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Keeping a notebook seemed like overkill, for sure. And after a (terrifying) meeting with the future shield and advisor, Prompto was also aware that it was a major security risk. What he kept was almost a notebook, except that at the end of each day he’d tear the page out and burn it. He’d never been able to really keep something in mind unless he wrote it down.

And he needed to retain everything. Every drill, tip, technique.

They were in the arcade shooting pixel zombies when Noct lowered his weapon and huffed.

“Are you even trying?”

“I’m kind of beat from training. And I thought you’d be loving the chance to kick my ass.”

“It’s not a true win if you’re bushed from crownsguard drills.” Noct pushed his bangs out of his eyes. They fell almost instantly back in place. Prompto snagged one last zombie with a frame-perfect headshot and then dropped his own weapon back into the holder. They trained on occasion with real guns in the crownsguard. What had struck him the most was how heavy they were. But once he knew how to compensate for that, what struck him was how much he liked them. He’d call pull and aim, and somehow the bullet just met the target, like the two were magnetically attracted.

Burning that page was easy. He knew he was going to retain everything he’d learned that day. And he was right, because the next time he had a pistol in his hands, it felt right, and the sights lined up, and the targets burst before him like fireworks.

And then there was hand-to-hand, where he would pore over the note at least five times before taking a lighter to it, and he’d feel the information slipping like sand before the flames had consumed even half the page. It was starting to feel like regardless of how many pushups he managed to do, there would always be some people who could, and some people (named Prompto) who couldn’t. 

They left the arcade to get food. There were other trainees in the diner, at the far end. Floris and Cultro. But they didn’t acknowledge Prompto, or even Noct. Still, he kept catching himself holding his breath. By the time they left, he felt almost exhausted.

[XV]

 

Prompto stripped his shirt off and tossed it into the bottom of his locker, grabbing his fresh one and tugging it on fast. Then he went to look for his boots. They were in the same trash can as last time, conveniently, and the trash had been emptied pretty recently, so they weren’t coated in yoghurt this time.

“You know, you’re actually supposed to bring your own shoes, not scavenge for them in the garbage,” Cultro called. Prompto suppressed a sigh, tugging his boots on beside the trash can. On average, he thought of a response ten minutes after he’d left the room. But even when one came to him in time, he never said anything. What was he supposed to do? Talk shit at some guy who for all he knew was a noble, guaranteed a spot on the crownsguard? It was easier to just take their shit. And honestly, he grew up as a fat kid with inattentive parents. He’d dealt with worse than people repeatedly trashing his shoes.

But as he was leaving, Floris cornered him in the doorway. He was hitting a growth spurt, obviously, because he was a lot damn larger than he used to be. He folded his arms over his chest.

“I just wanted to check in, Argenteus.”

“Argentum.”

“You don’t actually think you’re crownsguard material, right?”

“Can you move please?” Prompto tried to step past him, but he shifted in place. And a hand came down on his shoulder. Cultro. He didn’t need to look around to know. The other trainees had their noses in their lockers, or interest buried in their phones. Prompto tried not to tense his shoulders. In the one (terrifying) training session he’d had with Gladiolus, he’d stressed not holding tension a lot. It was weird. He was such a drill sergeant, but sometimes the stuff he said made him sound more like a massage therapist.

Cultro’s fingers dug in.

“Just curious. I don’t know what you’re bribing the prince with--”

“Besides blowjobs,” Cultro put in. Floris snorted.

“But to be clear, the actual crownsguard isn’t about to let niff scum--”

“Commoner niff scum.” Cultro’s fingers were digging into the muscle.

Commoner niff scum, stink up the ranks.”

“Okay. I’m gonna, uh, go. Unless that speech is even longer.” Prompto had to shove hard, but Cultro let go of him, and he dipped past Floris and up the stairs. In the courtyard outside the training rooms, he stopped to check his phone. There was one text from Noct, and an email from his mother.

He read the text from Noct first, but it contained nothing besides an emoticon flipping a table.

