is there, as always. He opens it and pours out a cup.

“Thought we’d do something together today,” Cor says. “I’ve got some time off.”

He wonders what Cor means when he says do something together. He wonders if something means another test. His heart seems to jump in his chest at the thought. He forces his breathing to stay slow. If there’s another test, he’ll take it. He’ll do everything he can to pass it. He passed the last test. Cor didn’t realise he’s defective, even though he tested him. Maybe he can pass this one, too.

Cor looks at him. “How does that sound?” he asks, after a long pause.

“Yes,” he says, hoping that it’s an adequate response. Cor’s mouth turns down at the corners, and he thinks it wasn’t adequate. But Cor doesn’t get angry. He just sits, mouth turned down.

“Great,” he says at last. He drinks the rest of his drink. “We’ll go whenever you’re ready.”

~

They go in the car. The silent one comes with them. But they don’t drive to the towers with the purple light. Instead, they turn, and then they drive for a long time between buildings that get smaller and smaller. Cor doesn’t say anything, and so he doesn’t, either. The buildings get smaller, and there are fewer people on the sides of the roads, and fewer cars. And after a long time, there’s no more buildings. Instead, there’s trees.

He stares out of the window of the car. He saw trees yesterday, in the place with all the plants. But there were only a few dozen, mostly fairly thinly scattered, with wide stretches of grass between. Here, there are hundreds of trees. Perhaps thousands. They’re on both sides of the road, stretching as far as he can see. There’s no grass: underneath the trees, in the green gloom, there are more leaves, of smaller plants, like the ones Cor gave him to take care of. In some places, there’s nothing at all, just ground covered in some kind of brown carpet. But everywhere, there’s trees.

Cor glances at him. “There’s not a lot of wilderness left within the walls,” he says. “Even this isn’t true wilderness. But it’s nice to get out of the city sometimes. I thought you would like it.”

“Yes,” he says. He does like it. It’s amazing. Until yesterday, he’d never seen trees at all, except in the image from Lucis by Night Laus Venustas, and that was before he knew what a tree was. Now there are thousands. And all of them are alive. He feels the swelling start again in his chest, as he looks ahead and behind and to either side and sees nothing but trees. All of them are alive.

Then, he remembers the plants that he left behind in Cor’s apartment. He’s supposed to check the plant with yellow parts and the spheroidal object every week. But he doesn’t know how long a week is. And now they’re a long way from the apartment and he can’t check them. Has it been a week yet since he last checked them? He doesn’t know.

The swelling feeling in his chest disappears. He feels cold and itchy. Should he say something to Cor? He should have thought to bring the plants with him. Or ask Cor before they left. A week is probably longer than a day. But what if it isn’t?

He shifts in his seat. He glances at Cor. Cor is looking ahead at the road. He looks away. He clenches his fists in his lap. Should he say something to Cor?

He glances at Cor again. But Cor’s glancing at him at the same time. He looks sharply away. But it’s too late: Cor saw him.

“You OK?” Cor asks. “You need to make a pit stop?”

He doesn’t know what a pit stop is. “No,” he says, hoping it’s an appropriate answer.

Cor doesn’t respond to this. He keeps glancing at him, though, looking at the road, then back at him. He feels his heart start to speed up. He’s done something wrong. He’s said something wrong.

Then, suddenly, Cor slows the car down. He turns off the road and stops under the first trees. He turns off the car and then turns to look at him.

Now, he thinks. This will be another test. The strap around his throat seems very tight. What if he fails the test? Maybe Cor will send him back to the facility. Maybe they do know that he’s not supposed to be here, and that’s why they tested him.

“Kid,” Cor says. Then he stops. He taps his fingers on the steering wheel. He doesn’t know what his expression looks like: he doesn’t dare to look and find out.

“Listen,” Cor says then. “I know I fucked up. All right? I know I – I know you and me aren’t – getting on too great right now. But if you’ve got something to say, you can say it. If you’ve got a question – Ignis said you have a lot of questions.” He pauses. “So, you can ask them. Any questions you want. It’s all right, nothing bad’s going to happen.”

He stares at his hands. He wishes Ignis was there. Cor said it’s all right to ask questions, but – but he doesn’t know if he believes Cor. Sometimes Cor says things and then – it’s a test. He did once, anyway. What if this is a test, too? What if it’s to test how stupid he is or – something else? His stomach hurts, and his heart is loud in his ears.

Cor sighs. He turns to face the front and grips the steering wheel in both hands.

“Please, kid,” he says. His voice is very quiet. “I don’t know what to do, here.”

He glances at Cor, surprised. Cor doesn’t know what to do? How can Cor not know what to do?

Cor’s not looking at him. He’s looking forwards, out of the big front window at the road. He looks – strange. Like he’s tired, maybe. He doesn’t look angry. And he said he didn’t know what to do.

He swallows. He hesitates. But he needs to know, because of the plants. He needs to know. Maybe it’s a test. But his orders are to look after the plants. There’s no maybe about that. So.

“How much time is a week?” he asks.

Cor looks at him, then. He looks surprised. But he doesn’t look angry. “Uh,” he says, “seven days.”

He leans back a little in his chair and lets his hands relax. Seven days. So he doesn’t need to worry about the plants. And – Cor isn’t angry.

“Thank you,” he says.

Cor stares at him. “You didn’t–” he starts. Then he stops. He flexes his hands around the steering wheel. “I’m glad you asked me,” he says. “I wouldn’t want you to keep not knowing stuff just because you were scared to ask me.”

His throat is dry. But his stomach hurts a little less now. “Yes,” he says.

Cor keeps looking at him for a moment longer. Then he says, “Is that what was bothering you? Wanting to know how long a week was?”

“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Cor says. “You can ask whatever you want.” He sits in silence for a moment. “How come that thing?” he says eventually. “Why was that thing in particular bothering you?”

He hesitates. If he tells Cor, Cor will know he came out here without knowing whether the plants would be all right or not. But Cor ordered him to come. Maybe it’s a test, but maybe – maybe it’s not. How can he know?

He can’t know. The metal strap feels heavy on his throat. But he asked Cor and Cor answered, and he didn’t seem angry. He even seemed pleased. So – so –

Maybe it’s all right.

“Because of the plants,” he says. He holds his breath. His stomach’s churning. What if it’s the wrong thing? What if it’s a test?

“The plants?” Cor says. He frowns like he’s confused.

“Yes,” he says. He tries to swallow, but his throat is dry. “I need to check them once a week. But I didn’t know how long it was.”

Cor doesn’t say anything for a long moment. It’s long enough that he thinks his heart might burst out of his chest. Then Cor shakes his head.

“Right,” Cor says. “Of course.” He runs a hand over his face. “Hey, uh,” he says. He stops. His leg is moving – bouncing up and down. “You know – you’re doing a great job,” he says. “With the plants. It’s great.”

He swallows. He hasn’t done anything with the plants yet except check them for dampness. He’s not sure if that’s what Cor means. “Thank you,” he says. He feels strange. Nervous.

“Yeah, no problem,” Cor says. He looks straight ahead. Then he looks at him. “I meant that thing about asking questions,” he says. “You can ask. Anything you want. All right?”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks at him in silence. Then he sighs.

“Yeah,” he says.

He starts the car and pulls back out onto the road.

~

They drive for a while longer. There are still trees everywhere. He doesn’t feel as bad now that he knows that he’s not made an error with the plants. But he doesn’t feel good like he did before. He doesn’t feel the swelling in his chest. Instead, he feels like he’s waiting for something. But he doesn’t know what. He can’t look at the trees for long, because he doesn’t like looking away from Cor for too long. Even though Cor isn’t doing anything. He feels like something’s not right, but he doesn’t know what it is.

Eventually, the road comes to a place where there’s a flat, wide area with lines painted on it, like outside the place with the plants the day before. This time there are no cars. There’s a sign: Lake Suspirium Reserve. Cor drives into the flat area and stops the car.

“Thought we could take a walk,” he says. “The lake’s beautiful this time of year.”

He doesn’t know what lake means. “Yes,” he says.

“Great,” Cor says. Cor gets out of the car, so he gets out, too. Outside, it’s very quiet. He can hear irregular chimes, like he heard the day before, and he can hear the moving air rustling the leaves on the trees. The trees are very tall. He looks up at them and wonders whether they start small, like MT units, and then get bigger. Or do they start off tall? He tries to imagine how that could happen. But he can’t imagine where trees come from at all. He knows where MT units come from, but he doesn’t know where anything else that’s alive comes from.

The silent one gets out of the car. Cor turns and looks at him.

“Hey, kid,” he says, “go on ahead a bit, all right? I got to talk to Lacertus about something. Don’t go out of sight, though.”

He goes in the direction Cor points. He walks until he’s under the trees. He looks back. Cor and the silent one are still in sight. They’re talking. He looks up at the trees. It makes him feel a little dizzy. He closes his eyes and feels the air moving against his skin. Then he opens his eyes again, because he wants to see what Cor is doing.

The silent one is passing something to Cor. Cor looks angry. He puts the thing in his pocket. Then he glares at the silent one for a moment. The silent one shrugs. It’s too late for him to sharpen his vision to see what the silent one passed to Cor. He’s about to sharpen his hearing to hear their conversation, but then Cor turns abruptly away and starts walking towards him. The silent one stays by the car.

Cor is walking fast. He looks angry. But when he’s halfway to him, he stops suddenly. He clenches his fists by his sides. Then he draws a deep breath. His face smoothes out. He starts walking again – more slowly this time. By the time he reaches him, he looks like he wasn’t angry in the first place.

“Lacertus is taking a break,” he says. “Just you and me, kid.”

He nods. Cor starts following the path, and he walks beside him. He can’t hear any cars. There’s no quiet roar of engines like there is everywhere else in this place. There’s no humming like there is everywhere in the training facility. There’s nothing but the moving air in the leaves and the irregular chimes.

It’s so quiet.

The path winds up an incline. Cor walks beside him and doesn’t say anything. At first Cor walks fast, but soon he slows down. He wonders what the destination is. He wonders why Cor brought him here. He thought it would be a test, but now – he’s not so sure. He still feels like he’s waiting for something.

They keep walking up the incline. He sees sky through the trees at the top. The sky is blue, with some clouds. The sun shines, shafts of light slanting down through the trees. He sees tiny specks floating in the shafts, sparkling as they reflect the light. They move in a complex motion that’s almost mesmerising. But Cor is still walking, so he can’t stop to look.

Then they come to the top of the incline. And now he does stop, because he can’t keep walking any more. In front of them is a pool. But it’s bigger that any pool he’s ever seen before. It extends for perhaps a kilometre under the broad, blue sky. And the water – it isn’t black like the water in the pool the day before. Nor is it clear like the water in the pools at the facility. This water is opaque and a deep, dark blue. The moving air ruffles the surface into little waveforms. The sun hangs in the sky above the pool, and its light reflects from the water in a broad, shining stripe, as though there’s a path across the water leading to the sun itself. Far away, on the other side of the pool, there are more trees.

He breathes in. The air is cool. It feels fresh and clean in his chest. Everything in him seems to open. His chest. His mind. His heart.

Cor stops walking. He turns and comes back.

“You OK?” he asks.

“Yeah,” he says. It comes out sounding breathless, even though he feels like there’s more breath in his lungs than ever before.

Cor looks at him. Then he turns to look in the same direction as him. He looks at the lake, at the stripe of gold. He looks back at him.

“Pretty, huh?” he says.

“Yes,” he whispers.

Cor smiles, then. He doesn’t walk anywhere. He just stands. He doesn’t say anything. Both of them just stand. He can hear the water lapping against the land without even sharpening his hearing. It makes him feel very quiet. Even though Cor’s standing beside him, his heart isn’t beating too fast. And Cor doesn’t do anything. He just stands there, looking out over the water. And that’s what they do. And then–

And then–

And then something moves. It comes out of the trees. It’s a small thing, maybe ten centimetres high, with two legs and no other obvious limbs. It hops out from under the trees towards them, and then it makes a strange, trilling chime.

He stares. The thing makes another hop towards them. It chimes again. It’s mostly brown and grey, with patterns on it. He sharpens his vision to see what it’s made of, and he sees that it looks very soft.

“What are you looking at?” Cor asks. He turns to look. He doesn’t seem to see the thing for a few seconds. Then he raises his eyebrows.

“You’re looking at that?” he says, pointing. “The bird?”

He glances at Cor. He doesn’t want to look away from the thing. It’s moving, now, poking at the ground with a cone that protrudes from its upper end. It moves jerkily, almost like an MT unit. Is it a machine?

Cor’s frowning now. “Do you know what a bird is?” he asks.

He swallows. The little thing is hopping about, just out of reach. It pokes at the ground. This is a bird. But he doesn’t understand what it is. And he wants to know. He’s never seen anything like this before. He wants to know what it is.

“No,” he says. He doesn’t dare look at Cor. But Cor doesn’t do anything. He just turns fully, and then puts his hands in his pockets.

“It’s a type of creature,” he says. “You know creature?”

“No,” he says. He feels stupid, but he also feels amazed at the little thing, the way it hops.

“Like – a living being. An organism,” Cor says.

“An organism?” he says. The little thing is an organism. “It’s alive?” Yes, that makes sense. He’s never seen a machine move in this way. He’s never seen a machine that looked so soft.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Here, look.” Cor crouches down, and gestures to him, so he crouches, too. Cor takes something out of his jacket pocket. It’s a paper bag. He pulls something out. It’s some kind of foods all jammed together. He recognises tomato, but everything else is still unknown. Cor crumbles part of the food and then throws it on the ground. The little thing – the bird – hops forwards and pokes at the crumbs with the cone at its upper end. He realises the upper end must be the head. The cone is some kind of mouth. The bird also has black spheres set on either side of its head. Those must be eyes, he thinks. The bird pokes until all the crumbs are gone. Then it raises its head and looks at Cor. It hops forwards, then backwards again.

“Greedy little thing, aren’t you?” Cor says. But he doesn’t sound angry. He’s not smiling, but he sounds like he might smile in a minute. Then he turns to him. “You want to feed it?”

“Yes,” he says. Cor holds out the foods to him, and he takes them.

“Just the bread,” Cor says. “Don’t give it any of the meat.” Then he pauses. “The bread is the white part.”

He feels a rush of relief for the clear instructions. He crumbles up some of the bread and throws it on the ground. The bird hops closer to him, poking with its strange mouth. Eating. When there’s no more bread, it looks at him. He sees it blink, and blinks himself.

“You like birds, huh?” Cor says. He stands up, shaking out his legs.

He’s only seen one bird. But he likes this one. It cocks its head on one side and opens its mouth, then makes that trilling chime again. And he realises he’s heard it before – in amongst the trees today, and in the place where Ignis and Noctis took him yesterday. It’s one of the irregular chimes he’s heard. He can hear them now, if he tunes his hearing correctly so he’s not just listening to very nearby sounds. The world seems alive with the irregular chimes.

Maybe the world is alive.

“The chimes,” he says. “Are they all birds?”

“Chimes?” Cor says. Then he shakes his head. “You mean all the – chirping? Yeah, that’s all birds.”

He sits down abruptly. He doesn’t mean to, but it just happens. All of a sudden, he can’t hear anything but the chimes. He moves his hearing through a range of distances and frequencies and there are so many chimes, all different types, far away and nearby.

“How many birds are there?” he asks, feeling his head start to spin a little.

“In the forest? Thousands, I guess,” Cor says. “That’s where they like to live.” He points up into the sky. “See?”

He looks. Up in the sky are three dark shapes. They’re small, but he sharpens his vision as much as he can and sees that they’re certainly not dropships. They’re much smaller and more irregular. He looks at Cor.

“They’re birds,” Cor says. “Birds can fly. Most birds, anyway.”

He looks back at the dark shapes, but as he does so, the bird that came out of the trees suddenly takes off. It flies by flapping limbs on either side of its body. These limbs are flat and wide, and he didn’t notice them before. The bird’s gone so fast that he’s barely able to recognise the mechanism of its flight. He stares after it. He wants to say something, but there are no words in his head. There’s only astonishment.

“Like that,” Cor says.

He looks up at Cor. Cor looks down at him. There’s an odd expression on his face. Then he lowers himself to the ground. He sits down next to him. He puts his elbows on his knees. He looks at him with that strange expression.

“You didn’t know,” Cor says.

He didn’t know. He doesn’t know anything. He feels stupid. But he also feels astonished. He looks up at the dark shapes in the sky, but they’re gone now. Everything in him feels fluid. There’s nothing solid any more.

Cor looks at him. Then he looks out to the lake.

“You told me you’d never been outside before,” he says, “but I didn’t – really think about it. I didn’t think about what it meant.” He shakes his head and sighs. “Maybe – I don’t know. But I should have been the one who figured out that you needed to go to the park. I should have figured a lot of things out.” He runs his hand through his hair. “I’m not good at this. I mean – that’s obvious, right?”

He doesn’t understand what Cor’s talking about. He’s trying to listen and understand, but even though he understands most of the words, the subject is obscure. And he keeps thinking about the bird. How it took off. It flew, with limbs he didn’t even notice it had. And it looked at him when he gave it food.

Cor pinches the top of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Get it together,” he mutters, so quietly he almost doesn’t hear. Then he takes a deep breath.

“You like the lake?” he asks.

He still doesn’t know what lake means. “Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. He looks out over the water. “Ignis says you have a lot of questions,” he says. “Do you – want to ask anything?”

He thought it was a test. But now – he’s not sure any more. He thinks maybe it isn’t a test. Cor answered all the questions he asked, and he didn’t seem annoyed by his stupidity. And he gave him foods to feed the bird. But Cor tested him before. He doesn’t know. But Cor seems – different. Cor’s sitting on the ground. He didn’t expect that.

“What does lake mean?” he asks.

Cor stares at him. He frowns.

“You said you liked the lake,” he says.

He realises his mistake. He’s revealed that he responded even though he didn’t understand. His mouth goes dry.

But Cor doesn’t do anything. He just looks at him and frowns. Then he rubs the back of his neck.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “OK.” He nods. Then he points at the water. “This is a lake,” he says.

He looks at the water. It looks like a big pool. But dark blue, and with a golden stripe of sun glowing in the middle.

“It’s not a pool?” he says. Cor answered the question about the lake. He wants to be sure he understands the answer.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “A lake’s like a big pool.”

He looks at the lake. He thinks about the pool he saw the day before. Noctis said it was dark coloured to hide the fish. “Does it have fish in it?” he asks.

“Sure,” Cor says.

He looks at the pool – the lake. He imagines the fish moving under the surface. He wonders why the lake has fish in it. He wonders why the lake is there at all. Why would someone create such a big pool out here? There doesn’t seem to be anything else out here. Just trees and birds, and him and Cor.

They sit there in silence for a while. But he doesn’t feel the same any more. The feeling of waiting for something to happen has died away. Now he feels empty. But not in a bad way. He feels cool and clean inside, like he’s full of the air that moves off the lake.

“There’s a river nearby,” Cor says at last. “You ever seen a river before?”

Slowly, he shakes his head. Cor nods.

“You know what river means?” he asks.

He shakes his head again. He feels stupid. But Cor only gets to his feet.

“It’s easier to show you than to explain,” he says. “Come on.”

So he stands up, too. He follows Cor. They walk along the edge of the lake. The golden stripe moves with them, so that it always seems to be leading from them towards the sun. Sometimes now he sees dark shapes in the sky, and he recognises that they must be birds. He hears them all around in the trees, different kinds of chimes. Sometimes he recognises the sound of the bird that came out of the trees to be fed. He wonders if he’ll see that bird again.

After a little while, though, he hears another sound. It’s a sort of rushing sound, like a distant, loud machine. It gets louder as they keep walking, until he can’t hear the lapping of the water or the rustle of the moving air in the leaves any more. He thinks they must be close to the machine. There’s a small incline ahead of them, and he thinks the machine must be on the other side.

They climb the incline. And on the other side is: water.

Water. But it’s moving. It’s moving in a great mass, a wide ribbon of water, flowing so fast away from the lake that looking at it makes him feel dizzy. It’s flowing so fast that it’s white with bubbles. The surface of the water undulates, it splits around rocks, it foams where the water meets the land. It’s the water that’s making the rushing noise. It’s not a machine. It’s just water.

He’s never seen so much water.

“This is a river,” Cor says. He has to talk loudly to be heard over the sound of the water.

He stares at it. River. The river starts in the lake. It’s not possible to see exactly where the lake ends and the river begins. And the river flows away, into the trees, and there’s no visible end to it. All this water. He tries to estimate the speed of the flow, the width and depth of the river. How much water passes through the river every second? He hadn’t ever imagined there could be so much water. But it seems that outside is full of water. Water hangs in the sky until it falls down. Water is collected in enormous pools. Vast quantities of water simply flows along the ground. He stares at the river. He can’t even think of any questions. He feels dazed simply by watching the endless rushing of the water.

Cor stands silent for a while. He’s watching him. Then he speaks.

“Huh,” he says. “You’ve got freckles. I didn’t see them before.”

He looks at him. He doesn’t know what freckles are. Cor glances up towards the sun and looks thoughtful.

“Guess maybe no-one’s ever seen them before,” he says, barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the river. Then he leans down. The edges of the river are littered with stones of various sizes, and Cor picks one up. He throws it into the river. The stone disappears with a splash. Cor picks up another stone and throws again. Another splash. He wonders what Cor’s doing. What’s the purpose of throwing stones in the river? Then Cor turns to him.

“You want to try?” he asks.

He doesn’t know why Cor wants him to throw stones in the river. But he leans down and picks up a stone. He throws it, watching the splash as it disappears. He picks up another one, looking at Cor to make sure it’s all right. Cor nods at him and he throws it. It splashes into the river. And – there’s something satisfying about it. Something that makes him want to do it again. He doesn’t know why. It seems irrational. But he wants to anyway.

He looks at Cor. Cor’s not smiling. But he looks pleased. “Keep going, if you want to,” he says.

So he does. He throws three more stones. The last one he throws is large. The water droplets splash almost a metre above the surface. Cor makes a noise, half-breathing out, half-unintelligible word. “That was a good one,” he says. Then he turns to him. “Can I show you something?”

He nods. Of course Cor can show him something. Cor can do whatever he likes.

Cor picks up a stone. Then he throws it in a strange way, sideways. The stone hits the water at a low angle. Then, instead of disappearing under the water, it bounces. It bounces into the air again before coming back down to hit the water. Then it bounces again. It bounces three times before sinking below the water.

“Tsk,” Cor says. “I’m out of practice.”

He stares at Cor. Then he stares at the water. Stones are heavier than water. Water is not solid. How did the stone bounce off the water instead of sinking? He looks back at Cor.

Cor laughs. “Don’t even ask me,” he says, raising his hands palm-outwards. “It’s some kind of physics thing. I don’t know how it works.”

He closes his mouth. Cor doesn’t know how it works. He starts to engage the mathematical element in his brain to try and calculate how it could be possible. But then Cor speaks.

“I could show you how to do it,” he says. He hesitates. “I mean, if you want.”

He stops calculating. Maybe he can calculate later, when he knows how to do it. It seems to him that knowing how to do it will have more utility than knowing the mathematics behind it. And he wants it more.

“Yes,” he says. “Please.”

Cor nods. “All right,” he says. “You gotta look for a flat rock, first.”

He looks at the ground. He selects a stone and holds it out. Cor examines it.

“Flatter,” he says. He holds his hand out flat. “The rock hits the water like this,” he demonstrates, “and that’s what stops it from falling in. If it’s not flat enough, it doesn’t work.”

He nods. He puts back the stone he found and looks for another. Eventually he finds one that’s very flat and round. He holds it out to Cor.

“Yeah, good,” Cor says. “OK, now, hold it in your hand like this.” He shows him the stone he has in his own hand. He has one finger curled around the edge of it, and the rest fits against his palm.

He imitates Cor’s grip. Cor looks at his hand and then reaches out and makes some adjustments of the positions of his fingers. His hand feels warm.

“Great,” Cor says. “OK, what you want to do is let it go and spin it at the same time with your finger, like this.” He moves his hand slowly. “But much faster. It needs to be as flat to the water as possible and it’s better if it’s spinning. Watch.”

He throws his stone with a twisting motion of his wrist. It hits the water and bounces – one, two, three, four, five times. Cor stands back, eyeing it critically, then turns to him.

“Want to try?” he says.

“Yes,” he says. He stands at the edge of the river. He bends his knees a little like he saw Cor do. Then he twists his wrist and lets the stone go.

It hits the water and sinks. He stands, dismayed. He wishes he understood why he always functions so poorly.

“Not bad for a first try,” Cor says. “Angle was a little too high. Here.” He holds out another stone. “Try again.”

He looks at Cor’s face for any trace of anger or irritation. But he sees nothing. Cor looks – pleased. Even though he failed at the task. He doesn’t understand. But he feels something in him loosen a little.

He takes the new stone. It’s smooth and flat. He wonders where the stones come from. But he doesn’t think too much about it. Instead, he concentrates on holding the stone correctly.

“You gotta relax a little,” Cor says. “If you’re too tense, it won’t fly right. Here.”

Cor reaches out and loosens the grip of his fingers on the stone. Then he looks him up and down and reaches out again. He adjusts his stance, turning him so that he’s more sideways-on to the water. He doesn’t seem annoyed or impatient by the fact that his stance was incorrect. He just adjusts it. His hands are warm.

“OK,” Cor says. Cor puts his hand out, wraps it around the back of his hand. “It’s all in the wrist,” he says. He takes hold of his hand and moves it backwards and forward, twisting the wrist. “Like this.” He lets go. “Try it now. Let go real fast.”

He tries to remember all the different instructions. But mostly he remembers how Cor twisted his wrist. The instructions weren’t verbal, but they were very clear. He takes a deep breath, then brings his arm round and twists his wrist. The stone flies from his hand and hits the surface of the water. And – it bounces. Once, and then again. Then it sinks.

“Yeah!” Cor says. “Nice job, kid.”

He turns to look at Cor. Cor’s smiling at him. A broad smile. He’s hardly ever seen Cor smile like that. It makes him look different. And – it makes him feel different. It makes him feel warm inside. He wants to make Cor smile like that again. And he wants to make the stones bounce over the water like Cor can, like they’re as graceful as leaves in the moving air, even though they’re made of rock.

He looks around and finds another stone that’s the right shape. He doesn’t pick it up, though. He looks at Cor. He doesn’t want to ask. But he wants to try again.

“You want another try?” Cor asks.

“Can I?” he asks. He’s torn between relief that Cor understood what he wanted and concern that he wants the wrong thing.

Cor’s still smiling.

“Sure, kid,” he says. “We got all the time in the world.”

Chapter Text

They throw stones for a long time. Sometimes, Cor makes the stones bounce. Sometimes he just throws them and watches them disappear with a splash. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, any kind of rule he can deduce, so he just watches Cor carefully and does whatever he does. When it’s time to make stones bounce, he concentrates on everything Cor told him to do. Sometimes, the stones he throws bounce across the surface of the river like they’re lighter than air, five, even six hops. Sometimes they sink immediately, the water foaming over the top of them.

Cor watches when he throws the stones. The best is when he manages to make them bounce: then Cor looks pleased. Sometimes he says things, like great job or you’re a natural or look at that one go. The things Cor says always sound good, even though he doesn’t always understand everything. They sound like Cor thinks he performed adequately. More than adequately. Cor thinks he performed well. It gives him that feeling, like something in his chest is swelling. It’s hard to describe even to himself, because it sounds like it should be painful. But it isn’t. It feels good.

The part he doesn’t understand is what happens when his stone doesn’t bounce, or when it only bounces once before it sinks. Because then Cor doesn’t say anything. Even though he’s watching, he doesn’t reprimand him for his poor performance. He just watches and shrugs. Sometimes he holds out another stone. Mostly he just acts like it never happened.

He thinks about it while he’s looking for another flat stone. Cor seems to care about his good performances. But he doesn’t seem to care about the bad ones. It’s mysterious. But it’s good. Even when his stones fail to bounce, the good feeling in his chest doesn’t quite go away, because Cor doesn’t seem to mind his incompetence. The more they throw the stones, the lighter and calmer he feels, like something’s lifting away from him. The rushing sound of the river is like a blanket, wrapping itself around them. He can’t hear anything else, not even the irregular chimes of the birds. He knows he could filter out the river noise if he adjusted his hearing carefully, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to. The noise is like a wall, keeping them in a world apart, where nothing can get to them.

After a long time, Cor steps back. He goes to sit on a boulder with a flattish top. He stands, looking at Cor, uncertain. Should he keep throwing stones? Cor’s just looking out at the river, but when he sees him looking, he raises his eyebrows.

“You want to sit down?” he says. He inclines his head towards a second boulder, beside the one he’s sitting on.

He should sit down. That’s what Cor wants him to do. He goes to the boulder and sits. Cor doesn’t say anything, just looks out at the river. So he doesn’t say anything, either. He watches the water endlessly rushing past. He feels the sound of it like a cushion around him. He feels calm.

After a while, Cor speaks. “I can’t remember the last time I came out here,” he says. Then he laughs a little. “Shit, I can’t remember the last time I had a day off.” He looks at him. “Pretty sad, right?”

He doesn’t know the correct response. He looks at Cor, hoping to gauge it from his expression. Cor’s face changes, though, and he looks away.

“Yeah,” Cor says, looking down at his hands. “Hey, listen – I want to tell you something.”

He listens. But Cor doesn’t say anything. He just looks at his hands, then at the river. He doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t look like he wants to tell him something. But he said he did.

He’s starting to think he’s misunderstood something when Cor suddenly speaks again.

“I’ve never–” he says, then pauses. “No, that’s not the right way to say it,” he mutters. He shakes his head. “I’m not really – a people person,” he says. “You know? I mean – it wasn’t like I never wanted to have – anyone, but it just – didn’t happen.” He frowns. “I’m not saying this right. I’m trying to say – for a long time, there was really – nothing in my life outside work.” He rubs the back of his head. “It sounds pretty sad, but – yeah, it’s pretty sad. It wasn’t on purpose, just – that’s how things turned out. And I thought – OK. That’s how it’s going to be. That’s how things have shaken out, and – I can live with it. I’ll make that my life, and it’ll be as good as I can make it.” He sighs. “And when I brought you home with me – it was just because I couldn’t bear to see them lock you up, you know? It wasn’t meant to be anything – it wasn’t meant to change anything. So I didn’t change anything. I didn’t – ease off on the work or – try to get to know you better. I guess I thought – hey, do something good, but don’t get attached, right? That’s not what your life is about. But then after I couldn’t wake you up that time, and then when Juvenis shocked you and your heart monitor shut down...”

Cor stops talking. He looks out at the river. He hasn’t looked at him once, all the time he’s been talking. He wonders if maybe Cor’s not even talking to him. He doesn’t understand very much of what Cor’s said, even though he knows most of the words.

“Ignis is right,” Cor says, then. He still doesn’t look at him. “I haven’t been fair to you. If I’m going to do this thing, it’s all or nothing. I can’t just – half-ass it.” He glances at him. “So maybe – my life’s not about what I thought it was about.”

There’s silence, then. Cor glances at him again. He wonders if he’s supposed to respond.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks at him properly, then. He looks surprised. Then he laughs. He rubs the back of his head.

“Shit, kid,” he says. “You didn’t understand any of that, did you?”

He swallows. But Cor hasn’t been angry with him at all, not when he hasn’t known things, not when he’s failed at bouncing stones. “No,” he says.

Cor closes his eyes. He shakes his head. “Probably for the best, anyway,” he says. Then he opens his eyes. “Forget all that,” he says. “Listen. I’m not good at this – at helping you. But I want to be. I’m trying to be better. So I want you to tell me if I say or do anything that makes you feel bad. All right? Just – I want you to tell me if you feel bad. Can you do that?”

“Yes,” he says. He feels bad a lot. But if he’s only supposed to tell Cor when it’s Cor that makes him feel bad, maybe that won’t be too difficult. Except Cor makes him feel bad a lot.

Cor nods. “Thanks,” he says. “I appreciate it.” And he reaches out. He puts a hand on his back, between his shoulder-blades. It feels warm. Cor looks out at the river, but he doesn’t take his hand away.

“You like it out here?” he asks.

He looks at the river. At the lake. At the sky, the golden stripe of water that leads to the sun. He listens to the rushing sound of the river, and feels the moving air on his face. “Yeah,” he says. He thinks this is the best place he’s ever been.

Cor’s looking at him with his head tilted. He’s frowning a little, but not like he’s angry. “Noctis teach you to say that?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. Noctis told him it was appropriate, but now he suddenly wonders if Cor might not agree. “Should I stop saying it?”

“No,” Cor says. “It’s good. It makes you sound – like a kid.” He taps his fingers on his knee. “I’m glad the two of you are friends.”

He doesn’t know what friends means, but Cor’s pleased, so it’s all right. “Yeah,” he says.

And Cor smiles. “Yeah,” he replies.

~

After a while, Cor says they have to go back to the car.

“We need to get something to eat,” he says. “I should have brought something for us, but I didn’t think.”

So they go back, along the edge of the lake, then through the trees. They drive back into the place with all the buildings. The buildings get taller and taller, and soon he can’t see anything but buildings any more, stretching up higher than he can see out of the car window, and there’s cars and people everywhere. Even though the sky’s still overhead, it feels much smaller and more enclosed than it did before. He hopes Cor will take him back to the lake and the river one day.

They don’t go back to Cor’s apartment. Instead, they go to the towers with the purple light. As they drive, he thinks about the plants, still on the windowsill in the room where he sleeps. He hopes they’re enjoying the sunlight. Maybe they’re making new leaves out of it.

When they get to the towers, they go to see Ignis. He smiles at them when they come in.

“Hello,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting to see you so early.” He looks at Cor. “I’m afraid Noct is still at school, but if you want to leave Prompto with me to wait for him, I’d be happy to have him.”

“Actually,” Cor says, “I was thinking maybe I’d stay this time. If it’s not a problem for you.”

Ignis’ smile grows a little wider, and he gives Cor a small nod. “Of course,” he says. He gestures at the table, and Cor sits down, so he does, too. “Now,” Ignis says, “have you eaten?”

Cor shakes his head. “I was kinda hoping you’d offer,” he says.

“Excellent,” Ignis says. “Prompto, could you help me?”

He gets to his feet. “Yeah,” he says.

Ignis points to the counter. There are a number of spherical orange objects there. They’re the same colour as carrots and approximately the same size and shape as large onions, so he presumes they’re vegetables.

“These are oranges,” Ignis says. “I plan to make a fruit salad. Let me show you how to chop them.”

He watches carefully as Ignis chops one of the oranges. The outside of the orange is smooth and waxy. This is the skin, and Ignis tells him that it’s usually removed, though it can sometimes be eaten. This is familiar: he removed the skin of several other vegetables last time he was permitted to help Ignis. The skin of the orange is thick and the inside of it is white. But the rest of the inside of the orange is orange and very wet. It’s divided into segments by thin lines, and right in the centre there’s a tiny hole. The whole shape of it – the circular outside, the thick white border, the lines radiating from the centre – is very pleasing to look at. But Ignis doesn’t stop to look at it. Instead, he cuts the orange into quarters, removes the skin from each quarter, then chops each quarter into a number of wedge shapes. He puts the wedge shapes into a large bowl.

“There,” he says. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Very good,” says Ignis. “Then I will leave this in your capable hands. Let me know if you need anything.”

Ignis gives him the knife, and he takes the next quarter of the orange and begins to remove the skin. He’s about to start chopping it into wedges when he looks up and sees that Cor is watching him. He stops, knife poised. Cor has a strange expression on his face. He doesn’t look displeased, but he can’t interpret the expression.

Then Cor seems to shake himself. “Carry on,” he says. He looks away, at Ignis. “Hey, Ignis, you got that notebook?”

“Hm?” Ignis says, looking up from the stove. “Oh – yes, of course.” He takes a notebook out of his pocket. It looks like the same one from the park the day before. He walks over to the table and holds it out to Cor. “What did you want it for?”

“I want to make some notes,” Cor says. “If you don’t mind me writing in it.”

Ignis looks a little surprised. He tilts his head to one side. “By all means,” he says.

“Thanks,” Cor says. He takes out a pen and opens the notebook, then starts writing. Ignis turns to go back to the stove, then pauses, staring at him. He realises he’s watching Cor instead of chopping the orange, and he looks quickly back at what he’s doing.

“Sorry,” he says.

“No, there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Ignis says. “I just – noticed you have freckles. I hadn’t noticed before.”

He still doesn’t know what freckles means. But he busies himself with chopping the orange, and doesn’t ask.

~

After they’ve had lunch, Noctis arrives, followed by the one with the images. Noctis is wearing his blue clothes, with the string around his neck. He smiles when he sees him, then looks surprised when he sees Cor.

“Huh,” he says. “Hi.”

“Your Highness,” Cor says. “How was school?”

Noctis shrugs. “Same as always,” he says. He throws the bag he’s carrying on the floor, then sprawls on the couch. “What’d you do all day?” he asks him.

He looks at Cor. Cor raises his eyebrows, then nods at Noctis, like he wants him to answer. So he does.

“We went to a lake,” he says. “And a river. I saw a bird.” It feels like an inadequate description, but he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Yeah?” Noctis says. “You see any fish?”

He shakes his head. Noctis looks at Cor.

“Which lake?” he asks. “Suspirium?”

“Yeah,” Cor says.

“Huh,” says Noctis. “Yeah, it’s nice there.”

He thinks about the lake and the river. The bird. There must have been birds before, at the place they went to where he first saw plants. He remembers hearing them, the irregular chimes. If they go there again, he’ll look for them. He’d like to see more birds.

Noctis sits up, leaning over the arm of the couch. He’s frowning at him. “Did you always have freckles?” he asks.

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what freckles are.

The one with the images grunts. “Got some sun, huh?” he says. He’s staring at him, too. “Makes sense, blondie like you.”

He looks at Cor, hoping for some indication of what the conversation is about. But Cor doesn’t say anything. He looks back at Noctis. Noctis frowns.

“You know what freckles are, right?” he asks.

He shakes his head. Noctis’ frown deepens a moment, then it clears.

“Like spots on your face,” he says. “You think he got them just from being out in the sun today?”

“And yesterday,” the one with the images says. “Guess they’ve been waiting for an opportunity for a long time.” The one with the images half-grins, looking at him. It makes nerves start to thrum in his stomach, so he looks away. He looks at Noctis.

“Spots on my face?” he says. He looks at Cor, then at Ignis. It sounds like a disease. A defect. “I feel fine.”

Noctis laughs. “Yeah, it’s not like, a rash or whatever,” he says. He pulls out his phone and raises it, pointing it towards him. “Here, look.” He turns the phone around and shows him the screen.

He stares, amazed. On the screen is an image. The image is of him. Him, sitting on the couch where he’s sitting now. Wearing the clothes he’s wearing now.

“That’s me,” he says. How does Noctis have an image of him on his phone?

“Yeah, I took a picture of you,” Noctis says. “See, look at this. Freckles.”

He looks at the image. Yes: there are spots on his face, especially on his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose. They weren’t there before. It makes him look ill. But he doesn’t feel ill. And he can’t quite concentrate, because he doesn’t understand how Noctis has an image of him on his phone. It’s two things he doesn’t understand at once, and he doesn’t know which one to think about first.

“It’s normal,” Ignis says. “Certain people with a fair complexion get freckles when they go out in the sun. Quite normal, and certainly nothing to worry about.”

He looks at Ignis, then at Cor. Cor nods. “It’s good,” he says. “Makes you look healthy.”

Healthy. It’s the opposite of what he thought. But then – all right. The spots are normal, somehow. But the image in the phone – he frowns at it.

“Seriously,” Noctis says. “Freckles are normal. Don’t freak out about it.”

He looks up at Noctis. He’s permitted to ask, he reminds himself. So he asks.

“How did you make the image?” he asks. It’s so strange, to see an image of himself. He’s seen himself in mirrors before, sometimes – more lately, since there’s a mirror in Cor’s bathroom – but he mostly doesn’t like to look at himself. But this – the image in the phone – this is so strange, to see himself as he was a few moments ago.

“Oh,” Noctis says. “I took a picture with my phone. Look.” He gets up and comes to sit next to him on the same couch. He shows him the phone. The image of him is gone from the screen. Instead, the phone shows a moving image of part of the floor, part of the small table, one of Noctis’ feet – all the things he can see behind the phone. “It’s a camera,” Noctis says. “When you tap this button–” He taps a white circle on the screen and the image freezes. “That’s it. It takes a picture.”

He stares at the phone. He knew, of course, that it was possible to make images – he’s seen them in the books Ignis shows him. And he knows about cameras – but cameras are for watching. When he’s seen cameras, they’ve always been watching, and they record poor resolution, black and white moving images. Nothing like the images he’s seen in the books, that are clear and sharp and in full colour. It hadn’t occurred to him that it was possible to make images like that with so quickly, so simply.

Noctis is staring at him, and he realises he should have responded to the demonstration. But he doesn’t know how to respond. He feels – confused, and he wants – to touch the phone, to take it and see how it works. But he can’t, so he clenches his hands into fists and swallows the feeling down.

“Here, look,” Noctis says. He taps another symbol on the screen and suddenly the image changes. Now it’s like a mirror, showing half of Noctis’ face and the very edge of his. “We can take a selfie.”

Noctis holds the phone out in front of him. “You’ve got to get in closer, or you won’t fit in the picture,” he says.

He doesn’t understand exacly what Noctis wants, but he shuffles closer to him. He sees that the screen is now showing most of Noctis’ face, but still only the edge of his.

Noctis sighs. “C’mere,” he says. He puts his arm around him, around his shoulders, and pulls him so that their faces are very close together. Now he sees them both on the screen, Noctis smiling, him looking worried and surprised. His face is covered with spots. Noctis feels warm, so close to him. It’s strange.

“Smile,” Noctis orders. So he smiles. It doesn’t look quite right – not like Noctis’ smile. But Noctis taps the white circle and the picture freezes, their two faces filling up the screen.

“There,” Noctis says. “I’d send it to you, but I guess they’re still not letting you have a phone, huh?”

He looks at Cor. Cor shakes his head.

“Sorry, kid,” he says. He sighs. Then he pulls out his own phone. “Hey – you can take one with this, if you want,” he says, holding it out. “Then you can look at it when we’re at home.”

He takes the phone and looks at it. “I can make an image?” he says.

Take a picture,” Noctis says. He looks at Noctis, and Noctis holds his hand out. “It’s take a picture, not make an image,” he says. “Here, let me show you.”

Noctis shows him which symbols to tap to get the phone screen to start looking at the world. “There,” he says. “Now you can take a picture.”

“Yeah,” he says, looking at the screen. It’s showing his knees. He stares, fascinated. He moves his knee, and the knee in the phone moves as well. He can take a picture. What should he take a picture of? He thinks he should take a picture of Cor, but then he remembers that it’s Cor’s phone so he’ll be able to see Cor when he’s looking at it anyway. So he should take a picture of Ignis or Noctis. He hesitates. But Noctis is closer, so he’ll fill up more of the screen. So he lifts the phone and points it at Noctis.

