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Prompto dragged the screen down and let it spring back. The messages refreshed but remained the same.

“Dude, I can’t get the burner to light.” Prompto’s partner nudged him hard enough that the phone almost slipped from his hand, but he was able to keep hold of it. The last thing he needed was to bust another one, his parents were less than thrilled about the last one, and it hadn’t even been his fault. Well, but they thought it was his fault. Because he wasn’t gonna tell them that the crown prince accidentally dropped it out a window. There was… too much explaining in that.

And Noct had offered to pay but Prompto knew that was just out of courtesy. Ignis and Gladio had been very clear, in their distinct but sorta menacing ways. Which hey, loud and clear. Prompto wouldn’t want people using Noct for his influence or money either. He certainly wasn’t going to be one of them.

“I got it.” Prompto took over at the stovetop, but his partner was still watching him.

“Is your hand okay?”

“Don’t worry about it.” It started to sting at the mention, like his brain had forgotten to make pain for a while. It wasn’t even a deep cut, it just hurt like hell. And it was his fault for reaching across the cutting board as much as it was his partner’s fault for… gesturing with a knife while talking. It felt wet under the band-aid, but he’d forgotten to bring more to school, so unless it started gushing blood or something he was going to just leave it until he got home.

At least home ec was useful. Every hour spent in physics class felt like one shaved off his life. The burner lit, and he backed up, flexing his bad hand.

“Damn, you’re a genius.”

“I have a gas stove at home,” Prompto said. He refreshed his messages four more times before the bell. Noct didn’t say anything. His little indicator remained green for online. The message remained read. Prompto stuffed his phone in his pocket and took those measured breaths he got from an online tutorial.

He’s not mad he’s just busy, he’s not mad he’s just busy. We’ll run into each other after school.

But they didn’t. Noct left before him, Prompto saw him get into the car with Ignis and drive away while he was unlocking his bike. The sun glared in his eyes the whole ride home. There was a sale on rice, so be bought two bags. The cut itched and burned under the band-aid.

[ xxx ]

Noctis rolled over and laid face-down for a while. Second knock, and Ignis retreated. But if he got up to the third he would come in and start taking the blankets off the bed, so Noct had… maybe ten or fifteen minutes, depending on the laundry.

The curtains were already open (attack of the second knock) and sunlight was flooding the room, split once by the panes of the window. He closed his eyes, drifted for a second.

Third knock. And Ignis cleared his throat, so he meant business.

“I’m up,” Noct said, and followed it up with proof by getting out of the bed and rummaging around his dresser for pants.

Ignis said nothing. He just shut the door again. Noct scrubbed a hand over his face. He got dressed before he retrieved his phone from the covers. No new messages. He had a bunch of emails on his dummy account, all of which were spam or pizza coupons (not spam). 

When he finally got the courage up to open the message app--which made him feel red-cheeked and idiotic--Prompto’s last message was still hanging there, unanswered.

PROMPTO: of course not, it’s whatever

The green dot beside his little chocobo avatar was greyed out--so he was offline, evidently. And it wasn’t… Noct didn’t even have a reason to be mad, or a right to feel hurt. Prompto wasn’t a pet or something, obviously there were things he wouldn’t want to do with Noct. The fact that he wanted no part of royal life was a good thing, it kept Gladio and Ignis from being overbearing weirdos. It kept Noct assured that… he actually cared.

Being able to fight was great, it was ideal, it was friendship he’d never had with someone his own age. And it hurt, it stung like lemon juice in a fresh cut.

When he came out of his room Ignis was seemingly occupied with briefings. And he remained occupied up until he drove Noctis to the citadel. And when Noct arrived at the citadel he pretended he could shrug off his whole self like you’re supposed to when you’re a royal, and become only the crown prince for a bit, and no longer a person with opinions or feelings.

In the car he typed out three messages to Prompto and sent none of them.

