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Because You're Mine

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Cor Leonis wrapped himself a little tighter in his heavy winter coat and stoked the campfire for warmth. To hell with the risk of being spotted. He would take the chance of inviting enemy forces to his camp before he'd let himself or the sleeping child in his arms freeze to death out here in the middle of nowhere.

The fire blazed higher and he added a handful of tinder before he settled back down and shifted the boy into his chest for warmth. Twinges of pain lit up his right side and he gritted his teeth against it. If he moved too much, it would start to bleed again. Without a potion, and with no way to remove the bullet lodged just above his shoulder blade, all Cor could do was suffer through it.

He smelled snow on the breeze and would bet any amount of cash and his weapon too that he would see a fresh dusting before morning's first light. Freezing to death might be a foregone conclusion. Maybe, he was only delaying the inevitable. They called him the Immortal, but he was just as mortal as everyone else.

Damn this entire country. Damn the cold. This was not how it was supposed to go.

If not for the child in his arms, he might have pushed on through the night until he reached Tenebrae, where he could secure safe and warm lodgings on friendly soil, but between the extra weight and the responsibility of keeping a kid alive, it took its toll. His muscles ached and his eyes burned from lack of sleep and the pain in his shoulder became too intense to keep going.

He might be better off on his own, without the kid, but every time he considered abandoning him to save his own skin, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Leaving him in the lab would have been kinder than letting him freeze to death.

The child grunted and nuzzled deeper against Cor's neck, and Cor hated himself even more for thinking abandonment was an option. He also hated himself for not thinking of the consequences, or what might happen to the kid once they returned to Insomnia.

Cor dozed for a while with an arm wrapped tight around the child, but woke at the crackle of plastic and the scrape of a boot against rock. Fully awake, he sat up and set the boy aside.

There beside the fire someone rifled through his bag, their back to him. The figure was bundled in thick but dirty material, and long pale hair lay matted against narrow shoulders. Gloved hands worked quickly, separating pilfered snack cakes and crackers from the rest of his belongings.

Cor summoned his weapon and rose to a crouch. He crept forward until he was within range of the thief. He laid the edge of his blade against the thief's wrist and cleared his throat.

The person turned, a blade of her own drawn, and shoved the tip of her dagger to his chin. Wide light colored eyes framed in long lashes stared back at him, more animal than human.

She was just a girl. Ten, maybe twelve at the most. She might have been cute if not for the streaks of dirt on her face and her hollow eyes and cheeks.

Cor knew too well the look of acute hunger. He'd seen it in is own face as a child, in those long years spent in the care of various neglectful homes and in abandoned structures when he was a little older. He knew it, and he knew if she were to take off that bulky, dirty coat, her limbs would be knobby and thin. Every rib would show.

Cor returned his weapon to the armiger, took her wrist and twisted it away until she dropped the blade. She gasped, balled up a fist, and swung. Her blow hit his wounded shoulder and his vision grayed and blurred, but he seized her wrist again and held on.

“Let me go,” she hissed.

“If you're hungry, all you have to do is ask,” Cor said.

The girl pulled free and shot to her feet, took three steps back, and her legs gave out. She fell on her ass, her eyes gone glassy and her face slack.

Everyone in this godsforsaken land was pale, but Cor had never seen anything as pale as this kid. Every last drop of color drained from her cheeks and her lips turned a sickening shade of gray.

“When was the last time you ate anything?” he asked.

Her mouth trembled and pressed into a thin line. She focused on him and her previously distant gaze turned sharp.

“I've got soup,” Cor said. “If you want some.”

“What do I have to do for it?” she asked.

Her sharp, wary stare stabbed at Cor. He refused to think about what kind of things that implied.

“You can put that dagger away, for starters,” he said. He took a can of hearty stew from his bag and pulled the tab on the lid. “This stuff isn't half bad. It's not great, but it's not bad.”

The baby whined and flailed in his blankets, but Cor didn't take his eyes off the girl. He didn't trust her any more than she trusted him. Her eyes were locked on the open can, so hungry, it broke Cor's heart.

He set the can on the edge of the fire to warm it and reached for the younger child. The girl's eyes shifted to the baby and the sharpness in her eyes faded. Cor gathered the boy to him, and watched the girl. He suspected if she was able, she would have split by now.

“My name's Cor,” he said.

The girl searched his face and wrapped her arms around her middle. He detected the slightest of tremors in her chin and couldn't tell if it was hunger, cold, fear or all three.

“You can come closer to the fire,” he said. The boy laid a sticky hand against Cor's cheek and squirmed. Cor held on tighter. “You don't have to give me your name if you don't want to.”

The girl eyed the snack cake on the ground beside Cor's bag. He nodded at it.

“Eat it if you want,” Cor said. “I can get more.”

“You're a Lucian,” the girl spat.

“We're all something,” Cor said. “Go ahead. Eat.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“I didn't kill you for trying to steal from me,” Cor said. “Did I?”

“Badaaa,” the boy said.

“What's a Lucian doing all the way out here with a baby?”

“You answer my questions, I'll answer yours,” Cor said. “We can start with your name.”

She reached for the snack cake. Slowly. She stared back at him for any sign he might attack or change his mind. When he didn't, she snatched it up and ripped the package open, then shoved half of it into her mouth. Cor's heart squeezed at her broken, pathetic whimper when she started to chew.

Cor waited for her to finish it, and when she did, she dropped her head to her knees, breathing heavily with either relief or exertion.

“It's Aranea,” she said breathlessly. “My name's Aranea.”

“That's pretty,” Cor said. “Fits you.”

She lifted her head and gave him that hardened stare again. She was too damn young to look at anyone like that.

“I didn't mean anything by it,” Cor said. “Just that it's a good name.”

“What about the kid? What's its name?”

Cor looked down at the dozing baby and said the first thing that came to mind. A word that he associated with his mission here. Gather as much information as possible, in and out quick without raising any alarms.

He'd accomplished two of the three. His failure to accomplish the third was why he had a bullet lodged in his back.

“Prompto.”

Aranea lifted an eyebrow. Already her complexion was better.

“Prompto?” she said. “Really?”

It was a better name than 05953234, he supposed. It wasn't like he planned to keep the kid.

“Anyone out here with you?” Cor asked. He didn't expect her to tell the truth if this was an ambush, but he doubted it was. They would have made themselves known already. “You have family somewhere? Someone I can help you get to?”

“No,” Aranea said and cast her gaze to the fire. “I don't have anybody.”


 With a belly full of snack cakes and soup, Aranea slept. Cor expected her to take off as soon as she was fed, but she didn't. She curled up as close to the fire as she could manage, closed her eyes and didn't move for hours.

Cor dozed with his back to a rock with the newly named Prompto bundled against him, but he was on guard and true, restful sleep of the kind he needed didn't come.

When dawn broke, he opened his eyes to find Aranea gone and Prompto awake with a fistful of Cor's jacket stuffed into his mouth.

“Baddada,” Prompto said.

The fire was only embers now and a fresh blanket of snow coated everything beyond its circle of warmth. Footprints lad away from the camp and into the forest. Cor poked through his bag, but the only thing missing was a pack of crackers.

He looked at the footprints with some regret. A pack of crackers wouldn't save a starving girl, and he could live without them. Tenebrae was half a day's walk from here, if he judged the distance and terrain correctly. Water was much more important than food, and with half a foot of pristine snow on the ground, Cor wouldn't want for that.

From his bag, he took a can of peas and tossed it into the embers. It wasn't much, but it was something he could mash and feed the kid. It wasn't like he'd managed to find an abundance of baby food to steal, and frankly, he didn't know if the kid was still eating baby food or if he was eating solids. What did scientists feed kids that were slated to become daemon mist, anyway?

Prompto squirmed and whined in his grip and Cor caught a foul scent.

“Shit, kid,” Cor said.

“Waaahahaha,” Prompto complained. “Buh-buh-buh.”

“Yeah, I know,” Cor said. “I'll figure something out.”

The baby's diaper was soiled, and Cor didn't have another to replace it with. All he had in his bag was a spare pair of socks and a t-shirt.

“We'll just have to make do,” he said.

He cleaned out the empty soup can and filled it with packed snow, then set it beside the peas on the embers. Once the snow melted, he dipped a sock into it and used it to clean the baby, who screamed the second the lukewarm water touched his skin.

“Keep it down,” Cor said.

The kid screamed louder.

“Sure do have a set of lungs on you,” Cor said. “But I'm not carrying you around smelling like that, kid.”

It took some experimentation and a lot of creativity to configure a diaper from his shirt, but he managed. It was going to suck if the kid peed in it. The fabric was not at all absorbent and Cor had nothing to replace it with when it was dirty, but he'd cross that bridge later.

His shoulder was on fire and the skin around it felt hot and tender. Every motion brought on waves of throbbing pain that Cor ignored as he added tinder to the fire and opened up the can of peas.

With a spoon, he mashed them and offered the kid a bite. The kid only stared at it. Maybe he didn't know what a spoon was.

“It's all I got,” Cor said. “You want something else, you're going to have to get a job.”

“Is that even your kid?”

How Aranea sneaked up on him, Cor didn't know, but there she was, looking even worse in daylight with her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks and sickly skin. Cor went on defense when he noticed both her hands behind her back and a smear of blood on the dingy, matted fur lining of her coat.

“I'm fresh out of crackers,” Cor said. “Can I offer you some mashed peas instead?”

“I've got something better,” she said. “Hope you know how to cook rabbit.”

She tossed a freshly skinned and gutted carcass on the ground in front of him. Cor didn't look at her offering, but at her. Her face was still too pale, her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed and her teeth chattered.

He hadn't expected her to come back.

“I can try,” he said finally. “How'd you catch that?”

“Something got a hold of it before I did,” she said. “Chewed off half its leg. It was going to die anyway so I put it out of its misery.”

Aranea looked from Cor to Prompto, then took a few cautious steps closer to the fire. She tossed a branch onto it from the pile, and poked it with a stick to get it to catch.

Cor didn't know the first thing about cooking things that didn't come out of cans or plastic, but he'd seen Weskham cook things back when they were all still together. It wasn't going to be a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination, but he could tell the girl needed more than just soup and a few snacks.

“Charred rabbit it is,” Cor said.

He used a branch as a makeshift spit and laid the rabbit over the fire while Aranea watched Prompto struggle to free himself from his swaddling.

