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If the Strain Proves too Much

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A day with lava in it? That’s a bad day. Fighting a god? Bad day. Getting ambushed right after fighting said god, during the lava thing? Holy shit. At least it can’t get worse than this, Prompto thought. That was the biggest mistake, he’d reflect later. If life had been teaching Prompto any lesson, it was that things can always get worse.

But the dropship had opened to reveal a lone figure in a coat straddling the line between royal garb and just straight garbage. The imperial chancellor, of all people, offering them a ride. Which they had to take, because, well, it was that or lava, and as Ignis eloquently put it: they couldn’t afford to die yet.

That night in the caravan was pretty dejected. What little remained of their funds was spent on securing said caravan. But with it, and the horrible absence of the Regalia, came the usual something-to-do tasks. Prompto scrubbed dishes wrist-deep in murky water at the sink, which smelled like rust and only ran too hot or too cold. Gladio and Noctis were doing what was best described as sulking (only like, manly, and official). Ignis was poring over their books, and undoubtedly coming to the same conclusion he did earlier (they were broke).

Prompto volunteered for the dishes, because although he found them gross, having something to do with his hands made everything easier. And it made him more… sure. Of what, he couldn’t quite put into words. It was a nebulous idea of usefulness or duty or something. 

The caravan was cramped, and had only two beds. They were planning to trade positions, if they had to stay more than one night. Prompto had volunteered himself to sleep on the floor, while Ignis and Noct were taking one bunk and Gladio the other. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to sleeping on a thin blanket (not to mention there were a lot of dead silverfish, generally) but the idea of sleeping next to Ignis was much more out of the question.

Prompto grew up with a lot of pillows and a fat chocobo plushie. He hugged things in his sleep. He reliably hugged things. Enough so that Noctis noticed, despite being a heavy sleeper. Not just once, Prompto had woken up at Noct’s apartment to Noctis gently slapping his face.

“Let go dude, I have to pee,” he’d grumble, and Prompto would swim up close enough to consciousness to unlock his arms. Which is like, funny, when it’s your best bro, but would be decidedly unfunny if it was Ignis. What would make it so unfunny, exactly, he refused to ruminate on. 

He glanced up from the dishes at the sound of the door opening, and looked around just in time to see it swing shut behind Ignis. Probably getting some air, he figured, but still, he dried his hands and followed him out. Being alone felt tenuous. Everyone was still raw, after the fall. He found Ignis just a few paces from the caravan door, pressing his fingers to his temple. He was looking up at the night sky, and Prompto followed his gaze, but didn’t see anything of note. Empty sky. Empty of stars, even. The sun had just gone down.

“Hey, are you okay?”

“Just a headache,” Ignis said distantly, as if he was only half-listening.

“What did Ardyn say to you on the ship?”

“I’m sorry?” Ignis did look at him then, eyebrows tugged together. He probably didn’t know this, but Prompto always thought he looked younger when he was annoyed. The cool advisor act made him almost ageless, but young-adulthood shone through when something was bothering him. You’re one of us too, Prompto would think, and he was sort of delighted and also terrified by the human-ness of his completely inhuman companions. 

“On the ship. He was talking to you for a while, after we’d taken off.”

“Ah.” Ignis pinched the bridge of his nose, and then shook his head, as if dispelling some thought. “I can’t recall,” he said. And then, blinking as if he was waking up, he turned to face Prompto. For some reason people in the movies act like glasses make it impossible to see someone’s face properly--to catch the light in their eyes or the curve of their jaw, but that’s bullshit, and Ignis was a case in point.

“Did you finish the dishes? I can help,” he said.

“No, they’re almost done!” Prompto back towards the caravan. The issue with running, as a hobby, and sort of a… life mandate (it was hard to say what exactly running was to him at this point) is that it conditions you to… well, run. If something solves one problem sometimes it starts looking like it can solve anything.

Prompto was hot in the cheeks while he finished the last few dishes, but the water had grown cold, and by the time he was drying them he was confident he was no longer blushing.

