"Dude, hurry up already!"
"Hows about you slow down?"
Noctis snorts. "Wow, never thought I'd hear that one. But seriously, we need to get a move on. Cor will only wait so long before he starts looking for me. And if he has to come looking, it'll blow my chance to put you on his good side."
Prompto makes a face. "Don't even know why you wanna bother introducing us, dude. He's just gonna see my coloration and go 'oh a Nif? Princes can't be friends with Nifs.' Like every other adult in our lives."
"Nah, Cor's cool." That's all he's been saying, since this whole idea popped into his head. No matter which concern Prompto brings it, it's always Cor's cool, he won't mind, nah, Cor doesn't care, Cor will be fine with it.
Kind of makes Prompto wonder if it isn't one big joke. Nobody remains calm in the face of Noctis for long, especially not with the whole darling of the Ocean Blue titled pinned to his front.
It's one thing to be human royalty. It's another to be ocean royalty, but with the distinction of being human enough to walk and live among them. A lot of adults hear that and start kissing ass, and shove Prompto aside because he doesn't belong with royalty.
Nevermind that Ignis and Gladio, when they bother to put on their human skins and walk ashore, talk with him like he's an equal. That they treat him as kindly as they do Noctis, like he's already one of them.
"You already passed their tests," Noctis told him, when he'd asked why they were so chill with him. "You haven't gotten upset or jealous at the amount of times I've had to be somewhere else, and you didn't try to get between us or drive me away. You're human, but you're one of us, too."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Means if you don't want to wind up adopted, you'd better stay out of the reefs."
He'd thought it was a joke at the time, but looking at the way Ignis and Gladio act around Noctis now? It's not quite so funny. Ignis and Gladio might not be Noctis' literal parents, but sometimes they act like it, and they've been doing the same thing to Prompto. Ignis feeds them both whenever he comes out, and even when he never leaves the water he asks about Prompto's diet, wants to hear about his day. Gladio nudges him into harsher exercises, running and the like to keep him in shape, and praises him when he does well. He can be stern, even scary at times, but he wouldn't lay a hand on either of them if his life depended on it.
And yeah, so maybe Prom's stayed away from beaches and the like. He'd rather not be adopted by random strangers, no matter what Noctis says about the whole shoal basically raises the kids anyhow, so you're like, everyone's precious little guppy.
He's not a guppy! He's a grown man!
"Okay, there he is. So, stay behind me, and just like. Don't do anything stupid?"
"You say that like I'm fixing to pick a fight or something."
"No, but like. Cor's... um. Well, you'll see. Just keep cool."
Noctis takes a deep breath, and starts leading him around the corner towards the open beach. Prompto follows at a safe distance, camera tucked away as he hums to himself. For a moment, he looks out towards the rocks and sees nothing but sand and water. Then he blinks, and suddenly there's a great big fucking lionfish moving--
No, not just a lionfish. A lionfish mer, with a deep crimson body and sharp white lines carving through the red, extending all the way out to the deadly spines sticking at his sides. The upper half of him has an equal number of scars to match the white lines, and is lean-muscled, arms crossed as he regards the pair coming towards him.
"You're late." His voice has no inflection, no stress, but there's a great undercurrent of distaste all the same. "Who is that."
"Prompto Argentum. Um. I told you about him?" Noctis pulls Prompto forward by a shoulder, and Prompto realizes with a start he has no idea how to greet this man. With Ignis and Gladio, they glanced at each other and just folded him in to the group.
But this man, Cor, is evidently not the sort of touchy-feely friend. Prompto's pretty sure if he does anything other than nod his head right now, Cor will skewer him for sashimi.
"Sir," he says softly. Cor stares him down with the weight of a man fixing to either throw him into the water or completely ignore him, and Noctis is wound tense beside him, clearly ready to intervene if things get nasty.
"Hm." Is all Cor says after a moment, and then turns to Noctis. "Training, Highness."