“How old are you?” Cor asked.

“Eleven.”

Six almighty. Eleven. That was too young to be out here trying to survive. Insomnia was one thing. This place was a frozen, desolate hell.

“What are you doing out here?” Cor asked.

“What are you doing out here?” she echoed.

“Family hike,” he said. “Taking in the scenery.”

“Right,” Aranea said with a wry smile. “Because Gralean winters are the perfect opportunity for father-son bonding.”

Cor's answering smile was equally wry. “You're kind of a smart ass. For an eleven year old.”

“And you're a liar.”

“You don't need to know what I'm doing here, kid,” Cor said. He turned the rabbit over and sat back on his heels. “So where are you headed?”

“Somewhere warmer,” Aranea said.

“Warmer.”

“Altissia, maybe. I don't know. Anywhere but here.”

“What happened to your family?”

There was a flash of something so bleak in her eyes, it hurt Cor to see. It only lasted a second before her stare hardened and she poked at the embers with the toe of a worn boot.

“I told you already. I don't have one.”

“As in none living, or none you want to associate with?”

“Both.”

Cor picked up the peas again and offered Prompto a bite while he considered Aranea and how a kid like her could possibly be alone out here and survive.

Prompto grabbed a fistful of peas from the spoon and shoved it toward his face. What remained on his fingers wound up smeared down the side of Cor's cheek.

“Thanks, kid,” Cor said. He grimaced and wiped it away.

Prompto laughed and stuck his fingers in his mouth.

Aranea poked at the rabbit, looking positively ravenous as the scent of cooking meat filled the air. Cor regarded her pale freckled cheeks and made a decision he was already sure he would regret.

“I'm headed for Tenebrae,” he said. “You can tag along if you want.”

She tore her eyes away from the sizzling meat and stared.

“What's in Tenebrae?”

“Friends,” Cor said. “Maybe people who can help you.”

“I can help myself.”

“I see that,” Cor said. “It's up to you, kid. Either come with me or stay here and freeze to death.”

“What's in it for you?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Cor said. “Except maybe I won't feel so bad about leaving a kid to starve out here.”

“That's mighty noble of you,” she said frostily.

“Mighty stupid of you to be a smart ass to the guy who's trying to help you out.”

“Mighty stupid of you to be out here in the first place. With a baby. Who isn't yours,” she said. “Where'd you steal him from, anyway?”

“That's for me to worry about.”

“If I'm going with you, I want the truth.”

Cor considered his options. Before he could decide whether to make up a lie or tell the truth, Aranea was beside him, Prompto's right arm in her grip.

She looked at the codeprint etched into his skin with a mixture of sorrow and anger.

“You stole an MT baby? Are you crazy?”

“Jury's still out on that,” Cor said.

She sat back on her heels when Prompto smiled at her and adopted an almost shy, coy posture.

“Why?” she asked.

“Could you leave a face like that behind?” Cor asked.

Aranea pinched Prompto's chin gently and sighed.

“Hard to believe this is what they look like before they turn them into killing machines,” she said and petted his cornsilk hair. “I heard they clone them by the hundreds...”

So, it was common knowledge, then. What they were making out there. How they made them.

“If you were smart, you'd get rid of him,” she said.

“Maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am,” Cor said. “Or maybe I have my reasons.”

“Anybody sees that codeprint and you're both dead.”

“I'm aware.”

Aranea watched him, then Prompto.

“Alright,” she said. “I'll go with you. But not to Tenebrae.”

“Excuse me?”

“You're going to Insomnia, right?” she said and got to her feet. She turned her back and flipped the rabbit on its spit. “That's where I want to go.”

Chapter Text

The girl might have been emaciated, small and too sharp for her own good, but Cor found out quick she was no slouch in a fight. She wasn’t very strong, but she made up for it by being fast and employing a dragoon-style high jump he’d heard stories about but had never seen in person. This kid had a gift, and a rare one at that.

She also trashed talked better than anyone he’d ever met, and that was saying something.

With a pair of snow lions dispatched, Cor wiped the blood from the blade of his katana and collected Prompto from the safety of a recess in the rocks behind him. He ignored the fiery pain in his shoulder as he brought the boy to his chest and turned to Aranea.

“Where the hell does an eleven-year-old girl learn something like what I just saw?” he asked.

Aranea ignored him and knelt down beside the larger of the two beasts and cut off its whiskers with one of her daggers.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a pair of pliers on you, would you?’ she asked.

“I must have left them in my other coat,” Cor said.

She glanced up at him and almost smiled.

“Oh, and I’m the smart ass.”

Cor almost smiled back.

“What are you doing?”

She moved onto the second beast and cut its whiskers off, too.

“These things sell for a pretty Gil,” she said. “Might get us enough for train tickets and food that doesn’t come in a can.”

Cor sighed and clutched Prompto tighter. This girl was breaking his heart. No eleven-year-old should need to know the going exchange rate for monster bits. It told him a lot about how she got on out here.

“Smart thinking, kid,” Cor said.

Aranea shrugged and pocketed her take.

The fight had taken a lot out of her. He poked through the remnants of his supplies, found a lone granola bar beneath the cans of peaches and soup and tossed it to her.

“Take five,” he said. “Eat that. I’ll scout the area to make sure we’re clear.”

Aranea stared at him, the granola bar in her fist like she might throw it back.

“Eat it, kid,” he said. “I can’t carry you both to Tenebrae.”

He took a turn around the clearing and saw no sign of a threat. Here the snowfall was patchy and it would soon give way to greenery as they began their descent out of the mountains and into friendly territory. That was a relief. He couldn’t get warm soon enough.

When he returned, Aranea offered him half of the granola bar and watched him with eyes that were too old and wise for someone so young. Whatever she’d been through, it showed.

“Are you going to tell me where you learned that dragoon shit?” he asked.

She didn’t answer right away. She took another bite of the snack, chewed, and turned her gaze toward the trail ahead.

“My mother,” she said. “She was a mercenary.” She paused to take another bite. “She taught me a few things.”

“And your father?”

Aranea crumpled the plastic wrapper in her fist and shoved it into her pocket.

“How come you didn't take the train like a normal person?” she asked. “You would have been in Tenebrae already.”

“A Lucian with a Nif baby is a little conspicuous,” Cor said.

She snorted. “So they were looking for you.”

“I don’t know,’ Cor said. “Didn’t want to take the chance.”

She glanced up at the sky, to the haze of clouds.

“How much further?” she asked.

“Maybe another couple hours,” he said.

“Then let’s get going,” she said.

It sounded like an order.

Cor almost smiled.


 

It was late afternoon by the time they crossed into Tenebrae. Aranea replaced Prompto’s makeshift diaper with her scarf, but that too was now soiled. Cor could feel and smell the warm dampness against his side and tried not to think too hard about it. It wasn’t the kid’s fault there weren’t any shops along the way, and Cor, in his reckless moment of sympathy for the boy, had not thought to steal a few diapers for the road.

They reached the edge of civilization just after dusk. Aranea’s foresight proved useful at the small grocery on the main street, where she sold the whiskers for 700 Gil apiece after a bit of haggling with the clerk.

The next order of business was to find few potions, diapers, and clean clothes for the three of them. The town didn’t have much to offer shopping-wise. No one seemed to carry potions or elixirs, and the only store that offered clothing of any kind was a strange, cluttered little place that looked to be part hardware store, part souvenir shop.

Cor selected a full-body onesie with moogles all over it. It was the only thing in the kid’s size and it was pink, but maybe that was a good thing. If they were searching for them, they would not be looking for a man with a girl-child, and Prompto was at that age where it was hard to tell.

Aranea browsed the meager selection while Cor considered what to do with them. If Prompto was a normal, unmarked baby, he would be easy to place in a nice home.

He was not a normal, unmarked child. Unless there was a way to remove the codeprint, nobody in their right minds would consider taking him on.

Perhaps it could be removed. The thought of that turned Cor’s stomach. It was one thing for an adult to choose to go through the painful process of having a bad choice of tattoo lasered off, but quite another thing to have it done to a child who probably already suffered when it was given.

“We’ll figure something out,” he said to Prompto.

Prompto smiled and pinched Cor’s earlobe.

Aranea held up a pair of t-shirts with a wide, evil grin.

“Which one?” she asked.

The one on the left said “Emperor Aldercapt is the BOMB,” with a cartoony image of something a little too similar to the lightning bombs he’d encountered after dark a few years back.

The other had a tonberry on the front with the words “I came, I saw, I cut a bitch."

Cor pointed to that one.

“Really?” she asked and held the bomb t-shirt “You don’t think this one’s funny?”

“Not in particular.”

“Whatever, I’m buying both,” she said and added a pair of red gym shorts to her choices.

The shorts were men’s and the would be far too big for her, but Cor didn’t argue the point. It wasn’t like there were a ton of options, and he was drained. The pain in his shoulder had only worsened over the course of the day, and he was pretty sure if he didn’t get it treated soon, it was going to get infected.

At least the Fleuret Manor was less than an hour away. He didn’t know the Oracle well, but they were acquainted, and he was an ally. Queen Sylva would be duty-bound to help, even if Cor was reluctant to ask.

Diapers, wipes, and clothing purchased, they ordered a pile of skewers and fried potatoes from the food truck beside the small hotel, and Cor paid for a room for the night.

Aranea demolished three skewers in the space of five minutes, glassy eyed and licking the sauce and grease from her fingers like she couldn’t get enough. The remaining two on her paper plate were gone before Cor even finished his second.

“Slow down, kid,” he said as he offered Prompto a tiny bit of meat as an experiment. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

Prompto shoved the bit into his mouth and exclaimed with what could only be delight. He stuck a hand out and opened and closed his fingers at Cor’s plate. Cor gave him a bite of the potatoes. Prompto liked that, too and demanded more.

“S’fine,” Aranea said through a mouthful of food.

“Not cleaning up your puke if you do,” he said, but he felt sorry enough for her that he took a skewer from his own plate and dropped it onto hers. “Keep an eye on the kid. Let him have some potatoes. I’m gonna grab a shower.”

Aranea waved him off and shoveled more food into her face.

Gods. Aranea ate like someone was going to steal it from her if she didn’t get it all down quick. He’d only seen ex-convicts and hostages eat like that and wondered if she’d been detained somewhere.

