Suffice to say, Ignis and Gladio had a fair bit of trepidation about taking Prompto on the trip to Altissia. (This was, after all, the same Prompto Argentum who had been so badly startled the time that Noct's apartment building changed the hallway carpet that it was two weeks before he could walk out Noct's door without yelping in surprise.) But they had little say in the matter. It was not their place, either of them, to counteract a direct command of their prince. And Noct's casual statement of "I want Prompto to come, too," was just that: a command as clear as any wax-sealed order from on high.
While they could not refuse outright, they both had their ways of letting their opinions be known. Ignis had mentioned, with the utmost discretion, that the trip might be extremely dangerous or extremely dull by turns, and that perhaps it was a bit of tedious royal duty better left to people who were well-trained (and well paid) to do it. Gladio, less discreet, had snorted in derision and told Noct flat out that he was going to get Prompto killed. The heir to the throne of Lucis did not budge on either attempt. In fact he intimated that if his Shield wasn't up to the task of protecting like, one extra dude, that maybe what he needed was a new Shield, not a smaller party. Gladio shut up about the matter abruptly.
And so Prompto was dutifully equipped and trained and prepared to accompany his prince, with all the proper decorum that could be managed in so short a time. Ignis had to admit that Prompto took to all the fuss with remarkable ease, and Gladio, having gone a few rounds with him on Cor's day off, grudgingly conceded that he was picking up on things pretty quickly. ("Maybe Noct'll just get him maimed, not killed," Gladio told Ignis, over their regular Thursday night coffee date.)
Noct, for his part, acted like the addition of Prompto to the party was no more of a bother than bringing along a spare jacket, and while even Noct had his moments of wondering if he was being either selfish or foolish by insisting on it, he would sooner have faced a firing squad than admit to either. So with everyone doing their level best to pretend it was not a big deal, it became, with every passing day, more and more of a big deal in the eyes of one person.
And that was Prompto himself.
After all, it was not as if he didn't know. Of course he knew. It was impossible to not know. He stuck out like a left-handed moogle in a right-handed chocobo pen, and what drove him bonkers about the entire thing was that nobody would own up to it. Not through all the sparring and the fittings and the drilling on basic protocol, not as the days dwindled down towards departure and Prompto's hours of sound sleep vanished accordingly. By the time they left Lucis he was operating on roughly two hours of rest a night, large amounts of caffeine, and pure adrenaline.
And then, as fate would have it, he broke the car. At least, it had certainly broken while he was driving it, and though no one had ever directly blamed him, it remained on the long and detailed mental list of his personal failings. Also, nobody ever asked him to drive again. To be fair, he had been too hurt to offer. Because the fact remained that the car had broken down, and as a result they had been delayed in Hammerhead, and that meant they had missed their chance to take the last ferry to Altissia, and then Insomnia had fallen, and Noct and Gladio's fathers (as well as any other number of innocent people) had been killed.
Because the car had broken down. (Because of me, Prompto thought to himself, on any number of sleepless nights to follow.)
It wasn't logical, and if he had said anything about it he was sure--mostly sure--that the others would rush to defend him, to direct the blame elsewhere. But the thought of those reassurances were worse than the guilt Prompto carried, because he would never be able to convince himself that they weren't lying to him. Part of him would always suspect that they knew it was his fault, but would say anything to keep him from believing that. The idea that the lies would come from kindness rather from cruelty made it all the worse, just another way in which the other three had to make up for his shortcomings.
During the day, Prompto had enough on his plate that he could push his guilt to the back of his mind. But at night he couldn't avoid it, and those nights were always worse in the camper at Hammerhead.
Which was where they were now, and where Prompto had been staring at the same stain on the ceiling of the bedroom for three hours. He was exhausted. They'd been on a hunt all day, tracking rogue beasts through hell and half of the Three Valleys. But that didn't help him sleep. Neither did the hot shower, or the three allergy pills, or reciting the names of all the Kings of Lucius backwards. Prompto's mind would not be still, and finally he gave up and rolled to his feet. If he was going to be up all night, he might as well be up in the diner having some fries or something.