Well, it's not an acknowledgement, but it's not violence either. As far as Prompto is concerned, it's a win in his book.
School though? That's a different matter.
Noctis grimaces a little as Prompto's eyes water from the sting of copious antiseptic being applied. "This wouldn't keep happening if you'd just hit them back."
"You know I can. I do, and I'm out on my ass. They're not going to make excuses for me or play the 'oh it's just boys being boys' card, Noct. I'm a Nif. Means I'm a threat."
Noctis snorts. "Yeah, maybe to the shrimp fry. You're not a threat, Prom. You're just... you." He lays the last bandage across the bridge of Prompto's nose, fingers lingering warm and smooth on Prompto's cheek for a moment before pulling back. "Cor's gonna need to know about this."
"Huh? Why? He doesn't even like me."
"Because he's my..." Noctis' lips and tongue form one word, but it comes out as gobblegook to Prompto, and he evidently knows it. "It's like... head... guard? But more. A lot more. He's in charge of the kingdom, and like, this subsection of warriors, but he's also in charge of the spy networks, and our protection."
"Yeah, so why would he care about what a dumb little human does?" Prompto sniffles, and winces as sharp pain radiates up his nose. "You didn't get hurt, so it's fine, right?"
Noctis doesn't answer, just makes a face and gestures him to follow.
Gladio and Ignis are at the edge of the shore when they arrive, though Prompto doesn't see Cor about. He's probably lurking - in the two weeks since they've met and Prompto and Noctis have been coming here so Noctis can train, Prompto's learned that despite being big and flashy, Cor's surprisingly sneaky.
"Oh my," Ignis says, when Prompto is in range.
"I hope the other guy looks worse," Gladio says, which... would be funny if Prompto were anyone else.
"Nah. He got off scott-free, as usual," Noctis snarls out, which causes heads to turn towards him. Gladio and Ignis do that little eye-contact thing where its like parents speaking about their kids. "Because Prompto's got blue eyes and blond hair which are Nif colors, and he hails from Gralea despite being raised in Insomnia, so of course he's a threat!"
"Dude," Prompto sighs, and his voice is enough to make Ignis glance at him. Among the waves, Prompto spies a hint of red, a flash in the late-day sun. "Just let it go. Bitchin' won't fix anything."
"You should be more angry!" Noctis exclaims, throwing his hands up. Gladio tugs him down to the water, so he can wrap arms around him and hold him while he vents. It's a calming habit, Prompto recognizes. "Why aren't you?"
Prompto snorts. "What good is being angry gonna do? Not gonna change nothing. So they're racists, big deal. I'll deal with it, and I'll just... leave once I'm out of high school."
"And go where?" Noctis demands. Gladio rests his chin on top of Noctis' head, bearing his weight against him a little more, and Noctis dips further into the waves, though not enough to drown him. "Because as far as I'm concerned, you and I are joined at the hip."
"And as far as we're concerned," Ignis interrupts, gesturing Prompto over to check the bandages. Prompto sits on the edge of the rocks and lets Ignis trace the wounds with his fingers, careful not to infect anything. "We are joined to wherever His Highness goes. So if you do plan on taking our Prince and going, please at least be kind enough to set up shop near some water."
The dryness of the words are enough to startle a laugh out of Prompto, if only a small one. Ignis smiles at it, replacing bandages and gauze deftly. "Yeah," Prompto agrees. "Okay."
There's a sudden chill to the air, and Prompto immediately straightens, pulling away from Ignis as Cor slides up onto the rocks. He says nothing to Noctis, but eyes Prompto like he's debating something. Unconciously, Prompto's spine straightens, his chin lefts, and he nods to Cor and says, "Sir," just like the first day.
Ignis blinks, like he's been struck. One of Gladio's eyebrows goes up, confused.
Cor's eyes narrow, but he says nothing. "Training, Highness. Into the waters with you."
