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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 is 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.

 

 

Chapter Text

Aranea slept through most of her first three days in the medical ward. Cor was almost always there when she woke up, but she never stayed awake long enough to ask when they were letting her go. They'd doubled the sedatives after the doctor discovered she'd taken out the catheter. Everything since was nothing but a doped-up haze.

On the fourth day, she woke up clear headed and feeling like she'd taken a good, long nap in her own bed back at home.

This wasn't home, though. The antiseptic smell in the room and the stark white walls and the firmness of the mattress beneath her made that plain enough.

The tubes in her arms were gone. Aranea would never complain about that, but she could complain about her stringy, greasy hair and the dirty, sticky film on her skin. Out on her own, she wasn't always totally clean, but she made it a point to wash up whenever she got the chance. Snow was excellent for scrubbing away dirt and blood. Cold, but effective.

Cor wasn't there, but a woman Aranea sort-of recognized sat in Cor's usual chair thumbing through a weapons catalog.

“Where's Cor?” Aranea rasped. “And Prompto?”

“Doctor's visit,” the woman said. “Just a check up.”

“Better be,” Aranea said. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Monica Elshett,” she said. “Pleased to meet you, Aranea.”

Aranea sat up straighter.

“I meant who are you to Cor?”

“We work together.”

“You his girlfriend?”

“I'm not his type,” Monica said. She laid her catalog aside and reached for a shopping bag stashed under the table. “These are for you. I had to guess the size, but I thought you might like something a little more comfortable to wear.”

Monica deposited the bag on the bed. Aranea cautiously opened it. Inside was a soft knit black t-shirt, a pair of coeurl print pants, a package of panties in bright colors, and fuzzy black slippers.

“Wow. Thanks,” Aranea said, surprised and glad for the gift. “Any idea how much longer I'm stuck here?”

“You'll have to ask the doctor,” Monica said. “My guess is a couple more days. You're still very weak.”

“Are they at least going to let me take a bath? I feel disgusting.”

“Sponge baths just don't cut it, do they?”

“They gave me a sponge bath?” Aranea deadpanned. “When?”

“You were asleep.”

“Was... Cor here?”

Monica smiled but shook her head.

“He left the room. It was just me and a nurse.”

Being bathed by a stranger didn't sit well with Aranea. She couldn't say why. After the camp that wasn't a camp and having to bathe with ten other people, both male and female while the MT's and their handlers looked on, she shouldn't have any qualms about who saw what.

“I'd kill for a real bath,” Aranea said.

“I can help with that.”

“I can do it myself,” Aranea said and threw back the blankets. “I'm not doped up anymore.”

“Suit yourself,” Monica said and settled back in her chair with her catalog.

Aranea's feet hit the cold floor and she instantly got dizzy. She managed two steps before she slid to her knees as the room started to spin around her. Days of not moving much hadn't done her any good. She felt weaker now than she had after going almost two weeks with only a couple stolen cans of beans to survive on.

She jerked away when Monica's hand touched to the back of her neck to press her head between her knees.

“I'm fine,” Aranea said. “Just give me a minute.”

“You're tough, kiddo,” Monica said. “But there's no shame in asking for help if you need it.”

Her mother once told her, a woman who couldn't stand on her own two feet and help herself was a target. She said the predators pretending to be people would eat a weak woman alive. Aranea couldn't afford to be weak. Not in the company of strangers who may or may not have her best interests in mind.

“Never ask for or expect help, baby girl,” her mother had said. “The second you do, you become helpless. You must be strong and fight through it, even if it kills you.”

Aranea didn't want to die at the ripe old age of eleven. Her family might be gone, and the things she had to live for now were questionable, but she wasn't ready to give up and let the Gods take her. She rose to her knees, out of breath and irritated with her own body for failing her.

“Let me help you,” Monica said gently.

Aranea decided to let her.

As Monica helped her to her feet and into the bathroom, Aranea questioned her mother's wisdom for the second time.

Nobody ever died of shame. No one died of wounded pride.

People died of stubbornness, though. Her hard-headed mother was a good example. It was a big factor in why she was dead. She lived and died by her own rules. Keep fighting until you bleed out. Never give up. Never ask for help.

That same stubbornness was the reason Aranea was alive. If not for that, Aranea would have died alongside her family. A weaker girl would have laid down in the snow and never opened her eyes again. Maybe Aranea should have, but for as hard as the last year had been, and as much as she missed them, Aranea was not ready to quit.

Monica turned on the bath while Aranea sat on the edge of the tub to catch her breath.

“Cor tells me you might have family here.”

“He did?”

“Something about your father?”

Aranea didn't remember talking about that. How drugged had she been that she couldn't recall mentioning it to him? What else had she said?

“Might not be true.”

“Do you know his name?”

“No,” Aranea said. “My mother never told me.”

“That's a shame. If I had something to go on, I might be able to help you find him.”

“Doesn't matter. He was just a sperm donor.”

Monica turned around and clasped a crisp, white towel to her chest.

“That's not why you're here?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Here is as good a place as any,” she said. “At least it's warm.”

That was only half a lie. She didn't want to get into the truth of it with a woman she barely knew.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Monica asked.

“What is there to talk about?” Aranea asked. “It's not like I had a lot of options.”

“Alright,” Monica said. “But, if you ever do want to talk, I'll be happy to listen. Maybe we can go shopping or something.”

Talking about it wouldn't do her any good. It was over. Nothing she said or did could change the past. There was only now.

“Best to move on,” Aranea said, quoting her mother. “The past only matters if you dwell on it.”

“I suppose you're right,” Monica said. She laid the towels aside. “I'll be right outside. Call me if you need help getting out.”

“Thanks, but I'm fine.”

After lounging in the hot water for twenty minutes, and scrubbing for another ten, her energy faded as quickly as the warmth of the bath. She pulled the drain and sat there, willing her body to cooperate long enough to get out on her own.

She got as far as the edge of the tub, but it was like her legs had turned to rubber. In the last week, she'd eaten more than she had in the last three months combined, but her body didn't seem to know that. Her strength was gone.

“Keep going,” she commanded her body and slung a leg over the edge. The tile was cold and alien against the sole of her foot. “You've got this.”

She didn't. The second she stood up her head began to swim and her vision grayed out. The next thing she knew, Monica was above her, her face full of worry.

“You okay, kiddo?”

“Dizzy.”

Monica sat her up and draped a towel around her, then used another to dry her hair. Close to helplessness, pathetic and shameful tears, Aranea leaned her forehead into her knees.

She would not cry. She was stronger than that.

Monica's hand circled Aranea's thigh, just above the knee. The entire thing wrapped around the scrawny limb and Monica's face filled with sorrow.

“Don't look at me like that,” Aranea said.

Monica let go and fixed her stare on Aranea's shoulder.

“I'm sorry for whatever happened to you, kiddo,” Monica said.

“Don't be,” Aranea said. “I don't want or need your pity.”

Monica sat back on her heels.

“Let's get you dressed.”

 

 


Aranea slept for a while. When she woke again, the man from the car was in her room, sitting in Cor's place.

She sat up, fully awake and alarmed. It felt wrong for him to be here without Cor or Monica. He could be a perfectly nice man and she still wouldn't want to be alone with him.

“What do you want?” she asked. “Where's Cor?”

“I'm not his mother,” Drautos said. “I don't keep tabs on him.”

“Why are you here?”

“Relax, kid,” he said. “I heard you were sick.”

“So?”

Just because he knew her mother a long time ago didn't mean he knew her.

“I thought maybe I'd keep you company,” he said, his eyes burning with curiosity. “Tell you stories about your mom if you like.”

“I'll pass,” she said.

Maybe if she was really unfriendly, he'd leave.

He shifted in his seat and relaxed like he planned to stay a while and tell those stories anyhow.

“Cor says she taught you a few things,” he said. “I'd be interested in seeing what you can do sometime.”

Her mother taught her a lot of things. Things like “never allow yourself to be alone with someone who makes you uncomfortable.

Tidus Drautos definitely made her uncomfortable. He asked too many questions and pretended to be casual to hide that weird intensity in his eyes.

“Pass,” she said, firmer this time.

“You are so much like your mother.”

He said it like they knew one another well, but if there was more to it than a business contract, Aranea wasn't really interested in hearing it. Her mother knew a lot of people. He was one of a hundred and it seemed like this guy was carrying a torch for a woman he probably hadn't seen in a decade.

“My mother was stupid,” Aranea said. “I'm not.”

“No?” he asked with some amusement. “I'd say pulling a dagger in the throne room was the stupidest thing I've heard of anyone doing in a long time.”

“I had my reasons.”