[+]

The hunt sucked, and not only because they had no car, and had to get there and back on foot. It sucked because they were all tired and sort of out of it, and Noct especially was just… generally upset (which Prompto couldn’t blame him for). He tried to talk to him on the walk there, while Ignis was going over the map and he and Noctis were bringing up the rear.

“You okay, man?”

“Everyone keeps asking me that, like my answer’s gonna change,” Noctis said, and Prompto cringed. Yeah, it was kind of a useless thing to ask. But it felt like they needed to talk (all the silences had grown uncomfortable and toxic) so he was fumbling continuously for something to say.

But at the very least, they made it back to their caravan unscathed. Or at least, unscathed in the ways that mattered. Prompto was pretty sure he’d bruised his ribs diving to make a shot, and Gladio was vaguely scraped, but it was nothing potion-worthy, thankfully. Since they had no potions. No supplies of most kinds, and they had to put the payment from the hunt directly towards food. And no leads on the car.

But things kind of lightened up after dinner. Noct and Prom staked out the upper bunk and flipped through his camera, looking at shots from only a few days ago that genuinely felt like they’d been taken in a different lifetime. It should have been sad--further impressing the gravity of their situation. But they were all thinking about it all the time anyways. No longer the future but the current--the uncrowned King. Loss was always on Noct’s mind, it showed on his face, in his posture, even his voice. Flipping through photos of a time when they were just guys on a roadtrip didn’t erase anything, but it felt surprisingly good to remember.

Gladio went outside grumbling something about sword drills, but he was probably just escaping the cramped interior of the caravan. Prompto kind of liked small spaces. Well, he didn’t, as a general rule. For example, being locked in the supply closet at the back of the classroom by his fellow students was never fun, and once he got skinny he was, notably , once put inside a locker.

But as a kid he used to hang out in the small gap between his bed and the wall--it was like another, smaller bedroom. It was a respite from the empty house, cradled by the wall and the side of his mattress. So the caravan was kind of nice. The lower bunk with the upper bunk above it, and the upper bunk so close to the ceiling. 

They were so caught up in the pictures, and joking around, it took a while to notice Ignis. He was standing at the sink, gripping the counter with both hands, unmoving. His shoulders were hiked up, his entire posture tense as hell. Noctis noticed first, and Prompto followed his line of sight.

“Specs?” Noct asked. Prompto was closer, so he dropped down from the bunk. Ignis was still not moving. He gave no indication of having heard Noct’s address or Prompto’s movement.

“Iggy?” Prompto reached for his shoulder--Ignis sometimes zoned out when he was thinking hard about something, usually a problem with no direct solution. His hand never made contact. Ignis grabbed his wrist in a vice grip and all but threw him across the caravan. He had time to observe what was happening but not to do anything about it. He hit the back of the couch and managed to brace himself rather than smack face-first into the linoleum.

“Ignis!” Noct shouted, and Prompto heard the sound of the armiger opening--a weapon materializing. He looked up in horror to see Ignis with a short blade in hand, Noct part way down the ladder. Prompto grabbed Ignis by the ankle and yanked hard (there wasn’t a lot else to do from on the floor). It worked, and Ignis stumbled instead of taking a swing. Noct warped out the open door while Prompto was getting up. Probably on instinct. His fighting wasn’t designed for a closed space. But even out in the open, Ignis would be a difficult match for him.

“What the hell?” Noct cried. Prompto lunged for the door and slammed it shut, clicking the lock into place, and praying that whatever had control of Ignis, he’d refocus on Prompto when reduced to one target. And praying also that something had control of Ignis. Because if he was betraying them--if he’d always meant to betray them--Prompto didn’t think he could take that. And he knew that Noctis couldn’t.

Even shitty situations have their upsides. Prompto always tried to think in those sort of terms. He figured he was kind of the designated hype guy. Somebody had to be looking at a half-full glass, otherwise the enormity of their shitty circumstances would be overwhelming. And besides, if he’d never learned to look at the bright side of things, he’d never have had the courage to talk to Noctis. Prompto always thought that optimism was sort of for idiots, and he decided to buy into it anyways. He’d rather be an idiot than a cynic.

