I. To Be Alive
Cor broke the glass test cylinder with a well-aimed swing of his crowbar, and then became acutely aware that one false move could just as easily break the infant floating in the fluid inside.
The second thing he was acutely aware of was the fact that said infant was now slumping against the glass as the clear fluid drained from the small hole he'd made. The innumerable number of tubes and wires connected to its tiny body were beginning to tug and stretch. There was something inhuman about the infant, pale, unresponsive, immobile, even though it was clearly human in looks. A shiver ran down Cor's spine, and he archived this sight to reflect upon with the few other rare instances where he had truly felt terror.
In the meantime, keeping his emotions in check, Cor cleared a bit more of the glass with his gloved hands, and finally reached in to pull the infant out. It didn't react, limp and lifeless in Cor's hands. Its head hung back almost painfully, and Cor belatedly remembered to put a hand behind his neck to support him. Not that spinal damage would matter if the infant was already dead. It sure felt like he was.
Cor wasn't sure what to do next. He definitely could've used Dustin's help, as he was the closest thing they had to a medical officer in their squad of three, but Dustin was on recon right now, making sure that their extraction route was clear and remained so. He also thought of calling Monica over, but she was probably very busy covering her digital tracks as she finished gathering data from the computer terminal she was hacking.
Cor was truly alone in this, it seemed. Just him and the tiny boy in his arms against the entire world.
He began to unplug the wires first, taking off the cuff around his leg, the sticker around his finger, the electrodes on his tiny, still chest and on his head sparsely covered with thin tufts of blond hair. The more scientific equipment peeled away from his tiny body, the more Cor realized that this was a human baby he was holding in his arms.
A human baby, that had been encased in a glorified test tube and was currently not even breathing on his own.
That was his next point of attention. Once all the non-invasive monitoring equipment had come off, Cor began to inspect the intravenous lines inserted liberally on the small child's limbs. Fluids of different colours and consistency were running in and out of the child's arms, mostly blood that seemed to be running in a loop and returning to the small body from whence it came. Since the child's chest wasn't moving, Cor figured that his blood was being oxygenated and filtered by machines outside his body. The realization only served to make him even more uncomfortable. There even seemed to be a catheter drilled into his left femur, delivering clear fluid directly to his bone marrow.
Cor didn't even know where to begin. He was barely twenty years old and being asked to swallow the fact that this fragile infant he held in his hand had been created for life as a lab rat. It sickened him to his very core.
"Crownsguard 1, this is Crownsguard 3. Please report," Monica's voice suddenly filtered into the earpiece in Cor's left ear, snapping him out of his contemplative trance. Cor's first instinct was to push on the earpiece to hear her better, but the thought that overruled the instinct was that of the baby's safety.
He had absolutely no idea how to hold a baby with one arm.
"Crownsguard 1, please report," Monica repeated more urgently, and Cor swore, finally cradling the child awkwardly against his chest to answer.
"Crownsguard 3, I hear you loud and clear," he grunted, leaning his weight back to try and counter the fact that this boneless baby was sagging in his arms.
"What is your status?" Monica asked briskly. "Data extraction is complete here, and I am heading to Crownsguard 2 for extraction."
"I'm, uhh…" Cor faltered, dropping his hand to catch the baby when its weight completely shifted, threatening to throw its fragile neck back violently. He caught the baby right in time, letting out a breath of relief before returning to Monica. "I'm here, I'm almost done."
"Crownsguard 1, this is Crownsguard 2," Dustin butted in with a deep tone of concern. "You seem to be having trouble on your end. Do you require backup?"
"No, no, I just…" Cor groaned, glancing down at the motionless infant again. "Crownsguard 3… How do you… hold a baby with one arm?"
There was a small silence, and Cor almost wished his teammates hadn't heard that. His face was heating up with embarrassment already.
"Excuse me, Crownsguard 1, please repeat the query," Monica finally answered, sounding mildly puzzled. "I don't think I understood right."
"You did understand right, so just tell me how to hold a damn baby with one arm," Cor grunted, becoming more and more uncomfortable by the second. He judged it safe at least to tug out a few catheters delivering clear, yellow, and white fluids to the baby's arms, though he wasn't sure about the catheters containing blood.
"Uhh…" Monica hesitated for a second, but then, her professional tone snapped back into place. "For optimal mobility, put the infant's head and neck in your palm, and then tuck its body along your abdomen and side. The legs can dangle as long as the head is secure."
"Right." Easier said than done. Cor was glad they couldn't hear him grunt and huff and he switched the baby around, until he was holding him like Monica had explained. It was oddly reminiscent of a rugby ball carry.
"Crownsguard 1, is everything alright?" Dustin repeated again, sounding bewildered by all this. "I'm not sure I understand the circumstances…"
"Crownsguard 2, I am incoming hot," Cor interrupted him, unscrewing the catheter drilled into the infant's bone. He took comfort in the infant's unconscious state as he probably couldn't feel the pain either. Probably. "I'm carrying the payload, and he's going to need immediate medical attention."
"Crownsguard 1, are you extracting a baby!?" Monica exclaimed on the other end, finally tying the loops on Cor's bizarre behaviour. "Your mission was to procure yourself a weapon sample, not a baby!"
"Bear with me, Crownsguard 3," Cor grunted, finally grasping the tubes filled with blood, and gritting his teeth. This part would make or break the mission, and the infant in his arms. A quick prayer to Eos was all he could manage before he went for it. "I think this baby is the weapon."
And he tore the remaining tubing out of the infant's arms.
If Monica hadn't been nervous about the mission until now, she sure as hell was anxious now. She and Dustin were alright, and both of their missions had been successful, but Cor…
She wasn't even sure what to expect anymore.
The lack of expectations was probably what helped her soften the blow when Cor finally came into sight.
Monica was sure her mouth hung open in shock for three whole seconds as Cor appeared at the end of the hallway, Crownsguard fatigues covered in fresh blood, and arms wrapped around something small and decidedly fleshy.
He hadn't been kidding, and Monica hadn't gone mad.
"Ackers," Cor called as he approached, wary of his surroundings. The hangar they'd reconvened in had very little chance of being an ambush spot, though, so Monica didn't share his wariness to that degree. "I need medical support, now."
"What have you done, Leonis…?" Dustin groaned, immediately pulling away from his radio equipment to glance at Cor. He analyzed him critically. "That blood better not be yours."
"No." Cor stopped next to them, and they all crowded to watch him undo his grip on the small form against his chest. "It's his."
And oh, Monica's heart dropped so low, it probably saw Emperor Iedolas' conscience on the way down.
The baby was naked, covered in blood, skin stark and almost translucent in the dim light. He was bony and frail-looking, lips blue and skin a worrisome tint of grey. He didn't move, didn't twitch, didn't breathe. Puncture marks decorated his arms and legs, some old, some fresh, some still sluggishly bleeding.
"Damn it all…" Dustin grunted, and grabbed the baby. Cor let him, and stepped back. If Monica didn't know any better, she'd even venture as far as to say that the military prodigy, Cor Leonis, was shell-shocked.
Dustin quickly put his ear to the baby's still chest, and clicked his tongue.
"Heartbeat, but no breathing," he grumbled, pinching the baby's nose, and blowing a tiny puff of breath into his mouth. The baby's chest rose for the first time.
"We have to get out of here first," Monica reminded him, even as he continued to breathe for the infant. "The extraction point is still half a day's trek away, and we can't linger here any longer."
"Let him do this first," Cor grunted, fists clenched. His strong reaction took Monica aback.
"Leonis, reign your feelings in and think logically," she frowned, steeling her heart. "I know that this is a baby, and that babies make everyone emotional, but we are in the heart of enemy territory here, and our mission will not be compromised over a single infant."