“You're lucky you're still alive.”

Aranea huffed and stared at the door.

“Why are you still here?” she asked.

“I too have my reasons.”

Aranea picked at the hem of the blanket to feign disinterest.

“What could a guy as old as you want with a kid like me?” she asked. “You some kind of pervert?”

“Hardly,” Drautos said. “I'm just curious.”

“Look, I'm still feeling like shit,” she said, “so either spit it out, or get out.”

He smiled. He actually smiled. Then he laughed.

Thank all the Gods Cor walked in at that moment, holding a squirming Prompto against his chest. Cor looked from Drautos to Aranea, his face the usual mask of indifference. Aranea couldn't tell what he was thinking. Was he pissed? Surprised?

Who knew? He didn't exactly telegraph his emotions. Except for pity and sympathy. Those came through loud and clear.

Then again, he always looked kind of sad, so maybe that was just his face.

Prompto shrieked with joy and flexed his hands at Aranea. Cor's face twisted in pain and he covered an ear with his palm.

“Ah-nay!”

“Hey kid,” she said.

Her spirits lifted when Cor handed him over. She squeezed a socked foot and noticed the other was missing. Egg used to lose his socks, too.

“Drautos,” Cor said. “Did you need something?”

“I was just chatting with Aranea,” he said. “I'd like you to bring her by the training hall once she's better.”

Cor wasn't looking at Drautos, but at Aranea, who was focused on Prompto. She didn't want to look at either of them.

“We'll see,” Cor said. “If you'll excuse us?”

“Of course,” Drautos said.

He stood slowly, approached the bed, and placed a hand on Aranea's shoulder. Aranea gritted her teeth, shrugged his hand off, and glared at him.

“It was nice talking to you,” he said.

Prompto shoved his finger up her nose and laughed. Aranea removed it and pinched his earlobe.

An awkward silence followed. Drautos bowed cordially and said his goodbyes to Cor. Aranea tracked him to the door, a weird and bad feeling in her belly. She held Prompto tighter and waited for the door to close behind him.

“Are you okay?” Cor asked.

“He gives me the creeps.”

“Drautos?”

“Yeah.”

“I'm sorry. He shouldn't have been in here alone.”

“I told him to leave.”

Cor sank into the chair and watched Prompto snuggle into her shoulder. Aranea watched him back.

“He means well,” Cor said. “But if he makes you uncomfortable, I'll make sure he understands he's not to speak to you alone.”

Aranea softened. She petted Prompto's head. The soft, downy hair felt like silk under her fingers. Like chicabo fluff.

“I wouldn't mind if he didn't talk to me ever again,” she said.

“Did he do something?”

“No, I just don't like him,” she said. “So, when do I get out of this place?”

“Today,” Cor said. “If you feel up to it.”

“Gods, yes,” she said. Prompto tugged on her bottom lip. “Get me out of here.”

“I'll go sign the paperwork.”

 

 


Cor's apartment was not what Aranea expected.

It was nice. Really nice.

She looked around at the real wood furniture and the big plush couch, and at the dining table, which was draped with a pretty lace tablecloth and topped with a glass bowl of fresh fruit. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere, not a smudged fingerprint to be found.

He must be married. No single guy lived like this unless he was gay. Or so her mother said. Straight men were disgusting pigs, according to her mother. They were animals who were barely above wallowing in their own filth and expected women to clean up after them. That was why her mother never married.

“Why buy the chocobo when you can get the eggs for free, baby girl?” her mother said.

Aranea wasn't really sure what that meant, but she guessed it meant not to get too attached. The men in her mother's life always left. Sometimes she would say good riddance after they were gone. Sometimes she would burn their belongings in the yard.

She inspected the framed art on the walls. Every piece was tasteful and chosen to compliment the décor. There was only one photograph in the entire room.

Aranea picked it up and smiled at the image of a much younger Cor among people she recognized. Weskham, the Altissian bearer of snot and clam chowder. Clarus, the baby-hater. The old guy from the desert. She hadn't gotten his name, but there he was, in the same ratty leather jacket.

“How old were you in this?” she asked.

“Fifteen.”

“Nice hat.”

Cor almost smiled.

“Thanks.”

“You live alone?” Aranea asked.

“Not anymore,” Cor said.

“Do you actually live here?” she asked.

“I do now.”

“So this isn't your place.”

“My old place was too small for the three of us,” Cor said. “His highness gave me an upgrade for the time being.”

“He just gave you a bigger apartment?” Aranea asked. “Just because?”

Cor put Prompto on the floor and sat down in the recliner.

“He thought we'd be more comfortable with room to spread out.”

“Wow,” she said. “Guess you must be a big deal.”

Cor grunted.

Aranea checked out the kitchen. The fridge was full of food, and the pantry too. She helped herself to a single serving package of chips, opened them, and shoved a few into her mouth.

Back in the living room, Prompto was headed for the drapes, crawling on all fours like a man on a mission. Aranea scooped him up before he could get a hold of them and plopped onto the couch to further interrogate Cor. Might as well find out as much as she could. They'd be roommates for a while, and he was still a mystery to her.

“You really don't talk much,” she said. “Are you shy or something?”

“Economical,” he said. “I don't need to talk to fill the silence.”

That made a weird sort of sense to Aranea. Half of her mother's acquaintances were the sort to yammer on and on about stupid things just to have something to say. People like to say women talked too much, but in her experience, men tended to dominate the conversation. It was kind of refreshing that Cor didn't.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“A wife?”

“No.”

“A boyfriend?”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“26.”

“Can I have my daggers back?”

“No.”

“I swear I won't stab anybody,” she said, doing her very best impression of contrite. “Besides, I'm all alone in a strange place. I need a way to protect myself.”

There was a ghost of a smirk on his face, but he didn't quite smile. As usual.

“Nice try, kid,” Cor said. “Your room is down the hall on the left.”

Aranea blinked at him. Her own room? She didn't have to share with Prompto?

“Go check it out if you want.”

Aranea drifted down the hall. The door was open, and she cautiously stepped inside.

Like the rest of the apartment, it was definitely not what she expected.

Instead of the generic guest room fare she'd seen in magazines, someone had gone out of their way to decorate it like a teenager lived there. The bedspread was a coeurl patterned black, purple and white with matching pillows. The lampshades and curtains matched, too. On the wall above the bed was a poster of some boy-band she'd never heard of.

She covered her mouth to suppress a giggle. This was hilarious, but she was also touched by the effort put into creating a space for her.

Bless whoever did this. Aranea couldn't say her mother had ever tried so hard.

It was nice, though. Nicer than any place she'd lived before.

“What do you think?”

“I think this has Monica written all over it,” Aranea said. “I can't see you picking any of this out yourself.”

Cor stepped inside and clutched Prompto a little tighter to his chest.

“Monica,” he confirmed. “It's a little much, isn't it?”

“It's great,” she said. “Very Eos Girl Magazine.”

“You know about that stuff?”

“I lived on a mountain, not another planet,” Aranea said. She touched the edge of a frilled pillowcase. “I used to look at magazines when I went to town. Mom said they were a waste of money. She said they were mostly advertisements, even the articles.”

“She wasn't wrong,” Cor said. He shifted and cleared his throat. “I'm going to try to place the two of you together. If you want that. No promises, but, I'll try.”

“Place?”

“Somewhere more suitable,” he said. “With a family.”

Aranea tried to picture herself with some family in the suburbs of this massive city. Some place right out of one of those magazines, living the teen dream of school dances and talking on the phone. All she could picture was herself as a square peg trying to fit herself into a round hole.

“No one's gonna want a kid like me,” she said.

“Don't sell yourself short,” Cor said.

“All I have to offer is a shitty attitude and a talent for killing things.”

Cor actually laughed. Prompto laughed, too.

“I know a few people who might appreciate both.”

“Yourself excluded?”

Cor's smile died away.

“You remind me a lot of myself,” Cor said.

“And that's bad?”

“Sometimes,” he said.

Aranea wondered what that meant.

“No one's going to want a tattooed Nif baby either,” she said. “They'll be too afraid he'll turn into a robot when he hits puberty.”

Cor unconsciously rubbed his thumb over Prompto's codeprint and nuzzled the top of his head.

“I don't know anything about raising kids.”

A dull pain knifed through Aranea's chest. It was a surprise to know she'd gotten her hopes up. She'd known this man less than two weeks, and it was stupid to expect him to upend his life to accommodate two kids that didn't belong to him. She didn't have the right to hope he might.

Like her mother always said, if you don't expect anything, you'll never be disappointed.

