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PART 1

Slush - as in something melted, distorted, no longer recognisable

It’s the same dream that wakes him up—a dream he hasn’t had since he was barely old enough to talk, since there were parts of it he couldn’t recognise or name.

They’re clear now. Sterile white light blinding overhead. Blue nitrile gloves. Voices above him that he cannot parse or recognise, and a soft beeping in the distance as they cut him open. In this version of the dream he looks down and sees himself vivisected on the table as they peel out each organ to replace with synthetic copies.

He wakes up crying. That much hasn’t changed. His phone, plugged in at half charge beside his face, is still playing music at low volume, and he fumbles to turn it off. His sheets are drenched in sweat. It’s so much if he didn’t know better he’d almost think he wet himself. He skims his messages for anything of note. A girl in his econ class has updated the shared document they’re using for their group project. And Noctis wants to hang out on the weekend, which is perfect. The college kids like the weekend shifts, so Prompto does weeknights and only the occasional Saturday.

There’s also an email from his mother. It’s a photo of the view from a hotel room. Two sentences accompany the image.

Buried in work. Good luck on your exams.

The subject line is “Love you.” Prompto shuts the screen off and flops an arm over his eyes. He lays in a pool of his own sweat for at least five minutes before he can gather the energy to get up and throw the sheets in the wash. He plays through six zones of King’s Knight while sitting on top of the dryer.

The clock creeps past four am silently, the way germs enter the body. If he’s up, he should be studying, but the hazy unreality of the world after night but before dawn makes it impossible to even imagine dragging his books out and rewriting his notes for history. He should do fine anyways. He always pulls good grades, and he’s managed to keep them at least above Bs, even with the new (but welcome) distraction that is Noctis, and the job.

When the sheets are done he puts them back on the bed and collapses into it. He shuts his eyes and it’s been an hour, and his alarm is going off. He can’t afford to sleep in unless he’s willing to go to school without showering, which he certainly isn’t. So he crawls out of clean sheets to stand under the showerhead and stare unseeing through the semi-opaque plastic curtain.

He skips breakfast. Budget-wise, it’s breakfast or lunch, and lunch is much harder to explain. By the time he’s locking his bike he already has four texts from Noctis.

PRINCE POUTY: hey

PRINCE POUTY: heyyyy

PRINCE POUTY: are u getting here soon?

PRINCE POUTY: specs drops me off so fucking early! What am i supposed to do?

PROMPTO: uh, idk, study??? thought of that??

Prompto shoves his phone in his pocket and heads up to meet Noctis at his locker, where he finds him eating a granola bar and scowling at anyone who glances his direction.

“Wow, you look cheerful. Gladio making you do double drilzls again?”

“He’s literally trying to kill me. I’m certain of it.” Noctis wads up the granola wrapper and tosses it at Prompto, who dodges effortlessly.

“Hah, better luck next time prince sleepy. Also I’m pretty sure that’s treason, and the opposite of his job.”

“You’re only pretty sure killing the prince is treason? Wow, maybe it’s dangerous for us to be hanging out after all.”

Prompto freezes with the wrapper in his hand, halfway to the garbage can, but he quickly recovers. Noctis is joking. It’s written all over his face, for one thing, and it’s also something he’d never say seriously (he’s pretty adverse to serious confrontation, in Prompto’s experience). But there’s a little sliver of truth in there that worms right under Prompto’s skin like a syringe or a scalpel. The wrapper drifts lightly to the bottom of the empty garbage can.

On the break they crashed rented bikes into a parked bus downtown. It wasn’t more serious than cuts and bruises, but Noctis didn’t talk to Prompto for a week. When he finally did, he told him how his father and his advisor were both convinced Prompto was a bad influence.

“It’s stupid,” he remembered Noctis telling him. “I’ve had a few classmates in the past who… well, who wanted to be friends with me for money or because their parents were social climbers. So Specs and my dad are just stupidly overprotective.”

So whenever Ignis is around, Prompto tries to steer Noct towards their mountain of homework and away from whatever game they were in the middle of. He has no idea if it’s working.

“Hey, wait for me after second period?” he asks. Noctis rolls his eyes, but he’s almost smiling.

“Duh. Always.”

