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Cutting the Wires Loose

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The man who comes to collect it, wears a face N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t recognize.

That, in of itself, isn’t something that causes immediate alarm.

It shouldn’t, anyway. Officers, Commanders, Scientists—a myriad of different officials come and go. And while N-iP01357-05953234 does attempt to commit to memory those that it knows it will further come in contact with, it cannot profess to knowing every single individual, but it does know how to differentiate them.

The man who had opened its holding cell, has a physique that suggests he is a Guard, but does not wear the fatigues of one, nor that of a Commander.

The abrupt opening of the door startled N-iP01357-05953234, and instantly it had locked up upon the small cot it sat.

The man’s gaze, for a split, brief moment, almost looks confused (a trick of the light, surely, or N-iP01357-05953234’s sight is now failing. Either is plausible). He blinks, and his brow slowly comes together in a knot as he regards N-iP01357-05953234.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows its mistake, of course. The ill repute it feels is second only to the sudden pang of fear that strikes it, so it quickly attempts to fix its blunder.

The scramble it does off the cot is undignified, and in any other context, it would be rightly reprimanded for it—but this isn’t any context; N-iP01357-05953234’s end is near, so it hopes such a fact will have the man be more lenient.

Its stance could be better, its salute more refined, and N-iP01357-05953234’s attempt to base its final moments in some sense of dignity doesn’t come in realization. N-iP01357-05953234 knows this, and its lowly attempt is further debased by the fact it is unable to give a verbal greeting.

Unit  N-Two-Three-Four reporting for duty, Sir is what it is meant to say, should say. But its voice has malfunctioned, however long ago it has been, and even though it tries to complete its salute, nothing comes from its open mouth, so it promptly shuts it. Shame pierces it like a mauling, and N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to swallow its mortification. It goes down as if it were swallowing a razor blade.

It doesn’t matter, in the end, it supposes. Because its end is imminent, its decommissioning unavoidable; it's why it is in this holding cell to being with. It’s why this man has come to collect it, to escort it to where it’ll be processed. Cut open, examined, put under a lens and scrutinized, to see what went wrong with it. Before eventually, what's left of it will be sent to the crematories.

N-iP01357-05953234, truthfully (embarrassingly), doesn’t know if it’ll be conscious during the preliminary examinations. And while it hopes not, it already has accepted it as a possibility. And while the thought of it brings with it a numbness that has N-iP01357-05953234 feel as though it is already anesthetized, it produces a fearful sweat despite itself.

Though—it hopes, within its decommissioning, a break in the clouds can be sought. The root of its defects found, and mended, so it doesn’t occur in future units. The possibility of such is what has given N-iP01357-05953234 a small amount of comfort, within its cell as it waits for the inevitable.

It hopes, likewise, that it won’t be remembered; known as a blemish in the records but nothing more, its designation given to another, better unit.               

The man who stands before it is quiet, for a moment, simply staring at N-iP01357-05953234 with an unreadable expression. His unwavering gaze has N-iP01357-05953234 want to avert its eyes, and it finds a small sense of pride when it is able to hold the man’s scrutiny.

“At ease.” comes from the man, but his voice is odd. Hesitant, almost. But N-iP01357-05953234 knows that can’t possibly true, so it must assume that its hearing is now becoming faulty.

The command he gives bring relief to N-iP01357-05953234 systems (even if the command itself is somewhat confusing. It expects a “follow me”, or a simple flick of the wrist to command the same), and it loosens its posture and brings down its salute, as do its eyes. It dutifully brings its sights downwards towards the man’s feet, and awaits his order to follow towards the examination room.

“Come with me.” the man says, and N-iP01357-05953234 does.

N-iP01357-05953234 expects for the man to trend in front of it. What it doesn’t expect, and what has it jolting in sudden surprise, is for the man to instead walk beside it—which is odd in of itself—but then the man puts his hand on the small of N-iP01357-05953234’s back.

N-iP01357-05953234 almost trips over itself, but manages to keep a stumbling pace. The breath it sucks in is involuntary, and it has to manually rectify its breathing. It keeps a hard stare down the hallway, which is blissfully empty, but it thinks it can feel the hand behind it almost jerk away at its reaction like it's—like the man is tentative, in some way.  

(But that’s impossible, obviously.)

They both walk at a steady pace, and N-iP01357-05953234 idly thinks that the journey is longer than it should be.

It should have been suspicious then, but it should have absolutely known something was amiss when the man stopped at an alcove, gave a cursory glance in all directions, and then knelt to N-iP01357-05953234’s level.  

“What’s your name?” the man asks, his voice low and quiet, but there’s a hint of urgency there.

(Alarms should have been ringing inside of N-iP01357-05953234 at that, but its defects go far and deep.)

N-iP01357-05953234 simply stares for a moment, bewildered. The man is obviously asking for his designation, but what a baffling way to request it; and the man should already know. Presumably, but N-iP01357-05953234 knows not to questions officials. Perhaps the man is making sure he has the right unit.

N-iP01357-05953234’s heart clenches at the fact he cannot give a verbal response, his throat twisting on itself at the very thought, so it brings its wrist upwards to show the man its barcode.

The man looks at the offered wrist. He looks at it far longer than it should warrant.

N-iP01357-05953234 can see the man’s jaw clench just a fraction, his eyes harden, and N-iP01357-05953234’s arm begin to tremble. It is a shameful reaction, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows it is required to give a verbal reply, but it can’t. It has no other choice but to show its wrist; the man should already know its defects, but his reaction has N-iP01357-05953234 mouth begin to dry.

The man looks up to him, swallows, before saying, “I’m going to get you out of here.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what that means. Doesn’t even know what to make of it, if this man is suddenly speaking in riddles. It knows its confusion bleeds onto its face but the perplexity has made it too stupefied to keep track of it.

N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t given much time to process it anyhow, as the man then says, “I’m going to pick you up now, alright?”

N-iP01357-05953234 simply continues to stare. Its arm is still outstretched in showing its wrist and it finds its mind a startling blank as to how to assess what is going on at the current moment.

It doesn’t understand why the man would pick it up, much less announce it. It can walk, it has been doing so, so obviously the man knows this. But it nods, jerkily, to let him know that it has received the message.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows it’s coming, but when the man swiftly picks it up, N-iP01357-05953234 still stiffens regardless. It clings, automatically, onto the shirt of the man.

And with that, the man absconds, with N-iP01357-05953234 in his arms.

 

~

 

N-iP01357-05953234 should have known earlier, should have picked up on the clues so brazenly offered in front of it.

And yet, still, N-iP01357-05953234 has failed in even that. Failed in, when realizing that the man was not taking it to its decommissioning, that it had not fought him.

The moment when N-iP01357-05953234 knew that this man was taking it out of the facility, fleeing into the city and then out, was one of a creeping dread.

It isn’t sudden, it isn’t a moment that rocks N-iP01357-05953234 to its core. Perhaps, if it had, N-iP01357-05953234 would have resisted, instead of simply lying limp.

Limp, simply letting this man continue. Its mind completely barren; it should have been racing, assessing the situation, formulating an escape plan. But when it knows it should have been doing so, what it is greeted with is a vacant mind-space. As if its consciousness were detached, there isn’t even a reminiscent feeling of something frustratingly out of reach. It is just hollow.

It should have likewise been more cognizant. The fact it doesn’t recall much of the journey the man took it through should be worrying. It thinks the man had spoken to it, on multiple occasions, but N-iP01357-05953234 only has fuzzy recollections of it.

It should be terrified, in fact, that it finds itself on a water vessel, wearing new clothes that the man hastily got for it at some point.

It should be terrified, at realizing that this man who had so easily captured it, is Lucian.

Instead, the dread that settles within it does so like a stone in its gut.

(Even at the eve of its own decommissioning, it all falls apart.)

It’s a small and fragile comfort to know that its broken voice could be a good thing in this turn of events. No matter what the Lucians may put it through, N-iP01357-05953234, at the very least, is confident they won't receive a peep from it.  

The delicate ease the thought brings is somewhat blighted when it realizes, without this sudden fortunate disability, N-iP01357-05953234 would have most likely cracked. If it still possessed the functions of its voice, it would probably use it a means to bring further shame to the Empire. It is only the fact its voice is caged and no key exists, that N-iP01357-05953234 is certain that maybe, not all is lost.

Its fist clench on their own accord, its nails digging into skin and the small soreness it produces anchoring N-iP01357-05953234. The man next to it is still but N-iP01357-05953234 knows he intermittently glances down at its direction.

For the Empire, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, a repeating symphony, and it gives little brewing hope.

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 lays upon something impossibly soft. Delicate, almost as if it lays upon a cloud, like N-iP01357-05953234 is floating.

It makes N-iP01357-05953234’s skin crawl. The smoothness of the fabric irritates it, the foreign nature of the bed feels as though N-iP01357-05953234 is bathed in a mound of insects; scuttering legs hiking at every inch of N-iP01357-05953234’s body, threatening to bury it. Threatening to bury inside of N-iP01357-05953234, to burrow deep beneath its flesh and make tunnels of ruined tissue.

N-iP01357-05953234 lays upon a bed, in a place where the man—Cor, he had introduced himself at some point—has taken it. N-iP01357-05953234 may not know about the inner establishments of Lucis, but it knows that this place is not yet the desired location Cor wishes to take it. A pit stop. An interlude in their journey as night falls.

(A “motel” N-iP01357-05953234 would later learn.)

“You must be tired.” Cor had said. While correct, N-iP01357-05953234 had simply stared. As a response, with pursed lips, Cor herded N-iP01357-05953234 inside their room.

The ceiling N-iP01357-05953234 stares at is bare. The room it is in is blanketed within darkness, and the silence that permanents throughout seeks to make it deaf.

N-iP01357-05953234 swallows, thickly. And slowly, as carefully as it can manage, turns its gaze away from the ceiling, and to the body that occupies the bed next to it.

The crinkling of the pillow that results from N-iP01357-05953234 maneuvering its head, sound as sharp cracks that starkly contrast the established silence. N-iP01357-05953234 winces, each time, but Cor does not stir.

A small dresser separates N-iP01357-05953234 and Cor, with the latter’s back facing N-iP01357-05953234. The man’s breathing is deep, rhythmic, but N-iP01357-05953234 is not foolish enough to think that he is actually asleep.

The silhouette of the large man, accented by the littering of the moonlight from outside, speaks as though a jagged mountain, or a—

Or a sleeping lion.

Cor Leonis.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows that name, of course.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t eavesdrop, but when officials speak when it is near, words reach its ears regardless.

A menace is what this man is. A blight. Bane of the Empire, he was once described as; an unforgiving force on the battlefield, so much so that Commanders shift uncomfortably on their feet at the mere mentioning of him.

