You were born stupid, the teacher said, and she slammed the drawer shut, perhaps to add emphasis. When Prompto told his mother about it she made that face she made when a waiter brought her the wrong meal, and she told him that the teacher was wrong, and it was unacceptable and not true.
But those words kind of hung on, they rattled around his brain and never stopped rattling. He was born stupid, maybe. It was hard to say he wasn’t. Not that he couldn’t do math or spell or remember capital cities, but he wasn’t smart either. There was nothing that set him apart from his peers. And there never would be. So he wasn’t born stupid, per se, but he wasn’t born anything else.
And the older he got, the longer he puzzled out that barcode and the weird adoption story, the more he wondered if he was born at all.
In second one he was thinking that seeing Noctis out here, where he felt like he was always holding his breath, was like a life-ring tossed into choppy waters, and suddenly his chest had unlocked. And in second two he wasn’t thinking anything, because his brain stuttered into auto-pilot, but at second twelve, when he took the first breath of post-explosion air he was thinking: that’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. In second twelve point-two he was thinking about Noct again.
Noctis, he can see even through the smoke, but he’s face-down on the paving stones, and he isn’t moving. Someone is shouting. He recognizes the voice. That’s Gladio. Barking orders, already on his feet, already moving. Prompto shoves himself up to his hands and knees and his eyes instantly tear up, he chokes on the dust and has to struggle for breath. Things are happening when he’s struggling, because when he can open his eyes properly he sees Gladio hoist Noctis into his arms, and a hand in front of his own face.
“Argentum.” That’s Cor, as in, The Immortal. Holding a hand out to him. He grabs hold. Cor’s hands feel scarred, but he’s not really thinking about that. His eyes are fixed still on Noct, who Gladio is dragging away not unlike a corpse.
“Let’s go, keep up,” Cor orders, and so he follows. Within the first ten steps he becomes aware that something on or… in his body is torn. His shirt is torn, he can see that even as he chases Cor and Gladio for the door. He’s faster than this. He knows that he’s faster than this, but somehow, somehow all he’s got is half-pace. His legs hurt, even though he can’t diagnose why. And his chest feels tight, it feels like he can barely draw a half-breath, let alone a full one.
Cor said keep up, so he’s got to keep up. And he is, he’s keeping up until suddenly he isn’t, until he cannot take a breath and he stumbles to a halt. It’s the last thing he should do in a situation like this, and that knowledge is echoing loud in his brain, but he squeezes his eyes shut.
Even as his brain is yelling. He feels like he’s three feet deep into a dream even while his alarm is screaming at him; he feels like the last minutes are ticking down on the exam and he hasn’t written a single answer down--he opens his eyes, and he runs again.
The side of his face feels like it’s drying fast, although he can’t remember it being wet. They set bombs off, he thinks. They brought the whole training hall down . His ears are still ringing hard, and through the ringing he can pick out the footsteps he’s supposed to follow and the sound of someone screaming. He has never heard a person scream like that. Maybe in a movie.
He follows but he’s aware that he’s not fast enough. He’s aware of losing the sound of footsteps in front of him, or at least, he’s aware of having lost them. When he gets to the doors they’re locked. Noctis is on the other side, and he’s alive, or he isn’t, and Prompto wishes so hard he could pass through the door like water, just to see, just to know. He leans against the door. Everything is throbbing, but some things are making themselves known more than others.
The back of his shirt is wet, and it stings. One of the fingers on his left hand is pretty mangled--the skin is stripped off and the nail is cracked. He can’t even imagine how that happened. He takes another breath, not a full one, but a more grounding one. Panicking isn’t crownsguard material. And it won’t help anyone.
Through the ringing, he can still hear screaming. So he turns back the way he came. If he can’t see Noctis to safety (not that he was helping much anyways) at least maybe he can help the injured recruits. He’s got to do something.
You’re not useless , he thinks, even as born stupid echoes in his mind. He slaps his cheeks, reaching for alertness that probably isn’t coming. His right hand comes away sticky, but he wipes it on the front of his shirt.
The first person he gets to isn’t screaming, and the reason for this becomes slowly apparent. It’s because he’s dead. Prompto is crouched in a puddle of his blood, and he knows this guy, they packed up the training equipment together last week, but he’s forgotten his name, and looking in his unseeing eyes isn’t triggering any memory. Prompto wants to close the corpse’s eyes but he doesn’t want to touch him.
Eventually he forces his hand into motion. The lids are still warm. The body is still warm, but he’s dead, inarguably. Prompto moves on, following the sound of screaming. Screaming means alive. Screaming he can actually do something about.
He remembers at least enough about first aid to help the next recruit. Her leg is embedded with shards of glass and metal, some of them almost the width of Prompto’s hand. He tears strips from his already torn pant leg (the fabric of his shirt won’t give easily) and wraps her leg as loosely as possible. She clings onto the front of his shirt while he works, but she stops screaming, which is nice.