 

 

Three days later, Aranea was climbing the walls. She'd been put on bed rest, but she was out of it every chance she got. She felt good. Better than she had in a long time, and with nothing to do but hang out with Prompto and Cor, neither of which could keep up their end of an intelligent conversation for long, she was desperate for something to do.

“Seriously, I'm going starkers,” Aranea said. “I can't stay in bed anymore.”

Cor did not look up from the screen of his laptop. He chewed his bottom lip and continued typing.

“You're not hearing any of this are you?”

Cor scrolled over something that looked like data and tapped the screen.

“Hey,” Aranea said. “I'm going to set the kitchen on fire, okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” Cor said.

“Can I have my daggers back?”

“No.”

“Dammit.”

“I need to finish this,” he said. “Watch the television.”

“No more talk shows. Please. No more. I can feel my brain rotting.”

Aranea sprawled out on the couch and wondered how Prompto was faring at day care. It would do him some good to spend time with kids his own age. She seriously doubted they had play time at the Magitek Lab.

It was too quiet in here. The only sound was the steady tapping of the keyboard and Cor's occasional put-upon sighs.

She thought of Egg. He could spend hours pushing his trucks around the floor. Prompto reminded her so much of him, it hurt. He'd been a good kid. A sweet kid. He deserved so much better.

It was dangerous to think about that.

“Put it behind you,” she whispered. “It's over.”

“What?” Cor asked.

“Nothing,” she said.

Cor sighed. The laptop clicked shut.

“Feel up for a trip to the training center?” he asked.

“Can I have my daggers?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I thought you'd never ask.”

 

 


The training center was nothing like Aranea had ever seen before. There were large rooms with mats on the floor, an assortment of training dummies, and weapons of all kinds. She stared in awe through glass windows at black-clad patrons sparring with each other. There were kids, too. Mostly teenagers in groups doing push ups and running through drills, but inside a smaller room, she spied a plump, stocky boy about four years old attacking a training dummy with a small but broad training sword.

“That's Clarus' boy, Gladiolus,” Cor said when he noticed her watching.

“He's so young.”

“The Amicitia family has always protected the King,” Cor said. “One day, Gladio will, too.”

“What do Leonis' do?” Aranea asked.

“I don't know,” Cor said. “I'm the first to serve the Crown.”

“You're still young,” Aranea said. “It's not too late to produce an heir.”

“Produce an heir?” Cor asked and side-eyed her.

“Isn't that what the royal people say?” she asked. “It's all about heirs and stuff with them, isn't it?”

Cor sighed.

“Yes,” he said. “Heirs are important to them.”

“What about you?”

“Not so much.”

“So, you're young, good-looking -”

Cor pressed a hand to his face. “Kid.”

“Oh please,” Aranea said. “You're hot and you know it.”

He blushed. He actually blushed.

Aranea laughed and slapped his arm, pleased with this small victory.

“You're handsome,” she continued, “but you're not married, not dating, and don't think producing an heir is a big deal.”

Cor dropped his hand and shook his head.

“I'm not discussing this with an eleven-year-old.”

“I'm just trying to figure you out. You're not making it easy.”

“And you're testing my patience,” he said.

“I can't tell,” she said.

“Do you want to stand here and talk about my lack of romantic attachments or do you want to play with weapons?”

“Weapons. Definitely weapons.”

“Wise choice.”

Cor took her to a smaller room. Along one wall were racks of different kinds of blades. Daggers similar to her own. Swords of all types. Spears and lances. She looked over the selection, impressed by the variety, until she came to the spears.

Aranea had just started training with a spear when her mother was killed. The daggers, she'd taken off a hunter who thought because she was young, she was easy prey. A weapon was a weapon, and the daggers served her well, but the spear felt more natural and better suited to her high jump.

She picked up the shortest and lightest spear off the rack and gave it a twirl. The weight was good. Not too heavy. Not too light. The point of the blade gleamed under the lights.

Cor stood aside while Aranea moved to the floor and gave the spear a few test swings.

“You've used one one of those before,” Cor said.

“A Highwind's weapon of choice,” she said.

“Let's see what you can do with it.”

“You're on,” Aranea said.

Cor's katana materialized in his hand and he assumed a fighting posture. Not the first time she'd seen him conjure a weapon out of thin air, but it was still really cool. She wondered, if she stayed here long enough, she might be able to do that, too.

“I'm only going to defend myself,” Cor said. “Try your hardest to disarm me.”

“Your funeral.”

By now, Aranea had a pretty good idea of Cor's fighting style and skill. Or she thought she did until he managed to deflect every single one of her attacks.

For over twenty minutes.

Breathless and frustrated, she flopped onto the mat spread-eagle and blew her bangs from her eyes.

“You're not bad, kid,” Cor said.

“You were holding out on me,” she panted. “Up in the mountains...”

“I was injured.”

“Shit.”

Cor extended his hand and Aranea accepted it. He hauled her to her feet and took the spear away.

“Hey!”

“You're supposed to be on bed rest, remember?” he said. “That's enough for the day.”

“Can we come back tomorrow?”

“If you want.”

“Oh, I definitely want.”

“I can arrange that,” he said. He tossed her a bottle of water. “Let's go get Prompto. We're expected at the Amicitia's for dinner.”

Aranea stopped.

“What?”

“We've been invited to dinner.”

“With the guy who wanted to kill Prompto?” Aranea asked. “No way.”

Cor pinched the bridge of his nose.

“He didn't...” Cor began. “Look, he didn't mean it. He wants to apologize.”

“He can stick his apology up his -”

“He's my friend,” Cor cut in. “Give him the opportunity to change your mind. He's not a bad guy.”

Aranea rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” she said. “But the food better be worth it.”

Cor patted her shoulder. Awkwardly.

Aranea was unexpectedly touched. She almost wished he'd hugged her instead.

Don't.

He was going to place her in a home. With strangers who wouldn't know what to do with her.

Best not to get too close.

Chapter Text


Cor knocked on Clarus' door, Prompto on his hip and Aranea hiding behind him. Both kids were dressed in outfits handpicked by Monica, who obviously had a knack for choosing things that suited them. He had to admit Prompto's yellow jumper with the matching sleeveless orange onesie was pretty cute, though he was no fan of the coeurl print skinny jeans Aranea paired with one of his suit jackets.

“What's with all the skulls?” she wondered as she examined the buttons on the jacket. “I've seen them all over this place. It's weird.”

“It's the sigil of the Caelum line,” Cor said.

“Ominous,” she said.

“It dates all the way back to King Somnus.”

“You gotta admit, it's weird choice,” she said. “I like it, but it's weird.”

Clarus opened the door, sparing Cor the need to explain the crystal's tendency to shorten the lives of its Kings and occasional Queen.

“Come in, come in,” Clarus said. “It's good to see you.” He squeezed Prompto's outstretched hand and smiled. “Hello there, little one.”

Prompto smiled a bright, sweet smile and shoved his hand against his mouth. Cute didn't cover it.

Clarus' smile widened.

“Quite the charmer, I see.”

Aranea moved closer. Her jaw was set and her lips pressed into a thin line. She hadn't forgiven Clarus for his misstep in the throne room and Cor didn't blame her. It still irked him, bad choice of words or not, and it said in that moment, Clarus hadn't seen Prompto as a child but a thing.

“Hope everyone likes Garula,” Clarus said. He waved them inside. “The Missus got a hold of some steaks from Duscae yesterday. Thickest I've seen in a decade.”

Cor's stomach growled as he followed Clarus to the sitting room, which was less fancy than it sounded. He stepped over dump trucks and toy soldiers on his way to the couch and pretended not to see the piles of kid books and magazines on the coffee table.

Was this his future? Clutter and things underfoot?

No, it was only temporary.  He'd be back to his normal life as soon as he came up with a plan.

“Pardon the mess,” Clarus said. “Gladio hasn't stopped since we got back from his training. Aranea, how do you like your steak?”

“Not picky,” she said. “I'll eat whatever.”

She sounded so stiff. So unlike the saucy little smartass he knew she was. Cor laid a hand between her shoulder blades to reassure her that they were safe here. No matter what she might think of Clarus, he would not harm them in his own home.

“If you had a choice, what would it be? Well done or bloody?”

“Bloody, I guess,” she said. “But I'm okay with whatever.”

“Please sit,” Clarus said. “Something to drink? Cor, beer?”

“Sure,” Cor said.

“What would you like?” Clarus asked Aranea. “Juice? Tea?”

“Vodka. On the rocks.”

Clarus laughed.

“She'll have juice,” Cor said.

“Killjoy.”

“No.”

Clarus left them to tend to drinks and presumably to pass along the dinner requests. Cor noted that Aranea moved closer and leaned into his side as Clarus passed.

