Actions

Work Header

all of your flaws and all of my flaws, they lie there hand in hand

Chapter Text

There was a thought, nagging, behind his eyelids as he tried to will himself to sleep:

How long had he been trying to rest?

And the thing was, if he opened his eyes and turned his head just a little to the right, he’d see Libertus there, and Crowe next to him, and those two were fools and they had evidently convinced themselves that they were doing something for him -- for him, for their fucking commanding officer -- making a barricade of themselves between him and all the world that was rapidly descending into fury, into fire, into wreckage, because they wanted him to rest, because they needed him to rest --

Nyx Ulric growled to himself and tried to shift and the bed wasn’t even anywhere near long enough or wide enough to properly accommodate him: he scrunched himself into a huddled curl of misery, squashed pillows braced between him and the walls and the lingering pain in his knees from six hours’ quick march --

Wail of alarms -- a shocked curse -- Nyx, grateful and groaning, shot up to a sitting position and crammed his bare feet into his boots, picked up the belts that he’d dropped in a heap on the floor next to the bed, and made sure he still had his trousers properly buckled and belted on. Crossed the little sleeping room in one stride, in two, and then he was glaring down at Libertus and saying, “That was our specific signal, wasn’t it?”

“For the record: I protest all of this,” Crowe said, and if the Nifs hadn’t been so dumb as to underestimate the royal family of Lucis, they wouldn’t even be in this war, and Nyx would never have learned to understand the gentleness that only showed in the touch of Crowe’s rough hands -- gentleness that he could feel, now, as she threw the jacket of his fatigues over his shoulders, as she straightened out the piddling bits and ribbons of rank on his sleeves and cuffs.

“So do I, but here we are, and now there’s work that needs doing, work that we need to do,” Nyx said, now, and he kissed her forehead and then threw her the crispest salute he could manage when he was already halfway into a run, down the corridor and up the stairs into the command post on the top floor of the building.

“Brief,” he said.

Pelna and Luche looked at each other over the sprawl of battered radios and tattered wires.

Libertus arrived in the next instant, quiet thunderstorms on the move, and Nyx was always grateful for him anyway, him and his silence and his insults and his sheer bullheaded determination.

“Talk,” Crowe snapped as she slipped in and slouched against Nyx’s other side.

“I -- you know how it’s still technically furlough for the other guys, for the Crownsguard?” Pelna said, at last, after a very loud gulp. “They’re not answering right now, we tried to get the emergency outposts and they’re saying they’re a little spread thin at the moment.”

“So we have to clean up after them, what the fuck else is new,” Nyx said.

“The fuck else is new is,” Luche said, and that sure sounded like worry crowding in around the edges of his sour grimace, “it’s one of the big Nif science facilities. It went up in fire so hard we’re getting the seismic reports. Something is moving around in there. And we can’t do this without backup, not even if it’s the five of us and you parked Tredd’s ass back in here to provide relays.”

Nyx blinked.

Mouth twisted in disbelief on one side, and an open sneer on the other.

“All five of us,” he said, slowly.

He backed up toward the only other chair, and turned it around with a sweep of his foot, and dropped into it, front to back.

Tried to think.

Assess. Catalogue. Calm.

And lost the thread immediately, when the radio squawked and a voice came on: “ -- calling Kingsglaive post.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Libertus muttered.

“I know that voice,” Luche said.

Nyx took the unit out of Pelna’s hand and said, “So you’re all there is of the Crownsguard right now?”

“Might as well be,” and the deadpan was still very audible even over the whine of overstressed engines and the shriek of the wind. “Better be rolling out about now. I have orders to get intel out of that science facility. You’re the nearest reinforcements.”

“Only if I get to wash my hands of all the legalese and the paperwork,” he said, and with his other hand he was already gesturing to the backpacks lined up against one of the walls, and Crowe was laughing, manic and grim, as she crammed three bright-red packages into her pockets.

“If that’s what it takes.”

Click, and silence.

“Cor Leonis on duty as always,” Luche muttered, and that was the last thing Nyx heard, as he took one of the jeeps and the others piled into the small truck.

They hadn’t gone one klick from the base when they saw the fire on the horizon, and the strange shadow that seemed to be eating up that fire, writhing and collapsing --

“What the mighty flying fuck,” he heard Libertus say.

“Shut up. Comms discipline, remember,” Nyx snapped. “Intel, he said, so it’s the other kind of smash and grab, you understand? Everything you think is valuable, you take away with you. I don’t care what it is, I don’t care who it is. And don’t die. I’ll be very pissed off at you.”

Sounds of acknowledgment, the last thing he heard before he was pulling up beside a battered motorcycle and the tall man standing next to it.

“Did they do that to themselves?” Nyx asked. It was the only conversation he wanted to have.

“No, not if the chatter is reliable.” Of course Cor had some kind of radio-link into the Nif comms: a small yellow box taped back together at the edges, that squalled panicked cries for help into the air.

The sound made Nyx grin, a little. “Hey, so it’s a recruiting mission after all. Dibs,” he said, and the others were already geared up around him and he gratefully accepted the guns that Luche passed on to him, before raising an eyebrow. “You’re point.”

“Yes,” and Cor was loping forward, inexorable and implacable.

Ruined perimeter defenses: Nyx stopped only to collect a fragment of something he almost recognized, something like Nif body armor only there were too many black stains piled onto the metal, and he wrapped it in a couple of thicknesses of his own sleeve before continuing to leap forward --

Only to nearly run into a staring Crowe.

Broken body at her feet: a torso with a Y-incision. Where blood should have dried in brown around the clumsy stitches -- and Nyx hated that he knew that -- there was, instead, more of the black stains he’d just seen.

So he voiced the thought: “What the actual fuck,” and also, “Stare later. Panic later. Puke later. Mission, people.”

“Fuck,” he thought he heard Pelna say, and then -- “Leonis!”

Who was right in the blast radius as one of the blocky buildings all around them suddenly buckled and collapsed in on itself with a wail of stressed metal --

“He’s moving in!” Libertus was yelling.

“I’ll get him! The rest of you, keep going!” Nyx yelled, and he didn’t look over his shoulder to see if they were following his orders -- he just threw the gun in its strap to his back, and crouch-ran towards Cor, who was -- lifting something in his arms?

No, no, not something.

Someone.

Not a child, and not an adult either.

First-aid kit at his belt: Nyx fumbled for the adrenaline shot and finished running forward.

Blond hair, ragged and filthy, and a face that was a ruin, all half-healed bruises in colored layers, and blood running a sluggish track from the corner of one mouth.

“Dose him,” Cor said.

He didn’t have to be told twice, driving the adrenaline straight into the meat of the unconscious person’s thigh.

He counted three seconds and clamped his hand over that bloodstained mouth. “We’re asking the questions here,” he snapped, into eyes that were still clearly blue, as blue as noon skies on a winter’s day, despite the night all around.

And he’d expected the blond to fight, to bite, to scream: he did precisely none of those things. Only those eyes, widening in shock, and then falling closed, and tears. “Thank the stars, thank the stars,” he was saying, over and over again, monotone relief in the uneven pitch of his voice. “One-way message. Didn’t know if anyone got it.”

“We did.” Cor.

Nyx had never heard him sound like that before: as though the wind and the waves and the storm could break against him, to no effect, because he was trying to protect something.

“You said they were going to bury the evidence,” Cor went on. “What evidence?”

“Me.” And the blond struggled, briefly, so he could get on his feet and this time Nyx found himself moving, not to carry him but only to prop him up.

He was shorter than Nyx was expecting: he had to look down to look him in the eyes.

“I’m the evidence,” the blond said. “They wanted me to be able to remember all the things I -- we -- did. Little soldiers, little infiltrators. Send us into the refugee camps and learn from Lucians, and then kill as many of them as we could. They gave me the ability to remember but they also didn’t think I’d use it against them. Kill switch,” he said, and laughed, bare hint of a hysterical edge. “No. No. They won’t get me. I got them already. I deactivated the kill switch and, and I’ll kill them. Kill them all because they killed everyone like me.”

“What.”

Nyx heard the exact echo of the exact word coming from Cor’s mouth, and he looked at him, and caught a nod.

“You got a name?” Nyx asked, trying to be kind, and knowing that he wasn’t quite getting there.

“Name? Designation,” the blond said, and his voice cracked again on the second word. “I don’t want you to call me a string of numbers.”

“Good, ’cos that would suck,” he said. “Make one up right now if you like.”

“I didn’t make it up now. I heard it. Call me -- call me Prompto,” the blond said.

“Okay Prompto. Nyx Ulric, Kingsglaive. That person who walked into the fire because he has no common sense is Cor Leonis, Crownsguard.”

“Enemies of Niflheim,” the blond -- Prompto -- said, and nodded. “You might be my allies.”

“We might be. But we need to make sure.”

That only got Cor a resigned stare. “After this. Heart of the facility is that way. That shadow in the night,” Prompto said, pointing -- coincidentally, in the direction the others had gone.

“What are they going to find there?” Cor asked, quietly.

“Information. Samples. Some of the others who died. They kept some of the bodies. Tried to make them alive again,” and still Prompto talked with that cold calm inflection in his voice. “That thing -- it’s the weapon they were creating. I broke it.”

He didn’t sound proud. He just sounded tired.

And suddenly Nyx felt sympathy, and a thornlike sorrow, for this boy. He was no more than a boy. Gangly limbs that didn’t match his hands and feet. Scars all over his face.

He didn’t show it, though. Only raised his radio and buzzed the others. “If you see any signs of a Nif weapon, and it decides to turn itself on and shoot at you, you’d better get out of the fucking danger zone PDQ.”

“How did you know,” Crowe asked. “We just -- this thing’s just fallen to pieces right in front of us.”

“Intel,” Pelna said. “This is one of the mother lodes, all right.”

“We’ll be right there.”

And he looked up from the radio, readied his gun again for use -- but he stopped when he looked over his shoulder, because Cor was on his knees and leaning forward, and the boy who had just named himself Prompto was climbing onto that broad back.

“So I have to do all the work for you?” he said, but not to be snappish.

“I called you in as backup anyway,” was the deadpan response.

“Guess you did,” he said, and he let himself reach out to take one of Prompto’s hands for a moment.

He wasn’t prepared for Prompto to stare at him. “What are you doing.”

Nyx blinked. “Holding your hand.”

“What does that mean?”

Something moved, like old dark shadows, in Cor’s face.

Nyx wanted to tear Prompto off that back and hold him close and maybe wrap him in blankets, and he didn’t do any of those things. Only kept holding on to that hand -- he did want to ask about the bar code tattooed into the skin, but this wasn’t the time.

And then Prompto said, “I -- don’t find it unpleasant.”

He forced a small smile onto his face. “Good to hear. More later, if you like? But let’s get this shit done first.”

Most children Prompto’s age would giggle to hear an adult use a bad word in their presence.

Prompto only gave him a hard nod.

So he passed that nod on to Cor, who started moving forward -- and the weight on his back didn’t seem to stop him, or even slow down his ground-eating stride.

It only took a few moments for them to find the others: and already there was a rucksack open on the ground, half-filled with chunks of metal.

Prompto scrambled down and darted past the stares, and Nyx followed him: he dug in a mound of grass, and made a small sound of triumph, and presented him with a black rock.

“What,” he began.

“Wires to connect into the metal, into the suit of armor,” Prompto said, pointing to the tangled burned ends. “Armature to steady it. That’s the -- they said it was the crystal they had created. Crystal that would be more powerful than the Lucian one. That was the test piece. They want to grow it to the -- to the size of a dropship. Maybe bigger. I didn’t hear those parts so I can’t remember them.”

And Nyx hurriedly tore off his other sleeve, all the way up to the shoulder, and his skin crawled as he wrapped the cloth around the black rock with its twisted facets and its sickly red gleam.

A long arm reaching to pluck it off his hands, and he shuddered with relief.

Cor wrapped the crystal in his jacket and said, “Anything else we need to know?”

Prompto bit his lip and thought. Shook his head. “The rest, the rest is gone.”

“You’ve done a good job, calling us here,” Nyx said, after a moment. “We’ll need to quarter this place again, see what else there is, but -- you got us to the important parts. Thanks.”

“I am also one of those important parts,” and Prompto bowed his head, and hunched his shoulders.

Held out his arms in front of him, wrists together, as though he were only waiting for shackles.

Nyx felt a little bit ashamed of gaping uselessly at him when Cor pushed Prompto’s hands down, gently. “No need for that.”

So he took a breath to steady himself and motioned at Cor: who, miraculously, seemed to understand what he needed.

Sat down right in the grass and the ruins of the Nif facility, and pulled Prompto to sit down next to him.

Leaving Nyx to sit on Prompto’s other side and pull him in close, arm slung around his shoulders. “Try this,” he added, and pushed, just a little, so that Prompto ended up with his cheek against his arm. “Better?”

The eyes fluttering closed seemed to be answer enough, and twelve-year-old weight listing completely into his side.

Libertus shook his head and took the radio: there were mentions of Tredd’s name and of talking to the higher-ups, but he tuned them out in favor of hitching Prompto closer.

And he didn’t do anything when Cor’s eyebrow ticked, slight movement upwards -- nor when Cor took one of Prompto’s hands in both of his own.

Chapter Text

Ringing, ringing, ringing in his ears that didn’t sound like the roaring comfort of summer storms on the move -- ringing in his ears that still sounded like blood and silence, like the world trying to put itself back together after being thrown violently from its path, and no, that didn’t mean anything to Nyx. He wasn’t projecting, not at all: but his head was still spinning and he still didn’t actually know how he was still moving, when he distinctly remembered flying through broken windshield and the screaming reports of way too many high-powered guns.

He distinctly remembered the panicked cut-off squawk of the unit comms as the radio signals were jammed yet again, and he remembered the colossal impact of his back against the rough ground -- more than enough to knock him out.

How he had woken up at all was a mystery: were the people who’d attacked them just that cocky, that they hadn’t bothered to finish off the bodies, to check that the dead really were the dead?

But it -- it sounded like they had.

It felt like they had and Nyx knew he’d be bloodied and bruised again, and -- and those assholes would live to regret it, starting with --

He rolled onto his front and spat bile onto the road and tried to close his eyes, his mind, against the aftermath of too many screams, the aftermath of bodies hitting the ground and not getting back up again, the sudden shocked silence of a world torn down and the last gasp of breath before the screams.

But he couldn’t block the sight before him, or the panic that lurched in his stomach and left him heaving again: because right there before him was the royal convoy. Seven cars smoking, overturned into shredded heaps of scrap metal.

And Nyx was -- he was alone -- where the fuck was everybody?

Radio unit on his belt: crushed and silent and useless.

He smelled the acrid burr of smoke and torn concrete and burned metal on his own skin and coughed, wincing to taste that familiar wash of copper stuck to his teeth, and he shook his head -- panicked for only a moment when that only seemed to intensify the silence of his shocked body, his numbed mind -- then the world burst in on him again, and the mad throb of the adrenaline that coursed viciously through his veins, and he threw off the body that was still sprawled heavily onto his legs, and crawled. Up to his hands and knees, no further, not without any way of knowing what was still around him, not when he couldn’t afford to give himself away as, as not one of the casualties of this sneak attack.

All he could hear in his head was the bored taunt, “On your own head be it,” and he was going to tear Glauca’s throat out, if the bastard had survived this, because yeah he could remember all of this now, all of what had just happened before the flames, before the smoke --

Focus, focus, and his mind was a traitor, because first it showed him what had led to all this. Glauca himself in the lead car and the Queen and the Prince in the next, and Nyx himself slouched shotgun in the third chase car.

The lead car that had suddenly turned on all the others, on this lovely stretch of asphalt cutting through meadows of tall grass and graceful pale yellow flowers, and opened up with a fucking rocket launcher.

Small wonder all the other cars had been turned into smoke-eaten flame-shrouded wrecks in very short order: and first on that list, the second car in the convoy.

The most important car in the convoy, which had taken two rockets and -- hadn’t lived to tell the tale.

Not good.

That was an understatement.

And he needed to know, he needed to check for himself.

So with all his bones and his muscles protesting, he noted, dispassionately, the faces of the men wearing familiar uniforms. Maybe most of them were like him because all the others who had walked away were cut from the same traitor cloth as that piece of shit who had been masquerading as a Lucian general. All those left here, broken, were -- he assumed -- loyal to the throne, and for them he bottled up his grief for later -- it was always always saved up, cruel toothed fuel for everything else like surviving --

And with that duty done, he had to pull himself back to the other one.

He had to know and someone had to tell the King and it might as well be him.

The passengers in the second car in the convoy: the woman in black and the boy in her arms, and Nyx never gave himself false hope. That was the last thing he needed.

But he still hoped, a little, because that woman and that boy needed to be alive enough to walk away from this and the treacherous stunt that that asshole had just pulled --

Corpses all around him: he took three guns and a dozen magazines, and how he managed to hold on to them, how he managed to keep it together, he still didn’t know.

All he hoped for was to have bullets enough to take Glauca out --

Shadow moving in the stink of burned rubber and spilled soupy oil, and he hit the road, rolled behind the flimsy cover of a shot-up front fender, and peered warily ahead.

A body.

A moving body.

Was he too late, shit shit shit, was the first thought in his mind, sober confirmation that was upended into jagged hope as he recognized the movements, recognized the limb.

An arm sheathed in black and gold. Half a dozen chains snaking around a wrist, joining a ragged sleeve that still shone beneath the clouded sun and its shrouded glare. Armor that was only ceremonial, layered on top of -- probably -- armor that wasn’t, if its wearer was still capable of moving -- he shot to his feet and then:

“Stop right there.”

Hard words, in a soft voice that he’d only ever heard spouting sweetly modulated banal statements for general consumption.

He’d heard the rumors, of course, and he’d laughed at every one of them, him and Crowe and all the rest of the Kingsglaive, overweening mocking pride, and now he knew, now he knew: how wrong he was. How wrong wrong wrong they all were.

“Come around slowly. Identify yourself,” and then there was a very quiet sob, like desperately suppressed pain, and a hushing sound, and then that same soft voice whispered again. “Rain falling.”

Nyx blinked.

Blinked again.

Thought vaguely and inanely of rumors and whispers and dismissive sneers.

That voice, and that phrase.

There was only one way to put all the details together.

A woman’s voice in a cultured accent that wasn’t entirely Insomnian: she sounded Lucian, she sounded like nobility, but there was a twist in the timbre of her words, the tone of her that was rougher and sweeter all the same, that almost sounded like it could belong to the wind-whipped rock-fouled shores of Galahd’s storms and seas.

Armor, and the sound of a child, and the golden chains that she was wearing.

A woman who knew the Kingsglaive and, it was rumored, knew that they could never be made to follow her -- that went against the very fabric of her identity and her station in life.

The Kingsglaive were pledged to the man or the woman who sat upon the throne of Lucis, and to his or her heir.

Of the spouse of that King or Queen, there was no mention. It was as if that person, or that position, didn’t count.

But here was the woman in that position -- still very much alive and Nyx could feel a sort of cautious glee bubbling up in him, because maybe Glauca had very much miscalculated and then that would be the cause of his death -- the woman in that position, who stood aside from the Kingsglaive and should have had no love for it -- who knew them, who knew their identifications, who knew their pass-phrases, and she didn’t have any reasons to know and she did.

He took a deep breath.

There she was, rising to her feet.

There they were.

And Nyx had never had any reason to see her up close like this before, so he memorized her, quickly and thoroughly: torn and shredded dress, white accents, the angular bulk of the golden collar askew around her neck. Black hair, naturally, but in the sunlight he almost fooled himself into thinking there were copper and red strands woven into it, unruly, not at all artful or artificial in origin, and it was cut so short that all the angles in her face were bared to the world, outthrust and proud.

Her sharp fierce eyes, bluer than oceans, bluer than winter’s storm-shaken heart.