“I’m going to go check if more people need help,” he says when he’s finished as much as he can do. He has to force her hands open to get her to let go of his shirt, which feels bad. And standing feels bad too, in a different way. When he’s on his feet he realizes that he’s both dizzy and cold, enough so that he’s not all that confident about walking, and his wristband is torn. Connected by a thread. His fingers scrabble uselessly over it, trying to pull it back together as if that’ll do anything.
It’s not going to. He tears a strip off his pants again and ties it around his wrist and the whole time his ears are ringing so hard he feels like he’ll throw up. What am I doing? He thinks. This is selfish. But some part of him is determined to stay hidden, the ugly part that Noctis has never known about, and never will if he has any say.
Someone is calling out for help, through the rubble, and he follows that sound.
Ignis looks fucking pissed, which is probably an understatement. He steps out of the med wing like he owns the place, locks eyes with Gladio, and sighs.
“What’d they say?”
“They said we’ll know more when he wakes up. Have you heard yet?”
“Heard what?” Gladio is literally on the edge of his seat, he can’t decide if he’s going to stand or not, but Ignis crosses the distance between them.
“They’re launching a second assault, apparently. To combat the glaives.”
“This can’t be strategic.”
“I doubt it is. I think the purpose is to kill more recruits than they already have.”
Gladio gets to his feet, but Ignis is already putting a hand out.
“You know where you have to be.”
“You had your moment of heroism. Now we get to wait,” Ignis says. Fuck him for being so calm , Gladio thinks. But he can see fear behind the glasses, see the tension telegraphed in his shoulders.
He doesn’t want to ask.
“You hear anything about Prompto?”
“Cor said he fell behind during your exit.”
“Yeah, he told me that too. I was just wondering,” Gladio says. He rubs the back of his neck. There’s a single cut on his arm, and it’s throbbing but he refused to let the med-techs look at it. Better to just leave it to the open air, he figures. And he’s had worse.
Prompto was walking, at least. Must have got lost in all the confusion. But Prompto wasn’t as dumb as he looked (at least most of the time). He was probably hiding out. And he made it pretty far away from the action anyways. It was just a matter of waiting for the all-clear.
It didn’t come for a while. Noctis woke up from unconsciousness and fell asleep. The doctors monopolized him anyways. Finally, the glaives came through, and Gladio went with the team of med-techs to pick up what was left of the recruits. If nothing else, he figured, he was good at lifting rubble.
The casualties are pretty brutal to behold. Gladio takes a few moments of measured breathing as med-techs pull a sheet over a body. He talked to that kid, at some point. He corrected his sword stance.
But there are more hopeful cases too. A girl with shrapnel embedded in her leg tells him that one of the other recruits helped her out.
And he gets that same story from a few others. They seem a little embarrassed not to know his name.
Skinny, freckly, “the gawky guy,” are a few descriptors. Gladio is fighting off a small smile when he listens to a kid telling about how the guy used a pen to splint his broken fingers.
“Was he blond?” Gladio asks.
“Oh yeah, that’s his name!”
Gladio feels some of the tension leave his shoulders. He’d been right the first time. Prompto was up and walking around, he was okay. Although how he ended up back in the action was a mystery. He didn’t think the kid was actually that stupid. Or that brave.
“You know which way he went?”
“Yeah.” The recruit points towards the rubble, what had once been the middle of the training hall. Gladio picks his way through, careful of exposed nails and shards of glass. He finds Prompto sitting on a chunk of fallen concrete, gazing aimlessly at nothing.
“Hey. Heard quite the story about you,” Gladio says.
“What?” Prompto’s head snaps up. It seems to take a half-second for him to recognize Gladio, but when he does worry floods his face. “Is Noct okay?”
“Sleeping, but the doctors said it looks promising.”
“Oh good. Great. Thank the six.” Prompto’s got dried blood on one side of his head, but head wounds bleed like crazy, so it’s probably not that deep. And he has blood on his shirt, but that tracks if he’s been patching people up the whole time.
“Well, you wanna see him?” Gladio says.
“Yeah, of course.” Prompto hops to his feet. “I’m so glad you guys are okay,” Prompto says. Gladio takes a step back the way he came. There’s a thump behind him, and he turns back to see Prompto sprawled over the ground.
“Prompto?” he barks. His voice comes out harsher than he intended. Prompto doesn’t flinch, doesn’t give any indication of having heard. But now that he’s lying like this, on his front, slumped over the rubble, Gladio can see that the back of his shirt is soaked in drying blood. A wash of brown, like rust blooming through the cotton.