"Elshett, let him do this," Cor insisted, not tearing his eyes away from the baby. Dustin had now put him down on a crate and was pumping his tiny chest with two of his fingers, breathing tiny exhales into his tiny lungs.
Tiny, tiny, tiny, small and innocent and also very much capable of compromising the entire operation.
"Ackers, cease and desist!" Monica hissed, turning to Dustin. "We cannot halt here any longer."
"Keep going, Dustin!" Cor growled almost as a direct challenge to Monica. "We can spare a minute to save him."
"Your emotions are going to get us killed, Leonis!" Monica argued, trying not to raise her tone.
What she didn't expect was for Cor to spin around and practically murder her with his cold glare, as if she'd just insulted his mother, or worse. She immediately stepped back, more out of instinct than anything else, and finally saw why people feared young, prodigal, fearless Cor Leonis.
"I'd rather die with a heart than live without one," he hissed, and Monica could not say anything to that.
As if in response to Cor, the baby finally began to move.
It began as a twitch of its small hands, and then, gurgling sounds began to rise in his throat. Dustin immediately flipped him over on his palm, and the baby half-vomited, half-coughed out some of the clear fluid in which he'd been preserved.
And then, he began to cry.
And damn it, damn it if Monica's eyes didn't well up with tears as well.
A quick glance to Cor, though, showed nothing but intense focus on his face. Despite Monica's earlier accusation, he looked nothing but mission-driven right now.
"This hangar will echo, so we'll definitely be found if we don't move in the next minute," he dictated, holding his hands out almost reflexively. Dustin seemed a bit stunned, but deposited the wriggling, screaming baby in Cor's arms anyway. "Ackers, lead the extraction."
"Askin' a bit much from me, aren't you?" Dustin shook his head in mild amusement, but complied nonetheless. He, too, seemed to be relieved by the sounds of the baby's hysteric crying. "This way. They've got floodlights in the open field, so stick close to me."
"Roger," Monica nodded, and fell into step behind Dustin.
Behind her, Cor opened his fatigues down to his skin, and slid the baby into his clothes. It seemed uncomfortable for both him and the child, but at least he was sheltered, and his cries were slightly muffled. The tightness of the clothing would also support the child's neck without Cor having to sacrifice an arm, too.
All in all, Monica began to think that their plan might just pull off without a hitch.
Of course, that was before the security alarm suddenly went off, mercifully drowning out the baby's incessant crying.
"Let's roll," Cor Leonis commanded, and though he wasn't technically leading this mission at all, Monica and Dustin immediately followed him into the dark.
II. To Be Close
"Stop your pacing, Cor. It's making me dizzy."
"I don't understand, Clarus." Cor definitely did not stop pacing in the medical wing's antechamber. "What is there to gain from making weapons of mass destruction out of children?"
"When you put it like that, even a fool could answer the question," Clarus sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Though I must admit, I… wasn't expecting this outcome."
"How's the progress on Monica's encrypted files?" Cor abruptly switched the topic, finally stopping to glance at Clarus. "Have we deciphered anything about the use for these infants?"
"Still nothing past the low-level clearance information." Clarus shook his head. "What we already know, really. That Niflheim is mass-producing genetically-engineered infants, which they then use as a base for their Magitek Troopers. How these infants go from human to MT, though, is still a mystery. The Kingsglaive's intelligence division is working day and night on cracking the encryption on high-clearance information."
"Why an infant, though?" Cor switched the topic again, beginning to pace once more to Clarus' immediate despair. "A human army has very little efficiency in comparison to a mechanical army, and Niflheim definitely has the technology and resources to mass-produce tin soldiers. So why mass-produce babies instead?"
"You know, Cor…" Clarus couldn't help but smirk at his tense demeanour and almost one-sided conversation. "Keep behaving like that and I might just think you're worried."
"Not worried. Merely curious," Cor protested a tad too vehemently. "What's Niflheim planning? Already, their rapid military expansion is worrying, but if they've come up with a new weapon, it's going to fall on us to try and counter it…"
"Relax a little bit," Clarus sighed, finally getting up from where he sat. Cor halted, watching his approach warily. "The baby is safe for now. The medical team has probably stabilized him and are probably making him comfortable as we speak. Take your mind off the mission for a little while. You just got back, and are probably still high off the adrenaline of that near-miss extraction."
"I'm perfectly fine," Cor huffed in a tone that suggested that Clarus was mad for even thinking that. "I will go see the infant now, I suppose. If they've got medical data on him, I'd like to start analyzing, try and figure out what sort of genetic modifications have been done to him."
"If you say so." The small, amused smirk didn't leave Clarus' lips, but he followed Cor into the medical wing anyway.
No sooner had they crossed the next set of doors that loud crying began to reach their ears. Cor sighed and grumbled something unintelligible, scratching his ear inelegantly with his pinky. Clarus just walked on, already used to the wailing of his three-year old son, Gladiolus, and thus unimpressed by the baby's vigorous attempts to wake the entire Citadel.
They crossed a few more sections, mostly occupied by wounded soldiers who almost unanimously had found a way to plug their ears against the baby's incredible set of lungs, before they reached the back, where the intensive care equipment was stored. Since they hadn't readily had neonatal intensive care equipment, they were all making do with the makeshift incubator they'd made out of an old laboratory set, and the best place to set up was in the intensive care sector itself.
As they got closer, the wailing got louder, and the nurses seemed to be bustling more and more. Finally, the baby came into view, and Clarus swore that Cor's steps accelerated just a little.
"Major Leonis," the doctor saluted as he approached, looking away from his clipboard. "Sir Amicitia. Welcome."
"Hello, doctor," Clarus greeted amicably, returning the salute. "How's our tiny patient doing?"
"He's stable for now," the doctor reported, looking down at his clipboard again. "We've done a few tests, but he hasn't been very cooperative, so we haven't completed the testing panels just yet. We were going to transfer him to the warmer and give him a sedative before proceeding."
"The poor thing," Clarus sighed, glancing at the baby. He seemed to be less than a year old, although his tiny frame could have given off that illusion. "How old is he, exactly?"
"So far, we've estimated that he's about eight months old. His developmental pattern is severely falling behind, though, so we might be a little bit off the mark there," the doctor answered, glancing at the wriggling child. The nurses were taking him off the monitors to transfer him to the warmer, though the baby didn't seem very enthusiastic about it either. "For a child with such visible repercussions of neglect and mistreatment, he sure has a strong pair of lungs."
"Comparable to the young Prince's?" Clarus teased, knowing that Regis' newborn son was infamous for keeping the nursemaids up all night.
"You could say," the doctor chuckled, before his expression sobered again. "But in all seriousness, Sir Amicitia… Where did this child come from? There's no easy way to say this, but… he's most definitely been abused for a long time to have lost so much weight and to have acquired so many scars. He even has a tattoo on his wrist… a barcode, if I'm not mistaken." He glanced at the baby again, frowning. "Who would commit such atrocities to such an innocent human being?"
"I'm afraid that information is classified, doctor," Cor was the one who answered, eyes riveted on the baby. The nurses, all gowned and gloved and sterile and cold, had picked him up and were holding him at arm's reach as they transferred him. "You just need to provide the best care you can for him, like your life depends on it."
"He's pushing it a little," Clarus murmured conspiratorially, though Cor didn't hear him. Instead, he stepped towards the nurses.
"Here, give him to me," he suddenly ordered, sighing as if he was about to complete the dullest chore in the world.
"Major Leonis, what…?" One of the nurses cocked her head, her expression masked by all her sterile equipment.
"He doesn't like being held like that. Just give him to me," Cor rolled his eyes, stepping closer. Hesitant, the nurse handed the baby over, and contrarily to her, Cor did not hesitate to take him in his arms, settling him snugly with one hand against his chest. With his free hand, he undid the zipper and buttons on his layered Crownsguard fatigues, until his chest was exposed.