That fucking Marshal, N-iP01357-05953234 remembers hearing, once, words from an Officer. Voice dripping acid, the title spat out with a bitter hatred. A foe long established as one with priority, second only to the Caelum royalty.

Kill on sight.

Of course, of course, it’s Cor—of all people—that captures it.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows it cannot match Cor. Knows that if it were to try to engage in combat with the man, it would be easily disposed of. There’s no use in that regard, so N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to divert resources on the idea of escaping the man.

But N-iP01357-05953234 knows, deep down to its core, that such is fundamentally fruitless as well.

N-iP01357-05953234 understands that it shouldn’t give the Lucians a chance on interrogating it. Even if its voice is lost, N-iP01357-05953234 shouldn’t allow its enemies the luxury of even strapping it down to chair for questioning, for any sort of examinations.

With N-iP01357-05953234’s luck, with how this has all played out already, the Lucians may find something of use from N-iP01357-05953234, regardless of its lack of voice.

And it is with that notion that N-iP01357-05953234 should, at all costs, cease that from happening. Combat would end in disaster, as would attempting to flee; N-iP01357-05953234 imagines that Cor would break all its limbs to sufficiently incapacitate it.

N-iP01357-05953234’s heart hammers within its chest, blaringly loud, violating the quiet. It bludgeons at N-iP01357-05953234’s head, and it worries the rapid pace of its heart is so loud that it could disturb Cor.

But the man doesn’t move, and N-iP01357-05953234 almost wishes he does. The anxiety of being so constantly on edge, of waiting for this man to react, has its head ache, as if it were in a vice.

It knows escaping is futile. But N-iP01357-05953234 is so high strung, its limbs so taunt, that it wishes to simply dash towards the door. It wouldn’t get to it, it knows, Cor would have it in an instant. And with a simple flex, with no effort, Cor would break its legs as punishment; like a twig.

N-iP01357-05953234’s last resort is to self-destruct. It had been declared for decommissioning, and if it were still at the facility, then its destiny would have already been satisfied. There isn’t, currently, a means to fulfill it, however. And if N-iP01357-05953234 were to move, there’s no telling what Cor may do, what the man is capable of inflicting that would have N-iP01357-05953234 howl despite having no voice.

How ironic it is that N-iP01357-05953234 would be panicked at the thought of decommissioning, but now seeks it as a blissful solution. If Cor had never interfered, then N-iP01357-05953234’s mistakes would have been burnt to ash like the rest of it, and it wouldn’t have to even think about how lying on this bed, it feels as though its skin is being flayed.  

The bed is alien to N-iP01357-05953234’s being, cushioned, but rendered uncomfortable and itchy by its unfamiliar nature. It wants nothing more than to withdraw from the prison of soft fabric, and become reacquainted with the familiar harshness of the floor beneath.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t sleep. It keeps its eyes trained on the dormant lion that has its teeth secured around its neck.

 

 

(The boy is right, of course, Cor does not sleep that night either. The child’s gaze is like a knife to his back, and likewise he isn’t about allow himself slumber when there’s a child, skittish like a mouse, that requires his observance.

He had hoped if he were to act as though asleep the child would follow suit. He didn’t think if he were to stand like a gargoyle giving watch that the child would feel comfortable, but his acting skills are all for naught; the boy doesn’t get a wink of sleep.

There’s a sour taste in Cor’s mouth, as he lays there in the somber room, as the Marshal thinks about what, exactly, has he gotten himself into this time.)

  


 

In the end, Cor returns to Lucis with very little.

In the end, he returns with a child.

“A kid.” Clarus deadpans, brows knitted.

“Yes.” Cor sighs, rubbing his face. “You heard right.”

Clarus stares for a moment, quiet. “How old?” He asks.

“Shit, I dunno.” Cor shrugs, his frustration building, causing him to pace in the vicinity of Clarus’s office. “Seven, maybe?”

A damn toddler, is what. A child imprisoned in a small cell, as if in solitary confinement. Detained in a godsdamned military facility, the boy’s pallid skin mimicking a corpse, as if this kid has never seen the light of day. As if those four walls were all this kid ever knew.

There had been hope, that when Cor had arrived back in the safety of the Citadel, that all would become clearer. It’s idealistic thinking, sure, as if suddenly, miraculously, the kid would stop being a silent statue. That the heavy bags beneath his eyes would dissipate, the bruises that pattern the boys skin would heal, and he would actually speak.

The kid has been wearing a plain uniform, akin to a hospital gown, but a simple form fitting shirt and pants, with no shoes. It showed little skin, save for the boy’s arms, head, neck and feet; but Cor doesn’t need to see the entirety the boy’s bare body to know the mosaic of bruises and scars that had been present on his visible flesh goes further beneath his clothing.  

It was only by some divine intervention he was able to get actual clothes on the kid, probably setting some world record with how hurriedly he got the kid a jacket, a pair of shoes, and a wristband.

(The ink on the boy’s wrist bearing itself like a slap to the face.)

If he had lingered any longer, he’s certain authorities would have caught up. Not even the military; he’s positive the store clerk thought him a human trafficker with how the kid looked, and he doesn’t blame them. The expression they had isn’t one Cor intends to have repeated towards him for as long as he lives, Astrals willing.

Clarus hums, “And am I to assume there is a good reason you brought back this child…?”

“Because this kid was in an underground military facility,” Cor ceases his pacing and whips around to give the other man his full attention. “And he’s got a barcode on his wrist.”

That alone should speak volumes, and Cor doesn’t need to elaborate, because Clarus’s face goes grim.

“And what else did you find?” Clarus inquires.

“Not much.” Cor answers, not bothering to curb his disgruntlement in front of the other man. “Other than Imperial citizens are vanishing.”

Clarus quirks a brow, “Is that so?”

In abject terms, on paper, the infiltration was a failure. Because they’re no closer to knowing what the Empire is planning, what its future movements may hold, how its military may operate on a deeper level (other than, apparently, they’re experimenting on children).

A failure in that regard, the whole four months spending in Niflheim amounting to despairingly little in the grand scheme in things.

Cor nods, “Low-end folk. Vagrants, mostly, people who wouldn’t be missed. But it’s enough that some areas have a curfew.”

“Not an isolated incident then, I assume?”

“Widespread; this isn’t the work of some deranged serial killer.”

Clarus taps idly at his desk with his fingers, in thought. “And you think this child is one of those previously missing?”

“A possibility.” One that Cor’s has been entertaining since laying eyes on the kid.

Clarus nods, slowly.

“Experimenting on their own citizens.” He mutters, darkly. He looks back at Cor, “Did you find any others?”

“Fortunately, no.” Cor says, “Unfortunately, that means they must be held somewhere else.”

The mere thought settles a deep, disquieting rage in Cor. The thought of more children in the same position makes Cor want to retread his steps and raze the facility to the ground.

Clarus brings a hand upwards to rub at his face, heaving a deep sigh. He asks, “And where is this child now?”

“Medical. He’s being looked over.” Cor answers, and he doesn’t need to indicate verbally that the child is in a more secluded wing, a private sector, because Clarus would already know. There’s no sense in herding this kid to an area he could potentially be gawked at like a museum exhibit.

Clarus looks as though he’s aged a decade. Cor feels the same. “I’ll debrief His Majesty. You return to the child. For the time being, he’ll be your charge.”

“My charge? ” Cor admonishes, and he feels as though Clarus has made a particularly tactless joke. “Clarus, there’s at least hundred people in the Citadel alone that are better suited—”

“I’m aware,” Clarus interrupts, endlessly drained. “And in due time, he will be taken off your hands.” He fastens an acute look in Cor’s direction. “It would be better, for the child’s sake, to have at least one familiar face in all this, at least in the beginning. And I have faith that you won’t add any more weight on the child’s shoulders. I trust you in this.”

Leave it to Clarus to add a cumbersome responsibility that Cor is ill-suited for to his itinerary.

Cor clenches his jaw, but ultimately concedes. He would have personally asked for the child’s condition in the coming days regardless, he knows this deep down, whether or not he was assigned to the boy.

“Fine.” Cor says. And Clarus has the audacity to look slightly stunned at the fact he didn’t further argue.

“Good.” Clarus nods, and collects himself for his audience with the King.

Cor would leave, but there’s another point to address. “Clarus,” he begins, receiving the other man’s attention.

“The kid has military training.” Cor says, voice laced with something dark. “He saluted when he saw me.”

There’s something oppressive in the air between them.

“Is there a chance he could be dangerous?” Clarus asks, slowly.

Cor scoffs, “Hardly.” And he believes it; for any myriad of reasons, starting with the fact the kid could be knocked over with a gust of wind.

Clarus stares for a moment, before swiftly nodding. “Noted.”

And with that, Cor turns on his heel, to return to his new charge.

 


 

The woman N-iP01357-05953234 was passed onto pokes and prods, but frustratingly does little else. Her partner, a man, simply scribbles on a clipboard.

Her title is Dr. Delphinus, the other is Nurse Marillo, and when Cor had delivered N-iP01357-05953234 to the woman, it was done in a room that N-iP01357-05953234 knows is an examination room. It is not as bleak as those it is acquainted with, there exists some odd iconography among the walls that seem reminiscent of the posters back at the facility, but distinctly more colourful; a way that makes N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes hurt.

A table N-iP01357-05953234 is put upon to sit is pliable, and it causes memories of the bed N-iP01357-05953234 had laid upon in the motel. Lucians and their tendency towards spongy surfaces make N-iP01357-05953234’s skin tingle in an awkward sensation.

Cor and the Doctor exchange a few, brisk words. And while N-iP01357-05953234 cannot hear their words, muffled as they are with the door that separates them, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks Cor debriefs the Doctor of their acquisition, and what he expects for Delphinus to extract from the unit.

The room is chiefly different than those of the Empire’s, but even an ocean apart and however miles away, N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though it lives in an echo, at that very moment. It thinks, briefly, that despite being captured before its actual decommissioning, it’ll soon feel it regardless.

But when Dr. Delphinus re-enters, a small smile on her face, introducing herself and the Nurse, all she does is—

Poke and prod.

Checking its condition, it knows, because Dr. Delphinus asks it to open its mouth, shines a light in its eyes, puts a stethoscope on its chest, uses a sphygmomanometer, all while mocking it.

“You’re doing an excellent job, honey.” She praises, despite the fact N-iP01357-05953234 hasn’t done anything to remotely warrant any praise. Except, of course, be subservient to what she asks of it, to her poking and prodding, of being docile without the need of any tranquilizers and letting her get whatever information she needs. Whatever information Nurse Marillo dutifully details in the corner, when he isn't giving Dr. Delphinus her instruments.