That optimism or hope paid off in some sense, because Ignis rounded on him, and he had to roll out of the way of a wild slash with the blade. He summoned his gun on instinct, and then realized what he was doing and let it drop back into the armiger. Okay. Fight someone who has been training at minimum twice as long as you, hand to… blade. Just don’t die , he told himself.

He could hear Noctis hammering on the door, but he tried to tune it out. Letting him in would be taking a pointless risk. They had no potions and exactly one uncrowned king. 

“Ignis! It’s me,” he tried. He blocked a strike while backing up and blood hit the battered linoleum. No luck, but he persisted. The first cut definitely hurt the most, but after three he lost count. It felt more like a game--he just focussed on dodging and trying to avoid the attacks. His mind went quiet. But some still-awake part of him was crying out, with the instinct to run, to fight back. Sweat was pooling on his chest (unless that was blood). His lungs burned with exertion. 

A second voice joined Noctis, shouting at the door. Prompto glanced over and missed Ignis moving to strike. He ended up on the floor, straddled between Ignis’ legs, and the blade was raised over him. He raised a hand to protect himself; Ignis wrenched it to the side. His thoughts seemed to white out--like a radio station signed off, broadcasting nothing but static noise. He shut his eyes.

But the finishing blow didn’t come. For a second, he thought he had just missed dying altogether. But sound came roaring back in, and the pain didn’t go anywhere. He opened his eyes. Ignis was looking down at him. He was actually looking, and he was actually Ignis. The grip on his wrist was going loose.

“P-Prompto?” Ignis said. He sounded like someone had just woken him up. He blinked hard, as if expecting the scene in front of him to change. The door broke open with a heavy cracking noise.

“The fuck?” Gladio said. 

“Prom!” Noctis cried. Ignis didn’t move, but he dropped the blade to the side. His eyes were searching Prompto’s face, and when Gladio yanked him by the shoulder he was limp and compliant.

“Prom, shit.” Noctis dropped to his knees. Prompto grimaced, reaching with an arm that hurt all over when he moved it to touch his face. Because it felt wet.

“Is my nose bleeding?” he asked.

“Yeah, a lot,” Noctis said. “What the fuck, dude.”

“Mind control, I guess,” Prompto said. He felt like he should sit up, or at least do something besides bleeding on the floor, but he didn’t feel like his legs would support him just yet. His limbs were radiating a soft, kind of buzzing sensation.

“I thought--he was an MT. I saw it, it was real. I was alone in the caravan, and--Gladiolus,” Ignis was talking so fast he was almost tripping over his words. Prompto had never heard him so outwardly upset. 

“We need an antidote for whatever that was,” Gladio said. “To make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“We need potions ,” Noct snapped. 

“We can’t afford both,” Gladio said, his voice losing the determined edge it had before.

“Just tie me up. Lock me in the caravan, and I can’t hurt anyone.”

“And what, have no advisor? Keep you prisoner indefinitely?” Prompto knew he had to sit up now. Bracing himself on his arms was agony, but once he was resting against the back of the couch he felt better, although also more dizzy. “These are all superficial wounds. We’ve still got bandages, right?”

Rather than respond, Gladio and Noctis exchanged a look. Prompto tried to make eye contact with Ignis, but he avoided his gaze, fixing his eyes on the floor. There was a stab mark in the linoleum where Prompto had rolled to narrowly avoid an attack. As the adrenaline was running off he felt colder, sicker, and much more sliced open.

And he also felt trapped, suddenly. Gladio was standing in the doorway, one hand still on Ignis’ shoulder, as if he was expecting him to spring into action again. Noct was between Prompto and the door as well. He wanted to press into the back of the couch, but he also wanted to be up and out.

“I--” he started, but he didn’t know how to finish that. Noctis was searching his face.

“Buddy?” he said. His hand was hovering by Prompto’s shoulder, but not making contact, thankfully. His shoulder was one of many things cut open. Prompto scrubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a smear of rusty red. Blood dries so fast that it feels almost like holding your hand under a blowdryer--not the same as rain or bathwater. It was already coming off in flakes from his upper lip, and the feeling of nervous energy only grew stronger.

