There was a thought, nagging, behind his eyelids as he tried to will himself to sleep:
How long had he been trying to rest?
And the thing was, if he opened his eyes and turned his head just a little to the right, he’d see Libertus there, and Crowe next to him, and those two were fools and they had evidently convinced themselves that they were doing something for him -- for him, for their fucking commanding officer -- making a barricade of themselves between him and all the world that was rapidly descending into fury, into fire, into wreckage, because they wanted him to rest, because they needed him to rest --
Nyx Ulric growled to himself and tried to shift and the bed wasn’t even anywhere near long enough or wide enough to properly accommodate him: he scrunched himself into a huddled curl of misery, squashed pillows braced between him and the walls and the lingering pain in his knees from six hours’ quick march --
Wail of alarms -- a shocked curse -- Nyx, grateful and groaning, shot up to a sitting position and crammed his bare feet into his boots, picked up the belts that he’d dropped in a heap on the floor next to the bed, and made sure he still had his trousers properly buckled and belted on. Crossed the little sleeping room in one stride, in two, and then he was glaring down at Libertus and saying, “That was our specific signal, wasn’t it?”
“For the record: I protest all of this,” Crowe said, and if the Nifs hadn’t been so dumb as to underestimate the royal family of Lucis, they wouldn’t even be in this war, and Nyx would never have learned to understand the gentleness that only showed in the touch of Crowe’s rough hands -- gentleness that he could feel, now, as she threw the jacket of his fatigues over his shoulders, as she straightened out the piddling bits and ribbons of rank on his sleeves and cuffs.
“So do I, but here we are, and now there’s work that needs doing, work that we need to do,” Nyx said, now, and he kissed her forehead and then threw her the crispest salute he could manage when he was already halfway into a run, down the corridor and up the stairs into the command post on the top floor of the building.
“Brief,” he said.
Pelna and Luche looked at each other over the sprawl of battered radios and tattered wires.
Libertus arrived in the next instant, quiet thunderstorms on the move, and Nyx was always grateful for him anyway, him and his silence and his insults and his sheer bullheaded determination.
“Talk,” Crowe snapped as she slipped in and slouched against Nyx’s other side.
“I -- you know how it’s still technically furlough for the other guys, for the Crownsguard?” Pelna said, at last, after a very loud gulp. “They’re not answering right now, we tried to get the emergency outposts and they’re saying they’re a little spread thin at the moment.”
“So we have to clean up after them, what the fuck else is new,” Nyx said.
“The fuck else is new is,” Luche said, and that sure sounded like worry crowding in around the edges of his sour grimace, “it’s one of the big Nif science facilities. It went up in fire so hard we’re getting the seismic reports. Something is moving around in there. And we can’t do this without backup, not even if it’s the five of us and you parked Tredd’s ass back in here to provide relays.”
Mouth twisted in disbelief on one side, and an open sneer on the other.
“All five of us,” he said, slowly.
He backed up toward the only other chair, and turned it around with a sweep of his foot, and dropped into it, front to back.
Tried to think.
Assess. Catalogue. Calm.
And lost the thread immediately, when the radio squawked and a voice came on: “ -- calling Kingsglaive post.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Libertus muttered.
“I know that voice,” Luche said.
Nyx took the unit out of Pelna’s hand and said, “So you’re all there is of the Crownsguard right now?”
“Might as well be,” and the deadpan was still very audible even over the whine of overstressed engines and the shriek of the wind. “Better be rolling out about now. I have orders to get intel out of that science facility. You’re the nearest reinforcements.”
“Only if I get to wash my hands of all the legalese and the paperwork,” he said, and with his other hand he was already gesturing to the backpacks lined up against one of the walls, and Crowe was laughing, manic and grim, as she crammed three bright-red packages into her pockets.
“If that’s what it takes.”
Click, and silence.
“Cor Leonis on duty as always,” Luche muttered, and that was the last thing Nyx heard, as he took one of the jeeps and the others piled into the small truck.
They hadn’t gone one klick from the base when they saw the fire on the horizon, and the strange shadow that seemed to be eating up that fire, writhing and collapsing --
“What the mighty flying fuck,” he heard Libertus say.
“Shut up. Comms discipline, remember,” Nyx snapped. “Intel, he said, so it’s the other kind of smash and grab, you understand? Everything you think is valuable, you take away with you. I don’t care what it is, I don’t care who it is. And don’t die. I’ll be very pissed off at you.”