(There isn’t an instrument N-iP01357-05953234 could use self-destruct; no fortunate scalpel that N-iP01357-05953234 had expected. No chance of it aptly snatching the blessed serrated edge, to proficiently slit its throat. And as it would lay dying, red streaming down the incision, Dr. Delphinus would watch down with a frustrated disappointment, and  N-iP01357-05953234 would happily choke.)

It could commend Dr. Delphinus in the art of making her sarcastic ridicule sound markedly earnest—not even the Commanders were this good—but N-iP01357-05953234 knows better.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know why she adds ‘honey’ to the end of her quips, but assumes it to be a Lucian form of slander. At least Nurse Marillo is quiet.

Dr. Delphinus sits back, for a moment, her infuriating smile still in place.

“I’m going to have to take a sample of your blood,” she says, slowly and attentively. “Is that alright, honey?”

N-iP01357-05953234 just stares, because it knows it doesn’t matter whether or not N-iP01357-05953234 is ‘alright’ with it. It doesn’t understand why she would ask, if it’s a further jab at the fact N-iP01357-05953234 is at her mercy or not, or why she doesn’t simply get on with it. N-iP01357-05953234 nods its head regardless.  

When she rolls up the sleeve covering N-iP01357-05953234’s arm, the one without its barcode, she pauses. Just for a fraction, and her brows knit. It’s only for a second, however, before Marillo gives her her needle for the blood extraction.

Perhaps N-iP01357-05953234 is too exhausted—it hasn’t recharged in over 48 hours—or too weak of mind, but N-iP01357-05953234 cannot parse her minute reaction.

“This may sting, but it’ll only be for a second, okay?” Dr. Delphinus cooes, and her gaze makes N-iP01357-05953234 twitch beneath it.

It does sting, but seeing it’s blood, a distinct red instead of the needed black, is a sharper bite. It stares dully at it.

When Dr. Delphinus is done, and hands the needle over to Nurse Marillo, she pats it’s arm slowly. Her throat bobs oddly, but her eyes a more piercing.

“You’re safe now.” She says. N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. “No one will hurt you anymore.”

The Doctor doesn’t do anything to scar it, but N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though it has been hollowed out.

It doesn’t understand why the Lucians act as though they’re playing with their food.

 


 

When Cor returns, he promptly asks Delphinus for a quick one-over outside, and Marillo keeps watch of the kid.

“You know,” Delphinus says, pinching the bridge of her nose, “you probably could have better prepared me a little for that.”

“You’re a doctor,” Cor says, hands planted upon his hips. “You deal with this shit on a daily basis.”

Delphinus scoffs, “Getting the order to drop everything from the Marshal himself to check on a patient is hardly a daily occurrence.” Delphinus rubs her hand through her hair, a discontented noise coming from her as she pointedly glares at the ground between them. Her brows pinch in a grimace as she looks back up at the Marshal. “Gods, Leonis, where did you get this kid?”

“I think you already know where.” He answers dryly.

There’s a pregnant pause between the two, something unsettling infusing within the air.

“Shit.” Delphinus says eventually, voice sour.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Cor responds. “So I trust you and Marillo can keep this quiet.”

Delphinus nods, almost absentmindedly, her thoughts too entrenched in the fact their enemies have sunk to a new low. “Of course, sir.”

Cor gives the doctor a moment, before he asks, “So, what’s the verdict?”

Delphinus shakes herself out of her stupor, and she sighs. “I can’t give you a full report until his blood is checked, and we should get a urine sample from him soon too.”

Cor nods, prompting her to continue, “But—he’s thin, for starters, smaller than he should be for his age.”

“And how old is that?”

“Ten, judging by his teeth.”

So the Prince’s age.

“He’s not emaciated, thankfully,” Delphinus continues, “but he’s underweight. Though, nothing he shouldn’t be able to bounce back from.” Delphinus gives him a pointed look, “When’s last he ate, do you know?”

“Not sure.” Cor answers truthfully, answers joylessly. “Was a little preoccupied with getting him to safety.”

He had offered the boy a bottle of water, on the journey. The kid had stared at it as if it were a puzzle, and Cor doesn’t need to overthink that reaction. At least the kid did take a sip, after Cor had asked, wobbly as the kid’s hands were.

Though, now that he thinks of it, he doesn’t think the kid took any more sips after that.

Delphinus looks distinctly unimpressed. “Children need to eat, you know.”

Now is not the time for sass,” Cor growls, and Delphinus immediately nods. “And he’ll eat when we’re finished here. Anything you’d recommend?”

“Well,” she starts. “Something easy. Something like rice soup. Make sure he eats slowly and takes his time; we don’t know if he has problems with his gut.”

Cor nods, “Noted. Did you find anything about why he isn’t speaking?”

It’s almost unnerving, with how little sound the kid makes. Not even with regards to fact no words escape him, he’s disturbingly quiet on his feet. As if trying to will himself to disappear.

Delphinus shifts on her feet, placing her hands on her hips. “No, if there’s physical trauma to his voice box, then we would need to do a laryngoscopy or some imaging tests. Sooner, rather than later; if there’s something wrong with his larynx, then it’ll effect how he eats and breathes.”

Fantastic, Cor thinks mirthlessly. “I’ll keep an eye on him when he eats today.”

“Good.” Delphinus says, and there’s a moment before she speaks again. She speaks slowly, more carefully. “He may be… too scared to speak.”

Cor doesn’t doubt it. Cor doesn’t doubt that the kid is confused, frightened and wholly petrified to the bone. The scars the kid has is too many for a child, too many for anyone. He may not speak, but Cor thinks he can piece together the kid’s story regardless.

“Considering the rest of him,” Delphinus continues, still weary, “actual damage to his throat isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Or he’s too traumatized to vocalize. Or both. Take your pick on which one is worse.

Gods, Cor really is going to have an absolute field day if he meets more Nifs on the battlefield.

“Anything else?” Cor asks, and he thinks he needs a good drink when this is all over.

“We’ll need to do a more in depth examination to fully say,” Delphinus says, her voice somber. “As it stands—the kid probably has mental scarring to match his physical ones. I’ll see if I can’t refer you to a therapist who is better trained for matters such as these.”

Cor nods, “Thank you.”

“As for now,” Delphinus continues, “make sure he gets plenty of rest, plenty to eat, and plenty to drink.”

“I will.” He’ll do his damndest to make sure this kid feels as though he’s being pampered by the Astrals themselves.

“And Marshal,” she says, and the look she gives is something fierce. “You make sure this kid is taken care of for the rest of his life.”

He will. “I’ll make certain of it.” He says.

Chapter Text

As for now, make sure he gets plenty of rest, plenty to eat, and plenty to drink.

Delphinus' words echo throughout, a meandering thought as Cor leaves to his apartment with the kid in tow.

Right now my biggest concern is reducing the amount of stress he’s experiencing. His blood pressure’s elevated, he was stiff as a statue, and his mouth was dry; and I’m certain this is all because he looks like he’s been fighting a losing battle for most of his life.

It’s honestly a wonder that the kid seems to have all his hair on his head. Short and sunkissed, and fashioned as a buzz cut—an almost perfect image of a veteran, if it didn’t sit upon the head of a child. His hair is the only thing that has a semblance of neatness to him, and was obviously done by another—

 

( N-iP01357-05953234 sits as still as it can manage, whilst not hunching in on itself. It shouldn’t be a difficult feat, but is made arduous by the constant growling of the electric clipper. The constant snarling that comes from the device threatens to maim its ears, and become forever coiled within its skull.

The man who shaves at N-iP01357-05953234’s hair does so without a single word; he at times directs N-iP01357-05953234’s head to lean in different directions to gain better access, but never speaks. But N-iP01357-05953234 can tell he is annoyed. Anyone would be, with N-iP01357-05953234’s body insisting on cowering. It’s disgraceful, because it makes the man’s job more needlessly difficult than it should to be.

Grooming is a luxury, N-iP01357-05953234 knows this. This man is not obligated to tend to its hair, or for the Guards to allow it access to showers, or for anyone to even let it have clothes on its back. And even when its performance grows increasingly towards the marker of unacceptable, it’s only by the grace of its handlers that they have not revoked such privileges. Even when they become fatigued with it, N-iP01357-05953234’s maintenance is still done.  

As N-iP01357-05953234 stares downwards towards the growing debris below it, the nestings of its hair that float towards the floor, N-iP01357-05953234 views it with a small bearing of dignity. Because N-iP01357-05953234 is intrinsically and fundamentally honoured, in spite of everything. In spite of its failings. Its numerous, and ever-growing failings. )  

 

—probably by some stuck up prick in a uniform he doesn’t deserve. Shameless and without honour, and someone who would look particularly good with a katana stuck in his gut.

Experiencing long-term stress will have a domino effect, and I’m certain that’s what we’re seeing here with the kid. If he’s constantly on fight or flight mode, he’s going to have heart problems, kidney problems, gut problems, brain problems... Considering the state of him, he’s been in a shitty situation for a long time, and I’m worried he may have an ulcer, memory and concentration impairment, constant migraines, painful heart palpitations and probably a whole slew of other shit because of it.

That’ll explain the kid’s oftentimes dead look; eyes glazed over, unfocused, staring into the void.

A look that Cor is already far too acquainted with, when he had brought the kid over to Lucis. Like he was discombobulated, and Cor had assumed it to be a side effect of leaving the facility, of which Cor is convinced the boy had never stepped a foot out of before. Their departure was abrupt and done on near impulsive, Cor will readily admit, and he will likewise admit blame that it was constant whiplash on the kid’s senses.

A disorientation that only served as a large wave that completely overwhelmed the poor boy, a constant attack on his senses that manifested as the kid being entirely weak-kneed and dumbfounded.

While the inherent unfamility of the situation and environment definitely had its number on the kid, it was probably only compounded tenfold by underlying issues.

Cor had no doubts the kid would have a full index of physical (and mental) screw-ups, even before medical, because that’s just the obvious conclusion. One that makes his blood boil, certainly, but it’s one he’s already accepted, and one he knows there’s no use losing sleep over; it’s already done, and he can’t change it.

Make sure he eats slowly. His mouth already looks like he’s vomited his load more than is pleasant to think about. I’ll set you up for a dental appointment, I think his enamel is eroded. Try to see if he can’t answer some simple questions, like “does your tummy feel nauseous when you eat?” You can encourage him to vocalize, but don’t pressure him to. A simple nod is fine, if it’s too difficult for him to speak.

Cor’s apartment isn’t particularly big—two bedrooms, a single bathroom, a kitchen and living room that occupy the same general space without walls separating them—and it’s a setup he wholly prefers.

The apartments in the Citadel itself are far too ostentatious and entirely excessive. Too roomy and likewise empty, like an open invitation to have unsavoury characters hide within the walls, in between the shelves, and underneath the furniture. Haughty nobles that walk with permanent sticks up their asses already make themselves targets by their own terrible presence, like an annoying bird that squawks too early in the morning and would be better off culled, with their airy indulgent lodgings practically making overt challenges for anyone with enough cunning.