"Oh c'mon Cor--"
Cor's response is to grab Noctis and fling him into the waters. Ignis and Gladio sigh, as Noctis reappears to start cursing Cor out, and Cor turns to disappear back into the waters below.
Prompto settles at the edge of land, surprisingly at peace.
Through the months, spring through autumn, they remain like that. They continue to go to the beach, Prompto sometimes with new wounds, sometimes not, and Cor continues to tolerate him, saying nothing as Prompto greets him every time with a nod and a "Sir" , and honing in on Noctis like he's prey. And every time, Noctis drags himself home wet and chilled, and Prompto will give him his jacket and laugh with him, and Noctis will bury his face in Prompto's collarbone and let his insults fade into soft murmurs of gratitude and happiness instead.
Sometimes though, he looks at Prompto, blue eyes eerie-bright in the low light of the subway, and murmur, "Y'don't have to be so polite to him, y'know. He likes you."
"Just because he lets me stay doesn't mean he likes me, Noct."
Noctis rubs his nose against his, and Prompto's heart hammers triplicate in his breast. "I've known Cor for forever. If he didnt' like you, you'd know it. Just gotta relax around him, that's all."
And Prompto can't think of a way to tell him that he knows that, that Cor doesn't hate him, doesn't merely tolerate his presence for the sake of the Prince they both guard. But he also doesn't know how to say it feels strange not paying a fighter his respects when he fights so hard to see you safe, or I respect him because he's been kind in his quiet, and that's all I ever asked for.
Doesn't know how to put into words that sometimes he wonders if life as a mer wouldn't be better, because at least the people of the ocean don't treat him as an enemy come to hurt them.
He doesn't know how to say any of that, so he just grunts, shrugs, and lets Noctis do what he'll do. It's not a bad way to be, he thinks.
So of course, something would escalate.
Truth be told, Prompto's been feeling on edge for a while. There's a disquiet to the ranks of his classmates - a disquiet like there was before, when Noctis went away for a week, and came back just in time for someone to try to push Prompto off the school roof. A disquiet like the time he was attacked after gym class, when he was tired and sweaty because he'd had to run more laps than everyone else, and the kids there had stuffed rocks and soap into socks and beat him so badly he hadn't been able to move. He'd crawled home that night, and fallen asleep. He'd gone into school the next day, and the teacher had cited him for 'bad behavior'.
So of course it would escalate. He just wasn't expecting it to escalate in the way it did.
After school club, Noctis already gone home for the evening, Prompto cleaning up the last of the room, alone.
Behind him, movement. Noise. He turns. Tries to.
Hands on him, grappling, pushing, and a cloth over his nose and mouth. He fights, screams out, but they're holding him down too tightly, there's too many of them.
He blacks out.
He comes to, briefly, and finds blackness in front of his eyes. A blindfold over his eyes, tape over his mouth, tape around his wrists. He fights weakly, tries to vocalize, and all that comes out are soft whimpers. There's movement, and he thinks he might be in the back of a vehicle.
He blacks out again before he can find out.
He comes to on the rocks.
It's raining. There's light shining down on him from above, and shadows moving in the light. He cracks open an eye, feelings the howling wind rip through soaked clothes, the spray of harsh ocean waters against his body, threatening to toss him. Drown him.
That's right, he thinks, exhausted. There was supposed to be a storm tonight.
Something strikes his shoulder, hard, and he grunts behind the gag. A rock, he realizes. They're throwing rocks at him. Either by stone or by water, they mean for him to die here tonight. His wrists and ankles are both bound, so if he falls into the water, he'll sink. If he stays, they'll stone him to death. All it takes is a couple of lucky hits, and he's done for.
Against his will, tears start burning the insides of his eyes. He remembers Noctis, his anger, and he wonders if maybe he didn't have a point.
Another rock strikes him, this time harsh enough to cut open the flesh of his cheek. He cries out, but the gag muffles it, and the storm muffles what the gag doesn't. There's jeers, laughter, words he can't hear.
