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The Beauties of Jungle Law

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Niflheim bases were large, sprawling, and confusing.

Cor had spent the past hour since they’d broken through the front gate trying to find the base Commander, or where they kept their project files; Whichever came first.

It was looking as if the base was going to crumble before either happened though, he thought idly, as dust from the concrete ceiling sifted gently down from another distant, rattling boom.

He felt no closer than when he’d started. Cor was more experienced than most, able to decipher most of the written signs on the walls, and easily following the cramped and sterile halls towards where he assumed the command offices were based on the flow of traffic and the upkeep of the hallways. But he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, since a sign that led towards ‘Infantry Research and Development’ certainly didn’t seem like where he’d find the base commander cowering. Possibly the files though.

 

Another rumble echoed through the base, and Cor adjusted his steps, letting the quaking of the floor rattle itself out. He remained stubbornly on all four paws, glancing at the ceiling to gauge how much time he had left, and whether someone from the Crownsguard would be able to disarm the self-destruct charges before the base Commander got clear and detonated them. If they didn’t, there was a time limit. The latest they could push to before cutting their losses and getting out, empty-handed or not. It was still a victory of a sort, with one less Niflheim base pushing onto the border of Duscae.

But their Infantry could do that. You sent in the Crownsguard for other reasons.

Cor scowled, pushing himself clear of the wall once the shaking stopped to head towards what looked like the door into the next research division, an emergency light blinking sickly over it. He had about another ten minutes, and then he’d have to start sounding the retreat.

 

Might as well see what the next corner brought.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~42 Seconds~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Cor opened what felt like the hundredth door of the day, and looked down the barrel of a gun.

 

It wasn’t the first time.

In fact, it was far from the first time, and probably bound to be far from the last. Something about Cor Leonis prompted people to point weapons at him, and if he ever found out why, he had strict standing orders to explain it to Clarus. In detail.

The scientist with the gun was dressed in familiar Niflheim whites, face covered by a plastic and rubber mask that had misted with quick shallow breaths brought on by panic and desperation. No doubt exacerbated by the fact that black and red blood was dripping freely and tackily from the naked blade in Cor’s hand. The scientists fur was an off white, what Cor could see of it under the white sterile cloaks most of them wore. Some kind of winter canine, a coyote or fox of some sort maybe. Didn’t matter.

He was slightly to the right of the door in front of row of odd containers set into the wall, and behind a bank of computers. They looked like glass and steel boxes set into complicated machinery, with double hinged doors to open them from the front. Cor had passed rooms full of them on his way here, but this one looked like the most recently used. Some if not most of them were dark and dusty with disuse; But the one the scientist was standing next to looked functional, if a little battered. It had lights on the side, indicators flashing indiscriminate red and green and the LED read out scrolling through a complicated array of numbers.

The room was cluttered compared to the rest of the facility, almost hospital-like. Cor had passed many empty and dark rooms with what looked like abandoned equipment and glass casings behind dirty and cracked observation screens. He hadn’t expected to find anything but perhaps some files back here.

And there were, between him and the scientist. Steel computer terminals with small keycodes and fingerprint scanners on them, no doubt holding the documents Cor had been hoping to prevent the magitek-facility employees from destroying. The Crownsguard had taken longer than he’d thought they would cracking the front door and muscling past ranks of MT’s, and he’d been forced on ahead alone to see what intel he could salvage before it was destroyed.

 

You always got the best stuff that way.

 

Fortunately, it looked like nothing here had been wiped yet. They might be able to pick apart the function and hierarchy of this particular branch if Cor could only download it onto the thumbdrive he had on his belt. Combined with scans of the base layout, and whatever equipment they could salvage, it could prove a boon to the war effort. Made it almost worth the three week trip.

 

Unfortunately, the scientist had gotten ahold of a gun, and thought it would stop Cor Leonis of the Crownsguard.

 

The hand that wasn’t holding a trembling weapon was thrust into the depths of one of the weird machine boxes, tubes and wires that had various liquids dripping from them into its hidden depths. It didn’t look to be opening quite right, and the scientist appeared to be fumbling with something before making a frustrated, guttural sound, and switching his full attention to Cor with both hands on his weapon.