(How the Amicitias live in that dreaded maze of a manor that has too much air and too little practical space, Cor will never know. Clarus is just an absolute masochist.)

The apartments and hotels around the Citadel do attempt to mimic those that His Majesty reside within (with mixed results), but there does lie modest gems in the sea of opulent shit. It’s only because he is required to reside near the Crown that Cor bothers with living a stone's throw away from them.

Not that Cor plans on staying in this apartment for more than a year; anchoring himself to a single location makes him an easier mark. Either domestic or foreign, its irrational to allow potential enemies a schedule to exploit from. Jumping from apartments, to hotel rooms, back and forth with no predictable pattern ensures he is the one in control in any given situation.   

The kid may throw a wrench in those plans, but Cor posits that the boy will only stay with him at most five months, and then he’ll be sent to an able foster (that Cor himself will screen, of course), and the kid can then start a normal life. And then Cor will be free to go back to his actual job.

His apartment(s) are also always starkly bare, the furniture already within and not his own, and chiefly the bare minimum. It’s impractical to have anything impractical; pointless knick-knacks of any kind. Counterproductive, and Cor only ever needs the clothes that are on his back.

But even though his abode isn’t an eyesore, the kid still gawks when he enters.

At least the extra guest bedroom, a complete annoyance when he first started living here, will be an unexpected boon to accommodate the kid.

The living room houses a single table and two chairs on either end, both currently occupied by Cor and the child. The kid, in question, stares down at the vegetable broth, that Cor had  ordered earlier from the Citadel’s cafeteria, with a look that reminds Cor of a startled dog.

 

(N-iP01357-05953234’s first thought, when Cor produces a bowl with an orange-y liquid within, is that the Marshal is serving it literal vomit.

But the smell it makes isn’t acidic, but still is sharp—N-iP01357-05953234 instinctively wrinkles its nose as the offending odors penetrate its senses.

It’s some sort of foodstuff, condensed into liquid form. It reminds it of the soups the facility gave, but it is almost a complete contrast; the colours are too bright, the smell too harsh. It’s a dour mockery of the nourishment its handlers gave it, and N-iP01357-05953234 wonders why the Lucians seem so excessive.)

 

Cor’s own plate consists of a meaty stew, and he circles the contents of his food with his spoon as he watches the child carefully.

The kid doesn’t make a grab for his own spoon, or his glass of water that’s stationed on the other side of his bowl, because he seems too busy dubiously eyeing the broth.

“I know you’re hungry,” Cor begins, and instantly the kid’s head shoots up. “So eat it, it’ll make you feel better. But eat slowly.”

 

(It's an Order.

N-iP01357-05953234 automatically reaches for the spoon, clinging at the small utensil. It falters, for a moment, just as the spoon hovers just above the surface of the liquid.

It shouldn’t do what Cor asks, it shouldn’t do what any Lucian asks. Orders should bring a comfort to N-iP01357-05953234’s systems, providing clarity and dispelling the mist of confusion, but Orders from the Lucians—from Cor Leonis—feel as though something precious has been violated. N-iP01357-05953234’s skin prickles at the sensations of defilement, as it looks at the spoon in its hand.  

The spoon that trembles slightly within its hand should be used in an act of self-destruction: Thrusted downwards into N-iP01357-05953234’s throat, bruising the inner anatomy of its esophagus so it can asphyxiate.   

It’s shoulders tense in the beginnings of preparation, but the Marshal is literally right there.

He’s right across from N-iP01357-05953234, and while its gaze is steadily fixated upon its spoon, it knows Cor glares at it in no uncertain terms, categorizing any small movements. It wouldn’t get a chance, not with Cor here.

And it’s with that thought, that Cor undoubtable notices it’s meager hesitation, that N-iP01357-05953234 dips its spoon to collect the liquid, and brings it upwards to its mouth.

The taste is barbed, as if a quilled animal resides within N-iP01357-05953234’s cheeks. It is a far-cry from the mild and tasteless soups of the facilities, that are gentle to its palate. N-iP01357-05953234 swallows quickly to outmanoeuvre its gag reflex, and the liquid goes down harshly.

N-iP01357-05953234 can feel it cascade downwards into its stomach like a leech, oily and like grease, before it settles deeply like a pit in its gut.)

 

The kid cringes, face pinching into discomfort as soon as the broth enters his mouth, and Cor inwardly sighs.

“Wash it down with some water.” He says, and the kid again immediately refocuses his gaze on Cor as soon as he opens his mouth.

 

( Wash it down? There’s—still liquid within the bowl, and no place to properly dump it, nor any cleaning supplies for N-iP01357-05953234 to use to cleanse the bowl with.

Unless Cor is Ordering for N-iP01357-05953234 to dilute the liquid with water, or the water will be used to reinstate the loss of the liquid N-iP01357-05953234 ingested. To bring the liquid back to its full volume, and have N-iP01357-05953234 eat more before ‘ wash it down ’ again, over and over, N-iP01357-05953234’s progress of the liquid for naught, Cor waiting until N-iP01357-05953234’s stomach bursts—)

 

The kid looks at him with creased brows, his eyes doing a quick dart towards his glass, and this time Cor outwardly sighs.

“Drink your water.” He clarifies. The kid does what he’s told with little hesitation, his hand fluttering as he takes hold of the glass.

Cor takes a bite of his own stew, as he sees the kid visibly sag with relief as he takes a quick sip of water, as if he drank a full curative.

“Better?” Cor asks. The kid blinks at his direction, almost startled, before he takes small gulp of nothing. His eyes drift onto nothing, squinting as if in deep thought.

Cor needs to remind himself to breath at a steady pace to calm himself, and takes another bite of his stew, as he waits for the kid to answer.

The kid looks back up, breathes deeply through his nose—as if answering a yes-or-no question takes great effort—and gives one jerky nod in confirmation.

Cor responds in kind, nodding as well, “That’s good.” he says.

There’s may be no use in attempting to get a verbal response from this kid, if that’s how he reacts, and Cor does know mercy.

“Take another bite of your broth,” Cor says, keeping his voice level, and carefully blank. The kid, for all his proficiency in keeping his expression vacant, still reads like an open canvas. His face tenses, and Cor can discern it clearly: He doesn’t like it.

But even still, his spoon is dipped within the broth, and he takes another bite.

“It’s—good for you.” Cor says, attempting to alleviate any of the kid’s concern. The kid, in turn, gives him a doubtful glance that is quickly cleared. “It has vegetables in it. It’s healthy.”

A poet, he is not.

“You might not like the taste,” he continues, “but you’ll feel nicer if you eat it. Later.”

The kid stares, his large blue eyes unblinking to the point where Cor thinks his eyes will shrivel up in dryness, before the kid gives one, small, tentative nod.

It’s—a start. It’s something.

“Drink some more water,” Cor asserts, hoping he doesn’t need to advocate to the kid the importance of staying hydrated. Even if the kid was isolated all his life, he must at least know that .

The kid takes another quick swig, and Cor thinks it as any time as any to ask if he’s experiencing any discomfort.   

“Alright,” Cor starts, the kid already looking at him keenly, “nod for yes, shake for no.” He demonstrates the actions, and he sees the kid swallow again. “Do you understand?”

The kid’s jaw clenches when he nods slowly, his hand clutching tightly to his spoon like a lifeline.

“Does your throat—” Cor asks, gesturing vaguely to his own, “—feel tight? Uncomfortable?”

The kid stares at him. He stares at Cor’s nose, specially, as if maintaining eye contact gives him physical pain.

 

(The liquid—a “broth”—goes down more easily a second time, but N-iP01357-05953234’s innards still feel tense.

It eats slowly, as Cor has Ordered, only ingesting the broth when Cor gives it permission. Cor’s obviously attempting to discern its body’s reaction to the broth, observing it closely in those intervals in-between bites, monitoring… something.

It leads N-iP01357-05953234 to believe that the broth is laced with something. A poison. A… slow reacting one.

Cor’s questioning only amplifies this thought process, and N-iP01357-05953234 wonders if the broth is meant to make its throat feel tight. If Cor is deliberately making it known what the concoction is meant to do, to assert verbally that N-iP01357-05953234 is only a guinea pig in this.    

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks to lie and nod yes, and maybe that will have Cor be pleased to know that the broth is working.

And then Cor will reach towards N-iP01357-05953234, clasping its nose shut before dipping the bowl down its mouth, forcing N-iP01357-05953234 to swallow, over and over again, never minding N-iP01357-05953234’s sputtering until all the broth is ingested, and N-iP01357-05953234 will writhe on the floor. Because lying always has consequences.

So N-iP01357-05953234 answers truthfully, and shakes its head in the negative.)

 

“That’s good.” Cor responds, after the kid finally gives a slow shake of the head. The kid never choked, never appeared to have actual physical difficulties in swallowing the broth other than grimacing, but Cor hopes that’s just because he didn’t like the taste. The kid has no reason to lie, so hopefully his larynx is intact.

The kid continues to stare, his shoulders still tense, and Cor catches the kid giving a quick glance to his water.

“You—” don’t need permission to drink and eat, is what Cor almost says. Because watching this kid conditionally wait for a command to do so makes Cor want to break a training dummy in half.

“—You have blanket permission, to eat and drink.” is what he says instead. It makes him feel bitter, and he has to look away from the kid’s widening stare, as if such a thing was unthinkable.

He stares down at his own stew, and eats it. He doesn’t look at the kid, in a vain hope the kid will feel more at ease.

The kid stares back, Cor can feel it, and as Cor turns his gaze to look at nothing in particular to his side, he can see from his peripheral that the kid slowly reaches for his glass of water, before, at a slug’s pace, bringing it to his lips.

The air between them is like a dam readying to burst, and Cor’s own skin prickles at the palpable tension.

The kid barely takes a sip before the glass is back on the table. He stares for a while longer, before looking down at the broth.

Cor makes the executive decision to stop asking the kid questions, in favour of him eating in relative peace. The silence is awkward, in the worst sense of the word.

 

(N-iP01357-05953234’s gut slowly uncoils from its rigid entanglement, and the broth slowly becomes—

Tolerable.

It’s tolerable.)

 


 

The room N-iP01357-05953234 is ushered within is called a “bathroom ”, and with how Cor describes it, N-iP01357-05953234 assumes it to be the Lucian equivalent of latrines. Except, there’s only singles of every station; one shower, one toilet, and one sink. It is a very insufficient setup.

Cor doesn’t enter with it. He Orders the unit to clean in the shower, to place its clothing on the sink and re-dress with the same clothing, because they will “ get new clothes tomorrow.