“I need--um.” He tried to move as if to push himself to his feet, but it was a non-option. His shirt was uncomfortably wet. “Out. Please. I have to get out,” he managed to say. It came out quiet, almost a whisper, but Noctis was right at his side: he heard. He turned and barked something at Gladio, something Prompto missed. And then he was heaving Prompto to his feet as if he were a training dummy. He put up as much resistance and offered as much help.

They went stumbling down the two steps. The sun had finished setting while they were inside, the stars were starting to come out. Noct dragged Prompto to the nearest folding chair and set him down heavily.

“I’m gonna get the bandages, okay? Stay right here,” Noct said. As if Prompto was going to get up and walk away. He nodded mutely. Noctis vanished back into the caravan. There was the sound of an argument, but one that people were trying to have quietly. He slumped in the chair, vaguely aware that he was getting blood all over it. But his clothes were also a lost cause, and blood-stained clothes were probably worse than a blood-stained lawn chair.

Noct reappeared with bandages and a bowl of water and a bottle of disinfectant. Gladio was with him, not doing or saying anything, but sort of hovering. Noctis gave Prompto a kind of apologetic look. Ignis did most, if not all, of their first aid. Ignis was remaining inside the caravan, apparently.

Noctis had to steel himself more than Prompto for the first cut. When he pressed the disinfectant into the wound Prompto bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, but he felt Noctis tense, as if he’d been slapped. 

“Can I have a tissue?” he asked, swiping his hand across his nose again. Noct went fumbling through his supplies and handed Prompto a gauze pad. It worked well enough though. He wiped his nose with one hand while Noct cleaned the cuts on his other arm.

For the actual bandaging, Gladio stepped in. He did this by simply tapping Noct on the shoulder and grunting, but Noct got the message apparently, because he abdicated his seat to Gladio. Prompto was trying to keep cool, but he was close to crying after the disinfectant, and he felt so raw, so horribly split open. It was a visceral reaction when Gladio started wrapping his arms; he sagged in on himself, and he dug his fingers into Gladio’s forearm without meaning to. If Gladio noticed, or cared, he didn’t say anything. 

By the time he was finishing up, Prompto’s nose was no longer bleeding. More than anything else, he just felt tired. He slumped against Gladio.

“You want to get some rest?” Gladio asked. Gently, like he was talking to a small animal. Some part of Prompto wanted to be ruffled by that, but he was too exhausted. He did want to get some rest. But with the open sky exposed above him--somehow the cradle of a bunk against a wall didn’t seem so attractive anymore. A closed door. A locked door. Prompto shook his head, but his eyelids were drooping as Gladio finished securing the last bandage in place.

Gladio lifted his chin so they were eye-to-eye.

“He’ll be outside,” he said. Quietly. Maybe Noct was still nearby and Gladio didn’t want him to hear. Maybe he was afraid of Ignis overhearing. Prompto wanted to say that wasn’t the problem, that it was the caravan itself he was afraid of, but that seemed like it would sound so stupid coming out. He couldn’t find any words that made sense, so he said nothing. Gladio half-helped, half-carried him inside, and he lay down in the lower bunk.

“Someone’s right outside if you need anything,” Gladio said softly, and then stepped out. They were probably talking, and they were probably talking about him, but instead of the usual jolt of anxiety this realization just made him feel vaguely sad. He stretched an arm up, bandages and cuts protesting, and brushed his fingers along the slats of the upper bunk. What could be seen of the mattress had little yellow flowers on it. 

[+]

The sun had set, or rather, begun setting while Ignis was inside the caravan refusing to bite his nails. It was a multi-year struggle, ending when he was eleven, a struggle full of band-aids and torn cuticles, and cracked fingers.

Despite the strength of the compulsion--which had come roaring back out of his psyche like a deer bursting from the dark trees onto the highway--he didn’t have any trouble resisting. This was because he still had Prompto’s blood on his hands. On his face too, if the drying sensation was anything to go by.

