Prompto couldn’t sleep.
It wasn’t because the military-thin mattresses of the Zegnautus Keep bunks, or because they’d left the lights on in the hopes of warding off the demons. It wasn’t even because of Gladio’s snoring, over from the bed he’d pushed in front of the door. If anything, the sound was a comfort.
It signified his friends. Here. With him. Alive, and...and wanting him here. Not leaving him behind.
He still hadn’t told them everything.
Prompto didn’t know how long he’d been at the Keep before they arrived here. It felt like forever. There was no sunlight in the room he’d been kept, nothing to mark the passage of time. It must have been days. Days confined to that standing frame, held in place until his arms ached and every tiny movement sent spikes of agony shooting through them. Days with a needle stuck into his arm, pumping fluids into him to keep him alive—I can’t have you dying on me because I forgot to water you, Ardyn had said, like he was some kind of houseplant. Alas, we can’t all be me.
He hated not being able to move. Prompto was a fidgeter, always in motion, tapping his foot or playing with his hands, never walking when he could run. He had to keep moving, because he was always afraid that if he stopped, it would all come crashing down.
And that’s what happened. That was exactly what happened.
He didn’t want to be lying still, right now. He didn’t want to close his eyes, and wake up and realize it was all another illusion.
At least it didn’t hurt as much anymore. When Noct freed him he’d barely been able to stand, and the others burned three of their dwindling stock of potions—Noct couldn’t use his power to make new ones right now—to get him on his feet, and even then Gladio had to half carry him here.
He had never seen Noct look so bone-deep exhausted; they’d stayed up for a while talking, all of them giddy with relief at being together again, but Noct still passed out within seconds of hitting the bed. Ignis and Gladio weren’t much better off. Prompto didn’t even want to consider how he looked.
I’m fine, he’d said to Noct. Everything’s all right now.
He had always been a good liar when it came to himself, he thought, and a stifled, hysterical little giggle escaped him.
He clamped his mouth shut. But nobody could have heard, they were all already—
“Prompto? Are you still awake?”
For a split second terror consumed him at the unexpected voice from a place nearby, but then he realized it was Ignis. It was just Ignis. His friend.
“Y-yeah,” he said, whispering back, because he didn’t trust his voice not to tremble. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Ignis, voice quiet, so as not to wake the other two. He was on the bunk next to Prompto, and Prompto turned his head to look, stupidly grateful for this small thing, that he could look and see the person he was talking to. “You sound like you need the rest, though.”
“You know me,” said Prompto, and laughed again, the same hysterical giggle, because that was the thing, they didn’t know him, “Always burning the midnight oil.”
“...Are you sure you’re quite all right?” said Ignis, and he sounded worried, really worried, like ‘we haven’t been able to find Noct for three hours and he’s not answering his phone’ levels.
“Yeah,” said Prompto. “I’m great.”
“Forgive me if I seem overly concerned,” said Ignis, “But you must understand that after all of the chancellor’s mind games, we...weren’t sure to expect that you would be alive.”
Prompto tried to suppress the shudder that rocked him from head to toe before he remembered that Ignis couldn’t see him. “Oh, uh, yeah. Yeah. But I am. Alive. I mean, it would take more than that to kill me, right?”
Ignis didn’t respond right away, and Prompto kicked himself mentally. He was fucking it up. He wasn’t doing it right. Ignis would see right through him, and oh, haha, that was funny, because, you know, he was blind. “Prompto,” Ignis said at last, “When we found you, you asked Noct...if he had been worried about you. Did you truly believe he wouldn’t be? That we all wouldn’t be?”
It was suddenly impossible to breathe. Prompto felt like all the air had been kicked out of him suddenly, like he hadn’t been paying attention in a fight and suddenly whoops, an iron giant was crushing him in its fist, another screwup for the record. “...I don’t know,” he barely managed to say, a dying whisper.
He’d wanted them to come. So badly. He’d just wanted to see them again, Noctis and Ignis and Gladio, because even though he was afraid, there was a chance—just a chance—that they’d accept him for who he really was. For what he really was.
But Ardyn’s voice had always been there, taunting him.
Do you think they’re coming? he’d said, lounging in a chair in the small cell, idly flipping a coin and catching it. They’re certainly taking their time, aren’t they. I was hoping the Prince would be more eager to see his dear friend again...how disappointing.
Another time, a whisper in his ear: Are you going to tell them? I could take that off your hands, if you’d like...but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Can’t have them changing their minds, after all.
What was even worse was when he’d pretended to be Noct.
Prompto couldn’t think about that. He didn’t want to think about that.
“I see,” said Ignis sombrely, bringing him back to the present. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” said Prompto. He laughed again, but the sound hitched into a sob. His face was wet. He was so, so glad Ignis couldn’t see him.
“After the battle on the train...when Noctis informed me of what had happened, he wanted to go back right away. To stop the train. But I advised him to press on. The other passengers...”