Cor doesn’t enter with it, and no nude examination of its body is done. The Marshal closes the door after telling N-iP01357-05953234 about “shampoo and conditioner,” and N-iP01357-05953234 is left alone for the first time since arriving to Lucis.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the closed door. It shifts on its feet, anticipating Cor re-opening it, even if it would be impractical for him to do so after literally just closing it. But Cor never seems to do what it thinks—its why Cor is such a threat, N-iP01357-05953234 begins to realize, because the Marshal is so entirely unpredictable.

Cor never does re-enter.

Not when N-iP01357-05953234 undresses, not when N-iP01357-05953234 places its clothes on the sink, not when N-iP01357-05953234 finally turns its gaze away from the door and towards the shower.

The showerhead is analogous with those in the latrines, but the actual architecture of the shower itself is baffling.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t understand why the shower is walled with a risen barricade, nor why it’s so long.

It doesn’t understand why the shower has a railing towards the ceiling, with some sort of cloth hanging down it.

N-iP01357-05953234 could hang itself with the cloth, it thinks, but the hopeful thought of self-destruction is hampered when it thinks the railing wouldn’t support its weight.

N-iP01357-05953234 gives a quick glance back at the door. Its hands are clammy; Cor could re-enter at any moment.

It enters the shower, and looks upwards to the showerhead, and waits.

N-iP01357-05953234 waits for the water to start, but as it stands underneath the spout, nothing comes from it.

N-iP01357-05953234 shifts on its feet, swallows, and looks again at the door.

The water still doesn’t arrive. It appears it won’t entirely, and N-iP01357-05953234 begins to shiver from its loss of clothing.

Below the showerhead is some sort of lever, and N-iP01357-05953234 stares. If N-iP01357-05953234 needed to turn the lever in order to summon water, it thinks such a system is very insufficient. It had assumed it served some other purpose, but considering the rest of the bathroom, with its peculiar design, N-iP01357-05953234 begins to wonder.

It gives one more glance at the door, before it delicately moves its hand further to take hold of the lever, and turns it.

The water that spurts out nearly has N-iP01357-05953234 stumbling back in surprise, but its body stiffens in reaction and keeps it grounded.

The water is a weak stream, and not nearly enough to fully dampen it, so it turns the lever some more.

The water reforms as a larger, more adequate spray, one N-iP01357-05953234 is familiar with. It feels itself loosen underneath the cool, frigid water, and feels itself sigh.

N-iP01357-05953234 looks at the “shampoo and conditioner,” picks one of the bottles up, and nearly sags as it see it comes with instructions.

 


 

Cor leans next to the bathroom door after it is closed, and waits.

He waits, specifically, to hear if any sort of retching comes from the other side. The kid’s teeth are already evidently fucked up according to Delphinus, vomit having already wearing away at it.

Cor doesn’t know what’s worse; if the kid forces himself to throw up, if someone else did, or if his stomach is so sensitive it does so on impulse.

The kid may have grimaced when eating the broth, easing as he neared finishing the bowl, but he had not heaved. It points to the latter being unlikely, which is a relief.

No retching comes from beyond the door, but it seems to take longer than usual for the shower to start.

But the shower starts, and Cor leaves from his area against the wall and heads towards the kid’s new room.

Its bare, like the rest of the apartment. The bed, the dresser beside it and the lamp having already been there when he got the place.

Cor walks directly towards the the closet that’s built into the wall, and opens it. It’s empty, predictably, but that’s only on a surface-level glance.

Cor crouches within the closet to face a specific wall; the left side, and he pries as the corner at an angle.

The fake walling he had installed in the first week of living here comes loose, and he opens it further to retrieve the handgun hidden beneath it.

The gun sits comfortably in his hand as he re-closes the fake wall, which disappears seamlessly within to the rest of the closet.

Cor isn’t deluded enough to the think the kid could ever actually find any of the hidden weapons in his apartment—because if a ten year old could, then that’s just embarrassing on his part—but any small, minute chance he could is a chance Cor isn’t willing to take, and removing the weapon in his room means it can be avoided entirely.

Cor turns to exit, but his sights land on the window that is above the bed.

The windowsill is marred with the nails he hammered in on the first week, securing that no outside threat could slither through with an ease Cor isn’t willing to give, and he lets out a frustrated sigh.

He’ll need to remove the nails, obviously, a kid needs fresh air and ventilation. He mentally makes note of it.

Since the window is already near the bed, he looks down at the undisturbed covers.

He may have difficulty sleeping, Delphinus’ words return, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you he’s probably going to have nightmares. I don’t even want to think how he got so banged up, but he’s going to have PTSD, no doubt. And considering his blood pressure, he’ll probably have obstructive sleep apnea too.  

Cor looks at the bed a little while longer.

So heads up Marshal. I’ll send you his blood test results when it arrives, and when we can do tests for his larynx, mouth, gut and heart.

The thought of the kid being put on a bench and having his mouth pried open, a tube shoved down his throat, with an audience of strangers, has Cor’s jaw clench.

It’s necessary, obviously, for the kid’s health. But the mental image brings little positive emotions.  

He turns to leave, already having a new location to stash the gun.

 


 

After N-iP01357-05953234 is finished cleaning itself, after it has re-situated its clothing on its back, Cor diverts it to a room.

Cor gestures towards the bed, “you’ll be sleeping here, for the time being.”

The room is larger than N-iP01357-05953234’s normal recharging booth, and markedly empty. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t understand, if this room is meant for sleeping, why the Lucians would have it so airy and exposed.

But the Lucians, from what N-iP01357-05953234 has experienced, are an erratic lot that seem to operate on nonsense.

“I know you’re tired.” Cor says, and there’s a twinge of something weary underlining his words (for what reason, N-iP01357-05953234 does not know). “And you need to sleep.”

N-iP01357-05953234 looks up towards the man, who leans against the doorframe, considering N-iP01357-05953234 with a look that N-iP01357-05953234 cannot identify.

“You’ll feel better after you’ve slept.” He says, and N-iP01357-05953234 swallows.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows sleeping is a necessity, along with nourishment and being hydrated. Without either, N-iP01357-05953234 will deteriorate, but the tone of Cor’s voice, something—watchful, has it inclined to believe that something will happen to it when it slumbers.

Its heart is already beating against its ribcage with force, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods at Cor to hide its wince from the constriction in its chest.

Cor regards for a moment longer, before saying, “Well, go on.” He nods towards the bed, “make yourself comfortable.”

N-iP01357-05953234 looks at the bed and considers. No other options exist, not with Cor blocking the doorway and literally being right behind it, so it does what it knows best. It does what it's told, and finds itself underneath the covers of the bed, like it had done back the motel.

Cor is still looking at it. He looks a little longer, before saying, “You can sleep for as long as you like.”

There’s an odd inflection in his tone, and N-iP01357-05953234 blinks.

“You don’t need to wake up at any time.” He continues.

N-iP01357-05953234, not knowing what else to do in this situation, gives a single nod. It has appeased Cor for this long, the action.

There’s a click, and the room becomes awash in darkness. Cor has turned off the lightswitch, and has a hand on the door handle, but does not close it.

“You can—” Cor starts, awkwardly, “—uh, you can knock. If you need anything.”

He looks at N-iP01357-05953234 expectantly, so it nods. Even though the command makes little sense.

Cor responds with his own nod, before he closes the door.

N-iP01357-05953234 lets out a breath it hadn’t realized it was holding, and keeps its stare towards the door.

N-iP01357-05953234 is exhausted. It hasn’t recharged for an exorbitant length of time.

But it shouldn’t sleep, for any number of reasons, beginning with that fact it’s a captured unit beyond the walls in enemy territory.

It shouldn’t sleep when there’s combatants and threats abound, but if it doesn’t, then it’ll surely pass out.

And if it were to pass out with Cor escorting it, or some other Lucian, it may wake up with a Y-incision on its chest.

And even if the Lucians are definitely intent on keeping the unit alive for now, passing out while in their presence will hold consequences. N-iP01357-05953234 knows this.

It knows the Lucians are planning something with it. Otherwise they would not waste Cor Leonis on it. But N-iP01357-05953234 cannot make heads or tails on what it could be, and fundamentally, stationing Cor to it makes little sense.

But N-iP01357-05953234 is weak of mind, weak of reasoning, and likewise inefficient at predicting enemy motives or movements. It’s one of the reasons it had been sent to decommissioning.

It is weak of mind, which is why it thinks it should, perhaps, conserve its strength, instead of thinking to investigate the room it is within.

It is probably being monitored at that very instant, it thinks, since there are most certainly cameras watching it.

It is weak of mind, which is why its eyelids feel as though they are stones.

But the bed is disgustingly cushiony, mushy to the point N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it will sink in it and suffocate.

The blanket is an irritant that feels as though it is laden with lead, heavy and stifling.

N-iP01357-05953234 cannot sleep like this.

But N-iP01357-05953234 shouldn’t move. Cor will know if it did, and he’ll—he’ll make sure N-iP01357-05953234 will be physically incapable of moving, as a punishment.

It is weak of mind, which why N-iP01357-05953234 acts without thinking and without reason, as it cautiously, with trembling hands, lifts the blanket.

N-iP01357-05953234 keeps its eyes on the door. Its breathing becomes progressively shallower, but Cor’s footsteps do not return. It is of little comfort, because the man is silent on his feet regardless.

Its eyes are trained on the door as it, bit by bit, slides itself out of the bed, and onto the floor.

It hasn’t blinked once in the journey, that feels like a lifetime, and its eyes begin to water.

Cor never re-enters.

N-iP01357-05953234 lays curled on the floor, and while carpeted, the simple hardness of the floor is a welcome relief. The reprieve, while not exactly like the neat recharging booths it knows, is one that has all its muscles relax.

It lets out a shaky sigh despite itself, closing its eyes as a reaction.

It does not reopen them, because exhaustion already claims it.

 


 

One of the many wonders of the Citadel, is the fact it contains a neat assortment of all needed medical facilities within its walls.

The boy’s blood samples do not need to be sent to the Insomnia University of Medical Sciences, because there exists clinical laboratories stationed comfortably within the building itself.

The samples received, two separate vials of blood, stand innocuous. Except, for the fact the tray they sit securely within is decorated with a specific sticker: a diamond symbol that has a large exclamation point inside it. It reads cearly of Priority .

The second oddity is that the patient is not named.

 

Male Child {Approx. 10 years}

ID: 07386B

Dr. Delphinus, Lucelle.

 

But—that’s ultimately none of clinical laboratory scientist Lark’s business, so he simply shrugs off any quirkiness the samples give. What is required by Lark and his fellow colleagues is to perform a complete blood count test with one vial, and to observe the other under a microscope. So he promptly does so without dawdling.

Turns out, the kid has iron-deficiency anemia, which isn’t too alarming; provided it isn’t caused by abnormal blood loss. But Lark is certain the kid just needs to eat a shit-ton of spinach, and he’ll be fine.