It didn’t cease the shaking of the barrel, Cor noted idly, as the door swung shut behind him with a heavy, final sounding click..

“Back up. I- I have information. I was lead scientist on a multitude of projects here and- I said back up.” The man screamed- Cor guessed by the voice and the breadth of his shoulder it was a man- and jerked his gun pointedly. “Move back or I’ll blow the fucking kids brains out.”

Guessing correctly that Cor would not stop his slow and purposeful walk across the room to remove the man’s head from his shoulders, the scientist whirled to point his gun at the box, and it brought Cor to a surprised, jerking halt as soon as the words penetrated the blood soaked fog in his brain.

He didn’t say anything, trying to parse what he’d heard, and emboldened by the silence the scientist thrust a hand into the box (now that he was looking, Cor supposed it looked almost like a coffin) and this time managed to disentangle the contents, jerking loose a-

 

Baby.

 

Cor’s heart sunk. He couldn’t tell on first glance what it was, as he stayed in one spot and stared at the scientist, mind whirling. It could have been feline, a Lucian child. Could have been a canis, an underfed wolf. Could have been a bony sort of wildcat, some sort of prairie animal. The fur was silky, long, and paws slightly oversized, the distance too far to tell the shape.

Didn’t matter, since it was a child. A cub, his brain tried to beat into him, thinking of tiny spots and a disheveled white mane of fur. An instinct in his chest flipped and thrummed to life, like an engine starting, and for the first time in a long time Cor was afraid. His hands remained steady, his gaze unwavering. His heartbeat even remained the same as it ever did, steady and slow.

But he was afraid; And it pissed him off.

Cor’s next thought, as disjointed and aimless as it was with the base rumbling to pieces behind him and shaking the floor, was that it was cold in here. It was no place for a child. The computing power required in a Niflheim base necessitated low temperatures, and even hot-blooded Cor shivered underneath his thick leather coat and body armor, the steel and linoleum flooring ice-cold underneath his paws. He could see from here the pale color of the lips, the bloodlessness under the fingernails. The poor thing was shaking, eyes tight shut.

The scientist pressed the cold circle of metal at the end of his gun to the soft exposed belly of the- of the cub in the paper gown. Cor let the tip of his sword drop, a rumble of a frustrated growl starting somewhere in his chest that was deep enough and loud enough that the son of a bitch stumbled back on skittering paws, startled and tail tucking down between his legs.

The motion jerked the cords and tubes connected to the hostage taut, threatening to snap loose. The man didn’t seem to notice. His limbs shook in fear as the sounds of gunfire blatted out in the distant metal hallways, and if there hadn’t been another life in jeopardy, Cor would have been smug. But as it was he was mostly sick; Nauseous at the sight of one of the IV’s yanking loose, blood staining the gauze that had held it in place on the arm.

The cub was shockingly silent in the meanwhile, even with blood starting to snake its slow way down his arm, eyes screwed shut and paper pale under the heart-breakingly small hospital gown. His hair was light as dandelion fluff the same shade as his fur, paws and tail drawn up to his second heart and belly as if to protect it. Cor thought numbly of how fast he would be able to get there. How fast this paper-pushing scientist could pull a trigger. How fast he could knock the gun loose, how fast he would be able to draw a sword-

 

How fast a bullet would-

 

He felt sick, and stopped thinking, raising his hands and letting his sword drop onto the ground.

When the man reached the end of his tether the machinery fell over with a splintering crash of plastic and glass, and he gave a hoarse yelp of alarm; Cor and the cub didn’t even flinch. Cor because his eyes were fixed predatory on the gun, and the cub… The cub because he wasn’t entirely sure the little thing was awake, or aware.

Cor didn’t know why the he didn’t move, didn’t wiggle, but the concern at the shockingly still figure was enough to keep him in one place, to keep him rumbling threateningly, tail lashing in agitation behind him.

 

He’d faced hostages before, the dregs of society forced to the ends of their tethers and desperate. But never so unexpectedly. Never with such a little victim, and never when the standoff was so short on time. Or with so much on the line, he thought, eyeing the banks of computers. It looked like a program was already running on them, and he knew the longer he took the more files were being deleted.