“Nah, I get it,” said Prompto. “I...I really do. It’s okay.”
“I’ve never heard Noct sound so distraught,” said Ignis. “It was difficult to get the details from him.”
Prompto wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “That’s what Aranea said too,” he said. He was so worried about you he could hardly speak, she’d said, and he hadn’t really believed her then either.
“So you did meet her?” said Ignis hopefully.
“Yeah. At the...” he didn’t want to say ‘labs’. Not yet. “She found me. That was before, um. Ardyn did.”
Ignis’ voice gained a sharpness to it then, that spoke of promised violence: “Did he harm you?”
It used to be Ignis’ job to check them over for injuries, after a bad fight. Gladio had done it this time, first with Prompto, then with Noct—they’d been separated from him too, it seemed—while Ignis hovered nearby with lines on his face so deep that on any other day the rest of them would have razzed him for being such an old woman.
“No,” said Prompto. Apart from being bound in place for days on end. Apart from Ardyn’s inescapable voice, worming into his mind, words digging under his skin like needles.
Aren’t you a pretty little thing, all tied up like that, Ardyn had said to him, circling around to admire his handiwork. He’d stopped in front of Prompto to lean in close, taking Prompto’s chin between his fingers, smirking at him. There was nothing behind his eyes. Nothing at all. Ah, there’s hope in your eyes yet...but nobody’s coming to save you, you know.
Ignis hadn’t replied yet. Prompto glanced at him and saw that he was frowning—he wasn’t wearing his glasses, and Prompto could see the terrible scars around his eyes. “Gladio said you had bruising—“ he started.
“It wasn’t Ardyn,” interrupted Prompto. “I was...I kind of had this whole...adventure before I got here.”
“That’s when you met Aranea?”
“Yeah,” said Prompto, trying very hard to make it sound like he wasn’t seconds away from a meltdown. “You guys really missed out, you know? Shoulda been there.”
“I wish that we had been,” said Ignis.
“I don’t,” said Prompto, the whisper escaping him before he could catch it.
Prompto shook his head, before he remembered who he was talking to. “Never mind. Forget it.”
“I’m going to find that difficult,” said Ignis.
“Look,” said Prompto, rolling to lie on his back, holding his wrist in front of his face, looking at where the bar code on it was still hidden by his glove as he struggled to find the right words, “I—I’m not who I thought I was. Who...who you think I am.”
“You’re from Niflheim,” said Ignis. He’d told them that much. Just not...everything. “I don’t see how that—“
“That’s not it,” said Prompto, “I’m...I’m an MT.”
The silence hung in the air, stifling, an unbearable pressure pinning him to the bed. “What?” said Ignis.
Tears were trailing down Prompto’s face; his arm dropped to cover his eyes. “I’m an MT, I was made in a lab, I’m not—I’m not a real person,” he said, the words pouring out of him, as though something inside of him had broken, and yeah that was appropriate considering he was basically a defect. “I was supposed to be one of those...things. The ones we’ve been fighting all along.”
“I don’t...Prompto, hold a moment. How is this possible? You’re human, clearly—aren’t the magitek troopers powered by daemonic energy?”
“No, they...t-they cloned children. And they turned them into daemons, to use them to power...” he took a shuddering breath. “That’s what they are. That’s what...that’s what I am. A thing, created to fight you guys.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. There. It was out. His darkest secret, that he’d always strove to hide, even before he knew the whole truth—the barcode on his wrist that he’d covered up, even managing to make himself forget it was there.
When he was a kid, his parents told him to never let anybody else see it. To keep it covered.
He wondered now if they knew. Somebody must have; it seemed more and more obvious, in retrospect—Prompto thought it was normal, the times his adoptive parents had brought him to a lab when he was small, for scientists to hook him up to strange machines, and do tests. They’d given him candy at the end, made him sit in the hall while they talked with his parents. And they’d stopped when he was still in elementary school.
So he hadn’t thought anything of it.
When he was fourteen years old and realized, hey, maybe it was kind of fucked up that a kid had a barcode tattooed to his wrist, like something you could find in a store, he’d tried scanning it one day when he was at a shop.
Item not found, it said, and Prompto had backed away from the machine gripping the glove he’d slid back over his wrist like he could impress it into the skin and leave it covered forever.
He never tried again.
“Prompto,” said Ignis, very slowly, like he was still working through it all in his head, “You would never hurt us.”
Prompto shook his head some more, remembered it was useless, laughed through his tears. “Ardyn was going to...he told me—he was going to make me.”
Wouldn’t it be a fantastic surprise? Just imagine the looks on their faces when they realize the daemon they just destroyed was their dear, sweet Prompto.
He’d begged Ardyn not to do it. He’d begged and pleaded, powerless to resist, and Ardyn had laughed, blackness seeping from his eyes, his mouth, dark mist clouding his figure.
Just kidding, of course.
“But he didn’t,” said Ignis, cutting through the memory. “You’re here now. With us.”