The results of vitamin-d deficiency are more concerning in comparison, considering this is a child still developing. It isn’t acute—a good thing, a kid with rickets in this day and age is a depressing thought—but Lark already knows the kid suffers bone and muscle discomfort as a result, and maybe asthma as well.

Alright, so along with his spinach, he needs some eggs and fish oil, all while eating out in the sun.

They’re manageable, at the very least, provided the kid’s parents/guardians make sure this kid eats the correct things, and maybe have him ingest supplements. It’s all good. This kid will be fine, in the long run, Lark thinks.

The most alarming thing isn’t the thought that this boy apparently isn’t getting enough sunlight, but rather the blood analyzer machine displaying a message that, quite frankly, Lark has never seen before: Unknown substance detected.

Okay. Weird. And probably a bad thing.

“You ever see it do that?” Lark asks, turning to his colleague.

“Huh.” She says, brows knitting. “No; maybe its fungus?”

Underneath the microscope, evidence of any bacteria, parasites, or fungus come as a confident negative.

What it does bring, however, is a visual of—

Something.

Gods, four years of school and six years on the job and Lark literally has no idea what he’s seeing.

“Mellicent,” Lark calls to his colleague, slowly vacating the microscope. “Come look at this, and tell me what you see.”

“Ominous.” She says in jest, but it doesn’t alleviate Lark’s concern, that he’s certain is plain as day on his face.

Mellicent looks through the instrument, and after a short moment, Lark can see her face scrunch into confusion, much like Lark’s had done.

“What on Eos…” She mutters, changing the modes of the microscope to receive another view.

“So I’m guessing,” Lark starts, “that you’ve never seen that before either?”

Mellicent leans back, shaking her head. “No. It isn’t the machine fucking up, is it?”

Lark scoffs, “Has a machine ever fucked up it shows—” he falters, just for a second, attempting to string appropriate words to describe whatever the hells it is, “—black beads in the specimen?”

“Hey,” Mellicent says, folding her arms, “you never know.” She gives another cursory glance back at the sample, before continuing, “either way, it looks like a problem.”

‘A problem’ may be understatement. While Lark, nor Mellicent, may not be able to give a positive diagnosis, foreign bodies in the blood rarely spell good news. The fact it’s been found in a child makes it more worrying.

Lark makes a note for further analysis, and promptly sends a message to Delphinus of the abnormality.

Now, he thinks seriously, it may be prudent to research if similar examples exist, and what this is evidence of. Maybe some ultra-rare blood disease he’s never heard of. Maybe it’s some unique congenital hematologic disorder that only affects one in every billion children.

Whatever the case may be, Lark can’t shake off the feeling of growing apprehension within him, a steady coiling in his gut.

He wishes it was a fungus, at least then he could tell what it is and advise appropriate treatment. He doesn’t even know where to begin when it looks like there’s strands of almost crystallized looking fragments alongside the red blood cells; meandering inbetween like a particularly dusty room, or infested with flies. Some attached to the cells themselves, sticking stubbornly on the surface with a gross defilement, anchored like a virus.  

It’s like this kid’s blood is polluted.  

Chapter Text

Cor wakes in the early morning; 2 AM, to be exact, and an hour before his proposed alarm. One that had been set in the anticipation of checking on the kid while he slept, an alarm that accompanied his already established 5 AM awakening.

He’s already out of his bed before he’s necessarily conscious of it, and already habitually heading towards the bathroom out of pattern, before he breaks routine to divert towards the kid’s room.

He opens the door slowly, the room as dark as the hallway, as the sun does not rise for another handful of hours.

Cor’s eyes are already adjusted, which is why he blinks when he sees the bed is distinctly void of any child’s presence.

But the kid is obviously in the room—the snoring that filters lightly in the air already tipped him off before he had opened the door—and Cor moves his sights downwards at an obvious form laying on the floor.

The kid is curled on the carpet, his head leaned downwards because the lack of support of a pillow, and Cor already feels a sigh building within him at knowing the boy will most likely have a stiff neck because of it.

His mouth is slightly agape, and the snore that comes from the kid is hushed, moreso when blocked by the door, and communicates that the kid is asleep.

It’s a good thing, obviously, that the kid is asleep. The bags underneath his eyes, grey shadows that almost seem to make his eyelids sag, already declared that loud enough; but the sight of the kid laying on the floor diminishes what would have been an otherwise typical mid-slumber check up.

Cor already knows the kid did not toss and turn during sleep and rolled off the bed, dropping like a sack of stones and not rousing because he’s a heavy sleeper. The child’s already flighty as a bird, and Cor already can infer a pin drop could stir him.

(That, and Cor would have been stirred from the sound of a small body hitting the floor. The sound would have been a cacophony in the silence, as was the child’s snoring, despite being a mouse’s whisper. A muted murmur, but an alien sound in an environment Cor already was intimately familiar with, and one already associated with the lack of such stimulus. One that had his skin crawl—not for any ill-will towards the kid, not out of annoyance—but because his body has long been fine tuned to be alert at any provocation.

And it’s how Cor knows the kid is likewise a light sleeper, just like him.)

He knows his brows are knitted upon seeing the kid on the floor, an action cleary done before the kid had slept. Cor wonders if the child laid in the bed, sleepless, and wonders for how long.

Cor wants to think the mattress was uncomfortable in some way, perhaps it, along with the covers, were itchy. Bedbugs, maybe, Cor hasn’t used the bed since living in this apartment. And with the disagreeable sensations from the mattress, the kid migrated downwards to the floor.

(It’s a hopelessly optimistic thought, Cor knows this.)

Cor moves inwards, lightly, towards the kid, his motions mimicking the steps he would use in espionage. A pin drop may wake the kid, indeed, which is why his steps are deliberately done less so.

Cor doesn’t bother to entertain the idea of picking up the kid to tuck him back in bed, because the thought of having a screaming child in his arms, frightened out of his wits because of the sudden sensations of being cradled, is distasteful, to say the very least.

So he carefully glides the covers of the bed downwards to the dormant body below. There’s a part of him that expects the kid to suddenly awaken, but he only stirs with a slight twitch as the smooth duvet encompasses his form, and otherwise remains asleep.

The snores continue, a small blessing of their own, and Cor hopes the noises coming from the kid mean that his sleep is undisturbed by unpleasant dreams. At least this one, the Marshal hopes it’s dreamless.

Cor exits and closes the door with the same caution he possessed when entering, and heads off to lay in his own bed.

He already knows he won’t return to sleep.  

Three hours before his usual waking is too tight of a timeframe regardless, so he deigns to simply stare at the ceiling.

A citizen of Insomnia you may be, Clarus’ words parrot, a past conversation resurfacing, an insomniac is an unbefitting look for you.

Cor scoffs at the memory, despite himself. Because the pun makes him want to call Clarus at the instant and tell him to fuck off.

Instead, Cor listens to the kid’s snoring, and keeps a conscious ear out for any disturbances.

 


 

The kid wakes at 4 AM.

The ceasing of the snoring is almost as sharp as when the noise had started, and Cor stirs with him.

The sight of the kid when Cor had knocked and opened the door, after he was certain the kid would not fall back asleep, is one that is evocative of snapshots of their supper last night: the kid’s confused and bewildered, no doubt by the covers.

He’s already standing (in attention) when Cor opens the door. The kid’s posture is stiff, and his arm is raised with a fist on his chest in a salute—a reflex, something Cor knows is manufactured to be an instinctual response for the kid.

When Cor switches the lights on, the kid’s stunned expression, like a deer in the headlights, could almost be construed as funny; if it were in any other context.

As it stands, with the kid blinking out remnants of sleep from his eyes, dispelling a haze that has him lock up even further and flexing his fists in uncertainty is a picture that is anything but funny.  

“At ease.” Cor greets, because the kid’s still saluting and he knows its a term the child would be most familiar with in this context.

His fist is off his chest and down at his sides in an instant, the kid’s back still rigid in fearful diligence, and it’s a sight that isn’t much better.

“Little early to be up.” Cor says, and he thinks to smack himself the moment the words are out of his mouth, because the kid reacts with a hard gulp, and averting his gaze to his feet.

 

(Cor is annoyed.

Cor Leonis is annoyed.

Cor Leonis is annoyed with it.

When its handlers became exhausted with it at the facility, N-iP01357-05953234 had felt fear, yes; because punishments are not something it actively seeks. But they had been necessary, and the handlers had always prefaced it as to why N-iP01357-05953234 was being punished. That had always given N-iP01357-05953234 a level solace despite its situation. It gave clarity on what should be amended, directions that would allow N-iP01357-05953234 a chance to evolve.  

But Cor will not give it discipline. Cor will not correct it, because Cor is not one of N-iP01357-05953234’s handlers, and therefore it knows that Cor will not act from a place that seeks to make N-iP01357-05953234 a better unit.

Cor is annoyed at—at any number of reasons, it surmises.

N-iP01357-05953234 is already Cor’s enemy by virtue, and that alone is reason enough for the man to act out severely.

It’s—early, as Cor said, because N-iP01357-05953234’s internal clock is set for it wake this time in Gralea. N-iP01357-05953234, truthfully, does not know exactly how early it is in Lucis, but clearly it is inappropriate. Entirely ill-timed and one that has Cor upset at it.

The horror of having Cor Leonis near it is not something that ever entirely subsided, it had always been a whirlwind that shook at N-iP01357-05953234’s being and conscious because the mere fact of it is petrifying.

The fact that N-iP01357-05953234’s body was/still is at such an ineffectual state that it shut down to recharge while the man was near, makes N-iP01357-05953234 feel as though its out in an unforgiving blizzard, frostbite mauling every inch of it.

When its handlers had spoken ill of the man, a passing comment spat out at a conversation that happened near N-iP01357-05953234’s general presence, it was enough to give N-iP01357-05953234 dreams of the Marshal. Thoughts of, since N-iP01357-05953234 always knew it could never be a match for Cor, that involved unheeded violence it knows the Lucians are capable of. Of what Cor is capable of.     

The thoughts, the dreams, comes back to N-iP01357-05953234 at that instant. As if Cor had already reached forward to shake N-iP01357-05953234 violently, enough to break its neck, hands gripped at its arms hard enough to bruise, hard enough to snap.)

 

“It’s—” Cor starts, a hand raised as one might have when calming a spooked chocobo.

(4 AM and he already fucked up.)

Cor sighs, cutting himself off, before attempting to re-pick up the pieces to remedy himself.

“You’re not in trouble.” He says, instead. His voice is, he hopes, a calming soft tone. It’s not a strong hope, because the kid still stares at his feet, as if a particularly interesting phenomena is happening near them.