And tucked into the crook of her arm: the boy who had clearly inherited his eyes from her -- but where there was nothing but wariness in her glance, his were full of anguish, of tears. His mouth trembled, at the corners.

He was shaking with the force of staying silent.

But perhaps he was whole and unharmed and that was the important thing, thanks to her.

The Prince, sole hope and heir to the kingdom of Lucis, to the bloodline of its rulers, whole and unharmed if on the verge of tears, and he was safe in the arms of this woman. His first and last line of defense.

His mother.

Queen of Lucis and -- in this case, with that pass-phrase -- Nyx’s commanding officer.

Aulea Caelum bared her teeth.

Raised her free hand: in which she held a small gun, steady and unwavering, trained squarely on Nyx’s own face.

She was waiting for him to give the right countersign to her pass-phrase.

And today, that was: “Not for cactuars.”

Her face relaxed, only for a moment, from its rigid harsh lines. “I know you.” That voice again, too gentle, too out of place, but he’d walk everywhere now to hear it and follow it and go as she ordered him to do. “Ulric, Nyx. Congratulations, if you’re loyal: you’re not just a soldier anymore. You’re the leader of the Kingsglaive now.

“But, no, I cannot afford to make assumptions. So I charge you to tell me the truth: are you here to finish the job Glauca started, or are you the last man standing of -- Noctis’s men?”

“He won’t be giving me any orders any time soon,” Nyx said, and he knew he sounded grimmer than oncoming death -- he could tell, from the way the Prince tucked his face into his mother’s shoulder. “And -- yeah, I’m loyal, loyal to you.”

“They all say that.”

“I’d say it even if you told me to get down on my knees and then, and then shoot myself. But as long as I’m here, as long as you might still need it -- why don’t I get ready to get myself killed on your behalf.”

Flash of a frown, but something was clearing in her eyes.

He still felt ten inches small in the face of her glare. “If you’re loyal, then you know you’re more important alive than dead right now. The Kingsglaive is yours and you have a mission, all of you, don’t you?”

“Guess I do.”

“Then all I ask of you now is this: don’t set a bad example for my son. Be to him someone he can trust.”

“He’s got me. And you’ve got me.”

And she was looking him over, sharp and feral and protective. “You’re unhurt, I assume.”

“Just my pride, and that doesn’t count for much when we’re out here and -- Glauca?” he asked.

“Bleeding,” she said, and the gun never wavered even as she checked and rechecked the safety and tucked it into her belt. “I have no rules to follow here. And that’s just what I’m here for. Watch my back.”

“You don’t have to ask,” Nyx said, and he meant that, too.

He meant every word.

And he turned away to give her a moment.

“Love,” she was whispering, and Prince Noctis was shivering and focusing on her, was reaching out a hand to her cheek and she kissed his fingers and nodded, once, before tucking him back into the sling that kept him to her side, that meant she was his shield, buckled in tightly.

Only a boy, only his mother’s son, all of five years old if not younger, and silent and wide-eyed and nodding anxiously at the hard look in his mother’s eyes as though he understood everything that she wasn’t saying.

Nyx was ready, when she blinked and something sparkled in her eyes for only a moment, before it was gone.

“Sword,” she said, and pointed to the body lying starkly wide-eyed next to his feet.

He drew, clumsily, and handed her the length of steel, dark-polished hilt first.

“And your own weapons?”

“Ready when you are.” His hands were already on the triggers of the guns he’d taken to get to her side.

The smile on her face was as sharp as the blade in her hand. “We’ll need to be quick. Hasty. I trust your judgment otherwise. Your priority is Noctis, now and always. He must survive. He must make it home. Are we clear.”

“Yes,” he said, despite his misgivings, and he resolved that she was the priority.

He’d lie to her face for her own sake, for the King’s, for the Prince’s -- because even he could see that if she didn’t make it out of this one alive, the other two would fall.

He knew that right into the roots of his orphaned soul.

“I will depend on you then.” And: “Noctis,” she whispered.

Wide eyes looking at her.

“Don’t make a sound. Do it for me?”

“Yes.”

Nyx tried to smile at him, too. Tried to reassure him.

And then Aulea was springing forward, running from cover to burned cover, and he darted after her, whispering prayers to no one who was listening --

(Long shadow in the road ahead -- a long shadow wielding a long, long blade -- )

Chapter Text

Again, and again, and again: he nearly falls out of the bed with the shock of coming awake, with the shock of falling headfirst out of the clamor and the turmoil of his dreams. What was wrong with him anyway? Why did he keep having all these dreams of -- of flying through the air, one throw of a gorgeous ominous black-bladed knife after another -- every throw causing him to fall out of the noise and the throb and the skirling screams of the world, and every catch causing him to fall right back in, and -- what for? Why? Where did all that come from?

He could only ever run, here, in this actual world that he lived in with all its stinks and all of its cramped rooms, its shitty creaking cots, the rooms in which he dropped his rucksack and his guns and the sorry muddy heaps of his boots. Fraying shoelaces and the cracked and peeling leather of belts and all the other stupid little things that he needed to keep spit-polished shiny, if only so that he’d look like an actual soldier and not, not the man who cried himself to sleep every time he tried to, bent nearly in half by guilt that seemed to linger like white-hot pain along his nerves, along his shivering thoughts.

And again he woke up and reached out for an empty space in the world --

Today, it was different.

He reached out for an empty space in the world that he couldn’t name and he couldn’t hope to define, and his claw-bent hand, his too-broken fingers, made contact with something that was almost warm and almost real.

Real?

Nyx forced his eyes open with a manic effort.

There was a boy sitting right on the edge of his cramped cot, the whole thing dumped randomly onto a dusty floor in the back of some anonymous warehouse, the back of some mud-crusted dust-bathed encampment, somewhere in the central plains.

Red shirt, tattered around the armholes where the sleeves had been torn away, and a ragged incomplete line of square-shaped studs dotting the gaping collar.

Red shirt that was a stark and sudden contrast to wild blond hair. Tufts that stuck out in every possible direction that Nyx could name and a few that probably weren’t supposed to exist in the real world.

Wide eyes, soft and steel-storm blue, beneath eyebrows pulled together into a worried line.

“Nyx,” said that voice again, still too prone to breaking, still too stern to come out of a bare teenager’s mouth.

He stared, and blinked, and his mind finally dredged the name out of the depths of his terrified sleep: “Prompto.”

“Yes, Nyx.”

Blink, blink, and then, more words, that started out far too high and ended in the same place, and broke into something more graveled somewhere in the middle: “You’re not all right. What kind of help do you need? I can get Crowe.”

Nyx shook his head. “No, no. Please don’t. You know what she does when she sees me when I wake up.”

Prompto tilted his head a little to the left. “She laughs at you. And, and that is unkind. -- I’m not sure why that’s so. I don’t really know why she does that. And I don’t know why something she does can be unkind, and, and you laugh with her anyway.”

“Because she makes me laugh. Because it’s unkind, but it’s also funny, and I would rather wake up to her laughing at me, than her weeping over me.”

More confusion, in the lines multiplying in Prompto’s face. “I’ve never seen her weep.”

“Pray you never do. Pray nothing happens to -- to me, or to Libertus.” He took a deep breath, and sat up. “Take care nothing happens to you, either.”

“She would cry for me?”

“She would. And so would I.”

He knew the exact thin line of Prompto’s mouth, whenever the kid ran up against something he couldn’t understand.

And he knew the startled blink of those eyes, something that was almost pleading: so he wrapped an arm around Prompto’s shoulders and drew him close, and said, as quietly as he could, “Thank you.”

“What did I do?”

“You’re here.” Nyx let him go, after a moment, and he scrubbed his own hands over his face. Knuckled the ache in the small of his back. “Anything happen during the night?”

“Crownsguard radio chatter, nothing to worry about.” Cool calm words, clinical and familiar. “They have completed the missions that had been set for them overnight.”

There was something odd about the way he said the word missions, like there was something he couldn’t quite understand.

He peered into Prompto’s face and saw something like confusion.

Something like curiosity, in the way he was gnawing his thumbnail.

“Out with it,” Nyx said, trying to be encouraging even as he pulled his boots on.

“The armies of Lucis are -- all about ranks,” Prompto began. “You have a rank. And all the others who go with you, they have ranks too. Even I have one. I have a low rank, compared to you.” Pause. He looked like he was thinking. “Cor? What is his rank?”

“He’s the Marshal,” Nyx said, frowning at his frayed sleeve, and then the fact that Prompto had no jacket -- again. What was it with this kid and hating jackets? It wasn’t cold out there but it wasn’t exactly warm, either, not with the sun still hours from its rising. “That’s as high up as the Crownsguard can go and not, not be -- the King, or the Prince, or -- you know. Those other titles.”

“Exactly. There are ranks. There are titles.” Prompto was now counting them off on his fingers, quietly. “The King, and his second-in-command is his Shield. The Prince is almost equal in rank to the two of them.”

“Go on.”

“So why did they talk about the woman? They only used her name. They only called her Aulea. And -- and even Cor took orders from her. Does she have a rank, too?”

Nyx blinked.

Got up from the bed and said, “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Getting answers.”

And this time, he strode right past the room in which the others were arguing over the paltry breakfast mess.

This time, he closed the door of the radio room behind Prompto. “Lock that, please.”

Tables and chairs all heaped and bristling with all kinds of communications equipment, and he’d left this place to the not-so-tender mercies of Pelna and Luche, but: there was also a black case in the corner that would only open to a specific set of fingerprints.

In this case, Nyx’s fingerprints.

“Might as well learn how to use this,” he said, and beckoned Prompto over as he sat down on the edge of a table, and placed the case across his knees. “Radio, right?”

“It seems newer.”

“Good catch. It is. And I got it after -- well there was an adventure, some years ago. This was before you.”

“Before you became Kingsglaive?”

“Something like that,” Nyx said.

He fiddled with the settings on the case and pointed to the scanner in one corner. “Thumb over that, go on,” he said.

“You’re giving me keys to this too.”

“In case you need to pick up transmissions from Aulea.”

“I still don’t know who that is.”

Nyx grinned, a little. “And you know what, you’re absolutely not supposed to. But she trusts me. And I trust you. So this is a thing I’m going to make happen. All right?”

He picked up the transmitter box and keyed it on. “Authenticate: Kingsglaive, wildfire, wildcat, lightning, crescent moon. Nyx Ulric.”

“Authenticating,” the box answered, in a tinny artificial voice. “Nyx Ulric recognized.”

“Adding voice print access,” he said.

And turned to Prompto. “Say you’re Kingsglaive, then give it four code words, then your name.”

“That is not how it was done, in the science facility.”

“We do things a little bit differently, don’t we. And so do you now that you’re one of us.”

And Prompto suddenly grinned, and covered that grin up with his hand. “Yes.”

He took the transmitter box.

“Kingsglaive. Quicksilver, fledgling, vow, lens. Prompto.”

Nyx blinked, and remembered Prompto’s lack of a surname, and shrugged.

The entire case chimed softly as it thought, and then: “Voice print access added and confirmed. Prompto recognized.”

“What did we just do?”

And barely were the words out of Prompto’s mouth when the box chirped, again. “Real-time transmission incoming.”

Nyx grinned and took the transmitter box. “Ulric.”

“I don’t remember Lucis recruiting children.” A woman’s voice, worn and smoke-shredded and unquestionably alive.

“Your son,” Nyx said.

“With the notable exception of my son, of course. And this -- Prompto. Might you be that boy Cor worries for?”

“Why would Cor worry about me?” Prompto asked.

“He would prefer you to be safe in this war. But he also understands that which you can do. So you will have to protect him, somehow, Ulric.”

“I am doing my best.”

“See that you do.” And the woman sounded like she was sighing, a little. “Prompto. Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Prompto said. “Are you Aulea? Why don’t you have a rank? Everyone else in Lucis who serves in the military units has a rank. Me too. You’re the exception.”

“For a very good reason. Tell me, what do you know of defending yourself?”

Nyx could see the way Prompto sat up straight at the question. “That I should use every weapon I can find. My body is the last resort. And things that shouldn’t be weapons, if I can find them, if I can use them.”

“I’m the last resort. And the secret one. So I don’t have a rank. I’m Aulea.”

“You have a son, you said.”

“I do. I should introduce you to him. Go with, with Ulric, if he should ever be sent my way. I would like to meet you properly, too. Cor tells me stories of what you can do.”

“Then you know what I am,” Prompto said, quietly.

Nyx gripped one red-ragged shoulder.

“I know who you are,” Aulea said. “As you know who I am. What I am. We might have something in common.”

Prompto looked like he was thinking so hard. Like he was trying to believe.

Nyx recognized all the lines in his face.

Wanted to hold the kid and never let him go.

“Maybe,” Prompto said, at last.

Chapter Text

He cursed himself for the worst kind of cliché: overflowing ashtray teetering on the edge of a stained table. Three empty places. Himself beneath the flickering flicking light of the weak bulb in its half-blown-out fixture over his head, and the steady rattle and flip of the cards in his hands as he subjected the battered deck to another thorough shuffling, and then to another, and then to another.

The plastic chip next to the ashtray had been worn pale and smooth and featureless by the years, and only his mind’s eye could still tell him that it had once been painted gold, and that it had once sported a pattern of fine spiraling grooves around the edge, and that it had been emblazoned with a lights-and-billboards logo in the very center.

He moved the chip into the center of the table with a fingertip. Next, weary practiced mindless motions, as he dealt the cards out: four limp sheaves around the chip, and no one to pick up the others.

And in his hand: four aces, and nine random other cards that, in this instance, still included three kings.

Of course he was cheating the shuffle. Of course he knew exactly where each card in that deck was going with every riffle. Of course he always dealt the aces out to himself.

But again and again three kings had turned up in his hands, and now he was starting to wonder if he really wasn’t playing against ghosts after all, if he kept seeing the faces of those who were gone, in those squiggles of ink that showed him the kings of hearts and spades and clubs.

He was starting to wonder, in these long hours and long nights, if he really wasn’t just kidding himself into this, into somehow subconsciously dealing himself seven specific cards -- and the rest of the cards in his hand? Nothing more than window dressing, so he could continue to pretend that he was just playing with the cards, that he was just passing the time, that he was not really still sinking to his knees and waist and heart and shoulders, lost still in the mourning that never left him, that clung to him with teeth that he couldn’t bear to pry away --

Radio just behind him, lurking, oppressive in its silence.

Cor Leonis leaned toward his jacket on the footstool next to him, and pulled out the squashed pack of cigarettes. Tapped the last creased stick out onto his palm and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. Off-center slogan on the matchbook, some trite bullshit cooked up to advertise some jungle-adventure malarkey of a tourist attraction, but who was going to be running around for thrills and faked proximity to tamed circus animals when the very trees in that supposed jungle were starting to bow down under the weight of the bullets, the weight of the corpses, the weight of the blood spilled onto the fertile earth that only drank it up like so much macabre fertilizer?

Sharp acrid bite of sulfur and flames rising to his nostrils, and he lit the cigarette, and cupped its smolder in one hand.

With the other, he gathered up the cards and started to shuffle again, a little clumsier now that he only had one set of fingers to work with: but again, he’d had nothing but time to learn how to cheat so he’d get those aces again.

Dealt, and exhaled a cloud of smoke.

Three kings: he still had the hearts and the spades, and now he had the king of diamonds looking up at him, too.

He allowed himself to swear. It was the same phrase, anyway, every time he found himself here, which meant that he said it every night.

“Bahamut’s bleeding balls.”

And this time, this time: a soft echo of his words, and the voice was coming from somewhere directly in front of him.

He didn’t move when that echo gave way to rustling, and a very quiet groan, and the thump of undersized feet in oversized boots, and: clomp, clomp.

The wan light threw deeper and deeper shadows into that freckled and scarred face that came into view: and the boy had gone far beyond sallow skin and limp hair and stooped shoulders.

Wasting away, was the boy named Prompto: who refused all meals and only sipped reluctantly at the canteen that was currently sitting next to Cor’s foot. Who slept fitfully on the bent and battered cot in the corner, snatches of time broken by shivering and the terrible grief of waking up from nightmares.

Cor smoked, and worried, and said nothing, as Prompto dropped into the chair at his right hand, and the frame only creaked a little under his slight weight, under his slight momentum; and the table didn’t even groan when Prompto folded his arms onto its surface and then slumped forward again, and didn’t make another sound, except for a single smothered sob.

Quiet crackle, an arm’s-length away: Cor ignored the chatter of the radio behind him as it reset itself and picked up a fresh set of secure frequencies.

Ignored Monica as she cleared her throat and came briefly onto the air for the unchanged and unchanging midnight report.

“Insomnia: all clear.”

Didn’t mean much these days.

Ten months, now, since they had failed to pick up any kind of radio transmission from what was still nominally Lucian territory, the heart of the country, the radiant frequency-pulse of Insomnia.

It was a dead place, to Cor, in its unnatural silence.

Only the shredded remains of a promise left to him: that Regis was still alive, that Aulea was still watching over him, tenacious and hissing and clinging to life in whatever wretched place would still shelter them now.

The shredded remains of something that wasn’t even hope, that they could still keep their son alive.

The others, leading the remains of the Crownsguard that had gone underground: Gladio in his father’s place, and Cindy in her grandfather’s.

Of Weskham’s protege there was no word, save that the Nifs had tripled the bounty on his head.

They all had to be Prompto’s age or a little older, he thought, and they were every one of them far, far too young to be blooded soldiers with those same blank bleak looks in their eyes: all of them, and Noctis too, and only a week had passed since he’d been found and then gone missing again, as if he’d vanished back into the darkness and the shadows.

But first, in that flurry of resurfacing, he’d struck straight for the heart of Niflheim, and left one of its most notorious palaces in smoke and ashes and ruin, apparently single-handedly.

And the three who had been sentenced to imprisonment in that palace seemed to have vanished, too: Sylva and her children Ravus and Lunafreya. The last of the Nox Fleurets, the last of the ruling family of Tenebrae.

Only a week since Aulea had broadcast an urgent message to the Kingsglaive, on behalf of Regis, and their mission was to find that family, and take them to safety.

The rumors had only grown wilder and wilder in the telling: that Noctis had willingly gone to shackle himself to the iron fist of Niflheim, taken prisoner in exchange for the Nox Fleurets’ lives. That Noctis had assassinated the leader of Niflheim, losing his life to that leader’s second-in-command in turn. That Noctis had declared himself the leader of Niflheim and sworn a blood-oath to kill his own parents, to raze his own homeland to ashes.

No word, still, from the Kingsglaive, or their wards: and Cor knew he could take it for granted that Nyx Ulric would find the Nox Fleurets or die trying, him and every last soldier who’d gone with him.

What had happened after they were found -- that was the part that nobody knew.

Spill of cards across the tabletop: he blinked.

And blinked again as Prompto, still curled forward and still silent, gathered the cards, blindly. Ran the bared fingertips of his working hand over the deck to make sure he had all fifty-two cards present and accounted for. Started shuffling, one-handed and clumsy in doing so.

But the cards were moving, changing places, and Cor could tell from the rustle and rattle of the creased corners, the torn and peeling edges.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, then Prompto slapped the deck softly down onto the table, face-down. Cut the cards into three uneven piles, and dealt. Four piles of thirteen cards each.

Cor watched him push one of the piles in his direction, and -- something compelled him to pick those cards up. To turn them over, just to see what Prompto had done.

He almost dreaded seeing those seven cards.

That was only part of the reason why he blinked.

Four aces, again, and three kings looking back at him, again -- and they were joined by three queens and three jacks.

And he was wrong about four piles of thirteen cards because there was a fourteenth card in the hand: one of the deck’s original jokers, red ink and a lurid grin on plain white card.

Words, muffled, next to him: “Did I do it right? I was -- trying to do it the way you did it.”

“Cheating,” Cor said. Not to accuse.

“I know you cheat,” was the reply, and Prompto looked up as though he were carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders, on his head. “Knew that from the start. But I tried to cheat the way you did.”