[ xxx ]

Prompto slept through half of Saturday. When he woke up it was 2:45 and his hand felt like it was full of bees. His skin had been raised around the cut before; now his palm was so swollen he couldn’t close his hand.

He forced himself up; ate half a bowl of cereal before realizing he wasn't hungry and it tasted like cardboard. He forced the other half down anyways, because he wasn’t about to start wasting cereal. He dug some pain pills out of the bathroom cupboard and wrapped his hand in a warm cloth. It felt a little better immediately. He checked his messages again. Nothing from Noct. But he was busy. That’s what they’d been talking about in the first place.

He read Noct’s last two texts again.

NOCTIS: i probably can’t sneak you into the event afterwards

NOCTIS: but i could try? did you really want to hang out?

Something about it was wrong, and felt wrong like multiple choice when you still don’t know the right answer. But Prompto had done the right thing. He didn’t make Noctis feel obligated to hang out with him. He kept him from having to make excuses. Noctis asked for an out and Prompto provided it, and yet. Now they weren’t talking.

He weighed the urge to break the silence against the urge to flush his phone down the toilet. And then he got another warm cloth and got back into bed.

[ xxx ]

Gladio wouldn’t describe Prompto as annoying, at least, not to his face. Probably. But even with all his measured politeness Ignis would admit he “can be trying.” He was really well intentioned though. That was what they were worried about at first. But you couldn’t get to know Prompto and not develop some kind of affection for him. He grows on you , Gladio would say, without adding, like a mold .

Case in point, he was annoying Gladio like hell following him around, but at the same time, he felt some unwanted twinge of pity every time Prompto pulled out his phone and frowned at it. He and Noct still weren’t talking, Gladio guessed. He didn’t ask about it. He didn’t know how to talk about stuff like that.

“You didn’t really have to come in for this. I know you’re trying to make yourself stand out among the trainees but… there are other ways.”

Prompto either didn’t hear or simply didn’t respond. He was looking at his phone. Gladio cleared his throat.

“Huh? Oh, sorry Gladio. Just checking the time.”

“He’s still not talking to you?” Gladio bent to unlock the door of the equipment room. Prompto hovered by his side like an annoying little bird.

“I didn’t know you knew about that.”

Gladio flicked on the light and sighed. Sometimes he was sure his dad stuck him with busywork like this just to annoy him. Although if he brought it up he’d get a lecture about character building and duty and honor, etc.

“Start on this side I guess.” He gestured to a pile of old equipment. Sorting through it to pick out practice swords too beat up to keep safely using wasn’t his idea of a fun Saturday, but Prompto probably wasn’t enjoying it either, so he was trying not to be prickly.

“Whatever it is, it’s probably not as bad as it feels.” Gladio dropped one of the swords into the reject pile. Prompto, from where he was sorting bracers, looked up doubtfully.

“Are you saying that because it’s Noct or because we’re teenagers?”

“Little of column A, little of column B.” He tossed another sword down and surveyed the room. Dust was rising, catching the light that spilled through the narrow window behind the folding chairs.

“We should move out the garbage, we’ll have more room to work,” Prompto said. He winced picking up the box, although it was half full and couldn’t have been heavy even with skinny arms like his.

“What’d you do to your hand?”

“Home ec mishap.” Prompto dropped the box gratefully and wiped his forehead. Was it hot? Gladio found the temperature of most rooms to be objectionably high but this was more… temperate, surely. It was a training room, they basically cranked the AC all year round.

“Didn’t you have it last time I saw you?” Gladio asked. It seemed like a better line of conversation than ruminating over Noctis and his eccentricities. They both just needed to pull their heads out of their asses and talk, and everything would be fine. But giving that kind of advice was just gonna make him feel like an old man, and he was barely out of high school, so it seemed unfair to have to act so grown up.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, at training on Thursday.”

“It was that bad?”

“I guess, I dunno.”

“What’d the doctor say?” Gladio reached to pull down a box of jerseys. Prompto snorted.

“Do I look like I have going-to-the-doctor money?”