Studying is not that bad dude , he shot back. The email from his mother was longer, but managed to contain less emotion. A vague update about her work and current itinerary, and an outline of her expectations for the current semester’s grades. He was already within the allowed range (although on the low end). 

He fired back a short email with the barest details of his life, omitting the fact that he was losing a lot of studying hours to his current pursuit of a position in Noct’s personal guard. It wasn’t that he thought his parents would disapprove--if anything, they’d be thrilled. Stunned even, that he knew the prince in the first place. It was just too much to explain. Impossible, even. He’d typed up some form of explanation countless times, usually in the dark of his bedroom in the dead of night. He deleted it every time. Eventually he gave up. Better to tell them he made the crownsguard than have them know he tried and failed.

He pocketed his phone and tugged the strap of his bag where it was cutting into his collarbone--and then a familiar hand was back.

“You’re leaving?” That was Cultro. Floris stepped into view, skirting the edge of the fountain that served as the focal point of the small courtyard. It had coins in it--only a few, warped beneath the surface.

“Um, yeah?” Prompto said. It occurred to him suddenly that this courtyard wasn’t the main exit for the training rooms. He was going out the back--so to speak, on his way to get on a bus back to his suburb. The other trainees, if they hadn’t left yet, would go through the other entrance, to the parking garage. Cultro repositioned his hand, this time on the back of Prompto’s neck. His fingers were longer--wider than Prompto expected them to be. And his grip was steady.

“Well we can’t let you go like this,” Floris said. His voice was almost jubilant. He sounded like he’d won something.

“Getting your niff stink everywhere.” Cultro pushed him forward, and he went stumbling to his knees. He grabbed the edge of the fountain to avoid smashing his teeth out on the stone rim. 

“What--” that was all he got out. Cultro pushed again, and this time forced his head under the water. He pushed back, arms braced on the rim of the fountain, but Cultro was leaning with his whole weight; it was impossible. He tried to cry out. Bubbles in the water. He opened his eyes and saw the coins up close. They looked worse. Dirtier, without the gleam on the water’s surface making them shine.

Just when it felt like his lungs would explode, like his brain was detaching from his body, the hand on the back of his neck yanked him up. He gasped desperately for breath, unable to see through his soaking bangs. He could make out the sound of laughter, but it was muted. There was water in his ears. 

Before he could haul what felt like enough air into his burning lungs, weight pressed on him again. This time, he seemed to meet the water in slow motion. He was moving down, it was kissing his face, and then he was under again, struggling--now with his hands braced on the fountain floor. He could feel coins under his fingers, but try as he might, he could not push himself above the water’s surface.

They yanked him up again, now by the back of his jacket. The world was warped--his vision spiralling, and sparks blooming as he gasped for air. The sky was over-bright. His mind was moving too fast to parse any thought-- help-help-help , was ringing. He used the breath to cry out, but he met the water again seconds later, sank below, swallowing the taste of chlorine and copper. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears. But everything was growing thin, growing small, growing dark and irregular. The coins seemed to lose their shape and color.

[XV]

The trainees were good for making a shitload of noise, and stinking up the training rooms. Gladio made it his general mission to get his training done before they showed up, but today meetings and a lecture from his father had kept him late. A bullshit lecture, in his opinion. He didn’t go easy on the prince. The prince simply caused people to lower their standards. It was his special-Noctis power, which he had no fear of exercising. Standards of dress for formal events. Standards of not throwing goddamn bladed weapons at people’s heads during training.

So he was running drills in the stunk up training room, where they’d left half the mats out (which he was not putting away this time). The sound that filtered in through the open window on the far wall most resembled that of a bird in crisis.

He wouldn’t have stepped out, if the room didn’t stink. If he didn’t feel like he’d earned a break. But he did. And he did step out, into the small courtyard. Tall hedges, the pillared overhang of the next building, and the “lucky” fountain, where potential trainees used to toss coins. It had fallen out of practice lately, and Gladio was fine with seeing it go. He didn’t go in much for superstition. Why believe in what you can’t see when magic you can see is real, definable, ready to be quantified?