Noctis smiles and raises his hand with his fingers spread out. He taps the white circle, and the image freezes. He stares at it. This was what he saw. Normally what he sees just disappears – he sees it, and then it’s gone. Like the bird, flying away. But now what he saw is frozen in the phone screen. Noctis, holding his hand up, even though he’s not doing it any more. He thinks about all the things he’s seen in the last days. The trees and the grass, the lake and the river and the bird. He thinks about the books of images where he first saw a tree, and the one where he saw the woman whose skin didn’t fit right. All of those were things that the person who made the image saw, and then he saw them, too. Anyone could see them. Not like trying to remember something you saw. This was getting to keep something you saw. Maybe even show other people what you saw, so they’d realise how beautiful it was.

“You OK?” Noctis says. He’s frowning a little now. “You look weird.”

He realises he’s clutching the phone so tightly, his hand is starting to go numb. His head is spinning with a new sense of possibility. But he has to give the phone back to Cor. So he turns and holds it out.

Cor raises his hand. “You don’t want to take any more?” he says. “You can take as many as you want.”

He feels his eyes widen. As many as he wants? It’s a dizzying thought. But he knows Cor will want the phone back soon. So he doesn’t spend time thinking about what it means – as many as he wants. Instead, he nods, and raises the phone. He makes an image – takes a picture – of Ignis. Then he takes one of Cor. He stares at the image, Cor looking back at him from the screen. He’s not smiling, but he doesn’t look unhappy.

“You don’t want one of me?” the one with the images asks. “I’m the hottest guy in the room.”

He turns to looks at the one with the images. The one with the images looks back. He’s smiling, but it’s a strange smile, a sort of half-smile that he can’t quite grasp the meaning of. He raises the phone, and the one with the images grins wide. He taps the white circle. Now he’s taken a picture of everyone. He turns to look at the room. Then he looks at Cor.

“Can I take more?” he asks.

“Sure,” Cor says. “I said as many as you want, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” he says. He knows Cor said that, but he also knows Cor will want his phone back soon. He doesn’t want to want too many pictures.

He goes to the counter. There’s still half an orange, there. Ignis said there was enough orange in the fruit salad, so he didn’t chop the last half. The geometry of it seems perfect, the lines radiating out from the centre, the circular outline. He takes a picture of the half orange. On the screen, it doesn’t look quite as good as it does in real life. The orange doesn’t look as bright. He takes a second picture, but the problem is the same. It’s not quite the way he wanted it. But it’s still astonishing. He saw it, and now he can keep it. Or – Cor can keep it.

He turns to see that they’re all staring at him. He feels suddenly anxious. Maybe he did something wrong? Why are they staring at him, if he didn’t do something wrong?

Then, abruptly, Ignis clears his throat. “Marshal, have I told you about the report I wrote concerning the efficiency of the royal tailors?” he says, turning to Cor.

Cor looks at him with a confused frown. But whatever he sees in Ignis’ face makes his expression clear. “Right,” he says. “Tailors. Go ahead.”

And just like that, they’re all talking. They’re not looking at him any more. The tension in his shoulders eases. Cor still hasn’t told him to give the phone back, so he looks around the room. He goes to the window. Outside, the sky is still clear, with a few white clouds. Ignis’ room is high up, and he can see a long way, all the buildings. Far away, when he sharpens his vision, he thinks he sees a smudge of green, and he wonders if that’s where they were before, him and Cor. He raises the phone and takes a picture. But the smudge of green isn’t visible on the image, and everything else looks blurred. He frowns at it, and then tries instead to take a picture of something closer: the sun reflected in the windows of a nearby building. This one comes out better, but not as good as he wants. So he takes another one. He tries moving along the window, but it doesn’t seem to help. The image is similar to what he sees, but the sun in the windows isn’t as bright as he wants. He experiments, taking pictures of various parts of the scene he can see from the windows. He realises that the camera in the phone doesn’t have the same ability to see light and darkness at the same time as his eyes do. He adjust his vision, removing some of the contrast, darkening the colours, and he sees something similar to what the camera sees – flatter, less bright. So to make the camera see what he wants it to see, he needs to do the reverse of what he did with his vision. But how? Is it even possible?

“Hey,” says a voice at his elbow. He starts, realising suddenly that he’s been so absorbed in thinking about the images that he hasn’t been paying attention to what’s around him. He looks round to see Noctis standing there.

“You wanna play something?” Noctis says. “Cards or something?”

“Yeah,” he says. He wants to try and understand what the camera in the phone is doing, how it works. He wants to find a way to take pictures that look like he wants them to look. But Noctis wants to play cards. And he wants to play cards, too. It’s good, playing cards with Noctis.

“Hey, Specs, you got those cards?” Noctis calls.

Ignis looks up from his conversation with Cor. “In the drawer, where they always are,” he says. “Does Prompto want to play?”

“Yeah,” Noctis says. Noctis goes over to the table and sits down, and he follows. Ignis sighs and gets up to fetch the cards.

“What are you playing?” Cor asks.

“Why, you want in?” Noctis asks.

Cor looks at him. Then he looks at Noctis. “Yeah,” he says. “Deal me in.”

Ignis comes back to the table, and Noctis takes the pack of cards from him with a small smile. “In that case, we’re playing Altissian pick-up,” he says.

“Seriously?” the one with the images says. “OK, I’m in. I kill at this game.”

Noctis’ smile twitches a little. “Cool,” he says, sounding uninterested. He starts to deal the cards. “Guess you’re gonna win, then.”

~

The one with the images doesn’t win. He wins, four times in a row. Then they agree to stop playing. The one with the images looks at him strangely. But Cor smiles. “You’re really good, kid,” he says. “That’s great.” He doesn’t seem upset to lose at all. He just seems pleased. It makes the thing in his chest swell, like it did in the morning when they were bouncing stones on the water.

A little while after that, they go home. He feels tired, but when he goes to bed, he can’t sleep. When he closes his eyes, images from what he saw that day flash across his mind: the lake, the river, the trees. The bird, poking at the ground with its strange mouth and looking it him with its shiny black eyes. Bouncing stones on the water. Playing cards. The orange, with its radial symmetry. He thinks about the camera in the phone, thinks and thinks. He wonders if it could be modified so that it sees exactly what he sees. So that it makes perfect images. Some of the ones he’s seen in books have seemed perfect, but he doesn’t know what the person who made the image saw. He doesn’t know if there was something else that the camera didn’t see, that’s lost now even though the image is preserved. But the images he’s seen in books have had more colour, more light and darkness, than the ones he made with Cor’s phone. So he thinks there must be a way to modify the camera, or to use it differently. Maybe he can ask Cor or Ignis about it. He imagines what it might be like, to be able to take all the astounding things he’s seen in the last few days and make images of them. To be able to keep them forever. His head spins with the idea. He feels like everything’s moving around him. There’s something thrumming in his stomach, like he’s nervous, except he’s not – and it doesn’t feel terrible, like nerves do. It feels – good, he thinks. He can’t identify the feeling. It makes him feel like he wants to get up again. Like he wants to go and find Cor’s phone, and go outside, and make images.

He can’t do that. His orders are to sleep. But the feeling’s there. And it takes a long time for sleep to come.

~

When he opens his eyes again, everything’s changed. He looks at the window to see if the sun’s been turned on yet, but the window isn’t there. He frowns, sitting up. There was certainly a window there before. But it isn’t there now. There’s just a blank wall. The room is lit by a fluorescent light, in a strip overhead. He looks around in confusion. But he doesn’t have time to think about the things that have changed, because the door opens and Cor comes in.

“Get up,” he says. “We’ve got places to go.”

He scrambles out of bed and reaches for his boots. But Cor takes him by the arm.

“You don’t need those,” he says. He leads him out of the room and down the stairs. The silent one isn’t outside his door for some reasons. They don’t go to the kitchen to have breakfast. They go out to the elevator and down to the basement. In the basement, they don’t go to Cor’s car. Instead, they go to a bigger vehicle, a black one, with a large box at the back instead of the curved capsule of Cor’s car. There are no windows in the box, but there are two doors at the back of it that open outwards. Cor opens them and gestures.

“Get in,” he says.

He gets in. There’s a narrow bench along one edge of the box, and he sits on it. He looks at Cor. But Cor doesn’t look at him. He just closes the doors.

And then he’s alone. It’s pitch black inside the box, and cold. And he’s alone.

Maybe he falls asleep again, or maybe something else happens, but the next thing he knows, someone’s opening the doors of the box. And it’s not Cor. It’s not Cor. It’s a person dressed in a familiar uniform. The face is unfamiliar, but he recognises the uniform. And beyond the person, he recognises the room. The lights, the walls, the floor. The table with the straps attached. The humming of machinery. The metallic taste of the air.

“Get out,” the one in the uniform says. He scrambles to obey. His heart feels like it’s being crushed. His stomach rolls inside him. If he’d known – if he’d known, maybe he could have prepared himself. He could have been ready. He’d started to think maybe – maybe. But he was stupid, he was so stupid. Stupid, and wrong.

He stands on the metal floor. It feels cold against his bare feet. The one in the uniform looks him up and down.

“This one’s defective,” he says to another one, who seems to have just appeared out of nowhere.

The other one nods. “To be terminated?” he asks.

“Correct it,” the first one says. “Apparently there’s a major backlog. Then run it for a while, see if it’s fixed.”

“No,” he whispers. Both of them turn to stare at him.

“What?” the first one says. “What did you say?”

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. He knows when to speak and when not to speak. He obeys orders. He always obeys orders – or he tries, he tries so hard. But he’s defective. He’s defective and Cor found out about it, and now he’s here. He’s here again and even here he can’t keep his mouth shut and obey orders, even now when he knows what’s about to happen. He feels it all welling up inside him, a rush of confusion and understanding, because he thought – he thought that maybe – after everything that happened – but he’s here, Cor sent him back. Of course Cor sent him back. He realised, he understood. Of course, of course.

He almost wishes they would terminate him instead, instead of making him go back to how things were before. No: he does wish it. To go back now – to know what he knows now and to have to go back –

Everything in him feels like it’s being crushed, his heart, his lungs, his stomach. When the first one takes his arm to lead him to the table, his legs give way underneath him. Something rises inside him, blocking his throat so he can’t breathe. The first one kicks him, and that’s enough to let it out. He covers his head with his hands and he closes his eyes and he screams.

“Hey – hey.” The first one leans over him and grabs his wrists. “Kid. Wake up.”

He struggles, trying to pull his wrists from the first one’s grasp. He grabs at his hair, pulling it. The pain helps, somehow. He’s still screaming. The sound is loud in his ears.

“Kid,” the first one says. He’s kneeling on the floor in front of him now. He’s wearing the uniform, but his features have changed. He looks like Cor, now. “Wake up. Come on, stop doing that. It’s OK.”

And then, suddenly, his stomach lurches, and he’s somewhere else. He’s in the dark, with just a dim light whose source he can’t see. He’s sitting on something soft. And Cor’s in front of him. He’s not wearing a uniform – he’s wearing the clothes he wears when he sleeps. He’s holding his wrists and kneeling in front of him, staring into his face. He gasps, feeling sick with the way his stomach keeps rolling. He’s stopped screaming, though he doesn’t remember why.

“Hey,” Cor says. “Hey – you with me?”

He stares at Cor. Then he looks around the room. It’s the room where he sleeps. The window is there, with the curtains and the plants. It’s dark outside. The door is open, and the silent one stands in the doorway, his face in shadow.

He swallows. His heart is hammering in his ears, in his skull. He doesn’t understand what happened. He was somewhere else, and then he was here? What happened to the two officers? What – what happened?

“It’s OK,” Cor says. “It was just a nightmare. Come on, don’t cry.”

And then Cor lets go of his wrists and takes hold of his shoulders. He wraps his arms around him and holds him, like he’s done a couple of times before. “Hey, it’s OK,” Cor says. “It’s OK. You’re awake now.”

He’s awake now. He’s awake. Was he – asleep? He was sleeping, and then he woke up and Cor sent him back to the facility. And then – he was in the facility, but then he was back here, in the bed. And Cor doesn’t seem angry that he’s come back from the facility. And – some of the things that happened when he woke up before didn’t make sense. How did the window disappear? And how did the officer suddenly look like Cor? And how did he get back here so fast?

“Sh, you’re awake,” Cor says. He puts a hand on the back of his head. “Sh, hey. Calm down. Take deep breaths.”

He tries to take deep breaths. His heart is still going more than twice his normal heart rate. He thinks it might be speeding up, not slowing down. Cor said you’re awake now, like he wasn’t awake before. And all the things he saw – not all of them made sense. And Cor doesn’t seem to be angry or even surprised that he came back from the facility. Because – Because –

He was asleep. He was asleep, and what he saw was a hallucination. He was hallucinating while he was asleep.

His heart lurches in his chest. Hallucinations. Hallucinations are an obvious defect. And Cor knows that something happened. Even if he doesn’t know he was hallucinating, if it happened once, it’ll happen again. And Cor will find out. He can’t hide such a major defect, not if he isn’t even aware when it’s happening. He’s deteriorating. He won’t be able to hide it for much longer. And when Cor finds out how defective he is, his hallucination will become real, and he’ll never – he’ll never –

Cor’s arms tighten around him, and he can’t control himself. He tries so hard, but he can’t. He starts to cry, much louder than before. He curls his fingers in Cor’s shirt and presses his face against Cor’s shoulder and he cries. He knows he should stop, he knows he should. But none of this really matters any more, anyway. He can’t hide his defects any more. So he stops even trying. This may be his last chance, to feel so warm. So he cries. He hears Cor speaking to him, and he doesn’t hear the words, but the tone is gentle and calm. Cor’s hand smoothes down his hair and Cor’s voice rumbles in his ears. He feels so warm.

“Don’t send me back,” he whispers into Cor’s shoulder. “Don’t send me back.”

But Cor doesn’t hear him.

Chapter Text

He cries for a long time. He keep trying to stop, because he wants to stop before Cor gets angry with him. But he doesn’t stop, and Cor doesn’t get angry. Cor just sits and holds him, and sometimes says things that he doesn’t really hear, and sometimes smoothes his hair. And even though he tries to stop crying, he never succeeds. He’s never functioned as well as the other MTs, never really functioned well at all. But now it seems like his systems have broken down entirely.

Eventually, he comes to a point where he’s not crying any more. He’s never cried for so long before, but it seems that there’s a limit to the number of tears he can produce. His eyes feel swollen and unpleasant, and his head aches. He doesn’t know whether those things are a byproduct of the crying or another sign of his systems collapsing. He keeps his face pressed into Cor’s shoulder. Cor must realise by now that he’s suffering from some kind of serious defect. Perhaps Cor doesn’t know about the hallucinations, but he knows about the crying. So now it’s only a matter of time. He feels the warmth of Cor’s shoulder against his closed eyelids, against his forehead, and he tries to soak it in, to feel this as much as he can, since this is his last chance.

Nothing happens for a short while. Then Cor moves his hands to his shoulders. He pushes gently, trying to pull them apart. And so that’s the end. And so he lets go of Cor and sits back. He isn’t even scared any more. He doesn’t feel anything at all.

Cor looks into his face. He has to lower his head a little to do so. The light’s very dim, and he doesn’t know what Cor sees. But he sees Cor. He sees Cor frowning, and he knows what Cor’s thinking. What Cor will do next.

“You done?” Cor asks.

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. His throat hurts, and his voice sounds hoarse.

Cor nods. He looks at the door, at the silent one who’s still standing in the doorway. “Get us some water, Arcis.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. He disappears, the sound of his feet on the stairs loud in the quiet.

Cor turns back to him. “You want to tell me what it was about?” he asks. “You don’t have to, but you can.”

He stares at Cor. He doesn’t understand. He wants so hard not to have to admit he doesn’t understand, not after everything. But he can’t think of a way to answer the question that won’t reveal his stupidity. He thinks and thinks, but his mind just goes in circles: he’ll send me back, he’ll send me back, and no answer, nothing useful at all. A moment ago, he felt nothing, but now he feels anxiety rising in his stomach, in his mind, until he can almost hear it, like a shrieking sound in his ears. And he can’t help himself – he doesn’t even try, because there’s no point. There’s no point trying any more, so he doesn’t try. He just puts his hands over his ears and closes his eyes, and for a moment, he feels a little bit better.

It’s a short moment. Almost immediately, Cor’s hands leave his shoulders. Then Cor grips his wrists. He pulls his hands away from his ears.

“Hey,” Cor says. He’s starting to sound angry now. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

He’s not hurt. He’s defective. He’s defective. And Cor’s angry.

“No,” he says. He tries to say it clearly, but it comes out so softly that he almost doesn’t hear it himself.

“You’re not hurt?” Cor says. “Can you open your eyes?”

He doesn’t want to open his eyes. But he can’t disobey Cor, so he opens them.

Cor is looking into his face. He’s frowning. Is he angry? He sounded angry, but he can’t tell.

“Shit,” Cor mutters. He’s still holding his wrists. “Kid, what’s going on here? Have you got–” He lets go of his wrists and gestures towards his own ears. “Are your ears ringing? Or – why did you put your hands over them? Are you hearing noises?” He shakes his head. “If something’s wrong, you gotta tell me, OK? I need to tell the doctor.”

There. Cor’s told him, now. He’s given him a direct order to answer a specific question. So he can’t do anything. He can’t do anything, now.

“Yes,” he whispers. He puts his hands in his lap, even though he wants to put them back over his ears. His thoughts seem to be shouting, still, shrieking. It makes it hard to think.

“Yes?” Cor says. He frowns deeper. “Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir,” he says.

“No,” Cor says, “that’s not what I meant – fuck, I’m fucking this up.” He shakes his head again, running a hand over his face. “I meant – yes, your ears are ringing? Is that what you were saying yes to?”

Slowly, he shakes his head. “Not ringing,” he says. “I – you said – hearing noises.”

“You’re hearing noises?” Cor asks. He puts his hands on his shoulders again. “Kid, really? What kind of noises?”

He swallows. He doesn’t want to tell Cor. But he has to – and in some ways, maybe it’ll be better, once he knows. Once it’s all over. At least it will be over.

“People talking,” he says. He swallows again, his stomach feeling like it’s turning over. “I saw them, too.” There: he’s said it. Cor knows now.

He’s aware that Cor’s staring at him. He doesn’t meet his eyes. He stares down at his hands in his lap. They’re twisted together. It looks painful, but he can’t feel the pain.

“You saw them?” Cor says. He sounds – not angry. Frightened. But he can’t be frightened. How could Cor be frightened? So he must be angry. “You – you’re seeing things? Are you seeing things right now?”

He shakes his head. “Before,” he says. “When I was asleep.”

There’s a long pause. He feels the pressure of Cor’s fingers increase on his shoulders. He waits for it to become painful, but it doesn’t. It just decreases again.

“When you were asleep?” Cor asks. “You mean – you were dreaming?”

He doesn’t know what dreaming means, but he can guess. “Yes,” he says. “I saw things when I was dreaming.”

Another pause. “OK,” Cor says. He doesn’t sound angry any more. He sounds confused. “But it was just a dream. All right? Do you want to tell me about it?”

No. He doesn’t want to tell Cor about it. He doesn’t want to have told him what he’s already told him. He doesn’t understand why Cor isn’t doing anything about it. Why he’s just sitting there, asking him questions. He keeps his head down. He thought it would be over now. But it’s not – but Cor hasn’t done anything. Why hasn’t Cor done anything?

“Kid?” Cor says. “It was pretty brutal, yeah. I saw that. But you’re OK now. It was just a dream.”

Just. Just. As though hallucinating isn’t a severe defect. He’s seen it before: MT units whose minds break down. It’s not always hallucinations, but the end result is the same, regardless of the form the defects take. There’s only one thing you can do with a unit that’s reached such an advanced state of deterioration. He just hopes – he hopes Cor will do it himself. Or at least do it here, in this place. That he won’t send him back to the facility.

He feels his throat start aching, and he tries to go back to how he was a few minutes ago, when he felt nothing at all. But he can’t find a way to get back there. He doesn’t have any control of himself any more. He’s been losing it for a while, it seems. It’s like every minute he feels something different, and all of it is so strong.

Then Cor puts a hand on his chin. He lifts it, so they’re face to face. “What can I do?” Cor asks. “Tell me what I can do to help.”

He swallows. “Don’t send me back,” he whispers. It can’t hurt, now. How can it hurt? The end will be the same anyway.

“What?” Cor says. “Send you back where?”

He opens his mouth, but the words seem caught in his throat. Why isn’t it over yet? He just wants it to be over.

“Kid?” Cor says.

“To the facility,” he says. The words come out sounding scratchy and strange, even though he tries to say them clearly. “Don’t send me back to the facility. Please, sir – please, Cor.”

Then there’s a silence. He doesn’t dare look at Cor’s face, so he stares at the collar of his shirt. Cor’s hand is still holding his chin. His other hand is on his shoulder.

“Why would you think I would do that?” Cor says at last. He sounds angry. “Why would I – why the fuck would I ever send you back there?”

He closes his eyes. He’s made Cor angry. He was prepared for that. But not for this: for Cor to say that he wasn’t going to send him back. If he wasn’t going to send him back, why is he angry? His thoughts feel somehow blurred and sharp at the same time – muddy with confusion, edged with fear. What has he done? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t understand anything.

“Because I’m defective,” he says. He says it out loud. And he looks at Cor. Because he can’t bear this any more, having to say this, word by word. He wants it to be over, so he doesn’t have to any more.

What?” Cor says. He lets go of his chin and grabs his shoulder again. He squeezes. “What did you just say?”

“Hey,” says someone else, then. He looks round and he sees it’s the silent one. He’s standing there, by the bed, holding a glass of water. He’s looking at Cor. “You’re scaring him.”

Cor looks at the silent one. Then he lets go of his shoulders. He sits back on his heels and covers his face with his hands. He just sits there for a moment. Then he takes his hands away from his face and reaches out towards the silent one. He takes the glass of water and holds it out to him.

“Here,” he says. “Drink some of this.”

He takes the glass. His fingers feel weak, and he almost drops it. Even once he’s tightened his grip, his hand’s shaking so much that when he tries to lift it to his lips, water slops over the rim of the glass and spatters on his knees.

“Hey,” Cor says. He reaches out. But he doesn’t take the glass from him. Instead, he wraps his hand around it, so both of them are holding the glass, Cor’s hand on the outside, his on the inside. “OK?” Cor says.

The glass is much steadier now. He lifts it to his lips and drinks. Cor doesn’t try and control the glass. He just holds it, and follows it with his hand wherever it moves. The water feels good on his throat. He didn’t realise how much it hurt before. He drinks some more. He feels it travelling down through his body, spreading through him, cool and fluid. It makes him feel – less unreal, even though he still doesn’t understand anything.

When he’s finished drinking, Cor takes the glass away. He sits and looks at him. He doesn’t look angry any more.

“OK,” he says. “OK. Listen.” Then he doesn’t say anything else. But he’s done that before – ordered him to listen and then not said anything – so he doesn’t try to understand. He just sits and listens, and waits for what’s going to happen next, and hopes it happens quickly and is over soon.

“You don’t have to be scared of me,” Cor says at last. “Not ever. I’m not going to hurt you, all right?”

He swallows. It’s not what he was expecting. “Yes,” he says, since Cor seems to be waiting for him to respond.

“No,” Cor says. “I don’t want you to just – agree like that. I need you to understand. To trust me. Do you trust me?”

He looks down at his hands. He tries to swallow around the sudden ache in his throat.

Cor takes a breath, loud in the stillness. “OK,” he says. His voice sounds a little unsteady. “Guess I had that coming.”

He doesn’t know what Cor means, so he doesn’t say anything. Cor clears his throat.

“All right,” he says. “You don’t trust me. I get it – I really messed up. So maybe it’s hard for you to believe what I say any more. But, kid, no-one is ever going to send you back to that facility. Understand me? You are never, ever going back there. And if anyone ever tries to take you there, I’ll stop them, OK? I promise you. I will never let you go back there.”

He stares at Cor. Cor looks back at him. He doesn’t look like he’s lying. But – he didn’t look like he was lying before, either, when he had the test. And why would he say that he would never send him back to the facility? There are two possibilities: first, Cor’s telling the truth, but then he doesn’t understand why. Second, he’s lying, because this is another test, or for another reason. He tries to estimate the probability of each option, but he feels so tired. And he doesn’t want to estimate the probabilities. He wants to believe Cor. He wants to, so much. He wants to believe it, because – if he could believe it, if he could believe Cor would never send him back – and he wants to believe Cor because – it feels right. But even though he wants it, there’s part of him that tells him not to be stupid. Not to be so stupid, not again. Not to believe something like that, because then it will be so much worse when it turns out to be wrong.

It’s not a small part.

Cor’s looking at him. He doesn’t look like he’s lying. But maybe he is. Maybe.

“How would you stop them?” he asks. “If someone tried to take me back.” He wonders, wonders. Is there something he can ask Cor that will help determine if he’s telling the truth?

Cor’s eyebrows draw down a little. “By any means necessary,” he says. “No matter who it was.”

And he–

–he believes Cor. He doesn’t want to let himself, but somehow he can’t help it. Something about how Cor says it, something about his face, his shoulders, the way he sits. Something.

He swallows. “Why?” he asks. He doesn’t understand why.

And now Cor’s face changes again. “Why what?” he asks. “Why would I stop them taking you back?”

He nods. His throat is aching again. He tries to swallow around it. He wishes for more water.

“Shit, kid,” Cor says. He looks sideways and down, and puts his hand over his eyes for a moment. Then he sighs and lifts his head. “Because what they did to you in that place – wasn’t right,” he says. His hands are by his sides, clenched into fists. “It wasn’t right,” he says again. “No-one deserves that. You didn’t deserve any of that, and I’m going to make sure – I’m going to make sure nothing like that ever happens to you again. I’m going to make sure of it.”

He sits and stares at Cor. He doesn’t understand. He’s an MT unit. He’s supposed to be in a training facility, training to become a level five and carry out his duty. What does Cor mean, it wasn’t right? It was right. Wasn’t it right?

“I’m–” he says, and then can’t bring himself to say the words. But he has to say them. He can’t bear to keep not understanding this. “I’m supposed to be in the facility,” he says.

“Bullshit,” Cor says. “That’s bullshit, kid. You’re not supposed to be there. You don’t belong there. You aren’t supposed to be there.” Cor says it with such vehemence, with such conviction, that for a moment it feels right. It feels right. But he – but he doesn’t understand.

“Where am I supposed to be?” he asks.

Cor stares at him a moment. Then he swipes his hand across his eyes and shakes his head.

“You’re supposed to be here with me,” he says. “This is where you belong. Here, with me.”

He sits back on his heels. It’s not what he expected. He doesn’t know what he expected, but not – not that. He wants it to be true. He wants it to be true, so much. But he’s an MT unit. How can it be true, when he’s an MT unit? There are no other MT units here. If he’s supposed to be here, then why aren’t there other MT units here?

Cor’s still staring at him. His eyes glint in the dim light.

“Isn’t that what you want?” Cor asks. “Are you – you’re not – you want to be here, right?”

He doesn’t respond. He wants to, but he can’t. He thinks if he responds – if he says yes, because he wants to be here so much – he won’t be able to restrain himself any longer. He won’t be able to stop himself from believing that Cor is telling the truth, even if it doesn’t make any sense, even if he feels sure it can’t be right. And if he believes it and then it turns out it wasn’t real after all–

“What about the hallucination?” he asks. “What are you going to do?”

“The what?” Cor asks, frowning in confusion.

“The – while I was asleep,” he says. “The hallucination.”

Cor’s face clears. “The dream you had?” he says.

He nods. “What are you going to do?” he asks. His voice comes out very quiet. If Cor isn’t going to send him back – what is he going to do about the defect? About any of his other defects?

Cor scrubs his hands across his face, then looks over his shoulder.

“Hey, Arcis,” he says. “You said your kid brother used to get nightmares, right?”

The silent one is leaning in the doorway. He nods, his face in shadow.

“Yeah,” he says. “Pretty bad.”

“What did you do about them?” Cor asks.

The silent one shrugs. “Hot milk is good,” he says. “Mom used to sit with him until he went back to sleep. Sometimes even all the way till morning.”

Cor nods. “OK,” he says. He sounds confident, sure of himself. “That’s what we’ll do. Arcis, the hot milk.”

“On it, sir,” the silent one says, and disappears from the doorway. Cor turns back to him.

“OK?” he says.

He stares at Cor. He doesn’t understand. He even asked Cor, even though it would have been better to stay quiet, but he didn’t understand the answer at all. He feels so tired, and his stomach’s churning, and his eyes feel hot and prickly and he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t understand.

Cor frowns. “Oh, no, I know that look,” he says. “I got it wrong. I’m sorry, kid. I don’t know what I got wrong, so you’re going to have to tell me.”

He swallows. “The hallucination,” he says. His voice is wavering, and he swallows again. “It’s a defect. Aren’t – aren’t you going to do anything?”

Cor stares at him. He stares at him for a long time – several seconds. Then he nods and looks down, at his hands.

“So that is what you said,” he says. Then he shakes his head and looks up. “You had it while you were sleeping, right?”

He nods. It was so disorienting, to fall asleep and then to hallucinate and not be awake, to not know he wasn’t even awake.

“So it was a dream,” Cor says. “It was a dream, right?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Right,” Cor says. He sits, like he’s waiting for something. Then he tilts his head to one side. “Wait – have you ever done that before? Hallucinated while you were asleep?”

“No,” he says, as quickly as he can. Maybe if Cor knows it’s a brand-new defect – maybe it will be easier to correct?

Cor closes his eyes a moment. “Seriously?” he mutters. Then he opens his eyes. He leans forward. He puts his hands on his shoulders. His hands feel warm.

“Kid,” he says. “You’re not defective. OK? You had a dream. It’s normal. It’s normal for people to dream when they’re asleep. It’s important, even. Somehow at that facility – somehow they stopped you from dreaming, fuck knows how they did it, but you’re supposed to dream. Everybody dreams. It’s not a defect. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.”

He stares at Cor. Every time Cor says something, it’s something he didn’t expect. He’s starting to feel as though perhaps he’s still hallucinating, because – nothing makes any sense. How can hallucinating be normal? He’s absolutely certain that it isn’t true that everybody hallucinates, but then that means that Cor is lying to him again, and if that’s the case, then what’s the purpose? Is it a test? Is he supposed to say he believes Cor as proof of his loyalty? Or question him as proof that his logical reasoning capabilities are functioning correctly? He feels suddenly light-headed, disconnected from everything. The room spins a little, and he closes his eyes.

“Hey, whoa,” Cor says. The grip on his shoulders tightens. “You all right?”

He opens his eyes again. Cor is staring at him. He looks worried.

“Come on,” Cor says. “Sit down.”

Cor pushes on his shoulders, and he yields, letting himself be moved until he’s sitting on the bed with his back to the wall. It feels better, having the wall there. Less like he might fall. Then Cor sits beside him and puts an arm across his shoulders. Cor’s arm feels warm and solid, heavy, but not in a painful way. He closes his fingers around the bedspread, feeling it bunch up in his hands. That feels solid, too. Is he still hallucinating? He doesn’t think so. But he didn’t think he was before, either.

The silent one appears in the doorway. He’s carrying a cup. He brings it over to the bed and holds it out.

“Take care,” he says. “It’s hot.”

He lets go of the bedspread and reaches out to take the cup. In it is the white drink he’s had a few times before. It’s called milk, he remembers. Usually it’s cold, but the silent one said it was hot, and he feels the warmth through the cup. It smells different, too. Not just like milk. It smells good, warm and inviting.

“I put cinammon in it,” the silent one says. “That’s what Mom always does.”

“Thanks, Arcis,” Cor says.

“No problem, sir,” the silent one says. He stands, looking at him. “I’m sorry, kid. Nightmares suck.”

He knows suck means bad, but he doesn’t know what nightmares are, though Cor’s already said the word more than once. He tries for a moment to pretend he does know. But he’s so tired. He’s so tired and he feels like nothing at all makes sense any more. Maybe he’s even still hallucinating, and if he is, none of this matters anyway. So he looks at Cor.

Nightmares means bad dreams,” Cor says when he sees him looking. “Not all dreams are bad. Sometimes they’re even really great. I’m sorry your first one was a nightmare, kid. You didn’t deserve that.”

The silent one frowns at him. “First one?” he says. “You’ve never had a dream before?”

He stares at the silent one. If it’s a test – if it’s a lie – then the silent one must be involved as well. But is that possible? He tries to unravel it. If the silent one is involved, they must have planned it. But when? How did they know he would hallucinate? Did they – maybe they were the ones that made him hallucinate in the first place? But why? Or –

Maybe it’s not a test.

“They did something to him, in Niflheim,” Cor says. He sounds angry. “Stopped him from dreaming somehow. I didn’t realise he’d never had one, or I would have – warned him, I guess.”

“Six,” the silent one says. “Those assholes.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Cor says. His arm tightens around his shoulders. “Drink your milk, kid.”

He sips at the milk. It tastes thick and warm and smooth. Once he’s been sipping it for a while, he starts to feel warm all over. The silent one goes back to stand in the doorway. Cor sits beside him, his arm around his shoulders. He doesn’t speak.

When the milk is gone, Cor takes the cup from him.

“We got a lot of things to talk about,” he says. “But not now. It’s the middle of the night. We’ll talk in the morning. All right?”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks at him. “It’s not going to be anything bad,” he says. “We’re going to try and get some things straight. But you’re not in trouble. You won’t be in any trouble. I just want to help you understand some things, all right?”

Something in him loosens a little. “Yes,” he says again.

“Good,” Cor says. He runs a hand through his hair. “Great. You’re not defective, and no-one’s ever sending you back to that place. Those are the most important things. You got those things, kid?”

“Yes,” he says, even though he knows he’s defective. And if Cor’s lying about him being defective, then maybe he’s lying about not sending him back, too.

“All right,” Cor says. He pulls his arm from around his shoulders and gets off the bed. He sits in the chair at the table. “I’m going to stay here while you go to sleep, so if you have any more bad dreams I can wake you up straight away. Sound good?”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. “Go to sleep, then,” he says. “I’ll be here.”

He climbs under the bedspread and closes his eyes. He can feel Cor watching him. He wants to believe everything Cor said. That he belongs where he is now. That he isn’t defective. That no-one will send him back. He wants to believe all of it. But it doesn’t feel right. In his heart, it doesn’t feel true. And some of it can’t be true. It’s not normal to hallucinate. It can’t be normal. It can’t be anything other than a defect. And if Cor lied about that, then maybe he lied about everything. Maybe. Maybe.

He lies still and keeps his eyes closed. But it takes him a long time to get to sleep.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, the sun’s already been turned on, and Cor isn’t there any more. The bed feels cold, even though he knows it’s warm, and his stomach’s churning even though nothing’s happened. He’s been asleep, and nothing’s happened. But his stomach’s churning anyway.

He sits up. There’s a white square of paper on the table where Cor was sitting. There are words on it, and he sharpens his vision to read them.

I’m downstairs, they say. Come down whenever you’re ready.

He knows Cor wrote it, even though it doesn’t have any attribution. He sharpens his hearing, and he hears sounds in the kitchen: something bubbling, someone putting a cup down on the table, someone breathing. Cor breathing. Cor said he wasn’t in trouble, that nothing would happen. But his stomach is churning anyway.

He gets up and gets dressed. He’s not sure exactly what Cor meant by whenever you’re ready, but he thinks ready must mean dressed. Once he’s dressed, then, his orders are to go downstairs.

But he doesn’t. He goes towards the door, but he stops. His eyes feel sore, the skin around them swollen and strange. His head hurts. His stomach churns. Everything that happened the night before – the hallucination, and what happened with Cor afterwards – seems strange and indistinct in his memory. But he knows it happened, because of how sore his eyes are.

He looks at the plants. They’re on the windowsill, and the sunlight falling on them makes their colours seem brighter: the green, the red, the yellow. He checks to make sure they’re not too dry. He put water on the red one the night before. But he checks anyway. He touches their leaves. He tries to think of something else he has to do, some other order he has to fulfil before he goes downstairs. But there’s nothing. So he has to go downstairs.

He goes out onto the landing. The silent one is there, standing outside the door.

“Morning, kid,” the silent one says. “You get some sleep?”

“Yes,” he says.

The silent one peers into his face. “You look pretty rough,” he says.

He isn’t sure of the appropriate response. “Yes,” he says at last. The silent one laughs.

“Better go see papa bear, then,” he says. “He looks rough, too. You two can spend all morning failing to talk to each other.”

He doesn’t understand what the silent one means. Cor said they were going to talk today, about something important. So why is the silent one saying that they’re not going to talk? Have Cor’s plans changed?

“Don’t look at me like that, kid,” the silent one says. “I’m just messing with you. Go on, he’s waiting.”

He still doesn’t understand, but he goes downstairs. The silent one follows, but stops outside the kitchen door. He doesn’t stop, though. He goes inside.

Cor’s sitting at the table, holding a cup. When he sees him, he puts the cup down and stands up.

“Morning,” he says. “Sleep OK?”

“Yes,” he says. He waits to see if Cor will sit down again. But Cor stays standing, looking around the room.

“Wish I had a couch,” Cor mutters. He looks at him and half-shrugs. “When I first got this place –guess I thought I didn’t need a living room. The people who lived here before had one, but I turned it into an office.” He gestures at the door, then sighs. “Before you came here, I didn’t – do a whole lot of relaxing, I guess.” He rubs the back of his head. “Pretty sad, right?”

He’s not sure what Cor means. “Yes,” he says.

Cor’s eyes widen slightly, then he laughs. “Right,” he says. He looks around again. “I should get a couch,” he says. “Maybe a bigger apartment.”

He waits. There’s no couch. He’s not sure if Cor is going to get a couch now. Or get a bigger apartment now. But Cor doesn’t go anywhere. He sighs and sits down. Then he stands up again.

“We’re going to the park,” he says. “OK?”

The park is the place where Noctis and Ignis took him, two days ago now. The place where he first saw grass and trees. “Yes,” he says. He thought they were going to talk, but going to the park is much better.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He grabs the soup vessel that’s standing on the table. “Let’s go.”

And so they go.

~

The sky is blue again. It’s not like the last time he went to the park, when there were lots of clouds. And when Ignis and Noctis were there. But the park is the same: the broad expanse of green, the trees, the patches of colour. They don’t talk on the way. He thinks maybe the silent one was right: Cor’s plans have changed, and now they’re going to the park instead of talking. He doesn’t mind. The park is beautiful. And talking is difficult.

They sit on the bench where he sat with Noctis and Ignis. He remembers how he felt, then – how he couldn’t even look at everything to start off with, because there was so much. It’s all still here, but now, after all the things he’s seen in the last two days, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. He looks at the pillars, and now he knows they’re trees, and they’re alive. He listens to the irregular chimes, and now he knows they’re birds, and they’re alive, too. He even sees some, flying from tree to tree. He understands so much more now, even though so little time has passed.

“So,” Cor says, when they’ve been sitting in silence for a few minutes.

He looks at Cor. But Cor doesn’t look at him – he looks forward, at the grass and the trees. Cor’s sitting very straight. He wonders if Cor wants him to respond to what he said. But – he didn’t really say anything. He just said so.

“Yeah,” Cor mutters then. “I suck at this.” Then he turns to look at him. “OK,” he says. “There’s something really important before we start.”

He’s not sure what they’re about to start doing. But he nods and sits as still as he can, so he doesn’t miss any details of the important thing.

“If you don’t understand something, you need to tell me,” Cor says. “All right? Not just now, either. From now on, if you don’t understand something I’m saying to you, you have to tell me.”

He opens his mouth. But no words come out. There are so many things he doesn’t understand. If he has to tell Cor all of them, then–

–but he has to. Cor ordered him to. So–

He swallows. Cor frowns at him.

“You OK?” he says. “Is that all right?”

“Yes,” he says. His voice sounds strange.

“Right,” Cor says. “Right.” He frowns. “So you’re going to tell me, right?”

He takes a breath. “Yes,” he says. He doesn’t want to. But Cor says he has to.

“Great,” Cor says. He’s still frowning. “That’s great, kid.” He taps his fingers against his thigh, turning his face away. He looks out at the expanse of green. “It’s nice here,” he says. “You like it here?”

He looks: at the trees, the grass, the sky. He sees birds, three of them, flying so fast it’s hard to see them properly. It makes his heart jump a little in his chest to see them.

“Yes,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

Cor’s face changes, then. He’s still frowning, but he starts to look surprised. He glances at him, then looks back at the park. “Yeah,” he says quietly. He stops tapping his fingers. “Yeah, you’re right.” He doesn’t say anything for a moment or two. He just looks at the park. Then he breathes in through his nose and turns to him.

“Last night you called me sir,” he says.

“Yes,” he says. He remembers, even though it seems hazy, like he imagined it. Or hallucinated it.

“You think of me as your superior officer,” Cor says.

He hesitates. It’s true – of course he thinks that, because that’s what Cor is – but something about the way Cor’s looking at him makes him think maybe yes isn’t the correct answer. But he definitely can’t say no. He takes a breath.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. He doesn’t look angry. He seems to be looking at nothing for a second, then he nods again.

“I don’t think of you as my subordinate,” he says.

He stares at Cor. It’s not what he expected. And he doesn’t understand, at all. He tries to think of ways that what Cor said could mean something different, but his mind is blank.

“You’re not a soldier,” Cor says, then.

He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’m an MT unit.”

“No,” Cor says. “That’s not what you are. You’re a human being.”

He understands, then. He understands, and he doesn’t understand. It isn’t the first time Cor’s said that he’s human, though it’s been a little while. He thought Cor realised that he was wrong – but now he knows that he didn’t. So he understands: Cor thinks he’s human, and that’s why Cor thinks he’s not his subordinate. He doesn’t fully understand the relationships between humans, but some of them (like Noctis) behave as though they’re not subordinate, even to people who clearly outrank them (like Ignis). So he knows there’s something there he doesn’t understand. He understands that this is why Cor thinks he’s not a subordinate. But he doesn’t understand why Cor thinks he’s human.

“I’m an MT unit,” he says again. Surely this fact is undeniable.

“No,” Cor says. “You’re a human being.”

He stares at Cor. Cor stares back at him. There’s nothing in Cor’s face to help him understand what Cor said. You’re a human being. As though it’s an obvious thing.

“I don’t understand,” he says at last.

Cor doesn’t say anything for a moment. “How are MT units made?” he asks at last.

He wonders if Cor is asking because he doesn’t know, or as some kind of test. “MT units are grown from a single cell,” he says. “When they’re old enough to be useful, they become level one MT units and begin training and modification.”

Cor looks angry, even though the information was correct. Then he takes a breath, and his face smoothes out.

“OK,” he says. “So before they begin – modification, the kids are just – organic, right? No machine parts?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Right,” Cor says. “So then, they’re human.”

He frowns. “No,” he says. “They’re MT units.”