Gladio puts his fingers to the kid’s neck and finds a thready pulse. The sigh of relief is caught in his throat, it comes out more like a cough.
“Prompto.” Still no response. He glances up to find the nearest med-tech about twenty feet away. “Hey, I need help over here!” he calls. The voice doesn’t sound exactly like his own. He’s Gladiolus Amicitia. He doesn’t panic. But he’s thinking about how, not far enough away, someone is dead under a sheet. A person whose name he never bothered to learn. And Prompto’s skin is cold.
There’s hardly enough hands to go around, even as emergency services finally rolls up to help, so Gladio carries one end of the stretcher as they bring Prompto in. And a few of the recruits he helped see them go by, Gladio recognizes them now by their makeshift bandages--torn out of Prompto’s pant legs.
At the med-wing they take him away much like they did Noct, and Gladio looks at his old seat but feels utterly repelled by it. He goes back to help with the clean up. There’s always use for another set of hands. And he can’t do anything for Prompto, can’t do anything for Noctis.
When the last recruit is loaded into an ambulance, he finally checks his phone. One missed call from Ignis. He taps the screen harder than he needs to. Ignis picks up after two rings, no different from any other day.
“Gladio,” he says, by way of greeting.
“I was wondering if you knew how to get ahold of Prompto’s parents. The medical team didn’t find his phone.”
“Is he--he’s okay?” Gladio asks. The silence in response is much too long.
“He’s alive. I’m told that his injuries are severe enough that his parents should be contacted.”
“I don’t know anything about them.”
“No, I didn’t really suppose you would.”
“So why’d you call?”
“Something to do.”
“Right.” They wait like that for a moment, letting unsaid things hang between them.
“I’d better go,” Ignis says.
“Yeah.” Gladio hangs up first. Then some part of his common sense reboots, and he thinks to call Iris. Let her know he and dad are fine.
So far, in life, Ignis has found that if he walks with the right confidence, he can enter almost any room he likes. Because he has responsibility to the prince, he rarely puts this skill to any use outside of entering rooms he’s supposed to be in.
Sometimes he uses it out of personal desire. Rarely, but sometimes. His ID badge is hung around his neck, but with the way he holds himself, no one in the hall stops him. And then he’s inside Prompto’s room. He looks small in the bed, like he’s lost in the sheets. And he is, in some ways, disappearing into them; a lot of him is bandaged, as if he’s been rudimentarily camouflaged.
He’s asleep. Or drugged, or both. Ignis crosses to the bed and lets his fingers just brush the sheets. He’s not entirely sure what he’s doing here. He doesn’t know Prompto. Well, he knows him. He’s met him, they’ve talked, he’s driven him home from the arcade. Noctis has been asking about him, and someone, but not Ignis, made the executive decision to lie to him. But Ignis in the room now witnessing, and he can hear Prompto’s heartbeat.
Ignis sighs. He has a headache rolling in like a tide. It’s been oncoming ever since the echo of the explosion faded out. But at the very least, Prompto is alive. So the lie to Noctis is only a part-lie, a lie he’ll eventually forgive.
He means to leave but lingers at the doorway. He tried every mode of contact they could find for Prompto’s parents. They eventually answered that they were dealing with business and asked to be updated when Prompto was awake.
Ignis skimmed that correspondence again. A text from Gladio popped up.
Gladio: Coming back to med-bay, you with Noct?
Ignis: Prompto’s room, at the moment. M21. It’s very quiet in here.
He drops his phone back into his pocket and himself into the single chair. This room, unlike the one Noctis is in, has no window. Noctis won’t be in hisit long anyways. He’ll lose the fight and go to his room in the Citadel, or he’ll win and Ignis will ferry him to his apartment and play nurse-babysitter for a while. That at least is solved. Predictable. Now the variables are growing fewer and fewer. With Prompto, they keep cropping up out of nowhere. And they aren’t variables for Ignis to deal with, certainly not part of his job or his duty to the crown. But they’re variables. He doesn’t like knowing about them.
Gladio comes in more softly than Ignis was expecting. He looks exhausted. He comes to the end of Prompto’s bed and stands almost as if at attention, just watching with his hands limp at his sides and his expression dense and unreadable.
“Noct’s pissed,” he says.
“Oh, you saw him?”
“He’ll be out by the end of the night, probably. And someone told him that Prompto’s here, so he’ll be in this room sooner or later.” Gladio puts a hand on the footboard and finally turns his gaze on Ignis. “Did you get ahold of his parents?”
“In some sense.”
“What’s that mean?”
“They asked to be updated. Apparently they’re not in the country at the moment.”
“Did they give someone else to contact?”
“No.” Ignis hopes his tone belays that although the questions may continue, the answers stop here. It seems like he does, because Gladio’s mouth goes hard, and his knuckles go white where he’s gripping the bed.