“Sick, okay, catch you later.” Last year they were in the same homeroom, but this year they’re split up, so they only see each other during lunch and gym, which absolutely sucks, because Prompto has no desire to talk to anyone else, and they have, on average, even less desire to talk to him. He’s shared classes with lots of them for as long as he has with Noctis, and he isn’t forgetting getting tripped in the hallway or called “ugly nif” anytime soon. He’s not angry or anything, he just… doesn’t want to have to laugh along to their jokes and pretend they didn’t treat him like shit when he was a chubby little kid who had never talked to the prince.

Noctis texts him during class, and then presumably falls asleep. Prompto pillows his head on his arms and tries not to do the same.

“Prompto, we losing you back there? You care to read your answer to number eleven?” the teacher calls. Prompto jerks up, mumbles out his solution, which is right by some gesture of the Astrals, because he sure as hell didn’t check it over, and the teacher moves on. The second time he drops his head to his desk, he actually falls asleep.

He only drifts for a few minutes, ten at most. It’s still long enough for a dream, or a snatch of one at least. A lake of murky water--no, a vat. And his body is half-submerged, sinking lower and lower and there’s something, a thin black shape like a worm or a snake or a tiny eel, burrowed in his skin. There’s more than one. The water’s up at his chin.

He jerks awake.

“Hey, uh, that was the bell.” A girl is standing over his desk. She has her hair in a tight ponytail. Prompto vaguely recognizes her as the class rep, but he’s pretty sure he has her name mixed up with another girl.

“Oops, thanks.” He jumps out of his seat and grabs his bag, bounding out of the classroom without a backwards glance. Ten minutes later he’s taking notes in history and his pen stops. His hands are shaking. He swallows, trying to recollect the dream. There was something--he was in it and he was--something was happening to him. To his arm, maybe, or some part of his body. He glares down at his page of notes and searches for the dream, any solid image. But it’s slush, dissolving fast in the slurry of short-term memory bound for deletion. It slips through his fingers before he can even know the shape of it.

 

PART 2

Sand - the grinding down of something

His mother's face over him, haloed in light. She was saying something that he couldn’t understand. She was wearing a paper mask; a surgical mask. The light overhead was clean white, tinted with blue. Prompto tried to squeeze his eyes shut. The person above him was not his mother. The person above him had no expression. They wore clear protective glasses. They were holding a syringe of dark fluid.

There was an IV running into his arm but it was… not his arm, but it was, he knew it was, and the person in the mask slid the needle into the IV, and the liquid inside was poison, it tore at the worn ligaments of Prompto’s very self, or it would, he was aware of its intent to do so.

He opens his eyes in bed. His room is pitch dark save for the thin beam of moonlight cutting through his curtains. His whole body is like stone--he can’t even twitch his fingers.

In the mirror across from his bed a shape in shadow watches him. He tries to suck in a breath. He shuts his eyes but he can sense the shape leave the mirror, sense it up beside him, sense it breathing over his body. He’s not human. He doesn’t breathe. He squeezes his eyes tighter shut. Focusses on his fingers, just his fingers, just the feeling of them. He clenches both hands into fists, and his eyes snap open.

He rolls over and scrabbles for the light. As soon as it floods the room in soft yellow he hurls himself out of bed and staggers across the hall to the bathroom. The him in the mirror looks pale and haunted. The circles under his eyes are dark enough to almost look like bruises, and the light drowns his freckles into a wash of white. He runs water on his hands and slaps his cheeks lightly.

He gags into the sink twice, gripping the edge of the porcelain countertop hard. Then he treads the worn hall carpet back to his room. He sits up in bed and skims his homework/study schedule and Moogles how to get pizza grease out of jeans.

Then he closes his eyes and his alarm is going off.

+X+

Prompto slams the kickstand into place and hops off his bike to fumble with the straps that hold the pizza bag down. He doesn’t have a car, so he can’t boast the fastest status among the other delivery workers and he mostly does the runs in the neighbourhood. He’s not slow either though.

Tonight though, it seems some force of fate (possibly the Astrals themselves) have it out for him, because he manages one easy delivery to a place five blocks from the pizza place and then the next run sends him right out of the neighbourhood.