“Why.”

“I thought you were trying to look for a message in the cards. The aces mean something. The kings, too. I don’t believe in seeing the future. I don’t believe in using cards to tell the future. But if you do, then -- then maybe I could send you a message.”

“I wasn’t looking for a message,” Cor said.

“But the aces mean something,” Prompto insisted, as he pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his legs.

He was still scrawny enough that he could fit himself, sitting like that, onto his chair.

“The kings, too. They always turn up for you. Or you cheat them into your hand. So I tried to think about what the queens and the jacks might mean. The queens: Aulea and Sylva and, and Sylva’s daughter. Lunafreya. I remember her name. The jacks, I thought the jacks were the other leaders. You told me their names, too. Gladiolus. Cindy, Cidney, the same person. And Ignis.”

“Doesn’t explain the joker,” Cor said, and he pushed the water canteen towards Prompto.

Who took only a sip, again, and capped the thing and pushed it back.

Cor made no move to reclaim it.

“Joker,” Prompto said. “Yes. I found it. And -- you know who it stands for.”

“I don’t.”

Still he was entirely unsurprised when Prompto picked up that joker between his pointer and middle fingers, and tossed it into the air, and when it landed the one card had become two, one smirking face in red ink and the other in black.

“Nyx is one. I don’t know who the other is.”

“You’re not much of an oracle then,” Cor said, and tried to lessen the insult by placing his hand on that red-sleeved shoulder.

Prompto surprised him, again, by leaning into his hand.

And the long moment that stretched and stretched between them was suddenly shattered by the harsh crackle of the radio, echoes of explosions like sudden thunder in this little room in the back of a wrecked shop.

And words, completely unexpected, completely unlooked-for: “ -- Kingsglaive calling!”

Cor moved towards the radio, and Prompto immediately joined him, the two of them staring at the squawking box -- that squelched, and fell silent.

“No,” Prompto whispered.

As if in answer, a new voice came on: “Ulric. If you’re getting this message, respond. Home is the storm.

“Bahamut’s bleeding balls,” Prompto said, the edges of the words trembling, and his hand with them as he seized the transmitter box and keyed it on. “Trust the storm.

“Shit,” was the weary, glad response. “Still alive, aren’t you?”

“Too much to do,” and Prompto’s voice broke on the last word, on his smothered sob. “Mission is still ongoing.”

“Too right it is. Keep this channel going. It’s all we’ve got to home in on you. Are you alone?”

“No. Cor is here.”

“Good. Sylva wants to have a word with him.”

He leaned towards Prompto’s hand. “I already know what that word is.”

“Good,” Nyx said again. “I intend to be far, far away by the time she says it to your face.”

Cor snorted. “Casualties.”

“You’ll find out, won’t you. Prompto? First aid kits?”

“Stolen all I could,” was the determined reply. “I can go out again for more.”

“Not unless we really have to,” Nyx said.

“All right,” Prompto said.

Rising whine of interference and then, then Cor could hear the running scattered thunder of boots on the move, coming closer and closer.

And he rose, and Prompto was running for the doors, was straining to pull them open.

Dirt and mud caked in tell-tale pale hair, mother and son and daughter: the survivors of Tenebrae, Sylva and Ravus and Lunafreya, shaking and exhausted and clinging to each other on the cot that Prompto had been occupying. Silent weeping, tears and blood on all three mourning faces.

Nyx walked past the three of them, right to the table and then he collapsed next to it, between spindly legs and the shelf that held the radio.

Tears on Prompto’s cheeks as he pushed the water canteen at Nyx.

Cor dropped back into his chair and finished off his cigarette, and watched as Prompto crawled into the circle of Nyx’s arms -- as the two of them shivered together.

He slid his booted foot along the floor to touch Nyx’s knee.

Trembling, not his, only running through him, as he gathered up the cards again and began to shuffle, and this time -- this time he made himself think about not, not cheating.

Chapter Text

“Sound off,” and that was Nyx’s voice crackling on the radio, and it should have been sharp, it should have been reassuring.

The words were muffled, though, and they echoed strangely in the close air, in the moist air that hurt Prompto’s lungs every time he breathed in: heavy, heavy, the mist that clung to his boots and to the gun that shook in his hands -- but it wasn’t shaking because he was afraid.

He was shaking because the ground beneath him was shaking.

Heavy boots, moving.

“I said sound off,” Nyx snapped.

Last time Prompto had seen him, he was on his knees next to a wounded Pelna, and Sylva Nox Fleuret had been swearing as she applied field dressings, and then the two of them had leaped to their feet at the high sour screech of incoming aerial objects, the shattering impacts of heavy things falling to the ground.

Falling like -- falling like armor, Prompto had thought then, and he thought that now, as he watched the mists unravel around angles and massive bulk, around heavy boots trampling down the froth and the mud and the dying plants, the fallen bits of tree and bone --

Raised his radio and whispered, as the others finished checking in, “Prompto here. I have visual on incoming.”

“Location.”

One word that sounded like too many, he thought.

One word that sounded like a shout, for all it was so quiet and sharp.

He had lost track of Cor, in the struggle through the mire.

He had lost track of everyone: and even when he fought to peer through the thick haze all around him, he couldn’t see anything else or anyone else that could still be alive.

Still those oncoming boots, that massive tread, and he scrambled up into the nearest tree without even thinking whether the branches might bear him up, might support his weight: and he could hear cracking in his wake, which only made him climb more recklessly -- gap in the branches and he could see, he could see -- there was another tree that looked sturdier, but it had to be several feet away and -- should he risk it? Should he stay here?

“Prompto,” the radio said. “Are you safe?”

A woman’s voice, this time: Lunafreya’s voice.

He said, “Yes. No. I don’t know. Be right back.”

Movement in the tree! Dark shadow that was -- there, and then suddenly not there -- Prompto almost reconsidered his decision --

Something else was moving and now it was almost directly below him -- he clenched his teeth around his scream -- how, how was it they’d already gotten there -- the armored soldiers, the blank face-plates of their helmets, the guns in their hands -- he drew a shaking breath, when he saw the officers commanding the combat armatures.

Spoke into the radio again, but not to tell them where he was, not to tell them he could find them a new path to take.

“Jester on the throne. I repeat: jester on the throne.”

Dead silence: one heartbeat. Two heartbeats.

“Don’t make him say it again, you know what to do.”

Broken voice of Nyx on the radio, going on: “Cor,” he said.

“I know where to go,” was the cold hard reply. “I know where to take the others.”

“Then you’re point.”

And Prompto, still in his tree, allowed himself a very small smile. Cor would get the Nox Fleurets to safety. Cor would gather up the rest of the group, and then he’d help lead the group: him and Nyx.

They never talked about strategy or tactics without one or the other of them walking away angrily from the table -- but when they were talking about strategy and tactics in the field, or right in the middle of the fight, they seemed to agree all the time, or to build on each other’s suggestions, and they worked so well together, that it was a strange thing for them to be -- not capable of having a conversation.

Prompto wanted to understand them, wanted to hear what they were always arguing about, but this was not the time.

“Come on, Prompto,” Nyx was saying. “We need you back here.”

“They’re not getting you.” This voice sounded like steel, like storm’s fury, like winter’s heart. “Come back to us.”

“Sorry,” Prompto said, to that second voice, and he looked down at the things that were marching beneath the branches of the tree he was sheltering in. “You need to get away. You and Lunafreya and Ravus. Right now you have space to run, time to run, and soldiers to watch your back. But the enemies are on the move and -- and they’re fast, I don’t understand how they’re fast. You need to get away. And I will help you with that. I -- I will try to catch up. I will come back, but -- but not today. Sylva Nox Fleuret,” he added.

“I am listening,” she said.

“If something should happen to Nyx or to Cor -- I will find you, and you will have to explain yourself to me,” he said, hating the fact that his voice broke on the last word.

“I will see to it then, that things don’t come to that point. Prompto of the Kingsglaive: come back to us.”

“Nyx,” he added.

“Listening, Prompto, damn you,” was the answer.

“I’m doing what I need to do, so you’ll be safe. Don’t be mad at me.”

“I’m furious. I’m proud. Give them hell, and come the fuck back: that’s an order from your commanding officer.”

“Orders acknowledged,” Prompto said.

“Prompto.”

And that was Cor.

“See you,” Prompto said.

And then he opened up the radio, and tore it to pieces, and crushed the transmitter mechanisms as thoroughly as he could.

The weights in the pockets of his ragged trousers: those little red boxes Crowe spent her nights on, sweating and swearing and always slow and careful and methodical as she went.

He pulled one out.

Stared at the nearest combat armature and tried to judge the distance, the power of the explosive charge, the trajectory of throwing it and shooting at it --

Gun in one hand; with the other he lobbed the box and when it was falling towards the officer in his exposed cockpit, Prompto braced himself against his tree, and opened fire.

One single shot would have been deadly.

One single shot through the red box was a storm: because the red box was crammed full of the most powerful explosive that Lucis had ever invented, and he felt it right on his skin, on his face, as the blasted and broken fragments of the enemy flew every which way, and cut into him, feeling like hundreds of slashes opening all at once --

Prompto didn’t scream as he was thrown from the tree, as he tumbled through the air -- not even when he was suddenly stopped by a tree branch and the pain of that impact was like another explosion, far more intimate, right in his mind between his eyes, and hitting the mud was almost a relief and almost a reprieve because he could gather his scattered wits again. He could steady his hand again.

Armored soldiers running and crashing towards him: he fired, fired, fired. Every bullet had to count. Every bullet had to count. Cor had taught him how to deal with the kickback with every shot: so he was able to stand his ground, and he killed every enemy that lurched in his direction and he would have kept on going if he could, if only he’d had the bullets.

Fresh magazine. He had three left.

The second combat armature fired on him first: he simply dropped straight down to his knees and fired at its lower limbs, at the joints that allowed it to lumber forward, and he spent his bullets on those joints and called it good, because then he could run out of the line of fire more easily -- it wasn’t going to be able to chase him --

When the third and fourth armatures emerged he felt his hands and his face go still.

If they were going to work together --

He bared his teeth, anger and outrage and cold cold certainty flowing through him as he whirled away, as he fell into a clumsy crouch-run, hands slapping the mud as he fled for his life.

He was grateful, in a way, that he was still small and skinny and was still struggling through a growth spurt: he could make himself a harder target, he could make a nuisance of himself.

On the other hand, he’d regret being small and skinny, if he were caught: so that was the outcome he was going to try to prevent from happening.

At all costs.

He clenched his hands around his gun -- fingers far away from the trigger -- and ducked through the underbrush, past the broken and crushed trees.

He couldn’t tell how far he’d gone, how far he’d run, because the crash of pursuit was still blaring too loudly in his ears -- other sounds only reluctantly filtering into his mind, so he could process things and have some kind of idea of what else was going on --

Pitter-patter of swift light feet, running with him.

Prompto blinked and looked down at the mud, and nearly fell over when he saw the tracks.

Perfectly keeping pace ahead of him: the paw-prints of a small animal, running straight and true in the mud -- where had it come from, and why was it staying with him, and where was it?

He couldn’t stop, not even to catch his breath, not even to blink the sweat out of his eyes -- the only important thing was to keep drawing the enemy soldiers away from the others --

Maybe it was a relief, he thought, when he finally crashed into something: impact that stopped him dead and hurled him down into the mud, face down, nearly suffocating.

He turned his head to the side and gasped in a labored breath: one, two.

“I have to keep going,” he said.

“Not without help you won’t,” said a voice from very close by. “You’ve got some big idiots on your tail.”

And before Prompto could scramble to his feet there was a warm weight settling on his back.

Why was this weight soft?

Why did it seem to breathe?

He looked over his shoulder.

The weight on his back was the weight of a small furry animal, that looked back at him with beady bright eyes. Red-tinted horn on its forehead, stark contrast to its blue-white fur.

“That’s Carbuncle,” said the voice.

Prompto rolled over, and the animal -- the Carbuncle? -- unfurled its long swishing tail as it hopped back into the mud, leaving dark prints on his clothes.

And he looked at the boy in the black outfit: mud splashed on his boots and streaked up his arms.

“Got to thank you,” he said, as he pulled Prompto out of the mud. “You bought me time to set up a trap for those assholes.”

“Trap,” Prompto repeated, warily. “What kind of trap?”

The boy smiled, a little, and hooked his thumb over his shoulder.

Prompto looked: and the trees were shaking and throwing off the haze, revealing the monstrous outlines of the enemies that had been chasing them -- the human-sized ones and the larger alike.

The enemies that were now smoking and still.

As he watched, the largest of the combat armatures sparked, shook, and fell over with an almighty crash that didn’t seem muffled in the least by the mud.

“What?” Prompto asked, rounding on the other boy.

“EMP,” was the short answer. “I -- one of my friends came up with it. She’s a genius. Test run, she said, and I was happy to help.”

“EMP,” Prompto said, quietly. “You shorted them out.”

“Yup.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“We’re even,” the boy in black said, shrugging. “You gave me the time I needed. And because the EMP worked, you’re alive. So. See you around?”

Prompto blinked.

Held up a hand, and strained to listen.

The echoes of the falling enemies had faded away, but not the whine of the enemy aerial transports.

Still holding position, Prompto thought. Still ready to attack.

When he turned back to the boy, he almost smiled, because the Carbuncle was now sitting on that black-clad shoulder, paw in black hair as though it were grooming him.

“Problem?”

Prompto nodded, once. “I’m trying to draw off the Nifs. I’m -- I’m trying to make sure my friends have enough time to get out of this place.”

“It’s a big forest,” the boy said, half a warning. “I’ve been trying to quarter it for a week now. Only found, like, one edge of it: the one I came in through. Probably there’s something in the direction you were running away from -- that’s heading towards the lake country, I think? If that’s where your friends are going.”

“I don’t know,” Prompto said, and looked away. “I broke the radio. If I was captured, I didn’t want the enemies to find them.”

“You thought you’d be captured?”

Prompto shrugged. “My friends are -- important. They need to get back to, to their groups. To their units.”

“I think you’d better tell me who your friends are,” the boy said.

He almost thought about drawing the gun on him.

But before he could move, the Carbuncle was bounding from the other boy’s shoulder, down to the ground, and then to Prompto’s own boots -- whereupon it climbed him, even when he tried to stop it, and it climbed all the way up to the top of his head and looked, upside-down, into Prompto’s own eyes.

“What?” Prompto asked.

The Carbuncle yipped, once, and licked Prompto’s nose with its cold tongue.

“I think he likes you,” the boy in black said. “And he just said: you’re Lucian military. Yeah?”

Prompto shook his head. Lied. “I’m not.”

“I know who your friends are. Carbuncle told me. He looked in your mind.”

The Carbuncle mewled, once, and reached out with a paw to pat his cheek, before tumbling down to the ground again.

“It can do that?” Prompto asked, fear crawling and dripping down his nerves.

“Not to hurt you. Carbuncle’s my protector. He wants to keep me safe: and he’s saying you can keep me safe, too. Because you’re Lucian. Because you run with the Kingsglaive.”

“Why do you know them?”

“My mom,” the boy said. “She’s worked with them. She’s cool with them.”

“Mother,” Prompto echoed. “Who is your mother?”

Instead of replying, the boy pulled a compass from his pocket: it was the old-fashioned kind, a hinged case that clicked shut, and in one face was the familiar suspended needle and the markings indicating north and south and east and west.

In the other: a creased photograph. Proud features that Prompto had seen only on the television, on the scant few broadcast channels that still existed to beam ragged streams of information to the scattered Lucian population.

Clear scars in her face, now, the most prominent being the parallel lines that pulled down the corner of her mouth. Three wide slashes down her throat, and disappearing into the collar of her shirt.

And Prompto knew her name.

“Aulea,” he said, softly.

“So I was right: you know my mother,” the boy said, and nodded. “I’m Noctis.”

“You’re Aulea’s son. You’re the Prince,” Prompto said. “I -- I’m Kingsglaive. Nyx Ulric is my commanding officer.”

“I know who he is. I don’t know your name,” Noctis said.

“Prompto.” He blinked. “Should I give you the code words for -- for the radio box? The one Nyx uses to communicate with Aulea?”

“No,” and he watched Noctis shrug. “I wouldn’t know what to do with those code words anyway.”

“Nyx and the Kingsglaive are trying to get out of this place,” Prompto said, quietly. “Escort mission.”

Noctis was silent for a long time.

The Carbuncle folded its ears to its back as it waited.

“I -- see,” Noctis said, eventually. “You left them because it was an escort mission. You wanted them to get out of this place.”

“Help me,” Prompto said. “I can run. I can shoot. And you have EMPs. Do you have more?”

“Four more charges, yeah, I do.”

“I want Lunafreya to get out of here safe,” Prompto said in the smallest voice he could muster. “I want her to be all right. Her and her family.”

He bowed his head and clenched his free hand into a fist.

He sometimes saw Pelna, and Libertus, bow their heads over small things that they held in their hands, and whisper to those small things -- he didn’t understand what they were saying, because he never listened to the words, but he thought it made them feel better to do that. Pelna looked less worried after; Libertus just grinned when he was done.

He had nothing to whisper to, unless the gun counted, or --

Soft high bark, from near his feet.

He got down on one knee. Tried to look the Carbuncle in the eye. “Hello.”

Another yip -- and then the Carbuncle stretched its paws out to him. Touched its cold nose to his.

Prompto nodded: and the words came, then. “I want to protect the others. Help me.”

“We’ll do that.”

He looked up to Noctis.

Who was reaching out a hand to him. “Let’s protect them.”

“Yes,” Prompto said, and ran with him, and didn’t let go of his hand.

Chapter Text

He opened his eyes to the haze and the flicker of a weak lantern, and the wavering outlines of his own shadows thrown onto the walls, and the thin unbearable weight of the blanket in its crumples and folds on his legs and feet.

Voices, voices outside, soft sweet hymns rising into the smoke-stained fire-clogged night: like a repeat of those terrible hours a little over two years ago, with the flames on the horizon and the completely man-made earthquake that left the earth beneath his feet cracking with its fear and pain. Like a repeat of the soot-slashed wind, hot and burning on his skin; like a repeat of the weight of a boy in ragged armor and a defiantly human snarl, blood covering his fingertips and his palms like strangely reversed gloves.

Every movement in the here and now was agony, of the immediate and just-had-stitches-taken-out variety, and he bit back a curse -- several curses -- as he tried to cross the room.

Who was the asshole who’d thought it funny to place the pitcher and the glass of water across the fucking room anyway? Nyx was walking, not well, but walking: walking wounded once again. The war was going to chew him up and spit him out before time.

He’d do it again and again anyway: given some kind of ballyhoo bullshit magic, given the opportunity to go back in time and decide between the integrity of his leg and the life of Ravus Nox Fleuret, he would still make the same choice.

Damn the leg.

Ravus needed to survive this war.

Nyx -- never was sure if he would, whenever he woke up.

This was not the good kind of waking up, anyway, however he sliced it: so he let the terrible words out, the words he’d learned at his mother’s feet as she worked on her patients and her charges, and he poured the water in the glass mostly over his mouth and a little over his face.

Where the hell was the singing coming from anyway?

Why the hell was there singing?

Back to the bed with the pain sharper and sharper in his nerves, in his mind, and he half-collapsed back into his sweat-flat pillow, mostly face-down, and he put his hands over his ears and told himself he wasn’t going to cry.

Wasn’t going to miss -- his mother. His sister.

Prompto.

There was no one to see him close his eyes and -- and choke back the sobs.

Last anyone had heard of the boy, he’d gone and pulled his favorite trick again, in the labyrinthine tunnels of the Zegnautus mountain range: he’d made everyone think that he was going to bring the mountain range down upon their heads, upon his own, if they didn’t release the Crownsguard officer they were holding captive.