(The nurse behind him gasped and looked away, Clarus shaking his head hopelessly at her flushed face).
"Now, let me see the clipboard," Cor continued shifting the baby so that he was entirely settled against his naked skin. He used his elbow to support the baby's buttocks, and then circled his hand up to tickle the baby's cheek with his index finger.
Everybody seemed to stop breathing, all at once, as the baby turned towards Cor's finger, and began to suck on it. Pervasive silence fell upon them, only interrupted when one of the nurses let out a very soft, almost reverent "holy shit".
"So," Cor continued as if he wasn't currently cradling and hushing the most temperamental infant the Citadel staff had seen since Noctis Lucis Caelum. He grabbed the clipboard from the doctor's limp hands and began to skim through it. "Underweight, with supportive evidence of digestive atrophy… he's probably been fed intravenously all his life. He's going to need to put on some weight first and foremost, since he's cranky when he's cold. I can see here, also, that his kidneys are damaged. I know he was getting external filtration, and external oxygenation for a long time, too, so that's no surprise."
"S-Sir," the doctor interrupted, halfway shell-shocked by Cor's actions, halfway horrified by his words. "If what you're telling me is true, then this baby is incredibly sick. He's probably going to need multiple surgeries, could require intubation, could crash at any moment… We really should transfer him to the Insomnian Children's Hospital as soon as possible."
"No." Clarus was the one who stepped in this time, shaking his head solemnly. "Like we said, this child's existence is classified. We cannot let him leave the Citadel, and we cannot let him die. So you, doctor, have the case of a lifetime on your hands right now."
"No pressure," the man sighed, adjusting his glasses nervously.
"None at all," Clarus smiled at him amicably, then looked at Cor again. He was intently reading the medical notes on the clipboard, though in his arms, the baby was still curled into his naked chest, suckling on his finger, and seemingly dozing off. He didn't even seem to notice the infant anymore. Clarus shook his head and let out a small chuckle. "If Cor Leonis can handle this child, then you will have no trouble whatsoever."
III. To Be Someone
Cor had been holding the blond baby in his arms at least ten minutes too long to make his words believable.
"Are you sure you want to send him out there, Cor?" Clarus hummed, watching Cor bounce the one-year-old in his arms as he signed the paper on the counter. "The system isn't kind to the children unlucky enough to be stuck in it."
"If it's such a problematic system, why not appeal to his Majesty for an overhaul?" Cor asked rhetorically, grunting when the baby wiggled a bit, asking for attention. "There's nothing more I can do for him, Clarus. All we can do now is send him out there and hope he lives a normal life."
"He's not a normal child, though," Clarus remarked, looking at the baby. He was chewing on his thumb quietly, bright blue eyes curiously glancing around. He had put on some weight in the several months he'd spent with them in the Citadel's intensive care, but he still looked terribly underweight as compared to Gladiolus as a baby, or to Prince Noctis. Fine blond hairs had begun to grow more densely on his head, curly and soft to touch. His skin had gained a little bit of rosiness to it, finally making him seem like the healthy infant that he, by all rights, should have been.
The only thing he still didn't have was a name.
So far, he'd been referred to by general terms ("the baby", "the boy") or... by a choice of less pleasant words ("the Nif", "the subject", "the Magitek"). Still, despite the insistence of the people around him, Cor had not yet attributed a name to the child. Clarus suspected that he was afraid of getting attached.
Seeing him handle the boy with practiced ease, though, thoroughly convinced Clarus that he was long past the stage of fear. Whether he liked it or not, he had definitely created at least some manner of bond with the baby. Not that he'd even mention it out loud to Cor's face. Provoking Cor wasn't very fun unless Regis, Cid, and Weskham were also around to laugh about it.
"Come now, Clarus," a new voice joined them, and Clarus distantly remembered that speaking of the devil usually made him appear.
"Your Majesty," Cor turned to the open door, where Regis was now leaning. Clarus noted that he was putting less weight than usual on his bad knee. It wasn't a good day, then.
"Regis," Clarus greeted with a light bow of the head. "It's uncanny how you always have the best timing."
"In truth, old friend, I was listening in for a few minutes," Regis chuckled, hobbling forward on his cane. The blond baby watched him approach, still subdued, though his eyes shone in curiosity. "I must admit I've already made a decision."
"How so?" Clarus cocked his head, truly curious. "This infant is a product of Niflheim's laboratories. We do not know what kind of programming has been done to his brain, or what sorts of enhancements have been made to his body. This could very well be a ticking time bomb that we are sending out into the community, here."
"He's a child, Clarus," Cor insisted, frowning. His hand paused over the legal documents he was signing to hand the child over to the system. "You weren't there when we found him. You didn't see him like that. Essentially preserved in a test tube… fed, oxygenated, and filtered by machines. He could be your son, or anybody else's, but instead, he was born to some maniac playing god. He deserves a chance, at the very least."
"At ease, Marshal. I agree with Clarus," Regis piped up, continuing before Cor had too much of a chance to look betrayed. "But, I also agree with you."
"That's… not usually how arguments are settled, Highness. With all due respect," Clarus crossed his arms, wondering why Regis had that enigmatic smile on his face now.
"Oh, I know that," Regis nodded, putting a hand out to pinch the baby's cheek lightly. In response, the child remained almost scarily quiet, simply observing Regis as he was prodded. Clarus had to admit that it was disturbing to see such an innocent baby behave so familiarly to manhandling. He had read the reports, but Cor had been right; he hadn't seen the nightmarish scene with his own eyes. And he had no desire to.
"Then what is your opinion on the matter?" Cor pressed, clearly getting antsy. "I'm signing him over to the Haven Orphanage, down in Middle Insomnia, without telling them anything. All I'm asking is for the staff to let us know of potential adopters so that we may have time to run a brief background check on them."
"That seems cautious enough," Regis nodded. "Of course, we'll keep an eye on the boy as he grows. Marshall, you may have the honours of picking some Crownsguard that will keep up with him periodically, if you so desire. As long as he doesn't show signs of psychological tampering, he should be fine to grow and live safely as a Lucian citizen."
"And what if he does awaken to some sort of Nif programming?" Clarus asked, ever-cautious. "How will we handle the threat from the inside? And mostly, how will we handle the international scandal of having essentially kidnapped a Nif infant on an undercover mission, implanted him as a Lucian citizen, and then contained him for potential dangers towards the Crown and her people?"
"Clarus the Wary," Regis teased, still smiling lightly. Next to him, the baby cautiously ventured to reach out and grab his beard, but only managed to rub his face. "We will deal with the political scandal if it comes to that. Admittedly, it is not the first, nor the last scandal we'd have to mediate."
"Very true," Clarus admitted in defeat. "I suppose you're right, Regis. I'm just concerned for the safety of our citizens, is all."
"Come now, Clarus." The small smile on Regis' face suddenly morphed into what could most closely be described as a shit-eating grin. It lifted decades off of Regis' tired face, and Clarus' heart skipped a beat at the sight of his lord so happy and carefree in that one moment. "This infant shan't be whipping out a gun and shooting anybody dead anytime soon, I can guarantee."
Said infant let out a small cry when Cor suddenly turned to face them, back straightened and face set with a new determination.
"Cor, are you-?" Clarus never finished.
"Prompto Argentum," he declared, out of the blue, just like that. "That'll be his name. Prompto Argentum."
"Quicksilver?" Regis seemed amused by the choice. "Like the Crownsguard-issued 9mm model inspired by Nif technology?"
"Nif in inspiration, but Lucian in creation," Cor nodded. "Intended as a weapon, but harmless without the will to bring suffering to those around it."
"You thought of that right now? Just because I teased Clarus about him wielding a gun?"
"Regis…" Clarus groaned, hopeless as faced by his friend's long-suffering humour.