In the shower, the hot water felt good on his tired muscles, but it burned the hole in his back like fire. Pink-tinged water swirled down the drain as it washed away old, dried blood along with the fresh blood that seeped out of the wound under the water pressure against his skin.

By the time he was done, he was dizzy. Probably not from blood loss, but from exhaustion. He’d come a long way in the last three days, on foot with little food and an extra passenger. Even with youth and training on his side, the only thing that carried him this far was pure stubbornness and determination.

He changed into the sweat pants and t-shirt he’d bought earlier and emerged from the bath to find Aranea had already gotten Prompto cleaned and changed and was now feeding him small bites of leftover potato.

“Shower’s free, kid,” he said. “Throw your clothes out the door and I’ll have them laundered.”

She nodded, squeezed Prompto’s onsie-covered foot and stood up. She looked as drained as he felt.

Cor cleaned up the dinner mess, took the laundry to the night clerk, and settled down on the bed closest to the door with Prompto in his lap. He took in the kid’s features and wondered at where they came from. He’d seen pictures of Verstael Besithia, and though there were some possible similarities, Cor had a hard time imagining that evil little troll was this cute as a kid.

The kid was cute. Fair complected, big blue eyes that were just a shade off violet, long pale lashes and a head of hair the color of corn silk that stuck up in every direction. Except for the way he screamed when he was pissed about something, he was a happy, sweet child.

Cor didn’t know much about children, and he’d never considered what it would be like to have any of his own. He was a soldier. There was a war on. They called him immortal, but Cor always figured he would die on a battlefield some day. It didn’t make sense to father children, and then make them orphans.

Not to mention, how kids were made in the first place.

That would require a lot more than he was able to give.

“Dodaabee,” Prompto said and snuggled into Cor’s shoulder.

But this? This was nice. He liked the warm weight of the kid against his chest and the faint scent of baby powder and the soft grunting sounds the boy made as he settled in. It sparked some protective instinct he’d only ever felt for Reggie and his father before him. But it was different, too. This kid was completely helpless, unformed and small. They were battle trained soldiers who could take care of themselves.

It was different.

What the hell was he thinking?

“You’re all right, kid,” Cor said. “We’ll figure something out.”

Aranea emerged from the bath, swimming in her clothes, her pale cheeks flushed from the warmth of the shower, and her hair damp, but that was not what caught Cor’s attention. It was her skinny arms and legs, knobby wrists and knees. She was a walking skeleton. She wouldn’t have lasted another week out there in the cold, and he didn’t have a clue how she’d kept up with him all day.

He couldn’t help but respect that. Whatever drove her to keep going, it spoke of her strength.

She was too young, but with her skill, maybe she might find a place in the Kingsglaive. They were always looking for talent, and a kid as tough as she was would go pretty far. Maybe he could convince Drautos to take her on, even if she was too young to become a recruit.

She tucked one of her daggers under her pillow and climbed into bed with the other clutched underhand in her fist. Cor sighed but he didn’t mention it as he shut off the light. If she felt safer with her weapons close at hand, he wasn’t going to argue.


When Cor woke in the morning, he felt feverish and lethargic. Every joint hurt and it took a lot longer than usual to shake off the fog. The scent of coffee and bacon filled the room, and for a minute, he was reminded of his early childhood, before his parents passed. Saturday mornings were for bacon and pancakes smothered in butter and black currant syrup, and full pots of strong black coffee, fishing with his father and backyard adventure with his mother.

He sat up and shook it off as Aranea cast a glance at him over her shoulder. Prompto crawled across the carpet near her feet, exploring the patterns in the pile with pudgy hands.

“Got breakfast,” Aranea said. She turned around and squinted. “You look like shit.”

Cor half-laughed, half-groaned as he got out of bed. He was only 26 but he felt a lot closer to 60. Maybe the coffee would see him back to normal.

Aranea pushed a take-out container of bacon and eggs across the small table.

“We already ate,” she said. “Picked up the laundry, too.”

“Thanks.”

Cor sat down and Prompto latched onto his leg, whining. He picked the kid up and settled him on his knee and ate the cold eggs and bacon while Aranea watched from the end of the bed.

“What?” Cor asked.

“Just trying to figure you out.”

Cor paused and slid his eyes sideways at the girl.

“That makes two of us, kid,” he said.

Prompto grabbed a fist full of eggs from the container and shoved them into his mouth. Bits of egg flew everywhere, including into Cor’s lap. All he could do about it was sigh.

“So, what are you?” she asked. “Lucian military?”

“Something like that,” Cor said.

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

“I don’t kill kids,” he said. “Not even halfling mercenary thieves like yourself.”

“Even if they could kill you?”

Cor didn't doubt she could if she wanted to.  

“Did you plan on killing me?” he asked.

Aranea’s stare gave nothing away. “Maybe. If you tried anything funny.”

“Such as?”

Her lips pressed into a thin line and she shook her head. Cor set his plastic fork down.

“You have my word, okay?” he said.

Aranea kept staring. Cor didn’t know what else to say. He went back to eating, or trying to. Prompto was hell bent on getting himself a slice of bacon, so he relented and broke off a small bite and gave it to him.

“Num!”

“Why don’t you go get dressed?” he said to Aranea. “Unless you plan on staring at me for the next twenty minutes.”

“I’m good with staring.”

“Have it your way.”

That’s exactly what she did. She sat there and watched him in silence as he finished his meal. There was something unnerving about that, and about her, but he chalked it up to a lack of trust, and for that, he couldn’t blame her.


 By the time they arrived at the gates of the Fleuret Manor, Cor was simultaneously burning up and freezing to death. The day was bright and relatively warm compared to the mountains, but he couldn’t seem to shake off the chill, but felt too warm in his jacket.

He knew what that meant. He needed his wound treated, and he needed it now.

They were welcomed when he showed his credentials to the guard, and ushered upstairs as a wide-eyed Aranea stared at everything around her in awe.

“Never seen anything like this place,” she said. “Is all this for real?”

“It’s real,” he said.

As luck would have it, Queen Sylva was there, and not off somewhere in the countryside healing the sick. She greeted Cor warmly, though the last time they’d spoken, Cor had been all of 15 and reckless and hot-headed and borderline disrespectful. He was fortunate that Sylva didn’t hold it against him.

Gentiana stood at her side, silent and strange as she’d always been, and not a day older than the last time he’d seen her.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Cor,” she said.

“Likewise, your Majesty,” he said.

“What brings you to Tenebrae?”

Sylva cast her eyes at the scrawny girl at his side and then at the babbling Prompto on Cor’s hip. She didn’t ask questions.

“Passing through,” he said. “I hate to trouble you, but...”

“You’re wounded,” she finished.

How she knew that, Cor would never know, but he was grateful he didn’t have to spell it out.

“What?” Aranea demanded. “You didn’t say anything?”

“No big deal, kid,” he said. “And put a lid on the sass for the time being, alright? Now’s not the time.”

“Gentiana, perhaps you might find the children something to eat and introduce them to Ravus and Luna?” Sylva said.

“I'll stay here,” Aranea said.

“It’s alright kid,” Cor said. “You don’t want to watch this anyway.”

“But-”

“Go,” Cor said. “Eat something. Hang out with other kids.”

So far, Cor had not seen Aranea look scared about anything. She did now, and another little piece of his heart cracked in two. If she feared strangers, even kindly ones, why had she chosen to come with him?

“It’s alright,” he said. “I know them.”

Aranea allowed herself to be led away, but her eyes were hard and accusing as she glanced back over her shoulder. Cor nodded toward the door and put on an expression he hoped came across as reassuring. He probably only managed to look constipated.

“Come,” Sylva said and beckoned him toward a plush chaise lounge. “Let me have a look.”

Cor shrugged off his jacket, then shed his shirt. Sylva tutted at the wound and pushed him forcibly onto the lounge.

“It’s infected,” she accused.

“I know.”

She said nothing more and went to work, or whatever it was she did. Relief was almost instant, her magic working the bullet out of his flesh until it sprung free and hit the floor. He could feel the warmth of blood trickling down his back and the sting of the wound healing, but it was a hundred times better than it was when he walked in the door.

“Still reckless and impulsive, I see,” she said. “Another day and you might not be so fortunate.”

“Thanks,” he said and tried not to wince as she dabbed potion on the wound. “Appreciate your help.”

She hummed and pressed a hand to his skin, healing the remainder of the injury in seconds.

“You have a fever,” she said. “But with some rest, you’ll be fine in the morning.”

Sylva cleared her throat and set aside her potions and soiled bandages. Cor relaxed, but prepared himself for questions.

“Care to explain why you showed up here in the company of two young children?”

He didn’t, but he told her anyway as she seated herself in the chair across from him.

“That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you,” she said. “Who knew the Immortal was such a soft touch?”

“It’s not me being soft,” he said. “It’s... They’re just kids, Sylva. And the girl looks like she’s been on her own for a while. She eats like a starving dog.”

“And the boy?”

“I was there to learn what I could about what they’re making in those labs and how they make them,” Cor said. “I guess I can say he’s it.”

“No you may not,” she said. “However he came to be, he’s still a just a child.”

“Cool it,” he said. “I’m not going to let them dissect him or anything.”

“Then what do you plan to do?”

“I have no idea,” he admitted. “Reggie’s going to have a fit.”

“Perhaps not,” Sylva said. “The boy looks to be about the same age as Noctis. I’d imagine he’d have some sympathy. He’s just a baby after all.  Not a daemon."

“I”m counting on it,” Cor said.

“And the girl?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Kingsglaive might want her. She’s got potential.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

Cor sighed. “I was hoping maybe she could stick around here, though. I can figure something out for the kid, but I don’t know what the hell to do with her.”

“You are responsible for the both of them, Cor,” Sylva said. “You do understand that means you can not just drop them off somewhere and hope for the best. You chose this.”

“I know that,” he said. “I’m just trying to do what’s best for them.”

“Did you ever consider what’s best for them is you?”

“No.”

 That thought had yet to cross his mind.  

Until now.


 

Cor slept for almost a full day, and when he woke, he felt better and more refreshed than he had in a long, long time. It was said the Oracle’s magic was a magic like no other, and Cor was inclined to believe it. The bumps and bruises and aches and pains were gone when he crawled out of bed just past dawn and joined Sylva, her children, and his motley crew for breakfast. Prompto in a high chair next to Sylva, going to town on bits of toast, sausage and tiny bites of fruit.