Nyx didn’t need to have the torn-up sheet of paper in his hand to remember the words in Ignis Scientia’s precise and tiny handwriting: I freely admit that I did not know what to do with myself for many days afterwards, because I truly had thought he had sacrificed himself for my sake. But -- the opposite is true. I am pleased to tell you that P. is still alive. We have received a coded message from him. In addition I have recently crossed paths with S.N.F., who was kind enough to report that she has been in touch with him. (Recently, of course, in terms of my writing this letter. I took the liberty of giving her a message to pass on to him: I asked him to get in touch with you. I hope that such a message has reached you by the time this missive does.)

He could feel those words under his fingertips: the sheen of the paper, the evenly-spaced letters and numbers that resolved into the actual message, the brown-gray of the ink.

He should be feeling relief: but the message was two weeks old, and there was still nothing but silence on the comms.

Instead he just felt the fear that was twined into a sort of sick sad pride, because as much as he wanted to chew the boy out -- how many times did that make, Prompto throwing himself into the line of fire once again for the sake of others?

And how would he know better? Who was there to tell him he ought to know better?

In the here and now: silence in his head, even as the choir that seemed so vastly out of place they might as well be singing from another planet, started again -- a familiar song, this time, a familiar timeworn tune, soft sweet lyrical whispering, and Nyx pushed himself up from the pillow and tried to find a comfortable position and he started to hum the countermelody, because that was how they did it, they’d done it, in Galahd.

Nothing wrong with singing happy songs, so long as someone sang something sad to go with, as a reminder, as a contrast.

And he was trying to remember the words to the two songs, to the happy one and to the sad one, when there was a step on the threshold, and a long shadow stretching out to him.

Nyx bared his teeth on reflex, and only blinked and stopped when he clocked the tray in Cor’s hands.

“Do me a favor,” he rasped, and turned away from the bowl of soup and the cup of tea. “Give me something I can throw out the window and -- and shut those damned singers up.”

“What were you planning to hit? The comms equipment? I’ll thank you to spare those old machines. One of your people put a recording on.”

“Then tell me which one of them it is so I can murder them in their sleep.”

Even the way he blinked looked deadpan. “Luche.”

“Damnit.”

He tried to rearrange himself so that he could sit more comfortably on the bed, but no matter how he stuck his leg out or folded it, he couldn’t seem to escape the pain that smoldered beneath his skin: and at this point he was willing to admit that the pain wasn’t just because he’d been idiot enough to take more than one bullet for the once-and-never-again Prince of Tenebrae.

(He’d been there, forced to be there, when both Ravus and Lunafreya had said the words: each of them, in his turn and in hers, had spoken the irrevocable words, the renunciation that could never be amended, the final turning-away from the place at the head of their people.

(He’d been there and Sylva had yelled at her son and her daughter, and then -- and then she’d pulled them both into her arms and whispered prayers and thanks into their hair.

(He had not been able to wake up to the solemn silent presence of Prompto for more than a year now.)

So Nyx fumbled in his pockets for a clean rag and could only come up with something he only vaguely recognized, something he might have used to either clean the bore of one of his pistols, or something he’d used to clean mud off his boots: and he had no idea which one of them might have been worse, but right now it was the only thing he could use to blow his nose with, so he scrubbed it over his cheek and --

Hand, heavy, warm.

It stopped the movement of his arm dead in his tracks and he sent a halfhearted glare towards the man looming over him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing.”

Was the marginally cleaner rag that was dropped onto his face the answer?

Or was the answer the very small, but somehow not at all insulting smirk that the bastard wore?

Well, at least Nyx could scrub the tears off his face and not, not have to worry about having to clean up even more in the aftermath: they were all short several showers and a dozen changes of clothes at this point, even the Nox Fleurets, and there was nothing he could do to help the grime on his face and the yech that clung to his teeth, the stains upon stains layered thickly onto his skin.

“Nothing solid to eat,” Nyx grumbled, as he took a hasty sip of the tea: and it burned his tongue, it was too strong for him, and he choked down its warmth anyway, and he scrubbed at his chest because he needed something else to focus on, something more than just the yawning hole that Prompto’s absence had left in him. “I’m injured, not, not waking up from a fucking ten-year sleep or some kinda shit like that.”

“You don’t trust the others to cook, so why should I,” was the quiet response.

Nyx shuddered despite his best efforts to stop it. “Please do not remind me. Libertus isn’t due back from his scouting mission for another couple of days and -- I can eat those damned tasteless ration bars if I have to, I just don’t want to eat whatever it is that Crowe cooks and thinks is food, because -- it’s not food.”

“I concur. So you’ll just have to deal with -- a liquid diet. It’s all I’ve got for now, until we can get better supplies.”

He was halfway through a swallow of soup -- he was possibly lucky the rest of it didn’t go down the wrong tube -- and he alternated his stare between Cor and the bowl and -- “You’re not trying to poison me.”

“Prompto would dismember me. So no.”

Nyx allowed himself a very small laugh: any louder and it would hurt, it would core him out, in too many ways to actually count. “So you’ve finally met your match.”

That shrug was as good as an answer.

The soup was as flat and as thin as the tea was strong, but he quickly found himself scraping the bottom of the bowl and of the cup, dents and all, and then -- there was nothing to do but to accept another glass of water from Cor.

But he just held its weight in his hands, and looked out the window, and -- “Anything new on the comms?”

“Aulea is on the move and I have no idea where she’s going. I don’t keep track, for obvious reasons: but last I placed her, she might have been circling back towards Insomnia. I -- I would tell her to stay away from the city. I would tell her the enemy is specifically waiting for her to get there. But I am here and she is there, and -- ”

“And do you really expect her to follow your advice?” Nyx gave up on looking for a comfortable position, and reluctantly fell back onto the pillow.

“She will at least listen. And after -- go her own way.”

“’S why you trust her.”

“Yes.”

The thought hit him and he almost hit himself for it.

And he voiced it, quietly: “You wish you could march out to her.”

“I cannot.” Equally quiet reply.

“Why.” But as soon as the word left his mouth, he took it back. “Forget it. You don’t answer to me for this. You don’t answer to me for anything. It’s all your choice. I should just be leaving you alone to it.”

“You choose to take orders from Aulea, too,” was the unexpected answer.

“Like I could ever forget how I got to be here in the first place.” Nyx threw his arm over his eyes.

Everything was overwhelming: the war and his scars and his missing heart -- or the boy who held part of his heart.

“I could hardly forget, seeing as you almost challenged me to a duel right there in the road.”

“Wasn’t for Noctis I’d have tried my fucking best to cut you down.”

“And you would have lost, and you would have died, too.”

Nyx shrugged. “So? What does that have to do with anything?”

“I worried about her,” he heard Cor say. “I wondered if she wasn’t making a mistake, doing the things she did -- and trusting you with watching her back.”

He felt the prickle of thwarted rage building in the pit of his stomach, and sighed to let it go. “You didn’t trust me. You thought I could have well been in league with Glauca. You thought I was setting the two of them up for an even messier fall.” The snort escaped him, then. “I guess I couldn’t blame you for thinking that way.”

“You’ve since proven yourself.”

“Oh, nice to know you approve of me. Just, you have shit timing, you know? I could have used that years ago.”

“I don’t get to approve or disapprove of you.”

There was a different sort of edge in those words, that he’d never heard before: not at the command posts when they were arguing over rosters and comms and command; and not on the battlefield where they made and discarded plans more or less side by side.

Still an edge that could cut: but was it meant for Cor himself, or for him?

He looked over.

And naturally, Cor was sitting with his face in shadows, next to the bed where the light from the windows had no hope of reaching him.

“Hey,” he said, and he didn’t always know what to do, what to say, what to mean. Not to the others on his team, not to people like Aulea and Sylva, and not, not to Prompto. He owed them truth and he could never find the words for his truths, and he kept fumbling around them, and walking on eggshells to wait for their rejection or their tiredness to overcome them, followed by the voids that they would be leaving in his life.

His mother, and his sister: torn away from him, and he was always going to be looking over his shoulder for their shapes, for their voices, to call him.

Prompto: and he never could tell why or how he loved the boy. The boy who kept looking for new ways to give his life for others, who was the same boy who kept struggling back to life, battered and broken again in new ways, every time.

The war had torn his family away from him. The war was still going to keep tearing Prompto away from him, with all his words left unsaid.

But right here, right now, he thought he knew what he had to say, to Cor.

“Hey,” he said again. “It’s -- it’s all right. Whatever it is you think you’ve done wrong. Whatever it is you think you haven’t done, and therefore you’ve done it wrong: I’m one person, I’m not the whole world, but whatever it is you think you’ve done wrong to me, personally, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I forgive you.”

Still, still, those shadowed lines gone still and unmoving.

And the rasp of the voice, the almost entirely unsurprising words. “What makes you think you can do that?”

“I can because I do,” Nyx heard himself say. “Which is funny: I can’t forgive myself. I can forgive others. Sometimes it’s easier to forgive others when they’ve explicitly done something wrong to me. And that’s, that’s not you. What the fuck did you do to me? Just spared my life. That’s not, not doing something wrong.”

“That I had the impulse to strike you down in the first place -- ”

“Is entirely expected,” he snapped, though the words made him wince with renewed real pain, sharp in his nerves, in his leg. “You saw someone you didn’t know. Someone who’d just walked out of a real mess. You’re a fucking soldier. You saw Aulea that bloody, you saw Noctis like that, and maybe you felt that you failed to protect them, which, yeah, join the fucking club, right? I don’t fucking blame you for thinking I was probably your enemy. I would have had the exact same thought if our positions had been reversed.”

Silence, stretching.

“Would you have been able to forgive yourself, had you been in my position?”

He stared at Cor, who was moving over from the chair, to the side of the bed.

Nyx thought he should have felt caged in: like all the beds he’d ever slept in during this war, this bed wasn’t even long enough to accommodate his legs. And now here was Cor occupying part of its width as well, and maybe he should have been concerned to be so caged in.

But it was nothing to him, to be so caged in.

He just rolled onto his side, back to the wall and the window, so he was facing Cor.

And he was honest, because he could be, because he maybe needed to be. “I would know that I needed to do that -- to forgive myself. Actually getting to the doing, though?” Nyx shrugged. Let out a harsh breath of a chuckle. “Fuck if I know how to.”

“And there I am, in that place. With you,” Cor added. “I was listening. Is it that you can’t forgive yourself because Prompto left, or because you can’t want him back by your side?”

“Of course you were listening. And yes, the answer to that last question is yes.”

He wanted to laugh.

Instead he reached for Cor’s hand and held it for only a moment, and then he let go.

“Fair enough,” he thought he heard Cor say, just before he suddenly fell back asleep.

Chapter Text

Weight, warm and soft and heavy and strange, falling onto his shoulders: and Prompto only knew that his breath was rushing out of his mouth, that his heart was heaving in his chest, that he had been standing for a long time and then he had been sitting -- and there was a gap in his memories that started with his eyes fluttering shut, and then he was opening them again, trying to make out the vague outline of Noctis beside him as he shared the duty of cleaning the --

The guns, the guns, he hadn’t finished with his share, he wasn’t supposed to leave the dirt and the debris in the guns, that was the quickest way to lose them --

Weight on his shoulders and Prompto was standing up again, clattering echoes in his ears, and he was looking up into eyes like -- like deep water, like the last minutes of the dark watch, like the nights without light and without stars --

Hands, hands on his shoulders.

The person pushing him back down in his chair was looking at him like she was sad, like she was tired, like she was going to fall down as well.

He seized her wrists and tried to steady her, and he wasn’t too steady on his own feet: somehow they managed, leaning, and he gathered up the weight that she’d placed on him and shook his head and gave it back. “I don’t need this.”

“And you’re cold, you’re shaking, I can see it in you,” the woman with the blue eyes said.

“So are you,” he said.

“I am. May I sit?”

He looked around and there was still only one chair, the same one that had fallen, that he had fallen out of. And he let her go and turned the chair back up, and tilted his head at her.

Silver strands in her black hair, in her red hair, falling into her eyes. Falling into the collar of her black shirt that was falling apart at the shoulders. Falling into the corners of her mouth, turned down.

“Prompto,” she said, as she sat, and -- that was her hand, taking his. “Forgive me.”

He blinked.

This was -- this was Noctis’s mother. He recognized her now. Not just because she was wearing no ranks on her shirt, same as Noctis -- same as her son. They didn’t wear ranks, not because they were not soldiers -- they were soldiers, they gave Prompto his orders, they were his officers now that he could not go back to Nyx, or to Cor, or even to Sylva -- they didn’t wear ranks because they were hiding from everyone, and they were doing that because of the person in hiding with them.

Even Prompto didn’t want to think about the person in hiding with them. He knew; he understood: if he didn’t have any thoughts in his mind, if he didn’t think about a certain subject at all, those thoughts would not be taken from him, cruelly extracted, for the simple reason that they didn’t exist. There was no point in taking zero from zero: zero would remain unchanged and unchanging.

“Why are you asking me to forgive you,” he asked, after a long moment of trying to remember that she had asked him a question. “What did you do to me? What did I do?”

“You were sleeping. I woke you up.”

“That is what you must do, if there are orders for me to carry out,” he said, trying to point it out, although it was too clear to him and he didn’t know why he had to explain it. Surely she had come here precisely because there was an objective and he was best suited to seeing it done. Surely she had come here with a task for him.

“I do.” Why was she smiling, and why was her hand tightening briefly around his? “But I wanted to apologize for interrupting your sleep.” Her voice growing quiet and still. “I know what it’s like to be exhausted. I know what it’s like to be on your last legs. We’re -- here, again. We’ll be here again. Hard to see the next day, and the next, and the next. Hard to see dawn, even though it must come after the night, because the universe and its laws are still to be obeyed above all else.”

Oh.

He nodded, once, maybe understanding.

Let his hand tighten around hers, once.

It wasn’t the same, it surely wasn’t the same: this woman held her son and held on to that -- to that other person in hiding with them. She seemed to rise from those moments again and again, like the sun, like a fire given new fuel, and Prompto couldn’t hope to give her anything shaped like hope, since he saw it in Nyx in those few and far-between ragged moments, and not really in his own eyes.

But she was smiling, a little, and she was sitting up straighter, and she was turning to look him right in his face.

He stood up straight, too. “What do you need me to do?”

Nod, short, small. “Medevac transport is coming. Not to get us out of here. Just, the doctor, and she’s coming to see to us, to me and to you,” and he watched her motion to her bandages, bound around her waist, where part of her shirt had been ripped away. To his shoulder, tightly wrapped as well, and he’d almost forgotten about the wounds from the previous sorties.

He would have gladly allowed the enemy guns to rip him to pieces if it meant Noctis could make it back home to his mother, but Noctis had gotten angry when he’d said that.

He had the idea, vague and fluttering wearily in his mind, that maybe Nyx would get angry, too, if he’d done it for him.

“I don’t think the medevac knows where we are,” he said, and he was already looking around for the guns that he used, when he was out on patrol, when he was out on assignment for her.

“Guide her in, please? She won’t exactly be unprotected. But it’s better to land in a secure LZ.”

“Yes,” he said, fervent and knowing. “I will secure the LZ for her, and guide her in.”

“Give her these words,” and she handed him a slip of thin paper. “You know what to do with that.”

He read the words and memorized them on the instant, and -- he should turn away and he should be on his way, but first he needed to pat her shoulder -- he’d seen Crowe do it, to Luche, to Pelna, even though they never acknowledged her touch. He’d seen Nyx do it to Libertus.

Nyx had done it to him.

“I will be back,” he said, unfamiliar words that he wanted to hold on to. Wanted to keep the shapes of them in his mouth.

“I will hold you to that.”

And she patted his shoulder, too -- not the bandaged one. He would have borne it.

Passing the shape of Noctis, who was sitting in a chair next to -- an occupied bed.

Prompto knew not to look at the face of the person who was in hiding.

Zero, he thought, zero from zero.

Look at the Carbuncle, instead, only for a moment, where it slept on Noctis’s foot.

It was easier, outside, to think of zero.

Outside where he needed to watch his feet: green and the smell of green all around him, mud and running water and sharp rocks and the noise of the trees that soared high over his head. The steep switchback-path down the long slope, the blade-like edges of these mountains, the stink of standing water and polluted rain.

Prompto picked his way down to the LZ and couldn’t think of anything else but the next step, the next place to put his feet: and that was the ideal, that was the safe scenario, but the ground was rumbling beneath him and that, that never meant anything good. Rumbling meant -- bad things. Things to make him hide in a hollow in the earth. Things to make him hide his face, hide his hair: he was a liability in these places, and maybe -- maybe Noctis’s offer of cutting away all his hair, or at least coloring it, was the kind thing to do, the right thing to do.

Would Nyx still recognize him, with black hair? Without his hair?

He stooped and scooped up a handful of wet earth, deep brown like living things and like the mountains, and scrubbed its rocks and little pebbles into his scalp, and he smelled the previous night’s rains like liquid metallic flowing on his own fingertips.

Whine, whine, engines on the move and -- other things: he leaped away and he saw everything, clear, dangerous, when he looked up into the sky.

Blocky shape of the medevac craft trying to maneuver in his direction, sort of: but it was also shooting at the ships in pursuit and, and there was no point in getting to the medevac if it was going to get shot down before he could do that.

He still had one more of Crowe’s bombs, and -- it was an unexpected windfall. An unexpected tool he could put to good use.

Beneath the shadow cast by the medevac: he picked his way through the bullets that were not flying at him, and keyed his radio for tightwave, and muttered into the box. “Longinus, milady, mistral, swift.”

Burst of static in response. “...You’re not Noctis. You sound even younger than Noctis. What the fuck?”

“Are you the doctor?” he asked. “Hurry please. I need to get the enemy ships off your back.”

“I’m Highwind, yeah, I’m here to, to see the family,” was the response. “You authenticate.”

“Quicksilver, fledgling, vow, lens,” he said, and it had been a while since he’d had to say those words.

“Yeah. Yeah. Okay. What did you have in mind?”

“On my signal,” he said, “shields full to the back of your craft, and full speed ahead to LZ.”

“This better be a good plan.” Crackling, apprehensive, and he couldn’t fault the voice. Not at all. He wanted to pray this plan would work, but -- he only had the tools, he only had his hands, he only had this one shot to make.

Red box arcing up through green branches, green leaves, green and brown heights of the trees that surrounded him and kept him small and hidden and alive: but if this failed, the doctor might not be able to bring him back. Not when they didn’t know, they didn’t know --

He thought of Nyx, of Cor, of Noctis, of Aulea: and fired.

“Good shot, fuck! Get me at the LZ!” yelled the voice on the radio.

Prompto could barely hear the words but -- he was scrambling anyway, he was blinded by the explosions he left in his wake, the ponderous slow fall of enemy ships knocked out of the sky --

LZ, here was the LZ, and here was the medevac craft and several people were rushing out, rushing past him, and:

“Kid. You really are just a kid. Come here,” and she was beckoning to him, her silver-white hair streaming in the mountain wind, and glint of familiar items in her hands, hanging from her pockets, from her sleeves.

He didn’t want to approach her.

He did, and stumbled, and her hands on his arms were hard and also not unkind, and her eyes were sharp and narrowing on him and he looked away, something he couldn’t find a name for lurching violently in his stomach, trying to claw up into his mouth --

“Sorry,” she said.

And let him go.

“You’re the doctor,” he muttered, towards his boots.

“And you need to wash that mud out of your hair. My advice? Wear a fucking hat.”

Small soft item stuffed into his hand.

A hat?

Prompto stowed it in his pocket.

The woman -- the doctor -- followed him silently up the path, and so did the people who had arrived with her.

“Doctor Highwind,” Prompto heard Aulea say. “Aranea.”

“Lady,” was the doctor’s response.

Prompto waited for both of them to fall into conversation, and then: he knew he wasn’t supposed to run, but he did. He was shaking, he was unsteady again, and, and he needed to be somewhere else.

Past the room with the occupied bed and Noctis was no longer there: Prompto didn’t have any thoughts to spare.

He wanted to hide.