Among the darkened, choppy waters, a cut of crimson.
At first, Prompto thinks he's seeing things. Hysteria from fear. But he sees the ripple come again, the red, and then the sharp neon cuts of white, and he knows.
Better stay out of the reef if you don't want to wind up adopted, Noctis had joked, and Ignis and Gladio had folded him up like he was one of their own.
"He likes you."
Cor gazing at him with eyes clear of hate for something Prompto can't control. Peaceful interactions that are not tainted by violence. A soft hum for every greeting Prompto gives.
And now, red in the waves, daggers of white ready to make war for a child in distress.
Prompto blinks heavy eyes as a stone strikes his head, and he feels blood start to drip down. The red drifts closer, the white coming into view. He lays his head on the stone - it feels cool, nice against the heat of his burning body.
He sees blue eyes, burning eerie bright like Noctis' does when his power is in full flux.
"Sir," he mumbles against the gag, and then everything goes black.
In his dreams, there are screams. A lion roars, a challenge, a threat, a demand, and the people scream and run but find no escape.
There come arms from the ocean, swift and sure, to untie his hands and ankles and bind his wounds. The sirens whisper so much blood, and the nymphs of Leviathan cry out don't let him die, and he spirals down, down into the black.
He is laid on an alter meant for the sacrifices to Leviathan, and he sees swirling shapes in the water, red following him like an elusive shadow. It burns, sears him with white shock lines, jagged edges meant to cut at enemies, meant to threaten.
"Give him mine," the lion says, and Prompto tries to say no, don't give me anything, I'm not worth it, but Leviathan stands nearby, and Noctis - Noctis is in his dreams now - stands with him, only a floating upper half, pale and terrified. "Give him mine," the lion says again, "I will take responsibility."
"Cor," Levithan says, but the lion roars and snarls and at last Leviathan settles back, unable to speak.
"Make him lucid, at least," Noctis says, begs. "Let me have him understand before you do this. Let the choice be his."
And then one of the nymphs says something, and the alter clears, and he's floating--
"Prompto? Prom? I need you to open your eyes for me, buddy."
He raises his head; tries to at least. It's still throbbing, still painful. He still feels floaty.
But he's underwater, laid on an alter with the moonlight above him, and Noctis leaning over him, blue eyes full of worry and fear.
"Heya," Prompto tries to say, but all that comes out is a burble of hair. Oh. Oh right, underwater.
"I'm so sorry Prom. I'm so... fuck I'm so sorry." He presses their foreheads together and that feels nice, so Prompto lets Noctis do it. "Listen. You can't talk, but you can nod your head, yeah?"
"Okay, okay that's s good. I. We." He breathes in, and his hands grip his hair and he spits out, "You're dying, Prom. If we don't... if we don't do something within the next hour, you're going to die, and that's it. No more beach visits, no more Ignis or Gladio, no more Cor, no more me, okay?"
Prompto just nods. He wants to say it's okay, I'm glad I met you, or something similar, but Noctis just looks distressed, so it's probably for the best that he can't.
"Cor offered a piece of his skin. It's... um. Like an adoption, of sorts. A ritual transformation, and an adoption all in one. You'd be one of us, and Cor would be.... not your dad exactly, but like. Caretaker? Protector? Um. Shit, human words... You'd be his guppy, basically."
Prompto nods again. Nodding is easy. He can nod.
"Prom? So, you wanna do it? You don't have to agree. If... if...we have... stuff. We can just... inject it into you and you'd... go. B-but I'd really...really like it if you didn't go." And if they weren't underwater, Prompto is sure Noctis would be crying. "Please don't go?"
He's tired. He's tired, but he understands that Noctis doesn't want him to go, and he'll go if he doesn't say yes to Cor giving him his skin and becoming his fish-parent.
So he nods.
"You... want the skin?"
"You understand, right? You'll be trapped here for a while, and you'll have to learn how to be human again. But we can teach you, and then we can move to a different city and a different school, and- and we can go right back to doing what we were doing before! Okay? I'll make a date of it, I promise."