"It seemed fitting. Quicksilvers are rarely issued to Crownsguard, let alone to the general population, so it's unlikely that anyone will make the association to his namesake." Cor re-adjusted the baby at his hip. "The root of the name is Lucian, and even though the last name is uncommon, the given name is a variant of a popular one. It will most definitely pass under the radar. All we have to do is stress that his codeprint tattoo be kept covered, and he will pass as any regular baby would."
"Admirable, Cor," Regis approved, eyes twinkling with delight. "I must admit, it warms my heart to see you take an interest in the boy. Prompto. Are you certain you did not want to father him? You're already holding him like he's your own, I notice."
Leave it to the King of Lucis to point out safely what Clarus couldn't point out as safely. Admittedly, he enjoyed the look of shock that ran across Cor's face, as if he'd never even considered the idea in the first place.
"I'm no father," Cor frowned, glancing briefly at Prompto. Almost as if on a second thought, he pulled him a bit further away from his chest. "I'm a soldier above all else. Raising children is not my calling."
"If you say so," Regis hummed in a tone that suggested that he didn't believe him fully. "Alright now, enough chit-chat. You may not be a father, but I am, and I do want to go spend a few minutes with Noctis before my budget meeting. Clarus, I'm sure you'll want to do the same with Gladio, as we'll most certainly be convening for the rest of the day."
"Right." Despite the conversation's light atmosphere, the thought of Prompto having been born as a lab rat had left a bitter taste on Clarus' tongue. Seeing his own child safe, healthy, and happy would surely help soothe his aching heart before he returned to business. "Then I will vacate to that and join you in the meeting hall, Your Majesty."
"Very well," Regis nodded, turning to Cor then. "And as for you, Marshal, I do wish you all the best."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Cor nodded, bowing his head lightly. Prompto let out a small noise of confusion as he was lowered, too.
When Cor lifted his gaze, the King was already striding towards the door, his gait steady despite the clear favouring of one side over the other. Cor remained silent, watching him reach the door.
"Cor Leonis," the King suddenly spoke again, making Cor perk up at the call of his full name. Regis very rarely called him as such. "Your heart is in the right place. Go forth with that certainty in mind."
"Thank you, Highness." Cor's mouth suddenly felt dry, and he watched King Regis leave without another word. He wasn't sure what he'd meant by that, but he felt the King's words shake him deeply to his core.
His eyes were drawn to Prompto again, not because he'd reacted, but because Cor felt compelled to. At the same time, Prompto looked up, holding eye contact with his wide, bright blue eyes. A strange emotion welled up in Cor's heart, unlike any he'd ever felt before. To avoid analyzing it, he turned to his papers yet again.
"Prompto Argentum," he whispered under his breath, writing down the baby's full name on the registration form carefully. It felt right on Cor's tongue and under his fingers. "You're here, and you're in the right place."
He hesitated for one more second, and then signed his name to complete the release.
"Go forth with that certainty in mind," he repeated in a whisper, and as if in understanding, Prompto leaned into his side, and balled his tiny fists into his shirt.
IV. To Be Loved
It was at least two hours too late for the young boy to be wandering the streets of Insomnia, and yet, here he was, jogging. With the moon and stars hanging overhead. And a single flickering street lamp providing him with poor guidance towards his home.
When Cor had been told offhandedly by the Crownsguard Intelligence that the Niflheim child had changed up his routine drastically all of a sudden one day, he figured that it was worth looking into. Perhaps after over a decade, some sort of military programming had awakened in his brain, or some sort of deep-hidden instinct had taken over. If the boy was up to anything suspicious, it was Cor's responsibility to find out.
Not that anything suspicious was going on currently, except for the ungodly amounts of motivation the kid had to be out running in the dead of night like this. It was senseless, not to mention dangerous. Somebody could park their black sedan around a corner and roll down their tinted windows to watch Prompto Argentum jog, clueless. They could silently follow him around, making sure never to be seen, and could try to come close enough to grab him, should anything ever happen.
And although Cor was currently doing all of those things at the same time, he only had Prompto's best interests at heart, and that made the late-night stalking okay. No better way to intercept a stalker than to be a stalker.
Prompto jogged a little more, and then abruptly turned down a dark alley, disappearing from Cor's view. The latter swore, switching gear on his car to follow, although soon found that the alley was too narrow to allow a car to pass through. He'd just have to go around and wait for Prompto on the other end.
Indeed, he did just that, and parked his car near the exit of the alleyway into the parallel street, turning off his headlights. It only struck him how creepy his actions actually were when Prompto failed to emerge from the alley after a few minutes. Perhaps he was simply catching his breath.
Another minute passed, and still, no sign of Prompto. By now, Cor's finely-honed instincts were telling him that something was wrong, and so, heeding the warning, he got out of his car. His katana was in the back seat, and he elected not to carry it, for if Prompto had been accosted by some common thugs, he wouldn't even need it.
He silently hurried towards the alley.
To his surprise, it was completely empty, except for a cat that turned to glower at him, the fires of hell reflecting in its eyes in the dim lamp light.
"Get out of here," he grunted at the cat, taking a few steps towards it. It seemed nonplussed, if cats had enough cognitive function to express such complex emotion, and stood its ground.
However, Cor was mildly thrown back when an inconspicuous-looking bush began to rustle at his words, and instead of another cat, a chubby blond teenager stumbled out.
The only thing that stumbled faster than his pudgy little limbs were his frantic words.
"I-I'm sorry! I don't know what you want from me!" Prompto began immediately, shaking in his worn-down running shoes. "I don't have any m-money on me, a-and I'm nobody important, s-so please… please let me go!"
"I don't want anything from you, Prompto," Cor sighed, rolling his eyes, although that only served to draw another terrified squeak from the young boy.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I don't have anything worth anything on me! Please stop following me!" he shielded his face behind his arms when Cor approached him. "Please don't hurt me!"
"I'm not gonna hurt you," Cor grunted, stopping in his steps at that. The kid's behaviour was really concerning, for one. Secondly, he wasn't sure what to say to calm him down. The young boy seemed to be on the verge of tears. Cor never was all that great at parenting. "Calm down, Prompto."
"How do you know my name?" Prompto asked just as frantically as before, if not more. Cor was beginning to get a headache. He wondered if he should just grab Prompto's arm and shove him into the car, and then explain on the way home.
Somehow, that felt like it'd make everything worse. Tenfold.
"I, uhh… We've met before," Cor made up quickly, although Prompto's narrowed eyes saw right through his lie.
"I don't remember anyone like you," he frowned, and shifted his weight on his feet. Cor recognized the stance. Prompto was about to give himself a jump start to run away. And Cor would be able to catch him in three seconds and a half, although he had a feeling that catching a boy on the run from a would-be kidnapper would only add fuel to the fire.
He had to stop him now, before he bolted.
"I only saw you when you were very young," Cor half-lied. "I'm, uhh… your social worker," he full-on lied.
That seemed to take Prompto aback. His stance relaxed.
"I have… a social worker?" he frowned deeper, confused. "I was never told."
"I've never had to intervene before." Cor decided to just roll with his lie.
"So… you're following me in a suspicious-looking car in the middle of the night and cornering me into an alley because you care all of a sudden?" Prompto huffed. Cor had to give him credit- not many people would have been able to tell that they were being followed. "Excuse me, but I don't think I believe that."
He shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet. The other end of the alley was wide open a couple dozen feet behind him.
Cor began to regret his late-night adventure.
"Wait, Prompto Argentum," he called, just as Prompto tried to take his running start. That got him to stop, at least long enough for Cor to rattle off whatever he could to defuse the situation. "You were adopted when you were one year-old by a Lucian couple unable to have their own children. Your mother is a medical doctor, and your father is a travelling businessman. You go to middle school, and you are in the same class as Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum. You're originally from Niflheim, and you've got a codeprint tattoo under your wristband there, and you don't know what it means, just that you need to keep it covered at all times."