Sounds of acknowledgment, the last thing he heard before he was pulling up beside a battered motorcycle and the tall man standing next to it.
“Did they do that to themselves?” Nyx asked. It was the only conversation he wanted to have.
“No, not if the chatter is reliable.” Of course Cor had some kind of radio-link into the Nif comms: a small yellow box taped back together at the edges, that squalled panicked cries for help into the air.
The sound made Nyx grin, a little. “Hey, so it’s a recruiting mission after all. Dibs,” he said, and the others were already geared up around him and he gratefully accepted the guns that Luche passed on to him, before raising an eyebrow. “You’re point.”
“Yes,” and Cor was loping forward, inexorable and implacable.
Ruined perimeter defenses: Nyx stopped only to collect a fragment of something he almost recognized, something like Nif body armor only there were too many black stains piled onto the metal, and he wrapped it in a couple of thicknesses of his own sleeve before continuing to leap forward --
Only to nearly run into a staring Crowe.
Broken body at her feet: a torso with a Y-incision. Where blood should have dried in brown around the clumsy stitches -- and Nyx hated that he knew that -- there was, instead, more of the black stains he’d just seen.
So he voiced the thought: “What the actual fuck,” and also, “Stare later. Panic later. Puke later. Mission, people.”
“Fuck,” he thought he heard Pelna say, and then -- “Leonis!”
Who was right in the blast radius as one of the blocky buildings all around them suddenly buckled and collapsed in on itself with a wail of stressed metal --
“He’s moving in!” Libertus was yelling.
“I’ll get him! The rest of you, keep going!” Nyx yelled, and he didn’t look over his shoulder to see if they were following his orders -- he just threw the gun in its strap to his back, and crouch-ran towards Cor, who was -- lifting something in his arms?
No, no, not something.
Not a child, and not an adult either.
First-aid kit at his belt: Nyx fumbled for the adrenaline shot and finished running forward.
Blond hair, ragged and filthy, and a face that was a ruin, all half-healed bruises in colored layers, and blood running a sluggish track from the corner of one mouth.
“Dose him,” Cor said.
He didn’t have to be told twice, driving the adrenaline straight into the meat of the unconscious person’s thigh.
He counted three seconds and clamped his hand over that bloodstained mouth. “We’re asking the questions here,” he snapped, into eyes that were still clearly blue, as blue as noon skies on a winter’s day, despite the night all around.
And he’d expected the blond to fight, to bite, to scream: he did precisely none of those things. Only those eyes, widening in shock, and then falling closed, and tears. “Thank the stars, thank the stars,” he was saying, over and over again, monotone relief in the uneven pitch of his voice. “One-way message. Didn’t know if anyone got it.”
“We did.” Cor.
Nyx had never heard him sound like that before: as though the wind and the waves and the storm could break against him, to no effect, because he was trying to protect something.
“You said they were going to bury the evidence,” Cor went on. “What evidence?”
“Me.” And the blond struggled, briefly, so he could get on his feet and this time Nyx found himself moving, not to carry him but only to prop him up.
He was shorter than Nyx was expecting: he had to look down to look him in the eyes.
“I’m the evidence,” the blond said. “They wanted me to be able to remember all the things I -- we -- did. Little soldiers, little infiltrators. Send us into the refugee camps and learn from Lucians, and then kill as many of them as we could. They gave me the ability to remember but they also didn’t think I’d use it against them. Kill switch,” he said, and laughed, bare hint of a hysterical edge. “No. No. They won’t get me. I got them already. I deactivated the kill switch and, and I’ll kill them. Kill them all because they killed everyone like me.”
Nyx heard the exact echo of the exact word coming from Cor’s mouth, and he looked at him, and caught a nod.
“You got a name?” Nyx asked, trying to be kind, and knowing that he wasn’t quite getting there.
“Name? Designation,” the blond said, and his voice cracked again on the second word. “I don’t want you to call me a string of numbers.”
“Good, ’cos that would suck,” he said. “Make one up right now if you like.”
“I didn’t make it up now. I heard it. Call me -- call me Prompto,” the blond said.
“Okay Prompto. Nyx Ulric, Kingsglaive. That person who walked into the fire because he has no common sense is Cor Leonis, Crownsguard.”
“Enemies of Niflheim,” the blond -- Prompto -- said, and nodded. “You might be my allies.”
“We might be. But we need to make sure.”
That only got Cor a resigned stare. “After this. Heart of the facility is that way. That shadow in the night,” Prompto said, pointing -- coincidentally, in the direction the others had gone.