Yip, at his feet.

The Carbuncle.

He followed it to -- one of the other outside passages.

Shape of a familiar boy, hunched in next to the door that was barred, next to the window that was slit open to admit a little green-hued light, a little green-scented air.

Flash of Noctis’s eyes, wide wide wide. “What the hell, what’d you do?”

“Hid,” Prompto heard himself say. “I didn’t want to be seen.”

Arms around him, hauling him close, hauling him into warmth. “Come hide with me then.”

“thank you.”

Chapter Text

Status Report // ongoing missions // codeword Tide // [[authentication headers follow]]

To: LC Command Post [[location redacted]]
From: Leonis

This being the end of the year, it seemed important to send news. Forgive me my habitual briefness. There is...precious little to report on, and therefore there is precious little for me to add on to.

Wintering in [[location redacted]]. I am still conducting harrying and ambush operations in conjunction with Ulric's unit. There's a Nif outpost between us and the roads leading back towards the western Lucian territories; and we continue our efforts to reduce the blasted thing into so much dust and ashes. I do not understand why the enemy seems intent on propping this particular outpost up despite the fact that they must surely know by now that we're intent on wrecking it.

I suspect two things: either they are propping up the outpost to keep us here and pinned down and distracted, or there really is something at that outpost that they are trying to hide from us. Ulric has proposed an outright raid of the post several times. After several futile sorties I am now more inclined to agree with this proposal, reckless as it may be on the surface. Should we win the outpost, we might be able to recoup some of our losses in terms of resources. More importantly, we need to find out what the Nifs have in that place. I dare not speculate at this time.

However, we suffer from a lack of personnel with which to conduct this raid. This is not to detract from the skills and accomplishments of the Kingsglaive. They have conducted themselves with uncommonly sustained enthusiasm and briskness even in the teeth of enemy fire. I wish to lend them some form of assistance; therefore, if you have anyone you can spare, send them our way immediately. I need someone who's good with sabotage operations.

I also need a medic. Not for myself or for the others, so do not worry on that account. However, SNF has sent us word of a disease of some sort, spreading along the borders of the occupied zones. The few notes she has shared with us have been, in a word, horrifying. I have not had cause to see this disease for myself and so I will not describe them here. But it is imperative that we extend assistance to those who might be afflicted. If with this assistance we can hope to continue our recruitment efforts, so much the better.

If I may be permitted, I would like to inquire after the health of all those with you at this time.

We continue to monitor the signals from Insomnia. We have heard no news, only the continuing silence. My earlier suggestion holds: I do not advise maneuvers in that direction.

C

/////

[[personal communications transmitted from Kingsglaive outpost // destination unknown // locations redacted for operational security]]

Dear Prompto

I...realize you might actually not know what this is. Or that you know what it is and you can't trust it because this is an actual letter, an actual personal letter, from me to you, and this is a war and this is a grind of a war and that's a terrible horrid thing, and why am I sending you these thoughts of mine where they could be intercepted and then bad things might follow? The answer is this: if the people who'd done such a shit job of raising you had actually raised you properly, you'd know that the stories of a war -- of too many wars -- were almost always actually told in the letters that the soldiers sent home, in the letters that the soldiers got back from home. The reports might not survive. The reports might be destroyed after the war to hide evidence and shit like that. The letters survived because of the families. So we can tell those war stories and we can remember them, and try to learn from them.

So I'm writing you a letter. I'm going to try to, you know, not paint a big fucking target on us, here in this place. But I wanted you to know what's going on. I just hope I have enough ink and enough paper for everything I want to say.

We are all still here. Miraculously. There are injuries, and I've got a hell of a cold that won't quit. Send me a medic sometime, if you ever get a chance to do something kind like that. Send me chocolate, too. Hah. I haven't had sweets in years. I've almost forgotten the taste of candy. But then again, I've almost forgotten a lot of things. I used to sit out in the rain and not, you know, strain my ears trying to hear all the noises in the world, trying to figure out which noises were friendly and which were not. I used to take long walks in the forests around the place where I was born. I'd pick berries and eat them, and most of the time I didn't get sick from eating those berries before they were actually ripe. I was hungry, a lot. Sue me. I was a growing kid then. By the time I'd stopped being hungry all the time because I was turning into a teenager, I had started getting hungry from all those restrictions on trading food, all those rationing orders, all those long lines for things like bread and butter and milk.

That turned sad quickly. Sorry. Not sure we could be called "happy" right now? Soldiers can be happy in the trenches if you give them things they need. I sure could use a few new pairs of socks. And a proper blanket. I hope someone is feeding you and keeping you warm and making sure you can actually sleep. I hope someone is keeping you busy, maybe with the things that we do and maybe, I really hope, maybe with things that a person your age probably should be experiencing. Things like, I don't know, playing with a pet dog or a pet cat. (Cats are important in wartime. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The rat-hunting duties are just part of it.) Reading comic books. (There was this comic book story I loved once. It was about this woman who fought in a war, like you and me, but she hated guns. She did all her fighting with a shield. One of the soldiers here remembers it, too, and that was a surprise to me. It's been so long; I half-thought I had only dreamed it.)

Prompto? If nothing else about this letter reaches you, I wanted you to know this. It did me a world of good to be in the same places as you. You're quiet as hell and you're wound up a lot like we are, but you were and you still are a good person to be around, and -- I fight so I can try to see you again. I would really like for that to happen. Until then, the best I can do is tell you to stay sharp and stay alive. Don't freeze your ass off if you're stationed in cold places. Stay alive so I can see you again. I think I'd like that very much.

Nyx

Chapter Text

He thought that maybe he’d been listening to the distant mutter of thunder and lightning on the move, of the clouds scudding across the wavering outline of the thin crescent moon, of the come-and-go hiss of rain as it spattered and drizzled across the cobblestoned pavements, that maybe he’d known this for true all along: and he had still walked steadfastly on, fastened to the side of the man with the ground-eating stride.

“Cigarette,” Cor Leonis said. Asked. Offered.

“No snarking about kissing me with that mouth?” Nyx Ulric said, while carefully tapping off the accumulated ash.

Harsh mentholated burn all the way down into his lungs, evil-tasting smoke clinging to his teeth.

He took one long drag, and then another, and passed it back.

“You could have finished it.”

“You have terrible taste in cigarettes,” Nyx muttered, and reclaimed Cor’s free hand. “I mean, anything’s better than that shit.”

He got nothing more than a reckless shrug for that, one-shouldered and – from one moment to the next – rain-splashed, as the downpour that had been pressing down in its faraway flash of lightning, its sullen rumble of thunder, and its icy wash of rain down the back of his neck – finally crashed in on them.

Cries of surprise, cries of dismay. Hiss and sizzle of suddenly-extinguished charcoal on the roadside grilling stands. The spill of bright drinks onto the street and the dissolving paper plates.

But Cor was still walking like he’d never even known a care in the world.

So Nyx held on to that freezing hand and kept pace with him.

“But the fireworks,” he heard a little girl say, and after all this time he could still almost fool himself into thinking he might have been hearing his sister’s voice.

But after all this time he knew better than to turn in that direction: he just clenched his free hand into a pain-banded fist, and shook his head to try and redirect the cold rivulets running down his cheeks.

“No need to hide,” Cor said, so quietly, in the wake of the thunder that blasted overhead, streaking slower than the great fanning lightning-lines slashing through the heavy clouds. “You don’t have to, not like this.”

“Yeah,” Nyx said.

And swiped at his tears, quietly.

Salt on the corners of his lips, and sour stale acid on his tongue where the rain changed directions in the capricious vicious cold of the night wind.

A cry, from behind him, and he was looking down at his feet and fighting the sobs, but – he was suddenly casting colored shadows that flashed in and out of existence, there and gone.

Storm, muffling the explosions overhead: but not the colors for some reason.

Bright sparking blue and red and green and yellow, stars flashing in the storm, there and gone like dream-flowers: and he came to a stop and there was someone warm to stop with.

Cor at his back, holding him, anchoring him, scarred arms steadying him around his waist.

Cor like a wall, propping him up so he could cry with all of his emotions, so the rain could fall on all the tears he could only shed now.

“Prompto,” he said, softly, as the sky lit up again in brilliant crimson and gold.

Of course Cor knew what to say: “Then pay attention. He’ll be sorry he missed this. He’ll want you to tell the story.”

“And you?”

“Something else I would rather watch.”

Nyx almost laughed: he only turned around.

“There,” Cor said.

Cold fingertip, tracing the corner of Nyx’s eye.

“You’re more interesting than that.”

“Only you,” Nyx said, and the rain almost drowned his own words out.

That shrug was all the answer he got: infuriating, and as good as a smile.

So he barked out a wet soft laugh, and carded his soaked hands through Cor’s dripping hair, and hauled him in for a kiss: and the rain was cold, but Cor was warm and vital and here and Nyx thought he was better than all the fireworks, all the lightning, all the fury of the storm that continued to rage around them.

Chapter Text

Distant mutter and groan of thunder and storm clouds on the move: there was too much static in the air, and the humidity was weighing down his hair in its braids, and his nerves were shot all to hell with the notable exception of the ones in his right leg: which were twitching with prickling pain, the mad urge to scratch, and he couldn’t, because of the cast that held his skin and bones in place, clamped around from ankle to knee.

Just his luck: everyone else had walked out of that last sortie and he was the one who’d crawled. Him, Nyx Ulric. The ranking officer on the scene. He was the one who’d crawled, and the blood had ruined his boot (another right boot, another one, why was it always the right boot?), and -- he’d come out of that one, anyway, they’d just had to medevac him, and there was nothing fun about getting his leg set, and the medics really needed to do better, they had such rough hands --

Well. Rough hands that had set his leg and immobilized it and -- he’d have a better than decent chance of standing again, afterwards. Standing and walking and running and fighting. He’d need the mobility. He’d need the plain and simple skill of walking. He’d be a different kind of soldier, he thought now, were he a soldier in fatigues and a wheelchair.

He’d have kept on slogging along that line of thought, gritting his teeth so he’d see it through to the end, if it hadn’t been for the quiet click of the door opening, and -- maybe in another life he’d have the ability to teleport, he’d have the ability to summon some really fancy weapons straight into his hands, but this was not that life, and the only thing he could come up with was the plate on the bedside table, spilling crumbs of bread onto the hospital blankets --

The door opened, and a tall lean shape slipped in, and there were footsteps on the move and the bed was dipping, creaking softly, weight lodging solid and warm up and down Nyx’s side, and he let out the breath he had been holding.

Turned his head and allowed himself to fall quietly into the embrace of Cor Leonis.

Who was steady strong and radiating worry next to him. His arms carefully holding him in place in the world. Deep breaths, lulling, and the pace of his heartbeat slowing down.

He wasn’t calming by any means. He wasn’t soft. But he was grounding. He was the point of reference that would not yield and would not break and would not move, and Nyx needed more of those these days, more and more where he was gathering ranks on his shoulders and soldiers at his back and they were gaining ground, they were making slogging progress, but he was still worn down at the end of each day and he still needed some kind of reminder of why he needed to do this.

So here was Cor: a reminder.

“Came as soon as I heard.” Graveled voice, rough with too many sleepless nights, and Nyx nosed blindly along his throat, along his jaw, wishing he could soothe him. “But I had to detour to the lake country for a couple of days.”

“Prince okay?” Nyx asked. “Prom?”

“They have things well in hand there,” Cor said, and that was that.

Nyx told himself he wasn’t crying when Cor kissed him.

And he dug in his pocket for the things he’d been carrying since the last time he’d gone on furlough: half the country away from Cor and living only for the voice and video calls when there were secure frequencies to be found. He’d been on the coast and Cor had been up in the mountains, and there had been too many moneyed refugees clogging up the harbors, and he’d saved the life of a stately woman and her daughter had presented him with jewelry in lieu of thanks.

Trinkets, really, things with fancy seals, that he’d passed them on to the archive team since he hadn’t had any use for them. But there had been a lump of pure white aurum in the mess and he’d kept that, that one thing, and he’d taken it to a jeweler, and the one thing had become two little things.

Two little things he’d kept in his pockets through the days and nights of furlough, and then he’d been thrown back into the field, back into the fight, rallying his people and shoring up the resistance once again, until he’d come back to tenuously friendly territory and the presence of -- his son, passing through, en route to another series of sorties, another series of deployments.

The presence of Cor and a night and a day of trying to remember what all three of them were involved in, what all three of them were fighting for.

Here he was with a broken leg and here Cor was, snatching time he didn’t have to be here, and there were soldiers outside this room who would need them -- soldiers including their own foundling son, and the Prince whom he followed with sharp-toothed devotion.

But he wanted to be selfish, he needed to be selfish, right here and right now: so he mumbled three words against Cor’s mouth and slid the larger of the two white aurum rings onto the fourth finger of that calloused left hand.

Cor, bless him and curse him, didn’t even flinch. He just held his hand out for the other ring.

Nyx dropped it from his shaking fingers.

And Cor retrieved it from the sheets. Placed it on his finger.

“I’m glad you asked. I’ll be with you,” he heard Cor say.

“You had me all along,” Nyx muttered.

“Knew that. Know that.”

His hands moving, cupping Cor’s jaw and the back of his head, and pulling him in.

“Stay alive, you bastard,” he heard Cor say, just at the last instant. “Break your bones if you have to, burn yourself if you have to: but stay alive so I can pick up the pieces of you. Stay alive. That’s all I need you to do.”

Chapter Text

Counting, counting, the last few steps until he’d finished another circuit of the camp and its makeshift boundaries: crates of ammunition and the dwindling mess of supplies, one last box of first aid things, and the pile of broken-down machines that had been killed by the relentless snow and the relentless wind.

Overhead: a cold clear night. The heartless kind of clear, he thought, with fear stabbing somewhere in the soles of his feet. The heartless kind of night that made the skin on the back of his neck crawl: because this was a night that was a double-edged sword. Sure, he could see a long way, in this cold clear night -- see the bleak blank stars in their bright points overhead. See the bleak blank stars wheeling in their patterns and their falling paths.

And any enemy who happened to be looking their way would see him, would see that he had stopped stock-still with the fear crawling down his nerves and the chill creeping into his bones, and -- he’d have a shot at them, a more than decent shot if he managed to make it all the way to where Crowe had stashed her favorite sniper rifle, but -- if he didn’t, or if those stars overhead were cruel enough, he’d never make it and he’d get cut down instead, bullet through the brainpan and a squish that meant the night would never end, not for him --

Nyx shook his head, slow, weary, knowing he was going to survive the night: and how many times over how many nights had he stopped, after all, on this slow weary circuit and lived to see another pale sunrise, pale hint of warmth that never lingered, that was always driven away in the first howling gust of the morning winds? How many times over how many nights had he entertained these thoughts, or some other iterations of these thoughts, and all the time waiting and waiting for the bullet that never came, the scream of alarms splitting the night?

Silence.

He squared his shoulders and planted his feet and looked down the long forbidding steep slope. Considered the area in which the Niflheim outpost still stubbornly somehow stood: the valley that was ringed around on all sides by snowbound mountains. If he squinted, he could see at least a handful of the outbuildings -- the main structure was partly buried underground, and the sides that weren’t were shored up with sandbags.

No windows that he could see, not even with the best optics they still had: Luche’s high-powered targeting scope, or Libertus’s treasure of an old telescope.

How were the people in that facility able to breathe?

And for that matter: where were their supply trails?

He thought about shaking his fist at the stars that whirled above him. The stars that didn’t care whether he lived or died.

And he thought about turning in for the night at last when --

Wild whine overhead -- he threw himself to the mud and the slush and the snow. Mad lurch of his heart into his throat as he saw the streak of flame in its slow pass overhead, and in the wash of his fear he thought it was moving slowly, slowly, and it was surely going to fall right on his head --

Hand on the back of his jacket -- more than one set of hands -- the voice of Libertus, bellowing at him: “Get the fuck up! Get under cover!”

He did, he did, and he crawled and stumbled up to his feet and he was being forced through a doorway, past the imperturbable face of Cor, and Libertus’s arms were still wound tight around him as he forced his way to a window, just in time to see the blocky shape of the transport finally spiral into the trees, suddenly speeding up towards its demise, and the scream of its destruction, the almighty crash --

Snow, and silence, afterwards: Nyx touched his ear, gingerly, and felt rather than heard the numbness and the shaking of his heart that he could hear because the sounds of the world around him had been reduced to faint echoes, the aftershock of temporary deafness --

Hand, again, on his shoulder, spinning him around.

Pelna. This was Pelna. Mouth opening and closing, forming words. Nyx squinted, and tried to follow along: How are you feeling?

He gestured at his ear.

Crowe, pushing a fist into Pelna’s shoulder, before she was moving and Nyx followed her only with his eyes, as she tucked herself into his side and grabbed a handful of his hair. Shook him, affectionately -- he hoped she was being affectionate -- and said, slowly, so he could almost hear her: Give it a minute, you’ll be hearing again soon enough.

The shape of Cor gathering up Luche, and walking out the door. He let them go and hoped he’d be able to hear whatever report or reports they were going to bring back -- he hoped they’d come back in the first place.

This was already a strange night -- and he didn’t want any more of that strangeness, and he was probably only going to get more of it.

He was already feeling that terrible hollowness in his gut, in his bones, that oncoming fear, that oncoming trouble --

Sounds, crashing in on him again: the beat of his own heart and the rasp of his own breath. The rush of the wind that was picking up again, and the argument that seemed to be brewing with him right in the actual middle of it, as Libertus on his left and Crowe on his right debated salvage versus sabotage, and Pelna just shook his head and went to the battered crate of rations to scrounge up something to eat --

“What the fuck.” And Nyx heard himself, at last, and that was such a relief to say.

“That’s what we said,” Libertus grunted.

“You did, I didn’t, I was just -- can I go out there and chase Luche and tell him what to do with that thing?” Crowe asked.

“We don’t even know what that thing was,” Pelna said as he settled at the table. And: “Tea?”

“That’s not tea,” Nyx said, and he got up and sat in one of the other chairs. Took a sip and made a face and didn’t spit out his mouthful. “Crowe?”

“Yeah.”

“Why the hell do you have to run out into the unknown every time?”

Grin, razored around the edges, in stark contrast to the straggling odd lengths of her unkempt hair. “Because I don’t feel alive otherwise.”

“You’re the only living thing here,” Libertus muttered, as he took the spot opposite Nyx, and extracted a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. “Want?” he asked, gesturing with the lighter.

Nyx shook his head and saluted him with his cup. “Got my health hazard right here.”

“Hey,” Pelna muttered, but maybe he was smiling.

And then there was a shout from outside: Nyx jumped back to his feet and this time he jerked his head at the others to make them get to their feet, and saw Crowe and Libertus, at least, duck aside to pick up weapons -- he himself only had the short combat knives he never went anywhere without -- and they would have to be armed for him, they would have to be the ones to watch his back, and he strode onto the path away from their encampment, past the snow falling from the still-shuddering trees, straight into the wind that slashed at his face with sharp sharp edges and the cracked smell of the winter’s depths --

Steps coming up to meet his.

He eased a knife from its scabbard.

“It’s us,” Luche called, in edged echoes coming up their way, faint on the icy gusts. “We need two more people to come down.”

“You heard him,” Nyx said to Crowe. “Back up you go.”

“Why me?”

“Because I would rather trust you with throwing explosives accurately, from a safe distance,” he said, not at all snapping. “I want you and Pelna to watch the camp and if anything comes to take advantage of the fact we’re not there, you can take it out on them.”

“Well when you put it that way.”

He watched her turn back with only a wry twist to her scarred mouth.

And to Libertus, he said, “The usual question applies.”

“Like she said.” The grin on his second’s face was far too wide and far too sharp for his comfort. “I don’t feel alive otherwise.”

“So you never felt alive when,” and Nyx gestured to his own chest.

“Asshole. I did. And you know that. Smug shit. Fishing for compliments and you know it.”