“Adis just went out and this order’s been waiting,” his manager sighs. Prompto puts how sore his legs are out of his mind and loads the boxes into his bag. It’s not so bad. And he’s fast. So he straps his bag into place and heads out, pumping his legs as hard any they’ll go without making black spots break out in his vision.

It would be nice to sleep more, he thinks, rounding a corner. His legs process the car before his brain does, and he’s slamming the brakes, dropping a foot to the ground to skid to a stop. But the car stops too, and honks loudly. Prompto nearly falls off his bike. And then, of all things, the window rolls down to reveal the prince’s godsdamned advisor .

“Sorry! Ignis. Uh, my bad,” he blurts out. Ignis has his lips pursed (kind of the face he makes when he sees Noct getting dirt on the carpets). Prompto rolls his bike backwards so he’s further out of the way, but Ignis swings the car up to pull into a random driveway, and Prompto is frozen in place. He watches the advisor get out of the car, unfolding long limbs gracefully and pushing his glasses up as if they were out of place.

“This is what you do on weeknights?” Ignis says. Prompto feels his cheeks burning. Doesn’t look great, does it? And it’s not helping his efforts to make himself look like a diligent student.

“I’ve got to go or I get docked for the free pizza. Um, sorry again. Bye.” And he speeds off on his bike without even bothering to check for cars. If he got hit by a bus right then, he thinks, it might actually be a blessing. And he doesn’t look back over his shoulder, because he can’t bear to see Ignis leaning on his car door, watching with his face pinched in displeasure.

He makes it with just minutes to spare, but the customer doesn’t seem at that concerned. The tip is an insult, but tips are like that all the time.

The rest of the shift is without incident. Noctis sends him a series of irate texts about how much he hates algebra. There’s something really comforting about being complained to as opposed to complained at or about .

And then he’s home, dead tired, looking over his notes and feeling vaguely sick just from trying to read. But his bed feels like a cavern, a coffin, something haunting him. He pauses in the doorway and stares it down, the innocent rumpled sheets, the smushed pillow. There’s other stuff to do. Laundry. Fix the kitchen faucet that’s dripping. Try to figure out how to make a lunch out of what’s left in the cupboards. Try to think of a non-whiny way to ask his mom for more grocery money.

So he does those things instead of sleeping. It’s late before he finally crawls into bed. It seems like that’ll help. It doesn’t.

The dream is fractured, it stops and starts at random intervals. He’s split open on the table. He’s rebuilt and taken apart again. No one has a face. He doesn’t have a face. He doesn’t have a name. But the cold steel walls--every detail of them is familiar. It’s like stepping through a mirror: the room on the other side is flipped but identical.

He wakes up unable to move. The figure remains in the mirror. Warm liquid running down his face pulls him back into his body. He swipes a hand across his face expecting snot and tears, but it comes away covered in--what? Blood? In the dark it looks black. He shudders. His stomach twists. The poison in the IVs. The ugly sludge running down the tube to reconfigure his every cell. He fumbles for the light. It’s blood. Dark and already crusted on his hand, but blood. Just blood and snot. His pillow is soaked on the one side where he was lying. He stares at it blankly for a long moment. Flips it over. Lies back down. Tries to stop shaking.

 

PART 3

Slime - here indicating bodily fluids

There’s this heady wild energy in the training halls that Prompto half-fears and half-envies. Noctis is in low spirits as usual (Gladio really is training him hard, seemingly) but he perks up at Prompto’s arrival, convincing Gladio to give him a brief reprise so Prompto can embarrass himself sparring against Gladio.

“You have good reflexes and you’re shit at actually using them,” Gladio diagnoses. Prompto laughs weakly.

“At least you got good reflexes,” Noctis calls. Gladio offers Prompto a hand up off the floor, which he gratefully accepts. The door at the other end of the room swings open and Cor the actual Immortal watlzes in, flanked closely by Clarus Amicitia. Noctis waves at both of them like a bored kid greeting his extended family (which Prompto supposes isn’t all that far off from his relationship to them).

“Gladio, a quick word,” Clarus says, and Gladio nods before turning to point a finger in Noct’s direction.

“Laps, I’m not kidding.”