He sat beside Aranea, who hovered over her plate like he planned to take it away and he nudged her lightly in the side.

“Sit up straight,” he said. “Plenty for everyone.”

She shot him a dirty look, but eased back and made some effort to eat more like a human and not a ravenous beast. Across the table, five-year old Luna’s face was a picture of sympathy.

They’d never met before, but he knew who she was without an introduction. At five, she was clearly her mother’s daughter.

“Hello,” she said to Cor. “I’m Lunafreya.”

“Cor,” he said.

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise, your Highness,” he said.

The boy at her side sneered. “The Immortal?” he asked.

“So they say,”Cor said.

“I don’t believe it.”

“Neither do I, kid.”

“The Immortal?” Aranea murmured as she looked up at him. “Wait... The Cor The Immortal?”

Cor could actually see the light bulb go off behind her eyes. He’d hoped he wouldn’t have to have that conversation with her. At least, not until the heat was off and they were safe in Insomnia. There was a bounty on his head in the more unfriendly parts of this area, and maybe if she’d known, she would have offed him back at camp.

“We’ll talk about that later,” he said. “Eat your breakfast. We’ve got a train to catch.”

Aranea blinked at him. “So you’re not gonna leave me here?”

“Not unless you want to stay.”

She shook her head.

“I really don’t get you,” she said.

Cor almost smiled.

“Ditto.”


 The train ride to Altissia was uneventful. Aranea, who had never been on a train before, jumped and startled at every bump along the tracks but settled down with Prompto in her lap after the first hour. She kept her eyes on the landscape beyond the window and didn’t say much. Cor took the opportunity to look over the documents he’d stolen from the Magitek Lab so that he’d be able to give Reggie a synopsis when they arrived.

The more in depth he got, the sicker it made him. He couldn’t help but look at Prompto and think of what he might have someday become.

He slept for a while, and when he woke, Aranea was singing an unfamiliar lullaby to Prompto, unaware that Cor was awake. She had a nice voice.

For a minute, Cor let his eyes remain slits as he watched the girl with her guard down. Though still painfully thin, the extra food had done her complexion some good. Her cheeks were still drawn and her eyes were still hollow, but there was color in her cheeks and her eyes seemed brighter.

“Ah-nay,” Prompto said sleepily.

“Aranea,” she said.

“Ah-nay,” he said again.

She smiled softly and petted his head. “Close enough.”

Cor feigned waking and Aranea’s soft expression shifted back to something harder. So, she did have a gentle side after all. Nice to see that whatever circumstances led her here, they hadn’t destroyed her completely.

From the landscape outside the window, Cor could tell they were nearing Altissia. From there, he’d drop in on Weskham, and then they’d take the ferry to Galdin Quay, and cross into Insomnia shortly thereafter.

He couldn’t be home soon enough. This mission had turned out to be taxing and much longer than planned, and he missed the city and going home to the comfort of his small apartment at the Citadel at the end of the day.

Altissia was bustling as usual, and a bright spot after so many days of trekking through mountainous, monochrome and uncivilized terrain. Tenebrae was an ethereal beauty, almost magical, but Altissia was clean, colorful, and alive.

Aranea remained wary but dazzled as she followed him along the cobblestone streets. Prompto hid his face from the sun and whined into Cor’s shoulder. It only then occurred to Cor, the kid had never been outside in full sunlight before.

He did his best to shield the kid, and when they boarded the gondola, he let him burrow under his jacket until they reached Maahgo, Weskham’s newly opened restaurant and bar. In the shade, the baby was happier and he reached out a hand for Aranea.

“Ah_nay!” he said. “Nay!”

Aranea was too busy staring at everything to notice. Cor nudged her shoulder as Prompto uttered his demand a little louder and a lot whinier.

“What?”

“You’re being summoned,” he said.

Some of the tension in her shoulders loosened and she squeezed his little hand. Cor was reluctant to hand him over, knowing how frail she actually was, but she gathered him up, settled him on her hip and continued on into the open space of the bar.

“If it isn’t Cor Leonis,” a familiar voice said. “How long has it been?’

“Five years, at least,” Cor said. He looked his friend over. “You’ve filled out.”

“Is that a suggestion I’ve gained weight?”

“It is.”

He hadn’t. He was still just as fit as Cor remembered.

“I’d have a few choice words for you, if you were not in the company of children.”

Cor angled his head at Aranea.

“You don’t have to worry about that one,” he said. “She already has a mouth on her.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Aranea said, as if to prove his point.

Weskham eyed her. “If I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d think she was yours.”

“She’s not.”

He looked at the boy and turned a curious gaze back on Cor.

“You really don’t want to know.”

“All right, then,” Weskham said. “Perhaps we could catch up over a beer before the lunch rush starts.”

Cor wasn’t much of a drinker, but he could appreciate a quality brew when he was in the mood. They snacked on steamed oysters and fresh baked bread and chatted about old times for a while. Aranea made a face every time she slurped an oyster from its shell, but she ate them without complaint.

“Don’t like them?” Cor asked.

“Tastes like snot.”

“Then don’t eat it.”

“A girl can’t be too picky,” she said under her breath and sucked down another.

Cor stopped her and took the plate away.

“Weskham, you got anything else ready? Maybe some more bread?” he asked. “Sorry to be a pain, but... It’s a long story.”

“I’ve some clam chowder,” Weskham said. “Will that do?”

He looked at Aranea.

“Never had it, but I’ll eat it, whatever it is,” she said and reached for the plate in Cor’s hands. “Give that back.”

“You wanna eat snot? Be my guest,” he said and returned the plate.

He turned to tend to the high chair bound Prompto and righted the upended sippy cup, removed the soggy bread bits from the tray and offered him a fresh bite. From the corner of his eye, he saw a skinny, small hand wrap around his glass of beer.

“Hands off,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because you’re eleven.”

“And?”

“This is not a debate.”

“I’ve had beer before.”

“Not on my watch.”

“You suck.”

“If you say so,” he said.

This kid was something else.

But, man was she growing on him.

 

Chapter Text

Her mother always said it was money that made the world go 'round.

“Love is for fools and kids,” she'd said. “Love won't pay the bills. Remember that, baby girl. Nothing in this world that's really free. Everything has its price.”

“What about presents and stuff?” Aranea wondered. “Or the things people do to be nice?”

“Those are the most expensive,” Mother said. “Eventually, they'll want something in return. Not now. Not right away, but eventually they'll expect their due.”

Aranea pondered that, not totally convinced her mother was right. She searched for something to counter Mother's argument, for something that was really and truly free. 

Then -

“What about air?” Aranea asked, her hands on her eight-year-old hips, sure she'd outsmarted her brilliant, beautiful mother this time. “That's free.”

“You think so?” Mother asked. “Every breath you draw takes you a little closer to death. And death always gets his due. In the end.”

Aranea stopped breathing. She held her breath until her lungs burned and her face turned pink.

Mother laughed and tugged Aranea's pigtails.

“That's the crux of it, baby,” Mother said. “The things you need to stay alive are the things that will eventually kill you.”

“Even money?”

“Most especially money.”


 

Aranea wasn't sure what to make of Cor the Immortal. He was an enigma, as her mother would say. He was at once kind, deadly, and indifferent. She knew all three to be true. Even wounded, the man was a force to be reckoned with, the kind of fighter Aranea wished to be. Like her mother.

So far, she hadn't been able to piece together his reasons for letting her tag along, nor his reasons for taking the Magitek Clone. She couldn't read him. Most people, she could read.

Lunafreya and Ravus Nox Fleuret, for example. The girl was as pious and selfless they came and the kind of girl Aranea wanted to hate on principle. Luna was the kind of girl that would some day sacrifice her own health and happiness to serve others, like her mother before her.

Ravus, on the other hand, was a conceited little shit. If there was an ounce of kindness in him, he showed it only to Luna. He might grow to be tall and strong, but he was the type to bank too much on his family name rather than make a name for himself on his own. He would have no friends, only subordinates.

That, at least, Aranea could identify with.

“You are the only person in the world you can trust, baby girl. You and you alone. Everyone else is either an ally, an enemy, or insignificant.”

Cor, Aranea couldn't get a read on at all. His actions so far said he was an ally, but he was also the enemy. Not that Aranea sided with the Empire, either. They'd done her no favors.

She sat beside him on the ferry to Leide, sweating bullets in the warm sunshine and wondered why he hadn't left her behind back in Gralea.

Then she wondered why she hadn't slit his throat in his sleep.

She could have. It would have been easy. Her blades were sharp. She would have made it quick. He would have felt nothing.

He was a Lucian. Fucking Cor the Immortal, of all people. The price on his head in Niflheim was steep. Aranea could have survived off that take for a year or more if she was conservative. Of course, like her mother before her, Aranea loved to spend money as much as she loved to earn it, as small as her takes often were and as hard to come by as it was. It wouldn't have lasted half as long as it should have.

Maybe she was a little glad she hadn't killed him, even though she didn't trust him. Her mother told her never to trust anyone but herself. People will turn on you and let you down or sell you out if they thought it would get them ahead in life, she said. Eventually, he would want something from her. She just wasn't sure what it would be yet.

“Ah-nay,” Prompto said and reached out a small, pudgy hand.

Aranea didn't hesitate to liberate the boy from Cor's grasp. He babbled happily as she settled him into her lap and she thought of the way things used to be. It felt like forever ago.

“He likes you,” Cor said.

“I have a feeling he'd like anyone who paid attention to him,” she said and brushed her fingertips over the child's soft cheek. It reminded her of things best left forgotten. “I doubt they bothered.”

Cor's expression was troubled as he looked away to the strange rock formation on the horizon. It looked like angel wings against the cerulean sky.

It was more than a case of the kid liking her, but Aranea couldn't tell Cor about Egg. She could barely think about him without becoming so filled with rage, she felt it in her very bones.

Egg, with his bright smile and sing-song baby talk, his expressive eyes and infectious laugh. It was Egg who made her question her mother's stance on love, and what it meant. At age nine, Aranea was both a fool and a child, and she loved him like he belonged to her.

“How much longer?” she asked, not that she cared.

It was a distraction, a safeguard against drifting backward into a whirlpool of self-pity.

Cor pointed to the rock wings on the horizon.