That seemed to convince Prompto, if not terrify him just a little bit.
"Either you're a very dedicated stalker, or you really are my social worker," he let out a nervous laugh, fiddling with his wristband. "Nobody knows about this except my parents. I only ever take off the band in the shower."
He suddenly looked up in panic.
"Wait a minute… have you been watching me shower!?"
"No!" Cor balked, thrown aback by the accusation. "No, why would I- I mean, that's just… No, I haven't. For Bahamut's sake, why would I watch a little boy shower!?"
"Don't defend yourself so much, it's weird," Prompto groaned, hiding his embarrassment behind his hands. "What do you want, then, if it's not the money that I clearly don't have?"
"I want you not to go out so late at night," Cor admonished. "Next time, it won't be me waiting for you in an alley, but some thugs who won't hesitate to kick your butt."
"Well, I could use the workout…" Prompto mumbled in a tone that made it sound like it was only partly a joke.
"What?" Cord frowned, trying to understand. "What do you…?"
"I have to work out," Prompto interrupted, not meeting his eyes. "I have to lose weight, any way I can. I have to become healthier and slimmer. That's why I'm out running. I have school in the day, and I work in the evening, so I only get to go running after dinner and homework. It's usually pretty late."
There were so many things wrong with his monologue that Cor didn't even know where to begin. He wasn't made to talk to people, much less to talk to kids. Even less to talk to kids about sensitive subjects like this.
Cor suddenly wished that Clarus, the ultimate dad, could be here to save his sorry ass.
But without Clarus to count on, he did what he did best, and totally ignored the implications of the troubling conversation.
"Come on, kid," he sighed, slipping his hands into his pockets casually. "You're done for tonight. I'll give you a ride home."
Prompto hesitated a moment longer, but then, fidgeting with his wristband, nodded. Cor turned to leave without another word, trusting that Prompto would fall into step behind him.
They walked to the car quickly, a chilly wind rustling through the trees lining the street. Cor unlocked the car, and Prompto slipped into the back seat, glancing uncomfortably at Cor through the rearview mirror.
"Are you buckled up?" Cor asked simply before he began to drive, Prompto nodding quietly.
Most of the ride was done in silence. Cor didn't mind. Prompto certainly seemed to, however, with the way he couldn't seem to sit still. He kept glancing around him, and then at Cor. The quiet streets of a sleeping Insomnia cycled on outside the tinted windows.
"Mr. Social Worker?" Prompto finally squeaked as they turned down his street.
"What is it, runt?" Cor sighed, glancing furtively into the rearview to see Prompto lowering his head, as if ashamed.
"I, uhh… Thank you. For the ride."
"Sure. Just don't go out late anymore."
Silence again. Cor relished in it until he pulled over and switched the ignition off. Prompto undid his belt.
"Here I go, I guess." For some reason, he seemed quieter now, more subdued. Almost sad.
Cor wondered if he'd done something wrong.
Prompto stepped outside, although his hand didn't quite leave the door just yet. That drew Cor's attention, and he twisted in his seat to make eye contact with the young boy.
"Umm… Mr. Social Worker?" he finally asked, lifting his downcast gaze at Cor pleadingly. "What's your name, anyway?"
Oh. Oh, Cor hadn't thought of that. And now, Prompto was looking at him expectantly, and his mind went blank.
"Uhh… it's Leon. Leon… Coronis." Shit. That was a terrible cover.
"Okay, Mr. Coronis." Prompto didn't seem to think any less of it. "Umm… would you like to… would you like to come up for some tea, or something…?"
And Cor pursed his lips together, readying himself to decline, when Prompto spoke again.
"It's just that… my parents haven't been home for a few weeks, and I don't drink a lot of tea by myself, so… I guess it would be nice to talk to you a little more over tea?"
And Cor's fingers had undone the seatbelt clasp before he even spoke. Once again, his instincts prevailed over his rationale. He simultaneously hated himself for it, and loved himself for it, especially since Prompto's expression seemed to light up a thousand watts when he made a move to get out of the car.
"Alright. Just one cup."
Three cups of tea later, Prompto had fallen asleep on the dusty couch, head pillowed on the armrest. Empty bowls of several-day-old leftovers left prints in the dust on the coffee table where they'd sat to eat, the environment seemingly undisturbed by anything before Prompto invited Cor to the living room.
Cor had managed to evade most of the questioning, and had gotten Prompto to do most of the talking. It actually seemed to do the lonely kid some good to talk to someone, and Cor wondered if he had friends at school. None good enough to mention, apparently, since Prompto's stories never involved anybody else in them.
Cor knew loneliness when he saw it in someone's eyes. Prompto was no exception to the rule. Practically abandoned once again, he seemed to be pulling through for a child lugging too many burdens around, but Cor really wished he didn't have to exhaust himself in the process.
Still, it was good to see him sleep, a soft smile spread on his face. Cor stood up, draping a nearby quilt over Prompto's small body, flinching back when Prompto cuddled into it with a satisfied whine. Once he made sure that he was still asleep, he took the bowls to the kitchen, and quickly washed them. As he put away the containers of leftover leftovers, he also figured he should leave the kid some money, considering that his parents were out of town, and he was apparently (illegally) working a part-time job to keep himself fed.
He wasn't sure what to feel about the entire situation, although anger definitely was a part of it. Instead of externalizing it, he slipped a few hundred-gil bills on the countertop, and then switched off the lights.
Glancing at Prompto's freckled face, bathed in moonlight, he made his way to the front door. The child was deeply asleep, relaxed and carefree just this once. The happy-go-lucky look suited him. Cor silently wished him luck in his fitness endeavors, for whatever reasons he was pursuing them. He'd been adamant not to share the motivation behind his intensive dieting and exercise regimen despite everything else he blabbered about.
Cor finally switched off the lights in the passage, and opened the door. He took one last, long glance at Prompto's serene expression, and then closed the door behind him, making sure the click of the spring lock clicking into place was heard before turning to leave.
Only halfway down the stairs did he realize that he'd forgotten to clean up the mugs of tea they'd both left to chill on the coffee table.
Still, something told Cor that Prompto wouldn't mind.
Cor felt like he'd done well to stay tonight.
V. To Be Protected
Prompto befriending Prince Noctis was not something that Cor saw coming. He wondered if it was coincidence, or some sort of ploy from the gods. Perhaps the Astrals found it funny to throw the MT boy into the Lucian prince's life, to see who between them would break first.
(Cor didn't believe in destiny or a predetermined fate, but even he had to admit that it could've been that, too. The coincidence was much too uncanny not to be).
Now, if there was something that Cor really didn't see coming, it was Prince Noctis' request for Prompto Argentum, a common-born, awkward, shy young man, to become part of his Crownsguard.
Thankfully, Cor heard of it from Clarus, who'd heard of it from Regis, to whom Noctis had gone first and foremost about the request. That was good for Cor, at least. It meant that Noctis had been lectured twice already from adults before him, and probably once more from Ignis, his advisor-in-training. Which meant that by the time he got to Cor, all it took was a stone-set expression and crossing his arms for Noctis to understand.
"Whatever you've got to say to me, Marshal, I've already heard it," Prince Noctis grunted, crossing his arms as well in a show of defiance. "But Prompto is here now, and my father gave it a tentative yes, so could you please just help him get started with the next batch of Crownsguard trainees?"
"I have nothing to say to you, Prince Noctis," Cor muffled his amusement under a stern expression. "However, to your friend, I must warn that becoming Crownsguard is a very demanding. Even after training ends, Crownsguard have responsibilities they must rigorously uphold, and that, until they die in the name of the Crown."
"Prompto knows that already." Noctis turned to the blond boy standing a few steps behind him. "Don't you, Prom?"