Gladio glanced back to consider him, still in his school uniform with his tie loose like always.

“Yes,” he said. He never looked particularly out of place beside Noctis, although he could vaguely recall something about Prompto having a scholarship. Prompto opened his mouth and then closed it quickly. His cheeks were burnt red.

“I mean, uh. I haven’t had time.”

“Had time or had money?”

“Little of column A, little of column B.” Prompto cracked a sheepish grin but Gladio felt a weight sinking in his stomach, and the itch to make a phone call. Since when could Prompto not afford a doctor? And if that was the case, why would he never have brought it up, especially being friends with the prince--Gladio’s train of thought hit a wall. Right. They’d made it clear at the start. Noctis wasn’t a source for money, fame, or status. 

Prompto followed instructions to the letter, at all times. He wouldn’t just refuse to ask Noctis for money, he’d outright lie to him about needing it.

They sat on the floor sorting for a while. Gladio pulled out his phone and sent a text off to Ignis. He didn’t know what to say, so he just told him he wanted to talk.

“Should we take these out too?” Prompto gestured to the boxes closest to them. He hopped to his feet and cracked his neck. “Ahhh, it’s so dusty in here, man,” he said.

“Maybe I should just carry both,” Gladio said.

“Nah, I got it, I got it.” Prompto picked up his box and followed Gladio out. He heard a whimper behind him just as they were past the doorway. He dropped his box, turned, and lifted Prompto’s load from his hands.

“Come on, let’s take a break.” Gladio didn’t like planning in the long term. That was an Ignis kind of thing, that was strategy. He liked battle. Battle was making choices in the moment. Buy the kid some food, figure out how bad the situation really is, he figured. That was a plan. He insisted they break for lunch.

“I was just going to eat at home…” Prompto tried.

“My treat, come on, seriously.” But down the hall Prompto lagged seriously instead of nearly stepping on the backs of Gladio’s heels all the way like he ordinarily would.

They ran into Ignis before they even left the building. He exited a room carrying a stack of file folders and looking unruffled as ever.

“Oh, hello,” he said.

“Hey, we’re getting some lunch, you want to come?” Gladio said. He kept his tone casual.

“I suppose I could take a moment. I just have to drop these off first.” He hefted the folders to illustrate. Gladio nodded. Ignis started down the hall, and Gladio followed, and it was only after a few seconds that he registered the lack of footsteps behind him.

“Prompto?”

Prompto was just standing still, staring at nothing. He blinked at his name.

“Prompto,” Gladio said again, with more authority. “You coming?”

“I actually don’t feel so good,” Prompto said.

“Oh, if you’re feeling ill--” Ignis got that far before Prompto’s knees gave out under him and he hit the floor. In the deadly silence following, Gladio heard Ignis’ mouth snap shut.

[ xxx ]

Noct put down the pink tie and held up the black. Honestly, he couldn’t tell the difference. Grey shirt, so like, did it matter? He scrubbed a hand over his eyes. His reflection in the mirror looked gawky, too tall for his own skin, bony in all the wrong ways.

He fell facedown onto the lush bed, and a ripple ran through the silk sheets as he huffed out the breath he’d been holding. The bed felt so much less like a bed and more like a spectacle, and the room was so open, no sense of safety or privacy in any part of it. He just wanted to go home. Which he felt like a dumbass thinking because this was home, technically, and it should have been the apartment that felt alien and cold.

But it wasn’t. This room stank like royal-use cleaners and nothing. And his apartment smelled like lemon scent, because Iggy had specific taste in cleaning products. Somewhere in the sheets his phone was buzzing. He dug around for it and dropped it when he read the caller ID. Ignis. He’d gotten the first five reminder texts (and two calls) telling him to put on a suit and look presentable. At some point, if Ignis pulled the apron-strings any tighter he’d strangle.

The only thing to look forward to was inattentive or new caterers who’d let him snatch a few drinks up off their trays.