“Relax,” Cor said. “It's just dinner.”

Prompto opened and closed his fist at something on the floor and squirmed in Cor's grip.

“Badaba,” he whined. “Ah-nay.”

“I'll take him,” she said.

She didn't wait for Cor to hand him over. She gathered him into her lap and bounced him on her knees until Prompto threw his head back and laughed.

Prompto's laughter must have piqued Gladio's curiosity. His round little head peeked around the edge of the sofa and he stared at Prompto.

“Hey,” he said in a raspy voice that was almost too deep and too old to belong to a four year old. “Wass dat? A baby?”

“Gladio, this is Prompto and Aranea,” Clarus said from the doorway. He held two beers and a glass of something purple and bubbly. “Say hello.”

Gladio emerged from behind the couch.

“Hey,” he said again. “Why's that baby here?”

“He's come to visit,” Clarus said. “Perhaps you'd like to play with him.”

“Okay,” Gladio said. “I got trucks!”

Aranea seemed reluctant to let Prompto free. She looked from Gladio to Clarus and back again.

“It's alright,” Cor said. “Let them play.”

Aranea released Prompto to the floor. He crawled toward Gladio, but stopped to investigate an overturned tractor. He picked it up and stuck the tire in his mouth. Gladio frowned.

“Stupid baby.”

“Don't say stupid,” Clarus said.

“He eated it.”

“It's just a little spit, Gladiolus. It'll wash off.”

Gladio muttered under his breath and disappeared behind the couch, not interested in Prompto anymore.

Clarus passed out the drinks. A beer for himself and one for Cor, and then set the glass on the coffee table in front of Aranea.

“It's sparkling grape juice,” Clarus said. “I promise there's no alcohol or poison in it.”

Aranea eyed him and lifted the glass. Cor held back a smile when she sniffed it before taking a cautious sip.

“So, Aranea, Cor tells me you were all alone when he found you.”

“I found him,” she said.

“How long had you been on your own?”

Aranea tensed again and put the glass down. She sat up straighter and something in her face hardened.

“Why are you asking?”

“I'm curious,” Clarus said.

“I'm not a spy,” she said. “If that's what you're worried about. I'm just a kid, alright?”

“Where is your family?”

“Dead.”

Her flat tone sent a stab of pain through Cor's heart.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” Clarus said. “Are you comfortable talking about what happened?"

Aranea's jaw tightened, but her eyes were empty. It reminded Cor of soldiers after a long battle, dissociating from the horror of war. That thousand mile stare was out of place on someone so young.

“My mom was a mercenary. She made a bad deal. They killed her for it,” she said. “Okay? You heard enough yet, or do you want to hear about how they killed my little brother, too? He was just a baby. Only two. They killed him anyway.”

She folded her hands in her lap, but looked Clarus in the eye.

“I watched them die.”

All the color drained from Clarus' face. Cor's stomach dropped out. Just when he thought she couldn't break his heart any more.

“I'm sorry,” Clarus said.

“Yeah, me too,” she said and stood up. “Sorry, Cor. I'm out of here.”

Cor followed her from the room and out into the hall.

“Wait,” he called, but she kept going. “Aranea, wait.”

He caught up to her at the elevator, where she was angrily jabbing the button like it would summon the lift faster.

“Hey,” he said. “I'm sorry.”

Aranea's eyes sparkled with tears and she scrubbed at them, then turned her back to him.

“I'm sorry, kid.”

“I don't know why I said that,” she mumbled. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“You don't have to.”

She wandered over to the wall and slid down until she was sitting with her back to it. Cor sat down beside her, a safe distance away and marveled at how strong this kid was to not only live through that, but survive on her own for so long.

“They made me watch,” she said.

“Gods, kid...”

Cor couldn't even imagine what that must have done to her. No wonder she was so guarded and so protective of Prompto. No wonder she'd lost her shit in the throne room.

“I could have let them kill me, too,” she said. “I didn't. I don't know why I didn't. It would have been easier.”

Cor laid a hand against her shoulder, at a loss for words. What was there to say? Everything that came to mind was inadequate.

“I didn't want to die,” she said. “So I ran instead. Like a coward.”

“Sometimes running is the only choice that makes sense.”

She folded her arms over her knees and rested her chin against them, drowning in her too big jacket. She didn't say anything for a while. Neither did Cor.

“I never said it, but thanks for getting me out of there,” she said. “I would have either died or wound up back in the labor camp.”

A muscle in Cor's jaw twitched. The labor camp. He knew about those. Rebels and insurgents that weren't executed outright were sent for indoctrination and reprogramming. More of them died than were successfully returned to society.

“Shit, kid,” Cor said. “I'm surprised they let you go.”

“They didn't. I killed a guard and ran while I had the chance.”

He'd never wanted to hug anyone as bad as he did right then, but he held back. He wasn't sure if it would be welcome or not.

“I'm really sorry, kid,” he said. “I wish this world was different and shit like that didn't happen.”

“But it does,” she said distantly.

“Yeah. It does.”

She rubbed her eyes again and sat back against the wall, her skinny legs stretched out in front of her.

“Sorry I ruined dinner.”

“We can always blame Clarus.”

Aranea smiled.

“Actually... I was kind of excited about that steak,” she said. “Think it's too late to go back?”

“No. It's not too late.”

 

 


Cor was no longer used to home cooked meals. The majority of his meals either came frozen or from the cafeteria. Both left something to be desired. Atria Amicitia's cooking was a cut above, as close to fine dining as Cor would get inside the Citadel, and she did not disappoint.

Atria was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, small but mighty, and a perfect match for Clarus in every way but size. She didn't let him get away with anything and she matched his temper with one of her own. Cor had grown almost as fond of her as he'd been of Auela.

Throughout dinner, she fawned over Prompto, who was posted up in Gladio's old high chair with tiny bits of steak, potatoes, and peas scattered around the tray, and she complimented Aranea's freckled complexion and sharp wit. Cor could see Aranea warming to her, and to Clarus by degrees, though she remained cautious. He was grateful the subject of her past didn't come up again. The less he thought about that, the better.

“So, Cor,” Atria said, “do you plan on enrolling Aranea in Lucis Prep or did you have another school in mind?”

“We haven't gotten that far,” Cor said. “She's only been out of the hospital for a few days, and she's supposed to be on bed rest for a few more.”

“Gods, please no more bed rest,” Aranea said. “I'm just chipper, alright?”

“You say that like you've actually been in bed the whole time.”

“Who took me to the training center again?” Aranea asked. “Oh, right. You. The stickler for doctor's orders. What will the doctor say when I tell her you made me train while I was supposed to be resting?”

Made you.”

She poked him in the arm and winked.

“I see you've got your hands full with this one, Cor,” Clarus said. “You sure she's not yours?”

“Positive.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Aranea asked.

Clarus smiled. “Don't let him fool you. Behind that zen-like calm is a reckless smart mouth with more lives than a cat.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I wasn't always as cautious as I should have been.”

“He had a temper on him, too. And a mouth worse than any sailor you ever heard.”

“Rrrealllly,” Aranea drawled. “Do tell.”

“Don't listen to him,” Cor said. “He tells lies.”

“I speak the truth,” Clarus said, “but unfortunately, the only stories I have aren't fit for young ears.”

“Oh please. Like I haven't heard worse.”

“Some other time, perhaps,” Clarus said.

“When you're older,” Cor said. It was time to change the subject. “Atria, what were you saying about schools?”

“I'll tell you someday,” Clarus stage whispered to Aranea.  "You'll see a whole new side of Cor Leonis."

Atria threw an elbow into Clarus' ribs. He grunted, winked at Aranea, and resumed eating. Aranea visibly relaxed.

“Lucis Prep is where we plan on sending Gladio,” Atria said. “Regis tells me he'll send Noctis there, too.”

“I'll look into it,” Cor said.

“What grade are you in, Aranea?” Atria asked.

“Grade?”

“What year?”

“I don't know,” she said. “I've never been to school.”

“No? Were you home schooled?”

“I guess. My mom taught me to read and math and stuff.”

“Then you'll have to be tested for placement first,” Atria said. “Cor, make sure you arrange that beforehand.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Prompto was only in day care so he could work without worrying the kid was going to overturn furniture or lick electrical sockets. Aranea was pretty self-sufficient on her own, but he hadn't thought about education at all. Wherever she went, she would need to be in school. Might as well plan ahead.

After dinner, Cor and Aranea helped with dishes, in spite of Atria's protests that she had it handled. Aranea didn't need to be asked to help, she just started clearing plates and silverware like it was expected.