Cor also turned his attention to the young man, who seemed to shrink a bit under their combined gazes. He wouldn't keep eye contact with either of them and twiddled with his fingers nervous, and at that moment, Cor found himself doubting that he could ever be a good Crownsguard. He'd seen Prompto grow up from the tiny infant, to the chubby child, to the lean young man he'd become, but throughout all the major physical changes, his withdrawn and reserved personality had stayed constant. The air of insecurity around him still remained. And Cor didn't know if he could make a warrior out of somebody who didn't believe in his own ability.
Still, he had to try. Not only for Prince Noctis, but also for the young man he'd watched grow up like a guardian angel. This could be one more gift he gave to him.
"Alright." Still, he would not go easy on him. "Stand straight, recruit," he barked, unamused when Prompto snapped straight with his spine rigid in nervousness. "I'll train you with the other trainees, but know that I will not go easy on you simply because you are the Prince's friend."
"Sir, yes sir!" Prompto answered, his voice a tad too high-pitched to pass off as casual. "I wouldn't ask you to, anyway. Uhh… sir."
And when he finally made eye contact with Cor, the latter saw the fire of determination burning in his eyes.
Perhaps he could make a good Crownsguard out of him yet.
Next to them, Noctis was silently, but very obviously, smirking in a smug show of victory.
For all the willingness he had, though, Prompto wasn't very good. Cor noticed that he wasn't as talented as the others during weapon training, and that he fell behind on drills. Every loss seemed to knock him back three victories, and his only redeeming quality was his unrelenting perseverance.
(Perseverance would only get him so far, though. Cor couldn't keep training a lost cause, as much as it hurt to admit).
Still, there was a bright side to Prompto's incompetence, one that Cor personally considered a victory above all else; Prompto's inability to do anything remotely military proved once and for all that he was no threat to the Crown. And, best of all, he would be no threat to himself, despite his dark heritage. Perhaps Nif-made infants weren't altered from too early on to become MTs, then. Despite the information on the Magitek program that slowly trickled its way through the Crownsguard Intelligence department throughout the years, the nature of Niflheim's army was still poorly understood.
All that concerned Cor, though, was the fact that he'd made the right choice in bringing this kid here, to safety, to a life to be lived.
Although as he watched him struggle to deflect blows from his sparring partner, he figured he may reconsider the bit about safety. The impressive amount of bruises he'd been showcasing on his scrawny body were a testament to that. He probably should step in before he-
"Argentum, you're out," Cor stifled a groan, watching Prompto pushed himself up on his knees from where he'd fallen to the sand-covered floor. He had dropped his sparring sword, instead clutching his face where his opponent's sword had smacked a red line across his cheekbone. Had it been a real blade, half of Prompto's head would have been missing. Instead, all he had was a bloody nose.
"I can go again!" Prompto insisted, stepping up and picking up his sword. Blood dripped off his face, and he didn't seem to care, the sand underneath his feet clumping darkly with every drop.
"Stand down, I said," Cor frowned, watching Prompto's determined expression tumble right off his face. He looked sad now.
"Yes sir." He clutched his bloody nose, pinching the bridge to staunch the flow. He shuffled his way out of the ring, and onto the warmup bench, tilting his head up.
"Next set!" Cor ordered, the two new trainees jumped into the ring, circling each other. Cor recognized them as being pretty proficient, so he took his eyes off of them, and towards Prompto again.
He'd promised himself he wouldn't treat Prompto any differently from the others, but… it seemed like he'd get nowhere by not treating him differently, either.
Prompto looked up at him, blood still flowing through his fingers. His eyes were glassy, eyelids a faint, tell-tale red.
"Yes sir?" he asked in a voice that was just a notch below leveled.
"Follow me. Now," Cor ordered as harshly as he could, watching the other Crownsguard trainees turn their eyes away, intimidated. They probably thought he was about rip him a new one.
Prompto probably thought it, too, seeing as all the blood drained from his face in an instant. Except his nose, of course.
"Yes, sir…" he mumbled sadly, trailing after him into the adjacent hallway.
Thankfully, they found themselves alone in it, one of the open windows shifting the stale air of the hallway and blowing Prompto's stupid little fringe around as he walked. The sounds of sparring nearby were muffled by the grey brick walls.
As soon as Cor stopped, Prompto also stopped. When Cor turned to glance at him, silent tears were dripping down his cheeks.
"I'm sorry, sir." His voice shook only a little, as if he'd had plenty of practice hiding his sadness before. Cor's heart didn't tug, per se, but… he certainly didn't enjoy seeing him like this. "I know, I'm letting you down. You gave me a chance and I… I'm not living up to your expectations." His shoulders shook slightly. "I'm very sorry. I understand if you don't want me here anymore. I can… I can tell Noct, he'll understand… if I'm not good enough."
Cor didn't like to give his pity to people. He felt like it was disrespectful. And yet, with Prompto looking like a kicked puppy, he couldn't help it. He walked up to the kid, who flinched and whimpered when he reached out, and stiffened when Cor pinched the bridge of his nose, and tilted his head down.
"S-Sir?" he asked, clearly confused. "W-What…?"
"Tilt your head down to evacuate the blood, otherwise it'll go down your throat," Cor simply answered.
"No, I mean… why are you helping someone like me?" Prompto took over, and Cor stepped back, only to encounter the pathetic sight of Prompto's bloody, tear-stained face. "You don't have to go out of your way because I'm Noct's friend. I know I'm not worthy of being Crownsguard, so you don't have to treat me any differently. Umm… sir."
"Stand up straight, Argentum," Cor clicked his tongue disapprovingly. Prompto did so immediately, barely holding back new tears. "I'm not treating you special because Prince Noctis requested you. I'm not treating you any differently than I would another trainee that I see struggling."
Prompto's eyes widened. His hand fell away from his face, but no new blood came from his nose. He seemed a bit shell-shocked.
"As an instructor, my job is to push trainees until each and every one of them discovers their hidden potential," Cor explained, crossing his arms sternly. "The Crownsguard are soldiers who are tasked with the protection of the Crown- including its people. Anybody deemed unable to uphold their responsibilities will be left out, but those who make it in- those are the ones with skills and a spirit worth building up. Now, you are one of them, one of the people who are going to be the backbone of this country and Crown. So, stand up straight, recruit."
Prompto shot up into a salute, face still bloodied, eyes still glassy, but for an entirely different reason now. He looked like new life had been breathed into him. Cor didn't fancy himself a man of many words, but Prompto… Prompto was something else to him, and Cor still wanted the best for him, after all these years.
"We'll make Crownsguard out of you yet," he encouraged gruffly. "Give up and you lose every chance you still have of making it."
"Sir, yes sir!" Prompto crowed out, saluting with newfound excitement. When Cor nodded, he broke out into a grin, and ran off towards the training hall again. Cor hoped he remembered to wipe the dried blood off his face.
Sighing, he followed. Despite having conviction in his voice, he didn't have as much conviction in his words. He really hoped Prompto pulled through.
It turned out that Prompto was different, after all. He needed more investment, more risk-taking, and more time, but in the end, he would yield a bountiful result.
Cor found it out the hard way on the day they did foreign weapon training.
"It is reckless to assume that you won't encounter a weapon during your service simply because it does not originate from Lucis."
Cor was not in charge of giving the course, never had been, but he enjoyed attending it with every new batch of recruits because there always seemed to be some new weapon to showcase. Also, because the recruits never really got the hang of these weapons and always ended up smacking each other in the face with them.
"Our foremost enemy is Niflheim, so this course will mainly cover the use of their weaponry. Towards the end, we'll be looking at some specific weapons from Accordo, such as harpoons, and from Tenebrae, notably their war fans," the instructor explained. Behind him, his assistants were unpacking crates of modified foreign weapons for the trainees to try out and fiddle with.