The call went to voicemail, and for a moment the room was silent save for car horns in the distant outside and leaves rustling at the window. And then it started up again.

“Fine Iggy. Mother me to death,” he mumbled.

[ xxx ]

He wasn’t just hot to the touch, he was wet to the touch, which surely wasn’t a good sign. Gladio turned him over, and Ignis was there, standing at his shoulder, and they both looked at the hand, wrapped in bandages. Up this close, out of the musk of the store room, Gladio realized he could smell the infection.

“Did you call?”

“They’re sending some people down now,” Ignis said. His tone was stiff. “How did he not realize it was this bad?” There was yellow--off green, truly--seeping through the bandage. Gladio grimaced.

“Kid’s not the brightest crayon in the box,” Gladio said. And then he felt like an asshole, so he added, “he said something about not being able to afford it.”

To the uninitiated, Ignis’ expression didn’t change. But Gladio saw the slight pulling of the brow, tensing of the jaw. The face that Ignis makes right before beating someone at chess. In another moment, the medical team came in, all brisk and friendly in a semi-forceful way. Prom was awake, or something close to it, and he whined when they removed the bandage.

“Wow,” one of the med-techs said. Gladio watched her superior shoot her a Look, but in all honesty, he got where she was coming from. The smell was almost overpowering. Ignis took several delicate steps away, and in a moment when they shooed him away, Gladio followed.

“They’re taking him upstairs for now,” he said. Ignis nodded, more confirming than receiving the information--after all, he called them in the first place. “Did you tell Noct?” Gladio asked.

“That his best friend has collapsed?”

“If you can call him that,” Gladio said. They lifted Prompto onto a stretcher easily, and started to wheel him out. Gladio and Ignis followed behind. Ignis’ mouth was in a hard, flat line.

“You know as well as I do that friend isn’t a label one blithely applies to Noctis’ classmates.”

“Okay, so call him.”

“Hm.”

“Is this about the diplomatic event? Seriously?” Gladio pulled Ignis aside with a firm grip on his bicep. Ignis regarded him like he did any other problem to solve, which stung a little. But it was the nature of Ignis. It was the likeable and hateable parts of him. 

“The prince’s presence is mandatory.”

“He’ll never forgive you. He literally won’t. Ever.” As he could be expected to, Ignis maintained a neutral expression. But his shoulders gave up a little of their tension. He eased into Gladio’s grip slightly.

“If you could… speak to Clarus, it might go a long way.”

“Yeah. Whatever you want. But you hear me, yeah?”

“I do.” Ignis could stone-face so well. It was like he was born for royal service, and Gladio was personally born for royal service, so he didn’t give that distinction lightly.

Ignis took his phone back out, and Gladio did see him take a levelling breath before dialling for the prince.

[ xxx ]

For the most part, the upstairs part of the medical wing just reminded Noct of digging his fingers too hard into someone’s arm, and getting an IV. But in general the medical wing reminded him of physical therapy. Or the one time a member of the crownsguard got shot in the head.

Either way, he could feel sweat down his back as he walked down the hall, phone clutched so hard he wouldn’t be surprised if it cracked in his hands. Gladio was waiting outside the door (102) like he was a astrals-damned bouncer or something. He had his arms folded to make his biceps look extra big and everything.

“You’re supposed to be at a diplomatic event,” Gladio said. His hand was gentle where it pressed against Noct’s sternum, but he knew the hand well enough to know it threatened potential ungentleness. His first thought was in the armiger, but he managed to redirect it into words.

Gladio held his hands up, as if Noctis had him at gunpoint.

“Gladiolus.” He’d seen the full-naming work for both his dad and Clarus, so it seemed worth a shot. Part of pulling rank. But Gladio’s expression cracked into a half-smile, and he simply shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Okay. Let’s make a deal. I’ll let you in, you confirm he’s on the mend, which he is, and then you attend the event.”

Noct stonefaced him.