“You suck,” Noctis says, flipping him off. Gladio jogs out after Clarus. Cor lingers in the doorway, eyes drifting over Prompto. They pause at the wristband, and Prompto wants to curl in on himself like the empty shell of a junebug.  

“Better start on those laps, he did say he wasn’t kidding,” Cor says. Noctis swears under his breath and hops down from the bleachers. Cor beckons Prompto over, and he almost glances behind him to make sure he’s not motioning to someone else. But he’s the only one in the room  besides Noct. So Cor means him.

“Hey, what can I do for you uh, Mr. Immortal sir?”

“Cor is fine.”

“Cor.” It’s not fine, it feels very out of place in Prompto’s mouth.

“You and Noctis are pretty close, huh.”

“Um, yeah. Is this about the bikes thing because I honestly--” Cor holds up a hand to silence Prompto, and his mouth snaps shut with an audible click .

“Noctis has mentioned wanting you on his crownsguard.”

Prompto chokes on nothing.

“Um--he-- really ?”

“Yes.”

“But that wouldn’t… I mean… I’m not even Lucian.” And Cor knows this more than anyone else, because supposedly he was involved in the rescue op. He merely nods.

“That won’t necessarily be an issue. You were cleared a long time ago, or we never would have let you attend the same school as the prince. I mean, I won’t say I wasn’t surprised by your… scans. But if you think you can handle the training, and you want to protect Noctis, you’ll certainly be allowed to try.”

“I want to. I will. Um, I’ll do my best.” The words are falling out of his mouth without any care for his mind, which is out wandering through Cor’s phrasing. Scans? Is that pertaining to the barcode or something else?

But then he’s jogging back over to Noctis, who wants to know what Cor was saying to him, and then he’s caught up, buoyed along by Noct’s excitement. He pushes all the ugly, difficult thoughts into some back corner of his brain. And they stay there, at least for the duration of time he’s hanging out with Noctis.

+X+

At home he flips through the scant family photo albums. Spare pictures of his parents together, mostly candids taken at parties or events, shots of them renovating the house. There are no pictures of Prompto as an infant. He’s never asked why. He doesn’t know how old he was when he was rescued, but it must have been young if he doesn’t remember his life before he was adopted. When he reaches for his earliest memory… steel. Nitrile gloves. The acrid splatter of black vomit in a metal basin.

But there’s no way to place a when or where. He can’t even be sure it was ever real.

Cor’s words come back in again. He closes the photo album on the kitchen counter. Scans. What scans? He strips off the wristband and presses his fingers to the barcode. Bone. Tendon. Vessels. He flexes his wrist. The idea is stupid. It’s really stupid but it’s like the edge of a scab--he has the paring knife in his hand before he catches up with himself.

Over the sink. A careful incision, horizontal cut over his wrist. His hands stay remarkably steady. The pain is remarkably easy to ignore. The sight of his own blood is remarkably familiar. But then he’s dropping the knife into the sink--back in his body for a moment. What is he doing? Blood drips in the metal basin. There’s a flash of color below the skin. Something that shouldn’t be there. So he pulls the skin apart slightly. Digs his fingers in a little.

Blood. Bones. Tendons. And among them, wires. Plastic coated. Slick with blood. There are fine wires in his arm, running up to the barcode, running back down to who knows. He claps a hand over the wound. He backs up from the sink too fast, dripping blood over the woven mat that stand in front of the cupboards.

He sits with his hand pressed like that until the blood is beginning to clot. A cut like this probably needs stitches, he thinks absently. But there’s no way he’s going to the hospital. And not just because he can’t afford it.

His phone buzzes on the counter. It’s a horrible call back to reality. He manages to unlock it one-handed. It’s a text from Noct. No message content. Just an image of a weird looking dog. And then, as he watches, Noctis’ caption bloops onto the screen.

PRINCE POUTY: this is u

He laughs. It just bubbles out of him. He’s split open in his own empty lifeless kitchen, and his best friend in the world, his only real friend is texting him like he’s a normal human. Like he couldn’t possibly be a monster in human skin.

He can’t think of a reply. He just drags himself upstairs, digs through the medicine cabinet for a bandage, and then crawls into bed feeling the way he is: taped together, weak, ugly.