Cor hesitates. He looks at him, then he look away. He frowns, like he’s thinking. Then he says, “OK. What makes them MT units rather than humans?”

He stares at Cor. Why is he asking that question? It seems ridiculous. MT units are MT units and humans are humans. They’re different things. Surely Cor already knows that? How could anyone not know?

But maybe Cor does know. Maybe it’s a test, to see how much he understands. So he thinks. What is it that makes MT units different from humans, even before they’ve been modified and trained?

Simple. “MT units are made,” he says. “Humans are born.” He doesn’t have a very clear idea of what it means, to be born, but he knows it’s different from being made. Humans are people, because they’re born. MT units are objects, because they’re made.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Grown from a single cell, you said?”

“Yes,” he says. Cor agreed with him, so he must have passed the test.

“Humans are grown from a single cell, too,” Cor says.

He opens his mouth. But he can’t think of what to say. Is Cor lying to him?

“All living things grow from a single cell,” Cor says. “That’s how being alive works. Those assholes made you in the sense that they gave your cell somewhere to grow, but that’s all. Your single cell came from a human, just like all cells that eventually grow into humans. So you’re human.”

He realises his mouth is still open. He closes it. It’s not the same. He knows it’s not the same. But he doesn’t know enough about humans to be able to show Cor how it’s not the same.

“MT units are made to serve,” he says. “We’re made. I’m – I was made, by the program. I don’t – I don’t–”

“Hey,” Cor says. “Don’t freak out. I mean – don’t get scared. I’m not telling you this to scare you. I just want you to understand.”

He does understand. He did understand. He’s always understood: MT units are objects. Humans are people. They are fundamentally different. That’s what he understands. What he doesn’t understand is why Cor’s saying what he’s saying. Can it be a test? If so, he should have passed it by now. But if not, then why is Cor saying what he’s saying?

“MT units grow in tanks,” he says. Maybe Cor just doesn’t know enough about MT units to realise. “Until they’re old enough to be useful.”

Cor’s expression darkens. “I’m gonna regret asking this, but – how long does that take?” he asks.

Good. Cor just didn’t understand. “I don’t know,” he says. “Lots of days. Until they’re strong enough to walk and have enough dexterity to grasp things with their hands.”

Cor nods. “And no-one lets them out before then?” he asks. “Talks to them, touches them – plays with them?”

“No,” he says. “Play like – play cards?”

Cor’s mouth tightens. He starts tapping his fingertips on his thigh again. He sits there like that for a moment, not saying anything. Then he turns to him.

“Hey, uh,” Cor says. Then he leans forward and puts his arms around him. He holds him tightly, like he did the night before, when he was crying. He doesn’t know why Cor does this. Cor’s done it several times, and he doesn’t know why. But it feels warm and solid, and he realises he doesn’t want Cor to stop.

But Cor does stop. He lets go, and sits back. But he doesn’t let go entirely. He holds onto his shoulders.

“Listen,” he says. “I don’t care what those assholes told you. I don’t care how many times they told you. You’re human. You’re as human as me, or Arcis, or Noctis, or anyone. And they should have–” He stops, then clears his throat. “They should have at least held you when you were a baby. They could have at least done that.”

His heart sinks. He doesn’t understand what baby means, but Cor said he was human again, even though he explained about how MT units are made. He wants this test to be over. He doesn’t know what he can say to make Cor decide to stop testing him.

“Hey,” Cor says. “You all right?”

“Yes,” he says. His voice is sounding strange again. His throat is aching, and he swallows once, and again, but it doesn’t help.

“Shit,” Cor says. “I didn’t mean to freak you out. Don’t freak out, kid.”

He shakes his head. He feels so tired, all of a sudden. “I know MT units aren’t human,” he says. “Please – I don’t know what you want.”

Cor frowns. “What?” he says, and then, “What do you mean, what I want?

“For the test,” he whispers. “What you want so I’ll pass the test.”

Cor doesn’t say anything. He just looks at him with a strange expression on his face. He doesn’t know what the expression means, but it makes him feel bad. Then Cor suddenly closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Fuck,” he mutters. He sits there for a moment, his eyes squeezed shut, grimacing as though he’s in pain. Then, abruptly, he stands up.

“I just – I gotta–” he says, and turns sharply away, taking three steps away from the bench and putting his hand over his eyes.

The silent one comes over from where he’s been standing a short distance away. “You OK, sir?” he asks, his voice very quiet. He sharpens his hearing so he won’t miss what Cor says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He can’t see Cor’s face, but his voice sounds strained. “Just – can you sit with the kid for a minute?”

“Of course,” the silent one says. He sits down in the place Cor was sitting before, and Cor walks away without looking back. The silent one looks at him.

“Rough morning, huh?” he says.

It’s the third time the silent one has said rough today without apparently meaning anything regarding texture. He nods and hopes it’s the correct response.

“Yeah,” the silent one says. He leans back, putting his arms out across the back of the seat, and turns his head to look at where Cor is standing some distance away, his back to them and his head down. “You know, if you’d told me a few weeks ago that pretty soon I’d see Cor the Immortal cry, I would have laughed in your face.” He turns to look at him. He’s smiling, but it’s a strange sort of smile. “You must have superpowers or something.”

He understands most of the words, but not how the meaning of the first sentence fits with the second. “Yes,” he says.

The silent one laughs, a short laugh that sounds surprised. “Yeah?” he says. “What superpowers are they?”

He opens his mouth. But he doesn’t know how to answer. He’s not completely sure what the silent one means by superpowers. The silent one tilts his head to one side.

“Huh,” he says. “Guess you didn’t understand what I said?”

He swallows. He wishes the silent one would go back to being silent.

“Yeah, Ignis told me you do that,” the silent one says. “You can tell me if you don’t understand stuff, you know. I won’t tell anyone. Not even papa bear.”

It’s what everyone says. Ignis said it, Noctis said it, Cor said it. Now even the silent one has said it. He’s allowed to ask questions. He can tell someone if he doesn’t understand something. It still feels wrong in his stomach, but every time he’s done it, it’s been good. He’s learned things. It’s made things better. So he asks.

“What does papa bear mean?” he asks.

The silent one laughs again. “Just a little nickname I have for the marshal,” he says, and then, “I mean Cor.” He taps the side of his nose. “Our secret,” he says. “Never imagined him as the fatherly type, but here we are.”

He can ask. So he asks. “What does fatherly mean?”

The silent one sits back. His smile disappears. “Seriously?” he says.

It wasn’t the right question. He grips the wooden seat, trying to think of what response he might give to correct his mistake. But the silent one rubs the back of his head and looks worried.

“I didn’t – uh, I don’t know if I’m the right guy to–” he says. He looks around at Cor. “Hey, he’s coming back.”

It’s true: Cor is walking towards them, and the silent one jumps to his feet.

“All yours, sir,” he says, and then walks quickly away.

Cor sits down next to him. He sighs, then takes a deep breath. He turns to face him.

“Kid,” he says. “I know I fucked up. I know it. And – I know you don’t trust me. That’s fair. But I promise you, this is not a test. I’m not ever going to do that again. No more tests, not from me. I’m not going to lie to you again. And I know you’ve got no reason to believe me, but it’s the truth. I’m so – so sorry. I’m sorry.”

He tries to consider this, but his mind’s whirling. No more tests? He wants to believe it. He feels the pull, like he did the night before, his heart believing it before his mind has a chance to stop it.

“Why are you sorry?” he asks. The test was necessary; he understands that.

Cor raises his eyebrows. “Because I hurt you,” he says. “We hurt you – Clarus and Regis and me. But I’m the one you trusted, so the responsibility is mine. I hurt you, and it’s the last thing I wanted to do. If someone else hurt you, I’d take them down. But it was me, so I can’t do that. I can’t fix it. I’m just sorry.”

Cor’s sorry because he hurt him. It’s true: it did hurt. Not physically, but – but it hurt to think he was going to die. And it hurt afterwards, whenever he thought about it. It still hurts to think about it now. But he still doesn’t understand.

“Why does it matter if you hurt me?” he asks.

Cor closes his eyes. Then he opens them. “Because you’re a person,” he says. “You’re not a thing that people can just damage and it doesn’t matter. It matters what happens to you. I care what happens to you. No-one should just be able to hurt you, least of all me.”

Here it is again: Cor is saying that he’s human. But he’s not human. He’s an MT unit. Cor promised it wasn’t a test, but if it’s not a test, then – why is Cor saying these things?

“Look,” Cor says when he doesn’t respond, “you have people you care about, right? Like–” He hesitates. “–Ignis and Noctis. Would you be OK with it if someone hurt one of them?”

He thinks about it. He doesn’t think anyone could hurt Ignis, but if someone tried to hurt Noctis – he would have to stop them. It’s straightforward – perhaps the first straightforward thing he’s had to think about that day. “No,” he says. “I would stop them.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. He looks relieved. “That’s how I feel about you.”

He stares at Cor. Cor looks back at him. He’s not smiling. He looks very serious. And – he said it wasn’t a test. He doesn’t really understand how he feels about Noctis – he hasn’t felt that way about anybody before. He doesn’t know where it comes from, or what it means. It’s the same as how he feels about Ignis – and about Cor. The feelings aren’t all the same, but they belong to the same class. A class that he doesn’t understand, that he can’t describe. But the idea that someone could feel that way about him is – absurd.

“Why?” he says, and then, “I’m an MT unit.”

“No,” Cor says. “No. You’re a kid, you were a human baby and they – stuck some wires in you and told you you weren’t human until you believed it, but that doesn’t make you not human. A few wires – that’s not enough to make you not human. They were just lying to you, kid. They lied to you about it because if you believed you weren’t human, it would make you easier to control. But you are. You are.”

He starts to shake his head, but Cor grabs his shoulder and keeps talking.

“I mean – I’ve been around you for weeks. I’ve seen you cry, and smile, and get excited about the freaking sky. I’ve seen you have nightmares. Are those things that MT units do?”

He understands then, and the understanding makes his stomach sink and his throat ache. Cor thinks he’s human because of all his defects. He’s misinterpreted the defects as signs of humanity, rather than as signs of failure of his systems. Cor isn’t lying to him, he’s just – misunderstood.

He blinks, trying to prevent himself from crying. Even with what he’s about to say, he still wants to appear as functional as possible.

“I’m defective,” he says. His voice wavers, even though he’s trying to keep it steady.

Cor doesn’t say anything for a second. It’s only a second, but it’s long enough to make his stomach feel like it’s turning inside out. Then Cor reaches out and grasps his other shoulder. He shakes him – not hard, just a little.

“No,” he says. He says it the way he sounds when he commands the silent one to do things. “No. You are not defective. You can’t be defective, because you’re not a machine. Humans get sick, they have mental problems, they might be assholes, but they are never, ever defective. You got me?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but the words get caught up in his throat, and all that comes out is a sort of choking noise. Cor’s hands tighten on his shoulders, then he pulls him forward. He puts his arms around him again. It feels so warm – it feels good. He still doesn’t know why Cor does this, but he knows it feels good.

“You’re human,” Cor says. He says it quietly, but his mouth is very close to his ear, so he doesn’t have to sharpen his hearing even a little. “You’re human, you’re not defective, and I’m going to keep telling you until you believe me.”

Cor lets go of him and pulls back, holding onto his shoulders and looking into his face.

“You’re not my subordinate,” he says. “You’re my – responsibility. It’s my job to look after you. To protect you. You’re not a soldier, you’re not an MT, you’re just a kid.”

His thoughts are spinning. Cor’s told him so many things, and he doesn’t really understand any of them. And now – Cor says it’s his job to protect him. But that can’t be right. That can’t be right.

Cor reaches out and brushes the hair out of his eyes. “OK,” he says. “It’s a lot. I get that. It’s all right. Just – think about it, OK? And remember that you don’t have to be scared. You’re never going back to that facility, and no-one’s going to hurt you any more.”

Cor’s right: it’s a lot. He feels bewildered. He tries to breathe slowly. He looks at the sky and the grass, and that helps. He feels the warmth of Cor’s hand on his shoulder. He feels the wood of the seat under his palms.

“OK,” Cor says again. He lets go of his shoulder, and the spot where his hand was before feels cold. Cor pulls out a notebook and a pen from his pocket and starts writing something. He writes for some time. Then he tears the page out and gives it to him. “Here,” he says.

He takes the paper. At the top it says: Things to remember. Then there’s a list.

1. You are a human being.
2. You are NOT defective.
3. Dreams are normal and all humans have them. Having dreams is a sign that you’re human.
4. You will never be sent back to the facility.
5. It’s OK to ask questions.

Then underneath, there’s a horizontal line drawn across the page, and a second section of text.

I, Cor Leonis, swear on all the Astrals that I will not lie to you or test you without your knowledge again. I will make sure no-one hurts you and I will never permit anyone to send you back to the facility.

Below that is a scribble that looks like it include a C and an L, and a number.

He reads the paper several times. It isn’t instructions, but it’s close. And it’s – clear, and well-organised, and even though it’s still hard to understand why Cor thinks he’s human, the fact that he can see the words in black and white makes it feel – solid, somehow. And the second part – the second part, even though Cor’s said it more than once, seeing it there, written down – it’s a strange feeling. Like something in him has suddenly settled. I will make sure no-one hurts you. Why?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

“I want you to keep that in your pocket,” Cor says. “In case you need to consult it.”

He nods. He folds up the paper very carefully and slides it into his pocket. He imagines he can feel it there, almost against his skin, the words solid and real.

“Thank you,” he says.

Cor looks surprised, then he smiles a little. “Any time, kiddo,” he says. He reaches out and puts a hand on the back of his neck. “We’ll figure this out, all right?” he says. “I know I’m not great at it, but we’ll get there.”

“Yeah,” he says, even though he’s not sure what Cor’s talking about.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Yeah.” He nods. Then he looks around. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely had enough heavy talk for one morning. Want to go see Ignis? Or maybe go for a walk round the park first?”

He sits up a little. “If we go for a walk – we’ll still go and see Ignis?” he asks.

“Yeah, if that’s what you want,” Cor says.

He nods. “Yes,” he says.

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” says Cor. He stands up and looks around. “Gotta admit, it’s years since I’ve been here,” he says. “I don’t really know what there is to go and look at.”

He stands up, too. He doesn’t say anything for a moment, but then he feels the weight of the paper in his pocket, the words close to his skin. “There’s – a pool,” he says, watching Cor to see what his reaction will be. “Noctis says you can see fish sometimes.”

Cor looks at him, and he smiles again. “Looks like you’re the expert,” he says. “You know the way?”

“Yeah,” he says, feeling strangely breathless.

Cor nods.

“Then lead on,” he says.

Chapter Text

The pool is still and very dark, the trees around it with their green curtains casting shadows across the water. He stands on the bank, remembering how he sat here on the grass with Noctis. He wonders if Cor wants to sit on the grass, too. But Cor just stands, so he stands, too.

“There are fish in there, huh?” Cor says. He’s looking at the green-black surface of the water.

“Yeah,” he says. Then he realises he doesn’t know that for sure. He doesn’t want Cor to think he’s deliberately providing uncertain information. “I haven’t seen them, but Noctis said there were.” He hesitates, but feels the need to explain himself further. “I haven’t seen them because the water’s so dark,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s pretty murky,” Cor says. He steps closer and leans over the water. “Lot of pond-crap in there.”

He nods. He doesn’t know what pond-crap is. “Noctis said it’s dark to hide the fish,” he says.

Cor glances at him, eyebrows raised. “He told you that, huh?” he says.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks back at the water. “That’s not why,” he says. “It’s dark because there’s a lot of pond-crap in there.”

He swallows. Noctis told him one thing, but Cor told him something else. He understood Noctis’ explanation, but he doesn’t understand Cor’s. But Cor is his – commanding officer, he thinks. He’s not sure any more, because Cor said – he wasn’t. But he must be. Nothing else makes sense. And anyway, Cor outranks Noctis, so Cor must be correct. But then why did Noctis lie to him? He feels a sudden ache in his stomach at the idea that Noctis lied to him, though he isn’t sure why. It’s useful information, to know that Noctis might not be trustworthy. Useful information that makes his stomach hurt.

“Hey,” Cor says, sharp enough to startle him. “Did you see that?”

Cor’s pointing at the water. He looks, but he doesn’t see anything. He wasn’t paying attention. Stupid, stupid.

“No,” he says. He looks at Cor to see how he’ll react.

But Cor looks pleased. “Definitely fish in there,” he says. “Keep your eyes on the water.”

So he does. He watches the surface, black and still. There are tiny objects that dance above it, and when he sharpens his vision, he sees that they’re bugs.

His vision is still fully sharpened when he sees something dark erupt from the water, breaking the surface into droplets that splinter and sparkle, and swallow one of the bugs before disappearing back under again. He’s never seen anything like that, not so clearly – no, he’s never seen anything like it at all. It happened so fast, but it was – startling. Amazing.

“Did you see it?” Cor asks. His voice sounds urgent.

“Yes,” he says, relieved, but also still amazed. “Yes, I saw it. It – swallowed the bug.”

“It ate it,” Cor says. He pats him on the shoulder. “They’re sneaky, those fish.”

He looks at Cor. Cor looks pleased. It ate it, he said. The fish – ate the bug. So fish are– Fish are–

He thinks about the paper in his pocket. It’s OK to ask questions. “Are fish alive?” he asks.

Cor looks at him, raising his eyebrows.

“Yeah, kid,” he says. “What did you think they were?”

He doesn’t respond. He didn’t know what they were. It didn’t occur to him to think they might be alive. But they are. So many things are alive. He had no idea.

He remembers the fish, the way the water bulged and shattered around it. How he could see the details of it, the black lights, the sheen on the scales that covered its body. The lights were eyes. He understands now. Fish are alive.

“Huh,” Cor says. He’s looking at something over the tops of the trees. “Looks like there’s a glasshouse over there.”

He looks, too. He sees the top of some kind of structure. It glints in the sun, and when he sharpens his vision, he sees that it’s constructed largely of glass and steel.

“Want to go see what’s in it?” Cor asks.

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t want to; he wants to stay and see if the fish comes back. He wants to look at it more carefully now he knows it’s alive. But Cor saw the structure and wanted to go there, so he should go there, too. He doesn’t know what might be in it, but he hopes it isn’t anything dangerous.

They walk through the green curtains of the trees, across some grass and between some more trees. Here, there are gravel paths and more plants with colourful parts, all crowded together. There are small signs beside some of them, and he sharpens his vision so he can read them in case they’re instructions. Each of them has two words on the first line, and then another word or two words underneath. The words are all indecipherable. He’s only a little disappointed – he’s beginning to give up hope of ever finding instruction posters again.

In front of them is the glass and steel structure. He sees now that almost all of it is made of glass. It’s like a building with glass walls. Inside, he can see green shapes that, when he sharpens his vision, resolve into plants. His heart starts to beat a little faster. The glasshouse is full of plants.

“Come on,” Cor says, opening the door of the structure. He follows him as he steps through. Inside, the air is different. It feels thicker, warmer, heavier. It smells heavy and green, like the air in the place that Cor took him to get the plants and the spheroidal object. The whole structure is a single room, the ceiling high above their heads. And all around are plants. They’re not quite the same as the plants outside – there are fewer colourful parts and their leaves are different, mostly much larger, but some strangely thick as well. Each plant has a sign in front of it, like the ones outside, and similarly incomprehensible. Some of them tower above them, whole trees inside the glass structure. He stares upwards, mouth open.

“This is where they keep the plants that don’t like the cold,” Cor says. He’s looking up, too, but then he looks at him and half-smiles. “You like it, huh?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s still staring up. He’s seen rooms as large as this before, of course, in the facility. But this – is different. There’s so much light. There’s so much green.

“Let’s take a walk around,” Cor says.

So they do. There’s a path made of wood, and they walk around it, surrounded by the plants. Even the air feels like it might be alive, it’s so thick and strange. There’s even a small pool, and he sees the orange flash of fish and stares, fascinated.

They stand for a while, looking at the pool. Then they go into a smaller glass room. The air here is still warm, but much less heavy and green. The room is filled with strange green objects, most with spikes on them. Some of them look almost identical to the spheroidal object that Cor told him to look after. He looks at them, at the signs in front of them. But the signs are meaningless.

“Cacti,” Cor says. “Like yours.”

“Cacti,” he says. He remembers the one in the green apron saying it when Cor got the plants. And he remembers the paper in his pocket, the words written on it. It’s OK to ask questions. He puts his hand in his pocket and touches the edge of the paper.

“What does it mean?” he asks.

“Huh?” Cor looks up from the globular, spiny object he’s inspecting. “What, cacti?”

He nods.

Cor straightens up. He gestures. “These,” he says. “They’re a type of plant. They grow in the desert. Like yours.”

He stares at Cor. Then he looks around. The objects are mostly green, it’s true. But they don’t have leaves. They don’t have poles and branching shapes. Most of them are made of one or more interconnected spheroids or discs. They don’t look like the other plants he’s seen at all.

“They’re plants?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He rubs the back of his head. “Shit. I gotta start explaining things more, huh?”

“Yes,” he says, because he’s starting to think that’s what Cor wants when he ends a question with huh. And because he hopes Cor really will start explaining things more.

Cor snorts. “Got it,” he says. He looks around. “Yeah, anyway. Cacti are plants.”

It makes sense, now. Why he has to look after the spheroidal object and give it water. Because it’s a plant. He stares at one in the glass room that looks similar, and thinks about the spheroidal object, on the shelf by the window in the room where he sleeps. Cacti. He wants to go back to Cor’s apartment and look at it, to see what he missed before. But he can’t, so he looks at the one in the glass room instead. He touches the tip of his finger to its spikes. The spikes are very regularly distributed, he sees. Each place where spikes extend from the surface of the cacti has several of them, branching out from each other. Like leaves on other plants.

Yes, he understands. Cacti are plants. He understands.

Cor looks at his wrist. “We’re gonna have to go soon, kid,” he says. “You want to keep looking at these, or go see something else?”

He glances up at Cor, then looks around the glass room. There are so many different shapes and sizes of cacti.

“Can we keep looking at these?” he asks. He doesn’t want to get it wrong.

“Whatever you want,” Cor says.

So that’s what they do.

~

When they get to Ignis’ rooms, they find him sitting at his table, writing something on a paper. Beside him is a pile of papers. He looks up when they come in.

“Ah, good,” he says, and stands up. “I have something for you.”

He goes to a corner and picks up a bag. It’s brown and made of paper, and from the way Ignis carries it it must be quite heavy. He brings it over to them. But he doesn’t give it to Cor. He holds it out to him.

“Here,” Ignis says. Then he looks at Cor. “I hope you don’t mind.”

He takes the bag. He frowns at it.

“Open it, kid,” Cor says.

So he opens it. Inside are several thick books. He can only see the edges of them, which reveal no information about what they might be about. He reaches in and pulls one out.

Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia, the cover reads, the letters large and gold against a black background. The book is thick and heavy. He looks at Ignis.

“Since you aren’t permitted to access the internet, I thought it would be useful for you to have something to help answer your questions,” Ignis says. “Do you know what an encyclopedia is?”

He shakes his head. The book is very heavy.

“Open it,” Ignis says.

He tries to open the book and hold the bag at the same time. It’s not straightforward. Cor puts a hand on his back and then takes the bag from him, and then everything is easier. He opens the book, and sees that it contains small images and text in columns. Underneath each image is a bold line of text, and then a column of text. He looks at one. There’s an image – a series of green irregular shapes surrounded by blue. The bold line reads Accordo. Underneath, the text says, Accordo is an island nation to the south-east of Lucis, known for its historic capital Altissia. Then more text, some of which he understands, some of which he doesn’t. But he understands what it is overall. It’s an explanation. An explanation of what Accordo is.

He turns a page. It’s the same: images and names and explanations. Another page. The same. The whole book is the same. The book contains explanations. Given how heavy it is, there must be hundreds or even thousands of explanations. He feels a sense of relief wash over him, so strong that his knees buckle slightly.

“Hey,” Cor says, putting a hand on his back again. “You OK?”

“Yes,” he says, but his voice cracks a little.

“Sit down,” Ignis says, gesturing at the couch and frowning.

He sits, more heavily than he intended to. He stares at the book, at the images and text. He turns the pages. He doesn’t understand everything in the explanations, but what he does understand is clear and concise. The words look so clean, there on the page in black and white. Aftershock. Altissia. Assassin’s Creed.

“I think he likes it,” Cor murmurs, and he remembers, suddenly, that they’re in the room. He sits up and looks at Ignis.

“Thank you,” he says. It doesn’t feel like enough; he feels a sense of gratitude that he can’t express, so strong it’s almost painful. “Thank you.”

Ignis smiles at him. “You’re quite welcome,” he says. “There are some other books for you, you know.”

Cor holds the bag out. He takes it and takes out the next book. It’s similar to the last – thick and heavy, with a black cover and gold writing. Royal Lucian Dictionary, it reads. He opens it.

There are no pictures in this book, but otherwise the layout is similar: columns of text, each paragraph headed by a bolded word. He recognises more of these words – many of them are very simple, like and and allow – but there are still a lot that he doesn’t know. Even though he isn’t sure how this book is different from the other – apart from the lack of pictures – he feels the gratitude increase nonetheless. Ignis understands. Ignis has given him two books of explanations to read. It’ll take him a long time to read them, they’re so long, but it will help him so much.

“One more,” Cor says.

He carefully lays Royal Lucian Dictionary down on the table and takes out the last book. This one has an image on the cover of a large pool – a lake – with trees around it and the sky overhead. It reminds him of where Cor took him. Over the image are printed the words Wonderful World: A Children’s First Book of Eos, and then, in smaller letters, Primoris Cognoscentia.

“I’m sure it’s below your level, but I thought it might help answer some of your questions,” Ignis says.

He opens the book. After the page with the instructions about copying the book, which is becoming familiar now, there’s a numbered list. He looks at the items.

Eos in space is the first, but the second is How does the sun work? and the third is Why is it light in the daytime and dark at night?. He stares, scanning down the list. He doesn’t understand some of the items, but many of them are questions that seem plucked directly from his mind. Where does rain come from? he knows already, but he still doesn’t properly understand How do plants grow?, and he hasn’t even considered Why do things fall down?

The first two books explain what words mean. But this book answers questions. This book is about the things he sees around him that he doesn’t understand, all the startling, beautiful things he’s seen that he doesn’t understand. He wants to read all of it, immediately. But he doesn’t even know where to start. He feels dizzy – with relief, with gratitude, with a strange feeling in his stomach that’s like being scared but not quite the same. And he turns to look at Ignis. He stands up. He wants to say something. He’s so grateful. He wants to do something. But he doesn’t know what to do.

Cor looks at him, then looks at Ignis. “Think he likes it,” he says.

He opens his mouth. “Yes,” he says. It comes out strangely, like his throat isn’t quite working. “Thank you.”

Ignis smiles at him. “You’re welcome,” he says. “It’s nice to see someone appreciate books.”

He stares at Ignis. He wants to explain to Ignis about the feeling that he has, about how grateful he is. But he doesn’t know any words to explain it. He wants to do something, to help Ignis with something, to perform some service. But Ignis hasn’t asked him to do anything. He doesn’t know what Ignis might want him to do. He feels a sort of helplessness that mixes with all the other feelings in his chest and stomach and mind, until he starts to think he might throw up.

Then he’s sitting down. He’s sitting on the couch. The book are in front of him. Next to them is a glass with water in it. Cor’s sitting on the low table beside the glass. Cor’s hand is on his shoulders, and he’s looking into his face. He’s frowning.

“...all right?” Cor says.

He blinks. He sees Ignis coming towards them. He’s carrying a steaming cup. He puts it on the table.

“Maybe this will help,” he says. He’s frowning, too.

“Good thinking,” Cor says. “Drink some water, OK, kid? Then drink some tea.”

He reaches out and picks up the water. He tries to remember what happened in the last few minutes. But his mind is full of fog. He drinks the water and concentrates on what he can feel: Cor’s hand on his shoulder, warm and heavy; the water, cool in his mouth and throat; the couch underneath him. He shifts and hears the faint crinkle of paper in his pocket, and he imagines he can feel that, too, feel the words in his pocket, explaining to him what he has to remember.

Cor sits back. He takes his hand off his shoulder. Then he reaches out and puts his hand on top of his head. He moves it, like he’s rubbing his head.

“What am I going to do with you, kid?” Cor asks. Then he stands up and walks over to where Ignis is standing in the part of the room that functions as a kitchen.

He watches Cor go. He raises his hand to touch his head. His hair is dishevelled. He’s not sure why Cor rubbed his head. Maybe he wants his hair to be dishevelled. He doesn’t rearrange it, in case that is what Cor wants.

“He seemed OK this morning,” Cor says to Ignis. Cor’s talking very quietly, and he has to sharpen his hearing, which makes his head hurt.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have given him all the books at once,” Ignis says, just as quietly. “He seemed rather overwhelmed.”

“Shit, Ignis,” Cor says. “We should have given him those books weeks ago. I should have thought–” He pauses, then sighs. “You’re a lot better at this than me.”

“Oh, now, Marshal,” Ignis says, “we can’t all be good at everything.”

Cor snorts. “I’m getting it from all sides today,” he says. Then he shakes his head. “Not that I don’t deserve it.”

Ignis puts a hand on Cor’s shoulder, but he doesn’t speak to him. Instead, he raises his voice. “Prompto?” he says. “I think drinking that tea would make you feel better.”

He swallows. Tea. Tea is the drink in the cup. He picks up the cup and takes a sip. It’s hot, but not painfully so. He swallows some more, feeling the warmth spread down through his body. Ignis is right: it does make him feel better. But he doesn’t know why he felt bad in the first place.

“Has he eaten enough today?” Ignis asks, speaking quietly again.

“Uh–” Cor says. Then he stops. “Shit,” he says.

“Hm,” Ignis says. It’s just a sound, not even a word, but somehow it has an odd tone about it that makes him feel like Ignis is angry. He drinks some more tea. He doesn’t know why Ignis is angry, but Ignis has given him instructions and it’s important for him to follow them.

Then Cor comes forward. He sits on the chair opposite him. “Hey,” he says. “You hungry?”

He knows he’s heard the word hungry before, but he can’t remember what it means. He feels dazed, and he drinks some more tea.

“You didn’t drink any soup today, huh?” Cor says.

He remembers now: hungry is something to do with food. “No,” he says. Cor didn’t tell him to drink any soup.

Cor closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “The flask is in the car,” he says. “We went to the park and I – didn’t think to grab it.”

Ignis raises his eyebrows. Then he nods. “Well, I have plenty in the freezer,” he says. “I’ll warm some up.”

“Thanks,” Cor says. He doesn’t look at Ignis, though. He keeps his eyes closed. Then he opens them and sighs.

“Kid,” he says, “I need you to help me out, here. I’m trying real hard to be a good – to look after you properly, but sometimes I’m dumb and I forget stuff. So you gotta tell me if you’re hungry or thirsty, OK? Or if you feel sick or you need to sit down or – anything like that. Because I can’t tell how you’re feeling. Shit, I can’t even tell how I’m feeling half the time.”

He stares at Cor. He doesn’t know what hungry means, and that’s a problem. But it’s a problem that’s only at the back of his mind, because at the front of his mind is the thing Cor said last. Cor said he couldn’t tell how he was feeling half the time. It hadn’t occurred to him that humans might also have difficulty identifying their feelings. He thought – it was only him. But Cor said–

He puts the tips of his fingers into his pocket, just enough to feel the edge of the paper. He thinks it ought to be worrying. If Cor doesn’t know how he’s feeling, how can he explain anything? How can he explain to Cor, and how can Cor explain to him? But it doesn’t feel worrying. It feels – reassuring. To know that he isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand.

“OK?” Cor says.

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. He remembers he’s supposed to be drinking the tea, so he drinks some.

“Great,” Cor says. He looks over at Ignis. “We gotta get him onto something more substantial, though. If he’s passing out from not eating one meal–”

“Agreed,” Ignis says. He’s standing by the stove, stirring something in a pan. “I’ll make a plan.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Cor says. He looks at him, then at the books on the table. “Thanks,” he says again.

“You’re quite welcome,” says Ignis.

Cor keeps looking at him. Then he sighs. “Listen, I got to go do some things,” he says. “I don’t want to leave you on your own, but – I know Ignis will take good care of you. Probably better than I can. But if you need anything, you have to tell him, all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure what he could need.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He runs a hand through his hair. “OK, well – hey, I really enjoyed hanging out with you this morning. OK, kid? Just wanted you to know that.”

“Yes,” he says, since Cor seems to be waiting for a response. The statement is puzzling, though. He needs time to think about it.

“Great,” Cor says. He stands up. “I’ll see you later, then.”

“Yes,” he says again. Then Cor leaves. He pauses at the door, but he doesn’t look back. Then he goes through the door and closes it behind him.

“He’s becoming quite the worry-wart,” Ignis says, stirring his pan.

He doesn’t know what worry-wart means. He looks at the books in front of him. Then he looks at Ignis. He feels that surge of gratitude again. He wants to read the books, but he wants to do something for Ignis. Something to help Ignis. He stands up, but then he doesn’t know what to do next.

Ignis looks over his shoulder at him. “Are you all right?” he says.

“I–” he says. He gestures at Ignis, at the kitchen. Maybe he can do the stirring. “Can I help?”

Ignis looks at him for a moment. Then he turns back to the stove. He turns a dial and then turns to face him fully. He frowns slightly.

“Hm,” he says. “Yes, I think you can. There’s something I need some help with, and I think you are the perfect person to help me.”

He straightens up. Yes, good. Ignis understands that he can be useful.

“You see, I bought those books, but to be honest, I was only able to glance at them quite briefly,” Ignis says, gesturing at the books on the low table. “I hope they’re fit for purpose, but I need someone to check for me. Would you be able to do that?”

He turns to look at the books, feeling confused. “Check them how?” he asks.

“Oh, just read them,” Ignis says. “Not all of them, of course, but I think – reading some parts of them should be enough. If they answer some of your questions, then they’re fit for purpose.”

He looks at Ignis, then back at the books. It’s not the kind of task he was expecting to be assigned, but Ignis did say it would help him. And he wants to read the books. He wants to, so much.

“Is that all right?” Ignis asks.

“Yes,” he says. He sits down and reaches for the closest book. “How long should I read them for?”

“Until you get bored, I suppose,” Ignis says.

He doesn’t know what bored means.

He opens the book.

~

After a while, he discovers something.

He starts with the book that answers questions. He learns a lot, but there are lots of words he doesn’t know. It takes him several pages of half-understood information to remember that the other two books contain explanations of words. Then it takes some experimentation to understand that both of them list words in alphabetical order, but that Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia has explanations of things, like places and people and animals, while Royal Lucian Dictionary has explanations of words. Then, every time he finds a word he doesn’t know, he finds it in Royal Lucian Dictionary. Sometimes the explanation in Royal Lucian Dictionary also includes words he doesn’t know, and he finds himself in a chain of looking up new words. Some words have multiple meanings, and it isn’t always clear which is meant. But even so, he learns. He learns, and he learns how to learn, and he feels filled with a sort of fizzing, electric feeling.

He learns: the world is called Eos. It looks flat, but actually it’s like a ball. It hangs in an empty nothingness called space. Space contains other objects, particularly very large balls of flaming gas called stars. All of this takes him a long time to read, because he has to look up a lot of words. When he’s reached the end of this section, he sits back and stares at the book.

Ignis comes over, then. He’s holding a cup with soup in it.

“How’s the book?” he asks.

He looks up at Ignis. He doesn’t speak, but Ignis must see something in his expression, because he raises his eyebrows and sits down.

“Oh dear,” he says. “Is it not suitable?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t think – it’s right,” he says. “It says–” He turns the page back. “Here, it says – is this right?”

Ignis puts the soup down and leans over. He reads the page, then looks at him.

“Yes,” he says. “I know it sounds very strange, but all of that is true.”

He stares at Ignis. Then he looks out of the window. The sky is blue, not black like the space shown in the book. He looks at the image in the book again. He tries to understand how the world could be a ball. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

“Perhaps this wasn’t the best book to begin with,” Ignis says. He says it very quietly. Then he speaks louder. “There’s quite a lot for you to learn to be able to make sense of it,” he says. “The problem is that you don’t have the background information yet. For now, you must just accept that it’s true, even if it doesn’t all make sense yet. Do you think you can do that?”

He looks at Ignis. He doesn’t think Ignis has ever lied to him. And Ignis clearly understands these things – Ignis has all the background information that he doesn’t know. So – yes. He can accept it. If Ignis says it’s true, then – he can accept it.

“Yes,” he says.

Ignis smiles. “Good,” he says. “I know you have a long way to go, but I promise you, the world is quite a wonderful place, once you understand more about it.”

He looks out of the window again. The sky seems to shimmer, so deep and blue. At night, it’s black. Like the image of space in the book. He wonders what it means. “Yes,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

He looks back at Ignis to see his smile has widened. And he thinks of something. He doesn’t think Ignis would lie to him. And Ignis knows so much more than he does about everything. So perhaps–

He puts his hand in his pocket and feels the crinkle of paper. Carefully, he pulls it out and unfolds it. He smoothes it on his knee and looks at it for a moment. The list is still there, and under it, the promise. I will never permit anyone to send you back to the facility. He swallows against the fluttering feeling in his throat.

“What’s that?” Ignis asks.

Silently, he holds the paper out. Ignis takes it and reads it. He can see his eyes moving down the page. When he reaches the end, the lines of his expression have softened.

“Cor gave this to you?” Ignis asks.

He nods. He tries to speak, but it feels like something’s blocking his throat. He coughs and tries again.

“Is it right?” he asks. His voice sounds strange.

Ignis looks up at him, eyebrows raised. “Do you mean is it true?” he asks.

He nods again. He stops breathing to make sure he’ll hear Ignis’ answer properly.

“Yes,” Ignis says. “All of this is true.”

He sits still. He feels as though parts of his insides have dissolved. It’s not painful, but it’s – strange. Ignis says everything Cor wrote down is true. That means he won’t go back to the facility. He won’t go back. Why?

It doesn’t matter why. Just like he doesn’t know how the world is a ball hanging in an empty space. He doesn’t know why, but it doesn’t matter, not now. It only matters that it’s true. It’s true, because Ignis said it was true.

Ignis holds the paper out, and he takes it. He looks at it. There are other things on it – not just the item about not going back to the facility. The item about dreams – about it being normal to hallucinate when you’re asleep. That makes him feel a pang of fear, but it’s not enough to counterbalance the loose, liquid feeling of relief. And the first item. The item that says You are a human being.

You are a human being.

The world is a ball hanging in space, surrounded by giant balls of flaming gas. It’s normal to hallucinate when you’re asleep. Ignis thinks he’s a human being.

No-one will send him back to the facility.

“Prompto?” Ignis says. “Are you all right?”

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. His voice cracks.

Ignis nods. “You should drink your soup before it gets cold,” he says.

And so he does.

Chapter Text

After that, he reads and he drinks soup. When he finishes the soup, Ignis brings him more. Ignis turns on music and sits at his table, reading papers and typing on his computer. The music is soft and smooth, and it makes the room feel quiet and calm. Everything is quiet and calm. Except inside his head. Inside his head, nothing is calm. Everything feels bright and tense. He reads, and he learns new things, and each new thing feels like a buzz in his brain. It’s not a bad feeling – maybe it’s even a good feeling. But it’s not quiet.

He doesn’t keep reading Wonderful World: A Children’s First Book of Eos Primoris Cognoscentia. The image of the ball of rock hanging in empty black space is unsettling, and he doesn’t want to think about it now. Instead, he looks for things he doesn’t understand in Royal Lucian Dictionary and Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia. First, he looks for hungry. Next to it, the explanation reads: feeling an uneasy or painful sensation from lack of food. He considers this. Then he looks for uneasy. The explanation is: causing mental or physical discomfort. It’s a useful word. But it doesn’t help him with hungry. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt pain or discomfort from lack of food. He wonders what kind of pain is meant. How would he recognise it? He’s not sure. But Cor told him earlier to report if he was hungry. He’ll have to pay attention and see if he can recognise it.

So. He’ll pay attention. That’s the plan of action. He sits still for a moment and pays attention. Does he feel any pain or discomfort? His head hurts a little, but he doesn’t think that has anything to do with food. So he decides he’s probably not hungry. He drinks some more soup, just in case.

Next, he looks for bored. The explanation is unhelpful: filled with or characterised by boredom. He looks for boredom. The explanation is: the state of being weary or restless from lack of interest. He frowns at this. It seems incomplete, somehow. Lack of interest in what? How can lack of interest make someone weary? He thinks about it for a long time, but he doesn’t understand, even though he understands all the words in the explanation. Eventually, he tries looking for it in Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia, even though he doesn’t think it’ll be there because it’s not a thing, just a feeling. He’s right, and he thinks a little more and then gives up. He hopes soon he can understand what bored means, but thinking about it isn’t helping. Instead, he looks up cacti in Royal Lucian Dictionary.

He learns: cacti is a plural word – the singular is cactus. Cacti are succulent plants, which means they taste very good (he assumes the spines are removed before eating). They live in places where it doesn’t rain much. Then he looks up cactus in Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia and he learns: the spines are like leaves that have changed into spines by evolution, which means change over time (which doesn’t explain very much). The main part of the cactus often has water stored in it. Cacti may have flowers, which are colourful parts of a plant used for reproduction. Here he stops and thinks about the plants he’s seen. All parts of the plants he’s seen have been colourful, but most of the colour they have is green. But some parts are different colours, like the yellow parts on the plant Cor told him to look after. He wonders if those are flowers. There’s no picture with the explanation in Royal Lucian Dictionary, so he can’t be sure. He turns to Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia, but before he can look for flower, he’s distracted by the item above cactus, which has a picture of a strange, green, barrel-shaped humanoid with spikes on its head. Cactuar, the bolded word says.

And he reads.

~

He’s been reading for some time when Noctis arrives, followed by the one with the images. Noctis raises his hand when he sees him.

“Hey,” Noctis says. He comes over and sits down heavily on the couch, dropping his bag on the floor. He sprawls for a moment, head tilted back to stare at the ceiling. Then he rolls his head to one side and looks at him.

“Wanna play Shoot the Messenger?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. He does want to play, but he wants to read as well. Maybe he can read more later.

“Specs,” Noctis calls without moving his head.

Ignis looks up from the papers he’s reading and sighs, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I assume you want me to lend Prompto my phone?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Noctis says.

Ignis sighs again. “It’s too much to ask for you to come and fetch it yourself, of course,” he says. He stands up and walks over, holding out his phone.

He reaches out to take the phone. He doesn’t like the way Ignis is frowning; he feels as though he’s done something wrong. The one with the images says something under his breath, but he doesn’t sharpen his hearing quickly enough to hear it.

“Whatever,” Noctis says. He pulls his own phone out. “Ready, Prompto?”

“Yes,” he says.

And they play. But not for very long. After three games, Noctis yawns very widely. He puts his phone down on the arm of the couch. “I’m just gonna–” he says. Then he closes his eyes.