Nyx found a small laugh, and thumped Libertus’s shoulder, and then they were rounding a series of sharp zig-zags in the path and all the smiles fell away.

“Are you sure you’re supposed to be standing there?” he heard Libertus ask, sharply, and he folded his arms to hide the shaking of his hands, because the goopy fluid on the snow was too thick and too dark to be actual blood -- but he knew the way blood caught even the small amount of light that he could now see by.

He knew the stink of it: like dust, like rotting metal.

And Luche stank of it, with his hands stained dark and his mouth twisted into scorn, or perhaps it was grief -- the longer the war wore on, the harder it became to tell.

“Don’t come any closer.”

Nyx didn’t start: but he looked over his shoulder and eyed Cor, wary, watchful. “If you’d be so kind as to provide me with some details because I am so, so tired of being clueless. I don’t want to die of clueless. Prompto would spit on the shit grave you’d bury me in. And then he’d spit on you.”

“If he didn’t blow your bodies up in the first place,” he heard Libertus mutter, and he kicked out in his direction, little caring that he missed. The gesture was the important thing.

All the levity died when Cor looked away.

He actually looked uncomfortable.

So Nyx growled and threw up his hands.

Gritted his teeth and forced his way through the growing cloud of that metallic stink, down to where Luche was standing next to a heap of --

No.

Not this.

What was this?

What the actual fuck --

Hand on his shoulder, heavy, ripping him away --

No!

He barely recognized his own voice, barely recognized the word, and even when he closed his eyes he could see, all too clearly, what had frozen Luche in place, what had silenced Cor.

Pale hair, huge torn-out hanks of it, handfuls of strands, scattered like so much chaff, like so much dust.

Hands and feet and limbs, contorted, bruised.

Stained skin, nothing like wayward points of pigment or blemish: just torn and ragged edges, stink of rotting metal everywhere.

Eyes, lifeless eyes, staring.

He thought he heard the sound of someone being noisily sick.

He wanted to be sick himself: and he forced himself to keep looking, to keep remembering, because the others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Twisted broken pieces, piled together, and the further insults of the crash and of the burn besides.

Hand on his shoulder: and Nyx breathed out -- yelled out -- heard the echoes of his own voice broken in the wind -- he sternly told himself to keep it together, keep it together, and he turned to Cor and said, on the faint breath that he still had in him, “Pilot?”

“Dead. Had to finish him off -- he was no good to anyone after the impact.”

“He didn’t tell you anything?”

“He was barely breathing.”

“You killed him.”

Brief nod.

“I would have wanted to kill him. After I’d asked questions. I don’t care if he’s most of the way dead. I wanted to ask questions.”

“I tried. No answers were forthcoming.”

Nyx made himself look at the pile of the dead that spilled from the broken transport: one more look, so he could fix it in his mind, so he would not forget.

And then he turned and glared at the man next to him.

“Raid. We have to plan that raid. And we have to do it now.”

“This transport was going toward that outpost. Surely these bodies were going there for disposal. So -- you want evidence.”

“And whatever else they’re hiding. Those Nif fuckers must have lists. Information.”

“When you put it that way -- I only have one more objection.”

And he laughed. He couldn’t help it, harsh and wild. “What would that be?”

“Not enough people.”

“I don’t care! It needs to be done!” And he gestured, wordless at last, at the bodies strewn on the snow.

Bodies, and faces spiderwebbed with old scars and new blood.

Faces that all looked like Prompto’s.

“Plan, then,” he heard Cor say, after a very long moment.

Nyx let out a cry that was part rage, part relief, and turned his back on the transport.

Passing Libertus, blanched and bleak-eyed, and he said, “Burn that. I don’t care how you do it. Burn all of that and then come back up. Hurry. We have plans to make.”

“Copy that,” was the faint reply he received.

Every step back up to their encampment was slow, and it hurt him like hot blades slicing along his veins, along his frayed nerves, and he thrust the door open and went straight to his battered footlocker, to his guns and to his ammunition, and -- he heard Pelna and Crowe talking, and then not talking any more as the others came in. They were moving, quiet, around him: subdued, and that was a terrible thing to be for a person on the front lines of a war, and he only felt the blades digging deeper and deeper into him.

Silence, and tension, and heat that forced them to keep the door of the cabin open: with all of them there, and with all of the weapons that they were each working on, it was a tight fit.

“Only one entry point that I know of,” Luche said after he and Pelna had cobbled together a rough model of the Nif outpost. He tapped the overturned tin cup that he’d placed next to Crowe’s hand. “Even odds on whether it’s going to be the strongest point or the weakest.”

“Blow it wide open,” Crowe said, and for once she wasn’t smiling at all. “I don’t care who’s in or near the door. The rest follows: the door breaks, everything else breaks, unless you wanted to take the place not entirely in pieces?”

Nyx clenched his hands into fists and weighed the possibilities.

But it was Cor who said, “Keep everything together for a while. Just enough for a full report. Photographs where we can take them. Then -- I leave it to you.”

He took a breath and let it out in a long slow controlled hiss. “Evidence,” he said, and he didn’t know what he looked like, if Luche wouldn’t meet his eyes, if Libertus looked like barely leashed fury. “We’ll take all the evidence first before we tear the place apart.”

“That might take a while,” Pelna said, daring to be cautious.

“Aren’t enough of us for a proper job of it,” Nyx said, acknowledging. “But we’ll do it anyway. Get yourselves together, we’re out the door in an hour, got it?”

He couldn’t keep track of the time even as he stared at the seconds ticking on his watch: all he could do was be grateful, when Cor finally holstered his rifle and strode out the door.

He let the others stream out and fall into a dense cluster, bristling, wary; and he watched their backs and ground his teeth.

Held his breath as they passed the scourged patch of mountainside, where the transport had fallen, where the bodies had been burned.

Silence, and the mocking blue of the sky overhead as it lightened steadily, stars winking out one by one.

The outbuildings were within easy range of Crowe’s throwing arm when Pelna turned aside. “Guys.”

He swore, not too quietly, and swung around to glare at the shape of -- he squinted -- was that a combat armature? “Pelna.”

“If I can get it to work: tank, Nyx. We need a tank.”

“Nothing happens after three tries, you wreck it,” he said.

“Copy that.”

He didn’t start when he heard the flurry of shots behind him; only motioned Crowe forward to mine the door and the windows flanking it.

The silence was getting on his nerves: not even the wind, not even the daytime birds with their mocking cheerful song, not even the rustling of the trees.

He could only hear his own breathing, and that of the others.

And a whine, distant, growing.

Luche, turning off the path, trotting towards cover. Transmitter box in hand, and his carrying whisper: “We’re kind of in the middle of something here. Authenticate.”

And then: “Shit.”

He reached Luche just as Cor turned aside to head towards him. “What?”

“We can get a flyby if we need it -- that was the doctor. That was Highwind. She says she can lend us a hand, if things go to shit when we open that door.”

“Crowe,” Nyx growled.

“Haven’t armed the things yet.”

“You won’t have to. We’ll have Highwind fire on them. Or her people anyway. Get under cover,” he said.

“You got it.”

Squawk, again, from Luche’s hand.

Nyx took the box. “Doc Highwind.”

“Came here as soon as we could and you’re on our sensors. I hear you’ve a job for me.”

“Yeah. I’ll give you a location. Fly overhead, shoot as you pass us.”

“Better get your asses under cover then, we’re almost on top of you. Location?”

Before he could motion Pelna over, he was already moving, and he muttered a set of numbers into the radio.

“Get away from there,” Highwind warned.

Cor was moving towards the door, and Nyx left him to it. “Scope,” he said to Luche.

Sleek black metal and the high shine of the polished lenses on one end.

Nyx peered through the other end: and the whine resolved into a quieter roar, rumbling in the very mountain, the blocky bulk of it somehow graceful as it maneuvered into position, not quite overhead, a smaller shadow than it would usually be if it were at its cruising altitude --

Doors gaping wide open.

He blinked, and pressed the scope into his eye, and looked some more.

Black uniform and a hat of some kind pulled down low, almost as if to obscure everything from the forehead on up -- but the real question was the oddly familiar size of the person secured by cables in the maw of the medevac craft -- oddly, familiarly, small --

“I’ve got a firing line,” Highwind warned. “Everybody get down, shooter is in position -- acknowledge.”

“Go,” Nyx heard himself say, and the small figure in the transport didn’t seem to move.

Except that the figure had to have fired, had to have taken the shot, because the next thing he knew he was being flung down, sent rolling and rag-dolling, and when he turned to look over his shoulder the entire side of the outpost that had been facing them was gone: and in its place were flames and smoke and torn-open edges, like screams, like silent unheeded cries for help --

He had to get up, he had to get to work, and he thought he saw something dressed in black as it took a running leap out of the medevac craft and then there was no more time for anything else: here were the guards and here was a woman in a white coat, and he saw her go down and Luche lean over her, snarling.

Here was a woman in fatigues, her fists flying towards Libertus’s face, and he grinned and took the blows and then knocked her down with one hard kick to the solar plexus.

Here was Cor, rifle at the ready, and the steady unhurried rhythm of his shots as he incapacitated several running forms.

Nyx charged in the wake of a bellowing Crowe and a grimacing Pelna, and ducked under the hail of gunfire that met them in the remains of the door -- the three of them assuming their firing line as soon as they found some cover, and picking off the enemies one by one.

A thump and a crash overhead: he ignored it, and waited for more enemies -- there were none, so he gestured at Crowe to take point.

He stepped as lightly as she did, and moved past living quarters and a spartan kitchen and then they ran up short: empty corridor that ended in a blank wall and a small green-lit scanner at hip-height.

Stepping aside to let Pelna attack the scanner, he was looking right over the man’s shoulder when he let out a small frustrated groan and said, “Not even a backup keypad.”

“Try this,” Crowe said, and threw him an ID card.

The bar code on the card only made the scanner beep once -- it had no effect on the wall.

“Shoot it?” Pelna asked.

“No!”

Familiar voice, too familiar, why was he hearing it here --

Sweep of a black jacket and a matching knit cap, and strands of blond hair. An SMG in his hands and a pistol holstered at his hip -- he was a little taller, he was a little broader in the shoulder, and Nyx wanted to say something, say something --

“Hello Nyx,” Prompto said.

The real Prompto, he thought.

The real one, alive and bundled up in jacket and boots and cap and gloves on his hands, armed to the teeth, and he sounded like he had just been through the worst of a cold, with a slightly congested burr in his voice.

Who held the bar code branded onto his skin up to the scanner.

Green lines of light flowing away from the scanner into the shapes of doors, and the sigh and hiss of machinery working, and the doors began to slide open, the left-hand and right-hand halves on the move --

Grins on Crowe’s and Pelna’s faces, and she slapped Prompto’s shoulder, and said, “Good to see you again!”

Small nod in response. “And you. You are well?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

“That was you,” Nyx breathed, at last, when he could finally put his words together again. “That was you, in the medevac. You opened the doors.”

Terse nod.

Small, small quirk at the corner of that mouth. “We are the reinforcements. The lady sent us -- the doctor and I. And some other people. They should have boots on the ground by now.”

“I’ll have them help with the prisoners,” Pelna said. “Prompto, good to see you again.”

Nyx watched him go.

The doors were still only halfway open.

So he gave in to the terrible impulse that yawned in him, teeth and claws and the hole he’d been carrying around beneath his heart, and he said, “Prompto,” and pulled him in, pulled him into a hug.

Prompto didn’t seem to resist him: only pressed in close with a nearly silent sigh.

“It is good to see you again, Nyx,” were the words whispered against his jacket.

And: “I received your letter. I -- did not understand all of it.”

The laugh that tried to tear itself out of him was sharp and jagged and not entirely recognizable. “How did I know, how did I know you’d say that?”

“Did you?”

Prompto, pulling away, and there were new lines in his face, not all of them healed wounds.

“Yeah, I knew,” Nyx said, and he pressed a kiss into the crown of the hat.

“Boys,” he heard Crowe say.

Watched as Prompto checked the magazine on his gun before tapping himself on the chest. “Follow me.”

“You’ve been here before?” she asked.

“No. But the layout is familiar to me.”

“All the same, huh, cookie-cutter things.” She switched to one of her high-powered pistols and motioned Nyx forward. “Got your back.”

“Thanks,” he rasped, and he followed in Prompto’s wake, down the long length of the green-lit passage, and -- the next door they saw was one that was simply made of glass, easy enough to force open --

Closed doors on all sides and a workstation that was still smoking, its cables and guts hanging every which way, and then Prompto held out a hand and said, “Stay close.”

“Got it.”

Nothing to be salvaged, and that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and -- down a series of stairs.

Glow, faint, around a corner.

Prompto took one step around that corner and --

Nyx nearly ran him down where he was rigid and staring, the gun in slack fingers --

And his first instinct was to drop his own guns -- he fought past that and grabbed Prompto instead, turning him around and away from the monstrous sight before them.

His hand over Prompto’s eyes even as he whispered, frantically, “Look away, fuck, look away Prompto look away -- ”

Again he was drawing him close, not into an embrace, but rather he was trying to shield him, and Prompto was shaking even as he pressed himself into Nyx’s chest and Nyx could feel the sobs already tremoring through him, through them --

The room was the size of the larger cabin at the encampment, and it was filled with ranks upon ranks of glass tanks, and there were forms suspended in those glass tanks: lanky builds and bowed heads and closed eyes. Blank faces.

The only glow in the room came from the tank that Prompto had stopped in front of, and it was dying, guttering: and the form inside had its eyes and mouth wide open, as though in a final cry, a final scream for help, for some kind of mercy, some kind of relief.

No hands at the end of those lanky arms. Its upper body stopped in ragged lines several inches below where the ribs would be, on a human being. Cables and joints, a pieced-together jigsaw puzzle in metal, the edges of the individual parts visible beneath the torn pieces that almost looked like skin.

As Nyx watched, horror eating away at the edges of his sanity, the green glow of the tank sizzled and flashed, once, and then died in a cascade of sparks.

The form within drooped, and he could no longer see the rictus of its face.

“Ulric!”

A voice, a familiar voice, calling -- that was his name, Nyx thought. He needed to respond.

But Prompto was crying, suddenly, wailing in his arms in that low desperate voice of his, tearing away to get back to his feet, toward the form in the tank that wore a close copy of his own face.

“I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” and every time he screamed he banged his fists against the glass tank -- that shattered on the third strike, and the frame within that had held that lifeless form crashed down, too, dumping it onto the floor.

Black liquid dripped in a thin stream from that open mouth.

“Prompto!”

Nyx blinked and watched, too numb and grief-stricken to do anything, as Cor seized Prompto by the shoulders and dragged him backwards -- the boy spat curses at him and couldn’t get away, couldn’t get away, and now Nyx could move again and he grabbed at Prompto, too: pinning his smaller frame between himself and Cor.

Prompto struggled in their arms for only a moment more, before he slumped over, shaking and heaving in utter silence.

“Mass-produced,” Cor said, almost silently.

“He said they were little soldiers,” Nyx said, struggling to remember what Prompto himself had said on the night of his defection. “He said they had killed everyone like him.”

“Apparently not,” was the horrified rejoinder. “Or they have started over.”

“Is it supposed to be bleeding black?” Nyx, shaking, pointed to the form.

“The others, the, the dead ones. They were bleeding, too, when we found them in that downed transport -- we need to get away from here,” Cor said. “Remember Sylva’s notes.”

“Shit.” This time he bundled Prompto into his arms and all but ran, all the way back, heedless of the jostling and of the tears that were blinding him, heedless of the others as they went on about their tasks, and he barely heard their cries of shock as he passed them by with the boy in his arms, until --

“Hold it,” Aranea Highwind barked, wind-torn words that stopped him in his tracks. “You’ve been exposed to a bioweapon. Fortunately for you, that’s the other reason why I had to be the reinforcements.”

He didn’t feel the shot she administered into the side of his leg, through a hole she tore into his trousers; neither did Prompto twitch when she performed the same procedure on him.

Grunt, from Cor, and then the doctor was setting the bag strapped to her waist and thigh in order. “That ought to cover all of you -- do I need to do anything else for him?” she asked, gesturing to the boy in his arms.

Nyx shook his head.

Whispered, downwards, as gently as he could with the adrenaline still wreaking havoc on his mind, “What do you need?”

No response, except for the sudden force with which Prompto pushed away, staggering to his feet -- before he fell to his knees some distance away, and this time the scream that tore its way out from him was loud and wordless and it sounded like pure despair, pure pain --

“Prompto!”

Nyx saw Cor’s shoulders go rigid.

Black blur tearing onto the scene, an odd rolling gait accompanied by a streak of blue fur, and he watched it weave past shock and the doctor’s quiet sigh, to nearly knock Prompto down and hold him close.

“Of course he’s here,” Highwind said, and she keyed a smaller radio on her belt. “Mistral to base, I’ve got a stowaway, you can deal with them when we get back.”

Nyx approached the tangle of black-clad bodies cautiously: and the piercing worried eyes of the Prince of Lucis stared at him, defiant and clear. “I don’t know what happened,” the boy said. “Not asking questions now. No point in asking questions until he’s okay.”

Nothing to do but nod.

He wished there was someone to pick up the pieces of him.

Chapter Text

Sand, shifting, more and more treacherous beneath his feet the closer he got to the lapping waves and the blood-warmth of the water. Lakewater, clogged with -- things he couldn’t really think about. Didn’t want to think about. The very first battles of this long, tedious stretch of weeks and months and years that people didn’t want to call a war had been fought along these shores: Niflheim trying to claim territory, and Lucis trying to keep it, and the battles had been going on for long enough that those tenacious few souls who would still cling to their wind-tossed wave-wracked houses and boats whispered about the ghosts.

Ghosts. The shades of the soldiers who had died, who had given their salt and their blood and their tears back to the waters of this lake and the others that were chained to it, long long profiles of water, flowing together and flowing towards each other, from the mountaintop glaciers that were their ultimate sources and then, rivers in their speeding currents to the sea on which the city of Insomnia was perched.

Ghosts, Nyx thought, and wondered about joining them. Wondered if he wasn’t already one himself.

He didn’t even have any memory of reaching the lake country in the first place, much less spending night after night on these slopes of dark sand and the creeping crushed vines underfoot: he didn’t have any memory of doing things like, like living. Food, shoved into his mouth and the taste forgotten in the very next instant. Water, forced down his throat, not very different from the water that lapped at the toes of his boots at this moment: lukewarm and always tasting like fallen leaves, like broken branches and the faint ghosts of iron and copper and rust.

Ghosts that must have been alive at one point and then had bled, and then had died, in and around the chained lakes and then -- dissolving into them.

He looked wearily over his shoulder at the encampment. More buildings here, but they were just as derelict as the ones in the mountains. In his dreams those mountains loomed over him, stared down at him and judged him and deemed him wanting: the mountains and the sheer sharp rocks, red flowing and creeping down those heartless heedless precipices, red that pooled at his feet and formed into faces.

Wide-eyed faces locked in silent screaming that would never be heard, that would never end.

The wind that blew at him from every direction. That rippled and swirled along the waves that rushed up to him. Wind, that screamed and that cried, and in which he heard the despairing echoes of a broken voice, screaming: I don’t understand I don’t understand --

Step by step advancing into the churn and the foam of the lake water as it rushed onto the sand and ate away at what was beneath his feet.

Water, dark, calling him down, pulling at him --

Time had lost all its meaning to Nyx: the stars that wheeled overhead and paid no attention to the fact that here he was, once again, weeping. The tears he’d managed to hold back for all the time he’d been soldiering -- all the time he’d been marching in his crumpled fatigues, in his battered boots. All those tears flowing from him, as though he, too, were a mountaintop and there was saltwater in him, clamoring to flow out and clamoring to leave him empty and lost. Night after night and day after day -- moment after moment existing with the gaping hole that had been torn out of him, the massive wound beneath his heart, the missing piece of him, found only to be lost again.