There were two trainees at the fountain anyways, one with a bag slung over his shoulder. A second bag was abandoned on the gravel a few feet away. As he took another step, one smacked the other on the arm. The two bolted. Gladio moved to follow, and with another two steps, he saw legs--a person folded into the fountain in almost a perfect split. Top half underwater and bottom half above.

It was such a funny image that for a moment Gladio just stood looking, musing how odd it was. But it hit him a few fractions of a second later. He rushed forward, grabbed the person by the back of their jacket, hauled them up from the water. They came up limp, unresponsive, but not unfamiliar. This was the blond kid that Noct had been hanging around with.

His name came back as Gladio was checking his airway. Prompto. They met more than once, but Gladio was only good with names when they were in a novel. He forced his hands down on the kid’s chest, and he responded instantly, choking. Gladio tipped his head to the side, and then rolled him over altogether. He coughed fountain water onto the gravel. It was kind of brutal to watch, but it abated after a minute or two. Gladio helped him sit up. He’d known this guy was kind of scrawny--growth spurt plus a runner’s body, he figured, but soaking wet, he looked much more pathetic.

“You’re okay. Slow breaths, okay?” he said, patting the kid on the back. Prompto coughed hard, but didn’t expel any more water. His hands were clenched into fists in his lap. Gladio hit him perhaps harder than he needed to, and Prompto coughed hoarsely.

“You good?” he asked finally, when the silence was beginning to feel worrisome. Prompto nodded quickly. “Wanna tell me what that was all about?”

“Not to be um,” he heaved for breath once, “needy or anything, but do you know where I could get a towel?”

Gladio couldn’t help laughing. This was the same guy he met once as the future shield, the same guy he’d reviewed surveillance footage of. But neither of those non-interactions gave away much about his personality. They were about assessing whether or not he might be a terrorist, or some other threat. It seems a little clearer, suddenly, what Noctis saw in the guy.

“Let’s go inside, yeah?” he says. He hauls the guy easily to his feet (he weighs as much as a box of matches) and grabs the abandoned bag on their way in. He was supporting most of Prompto’s weight at first, but after the first few steps he seemed to find his feet and remember how to walk. 

Inside, Gladio steers them down the hall in the direction of his own office; (which is more like just a room with a desk in it, but) it’s where he keeps his sports drinks and extra towels, and it’s nicer than the regular locker rooms.

Prompto figures out how to actually walk on his own once they’re through the door. Gladio slings the bag over his shoulder.

“You want to share what the fuck was going on there?”

“Not particularly.” Prompto gives him a look--as if he’s exasperating, which is more than ridiculous. Inside the office, Gladio throws a towel his direction, drops the bag, and takes his phone from the drawer. Prompto sinks his face into the towel. He looks like a drowned rat, but even a short rub with the towel has his hair sticking up in his usual cowlick.

“Um, thanks for the--help,” Prompto says. He’s kneading his knuckles against his chest--Gladio wonders if they were doing more than just dunking him. He wipes his face again, but it’s not dry. He seems sweaty, which he certainly was the first time they met.

Gladio turns his attention to his desk for a moment, to give the kid at least some semblance of privacy. Besides a picture of Iris and a trashy paperback, however, there’s not much he keeps on his desk. Prompto drops into the single chair on the far wall, wiping his face again.

“You know, I’m going to find out. You’re not being a rat, or whatever, if you just tell me now.”

“That’s exactly what someone would say to a rat,” Prompto says. Gladio snorts. He can’t help it. This scarecrow of a kid--he just hauled him out of a damn fountain and somehow he’s cracking jokes. Gladio is firing off a text to Noctis--feels like he should come pick up his damp friend, or at least know about him--when something strikes him as off. Years of training has it so he just gets a general sense of unease before he can parse any actual problem.

Prompto gets to his feet, but it brings on a coughing fit. Hard coughs, almost harder than when he was first spitting up water. This time into his hand. This time his spit is frothy and pink. Gladio feels his skin go cold. The slowing down moment that follows a spike in adrenaline.