“And I’ll text you updates every five minutes. We got a deal?” Gladio’s tone was more pleading than he would have expected. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. In negotiation, you do have to know when to cut your losses.

“Okay,” he said. And Gladio, again like the bouncer of some seriously shitty club, stepped back and opened the door. Prom was inside, looking more grey than any human should ever look. He was asleep or something near it. Noct marched in, but once inside he wasn’t sure what to do. He just stood at the foot of his bed feeling useless for a few minutes, before Gladio poked his head in.

“They said it’s good we caught it when we did,” he said. Gladio, who could always be relied on to say something pointless and important both at once. Noct took a long breath through his nose and tried to temper a response. But Gladio sagged, and his posture lost all bravado. “I’m serious. I’ll look out for him. He’s a good guy.”

Noct felt his shoulders giving in a little.

“Okay. Yeah?” he said. He took a few steps in, and found the edge of the bed, but he was afraid to touch any part of Prompto. It was a stupid fight. It felt stupid when it was happening, but it felt big stupid. And now it felt small stupid.

“Yeah. Trust me,” Gladio said. And Gladio was a change-my-mind-about-laps guy, he was a eat-your-burger guy, but his word was something Noct knew he could trust. Not because he was the prince, but because when Gladio gave his word he meant it.

“I’ll be back, okay?” he told Prom.

[ xxx ]

Gladio didn’t fall asleep or anything, but he did kind of zone out. It struck him, after a few minutes, he’d read the same page three times in a row and processed none of it on any attempt. So he closed the book and set it down. Prompto stirred. His hands were clasped tight in the blankets, and his brow was furrowed. Gladio reached for his shoulder and then paused. He laid a hand on Prompto’s forearm, the way he could distantly remember his dad doing.

Prompto’s eyes fluttered open.

“Ngh. Oh!” And he shot up. Gladio actually grabbed him by both shoulders.

“Whoa there. Slow your roll,” he said. Prompto blinked hazily, and seemed to take in his surroundings for the first time.

“What--Gladio?”

“You had a medical issue while we were cleaning, remember?”

“Oh. Ohh, no.” Prompto’s face lost some color, although Gladio would have thought that impossible. But under the force of Gladio’s unyielding hands, he slumped back into the bed.

“Yeah. You have a serious infection.”

“My bad.”

“Noct is pretty worried.”

“He’s--oh.” Prompto seemed to slump a little, and he looked so small that Gladio ended up taking pity on him.

“I’ve been texting him five minute updates on you. He’s gonna love this one.” He framed a shot and snapped a picture of Prompto looking so much like a deer in the headlights.

“He’s mad at me,” Prompto mumbled, while Gladio was hitting send. He resisted the urge to say something stupid. Ignis would be so proud.

“Whatever it is, you two should talk about it,” he said. Prompto looked out towards the window, although the blinds were drawn.

“Can I-uh, have some water?”

“Yeah.” Gladio poured some from the pitcher to the pink plastic cup and handed it over. Prompto accepted the cup but didn’t drink.

“Um. I don’t think my insurance covers--”

“It’s handled,” Gladio said. He didn’t know that, but he did know if it wasn’t true, he’d find a way to change that. 

“Oh.” Prompto finally sipped the water. “Hey sorry about--”

“It’s fine,” Gladio said quickly. Wherever this conversation was going, it was a road he didn’t want to travel. Luckily for him, a moment later a nurse came in to investigate the general state of things, and by the time she left Prompto was nodding off again. As before he could actually get into his book at all, Noctis was back. With sweat-marks on his shirt, and his hair obviously messed up from tugging at it, and Ignis in tow looking exhausted.

Prompto woke up as if summoned, and Noct dropped onto the side of his bed like he belonged there. Kind of a talent of the crown prince. He managed to look like he belonged everywhere. But Gladio saw Prompto’s good hand find his, and the way he hung on (as if it were life or death) and he figured, probably, this is one of the places Noctis really does belong. Not by birthright. Just by being Noctis.