Time, time, time, he railed, in his thoughts. Trying to piece it all together, despite the shattering fragments of this long-standing war. Despite the bullets flying every which way and the ongoing struggle just to take another breath, just to survive another day.

Prompto had been twelve, had looked no older than twelve in the slopes of his shoulders and the awkward ungainly lengths of his limbs, when he’d blown up a Niflheim facility, and stumbled clear-eyed into Nyx’s arms, not even knowing what it was like to be touched by someone who had no intentions of harming him.

A year, or a little more than that, in the missions up to and including the rescue of the Nox Fleurets: and Nyx had had the time, then, to sit next to the boy. Silence weighing them down, because Prompto had no words to describe what he was thinking about, because Nyx didn’t want to give him words. Fear, stinking up the spaces between them, because he didn’t want Prompto to feel obligated to look to him -- and yet he’d looked to Prompto all this time. Looked after him, too.

(Those ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen months of weird coexistence: and, lurking around the edges of those days and nights, Cor Leonis who would not march out to rally his Crownsguard, rally his officers, and for what? He’d stuck like a burr to the side of Sylva Nox Fleuret in the weeks before she visibly pulled herself together and started acting like a soldier, with her son and her daughter following her. Grim death in their eyes, and the midnight-dark hope that hung from their shoulders like millstones.)

Running and hiding, always watching Sylva’s back after that: the weeks of pursuit that were suddenly, crashingly ended by Prompto’s desertion. No, it wasn’t quite that; it was that he’d been acting on orders that no one had given him, that no one had wanted to give him -- orders that made him throw himself towards the Nifs as bait, as misdirection, in hopes of buying enough time for the Nox Fleurets to get out of the way --

Months after that, before there was fresh word of Prompto. Pride and fear and regret and a crushing respect that all shaded back down into a sort of sweet anger, tearing Nyx to pieces with baffled silent pain: who had ever taught Prompto to throw himself into the line of fire again and again and again? Who had ever taught Prompto to value others so highly, and value himself so little, that he would risk his life so easily? He could never have learned that lesson in Niflheim, not when he’d been created to be a weapon and yet he’d broken those shackles on his mind without a second’s hesitation -- but when had he learned it, running with the Kingsglaive, running with the leader of the Crownsguard? When had he learned to use himself as a chip, to gamble with his own life, for the express benefit of everyone else around him?

A year away from him, a year and more and Nyx had cursed every night for passing. Cursed the lack of secure frequencies so that he couldn’t even try to raise Prompto on the radio, and only knew from moment to moment that the boy had started to take orders from none other than Aulea, from Noctis: from the Lucis Caelums themselves. What was the point of having a direct line to her when he couldn’t use it to talk to her, or to talk to Prompto?

And now, now this.

Fleeing the mountains and the destruction they’d unleashed on the Nif outpost, horror and the reek of broken and dead bodies and smashed machine-parts in their wake: a tight fit in the cramped confines of the medevac craft, Aranea Highwind pale with rage at the helm, and the promise of a messy vengeance.

There were many, many reasons for a doctor to go to the front lines of a war: but there were precious few reasons for a doctor to roar to the front lines of a war, and he wanted to respect Highwind for that. He wanted to salute the trail of precise destruction that she was leaving behind her: a trail of precise destruction that only she could have created, with the willing and vicious assistance of Sylva and Lunafreya.

But it still meant that when she’d deposited him and the Kingsglaive and Cor here, when she’d gone to retrieve the Nox Fleurets, she’d taken Prompto and Noctis and Noctis’s furry companion with her, and none of those three had looked back.

In his mind Nyx could still see Prompto, the black-clad heap of him collapsed and howling on the bloodstained snow of that mountain outpost. Cap pulled down to hide his tell-tale hair. Gloves stained with gunshot residue, covering his tears, the deep bruises of shock and fear and hate in his eyes.

Prompto who had willfully run away from him this time, and had sent no word since.

Whispered conversations all around him: he remembered those, in snippets, in broken sentences. Libertus and Crowe and Luche and Pelna talking about what they’d seen, what it meant. Scourge, was the word that kept coming up and coming up: the name for the bioweapon that the Nifs had come up with, that they had been planning to unleash on the many refugee camps scattered throughout Lucis. Scourge, in the form of those boys -- those boy-shapes -- and they had been speaking to Aulea. They had been getting orders from her directly. From her and from her son.

And for him, she’d only had kind words.

None of which he could call to mind right now.

He couldn’t call Cor to mind, either: he still had to be based here with them. His kit was still sitting near the foot of Nyx’s own cot, a battered footlocker and not much of anything else, that wasn’t even heavy: but the man himself and his weapons had been gone for a long time now.

Had the others been talking to him?

Did the others know what else was going on in this miserable place, in this miserable war?

Was Prompto talking to them? To Cor?

Silence in Nyx’s head: silence that was his shadow and his millstone and the weight sucking down at his boots, and -- oh, he was waist-deep in the water and there was a weight pressing on his hand.

Wrapping carefully around his hand, so light it was almost insubstantial, but so strong --

Nyx looked wearily over his shoulder.

Stopped dead.

Not, not real, how could this be real? Certainly he’d been mourning these days and nights: and not just for the boy who was somehow here, who was somehow holding his hand in the now. Who would ever have mourned for those bodies that had been trapped, those bodies that had been racked and pinioned and shattered? Bodies filled with Scourge, true, but -- they had lived, hadn’t they? They had been living things, too, hadn’t they? Who would have seen them as something other than broken and wrecked?

“Nyx,” Prompto said, one word, before he gasped and went under.

NO, no no no!

And as soon as he gasped for breath and dropped into the water he knew he was making a mistake: riptide beneath, clawing at him, dragging blond hair and wide fearful eyes under. Treacherous, treacherous, this water that was pulling Prompto away -- Nyx roared, and that too was a mistake because now he couldn’t inhale, now he couldn’t replace the breath that he’d lost and wasted, and his lungs burned as he grabbed at Prompto’s shoulder, Prompto’s belts, and with an almighty effort he pulled himself and Prompto out of the water and the lake winds screamed at him, cut at his cheeks and his cramping hands, as he fought the sucking pull and struggled for the shore.

Well away from the line of foam and breakers and Prompto was still heaving and fighting for his breath. Was still clinging to Nyx’s hands.

He sat down and -- and Prompto was listing into him and this was, this was not that night three or four years ago. Nyx had lost count, but he could still remember that twelve-year-old weight pressing into him and now this Prompto was so visibly not that boy.

But he was still leaning into Nyx and now Nyx had no strength for anything else, just: he wrapped his arms around Prompto’s shoulders and hung on.

Washed-out faint nightglow: by this he could see Prompto, the details of him. Blue eyes, bruised face, bloodstained freckles, lake-lank hair. The hard jutting points of shoulders and elbows and knees. Gunpowder stink that not even the waters churning not too far away could wash away.

And it all added up to him, to Prompto, to the missing piece of Nyx’s heart -- his heart that had been beaten down for so long and so it was all he could do to try and be grateful, now.

“I -- sorry, sorry, I had to say it first, sorry Nyx so sorry,” he could hear, between hitched breaths, between hard choked gasps.

“I’m sorry, too,” he said, and wrapped himself even more desperately around Prompto, even as Prompto crawled outright into his lap and sobbed. Tried so, so hard to wrap himself around this impossible boy, this impossible heart, this incredible mind -- tried so hard to just hang on.

Hang on until he was overcome by his raw nerves, the many hurts from the many, many days and nights, and then -- “Fuck,” Nyx whispered, and brushed his regrets into the crown of Prompto’s head, with a too-quick kiss.

Prompto was pulling away, groaning softly, and then he was falling right onto his back in the sand and he was staring wide-eyed into the night, unseeing.

Nyx looked at him, and then asked the question that was eating at his mind: “What the fuck?”

Harsh grating sound and the lines in Prompto’s face deepening for only a moment.

Was that supposed to have been a laugh?

Because Prompto wasn’t smiling, not in the here and now. His mouth working, for a moment, before the words could come out:

“I was tired of running away. From you. So I -- I ran away from the others. I left Noctis, and Lunafreya, and Sylva. They might be angry, because I left them. But I had to -- I was wrong, wasn’t I? To run away from you. To leave you.”

Too many words. Not enough. Not with those broken bleeding edges, not with the exhausted red in Prompto’s eyes.

“What am I, Nyx? They said I was not like those, those, what we found. In the mountains. Noctis said, I was nothing like them. But, but, Nyx. I look like them. Or they look like me. What am I? Who am I? What are they? Who are they?”

The last question was a scream into the blank night sky overhead.

Nyx wanted to recoil, wanted to turn away -- and he didn’t. Only took Prompto’s hand again. “I don’t know why the Nifs wanted to, to hurt those others,” he said, faltering. It took him too long to start talking, and he was cursing every inadequate word as he went along. “I don’t know why the Nifs wanted to use those others as, as weapons.”

“Scourge,” he heard Prompto hiss, as though the word were the worst obscenity.

“Scourge. Yeah. That. And, and not just that, right? They wanted to use you as a weapon. And instead, instead you’ve been fighting them, you’ve been wrecking their shit, right? I mean, sometimes you do it on your own. Sometimes you get lots of people to help you. But you, you’re not a weapon. You’re the kid they’re all afraid of. You’re the kid that’s fighting back.”

“They made me.”

“Doesn’t matter, does it? To -- to Lunafreya and Sylva and to the doctor. To Noctis. They don’t see you as something that Niflheim made. They don’t see you as the enemy.”

Silence, long and lake-drowned and broken.

“I am not the enemy to them, no,” he heard Prompto say. “I am important to them. Even to the doctor. When she sees me she looks sad. And angry. But not at me, she says.”

“I can imagine,” and he wanted to laugh, and couldn’t.

“And you.”

Only those nights of sitting next to each other and exchanging a handful of words -- if at that -- in the long wearying hours allowed Nyx to hear the sharp edges in that question.

Not because Prompto wanted to hurt him.

Not because Prompto was afraid of him.

But because Prompto was asking an important question. Because the answer to the question was important to Prompto himself.

The same sharp edges as when he’d walked Prompto through things like -- first aid, and reading a book for the sheer pleasure of the story and of the words. One or two stolen bites of sweet things, when those things were still easily obtainable: nuggets of chocolate, and surprises hidden within each small blocky shape. Nuts in some, and then he’d had to explain what caramel was. The singular rare pleasure of a handful of berries, that Crowe had found while foraging, and then generously shared with all the others -- saving the best of them for Prompto.

Sharp edges that meant: he wanted to understand what was going on. He wanted to remember what was going on.

So Nyx nodded, once, and placed his hand on that lanky shoulder. “And, and me. What are you to me, Prompto.”

“I need to hear it,” was the very small response, almost torn away by the waves.

“Yeah you do. I -- had no part in the making of you. In the creation of you,” Nyx muttered. “And I feel like shit about that some days. I wish I’d actually had a hand in, you know, you being created, you being born. But that might not be very important.” The words, the words, he had to be careful with the words. “Not as important as the part where -- you got out and you made a decision to join us. After that? What are you to me? You’re -- ah, fuck, why is it so hard to say?”

He scrubbed his free hand over his tears. Fresh tears. Why was he still crying?

“Sorry,” Prompto said.

“No.” He shook him by the shoulder, very gently. “I’m the one who can’t get his words out. I’m the one who should be sorry. Prompto. I had nothing to do with you being born, or escaping the Nifs, but after that I, I’ve seen you as -- as my son.” There. The word was out of him, like a bullet fired from its gun. No way of taking it back. “I feel like you are, or were, a child that I wanted to care for, and. I mean you’re not a kid any more. Hah. How can you be a kid? You’re a soldier just the same as I am. And you started earlier than I did. Still. My kid. When I think of you, that’s what I think.”

“Son.”

“Yeah.”

“Like Noctis is Aulea’s son. Like Ravus is Sylva’s son.”

“Yeah,” Nyx said, again.

And forced himself to look over.

What was he expecting? Not, not that: quiet smile pulling at the corners of Prompto’s mouth.

So he smiled back.

“Son,” Prompto said, again. “I’m your son.”

When Prompto turned his head and to lean against Nyx’s shoulder, he forgot about the stink of the lake-water and the heaviness in his chest -- and the pain that had been weighing him down, too, in the hours and in the days, felt like it was unraveling, and he could take a deep clean breath.

But it couldn’t last, it could never last: he picked up the noise of footsteps on the move, someone or something moving towards him, towards them, and Prompto, of course, ever watchful, struggled to his feet first.

Nyx still stepped in front of him -- and didn’t move, couldn’t, not with the thunderclouds and the storm on Cor Leonis’s brow.

On the other hand: it was hard to tell that the man was frowning, when his face was a mask of blood and bruises.

“Ulric. Prompto.”

“Not going anywhere away from him,” Nyx heard Prompto say. “The lady said.”

“The lady is also asking you and me and him to go to her now,” Cor said.

“And the Kingsglaive?” Nyx said.

“I didn’t come alone.” Thumb, hooking over that broad shoulder. “Lunafreya is here to take temporary command.”

“What the fuck?” And Nyx meant it for -- for Aulea, for the wreck of Cor, for the ghosts that he thought were still watching just out of sight.

“I don’t know. But we have to go now.”

Hand slipping into Nyx’s as he reluctantly turned in the direction of the encampment and the others.

He squeezed Prompto’s hand.

And still: he had a bad feeling about this.

Chapter Text

“Here you are. I trust there was no trouble on the way.”

That shock of white hair, cropped cruelly short.

Cor still wanted to shudder, remembering the last series of skirmishes: reconnoitering a likely vantage point over the roads that led to Insomnia, despite his own misgivings, despite his own best intentions. White hair scrunched into an odd flattened mass beneath a lumpy kind of beret, not unlike the one that Cor himself had worn as a very young recruit, and that had been one of the first things he’d lost when the brushfire conflicts between Niflheim and Lucis had started to escalate: and even now, try as he might, he couldn’t remember if he’d given the hat away, or if he’d left it on some desolate ruin of a fight, there to crumble into dust and ashes together with all of the bodies and all of the broken machinery.

Scouting to see if there was any point that they could snatch away from the Nif forces patrolling the area -- see how they liked being observed for a change -- and in the running battles of one unlucky night Ravus had lost his headgear and half of the supplies he’d been carrying, ammunition and rations and one of their water canteens, as he wriggled out of one trap or another and then he’d been a beacon in the night, white hair a blaze even in starless dark.

Flurry of whispered obscenities, and then Ravus had snatched the combat knife that Cor had been carrying at his hip. Hacked away at his shoulder-length hair, uneven chop-job, and it had been a macabre thing, seeing him stuff all the cut-off strands into a pocket -- and then he’d produced those handfuls of cut hair once they’d made it to safety, and burned it under the watchful eyes of his sister.

Cor had seen the pinched look in Sylva’s face when she laid eyes on her children once again, both of them shorn, and they only looked like helpless sheep.

An image that was quickly and decisively broken by the hard edges in their eyes, the clenched lines of their mouths.

“Ravus,” Prompto said, in the here and now. “Your hair.”

“Make sure you cover yours at all times,” Cor heard Ravus say, in response. “Else you will share my condition. Luna’s, too. She cut her hair in sympathy.”

Now Cor couldn’t miss the spasm in Nyx’s jaw, as Prompto produced a black cap from one of his back pockets and then crammed it onto his head. “Like this.”

“That will have to do,” was Ravus’s answer. “Now you will come with me. I am to conduct you to Noctis.”

“No,” was the surprising response. “I’m not leaving Nyx.”

“You must. As I must leave my mother. The lady -- surely you know of whom I speak? -- she has given very explicit orders to me, and to Noctis, and to you. We cannot be in the place where they meet.”

Cor watched as Nyx clenched both hands into fists.

Watched as Prompto touched Nyx’s sleeve. “I don’t want to.”

“I don’t like it at all,” he heard Nyx say. “But if it’s that kind of thing -- if we talk about things and none of you can be there, then -- it’s strategy, Prompto. And it’s operational security.”

Silence.

Hard lines surrounding those blue eyes.

And Prompto said, “Nyx? This whole thing is, it’s, it’s shit. You say that. I’ve heard you say it.”

“I agree. All of this. This is all shit.” Muttering from Ravus.

And then Nyx and Prompto were exchanging hard smiles.

As Prompto trailed off in Ravus’s wake, Cor reached out for his shoulder -- and he missed, and knew that he’d missed on purpose.

Instead, he said, “Prompto. Ravus. You know what to do, in a situation like this.”

Half-hearted shrug, from Ravus. “We will make our own plans.”

“Can we raise Lunafreya on the secure frequencies?” Prompto added, after a moment.

“Let us see what Noctis can do.”

“What have we done to them.” And now that was Nyx, looking -- smaller, more bereft, without the boy that had been walking at his side. “To all of them. Noctis. Lunafreya. Ravus. Prompto. And -- your people. The children.”

“You speak of the officers? Then you are not speaking of children.”

“They could have had the time to be. They could have had the choice.”

“Things you didn’t have. Things I didn’t have.” Cor ignored the frown, and marched down a corridor and towards the last and smallest door in the facility: the door that opened into the very heart of this small Lucian stronghold.

Sylva was surrounded by crumbs on dented tin plates, while Aulea --

Cor stopped dead. Knew he was staring.

“Close your mouth or you’ll catch flies,” Aulea said, wincing as she talked: and no wonder. Raw skin pulling at the edges of her mouth, and the bandage wound to follow her jawline and down to her throat.

“What have you done this time,” he asked.

“What I needed to do in order to stay alive. In order to keep my people alive. And I do not see any need to explain myself further to you.”

“Are you all right?”

Cor looked over at Nyx and shook his head, once, small movement.

But Aulea was rising from her seat opposite Sylva, and was beckoning, and Nyx was looking torn between saluting her and shaking her outstretched hand, finally settling on the latter, with a grimace pulling at the edges of his mouth. “Thank you for your concern, Ulric,” she was saying. “I had Sylva’s help, getting the whole thing done.”

“I don’t dare ask what the thing was.”

“Possibly that’s for the best,” and that was Sylva, who was finishing off whatever was in the tumbler next to her wrist.

“Story of this war,” he heard Aulea agree. And then: “Sit, please.”

Dread, prickling faintly, somewhere along the back of his neck -- so he braced his feet, in the metaphorical way, and in the literal.

“I’m heading to Insomnia,” Aulea said, after a very long moment. “And I’m not heading there alone.”

“We’re calling the others in,” he heard Sylva in. “By which I mean: Cor, how long has it been since you worked with your own units? With your own people?”

“Too long,” he said. “And. I will not deny that it will do our cause good, if people were to hear that the Lucis Caelums were determined to push for home. For their home. For their traditional stronghold. But -- do you really need me to point out the dangers of this push? And us without proper supply lines. Have you unearthed reinforcements, or resources, and merely neglected to tell me?”

“Yes and no.” He watched as Sylva folded her arms over her chest. “I do not need to tell you that for all its rhetoric, for all its war-mongering bluster, Niflheim is not, not a monolith. We are not dealing with a hive mind.”

“It only feels that way,” he heard Nyx mutter.

“Yes, yes it does. But -- you know where I have been, with the assistance of Doctor Highwind. Many of our trips involved crossing the old borders between Niflheim and Lucis. And we have been speaking to many who are disaffected with this conflict. Many who, in fact, curse it.”

“The young ones are being conscripted for, for nothing,” and Aulea took the story back up. “The young ones are dying for nothing more than posturing and hollow victories. So I am going to use the families as a wedge against the Nifs.”

Disbelieving snort, from Nyx. “And what makes you think you haven’t conscripted them, either?”

“What kind of leader would I be then? I would be no better than that madman throwing his troops away. I gave them the choice. They have divided themselves rather clearly in response to that choice. Some will fight from within. Some will stand aside. Some will actively contribute resources to us. If all of this goes well, we’ll retake Insomnia and we’ll have the numbers to hold on to the city. From there -- we’ll see.”