She was a good kid. She didn't deserve everything she'd been through. It hurt Cor to know just how bad it had been, and he couldn't stop thinking about it. The more he thought about it, the more it bothered him.

He needed to find the both of them a stable, loving home soon. They both deserved a place where they could grow and flourish and not have to worry about the past. Some place they could just be kids.

By the time they left, Prompto was out cold, his body limp against Cor's shoulder, and Aranea's eyelids drooped.

“Go to bed, kid,” Cor said. “I'll see you in the morning.”

Aranea covered a yawn and trudged off to her bedroom. Cor carried Prompto to his chocobo themed room, the decoration courtesy of Monica, of course. He sat down in the rocking chair for a minute with the sleeping boy still against his shoulder, warm and heavy and soft with baby fat.

“You deserve a better life than I can give you, kid,” Cor said.

Prompto snuggled his head deeper into Cor's neck and grunted, one hand curled around the open collar of Cor's shirt. Cor sighed and smelled the kid's head.

It smelled like... something he didn't have a name for. Not unpleasant, but slightly intoxicating, and almost sweet. If innocence had an odor, this was it.

Unsettled by the ache in his chest, Cor got up and put Prompto in his crib, covered him with the soft chocobo print blanket that matched everything else in the room, and petted his head as he settled down to sleep.

He got that old feeling from childhood, the one he got anytime he found a stray animal. He always wanted to keep them, take them home, give them names and care for them. He'd feared if he left them, they wouldn't be able to care for themselves. They'd get hit by cars or go hungry. Suffer abuse from crueler children.

His parents would sigh and find new homes for the mangy dogs and feral cats, but Cor always regretted seeing them go.

This would be harder. He was fond of both kids, even if he wouldn't own up to it, but they deserved better than a cold, distant soldier whose sole reason for living was to serve the crown. He couldn't be their father. The best he could do was ensure they were well cared for.

Aranea's light was on and her door was open when he passed by on his way to bed. He stopped to look in on her, prepared to turn the light off if she'd fallen asleep already, but she was awake, sitting on top of the blankets staring out the window.

“Hey.”

“I know, I should be asleep.”

“Something wrong?”

She sighed and turned away from the window to stare at him.

“I don't know. I guess.”

“What's bothering you?”

“I don't know,” she said.

Cor sat at the end of the bed and waited. If she wanted to talk, she would.

“All this is so... great,” she said, “but I'm used to taking care of myself.”

“Yeah,” Cor agreed. “I know.”

She'd done a damn fine job of it, too. It took moxie to live off the land, escape death twice, and live to tell the tale.

“I took care of Egg,” she said. “From when he was a baby until... I know how to do that. Take care of little kids.”

She looked at him.

“You won't have to worry about me if we stay,” she said. “I can take care of him and myself. We'll be like roommates or something. I'll learn to cook and I'll keep the house clean and I won't be in your way -”

“Hey,” Cor cut in. “I want you to be a kid, not a nanny or a housekeeper. You're too young for that responsibility.”

“I've already done that stuff, though,” she said. “My mom sucked at cleaning, and honestly, it's a wonder I made it past age 3, but it's okay. I'm used to it.”

Cor sighed. He closed his eyes.

“Don't, okay?” she said.

“Aranea -”

There was that pain in his chest again. That longing to give this kid a long, hard hug and promise everything would turn out alright.

“I don't know how to do normal,” she said. “And whoever you find to take me in is gonna expect me to be some normal kid who cares about normal kid stuff and I'm not that girl. I'm gonna let them down, and they're gonna be upset that they can't fix me, and then I'm gonna run away and wind up eating out of trash cans and stuff and -”

“Stop.”

“I just -”

Stop.”

Aranea closed her mouth.

“I promise I'll find you somewhere you fit in,” Cor said. “I wish it could be here, but my duty, first and foremost is to the King. I can't do that and raise two kids.”

“Then why did you bother?” she asked. “Huh? Why didn't you just leave me? Why take Prompto if you didn't want the responsibility?”

Cor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“It'll be alright,” he said.

“Fine,” she said coldly, too coldly for a kid so young. “Whatever. Get out. I'm tired.”

“Kid-”

“It's fine,” she said. “Really. I'll figure it out.”

Cor felt like a total asshole as he bid her goodnight and left the room. In his own room, he stood at the window for a while and looked down at the city lights outside.

Everything about this was wrong. No kid should have to suffer the way Aranea had suffered. No kid, no matter how he came to be, should be kept alive for the purpose of making him into a weapon. No kid should go hungry or have to kill to survive.

He was trying to build a better world, not just for Lucis, but everyone. He wanted the Empire to stop their siege on smaller, helpless nations. He wanted open borders and free trade. A world where no child went without. That was what they were all fighting for. Not just to protect Lucis. That was only a first step. Beyond that, there was much to do to repair the damage done by this endless war.

Aranea was not an exception. The world, as it was now, had hundreds, maybe thousands of kids like her, with nowhere to go and no family to take them in.

He might get lucky and find some nice couple willing to overlook her mouth and her attitude, willing to get her the help she needed to deal with the trauma, but he was growing increasingly aware that people interested in adoption wanted young, unmarked kids, not tattooed clone babies or angry pre-teens who were good with knives.

In truth, Drautos was the only one interested in Aranea. He'd already expressed a desire to have her train with the Kingsglaive, though she was far too young to join up. He'd even hinted that he'd be willing to foster her until she was of age.

Cor might have agreed if not for Aranea's visceral reaction to being left alone with him. She was firm in her dislike of the man. Cor could respect that. Drautos was a loyal servant of the crown, and one hell of a fighter, and he probably knew more about kids than Cor did, but that didn't change the fact that something about him repulsed Aranea from the start.

Drautos was not an option.

There weren't really any options.

No good ones, anyway.

Gods, he needed a drink.

Aranea's light was still on when Cor headed to the kitchen for a glass of something to help him sleep.

He paused outside the door.

What was the right thing to do? Did he really trust that someone else would care enough to do right by these kids?

Was he just fooling himself?

In the kitchen, he poured himself some vodka and drank it straight, wiped his mouth and sighed.

They'd gotten to him, alright. He felt guilty even thinking about sending them to live somewhere else, with people who might or might not welcome them for who they were.

He couldn't keep them, but he didn't want to see them go.

What the hell was he supposed to do?

 


Cor spent two days getting Aranea ready for school. She tested well above her age in both reading and math, but lacked in other areas like geography and some of the sciences. For a kid that had never been to school, she'd done well, and qualified to join the sixth grade class at Lucis Prep.

Aranea was not so keen on the idea. She didn't say it, but she didn't have to. She'd been quiet and distant since their last conversation. Cor felt guilty about that, too, for being the bad guy, even though it was in everyone's best interest to firm up plans for the future before he got too invested.

Monica took Aranea shopping for school uniforms and new clothes, leaving Cor with Prompto for the afternoon. It was impossible to get any work done with Prompto alternating between a keen interest in the drapes and clinging to his leg.

“What do you say we get out of here, kid?” Cor asked.

“Dada?”

“I'm not your dad.”

“Teemom?”

“Maybe later,” he said. “I was thinking we'd take a walk in the gardens. Get some fresh air.”

“Yaaaa,” Prompto agreed and stuffed half his fist in his mouth.

“Sounds like a plan.”

He hoisted Prompto up on his hip and stuffed his feet into his boots. They rode the elevator to the first floor, Prompto bopping his head to the awful instrumental pop songs playing through the speakers, and babbling nonsense along with the tune.

“Like music, huh kid?”

Prompto smiled and waved a fist.

“I'll introduce you to something cooler than this later,” Cor said. “You're gonna love it.”

“Dada!”

“Nope.”

Outside, the sun blazed and the gardens were full of color. Tulips and hyacinths and hydrangea bloomed in nearly every shade from pink to violet to red and yellow.

“Wooah!” Prompto said.

“Pretty impressive, isn't it?”

He set Prompto on his feet and held one hand in each of his, helping the boy walk along the path, one clumsy step at a time.

The going was slow, but Cor found it calming and therapeutic. He was always at his best when he was the instructor. He never knew that also extended to teaching a kid to walk.

He let go of Prompto's hands and allowed him to try it on his own. Prompto took two steps and slipped to his backside with a thump and a grunt.

“Good effort,” Cor said. “Try again.”

They repeated this until Prompto grew cranky and bored. Cor settled down in the grass near a patch of yellow and purple tulips and set Prompto down beside him. Prompto immediately grabbed a fistful of grass and shoved it toward his face.

Cor sighed and pried the grass out of his fist.

“That's not food.”

“Daba?”

“No. We'll eat in a while.”