“What are they going to find there?” Cor asked, quietly.
“Information. Samples. Some of the others who died. They kept some of the bodies. Tried to make them alive again,” and still Prompto talked with that cold calm inflection in his voice. “That thing -- it’s the weapon they were creating. I broke it.”
He didn’t sound proud. He just sounded tired.
And suddenly Nyx felt sympathy, and a thornlike sorrow, for this boy. He was no more than a boy. Gangly limbs that didn’t match his hands and feet. Scars all over his face.
He didn’t show it, though. Only raised his radio and buzzed the others. “If you see any signs of a Nif weapon, and it decides to turn itself on and shoot at you, you’d better get out of the fucking danger zone PDQ.”
“How did you know,” Crowe asked. “We just -- this thing’s just fallen to pieces right in front of us.”
“Intel,” Pelna said. “This is one of the mother lodes, all right.”
“We’ll be right there.”
And he looked up from the radio, readied his gun again for use -- but he stopped when he looked over his shoulder, because Cor was on his knees and leaning forward, and the boy who had just named himself Prompto was climbing onto that broad back.
“So I have to do all the work for you?” he said, but not to be snappish.
“I called you in as backup anyway,” was the deadpan response.
“Guess you did,” he said, and he let himself reach out to take one of Prompto’s hands for a moment.
He wasn’t prepared for Prompto to stare at him. “What are you doing.”
Nyx blinked. “Holding your hand.”
“What does that mean?”
Something moved, like old dark shadows, in Cor’s face.
Nyx wanted to tear Prompto off that back and hold him close and maybe wrap him in blankets, and he didn’t do any of those things. Only kept holding on to that hand -- he did want to ask about the bar code tattooed into the skin, but this wasn’t the time.
And then Prompto said, “I -- don’t find it unpleasant.”
He forced a small smile onto his face. “Good to hear. More later, if you like? But let’s get this shit done first.”
Most children Prompto’s age would giggle to hear an adult use a bad word in their presence.
Prompto only gave him a hard nod.
So he passed that nod on to Cor, who started moving forward -- and the weight on his back didn’t seem to stop him, or even slow down his ground-eating stride.
It only took a few moments for them to find the others: and already there was a rucksack open on the ground, half-filled with chunks of metal.
Prompto scrambled down and darted past the stares, and Nyx followed him: he dug in a mound of grass, and made a small sound of triumph, and presented him with a black rock.
“What,” he began.
“Wires to connect into the metal, into the suit of armor,” Prompto said, pointing to the tangled burned ends. “Armature to steady it. That’s the -- they said it was the crystal they had created. Crystal that would be more powerful than the Lucian one. That was the test piece. They want to grow it to the -- to the size of a dropship. Maybe bigger. I didn’t hear those parts so I can’t remember them.”
And Nyx hurriedly tore off his other sleeve, all the way up to the shoulder, and his skin crawled as he wrapped the cloth around the black rock with its twisted facets and its sickly red gleam.
A long arm reaching to pluck it off his hands, and he shuddered with relief.
Cor wrapped the crystal in his jacket and said, “Anything else we need to know?”
Prompto bit his lip and thought. Shook his head. “The rest, the rest is gone.”
“You’ve done a good job, calling us here,” Nyx said, after a moment. “We’ll need to quarter this place again, see what else there is, but -- you got us to the important parts. Thanks.”
“I am also one of those important parts,” and Prompto bowed his head, and hunched his shoulders.
Held out his arms in front of him, wrists together, as though he were only waiting for shackles.
Nyx felt a little bit ashamed of gaping uselessly at him when Cor pushed Prompto’s hands down, gently. “No need for that.”
So he took a breath to steady himself and motioned at Cor: who, miraculously, seemed to understand what he needed.
Sat down right in the grass and the ruins of the Nif facility, and pulled Prompto to sit down next to him.
Leaving Nyx to sit on Prompto’s other side and pull him in close, arm slung around his shoulders. “Try this,” he added, and pushed, just a little, so that Prompto ended up with his cheek against his arm. “Better?”
The eyes fluttering closed seemed to be answer enough, and twelve-year-old weight listing completely into his side.
Libertus shook his head and took the radio: there were mentions of Tredd’s name and of talking to the higher-ups, but he tuned them out in favor of hitching Prompto closer.
And he didn’t do anything when Cor’s eyebrow ticked, slight movement upwards -- nor when Cor took one of Prompto’s hands in both of his own.