“So you’ll need the officers, if you’re going to have that many, or that few, new recruits,” Cor said. “I cannot like this plan. I have many, many misgivings.”

“I expect to hear the list,” was Aulea’s immediate response. “I know you, Cor. You’re already thinking about all the things you ever said in all your reports. You’re already thinking about how impossible it’s going to be, to get back to Insomnia, and then to hold it. I need you to tell me your objections.”

“I can start right now,” he said, rising.

“Sit down, please. Let me finish.”

Hard edges in her words, too. In the steely glint in her eyes.

He sat down, and braced his feet again.

“The one thing I need to know from you, right now: are you prepared to help me?”

He felt himself bristle. “Of all the things -- now you ask me that question? Now you ask me? What is it that I’ve been doing all this time?”

“You’ve been fighting, it’s true,” and that was Sylva, who only sounded soft. “And there are no reproaches we can level against your record. None. For which we are proud and grateful. But tell me, and tell Aulea: inasmuch as you win nearly every skirmish you’ve gotten into, what is the price that you’re paying? What is the toll that your victories have taken on you?”

“I don’t understand,” he growled, dividing it between the two of them.

“What are you fighting for? Right now, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the day after that?”

He was familiar with Aulea’s determination.

He had never seen her look so weary before.

“Out with it,” he snapped at her. “You’re asking me questions because you’re winding up to a point, and I don’t appreciate being wound up. Just get to the point and we can see whether I get it or not, and then if this is a test of some kind -- ”

“As near as we can determine, Regis went into coma at some point within the last year.”

A quiet “Shit”, from Nyx’s direction.

“Minimal response to painful stimuli, mostly in the form of reflex movements of the eyes and of his hands.” Sylva’s voice was quiet and cool and clear. “He can no longer make any sounds that we can recognize as speech, or that are similar to speech.”

“Rules,” and he could almost convince himself he wasn’t hearing that tremor in Aulea’s voice. “The rules in this situation. We did make those rules extremely clear, long before things could get to this point. Regis and I, we could do that much at least. Noctis would take the throne if Lucis were still a functioning kingdom; as it’s not, he is the leader of a country that doesn’t really exist, and he is the leader of its armed forces in name. I am regent until he comes of age, and in his name I lead all the soldiers who still remain. All those who are loyal, whether they’ve been part of the forces for a long time, or are newly come to us.”

“So the first thing you want to do is to head back to Insomnia?” Cor asked.

“I want to take it back. I want to hold it. That’s all I can ask for right now: if we succeed at that, then I’ll let myself dream of other things.”

“So you’re asking us to risk -- everything, again, in the hopes of gaining that much?” he heard Nyx ask. “Back to the capital -- for what?”

“You have reservations,” Aulea said.

“Yes.”

What kind of movement was that in Nyx’s shoulders, hunched and then straightened and then thrown back?

“My son.”

“Son -- ? Ah. So you have had the chance to speak with Prompto,” Sylva said.

“That is a good thing. It means you’re trying to think beyond this, all this,” and Aulea gestured at the room, at its sterility, at its cracked and bowed walls. “It means you’ve found a place where you can hope.”

Cor sighed, and shook his head. “This is nonsense.”

“Prompto’s not nonsense,” and Nyx was growling now. “Noctis isn’t nonsense. Ravus. Lunafreya.”

“Oh, is it a list of names? Then let me add to it,” and he stared Nyx down, easily. “Gladiolus. Ignis. Cindy. What is your point? They are soldiers now. We are none of us children. They are none of them children. And it’s a pretty thought, consolidation.” He turned to the women. “Even if we do manage to do that one impossible thing, and then go on from there: what the fuck good does that do?”

“She just said,” Sylva began. “Hope -- ”

He cut her off. “What is that? Do your children know what that really is?” Turning to Aulea. “Do you think Noctis will be able to, to rule, if you get him back to his home? It isn’t even the place where he was born. Do you think he’ll make a perfect king who’ll somehow bring Lucis back, just because you take him to Insomnia?”

“I didn’t think the war would get to you like this,” he heard Aulea say.

“That is not what I am saying,” he said. “I’ve been staring this war in its face for as long as it’s been going on. And before that -- you remember, don’t you? Where we all were, long before this particular war? You were married in the middle of a firefight, Aulea. You gave birth on a battlefield. You’ll forgive me if I can only ever see -- the dead. The dying. Your faces on broken bodies.”

A presence at his side: something was wrong with the lines of Nyx’s scowl, like there was something else beneath the anger of him. “What the hell, Cor: there’s war, and the actual realities of people being dead, but -- what are you saying? Are you saying we should just stay in place and wither away? I can’t agree to what they’re saying but, but I get it. I get what they want. I can throw myself at it: if we have even a snowball’s chance in hell of getting ourselves to Insomnia, then, then I’ll do what I can to get us there.”

“And Prompto?”

“So long as he’s with me through all this!”

“You’re sending your son into death! You!” He whirled, and pointed at the others. “I don’t honestly know what’s better: do I consider that the children are not children and shelter them from this thing, or do I remember that they are children and I throw them into the fight anyway? None of you are thinking straight. None of you know what you’re doing.”

“You’re not thinking straight either,” he heard Nyx say.

“Why don’t you tell me how I can do that,” he said, as he shouldered him aside. “Why don’t you tell yourself, and these two, how you live with the idea of leading your friends, your son, into death. Because that’s the kind of thought I have to live with. Because that’s the kind of thing I’ve done. Because that’s the kind of knowledge that I have to carry with me.”

He couldn’t remember making the conscious decision to head for the door, and walk through it: he only knew that he’d left the room that had become stifling, and that he had just somehow barely avoided running down a wide-eyed Noctis, and he didn’t even hear the footsteps that had been running in his wake until there was a hand on his shoulder -- and then there was nothing for it but to lash out, to shake the hand away and swing for that face, the face of Nyx Ulric --

“Wait, fuck, don’t -- I didn’t come out here to pick a fight!”

And Cor felt the impact of the block, Nyx’s forearms coming up to stop him and they both stared at each other over their hands, over their shaking wrists, and he looked away first, despite the anger roaring in his ears.

Stepped away, and kept moving: and somehow he was rounding a long curve on an empty road, steep steady upward slope, and the trees turned their green leaves away and looked up to the sky, leaving him with nothing but the roar of his fears, the roar of his thoughts, and the shadow of the other man moving towards him.

“What do you want,” he said, and he stopped in a pool of deep shadows, and he was sure the rustling branches and leaves overhead were louder than his words -- still, there would never be enough white noise, there would never be a silence that would drown out the nightmares --

“You were there?”

Nyx.

Stupid question.

“What,” he said.

“The things you said to Aulea. You were there for them. Her wedding? Noctis?”

He blinked.

“Not for her wedding.” Why was he even answering?

Daylight skies overhead, murky gray clouds pressing down on the scant slivers of blue, and the wind that kicked up its pitch as it threw leaves down: nothing at all like late-night conversations that they could both say never took place, nothing at all like brushes of hand and foot.

But he held his ground when Nyx went to stand next to him. Shoulder next to shoulder in the shadow of the tall trees, while he answered the other question.

“She bruised my arm, in giving birth to Noctis. It was not, not easy, for him to come into the world: and the world stank of blood, that day.”

He remembered feeling his hands and feet grow cold, adrenaline spiking and the firefight only hours in the past, and Aulea falling to her knees, her harsh cry and the fluids soaking into her trousers, and Clarus and Weskham sweating and swearing, nowhere near trained to help a person in the throes of delivering a child -- and somehow, somehow, they’d helped her deliver Noctis and Cor himself had been the first person to look into those blue eyes, where he and Regis had had to prop her up, half-sitting, for the hours of her labor.

“I was a child,” he said, and the admission lay heavy and sour on his tongue, and he turned away. “What do you want.”

“I came here spoiling for a fight but -- but I saw your face,” he heard Nyx say. “I was going to yell at you about, about Prompto and the others.”

“Should I thank you for your forbearance, and will that make you go away?”

Movement, out of the corner of his eye: Nyx raising both hands, open and empty. “It’s not that I can’t take a hint: if you really don’t want this conversation -- I’m not sure I do, really, and I’m the one who’s trying to get it started -- then you really don’t want it and I’ll leave you alone. But, but tell me if I’m wrong: you’re scared of this thing that she wants to do. You are. You’re like me. Running scared of this thing.”

“You cannot presume to tell me what makes me afraid of it.”

“I was hoping you’d tell me. Because you know why I’m afraid. And correct me if I’m wrong, but, I mean, we’ve had these conversations before. Something like them. We just keep having them and saying they never happened. Or convincing ourselves they never did, which is practically the same thing.”

So their minds were running on parallel tracks.

He watched as Nyx groaned, and bent over to bang a fist against his knees, and then simply fold himself down into a sitting position, legs outstretched in front of him.

“You are not well. Get yourself tended to.”

“Nothing to do for this except get off my feet, and in case you’ve forgotten, I don’t get many chances to do that.”

There was no one here.

No one to observe, and only one person to hear him, if he should speak.

Distant memories of conversations in the night.

“You never had a kid before, like a kid of your own,” he heard Nyx say, softly.

“Noctis does not count. So no.”

“You’ve looked out for him all this time?”

“Before Aulea could ever ask.” Again the instincts that told him to swallow the words had fled him. Familiar, and strange at the same time.

“So when he started being a soldier it -- probably didn’t sit well with you.”

“Nor does it sit well with you, seeing what your son insists on. What he says he’s made to do.”

“I fucking hate it: and I also know I’m alive today because of his actions, thank you very much. I can’t bear that. I can’t think of it. How could that have happened? How could I have let it all get to the point where that was going to happen? But there’s only one answer to all of those questions and I want that answer. I want to grasp it in my hands. This whole fucking miserable shitpile of a war: I want it done. I don’t know how to see it done.”

“Going to Insomnia will not see the war done.”

“It’s not even the beginning of the end,” he heard Nyx say, on the edges of a too-sharp laugh. “It maybe means nothing in the long run. But if it creates something better: if it’s the spark we need to create new hope, so we can fight and keep going and keep working toward that end -- then, then I’ll do it, like I said. I’ll do it and I won’t object to Prompto fighting next to me. I couldn’t. Like I said.”

“And losing him?” He sat down, just next to him.

“Something I fear, the same way you fear losing Noctis. He’s, he’s all the others you can’t count, right? He’s the, the, what do you call it? The distillation of the whole thing, the symbol of everyone else.”

“He is Regis and Aulea’s son. And he is all the others. I must live with the thought of losing him, every day, as I live with the thought of losing Aulea every day. I can bear being hunted. I can survive Niflheim, if it should try to break me. But them? I cannot lose them.”

“So there. Yeah. That’s the thing in common, that you and I have.”

A hand, reaching out, hanging in the space between them.

He stared at it for a long moment.

What would it mean, for him to admit to saying these things out loud?

(What had it meant, when he’d said things out loud in the presence of this man and his fragmented dreams, his haunted waking?)

“Never mind,” he heard Nyx say.

He caught that hand as it was being withdrawn.

Rough skin against his own scars.

Warmth, pressing in against him, like something strange, like something heavy and odd and soft. “I envy you.”

“Yeah? And here I was thinking, what’s it like to be as clearheaded as you?”

“You give me too much credit. I, I am not.”

Quiet chuckle, that didn’t feel like a goad or a lash. “That’s not what I was expecting you to say.”

“No,” he said, just to be difficult.

More laughter.

And there was a pull on his hand, an irresistible force that was sending him in Nyx’s direction. A whisper of “Please don’t kill me” -- and the touch of lips against his forehead.

Cor blinked. Pulled away a little, and blinked again. “What.”

Shrug. A quiet response. “Should have done that a long time ago. Comfort: you looked like you needed it. I kept chickening out, when we were having all those other conversations. So there. I won’t do it again if you don’t want it, just -- maybe you needed it then.”

He watched, dumbstruck, as Nyx levered himself to his feet with a grunt. As Nyx stuck his hands in his pockets and started walking away.

It was easy, after all, to get to his feet: he only needed to overcome that moment of paralysis. Easy to catch up and reach out to Nyx’s elbow, to get him to stop.

“Yeah?”

“You have no shortage of people who will comfort you.”

“I don’t, yeah? But why is that important?”

He couldn’t kiss him, not that easily: so he turned Nyx around, a little, so they were facing each other.

Touched his forehead briefly to Nyx’s.

(He remembered being on the receiving end of that gesture from Noctis, toddling on his unsteady feet at the time.)

“Thanks,” he heard Nyx say.

Chapter Text

He was always being woken up, he was always getting jolted back into sharp reeling consciousness, and there was pain screaming in his nerves, right in the very marrow of his bones, and he went tense and -- huh, was he naked? Was he waking up without his clothes? No wonder there was such a chill in him, eating at his scars, at his fingertips -- he was pushing himself up from the threadbare blanket before he could properly think --

And no, that was strange, because there was warmth plastered up and down his back and it was moving with him, it was tensing with him and there was an arm around his chest, wiry strength that held him: what?

He said it, just on the edge of out loud: “What.”

Rat-tat-tat of impact somewhere outside the windows: the distant hue and cry of weapons being discharged, too regular for an actual skirmish or something of the sort. A voice, barking out orders, and Nyx almost recognized the cadence -- not the words themselves that he couldn’t make out anyway, but the up and down of the tones, rhythmic, steady.

“What,” he said, again.

“Safe.”

Again he went tense, and then his brain caught up with him.

This voice he recognized.

This warmth behind him he knew.

All of a sudden: he remembered.

That didn’t stop him from struggling, a little, to turn around: and the arm that was holding him shifted just enough, against the goosebumps in his skin, so he could look Cor Leonis in the eyes.

“All right,” that low, low voice asked, quieter than usual.

“I -- what was that? What woke me up?”

“Drills. Might have been Libertus.”

Not a stitch of clothing on Cor’s long rangy frame, either, and that was why he was radiating such warmth that Nyx groaned and burrowed closer. Touched his cheek to the skin stretched over a collar bone, and sighed to soak up the heat that Cor was giving off.

“What are you, a cat?” he heard Cor mutter, but he wasn’t complaining, was he? Not when he could feel Cor’s free hand moving, drawing the blanket back over him -- and then stroking up between his shoulders, coming to a stop at the back of his head.

“All right.” And that was still mostly a question.

Nyx blinked, and wrapped his arm around Cor’s chest. “I hate that. Waking up like that. Like being kicked in the back of my head. And I’ve had that experience, thanks but no thanks, and -- fuck no.”

“I don’t understand you. You have to have gotten used to this by now. Soldiering. The risks of. And that the moment we try to get some decent sleep, things go all to hell.”

That oddly soothing rumble of words: and now Nyx could remember that, that he could touch him. That he’d been given permission to touch him: so he shifted around to free up the arm he was half-lying on, and placed the palm of his hand flat over Cor’s chest. Not over his heart, but close enough that he could almost feel the thumping echoes of that steady pulse.

“So did we go to hell earlier?” he asked.

“We weren’t sleeping.”

That deadpan, that faint hint of amusement and also satisfaction in those three words, and Nyx muffled the chuckle, half in the blanket and half in Cor’s skin. “No, no we were not.”

Flash, flash, in his mind’s eye, as he tried to remember. As he tried to connect the sensations in his skin and in his nerves to the things they’d done, in the frantic snatched hours: and he licked his lips, forgetting exactly where he was, and that was how he caught another taste of the salt of Cor’s sweat, musk and the ever-present burr of gunpowder -- this time it was a groan that he muffled in Cor and this time he could hear and feel Cor laughing, maybe at him?

“Hey,” he said, and scraped his teeth against the shape of that collar bone.

And Cor went tense and liquid all at once, somehow: heat flaring up in Nyx’s cheeks at the sound that escaped Cor’s mouth, like a word he couldn’t quite parse, a sound that wasn’t quite a demand.

Too late he remembered the urgent whisper, somewhere in the very recent past: “Nothing that’ll show -- but please do that, you can keep doing that.”

That being: Nyx pulled Cor closer and whispered into his skin. “Interested?”

The first answer he got was the roll of Cor’s hips, the heat of Cor’s cock, already half-hard.

The second answer was the kiss, slow and filthy, and he hissed and gave as good as he got, nails scoring Cor’s arm -- and again Cor made that inarticulate sound.

Yearning.

It was yearning.

“Oh fuck.”

Nyx ground his cock into Cor’s thigh and pulled away from the kiss to grin -- though it was a crooked grin and he knew it. Breath knocked out of him on the lust in Cor’s half-lidded eyes, the twist in his lazy smirk.

It was as if he hadn’t fallen asleep at all, spent and stupidly satisfied into the bargain -- it was as if he hadn’t happily spent too much time trying to find all the ways in which Cor Leonis could fall apart at the seams -- teeth and nails across chest and nipple, and his hand learning the shape and the heft of Cor’s cock. The harsh breaths that escaped Cor, louder and louder the closer he got to the sharp beautiful edge of his orgasm. The flush that spread over scarred skin, that burned higher and higher in his face, all the lines of him twisted with need.

Hand scrabbling at his hip: it was a request and it was a demand at the same time, Cor asking for something without using his words, and Nyx was rising, was moving as Cor wanted him to, because he really really really wanted to find out what Cor had in mind, he really really wanted to experience it for himself, whatever that demand was and -- oh. Oh.

On his knees at the head of the bed, and he shivered and hunched over, hung on to the wall and to the bed frame, heedless of the bruises and the aches in his shoulders and his back: running and hiding and fighting with his knives and his very fists and feet just to get back to the safety of this training camp in the first place. Opening the door to the bunk he’d been assigned, one single occupied room in an otherwise empty cabin -- and the presence of Cor, half-dressed in that narrow bunk.

And oh, how they’d tried to talk themselves out of the inevitable: Nyx had almost backed out the same door he’d just entered, hating the flush in his cheeks, and then Cor had gotten out of that bed just to ease his trousers down over his hips.

He hadn’t actually been wearing anything beneath the trousers.

Bare as he was now, where he was licking his lips and that was deliberate, that was so much worse than teasing -- he was right there between Nyx’s thighs, he was right there for Nyx to take --

Cor’s hand on his cock, guiding him in, in, in -- how, how, Nyx wondered, all the thoughts in his mind stripped away as he felt himself hit the back of Cor’s throat -- he blinked, and saw that Cor was nodding at him.

Wordless growl ripping out of him as he thrust, once, twice, and Cor’s eyes were fluttering shut, Cor was humming around his cock, gods --

He had to close his eyes: he had to lose himself or else this would be over too soon, and he wanted this, wanted to fuck Cor’s throat, thoroughly -- wanted to oblige him since he’d been asking for it, since that was explicitly what he wanted -- Nyx bit at the inside of his cheek and centered himself on that welcome flash of pain -- enough that he could grin back at Cor, and settle into a better rhythm: deep slow hard every time he moved, and gods, Cor might have been laughing at him and might have been urging him on, how could he, how --

Thrust and again, again, and the movement of Cor’s throat as he swallowed -- too much, too much, that was too good and that was the last straw -- orgasm hitting like hammers all up and down his spine, lighting every nerve ending with wildfire --

And no, he wasn’t planning to leave Cor unsatisfied, either -- just, it was a trick and a half to bend back down, to kiss Cor’s swollen lips and taste himself, and he reached for Cor’s cock and somehow he remembered that rapid pace, that demanding rhythm -- he knew he’d gotten it right when Cor actually keened out his name -- low long groan, just the once, and that was more than enough -- more than enough to make him buckle beneath him, eyes going wide blank unseeing as he came.

The soft rasping sounds of Cor trying to catch his breath: Nyx hid his smile in Cor’s shoulder, and wiped his hand on the sheets before pulling him close.

“Favor.”

Nyx blinked. “Don’t know what I can do right now.”

“Stay.”

He let the smile turn into a quiet laugh. “Yeah.”