Prompto got up on all fours and crawled away, toward the tulips and Cor sat back to watch him explore the world. He'd bet anything the kid had never seen grass or flowers before.

Actually, it had been a while since Cor had gone outside for any reason besides business. He couldn't remember the last time he sat in the sun for no reason other than to sit in the sun.

Maybe he needed to make time for himself every now and then. He hadn't felt so relaxed in a long time.

Prompto reached the bright yellow tulips, grasped a stalk and pulled. Cor shot to his feet to stop him, but by the time he arrived, Prompto had plucked the bloom and was prepared to shove it in his mouth.

“Not food,” Cor said.

“Stupid baby,” a unnaturally deep child's voice said. “Yur not s'posta eat the flowers.”

Cor turned around. Clarus and Gladio stood on the sidewalk behind them.

“I believe you ate a daisy when you were Prompto's age,” Clarus said.

“Did not.”

“Did so.”

“Why's babies so stupid? It killed the flower.”

“Don't say stupid, Gladio. It's not nice,” Clarus said. “Cor. I'm surprised to see you out here.”

“Prompto needed some fresh air.”

“What about you?”

“Maybe I did too,” Cor said. “I forgot how nice it is out here.”

He picked Prompto up, who still held the tulip by the stalk, staring at the yellow petals as if mesmerized. Prompto whined and burrowed into Cor's neck, and Cor got that terrible, awful feeling in his chest again.

“How are things going?”

“Up and down.”

“That's the way it goes with children,” Clarus said. “Half the time you want to drop them off on the nearest corner, and the other half you can't believe how miraculous it is.”

Cor nodded his agreement. These kids weren't even his, and he had moments where he couldn't believe they were currently occupying space in his life. Every time Prompto laughed, he marveled that something so small could find so much joy in the world around him. Every time Aranea said something scarily adult or hilarious, he found himself in awe of how she could still have a sense of humor when the world had royally screwed her over.

“Where's the girl?”

“With Monica. Shopping,” Cor said. “She starts school tomorrow.”

“And how goes the search for a family?”

“Not well.”

“That's to be expected.”

“Yeah,” Cor agreed.

“I'm sorry about the other night, at dinner,” Clarus said. “I didn't know her situation. You should have informed me.”

“I didn't know either, Clarus,” Cor said. “She hinted at it once, but I didn't know.”

“That's a tough thing for a kid to deal with.”

“Yeah,” Cor said. “I know.”

“Any family that takes her in will have to be prepared to deal with it,” Clarus said.

“I know.”

Prompto pinched Cor's nose, let go, and splayed his hand out, smiling as if he'd done something amazing. In a way, it was.

“And the boy,” Clarus said. “He'll be harder to place.”

“I know,” Cor said again. “You think I haven't thought about this shit?”

“Oooh, that's a bad word,” Gladio said. “Daddy, he said-”

“Sorry, kid,” Cor said. “I'll make sure your dad washes my mouth out with soap later.”

“Why? Soap is yucky.”

“Never mind,” Cor said. “Look, Clarus, I don't know the first thing about raising kids.”

“You think I did?” Clarus asked. “Or Reggie? We both felt like someone made a mistake when they let us take them home from the hospital. Neither of us know what we're doing. There's no instruction manual. We're just winging it, one day at a time.”

Clarus glanced at Prompto and tipped his head toward the boy.

“Looks to me like you're doing pretty well. With both of them,” Clarus said.

“You've been talking to Reggie.”

“Maybe a little,” Clarus said.

“And what happens if I have to go fight? What then?” Cor asked. “Who takes care of them when I'm gone? Where do they go if I die? The girl can't handle losing someone else.”

“Daddy, I wanna chocobo back!”

Clarus lifted Gladio and slung him around to his back. Gladio looped pudgy little arms around Clarus' neck and hooked his knees over Clarus' elbows.

“We could all die,” Clarus said. “That doesn't mean we can't appreciate the time we have.”

Cor sighed.

“It's not the the worst thing that could happen to you, Cor. You've already taken that first step, and it's too late to go back now.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You chose to bring them home with you,” Clarus said. “Too late to put them back where you found them.”

Cor sighed again and rubbed a hand against Prompto's back.

“I'll handle it,” Cor said. “Enough with the lectures.”

“Not a lecture, old friend. Consider it a polite suggestion.”

 

 

 

Aranea waited in the living room the next morning, dressed in knee socks, a navy and green plaid skirt and a blazer with the Lucis Prep logo on the breast. She looked like she was about to be marched in front of a firing squad.

“Is this really what kids here wear to school?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Cor said. “You ready to go?”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

Cor didn't have fond memories of school. He didn't have bad ones, either, but he'd joined the Crownsguard at thirteen and the nature of his education was different after that. He had a tutor for the academic subjects, but the majority of his learning involved weapons, combat, and strategy. Perhaps in a couple of years, Aranea could do the same, but for now, this was the only option.

“Ugh. Everyone's going to stare at me.”

“No one's going to notice,” Cor said. “Get your things.”

They dropped Prompto off at day care, then drove in silence to the school.  Cor signed the remaining necessary forms at the desk in the office, then escorted Aranea to class. It was painfully obvious she'd never been around kids her own age, and she was scared to death but not showing it.

Strange, how he could already read her. She had her tells.

“I'll be here at three to pick you up,” Cor said. “Have a good day.”

She entered the room and Cor watched from the doorway as several pairs of pre-teen eyes followed her with curiosity. She stood out among them like a sore thumb with her pale hair and her aloof attitude.

“Good luck, kid,” Cor said before turning away and heading back to the Citadel.

Three hours later, he was in a meeting with Clarus, Drautos and Reggie when the call came. Some sixth sense told him to expect bad news the second the phone rang.

“Mr. Leonis? We need you to come down to the school,” the principal's secretary said. “There's been an incident.”

“An incident? Is she okay?”

“Aranea was involved in an altercation with another student,” she said. “We need to see you immediately.”

Somehow, Cor wasn't surprised.

Not surprised at all.

Chapter Text

Cor arrived at the school a short time later, both worried and irritated. The kid couldn't make it one day in the company of her peers without some catastrophe? He'd heard Lucis Prep made a big deal out of small infractions and Cor hoped the situation fell into that category, instead of something major that would get her expelled.

In the office, a boy about twelve sat on one end of a bench with a swollen eye and a bloody tissue held to his nose. At the other end, Aranea waited, an ice pack wrapped around one wrist.

The boy's uninjured eye widened at the sight of him and he cowered a little lower on the bench, like Cor had come to finish the job. He would never, ever get used to people recognizing him out in the civilian world.

“What did you do, kid?” he asked Aranea.

“She attacked me!” the boy shouted before Aranea could answer.

“I wasn't asking you,” Cor said to the kid.

“He assaulted me,” she said.

“Assaulted you.”

She didn't get a chance to explain. The boy's parents arrived, and the mother began to fuss over her son's face and injuries like he'd been mortally wounded. The five of them were escorted into the principal's office a moment later by the same ancient secretary who filed Aranea's paperwork that morning.

Earlier, the woman had been kind and sweet. Now she glared at Cor like he was the one who got in a fight.

“Come in, have a seat,” the principal said.

Cor guided Aranea to the chair closest to the window, placing himself as a buffer between the boy and his parents. No sense in letting her within arm's reach of any of them, and Cor preferred to avoid bloodshed in public places.

The principal looked down his nose at Cor, then scowled at Aranea.

“We do not tolerate this sort of violence at this school, Miss Highwind. You do understand what you have done violates several different school rules?”

Aranea tossed a pair of folded papers onto the desk.

“What is this?”

“Notes he passed me in class.”

“Notes do not give you the right to attack another student.”

“Maybe you should read them,” Cor suggested.

The principal unfolded the pages. His frown deepened and he passed them on to the boy's parents.

“You wrote this?” his mother asked.

The boy nodded and his cheeks reddened. The woman's lips pressed into a thin line but she said nothing more and put the note back on the desk. Cor took it and smoothed out the creases.

Why are you wearing a bra if you don't have any titties?

He took the liberty of reading the second one himself, without waiting for someone else to look.

Hey Nif, you're a carpenter's dream. Flat as a board that needs a screw!

Cor passed it on to the boy's father. Beside him Aranea chewed her lip and adjusted the ice pack on her wrist.

“He's just messing around,” the boy's father said. “Boys will be boys.”

Boys will be boys?

Cor disagreed. Boys could be idiots when it came their behavior around girls. He'd seen that first hand too many times over the years, but it wasn't a free pass to say and do whatever one pleased.