He sits and looks at Noctis, wondering what the end of the sentence will be. Then he wonders if Noctis has fallen asleep. Then he decides Noctis has definitely fallen asleep. He wonders what he should do with Ignis’ phone. After a few more minutes, he carefully puts it down on the table and turns back to the books. He looks at Noctis every minute or two to make sure he’s still asleep. He always is.

It’s quiet. Noctis breathes deeply. The one with the images is sitting at the table in the part of the room that functions as a kitchen, eating something. Ignis is typing on his computer. Then the one with the images stands up. He comes over and sits down opposite him. He looks at Noctis and shakes his head. Then he looks at him.

“Whatcha reading?” the one with the images says.

Royal Lucian Dictionary,” he says.

The one with the images raises his eyebrows. “Yeah?” he says. “That’s pretty racy stuff. You sure you’re old enough?”

He’s not sure what the one with the images means. He looks at Ignis.

“Don’t tease him, Gladio,” Ignis says, without looking up from his papers. “Prompto, ignore Gladio. He’s being facetious.”

The one with the images smiles with half of his mouth. He pulls a book out of his pocket. It’s small and battered, and when he sharpens his vision he sees that the image on the front is of two humans, one male, one female, both wearing very little clothing. The title is Reproductive Rites. He wonders what the subject is.

“We could start a book club,” the one with the images says.

He isn’t sure whether book club is a club made from a book or a club used to strike a book. “Yes,” he says.

The one with the images smiles with half his mouth again and opens his book.

“Let me know how yours ends,” he says. “I’ve been thinking of reading it myself.”

“Yes,” he says, and then, since he’s already looked at the end, “The last word is zygote.”

The one with the images snorts. “I hate predictable endings,” he says.

He waits to see if the one with the images will say anything else, but he doesn’t. He just reads his own book. The one with the images reads, and Ignis types on his computer, and Noctis sleeps. The music is playing and everything is quiet and calm.

He turns back to the books.

~

He’s still reading when Cor comes back.

“Time to go, kid,” Cor says.

He stands up and walks towards Cor. Cor frowns at him.

“You forgot your books,” he says.

He turns and looks at the books. Then he looks at Cor. Then he looks at Ignis.

“Should I take them with me?” he asks. Maybe Ignis wants him to keep checking them in the evening.

“Of course,” Ignis says. “They’re your books, after all.”

He stares at Ignis for a moment. He feels something unfolding in his chest, like when Cor said it before. Cor gave him plants to look after, and he said they’re yours. He’s tried not to think about it because he can’t quite make sense of it. But now Ignis said they’re your books. And Ignis said the items on the paper were all true. Including the first item. You are a human being.

He goes back to the table and picks up the first book. It feels heavy in his hand, full of explanations. The thing in his chest unfolds. It makes his chest feel like it’s expanding. He puts the book in the bag. Then he puts the other books in the bag. He holds the bag. His chest expands.

“Noct, wake up and say goodbye to your friend,” Ignis says. Noctis doesn’t stir. The one with the images grunts and kicks Noctis’ foot where it’s close to him.

“Wake up, your laziness,” he says.

Noctis’ eyes flutter half open. “Wha–?” he says.

“Prompto’s going home,” Ignis says.

“What?” Noctis says. His eyes are still mostly closed. “Why?”

“Because he doesn’t live here, genius,” the one with the images says. “If you wanted to play with him, you should’ve tried not falling asleep.”

Noctis make a low, grumbling sort of noise in his throat. “You’re coming back tomorrow, though, right?” he says.

He looks at Cor. Cor shrugs.

“If you want to come back, you can come back,” Cor says. He’s smiling a little.

He looks back at Noctis. “Yes,” he says.

“Cool,” Noctis says. His eyes are fully closed, now. He raises his hand, curled into a fist.

He looks at Noctis. Noctis holds his fist out for a moment, then opens one eye. He reaches out and grabs his hand. He makes it into a fist and lifts it up. Then he brings their two fists together.

“Fist bump,” he says, closing his eyes again.

He looks at his fist. “Fist bump,” he says.

The one with the images snorts.

“OK, kid, let’s get you home,” Cor says.

~

That evening, after dinner, he takes the books up to the room where he sleeps. He takes them out of the bag and puts them on the table. Then he checks the plants. He gives some water to the one with the red leaves. Then he examines the spheroidal object. It’s a cactus. It’s a plant. He sees that there’s soil under the stones in its pot, just like with the other two plants. He looks carefully at the spines. He touches the smooth green skin of the spheroid, in between the spines. There’s water in there. When he gives it water, the water ends up inside the spheroid. The cactus stores it there so that it can survive for a long time without any more water. He wonders if the cactus can think. What it thinks about being in a pot on a shelf next to a window, instead of outside in a place where it doesn’t rain much.

It probably doesn’t think.

He goes back to the table. He reads the item in Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia about cactus again. He doesn’t understand a lot of it, and looking up the words doesn’t really help. But he reads it anyway. Then he reads the one about cactuar. Cactuars are very dangerous. Still, he wonders what it would be like to see one. Maybe if he was careful and stayed well back, he could see one and not get hurt. He looks at the image in the book. Someone must have made the image, and maybe they didn’t get hurt. So he could learn to be like that person, and maybe he could make images of things, too. He thinks about it for a while, what it must be like, to be a person who makes images. He doesn’t know how people get chosen to make images. But he’s seen so many images in books, so there must be some people whose function is to make them.

He shakes himself. He’s stupid. He could never be a person who makes images because – he’s not a person. And he’s not allowed to make images. He’s not permitted to have a phone, and phones are what you use to make images. And he’s not permitted to go anywhere on his own, and he definitely can’t go out to places where cactuars live and make images of them. Cor says he’s not going back to the facility, but that doesn’t mean he can just – be a person. He’s not a person. Even though Ignis said he was.

He shakes his head. He feels his thoughts twisting round each other. It’s confusing. He presses his fingers into his temples until it hurts, and then focusses on the pain. It helps a little. Then he looks at the book. He doesn’t think about himself, and what he is, and what his function is. He just thinks about the information in the book. He’ll just read the book. He’ll read the book.

There’s a hand on his arm. He opens his eyes. He’s still sitting at the table, but now his head is down, resting on something smooth and cool. Cor is standing over him.

“Looks like it’s time you went to bed, kid,” Cor says.

He sits up. He feels fuzzy and his thoughts are moving slowly. He sees that the book’s open in front of him. He was lying on the book. He was sleeping on the book.

“Hey, come on,” Cor says. He takes his arm and helps him up. “Bed.”

He changes his clothes and gets into the bed. Cor pulls the covers up around him. He puts a hand on his head, then takes it away. “You need anything?” he asks.

“No,” he says. His voice sounds like he needs to clear his throat.

“OK,” Cor says. “Sleep well, OK, kid?”

“Yes,” he says. Then Cor turns off the light and leaves the room.

He stares at the ceiling. He doesn’t want to sleep in case he hallucinates again. But he feels barely awake. His eyes keep closing by themselves. And Cor said to go to sleep. And if he hallucinates – maybe Cor will wake him up, like he did before. Maybe Cor will help him. Cor said he wanted to help him.

He falls asleep. And he doesn’t dream of anything.

~

The next day, Ignis gives him something new. It’s soup, but there are things floating in it. Some of the things are spherical and green, and some are a deep pinkish-red and irregularly shaped.

“These are peas,” Ignis says, pointing to the spherical green things. “And this is ham.”

He stares at the soup. He’s not sure why it has peas and ham floating in it.

“We need to train your digestive system to deal with solid food,” Ignis says. “A young man your age needs plenty of food. I’m sure you’re growing very fast.”

He looks down at himself. He hasn’t noticed himself growing fast.

The one with the images snorts. He’s sitting on the couch reading his book. Noctis isn’t here, but the one with the images is.

“Let’s hope you grow outwards as well as upwards,” the one with the images says. “I’ve never seen such a beanpole.”

Ignis sighs. “I’m not sure your contributions are strictly necessary,” he says to the one with the images. Then he turns back to him. “Peas are a type of vegetable,” he says. “Ham is a type of meat. Please, eat.”

The soup is in a bowl, not in a cup like usual. There’s a spoon next to the bowl. He picks it up and tries not to think about the rice pudding that Cor gave him before, and how it made him feel so bad. He scoops some liquid into the spoon. He manages to avoid any of the floating objects. He swallows the spoonful and looks up to see Ignis watching him.

“Prompto,” Ignis says, “please at least try to eat the peas and ham.”

He feels his stomach sink. Ignis knows he tried to avoid following instructions. He doesn’t want Ignis to think he’s disobedient. He wants Ignis to think he’s useful, and obedient, and well-disciplined.

He scoops up another spoonful. This time there are two peas and one ham in it. He takes a deep breath and puts the spoon in his mouth. Now he needs to chew. He’s seen Cor and Ignis chewing, so he knows chewing is necessary.

He chews. One of the peas bursts between his teeth. It’s a strange feeling. Then there’s a taste in his mouth. It tastes – good. The pea tastes fresh and green and cool. The ham tastes dark and rich. They combine to make a taste that’s not like anything he’s tasted before.

He swallows. It feels strange for a moment, but he’s so distracted by the new taste that he almost doesn’t notice. And then – he’s followed instructions. He’s eaten some of the peas and ham. And – it wasn’t bad. It was good. It wasn’t so difficult. And it tasted good.

“How’s that?” Ignis asks.

“Yes,” he says. “It tastes good.”

Ignis smiles, a bright smile that makes his face look lighter and softer.

“Wait till you try Cup Noodle,” the one with the images says.

~

Not long after that, there’s a knock on the door. Ignis goes to answer it. There’s a person standing there, next to the silent one. He’s wearing the same uniform as the silent one.

“Come to take the MT for a check-up,” he says. “Shield’s orders.”

Ignis looks at him. “Prompto,” he says.

He gets up and goes to the door. The one with the uniform looks at him. His jaw tightens.

“You’ll bring him back here afterwards, I assume?” Ignis says.

“Yes, sir,” the one with the uniform says.

“Wait,” says the one with the images. “I’m coming.” He drops his book on the couch and jumps over the back of it, striding over to them.

Ignis frowns at him. “What for?” he asks.

The one with the images smiles, a broad smile showing his teeth. “Come on, Iggy,” he says. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to know what’s under the hood?”

Ignis’ frown deepens. “I don’t care to, no,” he says. His voice sounds cold.

The one with the images shrugs. “Come on, blondie,” he says. He takes his arm and leads him away from the door. The one with the uniform and the silent one follow behind.

Nobody says anything. They walk down the corridor and get into the elevator. They go down a number of floors. Then they get out. They walk down another corridor. There’s no carpet on this one, and the ceiling is much lower. Eventually, they reach a heavy metal door, painted green. The one with the uniform knocks and someone calls out from inside. The one with the uniform opens the door.

Inside, there’s a room filled with humming equipment. Also inside are the two engineers. They both stand up when they come in.

“One MT, as requested,” the one with the uniform says.

The one with the images lets go of his arm. The shorter engineer comes forward and takes him by the wrist.

“Great,” she says. She leads him to a chair. “Sit.” He sits. She bounces on her feet a little, then leans down and peers into his eyes. “Wow,” she says. “I’m never gonna get over these things.”

The one with the uniform starts talking quietly to the silent one. The one with the images leans against the wall, folding his arms across his chest. The shorter engineer pulls out a flashlight and shines it in his eyes.

“I’m so looking forward to finding out how you work,” she says. He wonders if he’s supposed to respond. He doesn’t think so. Usually the engineers ask him specific questions if they want him to respond.

Usually they tell him to undress. They haven’t told him to do that yet. He hopes they don’t, and then he wonders why he hopes that. It doesn’t make any difference if he’s clothed or unclothed. But the thought of undressing makes him feel bad. He doesn’t know why.

The shorter engineer moves round behind him. She traces the port at the base of his neck. Then she leans over. She must be close to the port because he can feel her breathing on it.

“You almost ready?” she asks.

“Few seconds.” The taller engineer is sitting at a computer. He can hear him typing, but he’s facing away so he can’t see what’s on the screen.

At the other end of the room. The one with the uniform is showing the one with the images something on his phone. The one with the images laughs.

“OK, go,” the taller engineer says. There’s a sound behind him, something clattering on a table, and then there’s a pressure against the port at the base of his neck. Something clicks into place. A cable jack. He shifts in his chair and becomes aware that there’s a cable attached to his neck. It’s heavy. He tries to see where it leads without turning round, but he can’t.

“OK – uh, nothing’s happening,” the taller engineer says. “There’s no connection.”

“Fuck,” says the shorter engineer. She’s still standing behind him. She pulls on the cable, and there’s a moment of pain, then the release of the pressure. Then the pressure returns. There’s the click again, more decisive this time. “How’s that?”

Before, the pressure was uncomfortable, but static. Now, he feels it start to build. It starts at the base of his neck, but moves upwards fast, into his head.

“Huh,” the taller engineer says. “Yeah – something. I’m not sure how to navigate this.”

“Let me see,” says the shorter engineer. She moves from behind him. “Wow, I can’t believe you actually got a connection.”

The pressure in his head is painful now. He feels it behind his eyes, in his ears, in the centre of his brain. He blinks, feeling his teeth start to ache. It’s a bad connection. His teeth feel like they’re pulsing, now, throbbing in time with the pain in his head. Behind him, the engineers are talking, but he can’t understand what they’re saying. Every word seems bright and sharp and jagged and meaningless. He feels something warm dribble out of one of his nostrils, then the other. He opens his mouth to tell them it’s a bad connection. It’s a bad – it’s a bad, bad co– bad connect–

He falls off his chair.

He hits the ground some time later. His vision is blurred, and all the fuzzy shapes he can see grow and shrink in time with the pulsing pain. There’s a loud noise somewhere. He thinks he’s lying on the floor, but he feels like he’s submerged in water. He feels like there’s water filling his mouth, closing his throat. He thinks maybe he’s about to die.

And then: the pressure stops. It hurts in a different way, and then it stops. Immediately, the pain is reduced. It hasn’t gone, but it’s not all-powerful any more. His throat opens. His hearing is dominated by a buzzing sound, but now the loud noise resolves itself into words.

“...said don’t move, asshole.”

It’s the one with the images. He’s somewhere nearby. He blinks, but his vision remains blurry. He thinks he can see feet in black boots. The feet turn. They walk towards him.

“Lacertus, get Cor down here, now,” the one with the images says.

The feet stop in front of his face. Then whoever it is kneels down.

“Hey,” the one with the images says. He’s close by, now. “Hey, Prompto. Fuck. Prompto? Can you hear me?”

He can hear. He can’t see, not well, but he can hear. His head hurts. It hurts.

“Yes,” he says. It sounds far away in his ears.

“OK,” the one with the images says. “Don’t move, all right? Shit, you’re bleeding. We’re gonna get Cor, OK?”

He blinks. Cor. Yes. If Cor was there – it would be better if Cor was there. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know anything. It was a bad connection. And now – he doesn’t know what happens now. But he wishes Cor was there.

“OK,” the one with the images says. He feels a warm hand on his arm. It’s not heavy, like the one with the images is afraid to put too much pressure on him. “Let’s – uh – can you sit up?”

He tries. The room spins. His head throbs. He feels hands on his arms.

“OK, that’s definitely making the bleeding worse,” the one with the images says. Then he speaks again, his voice sharper. “Who told you you could move? Stay there if you want to keep all your teeth.”

“Listen, just because you’re the Shield’s kid–” says the shorter engineer. She sounds far away.

“You think that’s all I’ve got going for me?” the one with the images says. “Try me.”

The shorter engineer doesn’t speak again.

Then there are footsteps. Running. The door clangs. And then there’s a new blurry shape, and a hand on his face.

“Six,” says a voice. Cor’s voice. He sounds out of breath. “Kid. Fuck.” The hands touch him, his shoulders, his arms. “What the fuck happened?”

“They plugged that thing into his neck,” the one with the images says. “It fucked him up good.”

What?” Cor says. Then his blurry face disappears. He speaks again, sounding further away and higher up and angry. “What is that? What’s it for?”

“It’s just a data transfer cable, sir,” the shorter engineer says. She sounds frightened. “We need to see his programming.”

“If it’s just a data transfer cable, why is he bleeding on the floor?” Cor asks.

“Bad connection,” he says. He tries to say it. It doesn’t come out right, and nobody hears him.

“Sir, our orders are to find out what’s in his head,” the taller engineer says. “He’s awake, he’s talking. We’re getting valuable data, if we can just plug him in for a couple more minutes–”

His words cut off suddenly, lost in the sound of an impact. A crunch, like something breaking, and a pained noise.

“Ah, shit, my fucking nose,” the taller engineer says.

“You touch that kid again, I’m coming for you, you understand?” Cor says. His voice is quiet, but he sounds so angry, it makes his skin crawl. There’s the sound of a footstep, then Cor speaks again. “That goes for both of you.”

Then Cor’s face appears in front of him again, blurry and pale. The fingers touch his cheek, then under his nose.

“I’ve sent Geminis for a potion,” the one with the images says.

“No potions,” Cor says. “Kid, we’re getting you out of here, all right? I’m here, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

He thinks about what Cor said to him the day before. That it was his job to protect him. That he would stop anyone who tried to hurt him. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.

“I’ll take him,” the one with the images says. “It was my fault, I should have been paying more attention.”

“No,” Cor says. Then there’s arms under his knees and back, lifting him off the ground. “He’s my responsibility. Hold onto me, OK, kid?”

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

He holds on to Cor.

Chapter Text

His ears are buzzing.

They’re moving, still. He’s not sure where they’re going. He’s holding onto Cor, and he can hear other footsteps. The one with the images, he thinks. He’s not sure who else. He can’t think very well. His ears are buzzing.

He closes his eyes. It helps: the buzzing is quieter. He can’t see properly, anyway. And he’s not walking. Cor’s carrying him. He doesn’t think he can walk. He thinks his nose is bleeding again. He doesn’t need to see. So he keeps his eyes closed. It helps with the buzzing.

The one with the images says something. He tries to hear it, but the buzzing distorts the sound. It’s soft around the edges. He tries restarting his hearing, but it doesn’t help. He opens his eyes and the buzzing gets worse. It makes his head throb. He closes his eyes again and the buzzing gets better. It’s still there, but it doesn’t hurt as much.

Cor’s carrying him. His head is pressed up against Cor’s chest. But he can’t hear Cor’s heart beating. He can only hear the buzzing. He can feel Cor breathing, his chest expanding and contracting. But he can’t hear his heart beating.

He needs to be able to see and hear, but neither his vision nor his hearing are functioning correctly. If he shuts down one, maybe the other will function. At least then he’ll have one functioning sense instead of two malfunctioning ones. He doesn’t need to be able to see right now. He has his eyes closed anyway. So he shuts down his vision.

The buzzing fades until he can’t hear it any more. His hearing isn’t perfect, but it’s there. It’s disorienting, not being able to see. But it’s better than not being able to see or hear.

He listens. Even though his hearing is functioning better now, his thoughts are still muddled. He knows what happened: a bad connection. It caused his systems to malfunction. And then Cor came to fetch him, and now Cor is taking him somewhere. Cor was very angry. He can’t remember why. He’s not sure he ever knew why. He’s not sure if Cor is still angry. He can hear Cor’s heart beating now. It’s beating fast. Maybe Cor is still angry.

There’s the sound of a door. Then the footsteps change. Not carpet any more: some kind of tile. He hears a new voice. It’s the one with the white coat.

“What happened?” she asks. Her voice is sharp.

“Those assholes down in R&D did something to him,” Cor says. His voice is vibrating with tension. He’s still angry. Cor’s still angry. “They stuck a cable jack in his neck and now he’s – I don’t know.”

“Put him here,” the one with the white coat says. “Is he conscious?”

“I don’t know,” Cor says. Then he’s letting go of him. He’s laying him down on a surface. It’s not soft, but not as hard or cold as wood or metal.

He doesn’t want Cor to let him go. But Cor lets him go.

“Prompto?” the one with the white coat says. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” he says. His voice sounds quieter than usual.

He hears Cor let out a breath. He hears footsteps.

“Can you open your eyes for me?” the one with the white coat says.

He opens his eyes. He feels the one with the white coat touching his face. He feels a hint of warmth that tells him she’s leaning over him. Then she sighs.

“I really need an instruction manual,” she mutters.

“What’s wrong?” Cor asks. He sounds even angrier than before.

“Same thing that’s always wrong,” the one with the white coat says. “I don’t have a baseline. His pupils aren’t reacting, but they don’t react anyway, as far as I can tell, so – that’s not really helpful.” He feels a slight movement of air on his face. “Can you focus on my finger?”

He swallows. “No,” he says.

There’s a footstep. “What?” says Cor.

“Marshal, please,” the one with the white coat says. “Prompto – are you having trouble focusing?”

“Yes,” he says, and then, “My vision is malfunctioning. It was using too many resources so I shut it down.” His throat is dry, and the last few words are painful.

There’s a silence. Then the one with the images speaks. “Say what?”

“Prompto,” the one with the white coat says, “did you say – you shut your vision down?”

“Yes,” he says. It hurts to talk.

There’s a pause. “How?” asks the one with the white coat. She sounds surprised.

He doesn’t understand the question. “I – shut it down,” he says. “I shut down the process.”

“Wait.” It’s Cor speaking now. “You mean you can’t see at all right now? You’re blind?” His voice is sharp and loud.

He swallows. He tries to swallow. His throat is too dry. “Yes,” he says. It’s clear now: it wasn’t the right thing to do. “Should I restart the process?”

“Six, yeah, fuck,” Cor says. “Restart the fucking process, kid.”

He restarts the process. His heart was already beating too fast after the bad connection, but now it feels like it’s pounding in his chest and in his skull. He’s done the wrong thing and now Cor’s angry. His vision doesn’t come back online immediately, but the buzzing does. It flows like terrible music, rising and falling with the beating of his heart. Then his vision comes back online, and the light seems to pierce through his eyes into his brain. He squints, trying to keep his eyes open. He can’t see any detail, just a blinding white fog.

“Prompto?” the one with the white coat asks. He can barely understand her through the buzzing. “Does that hurt?”

“Yes,” he says. It hurts more now than it did before he shut the process down.

She asks him something else, but he can’t understand her. He closes his eyes and the buzzing reduces. “I didn’t hear,” he says. He can’t even really hear his own voice.

She speaks again. She’s much closer to his ear now. “I asked if it would hurt less if your vision was – uh, off,” she says.

He tries to swallow, but his throat just clicks. “Yes,” he says.

He hears an indistinct sound, then the one in the white coat speaks. “Then shut it down.”

He starts to shut down the process, but then he remembers that Cor didn’t want him to. “My or– orders were to r-restart,” he says. He thinks about water. Water is so cool and it tastes so good.

There’s talking, then. He can hear that Cor is talking, and the one with the white coat, but he can’t hear what they’re saying. At one point, Cor says, “He’ll be blind, come the fuck on,” but that’s the only thing he can make out. He opens his eyes briefly, but closes them again against the light and the buzzing.

Then someone’s next to him. It’s Cor. He’s talking. He’s close to his ear.

“Kid. If you shut down your eyes, is it going to damage them?”

“No,” he says. He wants to explain that it’s only dangerous if he shuts down too many of his processes at once. But he’s so tired.

“All right,” Cor says. “Shut them down.”

He obeys immediately. It’s a blessed relief, the buzzing fading rapidly to nothing. His head still hurts, but it’s – better. It’s so much better. He realises Cor’s hand is on his arm. He doesn’t know how long it’s been there.

“He’s bleeding,” Cor says.

“I’m hoping it’s just from the – overuse of resources, or however it was that he characterised it,” the one with the white coat says. “Here.”

A moment later, there’s something cool and damp pressing against his face, under his nose.

“Don’t get it on your skin,” the one with the white coat says. “It’s corrosive.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Cor says. He moves his hand from his arm, then puts it on his forehead. It feels somehow cool and warm at the same time. “Does it hurt less now, kid?”

“Yes,” he says. It comes out in a whisper.

There’s a silence. “Hey, get him some water,” Cor says.

Water. Yes, water. Cor’s going to get him water. His head is spinning – he’s not sure how long that’s been going on. But Cor’s going to get him water. Cor will make sure nothing happens to him. He’s so tired, but he gathers together as much strength as he can and moves his hand to touch his pocket. The paper’s in there. Cor will make sure nothing happens to him. Cor will get him water.

“Water,” Cor says. Then there’s a hand holding up his head, and something at his lips, and water. Water, water. He drinks it, and Cor says something, and he drinks more. He drinks more. And he falls asleep.

~

He wakes up: he’s in a machine. It’s thumping. The machine is thumping. He falls asleep.

~

He wakes up: Cor and the one with the white coat are talking. Cor is close to him. Cor has a hand on his arm.

“I don’t know,” the one with the white coat says. “I can’t give you any solid answers. But his brain looks the same as it did at his last check-up.”

Cor’s hand tightens on his arm. He falls asleep.

~

He wakes up: he’s being lifted into the air. He makes a noise.

“Hey, you’re awake,” says Cor. It’s Cor who’s lifting him. Then he puts him down. He’s in a chair. “How are you feeling?”

“Yes,” he says. Then he realises it wasn’t the right response. It didn’t make sense. He feels tired.

Cor touches his forehead. He pushes his hair away where it’s hanging on his forehead. “Want some water?” he asks.

Water, yes. He wants water. “Thank you,” he says. That wasn’t quite right, either. But Cor seems to understand him, and a moment later there’s something at his lips.

“Here,” Cor says. Then there’s water. It’s good. Cor’s going to make sure nothing happens to him. Cor is making sure. Nothing’s happening to him. That’s what the paper says.

When he’s finished drinking the water, Cor holds him.

“I’m sorry,” Cor says.

Cor stops holding him and the chair starts moving.

He falls asleep.

~

He wakes up: a door is opening.

A chair scrapes on the floor. “Marshal,” says a voice. “What happened?” It’s Ignis. He sounds frightened.

“Turns out the check-up was an excuse to fuck around in the kid’s brain,” says the one with the images. He’s somewhere nearby. He sounds angry.

“What?” Ignis says. Now he sounds angry, too. “Is he all right? Prompto?”

“He’s asleep,” Cor says. “The doc says she doesn’t think he’s in any danger, but she wants him nearby for observation. So I can’t take him home.”

“Oh – by all means,” Ignis says. He doesn’t understand this, but a moment later Cor lifts him out of the chair. Cor feels warm. He holds onto Cor. When Cor lays him down on a soft surface, he forgets to let go.

“All right, kid,” Cor says. He says it quietly. Then he takes his hand. He pulls it away from his arm. But he doesn’t let it go. He holds onto it. “I’m staying right here,” he says.

Something soft and warm falls on top of him. “Do either of you need anything?” Ignis asks. He’s nearby. His voice is very quiet. Cor’s hand is warm.

He falls asleep.

~

He wakes up: a phone is ringing.

“Shit,” Cor whispers. Cor’s hand twitches around his, and then he speaks again, voice still very quiet. “I gotta take this, Ignis, could you–?”

“Of course,” Ignis whispers. A moment later, Cor lets go of his hand, but then he takes it again. There are footsteps. A door opens and closes. Then he hears Cor speaking on the other side of a wall. So it’s not Cor holding his hand. So it’s Ignis.

“Clarus,” Cor says. He sharpens his hearing to hear the other end of the conversation. It hurts a little, but not too badly.

“Cor,” says the voice at the other end of the phone. “I heard about what happened with the M– With the boy.”

“Did you,” Cor says. His voice is flat and very cold.

“We need to talk about this,” the one from the phone says. “I’m in my office.”

“No,” Cor says.

There’s a pause.

“Excuse me?” the one from the phone says.

“Last time I left that kid alone, your goons fried his brain,” Cor says. “So I’m not leaving him. You want to talk to me, you come here. Otherwise, no deal.”

“Medical has informed me that the boy is in no danger–” the one from the phone begins, but Cor cuts him off.

“Did medical tell you he can’t see?” he says. “Did medical tell you he had to fucking turn his eyes off because they were hurting him so bad? You did that, Clarus. You and your joke of an engineering department.”

“I don’t appreciate your tone,” the one from the phone says. He sounds angry now.

“I don’t appreciate a single fucking thing you’ve done since that kid came here, so I guess we’re even,” Cor says. He sounds even angrier than the one from the phone, but he’s still keeping his voice quiet.

“Enough,” the one from the phone snaps. “I understand that you’re upset, but you of all people should know that I cannot put the welfare of the boy ahead of the welfare of the kingdom. If there’s a threat, it must be neutralised–”

“Neutralised?” Cor says. He’s not quiet any more. He’s shouting now, so he could hear him even with his hearing at normal levels. “Neutralised? That’s my kid you’re talking about!”

There’s a silence. It’s somehow heavier than the earlier silences.

“Huh,” the one with the images mutters from somewhere nearby.

“Sh,” says Ignis. Ignis is sitting beside him holding his hand.

“I mean–” Cor says. His voice is back to a normal volume.

“I see,” says the one from the phone. “Where are you?”

“Ignis’ place,” Cor says. “Clarus–”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” the one from the phone says. Then the call ends.

There’s a long silence. Then a door opens and closes. Footsteps, coming towards him.

“Kid still asleep?” Cor whispers.

“As far as I can tell,” Ignis says.

The sound of shuffling. Ignis lets go of his hand. Cor takes it. “Clarus is coming over,” Cor says.

“Is he,” Ignis says. His voice sounds flat, like Cor’s did earlier.

He feels his nose start bleeding again.

~

After that, nobody says anything for a while. Somebody holds a cloth under his nose. There are muffled footsteps moving backwards and forwards, like somebody’s pacing. The one with the images says something about coffee. Quiet music starts to play.

There’s a knock at the door. Ignis doesn’t call out. Instead, there are footsteps, and the door opens.

“Come in,” Ignis says. His voice sounds cold. “Please keep your voice down.”

Footsteps. Cor lets go of his hand. A rustling sound.

“Is there somewhere we can talk?” says a voice. It’s the one from the phone. “Somewhere a little more private?”

“Of course,” Ignis says. A door opens and closes. More silence. Someone takes his hand. It must be Ignis, because a moment later he makes a disapproving-sounding noise from very nearby.

“Gladio, could you fetch me another cloth?” he says. “This one appears to have largely dissolved.”

Then Cor starts speaking in another room, and he tunes his hearing in to listen to that and exclude most of what’s happening in the room he’s in.

“Make it quick,” Cor says. “I’ve got a sick kid to look after.”

The one from the phone sighs. “Cor,” he says. “First, let me say that I was not aware you had – grown quite so attached. I would not have spoken so tactlessly, had I known.”

“Right,” Cor says. “Because people’s lives only matter if they’re people we care about, right?”

“I see you’re determined to twist everything I say,” the one from the phone says. “You know full well that individual lives cannot be held above the safety of the King and the kingdom.”

“Do I?” Cor snaps.

There’s a silence.

“Are you telling me that you no longer consider the safety of the King to be your primary, overriding concern?” the one from the phone asks. He speaks the words very clearly and slowly.

“Shit,” Cor mutters, then, “No, shit, Clarus. That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t know what I’m saying. Six, I don’t know what’s going on with me right now.”

“That makes two of us,” says the one from the phone. His voice is warmer now. “My friend. I should be clearer. By neutralised, I certainly did not mean killed. And I am convinced the boy is not a knowing agent of the Empire. But if there are orders in his programming that even he is not aware of, we need to know. You must understand this.”

A long pause. “Yeah,” Cor says. “But right now what you’ve got is assholes who’ve only ever worked on machines before messing around in his head without the first clue what they’re doing. That’s like – getting a hospital janitor to perform brain surgery. They could have killed him.”

“They’re the best in their field,” the one from the phone says.

“Fuck you,” Cor mutters.

“Excuse me?” the one from the phone says.

There’s a silence.

“Come with me,” Cor says.

Footsteps. A door opens. The footsteps come closer.

“Ignis, take the cloth away,” Cor says.

The cloth is removed from under his nose. He feels blood begin to ooze out onto his upper lip.

“This is what your guys did,” Cor says. His voice is very deep. “Best in their field. They didn’t stop when he started bleeding.”

“All the same–” the one from the phone starts, but Cor speaks across him.

“No, Clarus. Look. You gotta look at him.”

Silence. Ignis squeezes his hand.

“OK,” Cor says. “Now here’s the thing. What if it was Iris?”

The silence this time is longer. Heavier. He feels itchy, uncomfortable – uneasy, he remembers the word – but he lies still. He keeps his eyes closed.

“All right, my friend,” the one from the phone says at last. “I think I begin to understand.”

“So what now?” Cor asks. They’re both still standing at his feet. He wishes they would go somewhere else.

“I don’t know, yet,” the one from the phone says. “But – I can see that we need to be more cautious.”

“I’m not letting those assholes see him again,” Cor says.

A pause.

“We’ll talk with the King. There must be other avenues we can explore.”

“OK,” Cor says. “OK.”

There’s a short silence. “You broke the man’s nose, you know,” the one from the phone says.

The one with the images snorts. “Bet he cried like a baby,” he mutters.

“Do you have something to add, Gladiolus?” the one with the phone says.

“No, sir,” the one with the images says. He sounds like he’s trying not to laugh. “Just – it was a clean hit. I would have smashed his face in.”

“I hope you’re not expecting an apology,” Cor says.

A pause. The one from the phone sighs. “It seems he deserved it,” he says. There’s a rustling noise. “We’ll talk, once the boy’s recovered,” he says. “And – I’m sorry, Cor. It was not my intention that he get hurt.”

“Understood,” says Cor. There’s more rustling, footsteps. A door opens and closes.

“Bye, dad,” the one with the images mutters.

There’s the creak of a chair. Cor sighs, closer now. “Kid wake up at all?” he asks, speaking in a whisper.

“I rather think he’s been awake for some time,” Ignis replies.

“What?” Cor says. “Kid? You awake?”

“Yes,” he says.

There’s a pause. “Shit,” Cor mutters. “You heard all that?”

“Yes,” he says. He heard all the things Cor and the one from the phone said. He even thinks he should have understood some of it. But his mind seems to be malfunctioning. Certain words stand out, and others seem to be meaningless. He can hear the one from the phone’s voice. By neutralised, I did not mean killed. And Cor: that’s my kid you’re talking about. That’s my kid. He knows these things are important. But he can’t understand them. He thinks about the pressure, when the engineer plugged the cable into his port. He thinks about how much it hurt. He thinks about how dark it is. How he can’t see where Cor is.

“Hey,” Cor says. “Hey, no. Don’t cry, kid. It’s all right. I’m here, I’m right here.”

He hears Cor’s voice. Ignis lets go of his hand and then someone else takes it. Cor takes it. Cor holds onto his hand.

“What’s wrong,” Cor says. “Is something hurting? Kid, please. Tell me why you’re crying.”

He swallows. “I don’t know,” he whispers.

Then he’s being lifted up. He’s sitting up, and Cor’s holding him. “OK,” Cor says. “All right. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry. But I’m here now. It’s all right. I’m here now.”

Cor’s here now.

He cries.

~

It’s quiet, later. Cor doesn’t leave. He listens to Cor, where he’s sitting. He thinks he must be on the couch, and Cor is sitting on a chair beside him. He listens to Cor breathing to make sure he doesn’t leave.

Cor doesn’t leave.

Ignis makes cooking noises in the kitchen. The one with the images is still here, too. He listens to his breathing and thinks he’s sitting at the table. He doesn’t hear pages turning, so he doesn’t think he’s reading. There’s music playing. There’s no-one else in the room.

Then the door opens.

“Hey, Specs.” It’s Noctis. He hears the muffled thud of Noctis’ bag hitting the ground. “Uh – hey, Cor.”

“Noct,” Ignis says, but then Noctis takes several steps forward and stops.

“Prompto?” he says.

“Noct,” Ignis says again. He’s close to Noctis now. “Prompto is unwell.”

“Huh?” Noctis says. “What? He was fine yesterday. What’s wrong with him?”

There’s a brief pause. Then Cor speaks. “Tell him,” he says. “He’ll find out anyway.”

Another brief pause, then the one with the images starts talking. He’s talking very quietly, and his voice is muffled, like he’s turned away. He wants to sharpen his hearing to listen, but he can’t focus on listening to the one with the images and listening to Cor breathing at the same time.

“Seriously?” Noctis says. He says it loudly. He sounds angry. “What the fuck?”

“Hey, keep your voice down,” the one with the images says. Then Ignis speaks.

“Noct?” he says. “Where are you going?”

“To find Clarus,” Noctis says.

“Cor’s already talked to him,” the one with the images says. “You’ll just make things worse.”

Worse?” Noctis says. He sounds angry. “Prompto’s gone blind.”

“It’s temporary,” Cor says then. He says it loudly, so Noctis can hear. Then he says it again, more quietly. “It’s temporary.”

“Highness,” Ignis says then. “Prompto needs your friendship now more than he needs your anger. However well-deserved it is.”

Silence. Then Noctis speaks.

“Yeah, OK,” he says. “But you’re getting the names of those engineers, Ignis.”

“Of course,” Ignis says.

“OK,” Noctis says again. Then footsteps come towards him. He hears Noctis sitting on the couch next to the one he’s lying on. He doesn’t drop down and sprawl and sigh, like usual. He sits quietly. He doesn’t say anything for a while. He just breathes.

“You awake, kid?” Cor says at last.

“Yes,” he says. He opens his eyes to show Cor he’s awake.

“Noctis is here to see you,” Cor says.

“Yes,” he says. He turns his head and tries to direct his eyes towards where he thinks Noctis is.

He hears Noctis swallow. “You really can’t see me, huh?” he says.

“No,” he says. “I shut down my vision.”

“That’s fucked up,” Noctis says. There’s a touch on his arm. “You can still feel me, right?”

“Yes,” he says.

There’s a pause. “I mean – you can just turn your eyes off whenever you want?” Noctis says. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” he says. It’s a strange question. Surely even if Noctis didn’t already know he could shut down his vision, it would be obvious by now?

“Huh,” Noctis says. “That’s – kind of awesome. Can you shut down anything else?”

“Yes,” he says. “I can shut down all my processes if required.”

“What, like, even your heart and stuff?” Noctis says.

“Hey, whoa,” Cor says. “No-one’s shutting down their heart, all right?” He squeezes his hand.

“Yeah, don’t do that, obviously,” Noctis says. “But – you can?”

“Yes,” he says. “If required.”

“It’s not required,” Cor says.

Noctis doesn’t say anything. He touches his arm again. “It’s like you’ve got super-powers,” he says. “Though I guess it’d be better if you could, like, enhance your vision instead of just turning it off.”

He opens his mouth to tell Noctis that he can enhance his vision, but Noctis speaks again. “Hey, you wanna play – oh, uh, I guess not.”

There’s quiet for a little while then. Cor sits beside him. Noctis is on the other couch. No-one says anything. He thinks about all the things that have happened. He doesn’t want to think about what happened with the engineers. But he wants to think about what happened afterwards. That Cor came to find him. That Cor said that’s my kid you’re talking about. He doesn’t understand what it means. But it makes him feel good. So he thinks about it. He thinks about it, and he slips towards sleep.

“Hey, so, they just announced that the next episode of King’s Knight is coming out in two months’ time,” Noctis says suddenly. “MoogleGroups is going crazy with spoilers.”

He shakes himself awake. He doesn’t know what MoogleGroups is.

“What’s MoogleGroups?” asks Cor.

“Uh, seriously?” Noctis says. “It’s, like, where you go on the internet to chat about stuff.”

“What stuff?” Cor asks.

“Everything,” Noct says. “I mean – games, mostly, but I guess you can chat about other stuff, if you want. There’s this guy called AssCred217, he’s shooting his mouth off everywhere saying Rishard is going to betray the King.”

He frowns. His thoughts are still muddled, so he thinks perhaps he doesn’t understand. “Why will he do that?” he asks. When they’ve played the game, Rishard has always supported the King.

“Exactly!” Noctis says. “That’s exactly my point. It doesn’t make any sense. This guy’s an idiot. Hang on, let me find this really stupid comment.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and then he starts reading something out. From what he can make out, it’s something that a person has written on the internet. It’s difficult to follow, and not just because his head hurts: the language is opaque and poorly structured, and the arguments are illogical in the extreme.

“I mean, seriously,” Noctis says when he’s finished reading it out. “Like that makes any sense.”

“No, it doesn’t make sense,” he says. He’s glad Noctis also thinks it doesn’t make sense.

“Right!” Noctis says. “OK, so here’s what PrettyPrincess_xxx said in response–”

Noctis reads the next person’s opinion out to him. And the next. None of them are very clear, and he doesn’t understand the purpose of the argument. He’s not entirely sure why Noctis is reading them out, either. He feels a little better about his uncertainty when Ignis comes to give him some pills and he hears Cor whisper to him.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Cor whispers.

“Probably better that way, Marshal,” Ignis whispers back.

It’s good, to know he’s not the only one who doesn’t understand. But even though he doesn’t understand, there’s something – pleasant about listening to Noctis talk to him. Sometimes he makes a response, and Noctis almost always enthusiastically agrees with him. Often, he doesn’t respond at all, but Noctis doesn’t seem to mind. He just reads to him, snippets of information, opinions, ideas. At some point, he starts composing opinions of his own to put on the internet, all of which Ignis forbids him from uploading. Once, he stops and touches his arm.

“Hey,” he says, “we’re going to have to seriously level up by the time the episode comes out. We’ve got a lot of game-hours to put in. You know, when your eyes are better.”

“Yes,” he says. He thinks about it while Noctis talks. Noctis wants to play the game with him, for many hours. And Noctis is reading to him. Talking to him, even though he isn’t really talking back. Even though he’s not really sure what Noctis is talking about. He likes to listen to Noctis talk. Even though it’s dark, he can feel Cor’s hand and hear Noctis’ voice. Even though it’s dark, it’s not so bad.

Noctis talks. He listens.

Chapter Text

Later – he’s not sure how much later, since it’s hard to tell time in the dark – the one with the white coat comes to Ignis’ apartment. It’s a surprise – he’s only ever seen her in her lab – but she seems to know everyone there, and she comes to sit near him. She carries out some tests and asks him some questions. Then Noctis asks her a question.

“He’s going to be fine, though, right?” Noctis says. “I mean – there’s no serious damage?”

“To be perfectly honest, Your Highness, I think Prompto is better equipped to answer that question than I am,” the one with the white coat says. There’s a pause, then she says, “Prompto, have you ever had cause to – shut down systems due to damage before?”

“Yes,” he says. Last time he had to shut down his vision was much worse than this time. Last time he was alone in the dark.

“And did shutting them down help the damage to heal? Or was there something else required?” the one with the white coat asks.

He considers. “There was – medication,” he says. He remembers the feel of his hand, stiff with bandages and a rubber tube.

“What kind of medication?” the one with the white coat asks. Somewhere in the room, there’s a faint scratching sound, like someone writing.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“All right,” the one with the white coat says. “But you healed?”

“Yes,” he says. “My systems are designed to heal if damaged.”