And then the door opens again, and this time it’s Noctis, and a trailing member of the medical staff.
“So according to Cor you just left him?” he says, pointing an accusatory finger at Gladio.
“Your highness, this isn’t really--”
“Well I couldn’t carry you both. He fell behind, I had orders.”
“So lift more!” Noctis grips his head and staggers back at step, at which point the staff member grabs his arm. Ignis gets to his feet.
“You’re both alive. This is a medical facility. If you need more reasons to calm down and be quiet, I can provide some.”
“Fuck off,” Noctis says, but he says it softly. “Is he okay?”
“Not really,” Gladio says, which is unhelpful at best and downright exasperating at worst. Noctis presses a hand to his mouth, and his brows pull together, and for a second, he looks a lot younger than he is. Ignis relents.
“Perhaps we could get another bed in here,” he says. Noctis has the decency to not even look smug.
It’s been, by all rights, a deeply unpleasant day. A day that has an explosion before noon in it is not a good day, in Ignis’ books. But he caps it off cooking in his own apartment, which is some comfort. His phone hums on the counter and he presses down the faint flare of terror as he picks it up. Gladio’s sent a picture. He opens it to find an image of Noctis and Prompto. When Ignis left, their beds were pushed together, Noctis was playing on his phone in one and Prompto was unconscious in the other.
Now the two are in the same bed, Noctis asleep with his mouth open and Prompto holding a styrofoam cup and looking up at the camera. Ignis closes his phone to turn his attention back to the stove, but once he’s picked up the spoon he finds himself opening the screen again to scan the picture a second time. A text comes in while he’s looking.
Gladio: he has good taste at least
Ignis: In some things.
Noctis lingers for a few minutes at the edge of sleep, still half-clinging to the dream, even though he’s already lost the shape of it. He can’t even remember if it was a good dream or not, it’s all draining like sand through a punctured bag.
He’s warm, and he remembers where he is. Prompto’s bony shoulder is pressing into his cheek, sharp, and his mouth tastes sour and foul.
Someone’s speaking softly. After a moment, he recognizes it as Ignis.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t intend for you to get worked up.”
“Yeah, except that’s total bullshit.” That’s Gladio, talking probably louder than he means. Noctis doesn’t open his eyes, half because he’s tired, and half because he’s eavesdropping. But he feels Prompto flinch.
“I didn’t think… I don’t know.” That’s Prompto, stumbling, unsure.
“This isn’t the time to have this conversation.” Ignis sweeps the topic like so much broken glass, but Noctis hears Gladio move--stepping closer to the bed maybe, and this time when he speaks he remembers to lower his voice.
“Who looks after you? When they’re gone?” For a moment Gladio’s words are a puzzle, after all, he missed what seems like most of this discussion, but something thick like old anger stirs in his guts, and he can feel Prompto stiffen at his side.
“What do you mean looks after me? I’m not a kid.”
Noctis has used that line so many times. On his father, on Ignis, on members of the staff and the crownsguard and at least one gym teacher. It means something completely different when it falls out of Prompto’s mouth.
“Gladio.” That’s Ignis. That’s a done-talking tone. But Prompto isn’t finished, Noctis feels him take the breath.
“I’m not like, a charity case or something. I take care of myself.”
“We know, Prompto. You are…” Ignis is struggling to find the words, it seems like. Or maybe he’s gesturing at something. Or someone else is. Noctis almost cracks his eyes open. “You are doing very well. You should be proud.”
And before anyone can say anything else--although Noctis hears Prompto’s breath hitch as if he’s about to cry--the door opens. It’s easy then to fake waking up, just in time to catch sight of Prompto wiping his eye with the back of his wrist.
“Morning Princess. Thought you’d sleep all day,” Gladio says.
“Is it actually morning?”
“It’s like six pm,” Prompto mumbles.
“When do we get to go hooooome?” Noctis asks, pushing himself up but making no effort to climb back into his own bed.
“You? Whenever you want,” Gladio says. Ignis shoots him a look, one of the looks that he seems to think Noctis never sees.
“And Prom?” he glances, but Prompto doesn’t meet his eyes.
“He… can be discharged tomorrow, but only if he has someone to monitor him.”
“So then, tomorrow. I’ll just hang here until then. But you guys can go I guess.”
“Yeah, I know dude. But trust, Iggy’s good at taking care of people. And he makes ok soup.”
“If you describe my soup as ‘ok’ while not in a hospital bed, you’ll find yourself back in one,” Ignis says. Gladio laughs. Prompto makes a noise somewhere between laughing and choking that actually has Noctis slightly concerned.
“I can’t just…”
“Yeah, you’re coming home with me. With us.” It sounds good when he says it, he feels that rare confidence bubbling up. Sounds way better than left behind .