“That's Angelgard,” he said. “We'll land just past it, in Galdin Quay. From there, it's a few hours drive to the city gates.”

Aranea bounced Prompto on her knee until he threw his head back and laughed. Clone or MT or whatever he was meant to be, he was still flesh and blood, and so very human with his fat little arms and his bright blue-violet eyes.

“What happens then?” she asked.

“We'll figure it out,” he said.

“You don't have a plan?” she asked.

“Do you?” he asked.

She had a plan, just maybe not a good one. Her reasons for following him to Insomnia were a complicated mix of desperation and a desire to find answers to truths she wasn't even sure were true.

“Are they going to kill him?” she asked of Prompto.

“No,” he said, but he didn't sound so sure.


 

A car met them in Galdin Quay.

Aranea tried not to stare too hard at the people who stared at her, but it was aggravating to be looked at like she was some frail little waif. She was aware of how bad she looked. She'd seen herself in the mirror recently. Too pale, hollowed out face, twigs for arms and legs. She knew.

“Your father should be ashamed of himself,” some blue-haired old woman hissed as she passed.

“He's not my father,” Aranea snapped. “Mind your own damn business, you old witch.”

The woman gasped. Aranea smiled. Cor sighed, eternally put-upon.

Prompto laughed.

Gods, the kid was cute. Aranea softened and pinched his nose. He laughed some more.

Hard to believe anything the Empire made could be this adorable or sweet. What a shame, too. She thought of all those metal soldiers she'd glimpsed from behind the cover of trees, and once up close, and couldn't put the two things together in her mind. Then she thought of Egg and tried to imagine the same cruel fate for him.

That brought the sting of tears to her eyes.

She wasn't going to cry over it. Never again. She'd shed her tears and moved on. No sense in wasting time crying over things she couldn't change. Egg was dead, but at least he hadn't been turned into dark mist to fuel empty soldiers. She had that to be thankful for.

Cor waved her on and Aranea followed with thoughts of picking the pockets of these rich people and setting off on her own. Surely if she'd survived Gralea, she could survive here. Staying warm wouldn't be a problem. Warmth meant more plentiful wildlife and vegetation she could eat. She could, if she wanted to.

Maybe.

It was only thoughts of her wasted limbs and the rumble in her stomach and her half-assed plan that kept her following like a good little girl.

The car waited at the end of a long pier, sleek and black with dark windows. She could barely make out the shape of two people behind the glass, one in the driver's seat, the other in the passenger. She froze and stared, and one hand wrapped instinctively around her dagger.

“They're allies,” Cor said.

Allies. A word her mother would have used. Not friends.

“Come on kid,” Cor said.

He opened the back door. Inside was dark and cavernous.

Aranea would never admit she was afraid, but the thought of being inside a car with strangers chilled her to the bone. The last time she'd ridden in a vehicle hadn't turned out so well.

Her mother's blood was still on her hands. Egg's, too. Four MT' soldiers and a battered, exhausted ten-year-old girl. That road led to the camp that wasn't a camp, full of insurgents and rebels in need of brainwashing. Indoctrination, they'd called it.

Aranea shook off the memory and climbed hesitantly into the back of the car. Cool air washed over her, carrying with it the clean spicy scent of a man's perfume as well as the odor of fried food and onions. Her stomach clenched at the latter.  Gods, would she ever stop being hungry?

Cor slid into the space beside her, Prompto clutched to his chest.

“Drautos,” he greeted. “Thanks for coming.”

“King's orders,” the older man in the passenger seat said. “What in the name of all the Gods have you done, Leonis?”

“Classified,” Cor said. “Need to know only.”

“I need to know,” the man said.

The man looked at Aranea and his frown deepened. It wasn't disgust she saw in his face but some sort of recognition, though she was sure they'd never crossed paths before.

“His Highness said nothing about children,” he said.

“I'm not a child,” Aranea said under her breath.

In terms of age, she was, but she didn't feel like a kid anymore. Those days were long gone. Childhood ended the moment she watched her family die and could do nothing to stop it.

“What's your name, girl?” he asked.

“You first,” she said.

“I won't take sass from a kid,” he said. “Tell me your name.”

“What's yours?” she asked.

He sighed and wiped a hand across his perspiring brow.

“Titus Drautos,” he said. “Captain of the Kingsglaive.”

She'd heard of the Kingsglaive, a military force spoken about in whispers back at the camp.

“Your name, girl.”

“Highwind,” she said. “Aranea Highwind.”

“Highwind?” he murmured, then sighed. “Your mother was a mercenary.”

Aranea stiffened. Cor must have told him. Or someone.

“What about it?”

He ignored her question and ordered the driver to proceed. Cor stayed silent as they pulled out of the parking area and onto the road. The other two didn't speak, either.

It was a long and silent drive, first through rocky terrain, and then desert. Here and there, they passed ruined structures that must have once been houses and dilapidated buildings, past ruined machinery and long yellow pipes. The vegetation was sparse and what looked alive was short and scrubby and ugly.

The place looked dead and abandoned. Survival here was unlikely.

After what seemed forever, the driver pulled into an outpost, one of the largest and most impressive Aranea had ever seen, and got out to fill the tank with gas. Cor climbed out as well.

“Stay here,” he said. “I'll be but a minute.”

Aranea did not want to stay in this car with this Drautos person. There was something about him that chafed, though she couldn't say exactly what. She'd known plenty like him, back at the camp, but so far he hadn't struck her or tried to touch or hurt her and that put him a step above those men. Not by much, since they'd only just met, and there was still plenty of time to prove himself an ass.

“How old are you, girl?” he asked as Aranea watched Cor approach the mouth of a garage, a smiling Prompto on his hip. “And don't lie.”

She had no reason to lie. She told him the truth.

“Eleven,” he echoed thoughtfully and rubbed his chin. “Was your mother's name Alina?”

“What's it to you?” she asked.

“I might have been acquainted with her, once upon a time,” he said. “You look like her.”

“She's dead,” Aranea said flatly.

The stoic captain actually looked stricken for a second. Aranea wondered how the two could have possibly been acquainted. If memory served, her mother rarely, if ever, took work from Lucians. It wasn't due to sympathetic reasons. The pay was too low. The Empire paid better. Simple as that.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” he said. “She was an... exceptional woman.”

“And yet, she's dead,” Aranea repeated.

“And your father?”

“Never knew the guy,” she said. “Split before I was born. You want my life story or something?”

“No, I want to know why Leonis brought you here.”

“Out of the kindness of his heart?” she asked.

Drautos smiled and Aranea fought off a wave of disgust. It was a gross kind of smile, one that didn't reach his eyes.

“If that man has a heart, I'll eat my own socks.”

Aranea snorted, but his words were at odds with what she already knew to be true. Though gruff and distant, Cor the Immortal was also kind enough to feed a thief and save a baby from cruel experiments. Not for information, either. His own words the night they met betrayed him.

“I'm sure the diner has ketchup,” she said. "Help yourself."

Drautos laughed.

“You are very much like your mother.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” she said.

Beyond the window, Cor was having a terse argument with a short man dressed like a mechanic. A child clutched at his leg and stared up at Prompto with big, sad eyes. It was hard to tell if the child was a girl or a boy from the way it was dressed, though the mop of long, curly blond hair suggested a girl.

Aranea hit the button on the door and climbed out. She didn't want to stay in this car with Drautos. He made her nervous with all his questions.

“What in tarnation were you thinkin', Cor?” the smaller man shouted. “And here I done thought you'd growed up, but you're still a damn fool if there ever was one.”

“Please, Cid,” Cor said. “I'm out of options.”

“And that's your own damn fault, ain't it?” the man said. “Now, I'd like to help you out, but I got troubles of my own and I can't be dealin' with yours too. Those days are gone, my friend. It ain't like it used to be.”

“And whose fault is that?” Cor asked. “You're the one who said fuck it and walked away.”

The man laid a hand against the child's ear to shield her from Cor's language.

“I had my reasons,” the man said. “I don't es'pect you to understand. Now, I got work to do and a granddaughter to look after, so you jest go on and git. I ain't got time for this.”

“Cid...”

“I'm real sorry, Cor. I am, but I can't be cleanin' up after you no more,” Cid said and turned away. “Come along, Cindy. Paw-paw's gonna show you how to fix a cracked radiator.”

There was bad blood here. It reeked of a friendship gone sour. In spite of herself, Aranea was curious.  

Cor stood there for a minute, watching the man and child walk away, with his shoulders drooping and his hand clenched at his side. He clutched Prompto tighter and turned around, and when his eyes found Aranea watching, there was something raw and sad in them.

“Get in the car,” he said.

Aranea didn't know why, but she felt sorry for him.

 


 

 Aranea heard Insomnia was big, but she didn't think it would be this big. She watched the buildings grow taller and taller the closer they got to their destination. It was a good distraction from the awkward silence and Cor's intensity.

She was second guessing everything, including her decision to follow him here. Maybe she could have made it to Lucis on her own, without his help. Maybe her reasons for coming weren't all that important.

Too late now.  There was no going back.

Prompto slept against her shoulder, a thumb crammed in his mouth, unaware they could be approaching certain doom. Who knew what these Lucians would do to him. Who knew what they would do to her.

After an eternity crawling through traffic, the car stopped in front a group of buildings so tall, she was sure the top floor would touch the clouds. Cor took Prompto from her and looked up at the stairs leading up to the entrance with a mixture of dread and relief.

“This where you live?” Aranea asked.

Cor nodded. “I have an apartment here.”

“Geez. How do people live all stacked on top of each other like this?”

She'd seen these kinds of buildings before, but none so tall, and it had always been tough to imagine living with so many people so close at hand. Her own house, back before everything went to shit, was a tiny But cozy three-room cabin outside of Niflheim, and their nearest neighbor was at least five miles away. She was used to wide open spaces, not this claustrophobic, congested chaos.

“It doesn't seem that way inside,” he said. “Come on. I need to report.”

Aranea followed him up the steps, trying to hide the weakness in her legs and the lack of breath in her lungs when they reached the top. A year ago, she could have sprinted to the top with little effort, but every movement was a struggle now. Even with all the extra food this past week, her body was still too frail and tired.

“Weakness is not in the body, but the mind, Aranea,” her mother once said. “You can always keep going, no matter how bad off you are, unless you're weak.”