Cor squeezes his hand. “Everyone’s systems are designed to do that, kid.”

“Oh,” he says. He feels stupid. He didn’t know humans were designed at all.

“How do you feel now?” the one with the white coat asks.

“Fine,” he says. The couch is soft, and Cor and Noctis and Ignis are all close by.

“Are you in any pain?” the one with the white coat asks.

He thinks about this. “Yes,” he says. He feels Cor’s fingers twitch around his hand, and Cor starts to say something, and then abruptly stops.

“Can you tell me where it hurts?” the one with the white coat asks.

“My head,” he says. “And my neck.”

More scratching. He realises there are two sets of scratching sounds: one very nearby and one further away, near the part of the room that functions as a kitchen.

“Do you feel tired or muddled?” the one with the white coat asks.

“Yes,” he says. Cor’s fingers twitch again.

“Are you hungry or thirsty?” the one with the white coat asks.

He hesitates. He remembers the explanation of hungry from Royal Lucian Dictionary, but he doesn’t think he can be hungry. He can’t even quite imagine what hungry might be like. But he didn’t look up thirsty, even though he knows Cor used the word before.

“Do you need food or water?” says Ignis then. His voice is further away, near where the second set of scratching sounds originates.

Oh. Thirsty is about needing water. He swallows.

“Yes,” he says, and then, to clarify, “water – it’s not necessary, I–” He feels suddenly confused, unsure of whether he’s permitted to ask for water or not. The problem is solved, though, when moments later someone holds a cup to his lips.

“You’re supposed to tell me when you’re thirsty, remember?” Cor says. Someone lifts up his head and helps him to drink. “And while we’re at it, tell me if you’re in pain, too.”

He drinks. His throat feels better. When there’s no more water, he’s laid down again on the couch. It feels strange, to be treated like this, as though he’s incapable of performing tasks by himself.

“Here,” the one with the white coat says. Something rattles. “Give him these when he’s in pain. Let him sleep. I’ll come back in the morning.”

He’s lifted up again, and someone puts two pills in his hand. He’s grateful they weren’t put straight into his mouth, though he’s not quite sure why it should matter one way or the other. Then there’s more water. It tastes good. He’s laid down again.

“You heard what the Doc said,” Cor says. Someone brushes their hand along his forehead, moving his hair around. “Get some sleep.”

He closes his eyes. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep, when he’s slept so much already. But he falls asleep almost immediately.

~

When he wakes up, Cor and Ignis are talking. They’re in the part of the room that functions as a kitchen, and they’re talking very quietly, but he sharpens his hearing until he can hear what they’re saying.

“We can move to a guest apartment,” Cor’s saying.

“Oh, no, that’s unnecessary,” Ignis says. “He can certainly stay here as long as he needs to. And besides, with his loss of vision and general emotional vulnerability, surely it would be better for him to be somewhere familiar.”

Cor sighs. “You’re a good man, Ignis,” he says.

He thinks about what Cor and Ignis are saying. They’re talking about him staying here, with Ignis. Not going back to Cor’s apartment. He likes it here, but–

A thought strikes him, and he sits up with a gasp, then gasps again as his head starts to spin. He grasps for the back of the couch, and a moment later there’s a hand on his arm and another on his back, steadying him.

“Hey,” Cor says, close to his ear. He sounds strained. “What happened? Are you hurt?”

“The plants,” he says. He knows he shouldn’t be making so much trouble, but– “I have to water the plants.”

There’s a brief pause. “The plants will be OK without you for one night, kid,” Cor says. He still sounds strained, but in a different way now.

He swallows. “I have to check them,” he says. He feels confused. He wishes he could see. He doesn’t know who’s in the room. Is Noctis still here?

“They’ll be fine–” Cor starts, but then another hand is laid on his shoulder.

“I can water your plants for you,” says Ignis. The hand squeezes his shoulder. “Someone will need to go and fetch some things for both of you, after all, and I’m sure you’d rather Cor stayed here.”

He swallows. “Thank you,” he says. His throat hurts, and his head is still spinning.

“You’re very welcome,” Ignis says. Then there’s the sound of something rustling. “Now, I will need some instructions.”

He waits for Cor to give instructions. But Cor doesn’t give any.

“Prompto?” Ignis says. “I need instructions.”

He turns towards the sound of Ignis’ voice. He doesn’t understand. But he can’t see Ignis, so turning in his direction doesn’t help.

“Instructions?” he asks. He’s a level two. Level two MTs don’t give instructions. They follow instructions.

“Yes,” Ignis says. “Which plants to water, how much water to give them, and so on.”

There’s a pause. He feels frightened, but he doesn’t understand why.

“Can’t – Cor give you instructions?” he asks. His voice sounds very quiet.

Cor snorts. “Kid, if I give him instructions, those plants will be dead by morning.”

The plants will be dead. The panic that’s still thrumming quietly in his stomach starts to rise again.

“You’re the only one who knows what to do about the plants,” Ignis says. “They don’t have to be complicated instructions, Prompto, but I do need something.”

He swallows. You’re the only one who knows. “Oh,” he says. “Yes.” It doesn’t feel right. But he’s the only one who knows.

“The cactus doesn’t need any water,” he says. He hears the scratching sound of writing again. “The red plant needs some. Half a cupful. There’s – a cup by the bed.” He thinks about the other plant, tries to remember when he last gave it water. It doesn’t need water as often as the red plant. “The plant with yellow parts – if – if I was there I would check the material in the vessel. If it was dry, I would give it water. A whole cupful.”

“Yellow parts?” Ignis asks.

“Flowers,” says Cor. “It’s got yellow flowers.”

Flowers, he thinks. That’s what the yellow parts are called. He feels a little sick. But he didn’t tell Ignis to do anything. He didn’t give any orders. He just described what the plants need. So maybe it’s not so bad.

He feels sick.

“OK,” Cor says. “You all right, now? Need some water?”

“Yes,” he says. It comes out in a whisper.

“Well, I’ll be back soon,” Ignis says. There’s rustling and thumping, and Cor gives him water, and then he lies down and stares at the darkness.

You’re the only one who knows, Ignis said.

But he feels like he doesn’t know anything.

~

After that, it’s very quiet. Cor doesn’t say anything, but he’s nearby. He thinks at first that Cor’s the only person in the room, but then he hears someone turning a page in the part of the room that functions as a kitchen. He’s not sure who it is until the person stands up with a grunt and walks across the room. Then he realises it’s the one with the images. It feels better, to know who it is. To know that it’s someone he already knows.

He closes his eyes, but he doesn’t fall back to sleep. He wonders whether it’s daytime or night-time. He wonders how long it’s been since he was sent to the engineers. He wonders if he’ll be sent there again.

The door opens and closes.

“Hey, Iggy,” says the one with the images.

“Good evening,” Ignis says. So it’s evening. The same day? He thinks it must be the same day. “Is Prompto asleep?”

He opens his eyes.

“No,” says Cor. There’s a hand on his shoulder. Then it’s gone.

“I brought some things for both of you,” Ignis says. “A change of clothes, pyjamas, et cetera.” He pauses. “I only found one toothbrush...?”

“That’s mine,” Cor says.

“And what about Prompto’s toothbrush?” Ignis asks.

There’s a pause.

“Shit,” says Cor.

Ignis lets out a sharp breath. Somehow, the breath sounds angry. “I see,” he says. “And how long has he been with you now?”

“Yeah, I–” Cor says. “Look, he didn’t – when he first arrived he didn’t ask me, and – he just never asked me, so I didn’t think of it, all right?”

“Perfectly understandable,” Ignis says. “After all, Prompto is very good at coming forward and asking for what he needs, so I can see how it would have slipped your mind.” He makes that angry sigh again. “Prompto,” he says.

He sits up. Too fast, and he has to hold onto the couch again.

“Yes?” he says. He doesn’t want Ignis to be angry with him.

Ignis sighs again, but now he doesn’t sound angry any more.

“I’m going to buy you a toothbrush,” he says, “since some people apparently aren’t capable of doing so. Do you prefer soft, medium or hard?”

He blinks. He understands all the words individually, but he doesn’t understand the meaning. “A – brush?” he says.

“A toothbrush,” Cor says.

There’s a pause.

“Have you ever brushed your teeth before?” Ignis asks.

He swallows. He thinks about the brushes he knows about – for scrubbing floors and equipment and boots. He can’t imagine why anyone would want to use one on their teeth. The idea makes his mouth hurt.

“No,” he says.

“No food before, right?” the one with the images says.

“Shit,” Cor says, at the same time as Ignis says, “Of course.” There’s another brief pause, and then Ignis speaks again.

“Well,” he says. “In that case, I will buy one of each kind, and you can decide which you like. In the meantime, Marshal Leonis will explain oral hygiene to you. Won’t you, Marshal?”

Cor clears his throat. “Uh, yeah,” he says.

“Good,” says Ignis. Then there’s footsteps, and a door closes, harder than usual.

There’s a silence.

“Someone got told,” says the one with the images.

“If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it,” Cor says.

“Yes, sir,” says the one with the images. He sounds like he’s on the verge of laughing.

Cor sighs heavily. Then he puts his hand on his shoulder again.

“You OK sitting up?” he asks.

He leans back against the couch. His thoughts feel slow and fuzzy. “Yes,” he says.

“OK,” Cor says. “All right. Now listen – I gotta tell you something.”

Cor explains: ingesting sustenance by mouth results in films of material coating the teeth. These films can cause the teeth to become structurally unsound over the long term, and so a brush is used to remove the films. The brush must be used twice a day. This is called oral hygiene.

He tries not to think too hard about it. If all humans perform this operation, then surely it can’t be too painful. But he can’t imagine how it works. He thinks he could brush his front teeth, but he’s not sure he can open his mouth wide enough to fit the brush in and brush his back teeth.

“Any questions?” Cor asks.

He considers.

“Why do humans eat food?” he asks. It seems so inefficient, not to mention apparently it endangers the structural integrity of teeth.

The one with the images laughs quietly.

“Because food is necessary for us to stay alive,” Cor says. “We don’t have ports for sustenance.”

“Plus, it tastes good,” the one with the images says.

He considers. Cor’s argument makes little sense – he feels quite sure humans could be fitted with sustenance ports if required. But the one with the images is correct. Food does taste good. It smells good and it tastes good. Even the peas and ham tasted good, and chewing them wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. But still.

“But if it causes damage to your teeth?” he says.

“That’s why you brush em, kid,” the one with the images says.

“That’s why we have teeth in the first place,” Cor says. “To allow us to eat.”

He blinks. He runs his tongue over his teeth. He’s never really considered teeth before. The function of teeth. They were just always there. But of course, they must have a function. In humans, anyway. Because humans don’t have ports.

But he has teeth even though he has a port.

The door opens and closes.

“Did you explain it to him?” Ignis asks.

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Right, kid?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s still trying to think about teeth, but it’s difficult. His thoughts are sluggish. He hears footsteps, then Ignis speaks again, from close by now.

“Hold out your hands,” Ignis says.

He holds out his hands. Somebody puts something into them. He grasps it and feels around the contours. It’s long and smooth, plastic, most likely. At one end, there’s a set of close-spaced hairs.

“Try that,” Ignis says.

He doesn’t understand. He tries, but his thoughts are still clouded, and he can’t quite put the clues together. He sits with the object in his hands, trying to think what it is that Ignis wants him to do. But he can’t understand.

“Here,” Cor says then. He takes the object out of his hands. Then he takes one of his hands and folds it around the plastic end of the object. He takes hold of his wrist and lifts it.

“Open your mouth,” he says.

He opens his mouth. Cor guids his hand, and a moment later, he feels the bristles of the object touch his teeth. Gently, Cor moves his hand back and forth. The bristles move along his teeth. Brushing his teeth.

Brushing his teeth. Toothbrush.

“Oh,” he says, without meaning to. The movement of his mouth causes the toothbrush to brush his lips momentarily. It tingles, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s not like he imagined – the bristles are much softer than the brushes he’s used before, and the brush as a whole is very small and mounted on the long plastic handle. He experiments and finds he can easily reach the back of his mouth, though there’s a difficult moment where he reaches too far and almost gags. But it – it makes sense. He doesn’t know why he didn’t realise it as soon as Ignis gave him the object. The toothbrush. And it isn’t bad. He brushes all his teeth with instructions from Cor, and spits into a cup that Ignis gives him, and afterwards his teeth really do feel different. Smoother and cleaner. It’s good. And it didn’t hurt at all. So maybe it is worth eating food, after all.

“We’ll try you with toothpaste tomorrow,” Cor says. “Right now you look like you’re going to pass out. Get some rest.”

He lies back down and runs his tongue over his teeth. He wonders what the film of material was made of. The idea that some sort of – food residue has been on his teeth for so long makes him feel somewhat nauseated. But his teeth are clean now. It feels – strangely pleasant. He runs his tongue over them again. He thinks about food. He thinks about teeth.

He falls asleep.

~

When he wakes up, he’s somewhere else. He’s still lying down on something soft, but it’s not the couch any more. The softness under him is wider, smoother. It’s a bed of some kind. Wider than the bed he sleeps in at Cor’s apartment. He lies still, wondering where he is. Wondering who else might be there with him. And he hears voices.

He sharpens his hearing. It’s Cor and Ignis. They’re on the other side of a wall, talking quietly. There are clinking sounds, and running water. He listens carefully.

“–really ought to get some sleep as well,” Ignis says.

“Believe me, if I thought I’d do anything other than stare at the ceiling and replay today, I would,” Cor says. More running water. “Doesn’t mean you have to stay up, though.”

“I’m not feeling very tired,” Ignis says.

Cor grunts. “You should try switching to decaff,” he says.

Ignis makes a strange sort of startled noise, quickly stifled. Then there’s silence for a moment.

“Well, since we’re both awake, I wonder if we shouldn’t have some kind of – strategy meeting?” Ignis says.

“Strategy?” Cor says. “Strategy for what?”

“For Prompto,” Ignis says.

A pause. “OK,” Cor says. “I’m listening.”

Ignis says. “Marshal,” he says, “when I went to your apartment – I certainly didn’t intend to pry, but – if I hadn't been there before, I would hardly have known which room was yours and which was Prompto’s.”

“What’s your point?” Cor asks.

“That – he doesn’t have anything of his own,” Ignis says. “No clothes, no pictures on the wall – only the plants. I’m aware he’s not permitted some items, but – don’t you think he might feel more at home if he was able to make it – more his home?”

“He didn’t bring anything with him,” Cor says. “And he hasn’t asked for anything.”

Ignis coughs quietly.

“OK, that was a stupid thing to say,” Cor says. “But, look – he seems OK, right? It’s not like he’s going around naked, he’s got my clothes to wear. What else does he need?”

“Books,” Ignis says. “Pictures on the wall. Clothes he’s chosen himself. More plants, perhaps. I’m sure Noctis would have some ideas.”

“There’s a picture on his wall,” Cor says.

“Yes, I saw it,” Ignis says. “Did he choose it?”

There’s a pause. Cor coughs.

“It, uh, came with the apartment,” he says.

Another silence.

“Look, I–” Cor says. Then he stops talking. “I don’t know how to do this,” he mutters.

“I’m sure it’s very difficult,” Ignis says. “But if you meant what you said to Clarus, then–”

“Excuse me?” Cor says. “What I said to Clarus when?”

A brief pause. “Ah,” Ignis says. “I’m afraid to say that your phone conversation with Clarus was not quite as – private as you hoped. One phrase in particular was clearly audible to the rest of us. About – how you feel about Prompto.”

Silence.

“Ignis–” Cor says. There’s the sound of a cup or a bowl being put down on a surface. A sigh. “I was pretty riled up when I said that.”

“That was quite evident, I assure you,” Ignis says. A pause. “So you didn’t mean what you said?”

“No, that’s not–,” Cor says. Another sigh, this one almost angry. “Fuck. I don’t even know what it means to mean what I said.”

It’s quiet for a long moment. “I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through,” Ignis says, “but I would have thought the most important thing that it means is a commitment. Quite possibly a lifelong commitment.”

“Yeah,” Cor says. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

“Well, I suppose you need some time to consider–” Ignis starts, but Cor interrupts him.

“No,” he says. “I don’t need time. Fuck – I don’t know what it means, Ignis. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I don’t need any more time to consider it. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but – I don’t think I can do anything else.”

Silence.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Cor says.

“I was just thinking that you underestimate yourself, Marshal,” Ignis says. It sounds like he’s smiling.

“What, you forgot the toothbrush thing already?” Cor asks.

“Certainly not,” Ignis says. “Nonetheless.”

There’s a longer silence. There are sounds again – running water, clinking, something boiling. He starts to feel heavy and warm, and his thoughts drift. You’re the only one who knows, Ignis says, but he can’t tell if it’s inside his head or outside. But as he drifts away, he hears Cor speak again.

“OK,” Cor says. “Strategy meeting.”

~

The next time he wakes up, there are more noises. Everything is less quiet. He hears the one with the images speaking in the other room, and Noctis. So it must be day time.

He tries restarting his vision, but that leads to an immediate painful buzzing in the back of his skull, so he shuts it down again. He feels his way around the edges of the bed and manages to stand. But from there, it’s difficult. He has no sense of how large the room is, whether there might be any other furniture, the location of the door. He stands up and takes a step forward, arms outstretched in front of him, one low and sweeping, one high. He repeats the operation three times, and then he finds a wall. He feels along the edge of it and makes his way in the direction of the voices. He takes one step at a time. At one point, he scrapes his calf painfully on the sharp corner of – something. He avoids this object with some difficulty, and continues until he reaches a corner. Moments after turning this corner, he finds the edge of a door.

He takes a breath in relief, and slides his hands across the surface of the door until he finds the handle. The door opens inwards, and he steps back and opens it, then steps through and walks straight into something firm and unyielding. It takes his breath away – the surprised, more than the impact – and he takes a step back, panic rising in his stomach. Then someone takes hold of his shoulders. The grip is firm and warm.

“Kid?” Cor says. “You OK? Can you see?”

He swallows the panic down. Cor. It’s Cor. Everything’s all right.

“No,” he says.

“Shit,” Cor says. Then there’s an arm around his shoulders. “You should have called me. Don’t just – walk around in the dark, you could get hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. Cor is guiding him forwards, and he goes where he’s led. When Cor puts his hands on his shoulders, he sits down. The chair he sits in is upright, and when he reaches out, there’s a table in front of him.

“Hey, Prompto,” Noctis says. “You OK?”

“Yes,” he says. Noctis is sitting to his right. Probably also at the table.

“Morning, kid,” the one with the images says.

“Good morning, Prompto,” Ignis says. “I hope you slept well.”

He thinks about sleeping. He slept for a long time. Now it’s the next day – he thinks. And in what he thinks was the night, he heard Cor and Ignis talking. About clothes, and pictures, and strategy. About him. He wishes he could remember everything they said. He thinks it was important, but he needs to think about it so he can understand what it all meant.

Someone puts something down in front of him.

“Breakfast,” Cor says.

He reaches out. It’s a cup. He’s grateful – he doesn’t think he could manage a spoon without his vision. He picks it up and drinks. It’s soup. No solid particles. He’s grateful for that, too, even though the peas and ham tasted good.

“Now,” Ignis says, “there’s something we need to discuss.”

Noctis groans. “This better not be about that meeting tomorrow,” he says. “I told you I was going to do the reading, didn’t I?”

“It’s not about you at all,” Ignis says. “Although I certainly do remember you telling me that and I expect to see you doing so before the end of today. But this is about – our guest.”

“What guest?” Noctis asks.

Cor clears his throat.

“Who, P–?” Noctis says, and suddenly cuts off. “Ow, what was that for?”

“Our guest,” Ignis says, “needs a name. He’s been far too long without one.”

“Uh, what?” Noctis says. “He already has a name.”

The one with the images snorts. “That’s not a name,” he says. “You can’t call someone after a sports drink.”

Please,” Ignis says. He sounds anything but pleading. Noctis and the one with the images stop talking. “Cor, if you would.”

“Kid, have you thought any more about what you want to be called?” Cor asks. “You still have that list?”

He puts his hand in his pocket – the other one from where he keeps his important instructions from Cor. The list is there, but it feels battered in his fingers. He hopes Cor isn’t angry. He smoothes it on the table and holds it out.

“You’re the one who should look at it,” Cor says. “It has to be your choice.”

Ignis coughs.

“Uh–” Cor says. Then he takes the list from him.

“Here, let me look at that,” the one with the images says. There’s a brief pause, then he laughs. “Gregory? Is that even a name?”

“Perhaps we should have had this meeting with just the three of us,” Ignis says.

Cor sighs. “Kid,” he says, “do you remember seeing anything on the list you liked?”

He thinks. But he never really looked at the list much. He looked at the instructions from Cor much more. And – he doesn’t really understand.

“Why is it necessary?” he asks.

“For you to choose?” Cor says. “Or for you to have a name?”

“Either,” he says, even though it was really the second one he was thinking about.

“Because you’re a person, and all people have names,” Cor says.

He hesitates. He doesn’t think he’s a person, but Cor does. So he should have a name, because that’s what Cor wants. But if Cor wants him to have a name, then why doesn’t Cor give him a name?

“It’s part of you,” Ignis says then. “Your identity. Your name should feel – right. Like it belongs to you. When someone calls it, you should think yes, that’s me. A person’s name is an integral part of them. That’s why it’s so important that you should have one.”

He puts down his cup. He wonders if anyone’s looking at him. He feels as though there are hundreds of people looking at him, but maybe nobody is. There are lots of other things to look at, after all.

Yes, that’s me.

Names are important. How can he choose something important? Cor should choose.

He’s not a person.

Names are important.

He closes his eyes.

“Hey, Prompto, it’s OK,” says Noctis.

He opens his eyes and turns his face in the direction of Noctis.

Noctis,” Ignis hisses.

“Oh, uh – sorry,” Noctis mumbles.

But – did he feel it? Yes, that’s me. Is that what he felt?

He thinks maybe it is.

“Maybe this is the wrong time,” Cor says. “After yesterday – too soon, maybe.”

“Can I – choose anything?” he asks. “Or – only from the list?”

There’s a brief pause.

“Sure, kid,” Cor says. “You can choose anything. As long as it’s something that feels right to you.”

He hesitates. “Can I choose Prompto?” he asks.

“If that’s what you want,” Cor says.

He thinks about it, the word, in his mind. Noctis was the one who gave it to him. He thinks about the red drink, the word on the bottle, PROMPTO! But now when he thinks of the word, he doesn’t think of the drink bottle any more. He thinks that someone must want his attention.

“Yes,” he says.

Yessssss,” says Noctis. “In your face, Gladiolus.”

“Noct, please,” Ignis says.

He turns towards the direction of Cor’s voice. He waits. He waits for Cor.

And then he feels a warm hand on his shoulder.

“Prompto it is,” Cor says.

Chapter Text

It’s a strange, quiet sort of day. The one with the white coat comes and examines him. She says she’s pleased with his progress, and tells him that tomorrow she wants him to try restarting his vision. And after that – nothing happens. He doesn’t go anywhere. He just stays in Ignis’ apartment. He eats lots of soup and sleeps, and sometimes Noctis or Ignis or Cor talk to him or to each other, but mostly he just listens to music. The one with the images offers to read to him from his book, but Ignis says he can’t. So it’s just quiet. It’s quiet and dark, but Cor stays there all day. Noctis and the one with the images leave with Ignis while he’s sleeping, but later on they come back. In the afternoon, they play cards, and Noctis whispers the card denominations into his ear. He and Noctis win five games, until the one with the images declares he doesn’t want to play any more.

In the evening, Cor leads him to the place where he’s supposed to sleep. He brushes his teeth. This time he uses a sort of gel that Cor calls toothpaste. It tastes fresh and sharp, and it makes his mouth taste clean and cold. Afterwards, he changes into his sleeping clothes. A door closes and he’s on his own. He lies on the soft, wide bed and stares into the darkness and thinks that it was a good day. He feels – quiet, like nothing hurts and he doesn’t want anything and it was good to spend the day at Ignis’ apartment. Outside, it’s raining, and he wonders what it looks like. What the room looks like. He knows there must be a window, because he can hear the sound of the rain against the glass. He thinks it must be beautiful. It sounds beautiful, hissing and rushing, like the river Cor took him to see, but much quieter. There’s so much water everywhere in the world.

It was a good day.

~

When he wakes up, the bed isn’t soft any more, and the room is full of a dim purple light.

It takes him a moment to remember where he is. And then he realises that he’s not there any more. He went to sleep on a soft bed, and now he’s on a hard surface. And when he went to sleep, his vision was shut down, but now it’s functioning.

He sits up. Everything’s strange and blurred. He still hears the sound of the rain. And – his hair’s wet. And his shoulders, and the top part of his chest.

Why is his hair wet?

His heart’s beating fast. The place he’s in is dark and blurry and unfamiliar. He realises, suddenly, what’s happening: he’s hallucinating. Dreaming. It’s normal. That’s what Cor said. He has it written down. It’s normal to dream. And dreaming is hallucinating when you’re asleep. He’s asleep now. So it makes sense.

He looks around himself. It’s strange, to feel awake but to know that you’re asleep. He’s sitting on the floor. The room is dark. There’s a wide open window, and rain falling outside, hissing against the glass. Some of the rain is coming into the room. He walks over to the window. The carpet beside it is wet. Like his hair.

He looks at the rest of the room. There’s a large, shadowy shape to his right. A blur of dim light in front of him. He closes his eyes and opens them, trying to focus and brighten his vision. But it doesn’t work.

When he dreamed before, Cor came to get him. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen this time. But he doesn’t know how to get out of the dream. He wills himself to wake up. But nothing happens. He doesn’t know how to get out of the dream. Maybe he has to wait for Cor to come and send him back to the facility.

Even though he knows it’s not real, his stomach twists with dread. No. He doesn’t want to go back there. Not even in a hallucination. So – he has to find some other way to get out of the dream.

He takes a deep breath and walks towards the blur of light. He walks slowly and carefully, hands stretched out in case there are obstacles hidden in the shadows. It’s not very different from walking without his vision. But he reaches the blur of light without colliding with anything. He reaches out to touch it. He finds a flat, smooth surface. When he runs his hands across it, he realises it’s a door. He finds the handle and turns it.

On the other side is Ignis’ room. The light is dim and everything’s blurry, but it’s enough to recognise: the couches, at right angles to each other. The kitchen part of the room. It’s familiar, where the room he was in was strange and shadowy. He feels relieved, even though last time he dreamed he was in Cor’s apartment at first, and that was familiar too. He walks into the room and goes towards the couch. And–

Someone’s lying on the couch.

He steps back, his heart feeling like it’s rising into his throat. But whoever is on the couch darts out a hand and grabs his wrist.

“Wha–?” the person on the couch says, sitting up. It’s Cor.

It’s Cor.

He swallows, feeling light-headed with relief. Cor sits up. He can’t make out his features. But he knows his voice. Cor doesn’t let go of his wrist.

“Kid?” he says, then, “Prompto? What time is it?”

He tries to speak, but his throat is too dry. He doesn’t know what time it is. Is he dreaming? It feels real. But it felt real last time, too.

Cor groans. He drags his free hand across his face. “Something happen?” he says. “You all right?”

“No,” he says. Then he realises there were two questions. His head feels muddled. “Am I awake?”

“Uh–” Cor says. He turns to face him, still holding his wrist. “What? You OK?” He stands up, putting his free hand on his shoulder. “Shit, kid, you’re soaked. What’s going on?”

He looks up at Cor. His face is a blurry blob, a little lighter that the surroundings. “Am I dreaming?” he asks.

Cor’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “No,” he says. “You’re awake. Here, sit down.”

Cor guides him to a chair and pushes gently on his shoulders. He sits down. Cor sits down opposite him. He keeps hold of his wrist.

“Tell me what’s happened,” he says.

But nothing’s happened.

“I don’t know,” he says, and then, “nothing’s happened.” He feels much more like he’s asleep now than he did before. Everything seems unreal.

“How’d you get so wet?” Cor asks.

He thinks about it. He woke up. It was raining. The window was open.

“The window was open,” he says. Is he awake or asleep?

Cor doesn’t say anything for a second or two. Then he reaches out and touches his forehead.

“You’re freezing,” he says. “I’ll get you a towel.”

He stands up, pushing his chair back. At that moment, a door opens.

“Everything OK in here?” says a voice. It’s the night-time silent one. He feels strange, disoriented. He woke up in a room he didn’t recognise. Now he’s in Ignis’ apartment, but it’s dark and blurry and Ignis isn’t here. And the night-time silent one is here. He should be in Cor’s apartment. But he’s here instead. Nothing feels quite right.

“I think – maybe he had another nightmare,” Cor says. “Arcis, can you find me a towel?”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says. He comes into the room and closes the door. He moves like a shadow. Cor goes to the counter and performs some operations. A light comes on – not the bright overhead light, but a dimmer one that just lights up the counter. He looks at Cor, at what Cor’s doing. Now that the light’s on, he should be able to see what Cor’s doing. But he can’t. Everything’s still blurry.

Cor comes back and sits down next to him. His face looks like a pale blob with two slightly darker blobs for eyes.

“I’m making you some hot milk,” he says.

He swallows. “Thank you,” he says. He’s still not sure if he’s dreaming. Nobody’s sent him back to the facility yet. But maybe that will come later.

The silent one reappears, carrying something pale. He hands it to Cor, and Cor stands up again.

“Take your t-shirt off,” he says.

He does. Cor drapes the pale thing over him. It’s a towel. Cor dries his hair and shoulders vigorously.

The silent one’s standing nearby. “How’d he get so wet?” he asks.

Cor grunts. “Dunno,” he says. “I think he stuck his head out of the window.” He stops drying him and sits down. “Is that what happened, kid?”

He doesn’t know what happened. He went to sleep in a bed and he woke up on the floor. The window was closed and then it was open. He was dry and then he was wet. “Yes,” he says.

The silent one stares down at him. “You like the rain, huh?” he says.

“Yes,” he says. He does like the rain. It completes the cycle of water rising and falling. And it looks beautiful.

“Can you get him another shirt?” Cor asks.

The silent one goes away. Cor sighs. He gets up and does something at the stove. Then he comes and sits back down.

“Did you have a nightmare?” he asks.

A nightmare is a bad dream. “No,” he says. He doesn’t think he had any dreams. Unless this is a dream. It would make more sense if this is a dream. If it isn’t, why did he wake up in a different place from where he went to bed?

Cor reaches out and touches his forehead again. He puts the palm of his hand on it. It feels solid and warm.

The silent one comes back. He gives him a dry shirt. He puts it on. Then Cor gets up and pours something into a cup. He gives it to him. It’s hot milk, like before.

Is he dreaming?

He drinks the hot milk. Then Cor takes him back to bed. He holds onto him the whole time, leading him by the arm with one hand on his back. When they go into the room, Cor closes the window.

“Good night, kid,” he says.

He lies in the bed and stares at the ceiling. He’s not sure what will happen if he goes to sleep when he’s dreaming. He’s not sure if he’s dreaming. He hopes he is.

He doesn’t go to sleep.

~

After a while, the sun gets turned on. It takes a while to get warmed up, and so the light grows slowly. He lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling. It’s blurry. Everything’s blurry.

He gets up and goes to the window. The carpet under it is still damp. So if he was dreaming, he’s still dreaming. But he feels awake. And nothing’s happened. He’s been lying doing nothing for hours. No-one’s come to send him back to the facility.

But if he isn’t dreaming, then why did he wake up on the floor?

He looks out of the window. Everything nearby is a blur. But when he looks further away, he can see things more clearly. The buildings. Clouds in the sky. The green smudge far away.

He goes back and lies down on the bed. He waits until he hears people moving and talking in the next room. Then he gets up and goes to the door.

There are two people in the room: Cor and Ignis. When he opens the door, they look up. They’re blurry, but he can tell who they are anyway. Cor comes towards him. He takes his arm and leads him to the table.

“Good morning,” Ignis says.

And the day starts.

And it’s not a dream.

~

After breakfast, Noctis arrives with the one with the white coat and the one with the images. The one with the white coat comes to sit with him. She asks him some questions and carries out some tests. Then she sits back.

“Well,” she says, “I think we’re ready for your to try restarting your vision.”

Oh. “It’s already started,” he says. He didn’t start it on purpose. Or maybe he did. He can’t remember.

“What?” Cor says.

He looks around and sees that everyone’s looking at him. He didn’t realise they didn’t know it was restarted. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to restart it yet.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“What are you sorry about?” the Cor asks.

He looks at Cor. He doesn’t know whether Cor wants him to be sorry or not. Then the one with the white coat waves at him and he looks at her, instead.

“How long has it been restarted?” she asks.

He doesn’t know. “Since – the night,” he says. He knows it was still shut down when he went to bed.

“And does it hurt?” she asks.

“No,” he says.

“That’s good to hear,” she says. “Now. Can you follow my finger?”

He does as she asks. She shines her bright light in his eyes. Then she picks up something that’s lying on the table and starts to hold it out.

“Could you read the first sentence from–” she starts, and then suddenly Ignis jumps forward and snatches the object from her.

“Not that one, if you’ll excuse me,” he says. He steps back and holds out the object to the one with the images. “Gladio, please don’t leave your reading material lying around where anyone could find it.”

The one with images laughs quietly. The one with the white coat sighs and finds another object. She holds it out. He thinks it’s probably a book, but it’s hard to tell.

“Can you read this for me?” she asks.

He looks. He doesn’t see any writing. Just a square-ish, pale blur.

“No,” he says.

“What?” Cor says. He puts his hand on his shoulder.

“Marshal, please,” the one with the white coat says. She turns back to him. “Can you tell me why you can’t read it?”

He takes a deep breath. His vision is malfunctioning. But everything was malfunctioning two days ago, and no-one was angry. So maybe they won’t be angry about this, either.

“My vision is malfunctioning,” he says. “Everything’s blurry.”

“I see,” says the one with the white coat, at the same time as Cor says, “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Marshal,” Ignis says, very quietly.

Cor squeezes his shoulder. “Shit,” he mutters, then, “can you do anything to help him?”

“Possibly,” the one with the white coat says. “He’ll need to come with me, though.”

He looks up at Cor. Cor nods.

“I’ll come with you,” he says.

“Me too,” says Noctis.

So in the end, they all go.

~

They go to the elevator and then down. The elevator is crowded: there’s him and Cor and Ignis, Noctis and the one with the images, the one with the white coat and the night-time silent one, who hasn’t been replaced with the daytime silent one yet. No-one says anything. He listens to the music that plays in the elevator. It’s pleasant, but not as interesting as the music Ignis plays. Then the doors open and they all get off.

The one with the white coat takes them to a room he hasn’t seen before. There’s a person there. The person is also wearing a white coat.

“I’ve got a referral for you,” the one with the white coat says.

The new person stands up and faces them. “Your Highness,” he says. He sounds worried.

“Not me,” Noctis says. “My friend.”

Noctis pushes him slightly, and he steps forward. He doesn’t know what friend means.

The new person turns towards him then stops. He can’t see what the expression is on his face, but he doesn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he coughs.

“Ah,” he says, sounding even more worried. “The – MT?”

The one with the images coughs. Somehow, it sounds threatening.

“My friend,” says Noctis again.

“Oh – oh, of course,” says the new person. “Well – come right this way.”

~

The new person carries out more tests on him. Most of them are similar to the ones the one with the white coat has carried out before, but a few are different. He shines lights in his eyes, asks him to follow moving dots of light, has him read charts with letters on them. And at last, he opens a drawer and rummages in it for a few seconds before turning around with an object in his hand.

“Try these on,” he says.

He takes the object. It’s a pair of glasses. Not sunglasses, but clear ones, like Ignis wears. He unfolds them and puts them on.

Suddenly, the blurriness disappears.

He looks around himself in wonder. He sees that the new person is wearing glasses as well. He has dark hair, and the top of his head is bald. He sees that Cor is frowning and the one with the images is grinning. He sees. Even though it’s only been a few days since the last time he could see, it feels like he can see for the first time in his life.

“How’s that?” asks the bald one.

He looks back at him. “It’s better,” he says. It’s so much better.

The bald one smiles. “Excellent,” he says. “Well, now, why don’t you just take those with you, and–”

“He’ll need sunglasses, too,” Cor says. “Prescription.”

“Oh, uh–” the bald one says.

“And some cooler frames,” Noctis says. “Those ones make him look like an owl.”

The bald one’s cheeks turn a little red. “Yes, Your Highness, of course,” he says. “I’ll just go and – fetch some.”

The bald one disappears into another room. He turns to look at the others.

“Well, I think they quite suit you,” Ignis says.

“You know what they say, four eyes are better than two,” the one with the images says.

“Yeah,” he says. He agrees that more eyes would be useful, though he’s not sure why it’s relevant.

“Looks like an owl,” Noctis mutters.

He takes the glasses off to look at them. He wants to ascertain what technology enables them to correct the malfunction in his vision. But as soon as he takes them off, he can’t see again. So he puts them back on. But when they’re on, they’re too close to his face to see how they work.

“Here we are, here we are,” says the bald one, coming back in. He has a tray with eight pairs of glasses and sunglasses on it. “Now, Your Highness, which ones would you like?”

“Um, those two,” Noctis says, pointing.

“Noctis, let Prompto choose his own glasses,” Ignis says.

“Oh – yeah,” Noctis says. He turns to look at him. “You need to choose. Which ones do you want?”

He doesn’t know why Ignis and Noctis want him to choose. It makes more sense for them to choose. He doesn’t know what the differences are, except for the shape. But Noctis is looking at him, and he gave him clear instructions, so he turns to the tray and points to the ones that Noctis pointed to.

“Excellent choice,” the bald one says. He takes the glasses off the tray and puts each pair in a protective container. Then he holds them out.

“Switch them out now,” Noctis says.

So he takes one pair from its protective container and exchanges the glasses he’s wearing for the new pair. He turns to look at Noctis, and Noctis grins.

“Better,” he says. “Less owl. Hey, c’mere.”

Noctis grabs his arm and pulls him forward, then puts an arm around him. He pulls out his phone and holds it at arm’s length. “Smile,” he says. So he smiles. Then Noctis shows him the phone. There’s an image on it. It’s him, his face looking strange and different with the glasses. Noctis is in the image, too, and Cor, Ignis, and the one with the images. The silent one is there, too, but he can’t see his face, only the top of his head.

“Nice,” Noctis says.

It is nice. Everyone in the image is smiling – even Cor. It makes him want to look at it more. But Noctis puts his phone away, and so he can’t look at it any more. He wonders if Noctis could put his images in a book, like the ones he’s seen, so that he could look at them sometimes. He’d like to look at them.

“OK, kid,” Cor says. “Let’s get moving.”

So they do.

~

Later, Cor leaves. He talks to Ignis about it for a long time first. They talk quietly, but he can hear them. He doesn’t understand what they’re saying, though. Cor keeps saying I don’t know and Ignis keeps saying I assure you, he’ll be fine without you for a few hours. At last, though, Cor comes to sit on the couch at right angles to him.

“I gotta go and do some work, kid,” he says. “I’m really sorry.”

He doesn’t know why Cor’s sorry. “Oh,” he says.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He looks down at his hands. “Ignis is going to look after you, though, OK? And Gladio’s gonna stick around, too.”

He hopes Noctis will stay, too. And he hopes Cor will come back soon.

“OK,” Cor says. He leans forward and holds him briefly. “I’m glad you’re OK,” he says. Then he stands up and leaves.

He sits, looking at where Cor was sitting before. It’s strange. He remembers when he was frightened of Cor. And he remembers when he didn’t even know Cor. And at those times, he didn’t feel anything when Cor wasn’t there. Or sometimes he even felt better when Cor wasn’t there. But now he feels a thin sort of ache in his chest. He wishes Cor hadn’t gone. But he doesn’t know why.

“Soooo,” Noctis says, slumping into the seat next to him, “King’s Knight?”

The thin ache recedes a little. “Yes,” he says.

~

They play for some time. Noctis gets quite agitated, sometimes angry, sometimes happy. He says Yessss whenever they have a success, and Arrgggh whenever they fail. Sometimes he holds his fist up and says fist-bump, and then they do fist-bump. He learns that fist-bump is correlated with more successful gambits. So the next time they score a significant number of points, he tentatively holds his own fist up first.

Noctis beams at him and performs fist-bump. “Now you’re getting it,” he says.

It makes him feel strange and warm.

After a while, they pause the game. Ignis calls to them to come and get some food. So he gets up and walks across the room. He sees that the one with the images is watching him and frowning. He hopes he hasn’t done anything wrong. But the one with the images doesn’t say anything, and Ignis smiles at him, so he thinks he hasn’t.

After lunch, though, the one with the images stands up.

“C’mere, four-eyes,” he says.

It takes him a moment to realise the one with the images is talking to him. When he does, he stands up and goes to where he’s standing in the middle of the room.

The one with the images looks him up and down. He walks around him, looking at him intently. It makes his skin prickle. He holds himself very still.

“Gladio?” Ignis asks.

“Just trying to figure something out,” the one with the images says. He steps back. “Walk over there for me, would you?”

He walks to where the one with the images points. The one with the images gestures for him to come back, so he does. The one with the images watches him carefully, frowning, then shakes his head.

“Yep,” he says. “That is all fucked up.”

“Dude,” says Noctis, “don’t be a dick to Prompto.”

“Slow your roll, Princess,” the one with the images says. “I’m not saying it’s his fault. Just – he keeps walking like that, his back is going to be fucked by the time he’s fifty.”

He looks at the one with the images, then he looks at Ignis.

“What does fucked mean?” he asks.

The one with the images lets out a bark of laughter. Ignis looks suddenly angry.

“Many thanks, Gladio,” he says.

Then the one with the images hits him on the shoulder. “It means bad, kid,” he says. He’s grinning now. “You should use it every time something bad happens.”

Gladiolus,” Ignis says. Meanwhile, Noctis has buried his face in the couch cushions for no apparent reason.

“I’m kidding,” the one with the images says. “Don’t use it. But seriously, kid, I don’t know what all that shit the Niffs put in your body is doing, but you need to learn better posture. Here.”

He puts a hand on the small of his back and the other on his shoulders. Then he manipulates his body until it’s in a slightly different configuration.

“Hold that pose,” he says.

He tries. It isn’t easy. The posture is unfamiliar and it makes his knees ache.

The one with the images steps back, frowning at him. Then he comes forward again and adjusts the position of his knees. Immediately, he feels some of the tension release.

“Imagine there’s an invisible thread connecting the top of your head to the ceiling,” the one with the images says. He touches a spot on the top of his head. He imagines this and the one with the images watches him.

“Better,” he says. “Now walk.”

He walks. The one with the images makes a disapproving noise. He adjusts his posture again.

“Remember the thread,” he says.

So he remembers the thread. He tries again – and again. He doesn’t get it right, but the one with the images never gets angry with him. He frowns and watches and gives instructions and manipulates his posture. But he never raises his voice or holds him too hard. He concentrates hard on walking. But in between, he thinks about what happened with the engineers. It’s blurry in his brain, and he doesn’t remember the details well. But he remembers that the one with the images was there, and fetched Cor, and told the engineers not to hurt him any more. He doesn’t know why the one with the images did that. But he thinks about it, while the one with the images teaches him the correct way to walk.