Shit.

“What the fuck do you have cubs in here for?” Cor demanded hoarsely, stalling and icy still with anger. But the scientist simply kept his eye on him without answering, and slowly backed towards the computer terminal protruding from the wall covered in monitors. The cub was transferred to the crook of his arm, dangling and still curled in on himself, gun held in the free hand as the scientist kicked some debris to the side to access the computer.

If he’d just set the gun down, Cor might chance it. There was plenty at stake, enough to risk the bullet if it was just himself on the line.

 

But. He had to put something down if he wanted to get rid of the files. The gun, or the kid.

He seemed to realize it soon after Cor had, breath shaky, and staring down at the cub. He made a disgusted noise, and held the kid up by his scruff, the sneer evident in his voice.

“Come here and take him. And don’t even think of trying anything. This is military grade hollowpoint; You’d be dead before the kid hit the ground.”

The scientist jerked his gun pointedly. Cor didn’t reply, lowering his hands slowly and stalking one step forward.

The scientist flinched, but didn’t react, gun held firmly pointed at the kid.

Then one more.

He kept his steps slow and even, loose. Like he was afraid, cowed. Like he wasn’t shaking apart on the inside with anger, just some soldier worried about the kid and in over his head. Like he didn’t feel that familiar choking rage coming up his throat like something physical and hot, prickling the skin of his hands and face and the delicate tracing of veins on the inside of his forelegs. Making his head almost spin without an outlet.

Cor didn’t show a single bit of that. Hands curled slightly in on themselves, tail dragging, and head tilted slightly to the side. Harmless.

The cub was looking at him now, Cor noticed when he let his eyes glance down. His eyes were blue, set slightly wide with almost invisible lashes and his fist stuck firmly up in his mouth, the blood running down towards his elbow. He wasn’t quite a baby, and to Cor’s sinking disappointment he was probably old enough to be afraid. Maybe even old enough that he understood what he was looking at, when he followed the kid’s line of sight, and realized he was looking at the blood splattered across Cor’s front.

A third step, and the gun was trembling, and this close Cor could make out the shape of a face behind the mask, the pale flat line of a mouth pressed too tight and the dark of his eyes. They darted nervously, from forward, to back towards the computer, as if wracked with indecision.

Good.

 

He never took a fourth step.

 

The base shook with the strongest explosion yet, and the scientist staggered with the shock of it. The force was powerful enough to knock one of the cabinets over, shattering and sending black viscous liquid oozing out across the linoleum, sparks flying in bright green arcs from equipment shifted loose from it’s moorings. The sound muffled the scientists shout of surprise; Cor only noticed because of his intense focus on the mask, the mist of breath across the visor, and the tension in the scientist’s shoulders. The way he staggered, off balance.

 

The gun jerked to the side, away from the cub, and the wash of relief Cor felt to be looking down that cavernous barrel was almost obscene. He was already moving, and had never been more grateful to have a gun pointed at him as the cub slipped loose from the man’s grip; Squeaking in shock, and kicking his hindpaws out to knock himself further clear.

 

And then the gun clicked and Cor saw the hammer go down, the stale impotent sound of a misfire all that happened.

 

He met the man’s eyes through the visor of his mask, and didn’t smile. But something in his face must have showed, because the man dropped the gun from suddenly nerveless fingers.

 

Cor never took a fourth step, because he leapt.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~9 Hours 23 Minutes~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

There were only a baker’s dozen of the Crownsguard left, winding their way across the hills.

Sixteen miles they’d crossed already, a smear of dark gray marring the crystal clear glow of the winter skyline behind them where the Niflheim facility still burned, hours after cracking the damned thing.

Luche had what physical evidence they’d managed to gather on his broad blue-gray colored back, shaggy with the cold and tail flicking for balance. Ackers at the back shouldered most of the medical supplies, severely depleted, his ginger fur a bright spot of color on the landscape that made Cor’s eyes twinge when he craned his neck back to check on the troops.

Or maybe that was the dryness.