“These notes are quite inappropriate, and they violate our code of conduct,” the principal said, “however, they do not excuse your behavior, either Miss Highwind. You should have turned them into your teacher instead of resorting to violence.”

“It wasn't the notes,” she said. “He kept snapping my bra strap.”

“Did you tell him to stop?” Cor asked.

“Yeah,” she said through gritted teeth. “And then he grabbed my chest and said I'd been elected the President of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee.”

Cor gritted his own teeth.  Boys will be boys, indeed.  Not the first time he'd heard that phrase.  

“Did you tell your teacher?” the principal asked.

“He told me to stop talking in class.”

“Boys do those sorts of things,” the boy's father said. “To girls they like.”

“So I guess I should be flattered that he felt me up?” Aranea snapped. “He pinched my nipples!”

Cor sat up straighter. Something inside his chest went icy cold. This was not just a case of kids being kids or kids handling a disagreement poorly.

“It was just harmless flirting,” the man said.

Cor saw red. No wonder the kid thought it was okay. Cor knew nothing about flirting, not how to do it or when someone was flirting with him, but he was positive it didn't involve non-consensual groping.

“Your kid touched my kid without her permission,” Cor said. “Repeatedly. That's sexual assault.”

The father blanched but sat up straighter to match Cor's posture Like he was an equal on some battlefield.

“Let's not be dramatic,” the man said. “My son is not the one who committed assault here.”

“I beg to differ,” Cor said. “What I'm hearing is he groped her in a sexual manner after she told him to stop. Your kid hasn't denied it.”

“He's twelve!” the man shouted. “He doesn't even know what sex is yet.”

“He knew enough to write those notes and touch her in places he has no damn business touching,” Cor said. “Whether or not he fully understands it.”

“Kids use words they don't understand all the time. It's not a big deal.”

“Touching someone without their permission is a big deal,” Cor snapped. “And I suggest you explain to him what respect and consent mean before he does something worse.”

“What are you implying, sir?”

“I'm not implying anything,” Cor said. His face was getting hot. “I'm saying that kid of yours needs to understand what boundaries are and that touching someone who asks them to stop is assault by law in this country. It's not cute and it's not flirting and it's not just what boys do, it's assault.”

Cor hadn't been this angry in a very, very long time. Not even Clarus, with his poor choice of words, had irked him so much. He was seconds from laying this guy out.

“He doesn't have the right to touch her or anyone else,” Cor said. “For any reason. Want to argue about it, we'll see you in court.”

The man sputtered. The woman, who remained silent since the beginning of the conversation, looked at the wall, away from Cor.

The principal cleared his throat.

No one said anything.

“So, now that we have that settled,” Cor said, struggling to keep his voice even and calm, “what do we do about this situation? Is my kid in trouble, or what?”

“Suspension is usually the consequence for a first infraction,” the principal said. His voice wavered and he wouldn't look at Cor. “Regardless of the circumstances, violence is not tolerated.”

“And sexual assault is?”

“We were unaware -”

“Then you didn't ask questions first, you just assumed my kid was a violent Nif who couldn't control herself,” Cor said. “Did you plan on disciplining the boy, or are we still going to pretend boys will be boys?”

“In light of the new information, yes. There will be consequences,” the principal said. “We do not tolerate that sort of behavior, either.”

“He didn't really do anything wrong,” the boy's father said. “This is bullshit!”

Cor's head swiveled toward the man. His old self was itching for a fight. He forced himself to open his balled fists and lay them flat against his thighs.

“Then I'm sure it would be fine with you if I snapped your wife's bra straps a couple times and felt her up,” Cor said. “Because it's just harmless flirting. I wouldn't be doing anything wrong.”

The man blanched again.

“Lay a finger on my wife-”

“That's what I thought. Now shut your mouth. The adults are talking,” Cor said. He returned his attention to the principal. He clenched his fists against his thighs. “You were saying?”

“Three days suspension, for the both of them,” the principal said. “With the option to make up missed work.”

“That's acceptable,” Cor said. “Was there anything else?”

“Who's gonna pay for my kid's visit to the doctor?” the boy's father asked. “She messed up his face!”

“It's a bloody nose and a black eye,” Cor said. “He'll live. And he's lucky that's all she did.” To the principal, he said, “Thanks for your time. I'll be by to get her assignments later. Aranea, let's go.”

Aranea trailed behind him, clutching the bag of ice around her wrist. She didn't say a word, and that was unlike her. He expected some comment or rant about it, but she walked to the car in silence.

He opened the car door for her, and she hesitated.

“Get in,” he said.

Aranea obeyed.

Cor started the car but left it idling. He had half a mind to go back inside and tear up all the paperwork he'd signed this morning. Maybe find a different school, but that wasn't logical. It wasn't like the principal ignored the boy's behavior once he was aware of it, but Cor didn't like that they didn't get all the facts first.

Facts or not, Aranea would have problems at any school she attended. She hadn't spent much time in the company of kids her age and hadn't learned to just be a kid. From the sound of it, her mother was a tough, smart woman who loved her children, but also put too much responsibility on her too young, perhaps to the point of neglect.

Nevertheless, Aranea had learned to stick up for herself. She was smart and resourceful and used to fighting her way out of bad situations. That in itself was to be commended. Most of her classmates had never gone hungry, never had to kill anything to survive, never slept on the ground or wanted for anything.

“Let me see your wrist,” he said.

Aranea offered her arm. Cor tested the joint and felt for broken bones. Nothing seemed out of place, but there was some swelling.

“It's a sprain,” he said. He applied a potion to it and watched the swelling go down. “I'm going to teach you the right way to throw a punch.”

“I know how to throw a punch.”

“I'll teach you a better way.”

He backed out of the parking space and turned onto the road, his anger still boiling low in his gut. This kid didn't deserve to be harassed on her first day. What kind of impression would that give her of her peers? She already had a dark view of people in general. This would only make it harder.

At the light, he hung a left instead of a right, headed for the shopping district.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “I don't know my way around yet, but I'm pretty sure home is the other way.”

Cor slid his gaze sideways.

Home. Already, she thought of it as home. That bothered him.

“You're right.”

“So, what, are you gonna drop me off on a street corner or something?”

“We're getting ice cream.”

Cor got no reaction but a blank stare.

“Don't tell me you don't know what ice cream is.”

“I know what it is,” she said. “I've just never had it.”

“Never?”

“Gralea's minus 30 degrees in the winter,” she said. “Frozen sugary milk isn't exactly a popular food item.”

Cor wondered what else she missed out on. Ice cream was something he loved as a kid. Growing up, he and his mother would walk down to the shop on the corner and get waffle cones with sprinkles. Sometimes sundaes with fudge. They would eat them in the park and people watch. His mother would comment on them like they were animals in the zoo. Cor would make up stories about them in his head.

He parked in front of the shop and opened the door for Aranea. Her eyes went wide at all the pink and white decorations, at the bins of toppings, and the glass-topped freezers full of too many flavors to count.

Here she was, too grown up and jaded for someone so young, staring at a vat of green pistachio ice cream with such bald, open innocence that it hurt Cor's heart. He wished he could give this kid the world, and at the same time, protect her from the things she'd already suffered.

“Pick whatever you want,” Cor said.

“What are you going to get?”

“Double fudge sundae.”

It was what he always got, on the rare occasions he indulged.

Aranea considered it, then pointed to the black cherry chocolate and asked for both nuts and rainbow sprinkles.

They sat at a table near the door, and Cor waited in anticipation of her first bite.

It was weird to care about something so small, but he got that same feeling he did while watching Prompto explore the gardens. It felt important. Like a milestone.

It was just ice cream, and he was being an idiot.

Aranea scooped up a small bite onto her plastic spoon and stuck it into her mouth. She blinked a few times, then smiled.

“That's pretty good,” she said.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

He snuck glances at her while she tried a few more bites.

“So... Am I in trouble?”

“I got you ice cream, kid.”

“Am I?”

“No,” he said. “You did exactly what you needed to do.”

“What about school policies and stuff?” she asked. “And getting suspended or whatever.”

“Not a big deal,” Cor said. “I would be more worried if you hadn't done anything about it.”

“So, I'm not in trouble.”

“No,” Cor said. “I'm proud of you.”

Cor did not expect the slow, broad smile she answered with, and his frozen heart melted a little more.

 

 


Aranea followed Cor out of the ice cream shop and back to the car, pondering this new development. She figured she'd screwed up big time and would wind up in holding until he found an orphanage to take her in.

Instead, he'd come to her defense. Called her his kid. Got her ice cream, of all things.

She figured he only said it to avoid having to explain, but man, was he making it hard not to get attached. Nobody, not even her mother, had so ferociously defended her like that before.