“What if you're bleeding to death?” Aranea asked.

“Then you can either fight until you lose consciousness, or you can lie down and wait for the end,” her mother said. “Highwinds never quit. They never lay down and wait to die.”

She struggled to keep her breathing even, but her head spun and her vision went a hazy white. Still, she pressed on, trying with all her might to keep pace with Cor's long stride.

By the time they reached an ornate set of doors, Aranea struggled not to fall to her knees to catch her breath.  Aranea was no quitter.

The room beyond those doors was large, with a set of curved steps leading up to a platform at the far end of the room. A man in black sat upon a throne looking like an evil overlord as he frowned down at Cor's approach. At his side, a massive beast of a man clad in robes glowered.

This must be the King and his bodyguard.

“Cor.”

“Highness,” Cor said and offered a half bow. “Clarus.”

“When you didn't report, I thought for sure we'd lost you.”

“Almost.”

“And when Drautos informed me you were returning with two children in tow, I thought for sure he was mistaken.”

Cor looked to Aranea. Was that regret she saw in his eyes? Or something else?

“What is the meaning of this?” the King asked.

“Well, you know how impulsive I can be.”

“Indeed,” the King said. There was a hard edge in his voice. “Explain yourself.”

Aranea's legs began to shake. The dizziness hadn't passed and her heart raced.

“The boy... is what they're making up there,” Cor said. “Hundreds of them at a time. They... It's inhumane, Highness. I have documents.”

“And you felt it necessary to bring one of them back?” the bodyguard asked. “To do what with?”

“I... I don't know,” Cor said. “But just look at him, Clarus. If this was Gladio or Noctis-”

“He's not Gladio or Noctis.”

“He could be," Cor said. “There's nothing wrong with him. He's just a normal baby.”

A man in an ornate black uniform stepped forward on Clarus' signal and held out his arms to take Prompto away.

“Hand him over, Cor,” Clarus said. “We'll dispose of the problem.”

Dispose.  As in kill?

“NO!” Aranea shouted and placed herself between the soldier and Cor. “You're not taking him.”

All eyes fell on Aranea. She knew how she must look to them. Small and frail and weak.

She laid a hand on her dagger and drew it, heedless of the danger. The soldier was bigger, stronger, and probably better trained than she was, but there was no way she'd let them kill him.

“Aranea,” Cor hissed. “Put that away.”

“No,” she said. “You can't let them do this, Cor. You can't! I won't let them.”

He put a hand on her shoulder but Aranea batted it away.

“He's just a baby!” she said.

“You're the one who said I should leave him.”

She did say that, but that was before he reminded her of Egg and his bright smile and infectious laugh.

“I was wrong, okay?” she said. “I was wrong. Don't let them kill him. Please don't.”

The room was spinning now. It was getting harder to breathe, like the air had turned to tar. She had maybe ten seconds before she passed out to convince them or stop them. That was all, and she knew it.

“Out of the way, kid,” the soldier said, but not unkindly.

“I swear to all the Gods, if you do this, I will kill every last one of you,” she said and turned her foggy gaze to Cor. “Don't let them do this.”

There was real pain in his eyes, maybe even the beginnings of tears, but she couldn't be sure.

She didn't care. With the last of her strength, she dropped her dagger and snatched Prompto from his grasp and wrapped her arms tight around his small body. He began to cry, startled by the abruptness of her seizure, but she cradled the back of his head and pressed it to her shoulder as she slipped to her knees, dizzy and sick and tired.  

“If you're going to kill him, you might as well kill me too,” she said.

She lifted her eyes to the King sitting comfortably on his throne.

“And then I'm going to haunt you for the rest of your miserable life,” she said.

The world tilted. Everything went stark white and her skin grew icy cold like she lay in a snowdrift, like she was bleeding out.

At least she wouldn't feel it.


 When Aranea woke, the room around her was a stark white and it smelled medicinal and antiseptic. She tried to sit up but found her body was strapped down, her wrists and ankles bound to metal rails at her sides. There were tubes in her arm, a pale yellow liquid in a bag above her.

“No!” she shrieked. “Let me up!”

“Shh, kid,” Cor said softly. “You're okay.”

She turned her head and found him sitting in a chair by the window, Prompto asleep against his shoulder. She breathed a sigh of relief and felt her eyes prickle with tears.

Alive. He was alive.

Cor got up and moved his chair closer, shifting Prompto to his other shoulder. The boy mumbled in his sleep and sighed softly, and Aranea was reminded of the way Egg sometimes did the same.

"Get this shit off me," she said.

"Sorry, kid.  Can't."

"You can, you just won't."

"You pulled a weapon in the presence of a King," he said.  "Congratulations. You made yourself a threat."  

"I'd do it again," she said.

He rubbed Prompto's back and looked her over.  

"When are they going to let me out?" she asked.  

“You passed out,” Cor said. “You were dehydrated and exhausted.”

“Tell me something I don't know.”

Cor sighed.

“They're going to keep you under observation for a couple days,” he said.

“And what about him?” she demanded.

“They're not going to kill him,” Cor said. “Relax.”

Thank all the Gods.

“And what are they going to do?”

“Don't know yet,” Cor said. “Probably find a family we can trust to raise him. Monitor his progress.”

“You're going to give him away?” she said. “You can't do that.”

Cor sighed again.

“I'm... not equipped to raise a kid,” he said. “I'm a solider. Not a family man.”

“Bullshit,” Aranea snapped. “That's an excuse. I saw you with him.”

Cor stared at the needle in her arm.

“And what about me?” she asked.

“That stunt you pulled,” he said. “Drawing a weapon in the throne room? That's punishable by death.”

That knocked the wind out of her. She didn't know why. She should have expected it. She did expect it, to some degree. In hindsight, not the smartest move, but what else was she supposed to do? They were talking about killing an innocent kid just because of where he came from.

“I convinced them to give you a chance,” he said. “But you're going to have to toe the line from here on out.”

“Have you met me?”

Cor almost smiled. He did that a lot, she noticed. The almost smiling thing. Like he wanted to laugh but held back. It was sort of charming.

“I'm sorry, kid,” he said.

“For what?”

“Everything.”

“Bringing me here, you mean?” she asked bitterly. “You gonna give me away, too?”

“Once you're better, they'll keep you in holding,” he said. “Until we can find a suitable home for you.”

“I don't want a suitable home,” she said. “What are you sorry for?”

“Just... they way they were in there,” he said. “And for not seeing how run down you were. The... doctor said you probably wouldn't have lasted another week without medical attention. I didn't realize... And that's my fault.”

Aranea slid her eyes shut. She was so tired. She felt drugged.

“That's because Highwinds never quit,” she said. “I'd rather die than give up.”

Chapter Text

Cor watched Aranea sleep, guilt resting heavily on his shoulders. Feeding her had helped, but it wasn't enough to turn back the tide without medical intervention. Every one of her organs had been on the verge of shut-down from extended starvation. Her heart in particular was in jeopardy, weakened to the point of near failure.

She would live, but there was no way to tell if the damage was permanent or not.

Pulling a dagger in the throne room was only half the reason she was trussed up on the gurney like a sacrifice. The doctors, and Reggie too, were afraid she might rip out the IV's in her arms or even try to run. Half-conscious, with her face a bleached white and her eyes unfocused, she'd fought the medical staff like all of hell was on her heels.

Cor felt awful about the whole thing. Truth be told, he'd walked into the throne room expecting the worst. What he hadn't been prepared for was Aranea's reaction. What kind of kid was willing to take on a King, his bodyguard, and a member of the Kingsglaive like that? All for a kid she'd known less than a week?

At the time, he'd been too stunned to intervene. She broke his heart in five different ways in less than five minutes. The sight of her kneeling on the floor, holding onto Prompto, ready to die to save him, had utterly crushed him.

“If you choose to do this,” Cor had said to Clarus as a medical team tended to Aranea, “consider this my resignation.”

“We never planned to kill the kid.”

“Then what did you mean by dispose of?” Cor asked.

And he'd walked away from his old friend without waiting for an answer.

Now, he sat beside Aranea, waiting for other answers. Not all of them had to do with her heath.

“Cor?”

He turned toward the familiar voice and nodded his greeting. Monica stepped into the room with offerings of a pastry wrapped in paper and a cup of coffee. She set both on the small table beside him and sank into an empty chair.

She didn't say anything for a few minutes, just watched the sleeping girl on the bed. There wasn't much that moved Monica, but Cor read the sympathy in her eyes loud and clear.

“She really pulled a dagger on Ipsen?” she finally asked.

“She did.”

“You sound proud of her.”

“It's what I should have done.”

“Why didn't you?”

Cor shook his head and shifted Prompto in his lap. The baby yawned softly, grunted, and opened his eyes. He stared at Monica, then burrowed his head against Cor's chest, smiling a sleepy but coy smile. He'd smiled at Cid's granddaughter that way, too, not that Cindy noticed. She was too busy staring at Cor like he might morph into a daemon and eat them both alive. Poor kid.

Monica noticed Prompto's smile, and she smiled back.

“Good looking kid, for an MT.”

“He's not an MT,” Cor said.

“He would have been.”

“Not anymore,” Cor said.

Monica punched him lightly in the arm. Cor pretended she hadn't. On his lap, Prompto flexed a pudgy hand.

“Ah-nay?”

“Monica,” he said.

“Mom?”

“Oh, Gods, kid. No,” Monica said, horror-struck. “I'm definitely not your mom.”

Cor chuckled.

“I think the lady doth protest too much,” Cor said to Prompto.

“Me and kids don't go together,” Monica said. “Diapers and puke and snot... just, no.”

“It's not so bad,” Cor said. “You get desensitized to it after a couple days. Not much different from monster guts.”

“Speak for yourself,” Monica said.

“Guess that means I can't convince you to help me out.”

“If you mean you want me to raise one or both of them, the answer is go fuck yourself,” Monica said. “But, maybe I could be convinced to babysit. Just tonight, so you can grab a shower and some sleep.”

“Yeah?” Cor asked.

“Just tonight. This isn't going to be a regular thing.”

“I'm not keeping them.”

“Right,” Monica said.

“Mom-mom-mom,” Prompto sang.

“I'm not your mom,” Monica said and squeezed a pudgy little hand. “Trust me, I'd probably forget you in a grocery store or something, kiddo.”

Prompto clapped. “Mom-mom-mom-Ah-nay!”