At last, Ignis steps forward.

“I rather think that’s enough for today,” he says.

The one with the images pauses, then shrugs. “Sure.” He turns to him. “You should come down to the gym with me some time. I’d like to see you run.”

He doesn’t know why the one with the images wants to see him run. But he thinks maybe it would be good. Even though it’s hard to stand and walk the way the one with the images wants him to, and to remember all the time about the invisible thread, it does make him feel – better somehow. Stronger. Maybe even taller. So he thinks maybe it would be good.

The one with the images sits down heavily on the couch, next to Noctis. Noctis is on his phone, playing a phone game. The one with the images peers over his shoulder.

“Shoot the Messenger?” he says.

“Sh, Gladio,” Noctis says. “I’m concentra– Aarrrrgh.”

The one with the images snorts. “Don’t lose on my account,” he says.

“Gah,” Noctis says, throwing the phone onto the couch. “Fine.” A moment later, though, he picks it up again. “Multiplayer?”

Noctis is looking at him, but the one with the images says, “Sure,” and pulls out his phone.

Noctis glances at him, then looks down at his own phone. “Ignis, Prompto needs–” he starts, but before he finishes, Ignis is there, holding out his phone with a sigh. He takes it, and starts up Shoot the Messenger. On the screen, there are three lines of text:

Multiplayer mode: player name: Noctis
Multiplayer mode: player name: Prompto
Multiplayer mode: player name: Gladio

 

Gladio. He knows that’s the name of one with the images. It’s there, under his name. Ignis said it was important to have a name. That having a name is part of being a person. He doesn’t think he’s a person, but there’s the name. Prompto. And under it: Gladio.

Names are important. And the one with the images fetched Cor and stopped the engineers from hurting him. So maybe the one with the images is important, too.

His name is Gladio.

“Prompto?” Gladio says. “You asleep over there?”

He sits up and looks back at his phone. The game has started, and he’s already behind.

“No,” he says, and starts to play.

Chapter Text

Later on, Cor comes back. Even though he was already feeling good while he was playing the game with Noctis and Gladio, when Cor comes back he feels better somehow. Or – he feels good in a different way. It’s difficult. He wishes he knew more things about how feelings work. He didn’t have many feelings before, but now it seems like he has a lot and they’re much more varied than he’s used to. He doesn’t know how to interpret them. But Cor comes back and he feels good.

“Hey, kid,” Cor says. He sits on the couch next to him and rubs his head like he’s done a couple of times now. “You OK?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Great,” Cor says. “You can still see OK?”

“No,” he says.

Cor frowns, and Ignis, sitting across the room, looks up.

“What?” Ignis says. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He looks at Ignis, then at Cor. Noctis and Gladio are looking at him, too. All of them are frowning. But–

“I thought – you already knew,” he says. “Didn’t – didn’t you know? I can only see when the glasses are plugged in. That’s why – isn’t that why we went to get the glasses?”

Cor’s shoulders slump a little. “Uh, yeah, I guess I didn’t phrase that very well,” he says. “I meant – uh, you can still see OK with the glasses.”

“Oh,” he says. He doesn’t understand how Cor could have meant that. It wasn’t what he asked at all. “Yes.”

“Great,” Cor says. He sighs. “OK, well, doc says you’re cleared to go home.” Cor stands up and gestures for him to follow, so he stands, too. He holds out Ignis’ phone, and Ignis takes it.

“Don’t forget your other glasses,” Ignis says. Then he stands up, too. “I’ve enjoyed having you to stay here, Prompto,” he says.

“Yes,” he says. He’s enjoyed it, too. It’s good, staying with Ignis.

“Bye, squirt,” Gladio says. “Ask pops about the gym thing, OK?”

He doesn’t know who pops is, and he doesn’t know why Cor suddenly glares at Gladio. He doesn’t have time to think about it, though, because then Noctis says goodbye and then they have to leave.

It’s quiet on the drive back to Cor’s apartment. He spends the time looking at one of the other pairs of glasses. He’d thought maybe there was something on the ends of the protruding stems that allowed them to somehow plug in to his brain and correct whatever is wrong with his vision. But he can’t find anything. Maybe it’s something so small he can’t see it now that his vision won’t sharpen, and that’s why he doesn’t feel it, either. It would have to be long and sharp, though, to reach all the way into his brain, since there’s no port for it to plug into. It’s a mystery, and the answer is still as opaque when they arrive as it was when they set out.

They go up to Cor’s apartment in the elevator, and when they arrive, he walks into the kitchen and stops. There’s a couch there, where there wasn’t before. It barely fits, wedged under the window and taking up a great deal of the floor space. It’s dark grey and looks soft. Cor is staring at it, and he stares, too.

Cor turns to him. “I got us a couch,” he says.

He looks at Cor, then back at the couch. “Yes,” he says.

Cor rubs the back of his head. “It’s a start, anyway,” he mutters. He gestures to the couch. “You want to sit down?”

He sits down. The couch is very soft. Even softer than the couch at Ignis’ apartment. He puts his palms on the fabric and spreads his fingers. It feels so soft. It makes him think about clouds, even though he knows clouds are made of water so they probably don’t feel like this.

Cor’s mouth turns up slightly at the corners. “You like it?”

“Yeah,” he says. It’s strange, having a couch at Cor’s apartment. But it’s very soft.

Cor takes one of the chairs and turns it to face him, then sits on it. He leans forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “There’s something I need to talk to you about,” he says.

He tries to sit up a little. It’s difficult. He sinks into the couch, and it makes him want to close his eyes.

“Yes,” he says, to show that he’s paying attention even though he’s sunk into the couch.

Cor sits in silence for a moment. He waits. It’s normal: Cor often tells him to listen and then doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know why, but it feels familiar now.

At last, Cor draws in a breath. “You can – shut down parts of your body,” he says.

“Yes,” he says. “Processes.”

“Processes,” Cor says. He closes his eyes a moment. “All your processes, right?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure he can shut down his vision any more, but he hasn’t tried, so he doesn’t know for sure.

Cor nods. “What if you shut down something important? Your lungs, or your kidneys or something?”

“If I shut down my respiratory system, I would die once there was no more oxygen in my blood,” he says. “I – can shut down my digestive system. Not my kidneys by themselves. It would mean sustenance would no longer be processed.”

“Right,” Cor says. He’s frowning. “So there’s no failsafe or anything? You could – die if you shut down a process?”

“Yes,” he says. “If it was a vital process. Or if I shut down too many at once.”

Cor’s frown deepens. “Too many at once?” he says. “Even if they’re not vital?”

“Yes,” he says. “It’s not safe to shut down too many processes at once, even if they’re not immediately necessary for continued basic functioning.”

Cor sits up. He runs a hand through his hair. “So, what, if you – shut down your eyes and – I don’t know, your tongue at the same time, you’d, what, just – die? You’d just die?”

“No,” he says. “It has to be more processes than that. I don’t know how many, exactly. It would slow down my functioning to the point where I would be in danger of catastrophic systems failure.”

Cor puts a hand over his eyes. Then he runs it through his hair again. “OK,” he says. “OK. All right.” He doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s all right. Something in his voice sounds wrong, but he can’t quite identify what it is. He tries again to sit up straighter, listening and attentive.

“Shit,” Cor mutters. Then he shakes his head. “All right,” he says. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re not going to shut anything down, OK? Not even non-essential things. Don’t shut anything down, at all, for any reason.”

“Yes,” he says. “I understand.”

“Yeah, good,” Cor says. The thing in his voice is still wrong. “And that’s a standing order, kid. The only way you’re gonna shut anything down is if I say it’s OK. Or Ignis, if I’m not there. But that’s it. No-one else. Got it?”

“Yes,” he says. It’s a simple order. It will be easy to carry out.

“Right,” Cor says. “All right.”

After that, Cor sits for a moment or two. He doesn’t say anything. He’s looking down at his hands and frowning. Then he looks up.

“You said – when you shut down too many processes it slows down your functioning?” he says. “What does that mean – your heartbeat?”

“Yes,” he says. “My heartbeat, my respiration, all my functions slow down.”

Cor stares at him. He stares and stares. Then he says, “Have you – done that? Have you done that recently?”

He swallows. He doesn’t want to tell Cor about when he shut down too many processes. It was a stupid thing to do, and Cor was angry even though he didn’t know what he’d done. He’ll be even angrier when he finds out. But Cor asked him a direct question. He can’t disobey. He can’t disobey Cor.

“Yes,” he says. He says it quietly, but Cor hears it.

Cor nods. “When?” he says. He sounds angry.

“When I was in the room on my own,” he says. He doesn’t look at Cor. He hears his voice break a little, even though he tries to keep it steady. “I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t.”

He waits. It’s quiet. He looks down at the floor. At Cor’s feet. He wonders if Cor will correct him now. Cor hasn’t corrected him for anything else. But he knows now that this was something Cor didn’t want him to do. And now Cor knows he did it.

He waits. And then Cor’s hand are on his shoulders. Gripping tight, but not painful.

“Look at me,” Cor says. He sounds angry. He doesn’t want to look at Cor, but he can’t disobey. He raises his eyes and sees that Cor eyes are sharp and his mouth is set in a tight line.

“Don’t do that again,” Cor says. “Don’t ever do that again, understand?”

“Yes,” he says, almost choking on the word. “I won’t.”

Cor leans forward, and he braces himself. But then Cor wraps his arms around him. He holds him. It’s not painful. It’s warm and solid. He can hear Cor’s heart beating. It’s beating fast. He can hear Cor breathing in his ear. He doesn’t understand why Cor’s holding him.

He doesn’t understand why Cor’s holding him, but it’s good. It feels good. It wasn’t what he expected. Cor squeezes tight and puts a hand on the back of his head. Then he speaks. His mouth is so close to his ear that it tickles.

“Fuck,” he says. “What am I going to do with you?”

He swallows. He doesn’t know what Cor’s going to do with him. He thought Cor was going to correct him, but now Cor’s holding him. So he doesn’t know.

“I don’t know,” he says.

And Cor – laughs. It’s quiet, and it doesn’t sound quite right. But he laughs. And then he sits back. He stops holding him, but he keeps his hands on his shoulders. And – he doesn’t look angry. He just stares at him, for a long time. Then, finally, he seems to shake himself. He lets go of his shoulders and clears his throat, standing up.

“OK,” he says. “Dinner.”

And that’s all. There’s no correction. There’s no anger. Cor holds him, and then they have dinner.

And that’s all there is.

~

He thinks it’ll take him a long time to go to sleep. A lot of things have happened. But he didn’t sleep much the night before, and so it only takes a few minutes of staring at the ceiling and thinking about how Cor wasn’t angry with him before he falls asleep.

When he wakes up, he’s somewhere else. It’s familiar. The floors and walls are made of metal, painted dark grey. Like Cor’s couch, but not soft. The sound of his footsteps echoes. It’s familiar. The sound, the smell. But everything’s quiet. There’s just his footsteps, no other sounds – no announcements, no orders, no other footsteps.

He looks around. He feels a familiar tight dread. He’s here again. He was here all along. Was he here all along? It’s hard to think, for some reason. And – there’s something in the way of his eyes. He reaches up to push it out of the way. The thing shifts, and then falls to the floor. There’s the sound of breaking glass.

He looks down. It’s glasses. A pair of glasses. They’re on the floor. The glass parts are broken. He reaches to pick them up. Someone gave him the glasses. It’s important. He’s supposed to keep them. But now he’s broken them.

A shadow moves at the edge of his vision. He looks up. But there’s nothing there. He turns around. There’s just a corridor. The ceiling is high above, lost in shadow. The light is bright and harsh. The walls are grey. There’s a soft hum. And nothing else.

He looks at the glasses. Maybe he can fix them. So he can give them back to – the person who gave them to him. He tries to remember. Everything feels strange and murky in his head. He can’t think properly.

And then: a footstep. Not his. He looks up. And there’s an MT unit. A level two, like him. Wearing a uniform, like him. Except when he looks down, he sees he’s not wearing a uniform. He’s wearing soft clothes that are too big for him. His feet are bare.

The level two walks towards him. Its footsteps echo on the metal floor. He was wearing boots before – that’s why his footsteps made the same noise. But now his boots are gone. His feet are bare.

The level two stops in front of him. “What am I going to do with you?” it asks.

He stares at it. “I don’t know,” he says. He holds out the glasses.

The level two takes the glasses and drops them. It grinds them under its heel.

“This unit is malfunctioning,” it says. “It requires termination.”

Then he’s on the ground. He’s lying on his back on the ground. The level two is leaning over him.

“This unit is malfunctioning,” it says.

Then it puts its hands round his throat. He doesn’t resist. He’s malfunctioning. He requires termination. The level two is carrying out orders. He can’t think. He can’t breathe.

He looks at the level two. It looks like him. A level two, like him. And there are spots on its face, just like there are spots on his face.

“Just die,” it says, and squeezes.

He closes his eyes.

And opens them. And he’s awake. He’s awake, and he’s – not in the facility. He gasps, breathing in. He reaches up. But there are no hands around his neck. He’s not lying on the floor. He’s lying in bed. In the room where he sleeps at Cor’s apartment. His heart is beating very fast. He feels like he can’t breathe, even though there’s no obstruction.

What. What happened?

It takes a long, long minute for him to understand: a dream. But it’s so strange. None of it made sense, but he didn’t even notice that when it was happening. It seemed real. It still seems real, even though he knows it wasn’t. He’s sweating, he realises. And crying. He wasn’t crying in the dream, but he’s crying now. His hands are shaking.

He doesn’t like dreams. He doesn’t understand why he’s having them. He never used to have them. He doesn’t want to have them any more.

He sits up and wraps his arms around his knees. He wishes someone was here to distract him from the dream. But it’s dark and quiet, and no-one’s here.

He’s alone.

~

In the morning, Cor looks at him over the table while they’re having breakfast.

“You OK, kid?” he asks. “You look tired.”

“Yes,” he says. He is tired. But he’s fine. It’s daytime, now, and Cor is here. They’re having breakfast. He’s fine. Eventually, he’ll have to go to sleep again, and then maybe things will be bad. But right now, things are fine.

Cor frowns. But then his phone rings.

Cor pulls the phone out of his pocket and looks at the screen. He raises his eyebrows. Then he puts it to his ear.

“Your Highness?” he says.

“Hey,” says the voice on the other end of the phone. It’s Noctis. “Can I talk to Prompto?”

Cor seems to consider this for a moment. Then he holds out the phone.

“It’s Prince Noctis,” he says.

He takes the phone and puts it to his ear. “Hello,” he says.

“Hey,” Noctis says. “We’re at the store. We’re waiting for you – how soon can you be here?”

He frowns. “I don’t understand,” he says.

“Yeah, sorry,” Noctis says. “I – yeah, Ignis, I know, I’m explaining. We thought you could come and buy some stuff. You know, clothes and stuff. We’re at the store.”

He still doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to say so. Noctis said he was explaining, but he didn’t understand the explanation. He tries to think of what he can say to solve the problem. Then Noctis sighs.

“Yeah, fine,” he says, voice slightly muffled. Then it becomes clearer. “Hang on, Specs wants to talk to you.”

There’s a certain amount of staticy noise, and then Ignis speaks.

“Good morning, Prompto,” he says.

“Good morning,” he replies. That’s good. He can understand the greeting easily.

“I’m sorry that Noct confused you,” Ignis says. “It might be easier if I explain to Cor. Could you pass the phone back to him.”

“Yes,” he says. He holds the phone out to Cor, who frowns, but takes it and puts it to his ear.

“Yeah?” he says.

“Ah, Marshal,” Ignis says. “I do apologise. His Highness was wondering if you and Prompto might like to come shopping with us?”

Cor’s frown deepens. “Shopping?” he says.

“For clothes and the like,” Ignis says. There’s a brief pause. “As we discussed in our strategy meeting,” he adds.

“Oh – yeah,” Cor says, glancing across the table at him. “Yeah, OK. Right now?”

“We’re at the store already,” Ignis says. “We thought it would be better to go early, before there are many other people around. I can send you the address.”

“Right,” Cor says. “We’ll be there in twenty.”

He takes the phone from his ear and looks across the table. “Looks like we’re going out,” he says.

~

Cor takes him to a place that’s like a very large room, filled with racks. On the racks are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothing. Each rack is occupied by clothing of a similar colour, but there are differences between the racks – so one might be green, one red, one yellow. The racks stretch away to the end of the room, barely visible in the distance, and the effect is extraordinary, patches of different colours filling up his vision. It’s like in the park, when he saw the plants with brightly coloured parts – flowers, he remembers – except so much more intense. He stands still and stares.

“How the hell are we going to find them in here?” Cor mutters beside him. “Fuck, I hate shopping.”

Fuck is bad, he remembers. He doesn’t know what shopping is, but from Cor’s expression, it isn’t pleasant. His stomach starts to twist a little.

“Marshal!” someone calls. It’s Ignis. He’s standing in a section where the clothes are mostly black, holding up his hand.

“Thank the Astrals,” Cor says. He grabs onto his elbow. “Stay by me, kid,” he says. “Keep the sunglasses on.”

They make their way to where Ignis is standing, half hidden behind a tall rack. When they et closer, he sees Noctis and Gladio are there, too. Noctis is looking at a black shirt. Gladio is looking at his phone.

“Hey,” Noctis says. He holds the shirt up. “What size are you?”

He thinks back to when he was last measured. “I’m 171 centimetres tall,” he says.

Noctis looks up at him and raises an eyebrow. “Uh, OK,” he says. “Try this on.”

“Noct,” Ignis says. “We should at least let Prompto choose some of his own clothes.”

“Huh?” Noctis says, turning to look at him. “Oh, yeah. But he should try this on, though.”

Ignis sighs and turns to him. “Prompto,” he says, “what clothes do you like?”

It’s a strange question to ask. He looks down at the clothes he’s wearing. They’re baggy enough to hide his ports, which he knows Cor thinks is important. They’re appropriately shaped. He’s not sure what other aspects of them he should be assessing.

“These clothes are appropriate,” he says. If they weren’t appropriate, Cor wouldn’t have given them to him. And they’re the same clothes Cor wears, so that seems correct.

Ignis’ mouth twitches a little. Gladio looks up from his book and raises his eyebrow. Noctis reaches out and takes hold of his sleeve, pinching the material of it between his thumb and finger.

“Uh, sure,” Noctis says. “If you like wearing a tent. Plus, they’re kind of boring. No offence, Cor.”

“None taken,” Cor says behind him.

He looks down at the clothes again. He doesn’t know boring, but he assumes it’s related to bored. He’ll look them both up when he gets back to Cor’s apartment. But he remembers that bored is something bad from how Noctis has used it before.

Cor puts a hand on his shoulder. “You need some new clothes, kid,” he says. “Something that you choose for yourself.”

He remembers the conversation he heard between Ignis and Cor. Ignis said he should have clothes he’d chosen for himself. He doesn’t understand why it’s important. He doesn’t have any opinions about clothes. The clothes he’s wearing are appropriate.

But Ignis said it was important. And now Cor’s said it, too. They want him to choose something. So he looks at the rack. He sees that there are multiple iterations of the shirt that Noctis is holding. He looks at Cor.

“How many clothes should I choose?” he asks.

“As many as you want, kid,” Cor says.

His heart sinks. He doesn’t want to choose any. How can he decide the appropriate quantity if Cor won’t give him instructions?

“I think three or four items would be an excellent start,” Ignis says then. “We can always get more later.”

He nods, feeling grateful to Ignis. He points to the shirts that are the same as the one Noctis is holding. “These three?”

Cor and Ignis look at the shirts, then look at him. Cor’s frowning. Ignis looks neutral.

“You don’t have to just choose what Noct wants,” Ignis says. Noctis starts to say something, but Ignis glances at him and he stops. “Why don’t you choose something different? It’d be a shame to have all your clothes be the same,” Ignis continues.

His heart sinks. He looks back at the rack. Some of the shirts are quite similar to the one Noctis is holding. Should he choose those? Or are they too much the same, will Ignis disapprove? He stares at the rack and tries to predict what the most appropriate choices will be.

“Hey,” Cor says. He’s standing just behind him. “You know, it doesn’t have to be from this rack. You can pick anything you want, from the whole store.”

He turns to look at Cor, then looks at the room behind him. It’s so big. There are so many clothes. How is he supposed to choose?

“What colour do you like?” Ignis says then. “Why don’t we start there.”

He looks at the colours. All the clothes near where they’re standing are black and grey and brown. But further away are green and red and blue and yellow, some deep and rich, others vibrant or pale or neon. He’s never seen so many different colours in close proximity to each other. It hadn’t really occurred to him that clothes could be coloured like that. At the facility everyone wore dark colours, and everyone he knows here wears mostly black, except the one with the white coat. But Ignis asked him what colour he liked, and he sees – the yellow. It reminds him of the sun, and of the plant with yellow flowers. He takes a few steps towards it, then looks back at Ignis. Ignis nods at him, so he walks to the rack with yellow clothes. He looks at them. It’s such a bright, warm colour. It’s nice to look at. He looks at some of the shirts. There are all different kinds, and the only thing they have in common is that they’re yellow.

“You like yellow, huh?” Cor says. He’s still standing behind him.

“Yes,” he says. It’s a good colour. It makes him think of outside. He looks at the shirts. There are so many. He’s not sure how he can choose. But then he finds one with a pattern on it. It’s lots of stylised depictions of flowers, intertwining with each other in a complex pattern. It’s mathematically pleasing, and he likes the flowers. The yellow is bright and vivid. He takes it and holds it out.

“This one?” he says.

Cor nods. But Noctis raises his eyebrows.

“Seriously?” he says.

“Noct, please,” Ignis says. “We’ve talked about this.”

Noctis closes his mouth. He doesn’t look pleased. He’s still holding the black shirt. But Ignis is smiling, and Gladio is beaming. So he thinks maybe it’s something else that’s making Noctis unhappy. He hopes Noctis is happy again soon.

“OK,” Cor says. He takes the shirt. But then Ignis steps forward.

“I rather think that’s the wrong size, Marshal,” he says, and then turns to the rack and goes through all the shirts with the same pattern until he finds a smaller one. He holds it up against him. “This seems more appropriate.”

“Uh, yeah,” Cor says, taking the new shirt. “Obviously.” He turns away. As he does so, he speaks, so quietly that he has to sharpen his hearing to catch it. “Fuck, I hate shopping,” he says.

“Why don’t you choose something else?” Ignis asks. So he turns and looks at all the racks. He likes the yellow shirt. But there are lots of other colours. Ignis said he didn’t have to have all the clothes be the same. And now, suddenly, he realises what that means. He’s struck with the possibilities. If he can wear a yellow shirt with flowers, then maybe – he could also wear something green, or blue. The colours are so bright. And nobody minded when he chose this rack, even though it wasn’t the rack where they were standing. So if he goes to another rack, maybe nobody will mind that, either.

He goes to another rack.

Nobody seems to mind.

The new rack is green. Again, there are lots of different shirts. He looks at them, hoping that something will stand out like the yellow shirt with the flowers. And he finds a shirt with images in a strip across the chest. The images are stylised, like the flowers on the other shirt. It takes him a moment to understand what the images depict, but then he sees that the objects depicted all have a distorted cone attached to their upper end and two scaly-looking legs with long toes. So they’re birds. He thinks they must be birds. And they’re yellow. So the shirt is both yellow and green.

He takes it out of the rack and holds it out to Cor.

“Chocobos?” Cor says.

He doesn’t understand the question. He waits to see if Cor will approve of the shirt or not.

“I’m the one who’s gonna need shades at this rate,” Noctis mutters.

Cor looks at the shirt. “Wrong size,” he says, glancing at Ignis. But he doesn’t disapprove. He just finds a smaller version of the same shirt. “OK, good to go. What next?”

And so it goes on. He finds two more shirts, and then several pairs of pants. They’re blue and purple and orange, all the colours bright and vibrant, and most of them have patterns on them of some kind, some more abstract, some depicting real objects. Noctis looks more and more unhappy, but everyone else looks pleased. Gladio keeps laughing and clapping Noctis on the back. He wishes Noctis wasn’t unhappy, but he doesn’t know what to do to improve the situation. At last, Cor directs him to go to a room at one end of the larger room and try the clothes on, to make sure they fit. Noctis goes with him, still carrying the black shirt. Cor and Ignis and Gladio wait outside.

In the small room, he takes off his shirt and pants and starts removing the yellow shirt from the hanger. Noctis leans against the wall, frowning at him. Then his frown deepens.

“Why d’you always wear that bandage, anyway?” he says. “Did you hurt yourself?”

He looks at the bandage around his wrist. He remembers he was supposed to say he got hurt in the accident. But Noctis knows there wasn’t an accident.

“There’s a barcode,” he says. “Cor said I shouldn’t let anyone see it.”

Noctis frowns. “A what?” he says.

“A barcode,” he repeats. “So that my designation can be easily determined.”

Noctis stares at him for a moment. He stands up straight. “What, like – a freaking candy bar?” he says. He sounds angry.

He doesn’t know what a candy bar is. He doesn’t know why Noctis is angry. He said something wrong, or did something wrong. He stands still, holding the yellow shirt.

And Noctis stands still, too. His hands are clenched into fists at his sides. There’s a long silence. And then Noctis lets out a breath in a violent rush of air.

“You know what, you don’t have to get the black one,” Noctis says. “If you don’t like it. You just – get what you want.”

He nods. Noctis seems less angry now. He’s glad, even though he doesn’t know why.

He puts on the yellow shirt. There’s a mirror, and he looks at it. It looks bright and cheerful, like someone smiling.

Noctis appears behind him in the mirror. He’s looking at the shirt, too. And then he smiles.

“Yeah,” he says. “You’re gonna stop traffic.”

~

He tries on all the other clothes. He tries on the black shirt, too, even though Noctis says he doesn’t have to. Each piece of clothing makes him look a little different. It’s interesting. He hadn’t really thought about clothes before.

When they go out from the small room, Cor takes the clothes from him.

“Ignis, keep an eye on him while I go and pay, would you?” he says. Then he walks away, to the other end of the room, where there’s a person standing behind a table.

“Well, how does it feel to have your own clothes?” Ignis asks.

He thinks about it. It’s – interesting. All the clothes are so different. He looks down at the clothes he’s wearing now, and thinks it will be good to wear something yellow or blue, with patterns or images. But before he can answer the question, he hears someone calling his name.

It’s Noctis. He’s standing by a rack of blue clothing. He’s holding up a shirt. It’s a vivid blue, like the sky, and there are depictions of fish on the chest, all coloured in bright colours.

“You like this?” he says.

He does like it. He likes the colour, and he likes the images.

“Yes,” he says.

Noctis nods. “Ignis, I’m gonna get this for Prompto,” he says. Then he starts walking over in the same direction Cor went. A moment later, he comes back. “I need the card,” he says.

Ignis pulls an object out of his pocket and opens it up. It’s like a small, square book, but he sees it’s a pouch with items inside. Ignis pulls out a small oblong piece of plastic and holds it out. Noctis takes at and turns away.

Gladio stands with his arms folded and watches Noctis walking towards the table. “Kid’s growing up,” he says.

Ignis smiles, putting the pouch back into his pocket.

“Indeed he is,” he says.

Chapter Text

They leave the room with all the racks of clothes via a moving staircase to the floor above. Here, there’s another similar room, but the racks here are full of various different kinds of items. There are more clothes – underwear and socks, rather than shirts and pants – but also shoes, bedsheets, towels. It’s a bewildering array. He’s surprised to discover there are so many things in the world.

They move from area to area, and in each area Cor orders him to choose some things. It’s a little easier now that he understands better the parameters of the order and what’s deemed an appropriate choice. The underwear and socks have even more options for bright colours and interesting patterns than the shirts and pants did, and he chooses ones with plants and flowers, fish – because Noctis liked the shirt with the fish – and the same yellow birds as the shirt he chose. The shoes are more difficult. He doesn’t really understand what’s wrong with the boots he already wears, but Cor says he can’t wear the same pair of boots all the time – which doesn’t make much sense, because he does wear the same pair of boots all the time, and nothing bad has happened. But Cor said it, so it must be true. But the shoes are much more varied and complex than the clothes were. There are different colours, but also different materials, different types of fastener, different sole thicknesses and tread depths, different amounts by which the shoe extends up the leg. Some shoes even have a strange elongated or thickened heel, but Noctis grabs his arm and pulls him away from these, his face flushed, whispering that they’re for girls. He doesn’t mind too much: the colours were attractive and some of the shoes had flowers or shiny stones on them, but the elongated heels seemed impractical to walk in, though they would be useful as a weapon. In the end, he chooses a pair of bright orange canvas shoes with laces and a pair of green leather boots, sturdy but significantly less heavy than the boots he’s wearing already.

By the time they reach the area with towels and bedsheets, he’s starting to feel tired, even though it’s early in the day and he hasn’t done anything yet except stand and choose things. Cor orders him to choose from the broad array of pillow covers available, and he stares at them and feels suddenly that the task is insurmountable. It’s strange: choosing was hard when they first arrived, then it got easier, but now it’s hard again. He doesn’t understand.

Cor looks at him, and then puts a hand on his back, between his shoulder-blades.

“How about this one?” he says, pulling out a blue pillow case with white images on it. “You like this?” The images are rounded and elongated; they look like stylised clouds in the sky. Perhaps that’s what they’re meant to be, although there’s also a semi-circular object with stripes of multiple colours which isn’t like anything he’s seen in the sky before. Still, the pillow case is bright and attractive and reminds him of the sky, and he’s grateful to Cor for suggesting it so he doesn’t have to look at them all and choose.

“Yes,” he says.

“Great,” Cor says. “We’ll get the matching bedspread and then we’ll get out of here. That’s definitely enough shopping for one day.”

When he turns to go, though, Noctis is standing behind him. He’s holding a black pillow cover with many small dots of white on it, arranged in patterns. He looks a little unsure of himself.

“Thought you might like this,” he says. “I know it’s black, but – you like the sky, so.”

He looks at the pillow cover. It doesn’t look like the sky. The sky is black at night, but it doesn’t have white dots. But he likes the white dots, and swirls of deep purple. And Noctis thought he would like it. So he nods.

“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

Noct smiles, then. “I’ll get them, Cor,” he says, and takes the pillow cover with the clouds as well.

After that, they leave the room. They exit into a larger room that consists of walkways with a rail and a drop down to more walkways on the floor below. It reminds him of the facility, except that there are windows above him, and the walkways are stone rather than metal and lined with glass windows with colourful items behind them. And there are people here, wearing lots of different clothes. Lots of people, and no MT units except him.

“I’m starving,” Noctis says.

So they go along the walkway for a while, and then they go into a room that opens off it. The room is full of tables and chairs, with people sitting on some of them. There’s someone waiting there who smiles at them and then stutters a little when she sees Noctis.

“Uh – Your Highness,” she says.

“We’d like your most secluded table, please,” Ignis says. “And one of us will come and order for the whole table – we’d prefer no table service. You understand, of course.”

“Oh – of course,” the woman says. She takes them to a table in the corner of the room. The light here is dim, and there are no other people nearby.

“Sit there,” Cor says, pointing to a chair with its back to the rest of the room. “Don’t take off your sunglasses.”

He sits. He doesn’t take off his sunglasses.

Ignis gets to his feet. “There’s something I saw in one of the shops we passed that I would like to buy,” he says. “If you’ll all excuse me.”

He leaves. Gladio goes to the counter and fetches several books. He gives one to Cor, one to Noctis, one to the silent one, and one to him. The book’s cover is made of soft, leathery material, and is a deep red. There are no words printed on the cover. He opens it, and finds that inside are several pages of lists, organised into categories. Salads. Soups. Meat. Fish. Sweets. He reads the first page carefully, and comes to the conclusion that the items in the list are largely foods. At least, all the ones he understands are. There are many words he doesn’t understand. He also doesn’t understand the purpose of reading the book. The other books he knows of with lists of items are Royal Lucian Dictionary and Royal Lucian Illustrated Encyclopedia, but the items here are not in alphabetical order and no explanations are given. So he doesn’t understand. Still, Gladio gave him the book, so he reads it carefully, and tries to remember as many words he doesn’t know as possible so he can look them up later.

He’s reading the third page when he looks up to see that everyone else has put their books down and is looking at him. Waiting for him. He’s been slow at reading. But he still has three pages to go. Is he supposed to read the whole book? Or – what is he supposed to do?

Then Cor shifts in his seat and clears his throat. “I didn’t explain it,” he says. He looks at the others. “He’s never been out to eat before.”

Gladio and Noctis look like they’ve understood something, though he’s not sure what. The silent one makes no expression. Cor turns to him.

“You’re supposed to choose something from the menu,” he says. “To eat.”

“Oh,” he says. He assumes from contextual data that the menu must be the book he’s holding. But he’s never been asked to choose something to eat before. And he doesn’t know what most of the items on the menu are. Even the ones he does know are mostly things he’s never eaten before. He wonders how he’s supposed to choose. He feels tired of choosing things.

“Let’s look at the soups,” Cor says. He opens his book again. “Want to try one of these?”

He turns back to the first page and looks at the section headed Soups. Carrot and Orange. Miso. Bird’s Nest. Gazpacho. Leek and Potato. He pauses. Leek and Potato. He knows that one. He knows it tastes good.

“Leek and potato?” he says, hoping Cor will think it’s appropriate.

“You have that all the time,” Noctis says, at the same moment as Cor says, “Sounds good to me.” But Cor’s approval is more important than Noctis’, even though it would be good if Noctis approved as well, so he feels mostly satisfied that he performed adequately.

“Have a milkshake, too,” Noctis says then. “Triple-thick chocolate.” He looks at Cor. “Right?”

Cor considers. “Why not?” he says.

Yes,” Noctis says, and raises his hand. He performs high-five, even though he isn’t sure why the occasion is appropriate. But now Noctis seems to approve as well, and that’s pleasing.

Gladio gets up, then, and Cor and Noctis tell him what they want to eat. He goes to the counter, and when he comes back, Ignis is with him, carrying a bag.

“These are for you, Marshal,” he says. He holds the bag out, and Cor takes it and looks inside. He frowns.

“Is this a joke?” he asks.

Ignis raises his eyebrows. “Certainly not,” he says. “I’m rather surprised you would think it is. I intend only to provide as much help as I can for your – situation.”

Cor keeps frowning at him for a moment or two, then his face suddenly changes.

“Right,” he says. “Sorry.” He looks in the bag again. “Just–”

“Neither is entirely appropriate, I’m aware,” Ignis says. “But I hope the combination of the two may prove to be of some assistance.”

Cor reaches into the bag and pulls out two books. The cover of the first reads: Help! I’ve Got a Toddler! and has an image of a level one human pulling a saucepan down from a stove. The cover of the second reads: Help! I’ve Got a Teenager! and has an image of a level two human wearing all black and frowning. The human is holding something small in his hand that’s smoking as though it’s on fire.

Noctis and Gladio both snort. Even the silent one smiles. Cor glares at all of them.

“You think this is funny?” he asks.

“No, sir,” says the silent one.

“Kinda,” says Noctis.

Gladio just laughs into his hand. He thinks it’s interesting that Gladio smiles and laughs so much. He must be easy to please.

“Thank you, Ignis,” Cor says, turning his whole body round to face Ignis and face away from Gladio and Noctis. “That’s great. I’m sure it’ll be helpful.”

“You’re very welcome,” Ignis says. He looks at Noctis with narrowed eyes. “You’ll have to let me know how the toddler volume is. I might need to get another copy for myself.”

“Don’t you mean teenager?” Cor asks.

“I meant what I said,” Ignis says.

Gladio beams and slaps Noctis on the back.

He sits and watches. Although he understands the meanings of most of the words, he doesn’t understand why they elicit the reactions they do. It’s clear that there’s a system of meaning he’s not currently capable of accessing. It’s concerning – he would like to be able to understand – but he’s become accustomed now to a lack of understanding. In some situations, it certainly feels threatening and disorienting. But when it’s Noctis and Gladio and Ignis and Cor talking to each other and sometimes talking to him, even though he doesn’t understand and most likely fails to respond correctly at times, it doesn’t feel – bad. He would still like to know all the meanings and implications, and why things that seem neutral make Gladio smile or Noctis frown. But overall, it doesn’t feel bad. And most of the time there seem to be more smiles than frowns, or at least, when there are frowns, they go away relatively quickly. So he sits back in his chair and watches and listens as the others talk. It makes him feel warm.

~

After a while, Gladio goes and fetches food for them. There’s different foods for each person, according to the choice they made from the book. He has a bowl of soup, which is slightly greener than the leek and potato soup he’s used to. He also has a tall glass full of thick brown liquid. He assumes this is the milkshake. He’s had milk before, but it was white, and significantly less viscous. He touches the glass, and it’s cold like milk. He decides to eat the soup first.

He eats the soup. It’s recognisably similar to the soup that Ignis makes. But it’s not exactly the same. Somehow it’s less interesting but stronger-tasting at the same time. It tastes good. But It would be better if it was Ignis’ soup.

There’s not very much of it, so it doesn’t take long to eat. Then he looks at the milkshake. There’s a plastic tube in the glass, and he’s wondering what the function of it is when Noctis nudges him.

“Here,” Noctis says. “Like this.” Noctis has a similar tube in his drink, and he puts his mouth to it and sucks the drink up through the tube.

He nods. The instructions are clear. “Thank you,” he says. He picks up the milkshake and puts his mouth to the tube. Given the viscosity of the liquid, it takes a second or two to generate enough pressure to cause it to move up the tube. But once it does, it’s easy enough. And then he has a mouthful, and he pauses to taste it. It’s very cold, thick and strange, but after a moment the taste becomes clear.

It tastes good.

It doesn’t taste like anything he’s had before. He can’t even describe it to himself. He can’t think of any words to describe it. It’s not like soup, or orange juice, or anything. It tastes – remarkable.

Noctis grins at him. “Good, right?” he says.

He swallows the mouthful. “Yes,” he says. He puts his mouth to the tube immediately so he can taste it again.

Cor laughs. “Maybe you are a normal kid, after all,” he says.

He doesn’t know whether Cor wants him to respond. But responding would require clearing his mouth, and Cor didn’t ask him a question, so he doesn’t.

~

After they’ve finished eating and drinking, Cor turns to Ignis.

“You got the notebook?” he asks.

Ignis pulls out the notebook that he sometimes writes in and holds it out. Cor takes it and opens it.

“You liked the milkshake?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. He’s still trying not to swallow so he can maintain the taste of it on his tongue.

Cor writes something down.

“What about the soup?” he asks. “Was it good?”

He considers this. “It was adequate,” he says.

Cor lets out a surprised-sounding laugh. Gladio snorts and Noctis, still drinking his milkshake, makes a sort of choking sound.

“Not as good as Ignis’ soup?” Cor asks.

“No,” he says. It’s an easy question. Ignis looks suddenly pleased, then covers his mouth with his hand. When he takes his hand away again, the pleased expression has mostly disappeared.

“Well,” he says, “I’m sure they did their best.”

Gladio makes a sort of hooting sound and slaps Ignis on the back. Noctis covers his mouth with his hand, shoulders shaking.

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure why everyone’s laughing, but it makes him feel good, so he smiles, too. When Cor sees him, his own smile broadens.

“All right then,” he says, writing in the notebook. “Four stars for milkshake, two stars for soup.” He hands the notebook back to Ignis. “I’m gonna go pay,” he says. “Kid – why don’t you change into your new clothes in the bathroom? I’d like to see them.”

He stands up. “Yes,” he says, and takes the bag with the clothes. He goes to the latrine, the silent one following behind him. The silent one stands outside the door, and he goes in and changes into the yellow shirt with the flower pattern and a pair of purple pants with red dots on them. He looks at himself in the mirror. The yellow looks bright and cheerful. It makes him feel lighter. He hopes that Cor will look at it and feel lighter, too.

Then, suddenly, there’s a pain in the back of his head. There’s no warning: one moment, he feels fine, the next, the pain is blinding, forcing him to close his eyes. He bends over the sink, taking hold of it to prevent himself falling. His stomach rolls unpleasantly, and he swallows hard, trying not to vomit.

The pain seems to mutate and spread through his brain. He sees it behind his eyelids, like a brilliant blue flower that hurts to look at. He feels the glasses slip from his head and tumble into the sink, but he doesn’t hear the clatter because the pain is taking up all the rest of his senses.

And then there’s a sort of mental click, like something shifts into place, and the pain is gone. There’s a residual dull ache, but it’s nothing unusual. He opens his eyes. Blinks. He sees the sink, with the sunglasses sitting at the bottom of it and his hands gripping the rim tightly. There’s a drop of oily black on the side nearest him. It stands out against the bright white of the sink bowl.

He straightens up, trying to catch his breath. He looks pale in this mirror. The spots on his face stand out unusually clearly. A trickle of black creeps down his upper lip, and his drifting mind latches onto this and connects it to the drop of black in the sink. And he realises: if the blood lands on his yellow shirt, it’ll make a hole.

He lunges for the roll of tissue next to the sink. His hands are shaking, and it takes him two tries to successfully tear off a piece and press it to his nose. He scrubs, trying to make sure that all the blood has gone. Then he cleans up the drop in the sink, and stares at himself in the mirror, waiting to see if he’s still bleeding.

Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds.

No more blood.

He drops the tissue in the trash and picks up the sunglasses. When he puts them back on, everything suddenly becomes blurry. He takes them off and cleans them carefully. Then he puts them back on.

Blurry.

He frowns. Then he remembers. The sunglasses have some form of mechanism to compensate for the malfunctioning focus control in his vision. But – when he wasn’t wearing them, his vision was fine. It wasn’t malfunctioning.

He takes the sunglasses off. He tries brightening his vision. It brightens. He darkens it. It darkens.

His vision is working again.

It’s good. Somehow his system has self-corrected. It hurt at least as much as a normal correction administered by a commanding officer, although the pain was much shorter in duration. Perhaps if his commanding officer fails to correct him for long enough, his system will compensate. He’s never heard of such a thing. But then, he’s never heard of an MT unit going uncorrected before, either.

There’s a knock at the door. On the other side, Cor speaks. “Prompto,” he says, “you OK in there?”

He puts the sunglasses on. He has to wear them – those are his orders. He readjusts the focus of his vision to compensate for the blurriness, and brightens it to compensate for the dark lenses.

“Yes,” he says. He checks to make sure everything is clean in the latrine. Then he goes out.

When he steps out of the latrine, everyone is waiting. Cor looks him up and down, then puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Looking sharp,” he says.

Noctis’ face makes a series of expressions that follow each other fast enough that he can’t interpret them, and finally settles on a small smile. Ignis nods and looks satisfied. Gladio puts on a pair of sunglasses, grins wide, and holds out his fists with the thumbs sticking out and pointing upwards.

“How’s it feel to have your own clothes?” Cor asks.