"Y'ok?" Noct's sleepy question was little more than a reflex action, and Prompto knew he wasn't really awake.
"Just Takka's chili," Prompto replied. "That stuff bites back."
It was a weak excuse that Noct would see right through in broad daylight, but at this hour, he only made a noise of sympathetic understanding and rolled over again. "Tellin' you. Beans... r'bastards."
"I'll be fine," Prompto said, and Noct, already assured of that fact, was asleep again before he finished saying it. Prompto stepped into his boots and eased his way through the camper as soundlessly as possible, not wanting to wake Ignis and Gladio in the main room. He waited for a good loud snore from Gladio before opening the camper door, and stepped out into the cool embrace of the desert night.
It was marvelous. For a while he just stood against the side of the camper, breathing in the crisp air, watching the moths swirling in the floodlights, and generally just enjoying the feeling of not trying to pretend to sleep. After the stuffy camper, the breeze was gentle on his face, ruffling his hair like an affectionate friend. If he could have the desert only in the dark, he thought, he might learn to love it.
And it was a comfort to see that even past midnight he wasn't the only one up. Hammerhead was busy at all hours. A party of hunters had stopped in the diner, the shop clerk was occupied with his newspaper, and the garage doors were wide open, spilling fluorescent light and twanging guitar music out over the pitted asphalt. Weighing the idea of sharing the diner with a bunch of rowdy hunters or going to see what Cid was working on in the garage, Prompto chose the latter.
Cid, however, was not to be found there. The shapely backside bent over the rusting hulk in the garage belonged to Cindy, and Prompto, caught between wanting to enjoy the view and dreading being caught doing so, took half a step backwards and stumbled on a discarded muffler. The noise sounded like a behemoth in plate mail doing a ten-yard dash. Downhill. Drunk. Prompto died about three times in the meanwhile.
"Paw-paw! I told you to go on t'bed and quit pokin' around on that ol'--oh." Cindy reversed herself out from under the hood of the car, and her eyes crinkled up in a smile. "Well, howdy, Prompto! Ain't you up past yer bedtime? Can't ya sleep?"
Prompto, addressed so familiarly by his goddess, made a number of garbled sounds that added up to something like agreement, and maybe even a full sentence. Cindy, for her part, seemed to be used to this reaction, and understood him perfectly.
"Aw, I reckon it's hard sleepin' in a different place every night. Sometimes it's better just t'get up and make yerself useful." She winked at him. "You can start by getting me that oil can before y'knock it over."
The wink had a galvanizing effect, and Prompto made a grab for the tin of Coernix oil before he nudged it off the shelf beside him. Cindy took it from him and popped the top one-handed.
"These old clunkers are just thirsty as hell," she said, as she refilled the reservoir. "Not like that purdy thing ya'll ride around in. Y'ever get a chance to drive her?"
Prompto, cornered so suddenly, flinched out loud. His face drained white until his freckles looked like old blood spatters, and Cindy, knowing at once she had hit a tender spot, reached out to steady his shoulder. "Hey now, easy there, darlin! You look like you seen a--"
"Yes," Prompto managed to say, in little more than a whisper. He reached up to put his hand over hers, not for any flirtatious reasons, but merely out of a desperate need to hold on to something. "But I haven't--It's all my fault. If I hadn't-- we might've-- It's all because I--" His mouth drew back and his eyes welled up, and so acute was the emotion that he couldn't even parse that he was crying in front of her. Not that Cindy cared. With the gentleness she would give the most fussy decal application, she steered Prompto to a nearby lawn chair and got him in it, pressed her own half-drunk water bottle into his hands, and told him to tell her all about it. Prompto clutched the bottle like a lifeline, not drinking it but staring at it with blurry vision, as the whole mess came out of him in an ugly, clotted rush. He started with the plans for the trip and his own feelings of inadequacy, and ran right on through every doubt, every failure. He wasn't even aware of the words he was using, or if he was making any sense at all, only that Cindy was patting his knee and making comforting noises, wiping his face on the oil-streaked bandanna she'd given him from her own coverall pocket, as all the fear and guilt drained out of him. When he surfaced at last, realizing where he was and what he was saying and to whom, he flushed so hard and so hot that he thought tiny flames would burst out of the tips of his ears.