He presses their foreheads together again, wrapping hands around Prompto's own. "Please. Just hang on a little longer. Please."
"Is he ready?"
Cor's voice. Soft and now that Prompto can hear it, vaguely worried. The lionfish drifts half in and out of shadow, and Prompto gives him a little wave and mouths "sir" at him. It gets him a half smile.
"Don't call me that, Prompto. Never again."
Prompto just nods, and lays back down. He's tired.
He dreams he is a lion, small and soft. Untried. Unsure. He's vulnerable, out here in the wide open world. Anything could come and eat him.
But there's another nearby, bigger than him. Big enough to eat anything that tries to eat him. The same lion that roared challenges at his God, and carried him home here, to the den. He's watching now, keeping Prompto safe, and Prompto is tired, but he's allowed to be.
So he sleeps, and the lion watches.
When he wakes, the world has gone soft and blurry. For a long time, Prompto lays where he is, and watches the gleam of moonlight dance along the ridges of a wall he can see even in the dark. Behind him and slightly off to the right, Cor is lying, patiently. He isn't asleep, for all that his eyes are shut. There's a large scar, fleshy and pink, on his right side, where four of his spines used to be. Prompto can feel those spines on his own body now, longer than his baby ones.
At last, he raises his head, and blinks. Pushes himself up a little, and feels instinct kick in. His fins work without his say so, and he hovers for a moment, looking around him. The cave system they're in is extensive and long, and dark. There are openings in the ceiling and walls, but nothing big can get in them. Nothing big will want to get in them, Prompto thinks. This is a lionfish' den, after all.
"Awake?" Cor asks, and Prompto nods.
"Yeah," he says, and the word actually comes out. He touches his throat, faintly surprised, and says, "I guess the ritual worked?"
"See for yourself," Cor tells him, and swims off his bed, heading towards one of the openings. "Come along. You need to eat."
Swimming is natural and not. Swimming along, or drifting, Prompto can do, because it's just like walking. You just pick a direction and go. Not much thought. But sudden stops, swerves or turns take a bit more time, and he flops over twice before he finally figures out a graceful way to go about it.
Cor doesn't expect much from him, right now. "You're still a guppy," he says. "I don't expect guppies to do it all on their first day. You'll learn, just like we all did."
"Even if I didn't start off this way?" And that should distress him to some degree, he knows. But honestly? He's mainly feeling relief. Relief that everyone above water thinks he's dead now, and will leave him alone. Relief that Noctis was kind enough to let him stay in this world.
Relief that Cor isn't like the adults above.
Cor waves a hand. "Minor detail. You're one of us now. You'll figure it out."
He nudges Prompto into a reef nearby, and then from there snaps up six fish using his hands, spines and mouth. The one in his mouth he swallows without fanfare, and the two on his spines go the same way. The ones he catches with his hands however, he gives to Prompto.
The fish go down quickly, and Prompto thinks he'll choke, but they slide down his throat without a struggle. He has teeth, but he doesn't think he'll use them much anymore. He asks Cor.
"Not unless there's something you'll be ripping apart. Those teeth of yours will be replaced shortly." He pulls one of his gums back, and reveals cruelly sharp canines, fit for ripping flesh. "These are what you'll be using. But that's a ways off. For now, pick things easy to swallow."
Prompto's able to catch two fish by himself, but afterwards he finds himself yawning, his body exhausted. Cor isn't upset when Prompto asks if they can head back for the night. He merely guides Prompto back to the den, and watches as he curls up back into the pile of sand and stones he woke up to.
"Should see Noct tomorrow," Prompto mutters. "He's probably worried."
"I'll speak with him, and inform him of how you're doing. You won't be able to be out of water yet. Give it time, Prompto."
There's a hand in his hair, warm and gentle, and Prompto drifts back to sleep knowing he is safe.
That at last, he has a home.