Cor’s fur wasn’t quite long enough to withstand the weather, and he’d been forced to don a cape to cover his second-shoulders and withers while the others could simply make do with their fur and coats, tail dragging behind him and leaving a long line behind him in the snow. The cape was dark, simple. Factory made and mass-produced. It had been one of the MT snipers, and not so tattered and singed as to be unusable. It was thick enough to do the trick, and fit well enough.

It was crusted with dried fluid, which Cor didn’t inspect too closely. He simply scraped the worst of it off and stuck his sleeves in, and kept a barrier of cloth between the kid and any that might remain.

The landscape stretched out as pale and white as bone around them, ugly protrusions of rock bursting through in a series of ridges and gullies, making it a long difficult climb back towards the pick up. Trees here were tall and thin, bursts of bright emerald green needles capped in snow, that did nothing to break the harsh wind that plucked at their clothes and threatened to bowl over the smallest of the Crownsguard, Pontius. He struggled on hooves cut bloody by the hard packed crust of the ground, propping up Horatia who was limping on a shredded paw.

Cor wasn’t much better, towards the front, gathering his coat tighter around the bundle in his arms and blearily wishing they’d thought to bring more thermal packs. He did a better job of making it over the snow than Pontius’s delicate paws, but his pads did jack shit to block out the cold. Even Luche had done better than he had to grow a winter coat during their six month deployment, all patchy shaggy fur and embarrassed blushes when Monica pointed it out.

Cor had been forced to shoulder capes and blankets, and bed down with whichever of the Crownsguard was amenable enough to share body heat, in order to even get a couple hours sleep during their deployment.

 

Now, with so few people, it would be hard even to get that.

 

The cub in his arms snuffled, and Cor idly brought his lapel further up, to cover the small pink hand that had ventured out to rest against his throat, a spot of heat almost lost in the cold. He’d taken every spare bit of clothing he had and bundled the kid up. A linen shirt, a cape, some rags that had almost been used for bandages. Now they wrapped four little paws, where they were tucked against a soft golden belly and bundled in the only blanket the Guard could spare.

Cor had his jacket, and he had a cape thrown over spotted shoulders to cut the worst of the chill out. Beyond that he was just putting one paw in front of the other, hoping that the kid didn’t get sick from the cold, from being hungry.

From whatever the fuck those scientists were doing to cubs out on the borders of Duscae in a facility that was barely even on Niflheim records.

 

“How’s he doing?”

 

Monica drew up alongside him, breath pluming out and cheeks rosy with the chill. She was doing unsurprisingly well, serious face set in a determined frown and eyes fixed on the snowy horizon where their train car back to Duscae waited. Her paws were large, far wider than the span of her first hands, and padded across the snow while leaving only the lightest shadows of a divot. Cor tried not to feel jealous at the swathes of thick, mottled fur that snow didn’t even melt on, and grunted noncommittally.

“He’s fine.”

Monica smiled wryly, before settling back into her usual contemplative frown. Her tail was short, bobbed. Didn’t betray anything, and Cor tried not to feel bitter when the anxiety of not knowing what she was going to bring up caused his tail to twitch uncertainly.

“He might not make it you know.”

Cor stiffened, even more than the cold had managed; Monica continued undaunted, always as clear and blunt as her Captain needed. Her eyes were a steely gray, and she didn’t even look at him when she said it, “He was hooked up to a lot of wires. He’s small.” She did look down at the bundle that, while considerable, didn’t make as large of a dent in Cor’s jacket as a cub of his apparent age should. “Too small.”

“I was small too.” Cor grit out, voice hoarse with cold. The kid stirred, as if he could sense them talking about him, and Cor felt the brief thump of a tail wagging sleepily against his ribs before he tightened his grip and jostled his arms soothingly, ignoring the strange look Monica gave him. “He’s just cold, and tired, same as the rest of us. Don’t be so morbid Lieutenant.”

“Sure.” She said agreeably. “Its was just a thought.”

“Yeah well.” A gust of wind whipped across the line of Crownsguard, and Cor grimaced against the sting, as a murmur of disquiet rose up behind them and a couple of heartfelt grumbles. “Keep your thoughts to yourself.” He was being uncharitable, perhaps. She was making a lot of sense. What had possessed him to pick the kid up in the first place, he didn’t know.