The trainees were then split up into several groups, and, coincidentally, just by coincidence, and entirely by coincidence, Cor ended up trailing after Prompto's group. An assistant was leading the group of trainees towards a shooting range set up in the back of the courtyard, where other assistants were loading several types of guns.
"We'll be rotating first through the firearms station," the assistant explained to the trainees as they approached, grabbing the first firearm on the lined-up crates. Cor recognized it as an assault rifle. Escort MTs usually carried one of those. "Here, we'll be handling a few models of guns we've retrieved from Niflheim's forces. We'll be using them in a shooting range, and then, support staff who is trained to wield guns will be matched with you in one-on-one combat so that you can all experience combat with a long-range weapon user."
"Sir, yes sir!"
Cor stood back as the trainees lined up to receive a weapon, and then picked a spot in the firing range. They all seemed a bit thrown off by the feel of Nif technology in their hands, but Cor agreed that this was an essential exercise for any Crownsguard who ever left Insomnia. MTs flew around regularly outside the safety of the New Wall, and being familiar with the enemy was usually considered to be a good tactic for staying alive.
The instructor led the trainees through a few sets of easy drills, teaching them basic gun safety, which was pretty boring for Cor. He instead turned his attention to the trainees nearby who were experimenting with machinery, the bizarre hybrid saw-generator-weapon-thing that the heavier units carried around. Thankfully, it wasn't encountered as often, and Cor could testify from his only encounter with one that it was a pain in the ass to counter. The trainees were figuring that out by themselves, hilariously losing balance on the heavy weapon and smacking each other with it.
Cor loved this bit.
Shots began to ring out behind him, and he turned his eyes back to his group, who were now firing. Everybody seemed to be doing alright hitting the paper targets, some more than others, but Cor's eyes coincidentally went to Prompto.
He was nailing every single shot.
Something cold rolled down Cor's neck, and he quickly recognized it as a nervous sweat. He never got nervous, though. So why now?
There was something off-putting about Prompto. His shoulders were squared and his grip relaxed, eyes focused as if he'd wielded a gun his entire life. The blowback from the handgun he'd been given didn't even seem to bother him, and he fired shot, after shot, after shot without his aim suffering.
Cor would have stepped in if the instructor didn't get to Prompto first.
"Wow, recruit. You've got some aim there," he complimented, and Prompto finally put down his gun to glance at him. The skittish look had returned to his face, nothing like the pokerface he'd worn just moments ago.
"Oh, uhh, thank you!" he chuckled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess those arcade games paid off after all."
"Well, it takes talent to wield like you do. Keep it up," the instructor clapped him on the shoulder and left, leaving Prompto to sputter out his gratitude. When he recovered, he took a deep breath as if to calm himself, and then turned back to the range.
Cor almost choked when the cold expression of focus slipped effortlessly back on his face, and he drew his gun, firing a shot that ripped his mannequin's head apart. Cor didn't know if he was just seeing according to his confirmation bias, as nobody else around Prompto seemed to be reacting to his strange behaviour. Even his fellow trainees, who knew him as the talentless awkward kid, didn't comment. Prompto paid attention to no one, shooting like he was born to shoot, and reloading his clip like it was an instinct rather than a skill.
It probably all was. And Cor was beginning to see it unravel in front of his eyes.
His curiosity overruled all, though, and he kept watching. His eyes never left Prompto, who didn't even seem to realize that he was being observed, lost in his world of bullets and noise.
The most interesting development came, however, in the one-on-one. Cor watched as the trainees went up against Crownsguard instructors who were specially trained with firearms, and watched them struggle against the instructor. The guns were loaded with plastic pellets for the exercise, of course, but Cor knew how much those damn things could hurt. The trainees did well to avoid getting shot despite being aware of the plastic projectiles.
The first few men did pretty well. It took them a while, but each of them got close enough to the instructor to either corner him, or disarm him. The only thing that scored the exercise as less-than-flawless was the fact that they got hit by a few bullets each. Nothing major, but still, Cor knew that they were as good as dead on an actual battlefield.
And then, Prompto came up. Cor's back straightened as he watched him enter the ring shakily, clutching the training sword tightly. He seemed to be way out of his league, nothing like the stone-faced man who'd been killing the exercise prior.
"Trainee Argentum," the instructor grading him called out, and Cor saw Prompto flinch. "You have five minutes to gain the upper hand on instructor Andras. Stay within the boundaries of the ring." He put up a handgun into the air. Cor saw Prompto's eyes grow wide.
And then, the shot signalling the beginning of the timer rang out, and Cor saw the exact moment where Prompto's wide eyes glossed over and narrowed.
His throat locked up as he tried to call out to him, and so he watched in silence, entranced.
The first shot from Andras was a warning shot that kicked up sand at Prompto's feet. He always began as such so that the trainees felt like they had to move. And, of course, Prompto did move. He jumped back, away from the bullet, and then sprang forward in the blink of an eye.
A ripple of excitement rolled across the crowd of trainees surrounding the ring, amongst whom Prompto had come to be known as the incompetent one. They seemed to be interested in his sudden display of skill, without asking themselves any questions beyond that. Of course, they wouldn't know to ask. Only Cor knew the dark secrets behind Prompto's innocent facade.
Prompto charged at Andras rather recklessly, one-track minded. Andras shot a few more times to halt his advance, but Prompto expertly dodged the projectiles, to the right, ducking to the left, and then jumping forward into a roll that brought him by Andras' feet. He kicked his leg out to try and trip the instructor, who jumped back to avoid it, and fired at Prompto to catch him off guard during his recovery.
Prompto recovered incredibly well, though, twisting out of the way to avoid the bullet, and using his free hand to give himself a boost up to his feet. At the next shot, he raised his training blade, and Cor's eyes actually widened in surprise for a second when Prompto judged the aim accurately enough to block the bullet with his blade. He did the same thing for the next few shots, advancing towards Andras, who was taking steps back as he shot. He seemed to be getting nervous. In fact, the entire crowd watching the duel had fallen into an uncomfortable silence, probably now realizing that something wasn't quite right.
Cor really felt like he should step in, but his curiosity got the best of him.
Blocking the barrage of bullets, Prompto got close enough to swing his sword at Andras' head, and the instructor raised his rifle to parry the swing. They struggled in a locked battle, before Prompto put his hand on the rifle to try and disarm Andras. That prompted the man to shoot again, despite being at point blank, although the crowd released a collectively held breath when Prompto moved his head to avoid getting injured. At point blank range, even plastic pellets would've injured him badly.
The struggle for the gun shifted down to waist level, although Andras' finger on the trigger kept blowing up plumes of sandy dust in a semi-circle around Prompto as the two wrestled. Prompto's steeled expression never changed, never faltered, even as he played such a dangerous game. His hands were busy, one with a sword, and the other on the gun, but he still didn't hesitate to keep fighting.
Cor had to admit he was impressed when Prompto suddenly headbutted Andras, the instructor's nose cracking audibly in contact with his skull. He cried out, but Prompto kept going, finally releasing his sword from its lock with the gun to bring the hilt across Andras' face. Another smack was heard as the heavy wood hit skin, and Prompto used the momentum of his swing to anchor his hands on the ground, and roundhouse kick his instructor across the chest.
There was another cry of pain and a thud as Andras' body hit the ground, his gun kicked up into the air by Prompto's powerful move. He was pinned to the ground by Prompto's boot square in his chest, none-too-gently pressing on his sternum. The sound of clinking metal broke the sudden hush that blanketed the trainees when the gun fell into Prompto's awaiting hands, where he expertly checked the clip for ammunition, and then, pointed the fully loaded gun at Andras' head.
His finger left the trigger guard and slipped towards the trigger, and Cor realized that this entire time, Prompto had not blinked.
He wasn't going to stop.
"Prompto!" he finally called out, as loudly as he could. All heads in the crowd turned to him, with nearby groups of trainees even turning at the sound of his thunderous voice. Prompto did not look, though, although his finger hovered uncertainly over the trigger. "Prompto Argentum, stand down!"