He heard Gladio talking to Prompto about going to sleep, and hauled himself from where he’d been sitting--back against the couch, where Gladio had left him. Back to the sink. Dish soap pooling in his palm like bile. He scrubbed enough that it hurt, and he ran the water hotter than he could stand, but it didn’t help, not really.

When he got out (slipped quickly out the side so Gladio could help Prompto inside) he still felt sure he could smell blood. On his clothes, his skin--perhaps even in his hair. He wanted to see the injuries, assess them. Participate in the first aid. Instead he had spent the time staring at the empty bunks. Doing nothing.

Noctis had taken a seat in one of the folding chairs beside the caravan. His hands hung loose between his legs, and his head was bowed. Ignis stood watching the sky darken until it was a uniform deep blue.

“I--” he started, but Noctis’ head snapped up and his expression was so intense that Ignis choked on his words.

“I know. You don’t have to defend yourself. Maybe to Prompto, maybe even to Gladio. But I know. That wasn’t you.”

“I still want to apologize,” Ignis said. He was casting around for something better to say. Something solid to hold onto. “I want to be able to explain myself.”

“Um. Gladio’s gonna come out and we’ll talk about it. But we’re not going to tie you up for the night. We’re just going to take watch in turns.”

Ignis did not point out that if whatever happened to him did happen again, he didn’t much like the idea of Gladio or Noctis being forced to fight him one-on-one. Or not Noctis, at least, because despite everything, he was still too gentle to kill someone if they were wearing his friend’s face. 

When he came to himself, he was alone with Prompto in the caravan, and the door must have been locked, because Gladio forced it open, breaking the lock (so much for their deposit). The last thing he remembered was washing dishes, but Prompto and Noctis were together on the upper bunk at the time. And he did know why, why it was him alone with Prompto, why Noct was locked out and had to get Gladio. He was the tactician, and he’d be a poor one if he couldn’t work that out.

But he didn’t like thinking about it very much. 

[+]

Breakfast was a strained affair. Prompto woke up early but insisted he wasn’t hungry, and took up a position in one of the chairs in front of the caravan. Gladio and Noctis were both tired and generally fed up, and worse still, had nowhere to direct their anger besides the camping equipment and world at large. 

Ignis tried to keep to the inside of the caravan, away from Prompto, although he’d been greeted by the same sunny smile as always.

“We’ll finish the hunt fast, turn it in and come back. You can come with us, or we can bring Ignis,” he heard Noctis saying.

“He’ll have to stay in the car,” Gladio interrupted. “Until we have an antidote and we know it’s not going to happen again.”

“It didn’t happen last night--”

Ignis looked down at his hands, stationary in the greasy water. He’d burnt the pan. For the first time since setting out, and the first time since he was fourteen.

“It’s fine. I can stay here with Ignis,” Prompto said. His voice didn’t carry a waver or even forced stability that would belie his expression, but the gap of silence that followed his statement made it clear that Noctis and Gladio were exchanging a look. 

“We don’t--” Gladio started, but Noctis cut him off.

“That’s stupid. We’d have to tie him up. We’ll all go,” he declared. Ignis ached to join this conversation, to put in, for example, that the walk would exacerbate Prompto’s injuries. But he had no place in this conversation. To step in now would be… impossible. And there wasn’t really another solution. Prompto’s legs hadn’t been injured, the only concern was yesterday’s blood loss.

“Noct,” Gladio said flatly, and Noctis must have gestured, because nothing followed that until Prompto spoke up again.

“Good thing I’m the sharpshooter,” he said. Ignis clenched his hand around the dirty sponge, and soap diffused into the water.

[+]

In general, it would have been a better day if it wasn’t so hot. Nothing as bad as the last few days, which contained lava and multiple stab wounds, but still. Prompto wouldn’t rank this anywhere in his best days ever list. It was a real list at one time, one that he was prompted to make after a day in the park with Noctis, when they put a nest of baby birds back in the tree, got pecked nearly to death by the mama, and biked back to Noct’s apartment for dinner.

That was even better than the day we met, Prompto thought. And suddenly he was compelled to write it down somewhere--because it would be real then, it would be indisputably real. He had some almost-urge to write this down, the horrible events of yesterday, but he pushed it into the back of his mind.