 

But he had, and now he wasn’t sure how to put him down.

 

They trudged on.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~10 Hours 12 Minutes~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

One train car, Cor noted wearily. The train car that’d been sent to pick them up made the faintest bump on the horizon, almost indiscernible from the stones and abandoned structures in the war-torn landscape; just as they’d intended. It was almost invisible from the air, and the clear crystal tracks next to impossible to discern from a distance It had taken them two cars to get everyone north.

 

Now, one was more than enough. Cor tried not to think about it.

 

His arms were numb with the weight of the cub in his arms, and jacket damp. He wasn’t sure if it were tears, snot, or some sort of terrible mixture of both, but with his shirt serving it’s last duty as a blanket for the kid, he could only pray it didn’t reach his bare chest.

Despite the moisture mysteriously seeping from the kid, there was silence in his arms. No sounds besides the puffs of breath from the Crownsguard around them, the crunch of snow under paws and hooves, and the occasional grunt of pain from their injured or quiet murmur of encouragement.

He knew it was bad, the silence. But Cor couldn’t help but be relieved that on top of everything they didn’t have to deal with a screaming kid.

“Last stop little guy. Then Duscae.” He murmured quietly, guilt prodding him to say something, anything, and lifting the weight in his arms to adjust for the climb up the hill. He’d tried handing him off, tired and hoping that he’d imprint on someone else that wasn’t a completely fucking terrible idea. But every time he tried the little shit would clam up and tense stiff enough that it hurt to feel, all locked limbs and wide dilated eyes. His chest would start to move pitter-patter fast, fists clenched, and Cor would hurriedly take him back murmuring inane niceties. Now, after the entire hike, something like stockholm syndrome had set in and Cor wasn’t sure he could set the little shit down if he even wanted to. The idea of putting the cub down didn’t sit right anymore when he was still tense and behind enemy lines, made his fur prickle and his mouth tense in an uneasy snarl.

His arms would probably fall off if he tried anyway.

No one, in the short time they’d had to evaluate, knew why he wouldn’t cry. Whimper. Do something. Cor had carried this cub through the ruins of a Niflheim base, past dead bodies he’d tried to hide by shoving the small face into the depths of his coat, and humming dumb nonsense songs. Stupid little strings of song he’d heard on the radio, or things he’d heard other parents sing. Tunes that didn’t seem to have much of an effect, but left Cor without a wiggling armful of limbs and a pair of eyes looking shocked up at him.

But still, the kid had hardly made a whimper, besides to yawn wide and suck on his thumb when the shadows started getting long and the sun low. He’d been chilled on one side while Cor had pressed him to his chest during the hike, trying desperately to keep him warm when the cub started fussing. No doubt hungry, or thirsty despite the water Cor managed to drip into his mouth. Kicking fitfully before freezing completely still and stiff again, like he’d gotten scared. Or expected Cor to… Do something. Hurt him.

 

But he hadn’t cried.

 

They climbed the last stretch, and Cor finally, finally sat, lying against the icy side of the train car while the more able-bodied Crownsguard clambered up the steps, groaning and giving small whoops of relief when they saw the cots.

The cub wiggled, and Cor untangled him enough to looks down at his face, all bright blue eyes and downy gold hair. His nose and cheeks were flushed, but it appeared he was warm enough tucked into Cor’s coat, judging by the way he blinked up and idly pat his hand up against Cor’s lapel and chest. He was still strangely quiet, still with his free thumb in his mouth. His fur was soft, much softer than a cheetah cub’s, although it was a similar shade of gold without the chaotic tufting white, almost dun colored.

Cor fished a paw out, and felt a flicker of amusement when the cub kicked and tried to chew on his fingers. Pressing on the toes, the claws didn’t retract, and the pads were noticeably black. Canine.

“Well.” Ausker said, coming out from the car after what felt like thirty or so minutes, wiping his hands clean on a spare rag. Cor had spent the few quiet moments just looking down at the little cub while the rest of the team got settled, letting him chew on his grimy knuckles and jostling him every now and then when he tried to kick himself loose from the various blankets and shirts. The sounds of the Crownsguard making idle conversation and clinking gear together was soothing. Much more soothing than the whistle of wind across the snow, or the grind of weaponry. Or the slow implosion of concrete. “Let’s take a look at the little guy.”