On the bed, Aranea stirred, opened her eyes, foggy but panicked until her gaze fell on Prompto, alive and unharmed. Then she turned her attention to Monica.

“You his wife?” she croaked.

“Gods no,” Monica said. “Men are nothing but trouble. This one especially.”

“Hey, I'm a catch,” Cor deadpanned.

He wasn't. He was frustrating. And difficult. Unromantic in the extreme. Many a woman had told him so, back when he still bothered to pretend he was interested in dating and relationships.

“Yeah, the way you catch a cold,” Monica said.

“You guys are weird,” Aranea mumbled.

Her eyes slid shut. Cor waited for her to say something else, but she was gone again.

“So what are you going to do?” Monica asked.

“I don't know,” Cor said.

Monica sighed and reached for Prompto.

“Come on, handsome,” she said to the boy. “Let's go play with knives or something. If you're good, you can have some matches, too, while your daddy gets some rest.”

Cor gave Monica his nastiest look. She grinned back and clutched the boy awkwardly to her chest.

“Anything I need to know?” she asked. “What does he eat?”

“Everything, so far,” Cor said. “Make sure you cut it small.”

“Yes, dad.”

“Stop.”

Monica stood up and Prompto shoved a handful of her hair toward his mouth. Cor kicked the backpack full of diapers and baby stuff toward her.

“You'll need that,” he said.

“Yes, dad.”

“Seriously. No.”

Monica actually giggled. Cor couldn't say he'd ever heard the woman giggle once in the ten years they'd known each other.

“You better get some sleep,” she said. “The girl's not going anywhere.”

“Yes, Mom,” Cor said.

“Mom-mom-mom!”

“How about we go with Auntie Monica instead, kiddo?” Monica said. “Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?”

“Tee-mom?”

“Yikes,” Monica said, but she patted his back. “Mon-Ih-Ka.”

“Mommmmmm,” Prompto said and laid his hand against her chin with a big, bright smile. “Mom!”

Monica shook her head and repeated her name. Prompto was undeterred.

“Hey, Monica?” Cor said. “Thanks. For giving me a break.”

“I'd say any time, but this is just a one time thing,” she said with a knowing smile. “Right?”

“Correct.”

“I'll swing by your place in the morning,” Monica said. “You'd better be there.”

“I will.”


 

Cor did not sleep. He didn't want Aranea to wake up alone. Or for anyone to pay her a visit while he wasn't there, doctors included.

When his eyes grew heavy, he left the room in search of coffee, only to run into Clarus in the small lounge next to the beverage station. There were two cups of coffee, steaming hot, in his grasp. He offered one like an apology.

Cor ignored him and poured his own cup. He was still too furious for a friendly chat.

“Still not talking to me?” Clarus asked.

Cor grunted his response and stirred in four sugars. No cream.

Dispose of was a poor choice of words,” Clarus said.

“Was it.”

Cor sipped the coffee and pretended it didn't scald his tongue.

“It was only a test.”

“After all these years you still think my loyalty needs to be tested?”

“It wasn't your loyalty I was testing.”

Cor took another sip. Still too damn hot, but he was too stubborn to let it show.

“What, exactly did you want to know?” Cor asked. “How likely I was to put my blade through a Glaive's eye for laying a hand on a kid? The answer is pretty fuckin' likely. Lucky for you, and Ipsen, the girl beat me to it.”

“I'm sor-”

Cor held up a hand.

“Save it. You didn't need to pull that shit in front of the girl,” Cor cut in. “What the hell was the point of all that? She wasn't the only one who thought you were serious.”

Cor felt Clarus' eyes on him but Cor refused to look at him. He half blamed Clarus' stupid test for Aranea's collapse. She might have fallen out anyway, and only the Gods knew how it hadn't happened sooner with her body in such poor shape, but the extra stress certainly played into it.

“Tell me why you went on a recon mission and came back with two kids.”

Cor finally looked Clarus in the eye and took a slow, deliberate sip of the coffee. It tasted like shit, but it was strong. He needed to stay awake. Just in case.

“I came back with the information you asked for.”

“And two kids.”

“Don't tell me you wouldn't have done the same,” Cor said. “If you'd seen that room, you would have wanted to take every last one of them.”

“And the girl?”

His feelings about Aranea were already complicated. She scared the shit out of him, but she also reminded him of himself. Tough, sarcastic, and stubborn.

“I doubt I would have made it out of the mountains without her help,” Cor said. “She might be sick, and she might be small, but she's one hell of a fighter.”

“Funny thing about that,” Clarus began.

“There was nothing funny about it, Clarus,” Cor said. “I'm loyal to a fault, but I still would have faced your sword before I'd let anyone hurt a child. Any child. What you did was cruel.”

“I know that,” Clarus said. “And for what it's worth, I am sorry. It was a mistake. I owe you both an apology.”

“Don't apologize to me,” Cor said. “She's the one you owe an apology to. I can't say if she's going to accept it, though. You can try.”

Clarus bowed his head, heaved a regretful sigh, and then sank his massive body into the nearest chair. He didn't quite fit. Cor might have made a joke, but he was still pissed enough to keep his silence.

“What do you know about her?” Clarus asked.

“Not much,” Cor said. “But I gather she's been through hell.”

“The doctors are telling me they're not sure how she was still standing,” Clarus said.

Cor rubbed his tired eyes. He needed sleep. He'd been home for almost a day and had yet to sleep in his own bed.

“She was in worse shape when she found me,” Cor said. “Pretty sure she hadn't eaten in a while.”

Clarus sighed. “Poor kid. Think she's running from something?”

“Maybe.”

“Is it going to bring trouble to our doorstep?”

“She's eleven.”

“And? Maybe she knows something.”

“You're not going to interrogate her.”

“I'll have to, eventually. To be sure.”

“Of what?” Cor was getting annoyed. “You think she faked sick to get across the border?”

“You know as well as I do the Nifs use child spies from time to time. I wouldn't put it past them to starve a kid. Someone that bad off will do just about anything to survive.”

Cor sighed and rubbed his eyes again.

“Goddamnit.”

“She might be more valuable as a hostage,” Clarus continued. “Depending on who she's running from.”

“Stop,” Cor snapped. “Just stop, Clarus.”

“What?”

“The only thing you're testing right now is my patience,” Cor said.

Clarus sighed and sipped his coffee. He made a face and spit it back into the cup.

“You'd think they'd use decent grounds,” he muttered. “How can you drink this shit?”

Cor stared over the rim of his cup and took a long, exaggerated swallow.

“I want her unlocked,” Cor said. “She's not going to stab anyone.”

“How do you know that for sure?”

“I have her daggers,” Cor said.

“There are other things she could use as a weapon.”

“I'm aware,” Cor said. “Right now, the only person she's a danger to is herself.”

“Fine, but I'm holding you personally responsible.”

“Fine.”

Cor threw his empty coffee in the trash and rubbed his tired eyes again. They felt raw, they way they did after a swim in the ocean. His eyelids felt heavy.

“Is there a reason you're here?” Cor asked. “It's three in the morning.”

“Why are you here?” Clarus countered.

Why, indeed?


 

Cor did not go to his apartment. He went back to Aranea's room and carefully undid the velcro straps around her wrists, ankles and the one across her chest. She shifted and moaned softly in her sleep. The corners of her mouth turned downward in a frown, but she didn't wake.

That was probably due to a combination of exhaustion and the drugs they'd given her to help her stay asleep. Not to keep her docile, so they said. Cor guessed it was probably a little of both.

He dozed in the chair beside her bed and woke to early morning sunlight at the windows. His watch said it was going on six.

With a groan, he sat up and stretched, covered a yawn with his hand and looked to the bed.

Aranea wasn't there.

“Shit.”

Cor shot to his feet and crossed the room in three steps, flung open the door and looked up and down the hall for any sign of her.

Nobody was screaming or bleeding. That was a good sign.

“Aranea?” he called softly.

The door to his right opened and Aranea lurched out on skinny chocobo legs. She had one hand wrapped around the pole of her IV stand and used it as a crutch on her way back to the bed.

“What?” she asked.

Cor had forgotten there was a bathroom. All of the private rooms in the Citadel's medical center had them. Aranea had no reason to use it. They'd given her a catheter shortly after they'd sedated her yesterday. It was then Cor noticed the bag beside the bed, a thin tube trailing across the floor.

He sighed.

“Please tell me a doctor took the catheter out.”

“Nope,” she said and slumped into the mattress, breathing hard. “Man, that sucked.”

“Damn, kid.”

“I don't need to pee in a bag,” she said. “I'm not that bad off.”

“Doctor says otherwise,” Cor said.

“He can blow me.”

“Kid... you're something else, you know that?”

She rolled her eyes, but settled back into the pillow like she'd run out of steam. She probably had.

Then, she sat up with wide, alarmed eyes.

“Where's Prompto?”

“Relax. He's with a friend of mine. The one you met last night.”

“You don't think I'd actually trust your friends, do you?”

“You can trust Monica,” Cor said. “You might even like her, if you gave her a chance.”

“Hmm. Maybe,” Aranea said. “So when are they letting me out?”

“Don't know yet. But they'll probably make you stay longer if you keep pulling out tubes.”

“They untied me,” she said. “What did they expect?”

She closed her eyes and settled down again. She was still too pale, but she looked less hollowed out this morning. Whatever was in that IV, it seemed to be working.

“Does this mean I'm not a threat anymore?”

“Jury's still out on that,” Cor said. “But, if you don't pull any more stupid stunts, you'll be fine.”

“And where am I going, when they decide I'm okay? Holding?  Is that what you call jail here?"

Cor rubbed his eyes.

“Probably stay with me, until we figure something else out.”

“Great. Can't wait to see the bachelor pad,” she said sleepily. “Bet you have a coffee table made of milk crates and plywood.”

Cor almost smiled. He might have had something like that, back when he lived in a tiny, one room apartment just off downtown. Except it might have been cinder blocks and a sheet of glass he'd found beside the dumpster.

“You can smile every now and then, you know,” she said and stifled a yawn.

“My face might crack.”

Aranea laughed.

“You know, you're alright, Cor the Immortal. For a Lucian.”

Cor did smile at that. Not the close lipped smile he usually offered when people expected it, but a real one.

“You too, kid. You're not so bad for a Nif.”