“But...but I’m...” he couldn’t stop crying. He couldn’t stop shaking. “I never belonged with you guys. I’m not—you’re all...you’re all real people, you’re supposed to be with Noct, and I’m—“ he choked on a sob, “I’m a fake.”
Ignis didn’t speak.
And Prompto thought, this is it. This is where it all falls apart. He would wake up the others with his crying, and Ignis would tell them, and they’d know everything, and they’d abandon him. They never needed him, and now they had a reason to get rid of him.
He didn’t have to imagine the look on Noct’s face when he learned. He’d seen it already.
Did you think I’d want to keep you around? What, like a pet? Get real. How many of you things have I cut down already, couple hundred? Couple thousand ? Noct’s sword was at his throat, and he had to struggle to remember it was Ardyn’s, it was Ardyn.
He was sobbing in earnest now because he couldn’t stop them, the memories struggling to get out like too many drinks crowding the slot of a vending machine, of Ardyn wearing his best friend’s face and acting out every horrible fantasy Prompto had been too scared to give words to.
And then he felt something that didn’t belong in the memory. A touch on his arm. Then his hair. A careful touch, not like Ardyn’s false gentleness. “It’s alright,” murmured Ignis, shushing him softly as he stroked Prompto’s hair. “It’s alright now.”
Prompto’s sobs were startled into a whimper as he cracked his eyes open, peered out from under his arm. Ignis was perched on the box between the bunks that passed as a bedside table, one hand reaching out to ruffle Prompto’s hair. “W-what’re you...”
“Would you like me to stop?” said Ignis. “It’s only that...when Noct was small, I would...”
“No, don’t stop,” said Prompto, before he could help himself. The touch was grounding him, keeping the memories at bay, and...and it felt good. Like when he was a kid and got sick and sometimes, just sometimes, his mom would stay home to work from her computer, and he’d be allowed to lie on the couch where he could see her all day.
This was better than that. He took a shuddering breath, closing his eyes again, pushing the tears gathered there out so that they made warm trails down his face. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” said Ignis.
“D-did I wake anybody up?”
“No,” said Ignis. “I suspect that not even a herd of stampeding garula could rouse Noct at this point. And you’d be hard-pressed to wake Gladio over the sound of...well, himself.”
Prompto managed a sound that was almost like a laugh. “Yeah...”
“It seems you’ve been through quite an ordeal,” said Ignis.
“I’m sorry,” Prompto said again. Even now, he was keeping Ignis from sleeping. Worthless. Worse than worthless.
Ignis sighed. “Prompto, I need you to understand something,” he said. “There is something you have that Gladio and myself lack, something terribly important.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” A sense of humour? his mind posited, and it was all he could do to keep another half-crazed giggle under wraps, because oh, wouldn’t that just be the icing on the cake.
“You’re friends with Noctis,” Ignis said.
Prompto’s thoughts tripped over their proverbial shoelaces as he struggled to process this statement. He played it back in his mind, but it didn’t make any more sense the second or third time. “So are you?” he said, pitched up at the end, like a question.
Ignis’ hand stilled for a moment. “No,” he said. “We’re his retainers. There’s a difference.”
“But...you’re supposed to be with him,” said Prompto.
“That may be so,” said Ignis, “but it wasn’t by Noct’s choice that we came to stand by his side. You, on the other hand...you belong here simply because he wants you to. It’s no more complicated than that.”
Prompto remembered something else Aranea said. About what he wanted. “I wanted to be here,” he said, wiping his face again. “With Noct. With you guys. That’s all I wanted.”
“You’re here,” said Ignis.
“Yeah,” said Prompto, taking a deep breath, letting it all out. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Ignis continued petting his hair. “...Are you feeling a bit better?” he asked, after a little while.
Prompto gave a jittery little laugh. “Bar’s kinda low, but yeah. I think.”
“Good,” said Ignis, finally withdrawing his hand. Prompto looked up at him and saw that he was smiling, just very slightly.
“You...really don’t care?” said Prompto. “That I’m...”
“I think I’ve had quite enough time to get to know you,” said Ignis. “Regrettable penchant for whistling aside, I would say that it’s been an honour.”
Prompto stared. A lump rose in his throat, and he swallowed, hard. “When you put it that way, it sounds like we’re all gonna die,” he said, mangling his attempt to sound light-hearted.
“We must all face our mortality someday,” replied Ignis, very seriously.
“Speak for yourself,” said Prompto. “I’m too young and too pretty.”
“Indeed,” said Ignis, and then fell quiet. “...Are you going to tell the others?”
The deep well of fear inside Prompto stirred, but this time didn’t bubble over. “Yeah,” he said. “I will.”
Ignis nodded. “I’m glad you’re with us again, Prompto,” he said. “I truly am.”
And even though Ignis couldn’t see it, Prompto smiled. “Me too,” he said. “...Thanks, Iggy.”