"Oh. Oh, Gods." His voice was a horrified croak, his irises ringed with white. "Cindy. I'm so sorry, I don't know why I--"
"Now you just hush right up with all that sorry bizness," Cindy said, buffing his face with the bandanna like Prompto was just a grimy fender. "Ya poor thing, goin' around with all that nasty gunk in yer system. Why, no wonder yer engine weren't fit for nothin'. Gotta get all the old oil out before you can refill it, right?" She plopped the bandanna back in his hands.
"I ...actually don't know much of anything about cars," he admitted, as something like a smile crept cautiously over his face. He felt strangely light, as though he could float away.
"Oh, well, they're a whole lot like people." Cindy took her hat off and raked back her hair before putting it back on again, and seeing her without it, even for a minute, was like seeing a stranger. She was dressed differently, Prompto realized, as in his emptied state such observations struck him with a strange and meaningful clarity. Not in her pinup bikini and booty shorts, but in an old tank top and coveralls, with her own greasy hand-prints peppering the fabric. He realized she was older than he was, and how much, and how the life she lived beyond Insomina's Wall was something he only barely understood. Something in his heart shifted towards her forever. It was not a lessening of his admiration; in fact it had only increased. The fact that she would never be interested in dating him--or doing anything else with him--ceased in that instant to bother him at all, and in fact it never bothered him again.
"I shoulda known you had somethin' like that under your hood," Cindy said, unaware of the epiphany taking place in Prompto at that moment. Her eyes were clouded as she looked out over the cracked and faded asphalt in front of the garage, off into the distance beyond the blaring safety of lights, towards the just-visible stars and unseen daemons in the hills. "I reckon I mighta recognized it."
She looked back at Prompto, right at him and through him, and the weight of her whole life--the way she was a whole, other person, with decisions and regrets and memories--was somehow as profound to him as her words were. "It's real easy to look back in that rear-view, Prompto. To go back to that last day, whichever one it is. T'see all the ways you can blame yerself for where it all went wrong. 'If I hadn't done that, if I had done this...' Well, maybe somebody or somethin' you love would still be right there beside ya. Or maybe things'd be a whole helluva lot worse, who knows? Ain't no tellin'." She sighed, her shoulders bowing under some great, invisible burden. "The thing is, if you're looking at something in the rear-view, y'can't see what's right in front of ya, and that's no way to drive or t'live. And even if you did turn the car around, you wouldn't see what was reflected in the rearview anyway. Just a buncha road you done drove over. And going back thataway is just a shame, when there's a big open road full of things you ain't seen yet. A'course it's like to always bother ya, but you can't let it. You can't fill in the map unless you take the trip, sugar."
Prompto blinked at her, and then at his hands, and at his half-hidden tattoo, at the questions and answers he carried inside himself and how few of them matched up. Even Cindy, a person he assumed had all her chocobos in a row, felt the same way. It was just part of being human. Of traveling down the road of life. He didn't know what to say, but what he said was, "Thank you."
"Pssh." Cindy flapped her hand at him, once more saucy and simple, though she would never be just that again, and nobody else ever would, either. "That ain't nothin'. More importantly, what do you mean, you don't know about cars? I thought you liked gadgets and all that."
Prompto was startled right back into normalcy, with the exception that he felt unusually comfortable in his own skin, clear-eyed and wide awake in a way he hadn't been in ages. If ever. "Well, I do, but like. Cameras. And phones. Stuff like that. Not big things."