For a moment, Cor didn’t want to hand him over. The idea of giving the cub to someone else and having him wiggle in distress, or for fucks sake, cry, was too much to handle. But Ausker held his hands out, patient, and Cor finally gave the kid one last little pat and got wearily to his feet to give him to the Crownsguard medical officer.

Within a few moments they were back inside, and Ausker was distracting the cub- pup, he was a Canis, Cor reminded himself- with an inflated latex glove.

The car started moving while he worked, slowly coughing to a start in the cold air and dragging itself a few feet on the tracks before building momentum. It didn’t whistle, since there was no steam, but did give an impressive moan of cold steel warming under the heat of magik engines.

Cor rocked carefully on his paws, catching himself on the cold strut of metal that came off the wall of the car to form a bench, watching Ausker’s hands as he palpated the kid’s ribs under the thin paper gown that was all he had to wear. It was slowly warming, with the heat of all the Guard and the electric grill radiating warmth through the car from the back corner, but Cor still felt uneasy and tucked a blanket more firmly around his furry lower half.

“Six. Do we have anything for the kid to wear?” He murmured wearily, and the pup’s head jerked to the side at the sound, tail thumping faintly on the seat he’d been perched on as his eyes fixed on Cor, fist firmly against his mouth and working eagerly. It had to have been a coping mechanism of some sort, but Cor couldn’t help but find it endearing. Even cuter was when Ausker checked the reflexes in the kids elbow with the tiniest hammer Cor had ever seen, causing the pup to jump in surprise and give the doctor a betrayed look.

“Probably not, but Pontius is working on it.” Ausker said, and gave the kids head a firm scratch and pet in reward when he didn’t fidget. Pontius waved from his seat at the back of the car, where he was haphazardly sewing something and letting Luche use him as a pillow. The car rocked gently as it sped up, but it only made Pontuis scowl and shove irritably at Luche, who was interfering with his stitches by virtue of his shoulders shoving under his hands. Cor imagined Pontius’s velvet fur was appealing in the cold metal of the train car, all soft ash gray with the feathered tail tossed over Luche’s hooves.

“Hrn. Well, he should work faster.”

Cor stiffened when Ausker pulled out a needle and a phial, but it was pointless. The pup didn’t even flinch, simply watched Ausker with bare interest, then held small hands up to Cor when he was done, looking plaintive. When Ausker gave him a nod, Cor picked him up, tucking the pup back into the crook of his arm and letting the little blonde head snug under his chin.

The smug look Ausker gave him was met with a lift of his lip and a small snarl.

“Relax. He checks out as healthy enough. A little dehydrated, a little malnourished, but it’s only to be expected from what you told me.” Ausker became slightly more serious, frowning, and looking at where the kid had started to fidget. “I can’t imagine what they had infants there for.”

“I can imagine any number of things,” Cor said bluntly, rocking the pup gently in his arms, and ignoring the flinch Ausker gave. “And you can too. Don’t be sentimental.”

Ausker’s mouth thinned to a grim line, giving Cor a dark look which was ignored. He was commanding Officer of the Unit. Not here to baby them. “I’m not being sentimental. But the equipment that wasn’t damaged beyond all repair was too heavy to take with us, and nobody who was qualified was able to take a long enough look. We don’t know what they were doing at that base, besides that it’s somewhere in the chain supply of Niflheim weaponry and they were doing some kind of genetic stem cell research, if their vitatanks are in anyway similar to ours.”

They were. Cor had been deeper in the base than the others, and decided not to mention the smaller vitatanks he’d seen until it was necessary for a brief. The sort of thing he only really told Clarus, or Regis; In the safety of the Citadel and with the safety of miles between him and the sight of the obsolete labels fixed to the front of almost a third of the vitatanks.