 

PART 4

Solid state - used here to mean the inverse

Noctis cancels on him Saturday. It’s just as well, because his manager texts him asking if he wants another shift, and he needs the money. Getting to re-integrate breakfast into his daily routine would be really nice. Not having to worry about his cell phone bill would be nice too.

He doesn’t bother changing the bandage. There’s rusty fluid seeping through when he wakes up, and he solves this by adding another layer of bandage and tugging his wristband on overtop.

There’s more blood in the kitchen than he remembered, but the sink is metal, so it scrubs clean easily enough. He tosses the rug in the trash and hopes his parents won’t remember it. They probably won’t. Sometimes he thinks he could be swapped out for another kid and they wouldn’t notice the difference. They’d just ask to see that poor sucker’s report card.

Work is uncharacteristically slow for a Saturday, which feels unfair. It’s not even good weather. People always order food in when it’s cold, especially days like today, when there’s something between rain and snow intermittently falling from the sky.

So Prompto sits around in the back staring at his empty phone screen as the battery slips down towards 21%. If he tries to lift the phone off the table his hands shake so bad he can’t read the numbers. He’s slumped like that, trying not to think about wires running from his barcode into some unknown sector of his body--of a body. He feels oddly divorced from himself. There is the idea of Prompto, Noct’s friend, the Argentum’s son, pizza delivery guy, and then there is whoever dug his arm open in the kitchen yesterday.

It takes a minute to remember how to speak when his manager raps his knuckles on the table.

“Hey, you can head home. I’m gonna close in a couple hours if it stays slow like this.”

“Oh, uh. You sure?” Prompto’s mouth feels dry. He licks his lips but it does nothing. His manager shrugs and sighs.

“Yeah, might as well. Plus you look tired as hell. You feeling okay?”

“Yeah, of course.” Prompto’s answer comes without hesitation. He never thinks about his answer to questions like that. His manager gives him a long look. It reminds him a little of Cor, taking in individual parts of his body. The faces in the dream, selecting sections of his body to alter and adjust. He swallows hard against a sudden wave of nausea.

“Okay. Go get some rest, okay?”

“Will when I need it,” Prompto says, bobbing to his feet and grabbing his jacket off the back of his chair. He keeps his shoulder high and his back straight, because he can feel eyes on the back of his neck.

Outside it’s spitting; something closer to rain than snow. He bikes halfway home and then fumbles with numb fingers on his lock outside the convenience store. He has to buy… at least something. Maybe a sandwich. No, that’s a waste of money. Pasta would be cheaper. Pasta and… gauze to re-wrap his wrist? That seems like a waste too. He skims his phone, bracing himself against a headrush by leaning on his bike. Nothing. Well Noct’s busy. He’s got royal shit to do. It’s not his fault Prompto has no other friends.

He wanders the aisles of the store, struggling to take in or process any information on the brightly-colored packages. Shrimp chips, pretzels, cans of energy drink, cola, phone chargers and grocery-store giftcards. He stares at the small selection of dried pasta, nested between the baking supplies and paper plates. He stares for a while. Reach out, idiot. Pick something up. Get out of here, part of his brain insists. But his head is throbbing, and it feels like the moment he takes a step he’s going to also take a fall.

So he lingers there half-listening to the man at the counter argue with an underage kid trying to buy cigarettes. A group of college students bounce past him with their arms loaded with drinks, laughing and shushing each other.

Fuck it. He’s not even hungry. He takes a step towards the door--

That’s as far as he gets.

The world tilts and colors desaturate. He takes a knee.

“Whoa dude,” he hears distantly. And every single part of him is screaming to get up, to get out, to go unlock his bike and get the fuck home.

Instead he slumps forward onto the gritty linoleum. And he can’t open his eyes.

 

PART 5

Overwritten - as in empty or blank

“You think it’s a good idea?” Clarus’ tone isn’t accusing or even incredulous. Genuinely curious. He wants Cor’s opinion. Cor just shrugs.

“What’s Gladio say about him?”

“He says he has good reflexes. Says he’s got shit instincts. Could stand to put on a lot more muscle.”

“Hmm.” Cor gets up out of his chair. The more his job turns into a desk job the less he likes it. But that’s every job, right? Even the king has paperwork to deal with. “I don’t know. But he’s dedicated. And Noctis is a better judge of character than people give him credit for.”