“You’re not in trouble.” He repeats, still attempting to keep his tone soothing. The words don't reach the kid, not in their entirety, as if a wall separates the two of them.

 

(N-iP01357-05953234 knows this game, and it won't fall for it. Not this time, not with Cor.)

 

The kid's a statue, locked up like a stone, shoulders straight and arms ramrod at his sides. His head is downcast, but his face is visible—Cor can ascertain the thin line that is the kid's mouth. Clamped shut like a safe door, the rest of his visage compliments the mosaic of grim acceptance of his face.

Not acceptance of Cor's words, not an understanding that the Marshal would not strike the boy; but some sort of hopeless acknowledgement. Like the kid's on death row.

And it's with that, that Cor knows that even if he were to repeat the mantra a thousand times over, the boy may still not—understand.

And it's with that, that Cor lowers himself. He sits, back leaning against the wall, cross-legged and with a small sigh.

Spooked chocobo —Cor’s worked with such an animal, before, at fourteen. Back when he could have probably been more aptly described as cavalier, and likewise not at all licensed or even experienced enough to calm the bird.

But the chocobo had been a new acquisition: agile, nimble, healthy and riddled with anxiety. A ball of feathers that would squawk and produce threat postures with false bravado, all while looking like all its plumage would fall out at any given moment.

It spent the majority of its time pacing around the indoor paddock, when Cor had sat down like he is now (and notably neglecting what his actual duties were, at the time. Like he was some schoolboy skipping class, Gods). It took what felt like ages before the bird seemed to hesitantly come to the conclusion that Cor was not the threat it had thought, and it, too, lowered itself at the far opposite side of the paddock to tentatively seat itself.

Like one of those formulaic films of a child and their chocobo, wherein the protagonist child star would successfully rehabilitate a chocobo with whatever ailment—injury, aggression, anxiety —proving naysayers wrong in the process and forming a life-long bond with the animal that would stand the test of time. They were all the same.

Cor hadn’t any ‘naysayers ’ to prove wrong in his narrative, but any opportunity to fill his ego was enough, back then. Even if soothing a panicked bird is hardly… lucrative, in the end.

(He ended up with a scar on his hand after the bird had nipped at him, as he tried to pet it. And that’s hardly an impressive story to tell.)

The kid isn’t a mirror image of the bird. The boy doesn’t pace and his fear, while blatant at times, is likewise more subtle in other moments. But the general vibe is exact, two beings wound up on tension alone.

There’s something crude, maybe, comparing the child to a literal animal. But making himself as less threatening as possible, even if it only resulted in the kid not immediately freezing in his presence, would be a victory.

So he sits. And the kid still stands and stares downwards, and the short silence between them is almost as stiff as the kid himself.

But the boy does sneak a glance, shifting on his feet, and Cor speaks: “Sit down, wouldn’t want you to have your legs to wear out from under you.”

The kid descends in an instant, and when he’s seated, his sights are still pointedly at the floor.

Cor hums, “look at me, and follow my lead.”

The suggestion is obviously read as a command, and the kid lifts his head with a blank expression that’s uncanny, considering his age.

Cor then rolls his shoulders, and the kid, after a brief moment of what seems like puzzled staring, follows suit.

There’s little words spoken, small inklings of encouragement from the Marshal here and there, and Cor has him do stretches that are comfortably done where he is sitting down: neck, triceps, biceps, wrist, lumbar, ankle, etc. There’s some disconcerting pops that come from the kid, but Cor doesn’t comment.

When all’s said and done, with muscles, hopefully, less strained, Cor speaks.

“Feel better?” He inquires. The kid’s weariness is one that doesn’t leave him. But there’s an almost imperceptible nod, so Cor’s satisfied, at least in this.

“Alright,” Cor continues, with a huff. “Since we’re both awake, we might as well get something to eat.”

  


 

The breakfast replacement meal goes down much like the broth had: the kid pinches his face in distaste, and nearly heaves.

It likewise goes down just as slowly, because Cor is against having potential kid vomit on his table and floor.

(The chocolate flavour he got specifically for the kid does little to make it pleasing, by the kid’s reaction.)

Little passes between them, considering Cor isn’t much of a conversationalist to begin with and the kid… Well. Other than small quips, such as explaining what Cor is having the kid drink and how to do so, the familiar—but no less awkward—silence continues between them.

At this point, Cor is waiting to see when the earliest clothing store opens.

His phone buzzes on his person, which interrupt his mulling thoughts.

 

Viperia [⚔️]: clarus and i want to meet the child

Viperia [⚔️]: bring him to the citadel after he’s had breakfast

 

Cor types back a reply, acutely aware that the kid is watching his every movement.

 

Cor: He’ll be done in about another half hour.

Viperia [⚔️]: ?

Viperia [⚔️]: it’s 5 in the morning

Cor: Yes.

Viperia [⚔️]: alright

Viperia [⚔️]: he has an appointment with an optometrist today. Docs will want to look him over again

Viperia [⚔️]: do you have any plans for him today?

Cor: Getting new clothes.

Viperia [⚔️]: Monica can do that. Give her his sizes. His schedule is full today

Viperia [⚔️]: you keep him company

Viperia [⚔️]: weather’s meant to clear up today, finally getting some sun. make sure that he does

Viperia [⚔️]: so bring him at around 10 am instead

 

And with that, Cor pockets his phone, and returns his full attention back towards his child companion.

In between further coaxing for the kid to drink his breakfast and some water, Cor explains the day to the kid in the simplest terms he can manage. Listening to his own voice at least kills some time before then, and the kid continues to do his characteristic staring, with small nods.

(He spoke to the chocobo, long ago. Those birds are smart, and even though it was obviously distrustful, it seemed to grow more at ease when he spoke at a level tone. Small and sparse banter.)

He looks to the window, and observes small inklings of purple beginning to spawn into the sky, as the sun is at the advent of rising.

Maybe the kid can get a tan.

 

~

 

The sun boils N-iP01357-05953234’s blood.

Literally, N-iP01357-05953234 knows that the light does not. But feeling it searing at its bare skin, swarming inwards and kindling N-iP01357-05953234’s innards over an open flame, is an imitation of such.

If N-iP01357-05953234 had been stronger, then the sun would make its insides bubble and stew, simmer into a fine sizzling mixture of viscera that can evaporate and stain the air. If N-iP01357-05953234 had been stronger, then its body would not have rejected the daemon blood treatments through purging it through its mouth continuously.

If N-iP01357-05953234 had been stronger, then N-iP01357-05953234 would have never been taken by Cor and brought to Lucis, and then it wouldn’t have to feel like it was being lit aflame without actually being.

If N-iP01357-05953234’s body had not been so riddled with weakness and defects, then it would have never had to experience whatever precious daemon blood still within it being massacred underneath the sun. The daemon blood its body could not fully uproot, insignificant enough not to make N-iP01357-05953234 a sufficient unit, but enough that N-iP01357-05953234 would stare at its veins visible underneath its skin, and trace the adored blood it could not fully sense. It gave it hope.

(N-iP01357-05953234 knows that, knows it still possessed traces of daemon blood, with certainty. Because it heard Scientists confer about it, above it. After N-iP01357-05953234 had seized and its vision went white, after it fell to the floor as its bones twisted and snapped, after its guts splintered and spilled, after its body rejected the treatment. After N-iP01357-05953234 laid on the floor, unable to cease its heaving, after it regained a semblance of consciousness, after it thought it had died, but was still fully intact.)

No, the sun won’t kill it. But N-iP01357-05953234 wishes it would.

The thought of possibly losing what little daemon blood it contained is more agonizing than the needles that currently pierce at all its pores, as direct sunlight invades it.

“Nice out today.”

Cor’s words are distant. Faraway as if he speaks from a different room entirely, but N-iP01357-05953234 knows that he is near. It isn’t sure how long the man has had N-iP01357-05953234 exposed to the sun, but feels as though its been ages. The severity continuing to stack, excited from the very moment the rays landed on N-iP01357-05953234’s skin. Cor had it disregard it’s previous jacket that shielded its arms, and N-iP01357-05953234 can only think it was because the man will have N-iP01357-05953234 slowly strip. To burn N-iP01357-05953234 gradually, to bask in the scent of blistering skin.

Part of N-iP01357-05953234 knows it hasn’t been in the sun for very long, but seconds mimic hours and days, and it wishes Cor wouldn’t linger. It wishes Cor would tell it outright of N-iP01357-05953234’s transgressions, like its handlers would, so N-iP01357-05953234 could better understand its errors.

It won’t wake up early again. It won’t physically be able to, because it knows Cor will have it stand in the sun until its flesh is scalding to the point where every movement hurts.

N-iP01357-05953234 would take a sip of the water bottle in its hands, clutched tightly to absorb any semblance of coolness. It would, but this is a punishment, N-iP01357-05953234 knows this. And blanket permission doesn’t extend that far.

Its skin is still a safe paleness, still as it were when it was safely shielded, a far-cry from the harsh redness it will become.

There’s—a sound. A ringing, persistent and echoing within the confines of N-iP01357-05953234’s skull. It blinks. Cor is speaking.

“—you alright?”

And then Cor’s suddenly in front of it, kneeled in its vision. N-iP01357-05953234’s swallows in reaction, swaying, attempting to keep focus.

Cor reaches up, and N-iP01357-05953234’s flinches. It anticipates a strike, squeezing its eyes shut. But instead, Cor has its head between his hands, applying pressure like a vice. He’ll crush N-iP01357-05953234’s skull in.

But when N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes open, a wordless plea on its lips, Cor only has one hand on its forehead, and a—a, panicked look. But that can’t be right. The pressure strangling  N-iP01357-05953234’s head still persists. There’s something in its skull, pounding against the inner walls of its cranium.

Cor’s mouth is moving, but N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t hear any words exit it.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember Cor picking it up and transporting it. It doesn’t remember when water is spilled on it. N-iP01357-05953234’s memories recall when Cor first took it out of the facility, and thinks its reliving a nightmare.

 


 

Cor’s first thought is heatstroke.

Despite the fact the kid was only in the sun for practically less than a minute. And it's a thought that rings in his head as he rushed the kid to medical. And it’s a thought that resonates louder when the kid, as soon as he’s shaded, almost acts like a switch has been flipped.

Unfocused, like on the advent of delirium, and skin too warm to the touch. But underneath the safety of the shade, the kid instantly sags, the groan that comes from him is pathetic and feeble, but as soon as his gaze is able to take aim at Cor, he instantly stills.

Not consistent with heatstroke, but even though Cor can feel the kid cool in his arms, his direction is straight to Delphinus.

The kid’s practically in his regular state when he’s seated on the bench: vacant, impassive, and an absolute miserable picture. Except that his skin begins to twinge in red, dull and near invisible, but vibrant against his pale skin. Cor suspects it’ll grow into a sunburn as the day continues, as it steadily increases during his impromptu exanimation. He texts the Amicitias of the turn of events.