The path was not particularly rocky or difficult, but he found himself growing tired fast, lagging behind the group. It was Ignis who fell back to meet him, but while still maintaining significant distance between them.

“Are your injuries hurting?” he asked. Clipped, formal.

“I’m okay,” Prompto replied quickly. I’m not a burden , he wanted to say. Or, I won’t be one , rather.

He had to hang back during the fight, but that was normal. He sniped shots from cover, and he felt useless until he made a hit; saw blood grace the sky.

The walk to pick up the antidote wasn’t so bad. They didn’t have enough for a potion, but he waved off the concerns.

It was the walk back that really sucked. He fell behind again. The deepest cut--on his shoulder--opened up. He tugged his shirt aside and saw red beginning to seep through the gauze, which was no longer white, but now grey from dust and sweat. 

Ignis pointed out that they needed to change the bandages, but the sun was going down. More than anything, they needed to get back to safety. So Prompto lagged behind the group, and his footsteps grew increasingly numb.

There were fireflies out in the dusk air. But the conversation had long since died, and everyone was too tense to break the silence. Prompto watched them drifting, winking in and out, one moment a dull imprint against the backdrop of grass and underbrush, the next a tiny beacon.

It didn’t become unbearable until it suddenly did. One moment he was walking and the next he was overwhelmed by nausea, black spots popping in his vision. To avoid a dramatic fall, he sat down. Pine needles dug through his jeans. The ground smelled like rotting leaves. He was afraid he’d have to call out, but Noctis looked back, and a second later the others followed suit.

“Prom!” he cried. But Ignis got there first. He reached for Prompto, and Prompto reached for him, and before they could make contact, Ignis jerked back. Stepped aside for Noctis, who hauled Prompto to his feet.

“Just a little further,” Gladio said. Prompto nodded. His cheeks were burning. Noct ducked under Prompto’s arm to support him. They made it back to the caravan, and Noctis dumped Prompto in the folding chair while he and Gladio started the campfire. Ignis vanished inside.

Prompto waited for his head to stop spinning, and for Gladio and Noct to start arguing, and then followed Ignis in. He was at the sink, head bowed, the same stance he’d been in before he turned and attacked them. But his shoulders were tense in another way. He was Ignis, unmistakably.

“Need any help?” Prompto ventured. Ignis spun around, as if he’d been caught at something. He opened his mouth to say something, and closed it again. Pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Are you not--” Prompto stumbled on the words and had to try again. “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad? Am I--” Ignis covered his mouth with his hand. He was shaking, just a little, Prompto noticed. In the shoulders. “Why aren’t you? You--you act like nothing happened! Saying you’re fine, looking at me like--”

“I’m not looking at you any different,” Prompto cut in, annoyed.

“Exactly! Why , on Eos, are you not looking at me any different? I hurt you. I almost--” Ignis choked on the word, swallowed it, started over. “I almost killed you.”

“No you didn’t.” Prompto said it flatly. “That wasn’t you.”

“It was my hands! It was my face!”

“No.” Prompto crossed the distance between them, and, overtaken by sudden boldness, took Ignis’ hand. He laced their fingers together.

“That wasn't these hands,” he said. Ignis’ expression was impossible. Clouded and unfamiliar. When he reached for Prompto, it was glacially slow. He gave him seconds and seconds and nearly a minute to move away. Prompto stayed rooted to the spot. He leaned in, just a little. Ignis wrapped his arm around Prompto’s shoulder. So gently, like he was touching repaired porcelain. Glue can be pretty strong though, Prompto thought. He learned that from his mother’s own china cabinet. Sometimes, cups that have been broken once or twice are sturdier than the rest of the set. Or if not sturdier, at least on par.

He sighed into Ignis’ shoulder, took a handful of the man’s shirt. And he let go, enough so that his weight was resting on Ignis. He felt safe--almost cradled, and warm. Respite in an empty house. Respite, even in a cramped caravan. The smell of smoke drifted in the open door. Ignis let him go, what felt like a year too early. But there was more time. More road ahead.