She smiled back, and Cor melted just a little bit more.

“Want to know a secret? My mom once told me my dad lived in Lucis.” She laughed softly, but without humor. “That sounds like some old saying I heard once.” She lowered her voice. “Aranea. The girl is half Lucian, half Nif. No good can come of it.”

“Is that why you wanted to come here?” he asked. “You have family here?”

“Could have just been one of her stories. She did that, when she didn't want to tell the truth,” Aranea said. She yawned and her eyes slipped shut again. “She told me my brother hatched from an egg she found in a cave near Cartanica.”

This was the first time she'd mentioned a brother. Cor got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“That's what I called him,” she said sleepily. “Egg.”

Past tense. That stabbed a hole in his heart.

“He was only two,” she murmured. “...fuckers.”

Her face relaxed, and Aranea said no more.

But she'd said enough.


 

Cor had to leave the room after that. It was too much. She was too much, and in so many different ways. It explained a lot about why she'd gone from telling him to abandon the kid to willing to throw down her life to spare his.

The more he learned, the worse he felt. Most, if not all of her family was dead, potentially  imaginary Lucian father aside. Finding her a suitable home would not be the easy fix Cor hoped for.

He went back to his apartment, which he hadn't seen the inside of in more than a month, and flicked on the light. The maid had been there recently. There wasn't a speck of dust on the furniture and the room smelled of pine cleaner. The unnecessary decorative pillows on the couch had been fluffed.

Unnecessary or not, they looked inviting.

Cor sagged onto the couch and leaned back against one. He propped his feet up on the arm and closed his eyes.

He'd take a power nap, grab a shower and then go back to the medical ward. Ten minutes was all he needed.

When he opened his eyes again, it was to a ferocious pounding on the door and Monica calling his name.

You better be in there, Leonis!”

He sat up and checked the time. It was after 13:00.

Cor, I swear to the Six, if you are still upstairs, I will give this kid finger paint!

“Yeah, I'm here,” he grumbled. “Hold your damn chocobos.”

He stood up and padded to the door, opened it and turned away with a motion for Monica to come in. He went directly to the coffee pot without really looking at either of them.

“Good morning to you, too,” Monica said.

“Badabeee!” Prompto greeted.

Cor grunted.

From the cupboard, he took a coffee brew pack and loaded it into the machine, filled it with water and hit the button.

Monica cleared her throat.

“Hanging out with kids is fun and all, but I've reached my quota for the year,” Monica said. “You can have him back now.”

“Put him on the floor,” Cor said.

“You sure?”

“No, but I just woke up.”

The coffee began to gurgle in the machine and the pleasant scent of fresh caffeine filled the air. Just the smell of it was enough to perk him up.

It was then he noticed what the kid was wearing. Orange overalls with a chocobo stitched onto the front, a sleeveless chocobo onsie, and yellow shoes with orange laces.

Cor stared at the kid for a second, then at Monica.

“Explain.”

“We went shopping,” Monica said. “All you had in that bag was a dirty pink thing and some diapers. You owe me 2000 Crowns, by the way.”

She set the backpack on the floor and pulled a yellow plush toy out of the front pouch. She handed it to Prompto, who squealed in pure joy and held it tight to his chest.

“Mom! Bobo!”

Cor sighed.

“He's not a fan of sleeves,” Monica said. “Oh, and heads up. The kid shoved a slice of Leiden Pepper down his face-hole before I could stop him. He liked it.”

“Liked it.”

“Wanted more,” Monica said. “I thought for sure he was going to start screaming.”

“You didn't give him more, did you?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Monica.”

“I'm kidding.”

“I'm glad you don't have kids,” Cor said.

“That makes two of us,” she said. “Even though the little guy's not so bad. Stares at girls, though. Only... however old he is, and already girl-crazy.”

Cor wondered if that was because he'd never really seen girls before. All the other babies were boys, and as far as he could tell, those in charge of the nursery were all male. He had seen only one woman, and she seemed to be part of the janitorial staff.

Were women deemed too sympathetic to be involved in the project? Too likely to become attached? More likely to question the ethics of the experiment, being mothers or potential mothers themselves?

Some food for thought, he supposed, but at a later time.

“I'll get you some cash tomorrow,” he said. “Thanks again, Mom.”

“That's Auntie Monica to you,” she said. “I'll check in with you later. Give the girl my regards.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

“Later kiddo,” Monica said.

Now alone in his apartment with the kid, Cor leaned against the counter and watched the kid babble to the chocobo plushie. He seemed reasonably content for now. Maybe, this wouldn't be so tough. All he had to do was show the right set of potential parents how well behaved he was. No sweat.

Except for that codeprint. They'd have to be exceptional people to overlook that.

The coffee pot chimed that it was finished brewing and Cor turned away to retrieve his mug from the cabinet. He set it on the counter and filled it.

Something behind him crashed to the floor and he spun around as shards of glass danced over the tile. Prompto wailed, louder than seemed possible for someone so small, and Cor rushed to his side.

In the boy's hand was the cord of a table lamp, the lamp itself the source of all the glass. It lay on its side, shattered, the shade askew.

“Shit, kid,” he muttered and scooped him up off the floor. “I turn my back for a second and you get yourself into trouble.”

Cor checked him over for injuries but found none. He wasn't bleeding, there were no lumps on his head. The crash must have scared him. That was all.

Prompto continued to wail, his hot face buried against Cor's shoulder. All Cor could do was pat his back and tell him he was okay, over and over, until he calmed down.

Wailing turned to whimpers, and whimpers turned to sniffles, and finally, the sniffles turned to baby-babbling and even breathing. Cor returned to the kitchen, Prompto against his side and reached for the coffee.

“Ba?”

“Not for you.”

“Ba,” he said again, this time with a smile. “Mom.”

“You liked Auntie Mom, hunh?” he asked, as if Prompto could answer back. “Keep being cute, and maybe we'll wear her down.”

He chugged the coffee and wondered how the hell he was going to take a shower with the kid there. All it took was a second for something bad to happen, as the kid just proved with the lamp.

Well, maybe he could just go without for now. Wait until the kid was asleep or something.

There was a knock on the door and Cor wondered what Monica forgot. Nobody else stopped by his apartment regularly. Reggie and Clarus were too busy with their own children and their respective duties to swing by to play cards anymore.

He opened the door, a biting remark on the tip of his tongue, but the visitor was not Monica. It was Regis, little Noctis in his arms. Noctis' eyes were locked on Prompto. Prompto turned shy and hid his face in Cor's neck.

Noctis was about the same age as Prompto, maybe a month or so older. He looked like his mother, gone though she was. Cor sometimes wondered if Reggie looked at their son and saw Aulea instead. Hard to believe it had been almost a year since she passed.

“Highness,” Cor said.

“Just Reggie today. I'm here as your friend, not your King,” he said. “May we come in?”

“Sure,” Cor said. “Just watch your step. Had a little accident.”

Regis eyed the bits of broken glass on the floor. He nodded knowingly.

“Even when you keep a close watch, they still find things to break.”

“Have a seat,” Cor said. “I'm just going to get a broom. Want some coffee?”

“At this hour?”

“Never mind.”

Cor picked up the chocobo plush from the floor and offered it to Prompto. Prompto accepted it and wedged it between his chest and Cor's.

Sweeping the floor with a kid attached to his neck was no easy task, but he managed to sweep the debris into a corner of the kitchen where it was unlikely either boy would get into it. He'd sweep it into a dustpan later, when his hands were free.

He joined Regis on the couch and turned Prompto loose on the floor. Prompto hugged his chocobo and stared at Noctis, who stared back.

“How is the girl?” Regis asked. “Aranea was it?”

“On the mend,” Cor said.

“Good,” Regis said. “You know, I was reminded yesterday of the day you saved my father's life.”

“That was a long time ago, Reggie,” Cor said. “I was young and stupid then.”

“Not so long ago,” Regis said. “And you're still young and stupid.”

Cor silently agreed and watched Prompto watch Noctis.

Regis set Noctis down on the floor at his feet. The two boys stared each other down until Prompto grinned and held out a splayed fingered hand to Noctis.

“Ba!”

Noctis reached for Prompto's hand, his own smile a little shy. Prompto offered him the chocobo.

“Bobo.”

“Dibirb,” Noctis said and accepted Prompto's gift.

Something about that warmed Cor's insides. He never thought he'd go soft over watching a couple of babies bond over a stuffed toy, but there he was, going to mush for no good reason.

Regis smiled at Noctis and his new playmate, making no secret of how soft he'd gone, and unashamed of it, too.

“People come into our lives for a reason,” Regis said. “For a lifetime, or a season.”

It was something Regis' father said once, not long after Cor joined the Crownsguard. It was his way of saying chance meetings were always fated and meaningful, no matter how long or short the acquaintance.

“I was never happier than the day Noctis was born,” Regis said.

“I remember well.”

“And never more heartbroken than the day Aulea passed,” he said. “The time we get with the ones we care about is never long enough. The world is lonely without someone in it to love.”

A lump formed in Cor's throat and he bowed his head in respect for the dead. He'd been very fond of Aulea and had considered her a friend. Losing her had wounded them all.

But he wasn't sure what this had to do with anything.

“I know you're not a man who is interested in romantic companionship,” Regis said. “But I don't believe you're a man who can live without love.”

“I don't understand love,” Cor said.

“Yet, you've proved yourself capable of it,” Regis said. “It was for love of your King you saved my father's life, was it not? You love your comrades enough to consider them family.”

“That's... different.”

“My father loved you in return, as he might have a son,” Regis said. “In my experience, a parent's love for a child is far more powerful than any other kind.”

Cor wiped a hand over his face and sighed. He suspected he knew where this was going.

“Imagine all the possibilities,” Regis said distantly. “The difference you could make for them.”

“There's no room in my life for kids, Reggie,” Cor said. “You know that.”

“Then perhaps you should consider them recruits,” Regis said. “The girl certainly seems to have a fighting spirit. You're an exceptional teacher. Become her mentor.”

“Is that an order, sir?” Cor asked.

“Consider it... friendly advice,” Regis said. “Advice I strongly suggest you take.”

Cor glanced around the small space. It was big enough for him, and perhaps the boy, but Aranea would need her own space.

“Then may I request a leave of absence?” Cor asked. “And... a bigger apartment? Temporarily?”

“Done,” said the King.