“You might have a point there. But Cor--” Clarus hesitates. He drums his fingers on the armrest like he hasn’t decided yet if he wants to say this. Cor leans against the desk and crosses his arms. “You were there. You saw him when he was in the facility.”

“Not really.”

Clarus raises an eyebrow. Cor huffs.

“Look. You’ve read the reports.”

“Yeah, what, thirteen? Fourteen years ago?”

“We didn’t know what we were taking. It was labelled like a weapon. We were out of the facility before we got that capsule open and found a… kid inside it.”

“Yeah, and that’s where my concerns come in.”

“The best of our scientists cleared him. The tech in him ran on daemon blood. It’s all non-functional now. And he doesn’t remember any of it. Which if you ask me, is a damn good thing.”

Clarus chuckles slightly, but there's no mirth in it.

“It’s late. I’m heading home,” he says, getting up. “You coming?”

“Still got work to do,” Cor says. Clarus nods. They say a short goodbye.

+X+

Ignis pulls the car to a stop and fixes Gladio with a sullen look.

“Hey, if I had my own car I’d do it.”

“I’m sorry that I don’t particularly appreciate being held up from picking up the prince so you can purchase more electrolyte drinks.”

“You say that like I’m not gonna share,” Gladio says, unfolding himself from the car but hanging on the door.

“Well are you?”

“Pfft. No. He’s a prince, he can buy his own.” Gladio slams the door with a laugh. He doesn’t glance back on his way into the convenience store, but he’s willing to bet money that Ignis is currently pinching the bridge of his nose like nothing could be more irritating to him than having to make a five minute stop.

Less than.

Or well, it should have been. The door jangles as he pushes it open, and he pauses. The mood inside the store is… complex. Gladio’s eyes flick first to the clerk at the counter, then the frozen young adults with armloads of soda, and finally to the wide circular mirror on the back wall.

His first thought was a hold-up. But instead he sees a guy on his knees slump face-first onto the floor. A dude with an unbelieve blonde cowlick, and then, holy shit, he knows that guy.

“Whoa, dude,” one of the college kids says.

“What happened?” the clerk demands, coming out from behind the counter.

“He just collapsed!” a girl cries. Gladio doesn’t register crossing the room, he just does it. It’s one of those moments when training kicks in. He barely has to think. He presses two fingers to Prompto’s neck and finds a pulse. Prompto groans and shifts slightly.

“Hey. Hey, you with us Prompto?” Gladio says.

“You know that guy?” the clerk says. “He’s been loitering for ten minutes. I thought he was gonna take something and then he just keeled over!”

“Uh yeah he’s a uh--” He’s not going to say friend of the prince and that’s the only connection they honestly have. “Friend,” he finishes unconvincingly. Lucky for him, Prompto groans again and attempts (and fails) to push himself up with shaking arms. Gladio hauls him bodily to his knees.

“Hey.” He snaps his fingers. “You with me?”

Prompto blinks twice. He’s in a damp hoodie--way too thin for the weather.

“Yeah. Wait--Gladio? What’re you doing here?”

“Uh, I was buying drinks. But then I got sidetracked by you being passed out on the floor.” At this, Prompto’s expression rapidly shifts from confusion to horror.

“Oh I’m--sorry.” Prompto’s eyes shift to the door almost like he’s about to make a break for it. As if he even could.

“Should I call an ambulance?” the clerk asks. Before Gladio can open his mouth to say yes, Prompto actually surges to his feet.

“No! I’m fine, I’m good. Just low blood-sugar. Seriously.” He backs into a wall of paper napkins and plastic cups. Gladio quickly grabs one of his arms to steady him. Prompto’s eyes have the desperation of a trapped animal. His gaze flicks to the door and then back to Gladio again, silently begging.

“Yeah, uh, it’s fine. I got it from here,” Gladio says. “Can you walk?”

“Yeah, of course,” Prompto says, and heads for the door as the clerk is setting down the phone. Gladio follows him closely. He doesn’t wanna see his skull crack open on the counter if he goes down again.

Outside, Prompto takes a sharp right and starts fiddling with the lock on a parked bike.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting my bike?”