He looks down at the yellow shirt. He’s glad he didn’t bleed on it and make a hole.

“Good,” he says.

And Cor smiles.

~

They’re walking down the walkways again when Ignis steps up beside him.

“Excuse me, Prompto,” he says. Then he takes out a small knife. He leans over and cuts something by his ear. He holds up a square of cardboard. The square was attached to the shirt by a plastic wire. He saw it before and didn’t know its function. But now Ignis has cut it off and holds it out to him.

“The label was still attached,” he says.

He puts the square of cardboard in his pocket. He still doesn’t know its purpose. Then Noctis turns.

“Hey,” he says, pointing. “Let’s go to the arcade.”

Cor stops walking and frowns at him. He stops walking, too, and waits to see what Cor will do.

“I don’t know,” Cor says.

“It might be a little – loud for Prompto,” Ignis says.

“C’mon, it’s not that bad,” Noctis says. “It’s early, there won’t be many people there. And we’ll play a game in a corner somewhere. We can leave if he gets freaked out.”

It’s clear that Cor is having some difficulty making a decision. He doesn’t fully understand what the decision is about. Noctis wants to go somewhere, but Ignis thinks it will be too loud for him. He wonders why Noctis doesn’t just suggest that he can turn down his hearing, and he’s opening his mouth to suggest it himself when Gladio speaks.

“What, you’re gonna keep the kid inside for the rest of his life and never let him have any fun?” he says. “I don’t see how the arcade’s any worse than a department store or a restaurant. He’s not made of glass.”

Cor raises an eyebrow, and Gladio suddenly clears his throat.

“Sir,” he adds.

Cor just glares at him for a moment, then looks at Ignis.

Ignis frowns in thought. “Well, I’m not an expert,” he says, “but – I suppose it is a good idea to get him more used to public areas. And he does enjoy playing games with Noctis.”

Cor doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then he nods abruptly.

“All right,” he says. “First sign of trouble, we’re leaving. Got it?” He turns to the silent one. “You keep an eye on the room.”

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says.

Cor nods again. He stands still for a long moment. Then he sighs and puts a hand on the back of his neck.

“You feel uncomfortable at all, you tell me, understand?” he says.

“C’mon, Cor, it’s just the arcade,” Noctis says. “You’re the one who’s gonna freak him out.” He nudges him. “It’s gonna be fun, you’ll see.”

Then Noctis starts walking, and Cor follows. Cor keeps his hand on the back of his neck. It feels weighty and solid. He focuses on the feeling as he walks.

They go into another room. This one is dimly light and large, and filled with various pieces of equipment, many of which are emitting unusual electronic whistles and beeps. There are a few people in the room standing in front of these pieces of equipment. All the people are male except one.

Noctis goes up to a counter. Cor doesn’t follow, though. He steers him away, towards the corner of the room with the fewest people.

“Keep the sunglasses on,” he says in a low voice.

“Yes,” he says. “I understand.”

Noctis comes back, then, carrying a number of round metallic discs in his cupped hands.

“Battle Bots Three,” he says. “Come on, this way.”

He leads them to the corner and stands in front of one of the pieces of equipment. He turns and holds out his metallic discs to Ignis.

“Hold these, Specs,” he says.

Ignis produces a small fabric bag from his pocket, and Noctis pours the discs inside. He retains two, and puts them into a slot in the machine. Then he picks up an object that’s holstered in front of the machine. He sees it’s in the shape of a gun. It’s clearly made of plastic, however, and from the way Noctis is holding it, it can’t be a real firearm.

“OK, it’s pretty simple,” Noctis says. “You just point the gun at the screen and you try and shoot as many robots as possible. You get more points for the big purple ones, but they’re harder to kill. Let me show y–”

“Noct,” Ignis says quietly, and Noctis looks round at him. “Perhaps a game about mowing down robots is not the most appropriate thing?” Ignis says.

Noctis stares at Ignis for a moment, then turns to looks at him. “Uh,” he says. “I mean – if you’re OK with it?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s used to simulations which involve killing all kinds of things. Robots are one of the easier targets in general, because their programming makes them predictable.

“Sure?” Noctis says.

He nods.

“He’s not a robot, anyway, Specs,” Noctis mutters over his shoulder. Then he picks up the gun again. “OK, I’ll play a round so you can see how it’s done, then we can play together, OK?”

“Yes,” he says.

Noctis presses a button on the console, then raises his gun and starts shooting. His aim is mostly adequate, but his stance and his grip are sloppy and lead him to make a number of mistakes. He doesn’t seem deterred by this, however, and continues to fire.

He looks around the room. No-one is paying them any attention. He looks at the equipment next to him, and sees that it’s displaying a familiar image on the screen. Over the image are emblazoned the words Shoot the Messenger.

And then – he understands. Ignis said it was a game. Like the games he’s played with Noctis before. This particular game is very similar to a training simulation, but it’s not a training simulation. Otherwise, someone would have stopped Noctis by now and corrected his poor stance. And Noctis is human. He’s not sure if humans are ever corrected.

“Ha!” Noctis says then. The machine is making a tinny noise, and the screen displays the words High Score! “Not my personal best, but not bad,” Noctis says. He types something into the machine. “You ready to play?” he says, pointing at a second imitation gun.

He picks up the gun and hefts it. It’s very light. He mentally adjusts for the low weight.

“What happens if I do poorly?” he asks. It’s important to know if he’ll be corrected or not.

Noctis shrugs. “You’re a beginner,” he says. “I’ll help you get better. We can play again, as many times as you want.”

He nods. He doesn’t think I’ll help you get better means I’ll correct you. It’s good. He raises the gun.

“Ready?” Noctis asks.

He shuts down peripheral awareness and starts up emergency-only alerts. He adjusts his stance and grip for the low weight of the gun, recalculates, and adjusts again. He switches his vision into targeting mode and focuses all senses on the screen.

“Yes,” he says.

Noctis presses the button.

The robots appear slowly at first, but very soon they become faster. There’s a targeting mark on the screen, but he ignores it and uses his own, which is fully calibrated for his reflexes and capabilities. He’s aware that Noctis is also firing at the robots, and he concentrates mostly on his half of the screen, only shooting the ones on the other side if Noctis fails to hit them in time. The big purple robots are difficult, as Noctis told him, but he uses rapid-fire reflexes and that helps a lot. It’s been a while since his last training session, and he’s a little rusty, but the game is straightforward and requires a fairly low level of skill. There seems to be no end to it, though. The more robots they kill, the faster they come.

His emergency-only alert system informs him that Noctis made some kind of loud noise, but that there’s no obvious danger. He ignores this and continues to fire. After a minute or two, he becomes aware that Noctis is no longer shooting at the robots, and that’s concerning. With his peripheral awareness switched off and his vision fully focussed on the screen, he can’t see if Noctis is hurt or otherwise incapacitated. It’s important for him to complete the task he’s been assigned, but he starts to find it difficult to concentrate. The lack of information about Noctis’ status is a drain on his resources – he needs to concentrate everything on the game, especially as the robots are now appearing at almost impossible speed, but he can’t.

He can’t, and at last, he can no longer function with the lack of data. He switches his peripheral awareness back on, and a few seconds later he loses the game.

He turns to look.

Noctis is standing there, still holding his gun, staring at him.

“Holy fuck,” Noctis says.

He looks at Cor. Cor is staring at him, too. Ignis is staring at him. Gladio is staring at him, his mouth slightly open.

He switches back to normal vision mode. The machine is making a loud, grating noise. He looks at the screen.

Pole Position!!! the machine says.

“Where’d you learn to do that?” Noctis asks. His voice sounds hoarse.

He looks at Noctis. “The training facility,” he says. That’s where he learned to do everything. Except fist bump and high five.

“Fuuuuuuuck,” Noctis says. Then, suddenly, he grins. “Fuck! Holy fuck, Prompto, you absolutely killed that thing!” And he holds up both fists.

He puts the gun down and performs two fist-bumps at once. Noctis is smiling, so he smiles, too. And then Cor suddenly puts a hand on his shoulder and shoves him, stepping in front of him.

“What do you want?” Cor says.

“Hey, whoa, buddy,” an unfamiliar voice says. One of the people from elsewhere in the room has come over to them. “Just wanted to see – it sounded like someone beat the Battle Bots Three high score?” The person looks at the screen and whistles. “Holy fuck, who the–” Then he looks up at Cor again. “Shit, are you Cor the Immortal?

“Lacertus,” Cor snaps, and a moment later the silent one appears, grabbing the person’s shoulder and pulling them away. Cor spins to face the rest of them. “We’re leaving,” he says.

Cor grabs the back of his neck and starts walking. Cor keeps himself between him and the rest of the room, and Gladio walks in front so he can’t see any of the people. But he can hear what they’re saying.

“You see that kid? He just absolutely massacred the high score on Battle Bots Three,” says one.

“Who? The blind kid?” another asks.

“No way is he blind,” the first one says. “I know blind people have superpowers, but I’m pretty sure target shooting isn’t one of them.”

“Uh – sunglasses indoors, check, dude he’s with is helping him, check, looks like he got dressed in the dark, check – you’re sure it was him?”

“Dude, this is the best part – that dude he’s with? Cor the Immortal.”

There’s a pause. “You’re shitting me.”

“Nope. And I think the Prince was there, too, but he’s pretty short, so I couldn’t tell if it was him with all the giant beefy bodyguards.”

“Come on, if you’re gonna make up a story, at least make it believable–”

And then they’re outside, walking quickly down the walkways. Cor is still holding the back of his neck. Noctis is still grinning very wide.

“That was amazing,” he says, turning to walk backwards in front of them. “That was so great.”

Cor doesn’t look like he thought it was great. Ignis doesn’t, either. But Noctis looks so pleased. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Noctis look this pleased before. He can’t decide if it was good or bad. But he liked playing the game with Noctis, even if Cor isn’t pleased now. He can’t decide. He looks at Cor again.

Cor sees him looking. He sighs, and then he squeezes the back of his neck – not hard, just gently.

“It’s OK, kid,” he says. “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s good.”

Everything’s good. Noctis is pleased and Cor said not to worry and that everything’s good. So even if Cor doesn’t look pleased, maybe it’s all right. So maybe he can be pleased with Noctis and not worry about Cor.

He holds up his fist. “Fist bump?” he says.

Noctis performs fist bump.

“Epic fist bump,” he says.

And it feels good.

Chapter Text

Later, he sits on the couch in the kitchen. It’s not time for dinner yet, and Cor said he should sit and read, so he does. Cor’s doing something in the other room, but after a while he comes into the kitchen, too. He sits on the couch next to him. He’s holding one of the books Ignis gave him. He opens it and starts to read.

He’s reading Royal Lucian Dictionary. But he’s interested in the book Cor’s reading. He wonders what the subject is. He looks over and reads a passage towards the bottom of the page. At this point, your toddler may begin to assert himself, using the word “no” a lot and throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. He may be clingy and possessive of his parent.

“Nope,” Cor says under his breath, and turns the page before he can read any more.

He turns back to Royal Lucian Dictionary. It’s hard to concentrate, though, and he finds himself looking at Cor’s book again. Cor is tapping his finger next to a passage. It reads: Your toddler may have difficulty making decisions if there are too many choices: offer two options, not five. It’s at around this time that he will begin to develop a sense of self.

“Hm,” Cor mutters, and then he pulls out a pencil and makes a mark in the margin of the page. Then he looks at him. “You OK, kid?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says. He looks back at the book. It feels tiring to read it. There are so many words, so many definitions.

Cor keeps looking at him. Then he looks at the book. “What’s that, the dictionary?” he says. “I don’t think Ignis meant for you to read that.”

He looks up at Cor. He feels confused. He thought when Ignis gave him the books it meant he ought to read them. “Oh,” he says. “What did he want me to do with it?”

“Just – refer to it, when you don’t know a word you read somewhere else,” Cor says. “That’s what dictionaries are for.” He taps his fingers on his knee. “What about that science book? Why don’t you read that?”

He closes the dictionary and puts it on the table. It does make sense that he should look at it when he doesn’t know a word. He thought when Ignis first gave it to him that he would be able to learn all the words and all their meanings, but there’s a lot more than he thought, and it’s hard to learn them by just reading them one after another. He picks up the other book that Ignis gave him. He hasn’t looked at it since he learned about Eos being a sphere of rock hanging in empty space. Ignis said that was true, but it seems so unlikely that it’s still difficult for him to believe.

He opens the book and reads the first part again, to make sure he remembers all the details, even if they seem so strange. Then he turns the page.

How does the sun work? is the title at the top of the page, and he feels a sudden twinge of – something in his stomach. Yes. He wants to know how the sun works. He’s wanted to know since he first saw it hanging in the sky.

The sun may look like a lightbulb, but it’s actually a gigantic ball of fire that’s many millions of kilometres away from Eos! the book proclaims.

He stares. He reads it again. Then he reads the rest of the paragraph and looks at the image. The image is of a flaming sphere, with a cross-section cutaway, different regions labelled, and a scale that he can hardly even begin to comprehend. The text explains the following: the sun is an enormous ball of gas, much bigger than Eos, which is the world. The gas is extremely hot, and so the sun is on fire. It’s hot and bright enough to impart heat and light to the surface of Eos, even though it’s unimaginably far away. The sun also hangs in empty space.

He reads it all again. The meaning doesn’t change. But there’s no explanation of how any of it can be possible. It’s as if someone took the most nonsensical claims possible and wrote them all in the book. And even though Ignis told him that the section about Eos was true, he feels sure that this section must be false.

“Hey,” Cor says. “You OK?”

He looks at Cor. Cor’s frowning at him. “You OK?” he says again. “Something wrong?”

He swallows and holds out the book. Cor takes it and reads over the text. Then he looks at him.

“Sorry, kid,” he says, “you’re gonna have to explain the problem to me.”

“The book,” he says pointing at it. “Is it – right?”

Cor glances at the book. “This part is, at least,” he says. “I guess the rest probably is, too.”

He stares at the book in Cor’s hands. Then he stares at Cor. Cor looks back at him, frown deepening. Then he puts the book aside.

“OK,” he says. “So what did you think the sun was?”

He doesn’t know what he thought, now. He thought – it was a machine. Something artificial. Maybe a fire, or just a very large electric light. He realises now that that didn’t really make much sense. But this doesn’t make sense either, not really.

He feels stupid. Stupid, and hopelessly confused.

“OK, I hate that look,” Cor says. He stands up. “Come on. We’re going out.”

He stands up and follows Cor. The silent one follows them as they go down in the elevator. They get into the car and drive. Outside, it’s still light. Cor drives them to a place he hasn’t been to before. It’s a wide, flat area of paving, with a railing at one end. There are places where water is spraying up from the ground in a tall, curving spout. There are people, walking, and sitting, and standing at the rail. Cor takes him by the arm, and they walk over to stand at the rail, too. In front of them is a steep drop to the road below, and a gap between tall buildings, wide enough to see the sun.

“There it is,” Cor says. “Don’t look straight at it. It’s not good for your eyes.”

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure why they’ve come here. The sun is hanging low in the sky. It looks small and round, maybe the size of the controller for his collar. He already knew it was much bigger than that, of course. He knew it was far away. But how big and how far – it seems impossible. It’s difficult enough to comprehend how big the world is outside the facility – how many new parts of it he sees every day, and how much he imagines there must still be to see. But he’s never thought about what might be beyond the world. The idea that it’s just – nothing, unimaginable amounts of nothingness with a gigantic ball of burning gas just hanging in it – it makes his stomach swoop.

“I guess it’s weird,” Cor says. He’s standing beside him with a hand on his back, between his shoulderblades. “I never really thought that hard about it before.”

“I didn’t think about it, either,” he says. He feels like he didn’t really think about anything at all, before he met Cor. He remembers the feeling of his mind opening up when Ignis told him about clouds and rain, how he suddenly felt that there was so much more space inside him. This doesn’t feel like that. He can still feel his mind opening, but it feels almost painful.

“You didn’t even know it existed,” Cor says. “Pretty good excuse, kid.”

He didn’t even know it existed. He’s not sure how many days it’s been since he learned that the sun exists. He does remember how beautiful it was, the first time he saw it, hanging in the sky. How did he live so much time without even knowing it existed?

How can it exist? It doesn’t make any sense.

The light is changing colour. It’s not clear and transparent the way it is during the day. It’s not the grey light that comes when there are clouds over the sky, either. There are a few clouds, but not many. And the light is – yellow, and it seems strangely thick to his eyes, even though it has no substance. Below them and beside them, the buildings cast deep shadows across the road and paved area. And the sun seems closer to the horizon than it was when they arrived. Certainly closer than it has been when he’s seen it before. Is it falling?

“Sunset soon,” Cor says. He takes out a pair of sunglasses and puts them on. Then he puts his hand back on his back. “I know it’s weird. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. I don’t understand much of it, either.”

The lower edge of the sun touches the horizon. He knows it must be an optical illusion. The ground would catch fire if the sun truly touched it. So – the sun must be– He shakes his head and engages the mathematical element of his brain. If the sun is a sphere – he remembers the size and distance mentioned in the book and includes them in the equation. He doesn’t remember the size of Eos, but he remembers the book said it was much smaller than the sun, so he assumes it’s a quarter of the size. What sort of motion would make the sun appear to fall below the horizon to an observer on the surface of Eos?

There are two options. The first is that the sun is orbiting Eos, or that Eos is orbiting the sun. The second is that Eos is rotating. In both cases, given the distances involved, the motion would have to be extraordinarily rapid for the sun to appear to move so quickly. But he doesn’t feel like the ground he’s standing on is moving at all. So it must be the sun that’s moving.

Then the sun dips a little lower, and the clouds above the sun begin to turn orange. And then he forgets about his calculations, because the orange grows deeper and brighter, and he realises that the clouds have caught fire.

“What’s happening?” he asks. His voice comes out hoarse and croaky. Is the sun moving closer to Eos? Or is the book incorrect? How can the clouds have caught fire when they’re made of water?

Cor glances sideways at him, then frowns and turns towards him.

“Sunset,” he says. “The sun’s going down.”

“But–” he says, and points at the clouds. “The fire.” Cor doesn’t seem worried by the fire, but he thinks it must be dangerous. The clouds are high above the ground, but if they can catch fire then surely the ground can, too?

“Fire?” Cor asks. He looks where he’s pointing. Then he raises his eyebrows. “The clouds?”

He nods. The colour is changing, growing brighter, closer to red than orange. It would be beautiful, if it wasn’t so terrifying.

Cor stares at him. Then he puts an arm around his shoulders and pulls him in close to his side, squeezing him a little. “That’s the light,” he says. His voice sounds a little strange. “It’s just the way the sunlight’s reflecting off them. They’re not on fire.”

He swallows. “Oh,” he says. He tries to recalibrate his understanding. The sun is half obscured by the horizon now, and it looks strangely orange-red. The same colour as the clouds. “Oh,” he says again, feeling the fear die away. Cor’s arm feels reassuring around his shoulders. He still feels a little sick, even though he’s not really scared any more. But – it’s beautiful. Now that he knows it’s not a real fire, he realises it’s beautiful. He wonders how many more different ways the sky can be. All of them are beautiful.

“You’ve never seen this before,” Cor says.

“No,” he says.

Cor pulls out his phone. “Here,” he says. “Take a picture. So you remember it.”

He takes the phone and holds it up. The sky fills the screen. The clouds are a startling red, now, and the whole sky behind them is pink, grading up to pale and then deep blue above. He taps the button on the screen, and the image freezes. But the sun isn’t quite in the right place in the image, and he reorients the screen and taps the button again, frowning. Then he tries holding the phone so the long axis is horizontal. This is more suited to the image he wants. The colours aren’t quite as bright in the phone, but he remembers that from the picture he took of the orange, and he’s not sure what can be done to improve it. He taps the button again.

Cor’s looking at him. “Can I see?” he says.

He holds the phone out. He’s not sure why Cor wants to see the image. The real thing is in front of him, and the colours in the image are inferior.

Cor looks at the phone. “Huh,” he says. “Nice picture.”

He didn’t expect Cor to say that. The colours in the image are inferior, but Cor still said nice picture. He feels a sudden warmth that starts in his chest and spreads through him. He performed adequately. Cor is pleased with his performance. It’s good.

Cor’s looking through other pictures on his phone, so he turns back to look at the sky. The sun is almost gone now, just a sliver of light still above the ground. The sliver is a deep, shining red. It’s beautiful. And it’s getting dark.

And – it’s getting dark. Because the sun is falling below the ground. And that’s – why there’s night.

He opens his mouth, but no words come out. He re-engages the mathematical element in his mind. Yes: if the sun is orbiting Eos, then it would be on the other side of Eos for some period of time during every orbit. And then the side of Eos away from the sun would be dark. And–

–it would be night-time.

He blinks. But is that – why there’s night-time? Why the sky goes dark? Not because the sun’s turned off, but because – it just isn’t there any more? He doesn’t think it can be right, but – it feels right. It fits with all the evidence, and with his calculations. Suddenly, he wants to go back to Cor’s apartment and read the rest of Wonderful World: A Children’s First Book of Eos Primoris Cognoscentia. He remembers the initial list of questions included Why is it light in the daytime and dark at night?, and he wants to know, with a sudden, unexpected ache, whether he’s right about it or not. If Ignis were here, he would ask Ignis. But Cor doesn’t seem to know as many things as Ignis, and sometimes his explanations are confusing, so he thinks maybe it would be better to look at the book rather than to ask Cor.

Cor looks up from his phone, then. “Hey, kid,” he says, “these pictures are pretty–”

Then Cor’s phone starts ringing in his hand. He stops talking and frowns at it. Then he looks at the silent one.

“Keep an eye on him,” he says.

“Yes, sir,” the silent one says.

Cor walks away, back across the paved area. He puts the phone to his ear. “Ignis,” he says, when he’s some distance away. “Don’t tell me, I already know.”

“You know I have to report it,” Ignis says on the other end of the phone. “Even if I didn’t, Gladio or Lacertus would.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Cor says. “I don’t even disagree. We shouldn’t be keeping this crap secret. But I gotta know the king’s not gonna–”

He doesn’t understand anything Cor and Ignis are saying, so he stops listening. He wants to stop listening. Because when he stops listening, it’s – different. It’s getting dark, and Cor is far enough away that, if he doesn’t adjust his vision, he can’t see him very well. The silent one is there, but he doesn’t look at him or speak to him. So – it’s almost like he’s alone.

Alone. Outside and alone.

He turns in a circle. On one side is the rail, and the drop down to the road, and the view between the tall buildings of the edge of the sky, still a pale blue. On the other is the wide paved area, with people crossing it, or standing at the rail like him, or sitting on benches. Lots of people. He didn’t know there were so many people in the world. And above him is the sky, deep blue, growing darker all the time.

He’s been alone before. But it’s always been a punishment. In the facility, being alone meant being in a narrow dark space, so dark that no change to his vision would lighten it. And here, being alone was being in an empty room for hours and hours. But now he’s not in an empty room. He’s outside. He’s in the world. The world is so big, and here he is. He’s very small. He could go anywhere. He could go and see what else there is, in the world. He feels dizzy and – disconnected, as though his feet aren’t quite touching the ground. It’s strange.

He takes a step along the rail. Then the silent one turns his head and looks at him. And he feels – a click. Like something changing. And he remembers that he can’t go anywhere, because Cor didn’t say he could. Cor didn’t say stay here, but he didn’t say he could go anywhere else, either. So he can’t. He’s not sure why he thought he could. It seems strange. It’s not logical.

The silent one is looking at him. He turns to look over the rail. Down below, lights are coming on. There are cars in the roads, and people walking on the edges of the roads. There are so many people. He wonders where they’re all going. Then he tunes his hearing back to listen to what Cor and Ignis are saying.

“–Gladio to run him through a few things,” Ignis says. “He’s already agreed.”

“Yeah, OK,” Cor says. “We’ll take that to Clarus. I’ll talk to him about it tomorrow.”

“Excellent,” Ignis says. “Then, if there’s nothing further we need to discuss–”

He realises that Ignis is about to say goodbye. And then, before he knows it, he’s moving. He’s running towards Cor. He hears the silent one shout behind him, but he doesn’t look back. He switches his vision to night mode, and sees Cor turning to look, the phone still pressed against his ear. His hearing is still sharpened, and he hears the silent one’s footsteps behind him, running.

Then he arrives in front of Cor and stops running. Cor stares at him, frowning deeply. Then he holds up a hand in an abrupt gesture.

“Lacertus, no,” he says. “It’s fine.”

The silent one’s footsteps come to a halt beside him. In his peripheral vision, he sees that the silent one is holding the controller for the collar between his thumb and forefinger.

Cor looks at him. “Prompto?” he says. “What happened?”

He blinks at Cor. He’s not sure what happened.

Cor raises the phone to his ear. “Ignis, I gotta–” he says.

He raises a hand. “No, I–” he says.

Cor stops speaking and stares at him. “Kid?” he says.

He swallows. “Ignis?” he says.

“Hang on,” Cor says into the phone. He lowers it and frowns at him. “You want to talk to Ignis?” he asks.

He tries to speak, but his throat is dry. He nods instead.

Cor stands a moment in silence. Then he holds the phone out.

He takes it and presses it to his ear.

“Ignis?” he says.

“Prompto?” Ignis says on the other end of the line. “Is everything all right?”

He takes a breath. “Does the sun orbit Eos?” he asks.

Cor raises his eyebrows.

“No,” Ignis says. He sounds surprised. “Eos orbits the sun.”

“Oh,” he says. It makes sense. Except– “Why can’t I feel it moving?”

“Because you’re moving at the same speed and in the same direction,” Ignis says. “Everything on Eos is orbiting the sun at the same speed and in the same direction, even the air, so there’s no sense of relative movement.”

He considers this. He wants to engage the mathematical element in his brain, but he feels – strange. And Cor is looking at him in a strange way.

“Oh,” he says. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” Ignis says. “Was that all you wanted to know?”

It’s not all. He wants to know so many things. But there’s still one thing that he wants to know so much, it hurts his chest.

“Is it dark at night because the sun is on the other side of Eos?” he asks.

There’s a brief silence. “Yes,” Ignis says. Another silence. “Did you deduce that by yourself?”

“I saw it going behind the ground,” he says.

“I see,” Ignis says. “Well. I applaud your deductive powers.”

He doesn’t understand what Ignis means. “Yes,” he says.

“Was there anything else?” Ignis asks.

“No,” he says.

“In that case, I will bid you good night and ask you to pass me back to the Marshal,” Ignis says.

He takes the phone from his ear and holds it out to Cor. Cor takes it and puts it to his own ear. He sharpens his hearing so that he can hear what Ignis says.

“Hey, Ignis,” Cor says. “We were watching the sunset. I guess he’d never seen it before. I should have realised.”

“Mm,” Ignis says. “I rather think we should be preparing some mental tests, as well as physical ones. I suspect he may have significant abilities of which we are unaware.”

“Agreed,” Cor says. He’s frowning again. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”

“Understood,” Ignis says. “Good night, Marshal.”

“Yeah, night,” Cor says. He takes the phone from his ear and puts it in his pocket. Then he just stands and stares at him.

He looks at the ground. He doesn’t know why Cor is staring at him. And then he does know why. Because, even though Cor didn’t tell him he had to stay by the rail, he didn’t tell him he could go anywhere else, either. But he did. He went somewhere else. Cor doesn’t look angry, but he thinks he probably is.

Cor’s hand lands on his shoulder, and he flinches without meaning to. “Hey,” Cor says. “Look at me.”

He looks up. Cor’s head is slightly ducked, and he’s looking into his face. “Did you come running over here just because you wanted to ask Ignis about the sun?” he says.

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. He was right: Cor is angry.

Cor nods. He sighs, looking away from him for a moment. “Kid–” he says, then stops. He runs his free hand through his hair. “Listen,” he says, “I don’t–” Then he stops again.

He waits. He listens. He understands: he did the wrong thing. He knew it was wrong even when he was doing it. But he did it anyway. He doesn’t understand why. Except he really wanted to know about the sun, and the night.

“It’s not fair,” Cor says then. “I get that, and I’m sorry. I don’t want to say you always gotta just – do what people tell you. But–” He glances sideways, at the silent one. “If you want something, if you want to do something or go somewhere, you just gotta ask, all right? If it’s not dangerous, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you can do it. But you can’t just – do stuff without asking. I know it’s not fair, but – if people don’t know what you’re doing then – it’s not safe for you. You understand?”

“Yes,” he says. He’s not sure what Cor means when he says it’s not fair. But he knows he shouldn’t have done what he did, and he feels a sinking in his stomach. Cor was pleased with him because the image he made was adequate, and now he’s performed poorly and Cor is disappointed.

“Hey,” Cor says. He squeezes his shoulder. “I’m not upset, OK? I get it. I wish it could be different. But I don’t want you to get hurt, kid. Not again. So – please, just ask, all right?”

“Yes,” he says again. He doesn’t know why he didn’t ask in the first place. He doesn’t know why he didn’t just wait until the next time he saw Ignis, or to look in the book. Why he didn’t just wait.

“All right,” Cor says. He looks calm. Not angry. But he knows he did the wrong thing. Cor told him it was wrong. He feels cold and heavy, like there’s a stone in his stomach. But at the same time–

–at the same time there’s something else. Not all of him feels cold and heavy. Some of him still feels disconnected, floating above the groud. Some of him feels – lighter than air, a strange sort of thrill as he thinks about it: the sun, Eos, the rotation. Everything is moving at an extraordinary speed. Him, Cor, the air, the buldings. He can’t feel it, but to know it – to realise that the sun never gets turned off, it just goes to the other side of Eos – it’s the first time he’s truly believed that Eos really is a rock hanging in empty space, because it’s the only thing that makes sense with what he just saw. With the sun falling behind the ground, and the night coming on. And now he looks up at the deep blue sky and imagines it: limitless, empty, with only Eos and the sun, circling, rotating, in perfect motion. He remembers how small he felt when he realised that the clouds were masses of water hanging in the air. Now, he feels truly as though he’s nothing at all. He’s nothing at all, and he could float away on the breeze. It’s exhilarating.

Cor’s hand lands on his shoulder, and suddenly he’s back on the ground again.

“Let’s go home,” Cor says.

So they do.

~

When they get home, he reads. He reads Wonderful World: A Children’s First Book of Eos Primoris Cognoscentia from the beginning. He learns many things. Most of the things are hard to understand, or to believe. But as he keeps reading the book, he realises that the things build on each other, that the more he learns, the more the things he’s already learned start to make sense. He learns: the space in which Eos hangs is not empty. It has many other rocky spheres (called planets) and balls of flaming gas (called stars), but they’re all very far away. At different times, the geometrical relationship between Eos and the sun is different, and this causes the temperature to be different on Eos. Time periods with different temperatures are called seasons, and they follow each other in regular succession. The changing temperatures have an effect on how much it rains, and on plants and animals. He hasn’t noticed any changes in the plants he looks after since he got them, so he thinks seasons must be quite long.

He goes to check the plants, just in case, but they all look the same, except that the red plant and the plant with yellow flowers are growing new leaves. They’re small, and paler-coloured than the bigger leaves, and he stares at them for a while, wondering if it’s possible to observe them growing. It gives him a strange feeling to think that those leaves didn’t exist when Cor first told him to look after the plants, and they’ve started to exist since then. He gave water to the plants, and they made new things exist. It makes him feel a sort of pain, but it isn’t unpleasant, even though it hurts. It’s strange. And now he wants to look at the plants, to see if he can see the leaves growing, but he wants to read more of the book, so that he can understand things better. He stands by the window, unable to decide.

Then there’s a knock on the door. It opens, and Cor looks in. He’s wearing his sleeping clothes.

“Still up?” he asks, frowning slightly.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. “OK, well – go to bed. It’s late.”

“Yes,” he says. He turns away from the plants and goes to change into his sleep clothes. He leaves the book open so he can start reading in the same place tomorrow.

Cor stands in the doorway. He’s still frowning. He turns to look at him, wondering what Cor wants him to do.

But Cor just shakes himself and leaves, so he supposes Cor didn’t want him to do anything.

~

It takes him a long time to get to sleep. He feels as though his head is several times larger than it should be, filled with air and light and noise. It’s not very restful. But it’s interesting. He thinks a lot of things, very quickly, one after another. It’s hard to focus on any one thing, and hard to keep track of the things he’s already thought. He doesn’t think he’s ever thought so many things all at once before. He wonders if this is what happens when you know too many things. He wonders if Ignis feels like this all the time.

Eventually, he falls asleep. And when he wakes up, he’s standing on a black surface. It’s cool against the soles of his feet, and it’s not solid. The air is moving, and it ruffles the surface, causing droplets to break free. The surface extends in all directions, and overhead is nothing but sky, in a great, grey hemisphere.

It’s water. But he’s standing on it.

It shouldn’t be possible. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem strange at all. It seems natural. He doesn’t feel surprised. And then he turns around, and there’s another MT unit standing behind him. The other MT unit is also standing on the water.

“Hello,” he says to the other MT unit.

The other MT unit steps closer. The other MT unit reaches out and pushes downwards on his shoulders.

“This unit is malfunctioning,” the MT unit says. “This unit is malfunctioning.”

He begins to sink into the water under the pressure of the other MT unit’s hands. First his feet, then his ankles, then his calves disappear into the blackness. When he looks down, he can’t see them any more. It’s as if they’ve been cut off.

“This unit is malfunctioning,” says the other MT unit, leaning on his shoulders.

Yes, he is malfunctioning. He watches as his thighs disappear, then his hips. When he’s waist-deep in the water, the other MT unit kneels down. He looks up and meets the other MT unit’s eyes. The other MT unit cocks his head on one side and smiles with half of his mouth.

“This unit is malfunctioning,” the other MT units says, and transfers one hand to the top of his head, pushing down.

He sinks. His chest, his shoulders, his neck. His mouth sinks under the water, and he breathes water in. It feels thick and sticky in his mouth and throat. His nose sinks. He looks up and sees the other MT unit looking down at him, smiling.

Everything goes dark.

He’s malfunctioning. His breathing is malfunctioning.

He wakes up. He’s awake. He’s on the floor beside the bed he sleeps in. His head hurts. He feels cold and hot and wet and nauseated.

He sits up. He tries to get to his feet. But his legs feel weak. He finds himself kneeling on the floor. In his mind, he sees the other MT unit’s face. Smiling. This unit is malfunctioning.

He bows his head. Further, further. He presses his forehead against the floor. He presses his hands against his ears. There’s a hissing noise in his head. He wants to not be awake, but he doesn’t want to be asleep. He wants to disappear.

The door opens. There’s a footstep. Then a brief silence. Then more footsteps.

“Kid?” says the silent one. He kneels on the floor beside him. “Prompto? Are you OK?”

He tries to answer, but the word comes out as a sob. He’s crying, he realises. He tries to stop, but he can’t make himself. He’s malfunctioning.

“All right, I’ll get Papa Bear for you,” the silent one says. There’s more footsteps. Voices that he doesn’t sharpen his hearing to understand. More footsteps. He presses his forehead into the floor. And then there’s a hand on his back.

“Hey,” Cor says, near his ear. “Are you hurt? Prompto. Did something happen?”

He wants Cor to hold him. He doesn’t know how to make it so Cor holds him. He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know anything.

And then Cor pulls him up by the shoulders and puts his arms around him. He doesn’t know how Cor knew to hold him. But he’s glad. He’s glad. He doesn’t want to be awake and he doesn’t want to be asleep, but at least now things are a little better. It’s a little easier to be awake now.

“Are you hurt?” Cor says, his voice rumbling by his ear. “I really need you to tell me, kid. Please.”

He swallows against his aching throat. “No,” he whispers. He’s not hurt. He’s malfunctioning.

Cor’s grip tightens a little. “OK,” he says. “All right. Bad dream?”

“Yes,” he whispers. In the dream, he didn’t feel any kind of emotion. He watched his body disappear, and it seemed right. But now, he feels. He feels so much.

“Yeah,” Cor says. He presses a hand against the back of his head. “OK. That’s all right. I’m here now. You’re all right. I’m here.”

Cor’s here. He’s malfunctioning. Cor’s here.

He presses his face against Cor’s shoulder, and cries.

~

He cries for a long time. It makes his head hurt even more, but it makes him feel better, as well. It doesn’t make sense. But nothing seems to make sense now, in the dark, except that Cor’s holding him, and Cor will help him. That understanding feels like firm ground, like something he can’t sink into: Cor will help him. Even though he’s malfunctioning, even though nothing’s right and nothing makes sense, Cor promised he would help him. He grasps after it, and it feels solid.

Eventually, he runs out of tears. Cor keeps holding him for a while. Cor doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t say anything, either. At last, though, Cor sits back. He holds him by the shoulders and looks into his face.

“I’m sorry you keep having these shitty dreams, kid,” he says. “I guess your subconscious has got a lot of crap to work through.”

He swallows. His throat feels sore.

Cor glances at the window. “It’s getting light,” he says. “Not much point going back to bed now.” He looks over his shoulder. “Arcis, you got that water?”

A glass of water appears in front of him. He takes it. The silent one is there, standing beside them.

“You OK?” the silent one asks.

“He’s fine,” Cor says. “Thanks, Arcis.”

He drinks the water. Cor moves so he’s sitting beside him, both of them leaning against the bed. He puts his arm around him. They sit like that until he’s finished drinking the water, then a little more. Then Cor squeezes his shoulder.

“Hey,” he says. “You know you can come and get me any time you have a bad dream, right? You don’t have to just sit around in the dark on your own.”

He didn’t know. It seems strange. The dreams are frightening and unpleasant, but according to Cor they have no substance. Cor doesn’t even think they’re malfunctions. So why would Cor suggest that they were important enough for him to go and wake Cor up? He’s not supposed to go anywhere unless Cor tells him to. Cor said that to him the night before. So how can he go to Cor’s room? He feels so tired, and every thought just seems to make his mind tie itself into more and more difficult knots.

Cor waits for a moment or two. Then he sighs. “Well, now you do know,” he says. “Just – give yourself a break sometimes, OK, kid? If anyone deserves a break, it’s you.” Then he squeezes his shoulder again. “OK, time to get up. You’ll feel better once you’re dressed and showered.”

He doesn’t think Cor can be right, but once he’s washed himself, he does start to feel a little better. He stands in front of the closet in his room and looks at the clothes in it, and he feels a little better again. The closet looks so bright and cheerful now. It makes him remember the day before, and even though he’s still tired and his mind feels heavy and confused, the memory makes the weight in his stomach lift a little. He takes out the blue shirt with the fish on it and puts it on. Noctis likes this shirt, so if he sees Noctis today, he’ll be pleased. He hopes he does see Noctis today. He thinks that would make him feel better, too.

He finishes dressing, and then turns to go downstairs. As he does, he sees the plants, sitting on the shelf by the window. He leans down to look at them. At the new leaves the red plant and the plant with the yellow flowers have made. The leaves are growing right now, the plants making new material out of air and sunlight. The sun is a huge ball of fire, and it makes everything on Eos exist and grow. Even when he feels bad, even though he’s malfunctioning and even if he’s eventually terminated, the sun will keep burning and plants will keep making new material out of nothing but light and air.

He looks out of the window. It’s early, but it’s light outside and the sky is a pale blue. He can’t see the sun, but he can see the angle of the shadows of the buildings, and a short calculation informs him that the sun is about three degrees above the horizon. It’s been on the other side of Eos all night, and now Eos has rotated far enough that the sun is on this side again. This is what happens every day. For many, many days he was inside the facility, and he didn’t even know the sun existed, but there was still day and night, even if the light didn’t change. The influence of the sun even reached inside the facility, where there were no plants and the only living things were rats and MT units and a few humans.

He looks at the new leaves on the plants, and he thinks about everything – about the world. He doesn’t want to be terminated. He doesn’t think that Cor will terminate him. But there’s so much that has nothing to do with him. When he was in the facility, there was a whole world outside that was growing, where the sun was shining and the world was rotating and it didn’t matter that he wasn’t there. Water rises into the sky and falls out of the sky and rushes along the ground in the river, and birds fly and the air moves and plants make new material out of nothing but air and light. How long has it all been going on? He thinks it must be a very long time. Very much longer than he’s been alive.

He looks at the plants, and then he looks at the reflection of himself in the window. The shirt is a faint blue in the glass, and he can see the orange fish, almost like they’re swimming across his chest.

Cor was right. He does feel better.

Chapter Text

When they’ve finished with breakfast, Cor sits at the table and stares at him.

“Listen, kid,” he says, “there’s a chance that – some stuff is going to happen today. To you, I mean.”

He wonders what Cor means. Things happen to him every day. Maybe it’ll be something different, like yesterday when they went to look at clothes. He hopes so.

“I gotta discuss it with Clarus first,” Cor says, “but we’re going to put you through some tests. We really need to learn more about how you work.”

He swallows. The soup in his stomach suddenly feels like a cold, heavy weight, and his throat feels tight. He doesn’t know why. It makes sense: there are always more tests. And – he performed adequately in the last test. So he shouldn’t be apprehensive. But he is.

Cor frowns at him. Then he raises his eyebrows.

“Hey, no,” he says. “No – shit – Prompto, I don’t mean like before. I don’t mean like – the test with the collar. I promised you that kind of thing was never going to happen again, right? I wasn’t lying. It’s not anything like that.”

He sits back in the chair. The weight in his stomach lifts a little. But he still feels nervous.

“Listen,” Cor says. “Listen – we’re just trying to find out what you can do, all right? So just – be yourself. And I’m going to be there, so nothing bad’s going to happen to you. And, hey, this is important. If you feel bad – uncomfortable, or in pain, or just pissed off – if you feel bad at all, you tell me, all right? You tell me, and then we’ll stop.”

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t feel very sure, though. He’s never had a test where he’s permitted to ask for the test to stop. It doesn’t seem like it’ll be much of a test if he is.

“Yes, what?” Cor asks.

He opens his mouth to say yes, sir, but then he remembers that Cor doesn’t like it when he says that. Then he’s not sure what it is that Cor wants him to say. The nerves that were already buzzing in his stomach start to get worse, making him feel nauseated.

“I mean – tell me what you’re going to do,” Cor says. “That’s all I mean, kid.”

“Oh,” he says. He swallows. His stomach’s still churning. “I’m going to be tested.”

Cor’s mouth turns down slightly at the corners. “Right,” he says. “And what are you going to do if you feel bad?”

“Uh – I’m going to – say something,” he says. He feels bad already. It makes him feel bad to imagine interrupting the test. But he’s not being tested now, so he doesn’t think he has to tell Cor about feeling bad.

“Exactly,” Cor says. “That’s an order. Got it?”

“Yes,” he says. It’s a simple order. It should be simple. But he wishes he hadn’t eaten so much soup.

“Good.” Cor stands up. “Let’s go.”

So they go.

~

When they get there, Cor doesn’t take him to Ignis’ apartment. Instead, they go somewhere he hasn’t been before, along different corridors, and down a flight of stairs. They go through a door, and then they’re in a large room with a high ceiling. There are lots of structures and pieces of equipment in different parts of the room, and some empty spaces. It reminds him of the training facility. In one part of the room is a raised platform with rope railings around it. Gladio is standing on the platform in fighting stance. He’s not wearing a shirt, and he’s punching the air.