“Never expect people to take your side, baby girl,” her mother once said. “Right or wrong, you're on your own.”

Aranea had taken her mother's pearls of wisdom as gospel. She'd lived by those rules her whole life because she had no experience that disproved them.

Until now.

Nearly everything about Cor Leonis had her questioning whether or not her mother could be wrong about some things. He was everything her mother said men would never be. He was the exception to her rules.

“What do you say we spring Prompto from kid jail and go do something?” Cor said as he started the car.

She pushed back thoughts about her mother and buckled her seat belt.

“What did you have in mind?”

“There's a park by the riverfront,” Cor said. “Clarus takes Gladio there often.”

Her only experience with parks was what she'd read in books and had seen in movies and magazines. They were always pretty, hopeful places where nature wasn't wild or dangerous, places with swing sets and sandboxes. Things for little kids that she'd never gotten to enjoy.

“Sounds good,” she said.

Cor didn't say anything else the whole way back to the Citadel. Aranea didn't mind it so much. It gave her a chance to observe the city and the people in it.

Were those responsible for her family's death hiding somewhere inside the wall? Living normal lives free of consequences? Or her biological father? Did he have a family? A wife, a couple of kids? A house in a nice part of town? Was he still alive?

She never wondered about that before. Not really. Her mother told her he didn't matter. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he wasn't Lucian at all but some Imperial. Who really knew? Aranea would probably never know the truth, and what good would it do her anyway? It wasn't as if he'd welcome her with open arms and take her in. There was a pretty good chance he never even knew she existed.

Cor parked in the short term garage and she followed him to the elevator, still marveling over the grandeur of this place. Everything was marble. Huge paintings dominated the walls. Everything trimmed in gold.

The daycare was on the sixth floor, and like nothing Aranea had seen back home. It was a little kid's dream come true. Twelve rooms full of age appropriate play areas, tiny chairs and tables, and colorful artwork pinned to the walls. She couldn't imagine spending her childhood in a place like this, but a part of her wished she had.

Prompto sat on the floor with a dark haired boy about the same age as he was, and they seemed to be engaged in a serious conversation. The dark haired boy waved his hands and babbled at Prompto, to which Prompto clapped and nodded his agreement.

“Hello Miss Sophie,” Cor greeted the teacher. “How has he been today?”

“Happy, as usual,” the woman said. She was young and pretty and making eyes at Cor. He didn't even notice. “He and Prince Noctis have become fast friends.”

“So I see,” Cor said.

On the floor, Noctis laughed at something Prompto babbled and reached for Prompto's hand. Prompto laughed back.

“Gods, they're cute,” Aranea said.

“They've been chatting like that all day,” Sophie said. She smiled at Aranea. “You must be his sister.”

Aranea was taken aback, but she nodded.

“Something like that.”

Aranea wandered toward the boys and slipped to her knees beside them.

“Hey Prompto,” she said.

“Ah-nay!” Prompto greeted. “Baga da knock badadada!”

“Yeah, you tell him,” she said. “You ready to go, kiddo?”

“Knock!” Prompto said and pointed to the kid she assumed was the Prince.

Nocits was a pretty kid. Big, round eyes framed in long, dark lashes. Shiny, silky hair so dark it was almost blue. Plump cheeks.

“Hey kid.”

Noctis blinked and stared, shy all of a sudden.

Prompto crawled into her lap and leaned into her. The urge to cry hit her hard. How the hell had she grown this fond of him so fast? And what would she do if they were separated?

She couldn't think about that. If it happened, it happened, and she would deal with it when it did.

She hugged him back, then pushed to her feet, lifting him with her. He smelled like baby oil and boiled carrots.

Noctis started to cry and held both arms up.

“I can't pick both of you up, kid,” she said. “Sorry.”

It wasn't that. The Prince was crying because she'd stolen Prompto away from him. Prompto started to cry too.

Sophie swooped in to distract and comfort Noctis, who sounded miserable.

“Let me take him,” Cor said and handed Aranea Prompto's diaper bag. “You get the door."

Prompto didn't stop crying until Cor had him strapped into the car seat and they were pulling into traffic again and Cor turned on the radio. The happy babbling started up again and Aranea relaxed.

They arrived at the park fifteen minutes later and Cor produced a stroller from the trunk.

“Monica?” Aranea asked.

“Monica,” Cor confirmed.

Monica had grown on Aranea by leaps and bounds after their shopping trip for school supplies and clothes. She talked to Aranea like she was an adult and let her have coffee at lunch. Decaf, but still coffee.

“If there's ever any girl stuff you want to talk about, you come to me,” Monica had said. “Don't go to girls at school or the school nurse, okay? None of them will tell you the truth.”

“I could always ask Cor,” Aranea teased.

“I say this with complete love and respect for him,” Monica said, “Cor doesn't know squat about women.”

“Why not?” Aranea asked. “He's really good looking. He's smart. Nice. He could have his pick of whoever he wants.”

Monica shrugged.

“That's just the way he is,” Monica said. “And it's not a big deal. Relationship status doesn't define a person.”

“Sounds like something my mother would say.”

“Then she was smart,” Monica said.

Aranea wondered, though. If her mother was as smart as she thought she was.

“You okay?” Cor asked, snapping her back to the present.

“I'm good,” she said. “Just thinking.”

Cor nodded. He didn't ask what she was thinking about. He wasn't one to pry.

“I was thinking about my mom,” she said. “About some of the stuff she used to tell me.”

Aranea sighed and rubbed her eyes. Everything was all backwards. Here she was, in what she'd always heard was enemy territory, being treated better than she'd ever been treated by her own kind. By strangers.

Cor hummed.

“You can talk about it if you want,” Cor said. “You don't have to, but you can.”

“I'm just... I don't know, thinking maybe she was wrong about some stuff,” she said. “Not everything but some of it.”

“Adults can be wrong,” Cor said as he strapped the wiggling Prompto into the stroller. “We're not perfect.”

“I know,” she said. “But it feels wrong to think maybe she didn't know what she was talking about. She's not here to tell me any different.”

Cor glanced at her, then began to walk. He turned right onto a tree-lined brick path. A body of water sparkled in the sunlight beyond perfectly manicured shrubs.

“I wonder what she'd think about me being here,” she said. “If she'd be pissed I ran away instead of dying with her....”

Cor hummed again and stopped walking.

“It's survivor's guilt,” Cor said.

“What?”

He cleared his throat and his hands tightened on the stroller.

“My father left a space heater on one night when I was about twelve,” he said. “House caught on fire.”

Aranea's breath caught in her throat.

“By the time I woke up, their end of the hall was an inferno. Smoke was thick... I could hear my mother calling for help,” he said. “I thought I could save her, but...”

He fixed his eyes on some point far beyond the river and the trees, some place in the past, lost in memory and hurt.

He was silent for so long, Aranea laid a hand against his arm.

“Cor?”

He covered her hand with his own and closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them again, they focused on her.

“I know what it feels like,” he said. “It took a long time to stop thinking I'd done something wrong by saving myself.”

Cor squeezed her hand. Aranea had always thought she had big hands for a girl, but hers disappeared in his grip, dwarfed and small in comparison.

“It's okay to want to live, kid,” he said. “And it's okay to be angry and question everything you know. You can still love your mother and disagree with the things she taught you.”

Her throat hurt. Her eyes burned.

Cautiously, Aranea slid an arm around his waist and leaned into him until he returned her embrace. She didn't plan on it being anything more than a quick side-hug of support and solidarity, but it had been so, so long since anyone had just held her. Everything she'd held back, every tear she'd refused to shed, it all came flooding out, all at once.

Cor didn't push her away. He held on tighter, one hand clasped against the back of her head, his cheek against her hair.

He didn't tell her to stop crying, the way her mother would have.

“Tears are for weaklings and babies, Aranea. Strong women don't need tears,” her mother said.

Her mother was wrong. It felt good to let this out. It felt good to cry a year's worth of grief and struggle into Cor's chest. It felt good that he let her. It felt so damn good to breathe in the scent of his cologne. She felt safe. Like she mattered. Like she could trust him.

When she finally pulled back and wiped her eyes, the weight on her shoulders lifted some. Not completely, but she felt less like she was splitting apart at the seams.

Cor handed her a clean, white handkerchief with his monogram on it in black. Aranea laughed at it and took it. He didn't seem like the kind of man to carry around fancy handkerchiefs, but she was glad he was.

“Feel better?”

She sniffled and nodded. “Loads.”

“Good,” he said. “I've heard there's a chocobo stable around here somewhere. I haven't been riding in a while.”

“I've never been,” she admitted.

“Then we'll have to change that, won't we?”