“Uh, no. Letting you ride a bike right now would be criminal negligence or something.”

“I--okay? But I don’t have money for the bus, so I don’t know--”

“Get in the car, genius.”

“The--oh.” Prompto looks up and seemingly sees Iggy for the first time. Gladio resists the urge to roll his eyes. He watches Prompto open the back door and climb in, and only then does he open his own door and slide into the passenger seat. Ignis is adjusting the rearview mirror.

“Well that doesn’t look like electrolyte drinks.”

“Guess who was passed out on the floor of the store?” In the mirror, Gladio sees Ignis quirk an eyebrow. He watches him shift the mirror to get a better look at Prompto, and steals one for himself while he’s at it. He looks like a wet cat, more or less. Skinny, tired, damp and dejected.

“Should I tell Noctis we’ll be delayed?”

“You don’t have to drop me off, I can seriously take my bike,” Prompto says.

“I was more thinking a hospital,” Ignis says. Gladio could swear Prompto almost goes for the door. As it is, he twists his hands in his lap.

“I seriously just got lightheaded for a second. I feel way better.”

Ignis exchanges a look with Gladio.

“Please don’t,” Prompto says softly.

“Noct’s waiting,” Gladio says, in the hopes Iggy will take the cue and throw the kid a bone. Ignis sighs.

“We’d best go collect him then,” he says. They meet Noctis hanging around the guardhouse at the Citadel gates. Prompto has been silent the whole ride, save for the soft sound of him intermittently chewing his nails.

Noctis slides into the back seat and then makes a startled sound.

“Prom? What’re you doing here?”

Before Prompto can open his mouth to lie (or at best, sugarcoat) Gladio clears his throat.

“He passed out in a convenience store.”

“What? What happened? Why didn’t you go to the hospital?”

“I’m seriously fine,” Prompto says, burying his face in his hands. He genuinely sounds like he’s inches away from crying. His hands are still shaking.

“What the fuck dude?” Noctis says.

“How about we just head to your apartment for now?” Gladio says. Prompto looks up at him with such relief that he almost feels sick. It’s disgusting to be looked at so desperately, so thankfully, for something so small.

PART 6

Entropy - as in the steady state of decline towards nonexistence that all things biotic and abiotic are in

Noctis sits on the bed and watches Prompto pick his way through the mess of clothes on the floor of his room.

“Jeez Noct, do you ever clean?”

Noctis merely shrugs.

“Sometimes. If Iggy’s pissed at me about something.”

Prompto laughs, but it’s kind of hollow.

“What is it?” Noctis says. The silence that stretches is unpleasant. It’s choking. He doesn’t like it. He gets up off the bed and Prompto backs up a step. “Dude,” Noct says, and it must come out more hurt than he realized because Prompto’s mouth falls open.

“I’m--I just--are you sure?”

“Sure about what?”

“Sure you want me on your crownsguard.”

“What? Yeah, why wouldn’t I?”

“Because--” Prompto claps a hand over his mouth. He takes another step back and his eyes dart towards the door. Noctis is frozen, he doesn’t know if he can move. He feels like he’s watching a deer in the garden, like one wrong move and he’ll spook it and never see it again.

Prompto takes a shuddering breath. He opens his mouth to speak, and then he bolts. Noctis breaks the long-standing “absolutely no warping in a place of residence” rule in his haste to follow him. But he doesn’t go far. Just yanks open the door to the bathroom and drops to his knees to dry-heave into the toilet.

Noctis stands still in the doorway for about fifteen seconds. Feels longer than that, but it’s fifteen seconds. Then he steps in and deposits himself on the tiles beside Prom.

Prompto spits into the bowl and then leans back shakily, lowering himself to sit against the tub.

“I don’t think I’m a human,” Prompto says. The words spill out like he’d actually vomited after all. Noctis blinks.

“What?”

“I was--you know I’m a Nif, but I think I was… I think I was made . I don’t know where they got me from.”

“They rescued you from a warzone,” Noctis says. It’s rote. It’s a fact. He knows this about Prompto. But Prompto shakes his head. “What--what on Eos makes you think you’re not human?” Noct tries. Prompto cracks a grin, which is unnerving as shit. He presses his lips together for a second and then he yanks his left sleeve up. Noctis blinks.