“Gladio,” Cor calls.

Gladio stands at ease and looks over, then swings under the rope railings and jumps down from the platform. He comes over to them, rolling his shoulders. The movement makes the images on his skin shift as though they’re alive. He stares. He’s never seen more than Gladio’s arms uncovered. Now he sees the images cover all of his shoulders and part of his chest. The part on his chest is an image of the head of some kind of organism. A bird? He thinks it’s a bird.

“Brought the pipsqueak, huh?” Gladio says. He grins down at him. “Sure you want to let me loose on him?”

Cor frowns. “Play nice, or I’ll let my boot loose on your ass,” he says.

Gladio’s grin widens. “Yes, sir, Marshal, sir,” he says.

Cor shakes his head. “Punk-ass kid,” he mutters. He puts a hand on the back of his neck. “You OK if I leave you here with this idiot?” he asks. “I gotta go talk to his dad about something.”

He wonders when Cor will come back. He wonders if he’ll be here in this room with Gladio all day, like he usually is with Ignis. The room looks like the training facility. He wonders if this has anything to do with the tests.

“Yes,” he says.

“OK,” Cor says. He squeezes the back of his neck, then drops his hand. “I’ll be back in an hour or two, all right?”

“Yes,” he says again, feeling relieved. At least now he knows the answer to one of his questions.

Cor leaves, then. Gladio folds his arms and looks down at him, putting his head on one side.

“You’re standing all wrong,” he says. “You been practicing what I told you? About the string coming out the top of your head?”

“No,” he says. He didn’t know he was supposed to practice it.

Gladio raises his eyebrows. “No?” he says. “It made you feel better, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” he says. It was difficult to maintain, but when he was doing it his body did feel better.

“So, then,” Gladio says. “You wanna feel better all the time, you practice. You don’t get nothing in life for free, kid.”

He’s not sure what Gladio means, or what it means to get something for free. But he imagines the thread, and tries to stand the way Gladio showed him.

Gladio watches him a moment, then nods. “Better,” he says. “Walk over here.”

He walks. Gladio watches him. Then Gladio moves his shoulders back and instructs him to try and feel taller. He walks again. And again. He feels taller. It’s strange. But it’s hard to try and remember all the ways he’s supposed to hold his body differently while he’s walking. And after a while, Gladio points at a treadmill.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s see you run.”

Gladio walks over to the treadmill. He walks behind him. He sees that the whole of Gladio’s back is covered with images. He sharpens his vision to see the details. It’s a pattern. Elongated shapes with rounded ends, fitted side-by-side in offset rows. Each shape has a line down the middle and angled lines extending from this middle line to the edge. The whole produces a complex pattern. It’s mathematically pleasing. It reminds him of something. He thinks hard, and then realises: it’s like the structures he saw on the material covering the bird, when he and Cor went to the lake. So the images on Gladio’s back are related to those on his front. All of it is a bird. A very big bird.

Gladio turns to look at him, then raises his eyebrows. One corner of his mouth turns up.

“Like what you see?” he says. He grips the wrist of one arm with his other hand and presses down so that his muscles bulge. It makes the images of feathers ripple as though air is moving through them. He stares at them. He wonders why Gladio has images on his skin. Are they part of his skin, or did he draw them on later? He wonders if any of the other humans he knows have images on their skin, underneath their clothes.

Gladio’s still half-smiling. Then he laughs a little.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he says.

He looks up at Gladio. “I don’t have a phone,” he says. He’d like to take a picture if he did have a phone, though. It wouldn’t capture the way the images move when Gladio moves, but he thinks it would be interesting anyway.

Gladio sighs and then reaches out and slaps his back. “We gotta start teaching you about jokes,” he says. Then he points to the treadmill. “Hop up. Glasses off, don’t want you getting steamed up.”

He takes his sunglasses off and gets on the treadmill. Gladio has him run for less than a minute, then stops the treadmill.

“Wow,” he says. “That’s a disaster.”

He stands still, looking at Gladio. He performed poorly – that’s clear enough. Running has not been a major part of his training before. He didn’t know it would be important later. He’s never had any instructions on the correct way to run. But now Gladio says he’s a disaster. He wonders if Gladio is going to tell Cor that he’s a disaster.

Gladio frowns at him. “Don’t give me that look,” he says. “I’m not gonna eat you.”

He doesn’t know what look Gladio means. He definitely didn’t think Gladio was going to eat him. It’s never occurred to him that humans might eat MT units. He mostly hasn’t thought much about eating at all. But he tries to look different anyway.

Gladio rolls his eyes. “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do,” he says.

Then Gladio gives him instructions. He has to remember to feel taller when he’s running, too. He has to put his feet more forward. He has to not bend forward too much. And a number of other things. Gladio’s instructions are long, but they’re very clear. Gladio shows him the incorrect posture with his own body, and then the correct one. And then Gladio reaches out and adjusts his posture when he tries to put it into practice. Gladio doesn’t shout or get angry when he gets it wrong, even though he gets it wrong a lot. He just keeps adjusting him. After a while, Gladio tells him to run, and he runs. He tells him to stop, and he stops. Gladio adjusts. He runs. He stops. It’s difficult. But the instructions are clear and Gladio doesn’t get angry.

“Huh,” Gladio says at last. “I think you’re starting to get it.”

His heart seems to rise in his chest at the words, and he tries even harder to follow all the instructions. But then the door to the room opens, and Cor comes in. He’s followed by the one from the phone, the one with the white coat, Ignis, and a new person he hasn’t met before. The new person has long black hair and she’s carrying a book.

He slows, and then stops. Cor comes across the room towards him, with the others following a little behind. The one from the phone is here. So now must be the time for the tests. His heart starts to beat a little faster.

“Gladio,” the one from the phone says. He gestures, and Gladio goes over to him. “Report,” the one from the phone says.

Gladio glances over his shoulder at him. “He’s not fast,” he says. “Could be, though, if he learned better posture. Good at following orders.”

Cor scowls at Gladio. Gladio shrugs. Then Cor comes over to him.

“You OK?” he asks. “Gladio treat you all right?”

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t really have a reference point, but Gladio was good at giving instructions and didn’t get angry with him even when he was a disaster. And even though the one from the phone told him to report, Gladio didn’t say he was a disaster. He just said he wasn’t fast. But he could be better. That’s good. He wants to be better.

Cor nods. He puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to ask you to do some things, now,” he says. “This is the testing I was telling you about. You remember what you’ve got to do?”

He nods.

“I gotta hear it from you, kid,” Cor says.

“If I feel bad, I’ve got to say something,” he says.

“Right,” Cor says. He lets go of his shoulder and steps back. He points at the raised platform. “Go up into the ring, would you?”

He gets off the treadmill and goes up to the raised platform. He climbs under the ropes and then stands on the platform. The others are all standing below, looking up at him. The one with black hair has her book open, and a pen in her hand. Ignis is also holding a book and a pen.

Gladio comes over and climbs under the ropes. He faces him.

“All right, Prompto,” he says. “Here’s what’s happening. I want you to try and hit me as hard as you can. I’ll try and block you. That’s it. Got it?”

He looks at Gladio. Then he looks at Cor.

Cor raises his eyebrows. “Did you understand what Gladio said?”

“Yes,” he says.

Cor nods. “OK,” he says. “That’s the first test. Don’t worry, he won’t hit back. You’re not going to get hurt.”

He swallows. He opens his mouth and closes it. His stomach hurts.

Cor frowns and comes closer to the platform. “Kid?” he says. “You OK?”

He glances at the others. Then he speaks more quietly. Cor said he had to say something if he felt bad. So now he has to say something. And he wants to say something. He doesn’t want to hurt Gladio.

“What if I hurt him?” he asks.

He hears Gladio laugh quietly behind him. Cor doesn’t look like he’s going to laugh, though.

“Gladio’s pretty hard to hurt, kid,” he says.

He doesn’t say anything. Cor told him to say something if he felt bad. But he already said something and Cor didn’t stop the test like he said he would. So now he doesn’t understand. He knows how easy it is to kill a human with one blow, if you do it right. Even a big human, like Gladio. He doesn’t want to kill Gladio. But Gladio said to hit him as hard as he could.

Cor looks up at him, frowning. Then he nods.

“Don’t try to hurt him,” he says. “Just – try to knock him down. He can take a fall, I promise.”

The feeling in his stomach lets up a little. Yes. Knocking Gladio down won’t hurt him badly, not if he does it carefully.

“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Cor says. “And hey – it’s good you said something, kid. You did good.”

The feeling lifts a little more. It’s good. He followed Cor’s orders, even though they seemed strange, and now he doesn’t have to hurt Gladio. So that’s good.

He steps back. He sees that the one with the black hair is writing in her book. Ignis isn’t writing in his book, though. He’s just watching him. He smiles a little when he sees him looking.

He turns back to Gladio. Gladio’s standing with his arms crossed across his chest. He’s smiling with half of his mouth again.

“OK, now that’s cleared up,” he says. “Give me your best shot.”

He nods. He engages the combat strategic and combat analytical elements in his mind. Then he takes up a fighting stance and watches Gladio carefully. He needs to learn more about how Gladio fights before he can decide on the best strategy. He knows he won’t be able to knock him down immediately. He wonders how many attempts he’ll be permitted. Then he suppresses extraneous processes, like wondering about things, and focuses on Gladio.

He throws a punch. Gladio blocks it easily. It’s no surprise: he used the most straightforward attack to gain information about Gladio’s capabilities. Gladio is strong and fast. He already assumed that was the case, but now the combat analytical element begins to quantify Gladio’s strength and speed. He throws another punch, deliberately aiming at Gladio’s right shoulder. Gladio catches his fist, grins at him, then lets him go.

The combat analytical element runs through a series of possibilities, feeding data into the combat strategic element. He ducks, sweeps his leg across towards Gladio, and throws a third punch. Gladio blocks, still smiling, but the move allows the combat analytical element narrows down its focus significantly. Before Gladio lets him go, he twists, slips inside Gladio’s reach, aims the heel of his hand upwards into his solar plexus – hard enough to surprise, not to kill – and then thrusts his fist into Gladio’s stomach, hooks his leg around Gladio’s knee, and jerks.

Gladio makes a surprised grunt as his feet leave the ground, and another one as he lands on his back. He steps back, instructing the combat strategic element to remain active in case of reprisals. Then he looks at Cor.

Cor’s staring at Gladio. Everyone’s staring at Gladio. Then, they all turn to look at him.

Gladio sits up. He looks at the one from the phone.

“Kid’s sneaky,” he says.

The one with the black hair starts writing in her book. Cor taps his fingers against his thigh. He glances at the one from the phone, and then looks back at him.

“OK,” he says. “Go again.” He looks at Gladio. “No more element of surprise this time, Crownsguard.”

Gladio stands up, shoulders back. “No, sir,” he says. He’s not smiling any more. He turns to him and nods. “Come at me.”

He squares his shoulders. He’s learned a lot about Gladio’s fighting style. But Gladio’s learned about his, too. Gladio’s human, so he doesn’t have combat elements. But that means he’s harder to predict. He has to be careful.

So he’s careful. He gathers more data, discovering Gladio’s blind spots. It’s relatively easy, because Gladio isn’t fighting back, just blocking; this means he can devote his undivided attention to offensive tactics and not concern himself with defence. Still, it takes him longer the second time, by seventeen point five seconds. Even while suppressing extraneous processes, some part of him is aware that it’s a poor performance.

Gladio lands on his side this time. The platform is soft and padded, but even so, Gladio’s weight make a loud thud. He hopes it didn’t hurt too much. Gladio gave him good instructions and didn’t get angry when he failed at his task. He doesn’t want to hurt Gladio.

He turns and sees that everyone is looking at him again. Cor and the one from the phone look unhappy. The one with the black hair is writing in her book. Ignis is just looking at him. He’s not smiling, but he’s not frowning, either.

Behind him, he hears Gladio stand up. He wants to say he’s sorry. He is sorry – for performing poorly. It shouldn’t have taken him so much time to knock down an opponent who wasn’t fighting back.

Then Gladio puts a hand on his shoulder and turns him around, so that they’re facing one another.

“Hey,” Gladio says. He’s not smiling. “If you were going to kill me, how would you do it? Show me. Slowly – don’t make contact. Just show me.”

He looks over his shoulder at Cor. Cor nods.

“Without a weapon?” he asks. It’s easier to kill people with weapons.

“Without a weapon,” Gladio responds.

He changes the parameters of the combat strategic element to unarmed kill. Then, he brings his hand up towards Gladio’s chest. He moves slowly, and Gladio moves slowly to block him. But this time, Gladio fights back. It’s not a fight, because neither of them are making more than gentle contact, and both are moving very slowly. But it’s as if a fight has been slowed down. Gladio fights back, and now he has to pay attention to defensive tactics. It’s slow enough that he can manage it, but even so it’s more difficult than before. Gladio has excellent hand-to-hand combat skills – certainly better than his own. He’s never performed particularly well in close combat. Even so, the combat elements work fast, and after some time of strange, slow fighting, he brings his hand towards Gladio’s eyes, and Gladio fails to block.

He stops moving, fingertips hovering in front of Gladio’s eyes.

“I would use your eye socket to reach your brain,” he says. “My index finger is long enough. It might not kill you, but you would be sufficiently injured that I could easily kill you some other way.”

Gladio stares at the tips of his fingers.

“OK,” he says. “I get that.”

He lowers his hands and turns to look at Cor. He hopes he’s performing adequately in the tests. Cor doesn’t look pleased, though. He opens his mouth to explain that he’s not well-rated in close combat, but that he performs well at long ranges. But before he can, the one with the black hair stops writing and steps forward, up to the edge of the platform.

“Prompto,” she says. “We haven’t met before. I’m Clementia. The King’s Shield asked me to come and observe you today.”

“Doctor Fortis,” the one from the phone says. The one with the black hair looks back over her shoulder at him.

“Yes, Shield Amicitia?” she says. “You did say I was permitted to ask questions, did you not?”

The one from the phone frowns and opens his mouth. The one with the white coat is standing next to him, and she whispers something in his ear. The one from the phone closes his mouth, then nods. He doesn’t look pleased.

The one with the black hair turns back to him. “Good, well, now we’re acquainted,” she says. “I wanted to ask you about that performance we just witnessed.”

He feels himself hunching his shoulders and tries to remember to feel taller. He hopes the one with the black hair isn’t too angry about his poor performance.

“Now, how did you know how to beat Gladiolus?” the one with the black hair asks. “You’ve been trained, I take it?”

“Yes,” he says. He accesses his training records. “I’ve received approximately ten thousand hours of close-combat training.”

The one with the black hair raises her eyebrows. “Really?” she says, writing something in her book. “That’s a great deal for someone your age.”

He doesn’t know what she means by your age. He doesn’t think he’s received an unnusually high number of hours of close-combat training. All MT units receive the same number of hours, unless they’re highly deficient. He’s never performed so poorly as to be considered highly deficient.

“How old were you when you started training?” the one with the black hair asks.

He doesn’t understand the question. He looks at Cor.

“He doesn’t have much of a sense of time, beyond days,” Cor says. He comes up to stand beside the one with the black hair. “Doctor Fortis wants to know when you started training.”

Oh. He understands. “When I was a level one,” he says. All MT units start training when they achieve level one.

“I’m not completely clear on it, but I think that means he was a toddler or a year or two older,” Cor says.

The one with the black hair looks sharply at Cor. Her face is turned away, so he can’t see her expression. Cor’s expression is neutral. “I know,” Cor says. He says it very quietly. “Don’t get upset, he’ll think it’s because of him.”

The one with the black hair turns back to look at him. She writes something in her book. Then she looks up. She’s not smiling, but she doesn’t look upset. “And I understand you have some – modifications?” she says. “Do they help you with fighting?”

“Yes,” he says. “I have combat elements.”

Cor raises his eyebrows. The one with the black hair writes something down.

“What does that mean – combat elements?” she asks. “Imagine I know nothing at all about MTs. How would you explain it to me?”

“I have a combat strategic element and a combat analytical element,” he says. “The combat analytical element analyses the opponents strength, speed, skill and tactics. The combat strategic element uses the data to construct a range of appropriate strategies and quantify the probability of success for each one.”

Cor stares at him. His eyebrows are raised. “Kid,” he says. “Seriously?”

He looks at Cor. “Yes,” he says. He doesn’t know why Cor thinks he’s not serious.

“Well, that definitely doesn’t count, then,” Gladio says from somewhere behind him. “No fair cheating.”

The one with the black hair is writing rapidly in her book. So is Ignis, standing a few steps back beside the one from the phone. Then the one with the black hair looks up. “Can you tell me how you experience these – elements?” she asks.

He doesn’t understand the question. He doesn’t experience the elements. They just are. He tries to construct an answer, but he doesn’t know where to start.

“Hey,” Cor says. “It’s OK. It doesn’t matter if you can’t.”

He shakes his head, relieved. “They’re elements,” he says, trying to explain. “The same as any other element.”

The one with the black hair nods slowly, tapping her pen against her chin. “You have other elements?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says.

“Doctor Fortis,” the one from the phone says then. “Perhaps you could ask these questions later? My schedule is tight today.”

The one with the black hair turns towards him. “Of course,” she says. “Please, do go on.”

The one from the phone nods. “Cor,” he says.

Cor reaches through the ropes and touches his arm. “Come with me, kid,” he says. “We’re going to do some more tests. Remember what you’ve got to do?”

“Yes,” he says. “I’ve got to say something if I feel bad.” He feels a little bad because he didn’t perform as well as he should have in the first test, but he doesn’t think that’s the kind of bad Cor meant, so he doesn’t mention it. He slips under the ropes, and Cor puts a hand on his back and walks with him. All the others follow behind. Cor doesn’t look back at them, so he doesn’t, either.

They go through another room, then into a much larger one. It’s not very wide, but very long. There’s a target set up about half-way down the room. Cor stops walking, so he does, too. Behind them, the others file into the room.

There’s a crackling sound, and then the one from the phone hands Cor a .22 calibre semi-automatic pistol. The one from the phone is looking at Cor with a very serious expression.

“I’m trusting you on this, my friend,” the one from the phone says. “I dearly hope you’re right.”

“I am,” Cor says.

The one from the phone nods. Then he looks up.

He looks up, too. There’s a balcony above, with glass windows. The daytime silent one is standing on the balcony. He’s holding the controller for the collar in his hand.

He looks back down at Cor, wondering why the silent one is on the balcony rather than in the room. The silent one’s holding the controller, so he assumes that means that if he fails the test, there’ll be some kind of correction. Then Cor holds the pistol out to him.

“It’s a target-shooting test,” he says. “Got it?”

“Yes,” he says. He feels relieved. Target-shooting tests are easy. He won’t fail, so he won’t be corrected. He takes the gun and turns towards the target, waiting for it to be moved further away. Nothing happens. He waits a few more seconds, then turns to look at Cor.

Cor’s watching him. Everyone’s watching him. They all look tense.

“Should I shoot it now?” he asks Cor.

“Yeah, kid,” Cor says. “Shoot it now.”

He turns back and raises the gun. He shoots the target. It’s not very far away. He thinks it’s a waste of ammunition, to test him on something so close that he doesn’t even have to sharpen his vision or bring up his targeting system.

“Again,” Cor says. “Go till you’re out of bullets.”

He follows the instructions. He shoots until the clip is empty. Then he lowers the gun.

“I’ll take it,” says the one from the phone. He holds the gun out, and the one from the phone takes it, almost snatching it out of his hands.

Cor presses a button, and the target moves towards them. There’s a single hole in the centre.

The one with the black hair frowns. “He only hit the target once,” she says.

Cor puts his finger through the hole. “Pretty sure he made this with the first shot and then shot all of the other bullets through it,” he says. He looks at him. “Right?”

“Yes,” he says. He hopes that’s what Cor wanted him to do.

Cor shakes his head. “Shit, kid,” he mutters. He’s frowning. The one from the phone is frowning, too. But Gladio slaps his shoulder.

“You use an element for that?” he asks.

“No,” he says. “It wasn’t far enough away to require enhanced targeting.”

Gladio raises his eyebrows. So does Cor. “You did that just – by yourself?” Cor asks.

He doesn’t understand the question. He doesn’t know how he would shoot a target any other way than by himself. “Yes,” he says.

Cor stares at him. Everyone stares at him. Then Gladio reaches out and pushes the button. The target starts moving away.

“Gladio?” Cor says.

“Don’t tell me you don’t want to see if he can,” Gladio says. He holds down the button until the target is all the way at the other end of the room.

The one from the phone doesn’t look pleased. But after a moment where he just frowns at Gladio, he removes the empty clip from the pistol and pulls a new one from his pocket. He glances up at the silent one, then he holds the pistol out to him.

“The same procedure,” he says.

He takes the pistol and looks at Cor. Cor nods. So he turns and faces the target. It’s a long way away now. He sharpens his vision until he can see it clearly, then engages his targetting system. It’s relatively unchallenging, since they’re stationary and there’s no distractions or obstacles. It’s much more straightforward than a simulation.

He lines up the targetting system on the hole in the target, raises the pistol, and fires. He keeps firing until the clip is empty. Then he holds the gun out to the one from the phone. Gladio is already pushing the button to bring the target back. The one from the phone takes the pistol, and then they all turn to watch as the target comes closer. When it arrives, Cor puts his finger through the hole in the centre. It’s the only one.

“Guess that answers that question,” Gladio says.

The one from the phone sighs. “Cor,” he says. “We need to talk about this.”

“Yeah, I know,” Cor says. He sounds tired. “Just – let’s get all the information first, all right? And let’s–” He stops, then reaches up and puts a hand on the back of his neck. “Let’s just get all the information,” he says.

He looks at Cor. Cor doesn’t look pleased. He knows he performed well in the targetting test. But Cor doesn’t look pleased. Cor’s hand is warm and solid on the back of his neck. He doesn’t think Cor’s angry. But he doesn’t look pleased.

“Well,” says the one with the black hair, “may I suggest we change venues?”

She turns and walks out of the room. The one from the phone follows, and Cor follows, too. He goes with Cor, wondering where the new venue will be.

It’s quiet as they walk. After a minute or two, though, Cor looks up at him and frowns.

“What about your glasses?” he says.

He remembers the sunglasses, and he pulls them out of his pocket and puts them on, then adjusts the focus of his vision to compensate. But Cor shakes his head.

“No, I mean – you saw that target. From a really long way away. Didn’t you need your glasses?”

Oh. He understands. “No,” he says. “My vision has repaired itself.”

Cor stares at him. He has the same expression on his face that he had after the close-combat test, and after the targetting test. The expression that doesn’t look pleased. He’s been looking like that for a while now.

He starts to feel like he did in the morning, when he thought there would be a different type of test. These tests were much easier than the one he had before, but knowing Cor isn’t pleased with how he’s performed makes his stomach hurt. He knew he didn’t perform well in the close-combat test, but he thought Cor would be pleased with his performance in the targetting test. He doesn’t understand why Cor isn’t pleased.

Cor frowns at him. “Hey,” he says. “You OK? You feel bad?”

He shakes his head. But he does feel bad. Cor told him to say if he felt bad. But that was only for the tests. But he wants to tell Cor anyway. He wants to ask Cor what he did wrong. Maybe if he knows what it is, he can perform better next time.

“I performed inadequately,” he says. He doesn’t want to admit it out loud, but he doesn’t think Cor will correct him. It’s strange, to talk to someone and not be afraid of correction. It feels like falling, to say the words out loud.

Cor frowns. “Is that what you think?” he asks.

He swallows. “Yes,” he says. “I didn’t pass the tests.”

Cor stops walking, so he stops, too. Ahead of them, the one with the black hair and the one from the phone are still walking. Behind them, the silent one stops. He doesn’t know where the others are.

“Kid,” Cor says. He’s turned towards him, now. “That’s not what’s happening here.”

He frowns. He wants to ask a question, but he’s not sure which question will bring the most clarity. Before he can decide, Cor puts a hand on either side of his neck and ducks his head to look into his face.

“You did great,” Cor says. “You did great, kid. Come on.”

He feels – confused. But he wants to believe Cor. At least for the targetting test – he thought he passed that test. But Cor doesn’t look happy at all.

Cor sighs. “It’s just – not simple,” he says. “But I was impressed. I want to explain it – I’m gonna explain it, OK? I can’t do it right now, but I will. But trust me, you did great, all right? Do you trust me?”

He swallows. He considers.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor pauses, then. His eyes open a little wider. “Huh,” he says, like a breath of surprise. Then he smiles. It’s not a big smile – if he hadn’t been watching Cor, he wouldn’t have seen it, it comes and goes so fast. But it makes his stomach feel less painful.

“All right,” Cor says. He nods. “All right.” Cor lets go of him, then reaches out and rubs his head. “I’m gonna explain it. Later. I promise.” Then Cor puts an arm around his shoulders and starts walking again. He walks, too. It’s not straightforward to walk at first, because he and Cor are different heights, and with Cor’s arm around his shoulders, their sides are pressed together, and their legs aren’t moving in the same rhythm. But he adjusts his pace, and Cor does, too, and then they fall into step, and things get easier.

“You’re really something, you know that?” Cor says.

He doesn’t understand. Of course he’s something. If he wasn’t something, he would be nothing.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor laughs. And they keep walking.

Chapter Text

The next room they go to is much smaller than the previous ones. There are windows high in the wall, and he sees that outside the sky is blue and grey. Inside the room there are four rows of tables with chairs on one side of them, and there’s a blank white screen on one wall.

The one with the black hair and the one from the phone are already in the room when he and Cor enter. The one from the phone looks angry. The one with the black hair smiles.

“Now, Prompto,” she says, “we’ve got a written test for you. If you could sit down.”

He looks at all the chairs. “Which chair should I sit in?” he asks.

“Whichever you like,” the one with the black hair says.

He hesitates. Then he sits in the nearest chair. He hopes this isn’t part of the test. He doesn’t know how to choose which chair he likes. All the chairs look the same.

The one with the black hair puts the papers she’s holding down in front of him. The top paper is blank. She puts a pen beside the papers.

“Well, I don’t think it’s necessary for all of us to sit and watch Prompto take the test,” she says.

“I’m not leaving,” Cor says. He feels a warm sense of relief. The one with the black hair has been pleasant so far, but the one with the phone makes him nervous. He doesn’t want to be near the one with the phone without Cor there too.

The one with the black hair looks behind him, to where the silent one is standing by the wall.

“Lacertus can’t leave,” the one from the phone says. “He’s assigned to the – to Prompto. However, I can see that it would be easier without a large audience.” He goes to the door, then looks back at the one with the black hair. “I’ll expect your report, Doctor.”

“Understood,” the one with the black hair says. Then the one from the phone leaves. He’s glad. He feels better when the one from the phone isn’t there.

The one with the black hair sits down. “We’ll give you an hour for the first part,” she says, looking at the clock on the wall. “See how many questions you can answer. If you don’t know the answer, you can leave it blank, or just give it your best guess.”

He looks around at Cor, who’s still standing. Cor raises his eyebrows.

“You understand the instructions?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says.

“All right, then,” Cor says. “Get started.”

He turns back to the paper. There are no questions on it, so he turns it over. On the other side are a number of questions, with space underneath each one to write the answers. They’re all mathematical, and he engages the mathematical element in his mind. They’re not very complex – the most complicated is to solve a second-order partial differential equation. He completes them all and then moves to the next sheet of paper. Here there are more mathematical questions, but they’re somewhat more complex. He takes a little longer to complete the answers on the second page.

He looks at the clock on the wall. Three minutes have passed. He wonders how many questions there are in total. Then he turns over the second page.

On the back of the second page are more questions. These are more applied mathematical questions, asking him to understand and model processes such as motion of a ball or a pendulum. He simulates this objects in his mind and allows the mathematical element to produce the required quantities. He completes the page of questions. He looks at the clock. Five minutes have passed since the beginning of the test.

He turns to the third page of questions. The questions here are not mathematical, so he disengages the mathematical element to conserve energy. Then he reads the first question.

Read the following short descriptions and then write down the first three words that come into your head, say the instructions. It’s an odd thing to ask him to do, but the instructions are clear. He reads the first description.

A picnic in a park on a hot summer’s day, reads the first one. He reads it again. He doesn’t know what picnic means, but summer is the word he learned the night before that means a period of time when Eos is tilted towards the sun and so is unusually hot. So it makes sense that a day in summer would be hot. He considers the instructions. What are the first three words that come into his head? He writes: park, summer, day. That makes sense. The words are in the description, and they’re the most important words, apart from picnic. He doesn’t know what picnic means, so he doesn’t write it down.

He reads the next description. Sitting in a stuffy room listening to a very boring lecture. He considers what are the most important words in the sentence. He still doesn’t know what boring means, but the word very is before it, which suggests that it’s important. He chooses room, lecture and boring. It makes him feel nervous to choose a word that he doesn’t know the meaning of, but he considers all the other words and he thinks boring must be more important than any of them.

He continues to read the descriptions. There are three more. None are as difficult as the second one, and he completes them more quickly. Then he checks over his answers to make sure he’s selected the correct words in each case. Then he turns over the page.

The question at the top on the other side of the page is longer. The instructions say: Read the following passage and then answer the questions. The passage is a paragraph long. It reads:

Rhetor and Stella are two friends who’ve known each other for five years. One day, Rhetor asks Stella to go out to eat with him. Stella agrees. After their dinner, Rhetor kisses Stella. The next day, Rhetor sees Stella on the street with another boy. When Stella next meets Rhetor, he refuses to speak to her. Stella cries. She says the other boy is her brother, but Rhetor doesn’t believe her. They don’t go out to eat together again.

He reads the passage twice. It’s confusing. He doesn’t know anyone whose name is Rhetor or Stella. He isn’t sure why he’s supposed to read this passage describing the actions of people that he doesn’t know. He’s never read writing describing what some people are doing before, except once when Ignis gave him SPIRIT OF THE HYDRAEAN PHASMA MARUM. He doesn’t understand what the purpose of the passage is. On the other hand, he knows all the words except friends, brother, and kisses, and that’s a relief.

He turns to the questions. The first is: How does Rhetor feel when he sees Stella with another boy? He frowns, then reads the passage again. The passage doesn’t mention anything about how the person called Rhetor feels at any point. He checks the question to see if he’s misunderstood. But it’s very clear. He doesn’t understand how he can answer the question with the information given. He thinks it must be related to the unexplained decision by the person called Rhetor not to speak to the person called Stella. But there’s no information about this decision, nor does the passage explain why the person called Rhetor doesn’t believe the person called Stella’s statement, or why she gives the statement in the first place. He swallows. He reads the question again. Then he reads the passage again. But he doesn’t know how to answer it.

He looks at the clock. Fifteen minutes have gone by since the beginning of the test. Maybe he can answer the next question and then come back to this one. So he reads the next one.

How does Stella feel when Rhetor refuses to speak to her?

His heart sinks. He reads the passage again. Then he sees the sentence: Stella cries. Yes. The clue is here. He thinks about when he cries. How does he feel when he cries? Or what feeling is it that makes him want to cry?

He writes Scared in the gap provided. Good. Then he reads the next question.

Why don’t Stella and Rhetor go out to eat again?

He reads the passage again, looking for a clue like there was for the previous question. But he can’t find any clues. The passage states that the person called Stella and the person called Rhetor don’t go out to eat again, but it gives no further information. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to answer the question when there’s insufficient information provided. None of the mathematical questions had insufficient information. The test doesn’t make sense.

Then he wonders if perhaps it’s a test to see if he understands whether or not the correct information is provided. It’s possible. After all, the one with the black hair did say he could leave the question blank if he couldn’t answer it, and it only really makes sense to give permission to do that if some of the questions are impossible to answer. He considers this, but he doesn’t like the idea of leaving spaces blank. But perhaps he could make it clear that he understands that the information is insufficient. He reads the rest of the questions. All of them ask what one of the people in the passage feels about something, or why they do something. The only question he thinks he can answer is Why do Rhetor and Stella go out to eat together? It takes him a moment to remember the correct word for the answer, but when he does, he writes, Because they are hungry. He’s not completely sure it’s the correct answer, but it makes sense that the one with the black hair would want to test him to see whether he can comprehend and reproduce the common vocabulary in this new setting. Hungry is a word he’s heard a number of times. It makes sense, even though the information is not given in the passage.

He spends some time considering the other questions to see if he can derive the answers through a similar process. But he finds that he can’t. Of the six questions, he can only answer two. He hopes that the other four are meant to be unanswerable. It seems like a lot of questions to make unanswerable. But he can’t answer them. He hopes that Cor won’t be disappointed with his performance. Cor said he was pleased with his performance in the other tests, but he didn’t seem pleased. He hesitates. Then he writes, Insufficient information provided in the gaps under each of the other four questions.

He sits and stares at the paper. Then he looks at the clock. Twenty-five minutes have gone by since the beginning of the test. He moves the paper to the pile of completed papers. There are no more papers. He looks at the clock again. Then he looks at Cor. Cor’s looking at his phone, but he looks up when he looks at him.

“You OK, kid?” he asks.

He feels nervous. He doesn’t like thinking about his answers to the last questions. Insufficient information provided. He sees it inside his head. He thinks it must be wrong. But he doesn’t know what’s right.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks at him. Then he looks at the papers. Then he looks at the clock.

“You done?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says.

Cor looks at the clock again. He frowns. Then he looks at the one with the black hair. She’s standing up and coming over to the table. She picks up the papers and takes them back to the front of the room.

“I’m afraid my own grasp of math is quite elementary,” she says, pointing her phone at the first page of answers. “I’ll send these to a colleague who can check them for me.” She makes images of all the pages with mathematical questions. Then she looks down at them, frowning.

“Prompto,” she says, looking up at him. “You haven’t written down your working for any of these questions.”

He doesn’t understand what she means. He looks at Cor.

“Let me see,” Cor says. He gets up and goes to the front of the room. He looks at the papers. “Huh,” he says. Then he looks at him. “You’ve just written the answers, kid. You’re supposed to show your working.”

He doesn’t understand. He knows what working means, but he’s never heard it used like this before. It’s obvious that he completed the mathematical questions inadequately. His stomach starts to churn. He’d thought the mathematical portions were correct. It was the rest of the test he was concerned about. But now he’s concerned about all of it.

“Hey, no,” Cor says. He comes forward and puts a hand on his shoulder. “It’s OK. It’s not anything to worry about. It doesn’t mean you got it wrong.”

He looks up at Cor. Then the one with the black hair speaks.

“It’s just that I would have been interested to see the process by which you solved each of these equations, Prompto,” she says. “The steps you took to arrive at your answers.”

He looks at her. She looks back at him. Then she puts her head on one side and frowns slightly.

“Do you have – an element that assists you with math?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says. “I have a mathematical element.”

The one with the black hair nods and smiles. Cor’s hand tightens on his shoulder.

“Could you describe to me how you experience solving math problems with your mathematical element?” the one with the black hair asks.

It’s the same question she asked before. But he doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t experience the mathematical element. It just is.

The one with the black hair is looking at him. She speaks again before he’s managed to formulate an answer to her question.

“I mean to say – for example, do you feed data to the mathematical element, or is it always present and behaving as an integral part of your mind?”

“No,” he says. “I have to engage it.”

“I see,” the one with the black hair says. She writes something down. “You do that consciously?”

“Yes,” he says.

“And then, when you look at a question like the ones on the paper – do you go through a process? Are there a number of steps you have to go through to get from the question to the solution?”

He’s beginning to understand what she wants to know. “Yes,” he says. “I engage the mathematical element. Then I look at the question. Then I write down the solution. So there are three steps.”

The one with the black hair writes again. Then she nods and looks up. “So you simply – know the answer as soon as you look at the question?”

“No,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a few seconds, if it’s complex.” He thinks about the test questions, and about what the one with the black hair seems to be interested in. “If it’s applied, I run a simulation,” he says. “Like – with the ball question.”

“A simulation?” the one with the black hair asks. “How do you run a simulation?”

“In my head,” he says. “To get the required quantities. I don’t need to run a simulation, but it’s usually faster and there’s lower risk of error.”

The one with the black hair writes something else down, then smiles at him.

“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “I hope I can talk some more with you about your elements in the future.” Then she turns to the non-mathematical parts of the paper. She pauses, looking at them, and his heart starts to beat faster. But she doesn’t stop smiling. She just gathers up the paper and picks up her phone.

“Marshal, I think we should have a short conversation with the King’s Shield about these results,” she says. “I believe he’s waiting for us in his office.”

“Understood,” Cor says. “Come on, kid. We got places to be.”

~

They go to a place he’s been to before – twice before, once on the first night when he met Cor, and then two weeks later, just before he went to spend time in the room on his own. Cor leaves him there with the silent one, and goes away with the one with black hair. Cor says he’ll be back soon. So he sits. It feels strange, to sit here. He remembers the first time he sat here. It’s a foggy memory. So many things have happened since then. His life has changed so much. It’s so much better.

“Doctor Fortis, Cor,” the one from the phone says. He’s two rooms away. He sharpens his hearing to make sure he doesn’t miss anything.

“Well, I have the results,” the one with the black hair says. “And let me say first of all that Prompto has a – quite extraordinary mathematical ability. My colleague who devised the problems for him was astounded.”

“A modification of some kind,” the one from the phone says.

“It seems so,” the one with the black hair says. “He tells me he can access the – element, as he calls it, at will. I believe he can turn it on and off, like a machine.”

“He can do that with his eyesight,” Cor says. “Just – turn his eyes off. It’s – weird.”

“Yes, I was a little taken aback when I read that in his file,” the one with the black hair says. “It’s strange to us, certainly. But he doesn’t seem to experience it as anything noteworthy at all. It’s so well integrated into his system that I don’t think he conceives of it as anything different than his other senses. When he described to me how he solved the equations, it was almost like someone describing how they know the sky is blue. There’s no need to consciously analyse the wavelength of the perceived light and then match it with the linguistic construct assigned to that wavelength. All of those processes occur, but we don’t perceive them. I believe that something like this is how Prompto experiences his mathematical element.”

There’s a silence.

“How many of these elements does he have?” the one from the phone asks.

“That is a very pertinent question, and one I believe should be thoroughly investigated,” the one with the black hair says. “It seems Prompto is aware of some of them – perhaps even all of them. Marshal, given your relationship, if you asked him I’m sure he would give you a list.”

A pause.

“Yeah, OK,” Cor says. “I’ll ask him some time. What about the rest of the test?”

“Ah,” the one with the black hair says. “The other half of the test was to do with empathy, emotional intelligence, and creativity. It was designed to help us understand how Prompto’s mind works. Unfortunately, it seems to have been something of a failure.”

“How so?” the one from the phone asks.

“It seems Prompto didn’t understand the first set of questions at all,” the one with the black hair says. “The questions called for imagination, associative connections and creativity; the answers Prompto gave were devoid of any of these attributes.”

“That’s–” Cor starts. He sounds angry.

“Cor, please,” the one from the phone says. “Let Doctor Fortis finish.”

“I apologise,” the one with the black hair says. “I didn’t mean to imply that Prompto lacked those traits. I’m aware he has an emotional life – I’ve observed it for myself today. But now that I know more about him, I see that the question set was poorly designed to test someone of his – unusual background.” She pauses. “Marshal, what was it you were going to say?”

There’s another pause. Then Cor speaks.

“He has imagination and creativity,” he says. “He’s not a robot. He likes – nature, like plants and birds and water. He has nightmares that make him cry. He has imagination, just like any other human being.” He still sounds angry.

“Of course,” the one with the black hair says. “I don’t doubt it – and I would be very interested to hear about the things you’ve observed, Marshal, if you’d care to tell me about them some time. But I do think – the first question set failed because it was badly designed. But the second set was designed to test Prompto’s ability to infer the emotions and thought processes of others, and I think that it achieved that.”

“What were the results?” the one from the phone asks.

“It appears that Prompto has very little understanding of how other people think and feel,” the one with the black hair says. “His responses were – largely a request for further information, indicating that he was unable to recognise how people’s actions might be related to their emotional responses. The questions that he did answer similarly indicated a poor understanding of implicit social cues.”

“What are you saying?” Cor asks. He sounds even angrier now.

“I’m saying that I think Prompto has been very poorly socialised, and that his background is so different from ours that he is most probably almost completely unable to understand why we do the things we do,” the one with the black hair says. “It’s clear that he has emotions, but he may not understand them very well. And I suspect – he’s scared a lot of the time.”

A silence.

“Cor?” the one from the phone says eventually.

Cor sighs. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Sounds about right.”

He feels a pain in his stomach. The one with the black hair said he performed poorly on the last questions. And Cor agreed with her. Cor agreed. He performed poorly. He feels his throat burning. Even though he knew it was probably the case, that to fail to answer so many questions would result in a poor performance. He knew. But now Cor said it. He blinks. His eyes are itching. He rubs his nose. The silent one is looking at him. He wishes it was the night-time silent one. He swallows. His stomach hurts.

“You OK, kid?” the silent one asks.

“Yes,” he says. It comes out sounding strange. The silent one’s still looking at him.

“We need to talk about Prince Noctis,” Cor’s saying two rooms away. He tries to listen. Tries to ignore the pain in his stomach and the burning in his throat.

“Indeed,” the one from the phone says. “I would feel more comfortable keeping them separated until Doctor Fortis–”

Then the door opens, and he loses his ability to concentrate. Noctis walks in, wearing his blue clothes with the string round his neck.

“Hey,” he says. “Here you are. Specs didn’t know where you were.” He glances at the silent one. “Hey, Lacertus.”

“Your Highness,” the silent one says, sitting up to attention.

Noctis drops down onto the bench opposite. “What’re you doing here?” he asks, looking around. “Cor talking to Clarus, or something? Specs said you had a test.”

“Yes,” he says. His stomach still hurts. But it feels less bad now that Noctis is here. It’s strange.

“Excuse me, Highness,” the silent one says, “isn’t Gladio supposed to accompany you whenever you’re with–” He gestures towards him.

Noctis glances at the silent one and shrugs. “I went to look for him, but he wasn’t around,” he says. Then he looks back at him. “What kind of test was it?”

He swallows twice, and clears his throat. “Math,” he says. “And – fighting. And shooting and running. And – understanding implicit social cues.”

“Huh,” Noctis says. He looks confused. “That’s – a weird test. What is that, some kind of nerd pentathlon?” He leans back and spreads his arms along the back of the bench. “Bet you blew them away. I mean, we already know you’re great at math and shooting, right?”

His throat starts burning again. He doesn’t want to tell Noctis about how he performed so poorly in the last part of the test. How Cor said he performed poorly. He doesn’t want Noctis to know. But he can’t speak past the burning in his throat.

But he doesn’t need to speak, because Noctis speaks again. He’s leaning forward, now, looking at his chest.

“That’s the shirt I got you,” he says.

He looks down. He remembers putting on the shirt with the fish in the morning. It feels like a long time ago.

“Yeah,” he says.