“Argentum?” the trained part of his brain reverts instantly to last names. Prompto shakes his head in lieu of response, coughs again. It sounds like he’s breathing through a straw. Gladio crosses the room and grabs his forearm before he wavers, but as soon as he does, he’s supporting the guy’s whole weight. Prompto is cold to the touch. Not like he was out of the fountain--he was wet then. He’s cold now, clammy, still sweating, despite the lack of heat in the room.

They make it most of the way to the stairs, and then Prompto begs him to slow down, has to brace himself with his hands on his knees. But his breath sounds like syrup, and there’s pink spittle on his lips, so Gladio apologizes, but slings him over a shoulder and takes the stairs fast. The medical wing is just around the corner, and he backs through the swinging doors, to the shock of the nurse doing paperwork at the front desk.

“Some shits were dunking him in the fountain--I pulled him out, but--” As if on cue, Prompto coughs up more pink frothy shit. It spills out from between his fingers even as he tries to contain it. A single drop hits the ground--it looks almost like soap suds. There are already medical personnel emerging from another room, and they have a gurney with them, and Gladio can feel the situation becoming once again recognizable.

No longer unordained and impossible. Within minutes, he’s relegated to the hallway. Prompto is in a room. Gladio is alone with his phone, with unpleasant knowledge, and with (as always) duty weighing on his shoulders.

The first message he sends is to Noct, because the prince had already responded with too many exclamation points, and was demanding to know where to direct Ignis to drive him. Then a less placating, more formal message to his father.

Would like to discuss crownsguard trainees with you .

He’s not expecting an answer any time soon. But the message is sent, that’s one more thing done. He goes back to his office and retrieves Prompto’s bag. When he comes back up, he feels oddly (embarrassingly) afraid to ask, but the atmosphere isn’t very tense in the medical wing. When he asks, he’s told that Prompto is stable. He’s allowed to go in and see him.

It feels kind of weird. He’s only met the guy a handful of times. Now suddenly he’s standing in his infirmary room after a near-death experience. He looks exhausted, and pale against the sheets. His hair is still in that same cowlick, stubborn as anything.

And he’s awake, which makes the whole thing even more awkward.

“Hey. How you feeling?” Gladio asks, crossing to lay the bag down on the chair beside the bed. Prompto shrugs. He reaches as if to move the oxygen mask he’s wearing, but Gladio grabs his wrist to stop him. “Leave that on.” 

The silence stretches then. He searches for something to say. But Prompto breaks the silence.

“Probably washed out, if I wasn’t already.” He says it like it’s almost funny, but the bitterness behind it is unmistakable. Gladio can’t help himself. Anger bubbles up like a pot boiling over.

“Being able to withstand torture is something you can train in, but it’s above your paygrade.”

“Ah.” Prompto picks at the sheet covering his legs. Gladio glances for the door. Noct would be better at this, if only by virtue of being Prompto’s actual friend, and Ignis would be better because he’s charismatic and well-spoken, and cool under social pressure. Gladio rubs a hand on the back of his neck. “So then,” Prompto ventures, “I’m not out?”

“Because some fuckheads half-drowned you in the fountain? No. You’re not out.” Gladio reaches out for Prompto--he doesn’t know what he’s planning to do, but it’s instinct, the kid reminds him too much of Iris of Noct and he looks alone in the bed, painfully so. Prompto flinches slightly. Gladio’s hand lands on the top of his head. His hair is softer than it looks. He doesn’t ruffle it or anything, he just stays like that. And Prompto’s cheeks bloom red, he grabs Gladio’s hand and just holds it there.

Noct will be there soon (he’s already texted back several times). Ignis will almost certainly be with him, and the whole situation will be all but entirely out of Gladio’s hands. But for just this moment, he keeps his hand on Prompto’s head, and a slightly clammy hand holds him in place.

“You’re okay,” Gladio says. Prompto nods. Of the several rooms in the medical wing, it hits Gladio then, because he’s looking out, that this is the one with a window looking onto the small courtyard, where there are coins still decaying in the fountain.