“Luckily, I managed to salvage about half the files on the desk terminal in the main vitatank atrium while the team was subduing the security.” The terminals had been on a closed system, all wireless signals snuffed out by a signal jammer that no doubt extended for the whole base, and made downloading it a much lengthier and difficult process than it had to be. What with the pup shaking silently in his arms, and the body of that Niflheim scientist leaking on the floor where Cor had left it. “We’ll hand it over, they can decide for themselves what was going on.”

“Hm. And this little guy?” Ausker wiggled his fingers enticingly at the pup, who looked as surprised at that as he had at anything, head bobbling backwards and looking up at Cor in bewilderment. Cor felt another flicker of amusement, and let him figure it out for himself. “You have a name for him yet? Or are we going by number.” Ausker caught the small hand that wasn’t buried into Cor’s coat front, pulling it gently out and turning it to show the barcode with a string of numbers. The ink was stark black against paper pale skin, and Cor rumbled involuntarily at the idea, tightening his hold and causing Ausker to arch an eyebrow.

No.” The pup stiffened again, getting that blank look, and Cor made an effort to calm down, loosen his hold, and jostle his armful soothingly. It was jerky, and he frowned, feeling awkward and uncomfortable.

He was unused to being gentle. He’d held Gladiolus Amicitia a few times, Clarus laughing fit to burst every time he tricked Cor into holding the baby, all awkward elbows and desperate looks when the tiger cub started to fuss.

This was different. The pup was quieter, stiller, and too watchful. Cor didn’t like it; but since he was the only one who seemed to be able to hold him for now, he figured he was responsible for making it disappear as much as he was able.

“Well, we should call him something. How about something with the snow? It’s cold as hell out. Glacies?”

“Name him after Cor’s favorite thing; Acies!” Pontius called from the corner, drawing a chorus of grumbles from the occupied cots around the swaying train car from the Crownsguard trying to get some sleep.

“No.” Cor thought back to the gun the scientist had held, the one that had whipped from pointing at the kid, to right between Cor’s eyes; A black circle that had gotten larger in micrometers as time slowed down and he’d gotten closer across the room.

Thought of the echoing click, as the piece of shit misfired.

“Prompto.” Cor said, and Prompto looked up at his voice and smiled, the first one he’d seen, even if it was quickly replaced with that startled look he gave as Ausker broke into laughter.

“That shitty handgun model?” He looked down at the pup and grinned, holding his hands up at the defensive glare Cor gave him. “Alright alright, calm down. It’s a great name. Hey Prompto!” Ausker grabbed the little hand in gentle fingers and shook it in a pantomime of a handshake, his own tail curling in delight when Prompto patted it and investigated the gloved fingers curiously. “Nice to meet you little guy. Daddy Cor here will take good care of you. You’re in the safest place in all of Lestallum right now.”

 

Cor huffed and jerked away, storming over to his own cot to catch some sleep while he could, ignoring the embarrassed blush he could feel creeping up his neck that caused the team close enough to see to break into chuckles. Monica to offered him a small, soft smile from the one cot over. Her paws crossed elegantly in front of her, fur plush looking now that she’d groomed the blood and snow from it, and Cor gave her a brisk nod as he settled in with Prompto.

The pup wiggled into the blankets eagerly when Cor set him down, making a surprised series of noises when Cor climbed in after him, arranging himself in a curl to prevent the pup from falling out. He laid his upper body against the wall, the reassuring rocking of the car soothing even if it was cold as hell. Every motion brought them closer to home, and it made Cor’s tail flick in satisfaction.

After a while Prompto stopped wiggling, snuggling by Cor’s side in the warm fur against his ribcage. He was no doubt exhausted. Cor wasn’t familiar with babies at all, but he suspected they weren’t used to staying awake this long at whatever age Ausker had guessed at Prompto being. Roughly one and a half to two and a half years old was his best guess.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, the small motion of the pup’s tail against Cor’s hind knee slowed to a halt, and eventually was replaced by the small kicks and twitches of a deep sleep. If he concentrated, Cor thought he might be able to feel the little flicker of a heartbeat and the slow expansion of breathing.

 

He felt a sinking in his chest, at odds with the warm fond feeling that caused his tail to curl up under the blankets and an embarrassed purr to almost free itself from his throat.

 

Clarus was going to be a pain about this.