There’s a once-white bandage underneath, stained rusty-brown with old blood.

“Dude, what--” he starts, but Prompto begins unwrapping the bandage. He hisses when it peels away part of a thick horrible scab. Noctis feels like he’d like a turn with the toilet. Prompto’s left wrist is such a mess with dried blood for a second he doesn’t get what he’s supposed to be looking at.

And then he sees it. A barcode. It’s mottled with blood at the moment, but it’s clear enough. Above that is a long, precise cut.

“Dude, what happened?”

“I’ve had this my whole life. As long as I can remember. But that’s the thing, Noct. I don’t remember being a little kid. I came here when I was old enough to walk and talk and dress myself but I don’t remember anything .”

“What does--what happened?” Noct is trying to keep up with the speed of revelations but his eyes keep pulling back to the cut on Prompto’s arm.

“Cor mentioned something. I think he thought I knew. There’s… I have wires in me. I thought I was just dreaming, but I started… I think I started remembering .” Prompto has never looked this haunted. Noctis wants to reach out to him but he doesn’t know what to touch. He doesn’t know how.

“How bad?”

“They split me open,” Prompto says. He’s refusing to meet Noct’s eyes. “If I was born human, I’m not now.” They sit there in silence for a second, while Noct tries to gather himself. Then he does. He remembers who he is. He remembers that he’s never particularly been willing to take anyone’s shit. Prompto should be the same. He deserves to be the same.

“No, fuck that. Are you breathing right now? Is your heart beating. You’re human. So they… did shit to you, I don’t care. Are people with metal hips not human suddenly?”

Someone clears their throat in the doorway. “Well.” Noctis looks back to see Ignis looking slightly like he doesn’t know how to stand.

That’s the breaking point, apparently. Prompto lets out an aborted sob. Aborted because it ends in him throwing up what appears to be mostly water in the toilet bowl. And then he’s actually crying, so Noctis throws his arms around him and pulls him as close as he can. Prompto clings onto him like his life depends on it. Maybe it does.

+X+

A couple hours later, when Prompto is still asleep on the couch, he and Ignis and Gladio have a soft conversation in the kitchen. At some point, Prompto stirs, and Gladio crosses the room without announcement or question, sits down on the sectional beside Prom and cards a hand through his hair. He glances back at Noctis and Ignis, looking glum but resolute.

“I want him to get that wrist looked at,” Ignis says, steam from his cup of tea clouding up his glasses.

“Yeah but like. In the morning, right?” Noctis says, stifling a yawn.

“Yes, in the morning. He certainly seems to need his rest.”

+X+

Noctis can’t fall asleep in his room. So after an hour or so of tossing and turning, he drags his pillow and comforter out into the living room and sets up on the other half of the sectional. Prompto is still sleeping like a rock, his wrist freshly bandaged by Ignis. But Noctis shifts so he’s close enough that he can hear Prompto’s steady breathing.

+X+

Prompto doesn’t dream about anything. He wakes up the cold of Noctis’ ever chilled apartment and finds the prince sleeping inches away from him. He shuffles sock-footed to the bathroom, and regards himself in the mirror there. Is that the figure? The shadow? It seems like at some point while he slept they became one and the same. The fear that had gripped his chest is letting go. He runs into Gladio in the hall outside the bathroom, and without a word or even warning, Gladio reaches over and tugs him in to a shockingly gentle hug.

“I--” Prompto starts, but he can’t imagine where he’d be going with that.

“You’re not alone, hear me?”

Prompto doesn’t want to hold on. He doesn’t want to touch Gladio. He doesn’t want this to be unreal. If he’s out of his body he wants back in.

“Hear me?” Gladio prompts.

Prompto scrunches up his face to try to keep from crying. It doesn’t work. He takes two handfuls of Gladio’s shirt. That helps a little.

“I got you, okay? We got you,” Gladio says. He carries him back to the couch and deposits him by Noctis. And Prompto is so desperate not to sleep, he stares at the empty white ceiling and tries not to go.

But he does fall asleep.

And he doesn’t dream about anything. It’s the best night he’s had in months.