"Aw pooh. Big things r'just a buncha little things all runnin' together. Can't have you goin' around with all that heavy machinery Paw-paw's giving ya without knowin' which end of a screwdriver's which. Now c'mon over here and I'll show ya how to change a spark plug."
When the sun came up that's where the other three found them: Prompto in a borrowed pair of gloves, helping Cindy winch a transmission out of an ancient Midgar Mirage.
"The hell you doin'?" Gladio asked for all of them, as Ignis was struck mute with horror at the state of Prompto's clothes, and Noct was leaning hard on the doorframe, barely awake.
"Er--" Prompto began, surprising himself that it was morning already, and that he hadn't noticed. Cindy stepped in to save him.
"I tell you what, Prince," she said, making Noct jolt upright, "you ever get tired'a having your gunman along y'all just send him along to me. I'll make a mechanic out of him in no time."
"He certainly has the aesthetic down," Ignis said, producing a handkerchief from somewhere and dropping on Prompto's head. "Try to get the biggest globs off, if you please. I don't want you staining the Regalia's seats."
"Since when are you my gunman?" Noct wondered out loud, as Prompto sheepishly wiped his face and hands. Iggy's handkerchiefs always smelled spicy and expensive, and were uncannily good at removing grime. Prompto had learned not to offer them back.
"Sounds better than your loser buddy and tag-along, right?" Prompto asked, but without any of the bitterness that might have been there before.
"Nah, gunman sounds about right." Gladio cuffed Prompto affectionately on the shoulder. "Useless and flashy and charging in at the last minute when the work's half done."
"Thanks, I'll add that to my resume."
"Good of you to keep him out of trouble, Cindy," Ignis said, with a courtly half-bow. "We'll get him out of your hair, now."
"You see?" Prompto asked her, holding out his arms to them emphatically. "This is what I have to put up with!"
"Now you be nice to him or I mean it, I'll pinch him and keep him!" Cindy ducked back under the hood of the car with a wave and a friendly reminder over her shoulder to drive safe and come back soon. She was instantly lost in the intricacies of the car again.
"Bet you'd love that," Noct said, as they turned and walked towards the Regalia, gleaming in the morning sunlight. Waves of heat were already beginning to shimmer off the asphalt, making the horizon dance like a mirage. "Prompto Argentum, Cindy's personal grease-monkey apprentice."
"Nah," Prompto said, "I got a long way to go before I'm good enough for that." He pretended not to notice their shocked stares, kicking up a half-step to draw abreast of Ignis. "Hey, speaking of, Iggy... Is it okay if I drive for a little while?"
Gladio recovered first, enough to grunt. "Fine with me, as long as you don't break the car again."
Ignis, his mouth open in what was about to be a no, turned his attention to Gladio instead. "And do you need to remind us all why you aren't allowed to drive, Gladiolus?"
A lesser man would have blushed or quailed under that gaze, and even Gladio looked sideways, coughed, and shifted his weight. "Welluh. Seat. Doesn't go. Far enou--"
"I thought it was because the one and only time you took the wheel, you rolled the car over my foot in that gas station." Noct spoke with the serenity of a fair--and it must be noted, utterly trollish--king. "When we were barely two miles out of the city limits."
"Come on!" Gladio balled his fists on his hips. "It was just a little--"
"--Lapse in judgement that easily might have disfigured his Highness for life," Ignis sniffed, and presented the Regalia's keys to a delighted Prompto. "I hardly think Prompto could do worse. There you are. Mind your speed."
"All right!" Prompto crowed, and sprinted the last few steps towards the car, Noct on his heels to claim shotgun.
Gladio remained where he was, arms folded, squinting at the sun. "Might have disfigured his Highness for life," he repeated, in a tinny imitation of Ignis' voice.
"Gladio." Ignis was holding the door open for him, and his glasses flashed ominously.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming."
Four doors slammed shut. Prompto started the engine, shifted the Regalia into gear, and put the pedal down.
There's something good waiting down this road. I'm picking up whatever's mine.