The trembling finger suddenly fell away, and Prompto finally blinked. Cor let out a breath he didn't even realize he'd been holding.
"M-Marshal?" he asked, turning to Cor, and then realizing what position he was in. He blanched immediately, eyes going wide, and almost dropped the gun. "Oh gods… What the hell…?" He stepped off his instructor, who still lied on his back in the dust, his crooked nose gushing blood, and knelt next to him. "Instructor Andras, w-what…!?"
"What the hell was that, Argentum?" Andras grunted, gingerly touching his broken nose with a gasp of pain, and then rubbing his head where Prompto had clubbed him. "Fought like a demon possessed ya all of a sudden."
"I-I don't…" Cor could see that Prompto was getting increasingly uncomfortable as the seconds ticked by, the whispers of combined awe and revulsion beginning to pervade the air. All eyes were on the kid, who looked like he was about to get eaten by a pack of wolves, and Cor knew that one way or another, Prompto was about to break.
"Argentum, get over here," he grunted, drawing the attention off of Prompto and towards him. Past the initial look of terror on Prompto's face, there was a bit of gratitude. "Move it!"
"Y-Yes sir!" Prompto let out a really loud high-pitched squeak, and scrambled to his feet towards the Marshal. Cor didn't wait for him to get there, simply stalked off, trusting him to follow. The whispers and the eyes followed their retreating backs.
Cor led Prompto into the adjacent hallway, isolating them far enough from the other trainees so that they would not risk being overheard. Cor had a moment of déjà-vu, vaguely reminded that they'd been in the very same position not too long ago. In the relative silence, Cor could hear Prompto's shaky breathing, and distinctively heard his breath hitch when he finally stopped their advance.
As soon as he did, Prompto began to speak.
"M-Marshal, I'm sorry, I don't… I don't understand… I didn't hurt Instructor Andras on purpose! I didn't mean to-"
"Argentum," Cor interrupted his anxious rambling, watching his every move. His body language spoke nothing of the hardened, conditioned soldier who had almost killed his instructor in a training exercise. "Stop talking."
Prompto did, looking like he was about to cry.
Cor simply scrutinized his body language, trying to understand how in hell this pathetic-looking child could become a fierce and merciless fighter in the blink of an eye. From what he understood, Prompto himself was not conscious of the change. That could be dangerous.
He understood one thing, though, and it was perhaps the most enlightening and worrisome piece of information yet; Prompto seemed to react to the use of firearms. Whether firearms were some sort of visual or auditory trigger, or he had the motions ingrained in his DNA, Prompto had handled himself in a gunfight on a level that exceeded even the professionals.
He could not be left without supervision anymore, not when it had become clear that some sort of conditioning had been done to him in Niflheim after all.
Still, despite the scary implications of what Cor had witnessed today, he couldn't help but admit that Prompto's skill was unmatched. He himself would probably be unable to out-gun Prompto, especially since he was more of a blade wielder himself. This was the potential that Cor had mentioned- perhaps discovered in unideal circumstances, but discovered nonetheless. This kid- this Crownsguard soldier- had incredible potential, and it was Cor's duty to nurture that potential until it bloomed and made him invincible.
"Argentum," he started again, watching Prompto square his shoulders nervously. He at least made an effort to look into Cor's eyes, lips pressed into a thin, wobbling line, like he was struggling to keep a straight face.
"From today onward, you are relieved of your regular training sessions with the Crownsguard," Cor began, but he never finished.
Prompto burst into tears.
Cor hadn't been expecting that. He wasn't quite sure why this kid was crying, and so loudly at that, and he wondered if he'd said anything wrong.
"P-Please, Marshal!" Prompto sobbed out, tears dragging clear paths through the dirt smudging his cheeks. "Please, please give me another chance! I promise, I didn't mean to hurt Instructor Andras, I really don't know what happened out there!"
"Argentum, I wasn't going to-" Cor realized the mistake he'd made in wording his sentence, and sighed, especially since a loud sob interrupted his attempt to correct himself.
"I don't know what's going on with me," Prompto continued. "It's happened a few times, but never like this. I've never forgotten what I'd been doing like this."
Now that sounded interesting, and frighteningly so.
"What do you mean by that?" Cor took a step closer to Prompto, forcing the young man back slightly. When he didn't reply, Cor gripped his chin, not unkindly but firmly, so that they had eye contact. "Prompto Argentum, what are you talking about?"
"P-Please don't tell the health services," Prompto whimpered, drying his tears and shaking his face free from Cor's grip. "I… I haven't told them because I was afraid they'd put me on mental health leave… and I'm already so far behind, I can't afford to miss more training-"
"Answer the question, Argentum. What do you mean when you imply that you've had these trances before?" Cor pressed on, frowning. The more Prompto spoke, the more doubt and the more fear crept into Cor's heart.
He didn't want to have to tell on Prompto, the child he'd rescued and watched over for almost two decades, but his duty to the Crown came before his personal feelings.
"They happen when I'm tired and wrung out," Prompto began in a lower voice, wiping the last of his tears away. "It's the first time it's happened in broad daylight like this. Usually, it's when training extends into the night, or when I go train by myself after hours. I get… I get this weird feeling in my head. Almost like…" he struggled to describe the phenomenon. "A blanket. Or water. Or glass? Or maybe plastic wrap…"
"On with it."
"Anyway, it feels like something falls over my brain, and I…" Prompto hesitated, looking away. "It's like this isn't my body anymore. It feels like… it's someone else's, and I'm just seeing through their eyes."
"Does this other person make you do things against your will?" Cor asked, deadly serious now. What Prompto was describing could have been considered a form of dissociation, but in his specific case, sounded much more like a threat.
"Not really." Prompto shrugged. "I want to fight and I want to become stronger, and when these… trance-things happen, I keep on training. It's just… it's like I'm not really controlling myself anymore."
"Do you ever lose time when you go into these trances?" Cor pressed on.
"Not all the time," Prompto answered hesitantly. "This is the first time I've forgotten everything and that I've done stuff without realizing it. I usually just drift off a bit, and my recollection becomes fuzzy. Plus, they never usually last this long. A couple of minutes at best." He fidgeted with his hands, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "Marshal… I don't know why this is happening. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry for something that isn't your fault," Cor sighed, rubbing his face down tiredly. "I'll have to report this to the higher ups, unfortunately." By which, he meant that he was about to have a long talk with Regis and Clarus, which he already foresaw as tedious. "However, as I was about to offer before you cut me off with your crying, I would like to keep you in a separate training group from your fellow Crownsguard trainees."
"I-I'm sorry?" Prompto's eyes widened. "I'm not being dismissed?"
"No. You're a talented fighter, and if dissociation is the only problem standing between your current level and that of a Crownsguard soldier, then there is no reason to stop your training now," Cor justified himself. "From now on, you will train with me, and me only. I'll have you train with Gladiolus Amicitia, the Prince's Shield, and Ignis Scientia, his advisor, who are also under my tutelage. Those two are highly talented and will be able to teach you much, and I trust that they will be able to contain you, should you ever… lose time yet again."
"I…" Prompto wasn't sure what to say, and it showed on his face. Several conflicted emotions flitted across his expression in the matter of seconds, before he settled for tears again. This time, they rolled gently off his cheeks, and Prompto made no move to wipe them away. "Marshal… Thank you… Thank you so much…" He sniffled pathetically again, and Cor was overcome with the urge to just wrap the boy up in a blanket and buy him ice cream, or something. "I won't let you down. I'm going to do my best and I'm going to become a Crownsguard soldier you can be proud of."
And in all his teary glory, Prompto saluted Cor, back straight, arms locked, face set in determination, and Cor wished he had the words to tell him how proud he already was of him.