Marillo is in the process of dabbing the kid’s skin with dampened cloth, and telling the kid to drink from a cup of water, when Delphinus asks to speak with him outside.

He explains succinctly what had happened, and Delphinus gives him a hard stare.

Clearly,” Delphinus begins, after drilling him how long the kid stayed in the sun, if there was adequate ventilation in the rooms he stayed in, how well hydrated he was, with a finesse that's exact to Cor’s own interrogations. “The kid has some sort of sensitivity to the sun. A sun allergy. Actinic prurigo, I would hazard to guess. Probably hereditary.”

She says the diagnosis with little confidence, and Cor’s jaw clenches at the thought of even more further exploration of the kid to figure out what this is. He knows, from Delphinus’ reaction, that the kid’s symptoms don’t seem to match up, like a strewn about puzzle.

“What do we do with the kid now?” He asks.

“Well,” she says, “we keep him cool, we keep him hydrated. I’ll give him ointments for his skin to ease any inflammation and rashes.” She sighs. “And give him a sun-hat and umbrella for outings. For now though, he’ll stay here.”

“Overnight?”

“Hopefully not,” Delphinus supplies. Her tone is careful, and Cor cannot help but assume there’s more to that. “Just to determine how severe his skin might react, and how to approach from there.”

Cor opens his mouth to respond, but is interrupted when his phone buzzes. Delphinus waits for him to answer it, as he takes the device out.


Clarus [🛡️]: my sympathies towards the child.

Clarus [🛡️]: Viperia has decided she’ll visit him regardless. She wishes a personal report.

Clarus [🛡️]: i would accompany her, but duties have me tied up. She is on her way. Expect her soon.

 

He pockets the phone, and Delphinus speaks again.

Her tone is careful, and Cor immediately knows another hurdle has presented itself.

“His blood results came back.” She says, and Cor is already suspicious.

He waits for her to continues, and she does.

“Firstly,” she starts. “He’s anemic and has vitamin-d deficiency. He’ll need a certain diet to mend both.”

Both silently gloss over that the kid will not get his vitamin-d from the sun. The fact that he’s deficient in that area is a cruel irony.

“And secondly,” Delphinus grimaces. “There’s something foreign in his blood. We haven’t been able to figure it out what it is, yet.”

Cor stares. He feels his face furrow in disapproval, the whole sentence of such bringing something bitter in his mouth.

“What do you mean, you haven’t figure it out?” He asks, his voice low.

Delphinus sighs, an irritation underlining her motions as she skims a hand through her hair. “That whatever it is that’s in his bloodstream is—unusual, definitely shouldn’t be there, and there’s been a call for more blood samples to see if they can’t diagnose it.”

There’s a pause, momentarily, before she continues, voice level.

“If he does have to stay overnight,” she says, “then it’ll be for this. I’ve looked at the images of his blood results, and whatever it is, it clings to his actual cells.” She gives him a pointed stare. “We don’t know if it’s transferable or infectious. It may be better for him to stay here until we’re able to identify it. I’d recommend for you to get your blood drawn, just for safety’s sake.”   

The air is permeated with such a sense of grim ambiance, it honestly causes Cor to become annoyed with it.

He pinches his nose bridge and feels a presence behind him. Delphinus straightens, and the Marshal already knows who just arrived.

“Captain Amicitia.” Delphinus greets, with a respectful bow. Viperia, ever neatly dressed in her Kingsglaive uniform, gives a curt incline of her head.

“Delphinus,” she says, before turning to Cor. “Leonis. You don’t look happy.”

That’s an understatement.

“Delphinus can explain why that is.” He says, and with both Marshal and Captain giving her their full attention, Delphinus details exactly what it is they know of the peculiars of the kid’s blood.

Which isn’t—much, which just raises more concern.

Delphinus also gives her run-down of the kid’s current condition to Viperia when asked. Listening to it a second time just reaffirms to Cor that this kid has a long road ahead of him.

“Thank you.” Viperia says, after Delphinus is done. “Return to the child, I want to speak with Cor alone.”

Delphinus nods, and swiftly retreats back into the room with the kid and Marillo.

Cor doesn’t even need to look at Viperia to feel her raised brow, and she doesn’t even need to speak for him to know what she is thinking.

He sighs. There’s something burdensome and uncomfortable in his chest.

“Quarantine?” He asks, though the question is already answered.

Viperia purses her lips. “He’ll have his portrait taken.”

And that refers to the designated areas hidden within the walls and floors of the Citadel; entrances favoured behind certain paintings in certain areas. Concealed, unless one knows what they’re looking for.

There’s a growl that emits from Cor’s throat, and he starts pacing.

Damn it all.” He gnarls, and he hears Viperia sigh.

“He’ll be given the best care the Citadel can offer, Cor.” She says, but it does little. He knows the kid will be nursed, but that does not change the fact he’ll be marked bio-hazard. It's hardly relaxing to be tended by people in hazmat suits.

“I know.” Cor bites, and he breathes deeply through his nose to center himself. He ceases his short pacing to look at his Captain.

“And will I have to be cordoned off?” He asks dryly.

Viperia considers. “Has he sneezed on you?”

“No.”

“Cleaned any of his vomit?”

“No.”

“Have you come into contact with his blood? Cleaned any wounds?”

“No.”

“So I’ll assume you’re clean, but you’ll give the Docs a blood test.” She concludes with no room to argue.

Not that Cor would argue, not on this. It’s a bleak thought, but there is a possibility of the kid being a carrier of—something.

He can already see the headlines of one those conspiracy forums; Niflheim Infiltrates Lucian Borders with Toxic Child Bomb! Little Boy Infects Hundreds—A New Form of Biological Warfare? Marshal Cor Leonis is a Fucking Idiot!

His aggravation is building just thinking about it.

“I suppose,” Viperia starts, bringing Cor back. “That now is any time as any to introduce myself to him.”

Cor snorts, and says flatly, “and potentially subject yourself to an unknown virus?”

“I subject myself to you, don’t I.” She replies, her voice mirroring Cor’s own dull tone. She makes a move towards the door, “As it stands, I feel partially responsible for the whole fiasco with the sunlight.” She turns, mid stride, to look at him with some level of humour. “So let me have this.”

Cor’s only response is a scoff, as she knocks and opens the door. Delphinus finishes taking another sample of blood from the boy, and the kid startles at the sight of Viperia.

With a wordless look, Viperia communicates with Delphinus and Marillo she’s going to talk to the kid, so they give her room. Cor leans against the wall, and Viperia kneels in front of the kid.

“My name is Viperia Sonticus Amicitia.” She greets, smile warm, as she extends a hand for the kid to shake. “But it can be just Viperia, for you.”

 

( Amicitia.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the woman before it, and feels the beginnings of its sternum aching from the increased pumping of its heart.

Another name, another pest of the Empire. Like a gnawing nail pierced in flesh, stinging and refusing come out. Another title associated with more than a few terrible mishaps.

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it would be a mercy to stand out in the sun now, considering Leonis and Amicitia are in the same room with it.
Viperia has her hand out in front of it, and is expectant.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows what a handshake is; Its handlers have done it to each other, an action of greeting. But one never done to the units.

Likewise, its handlers only ever kneeled in front of N-iP01357-05953234 if a closer exception was needed. But Viperia isn’t expecting it, she has her hand out.

N-iP01357-05953234 continues to look at the woman. Her mouth is curved upwards, a smile that reaches her eyes, and one made more mocking as she is knelt before N-iP01357-05953234, further accentuating how much larger, stronger , the woman is compared to it.

The Amicitias, Sword and Shield, and individuals persistently associated closely with the False Monarchs. Like flies to a corpse.

Cor and Viperia are looking at it, and N-iP01357-05953234 think it may faint from the combined weight of it.

The effects of the sun still linger, a recurring waves that periodically ripples through N-iP01357-05953234 body, bringing with it dull aches. Its head feels loose, as if not fully attached. And it's with that, that N-iP01357-05953234 blames the residual heat stewing in between its skull, that it turns its sights on Cor.

Cor isn’t its Commanding Officer, Cor isn’t a handler in any sense, but N-iP01357-05953234 turns to him to seek clarity on whether its allowed to shake Viperia’s hand like one. When it realizes it's done so, it's as though its been filled with shards of glass.  

Cor raises a brow, “Well, go on. Take her hand.”

The Order has N-iP01357-05953234 return its sights back towards Viperia, lefting its hand to make contact with her own. N-iP01357-05953234 does not cling to it, but Viperia makes a simple, single shake.

The heat gathered behind its eyes produce a fog. Viperia may be talking, Cor likewise, their presences are still a heavy threat that loom and overshadow it, but the pounding in its ears become more persistent and shrill. N-iP01357-05953234’s chest hurts.

N-iP01357-05953234 may faint. N-iP01357-05953234 is certain it is fainting.)

 


 

 

Magnus Wolfe, being a hematological expert, has seen his fair share of blood samples.

But there hasn’t quite been one like this in recent memory.    

The specifics of the samples are tight-lipped, a sensitive topic that Wolfe knows how to tread on. Classified, and he’ll do his job, get paid, and he won’t ask invasive questions or blabber about it to others. He’s done so before, with blood that sizzled in the sunlight.

The sample currently doesn’t match any example of known pathogens that affect the blood, either from his own experiences or from text.

But there’s something undeniably—familiar, about the sample. Frustratingly so, like an itch he can’t quite scratch, something right at the edge of his consciousness that teases, but is out of reach.

If Wolfe was not a professional, not a trusted academic of the Crown, a lesser man, then he may have destroyed the samples in a tantrum of pure frustration. Thrown across the room, exhausted as the samples sit on the desk like any other, but distinctly mocking.

As it stands, the samples continues to sit in preservation, the tests resulting in nothing distinct, and the cultures providing nothing he’s already acquainted with.

He needs a eureka! moment, something that can capture that familiar feeling; the fact that Wolfe both feels unaccustomed and accustomed to the specklings of obsidian underneath the microscope, makes for a very uncanny and annoying feeling.

“The new sample you requested, Doctor.” The voice of his colleague breaks his thoughts, and he turns in his chair to receive his new gift.

“Thank you.” He says, as he puts the new samples on his desk. A new batch of cultures, a new batch of tests, and a new batch of applying certain chemical reactions await them, and Wolfe thinks he’ll be in for another late night.

“How is the patient?” He asks, before his colleague can leave. The question is done out more of the fact that Wolfe knows this specific assistant has a penchant for gossip, than actual concern for the patient.

The shifting of her feet, the slight wringing of her hands, and the quick darting of her tongue across lips, and Wolfe knows she may spill something that may lay on the lines of something his bosses want under a more restricted rope.

“Well,” she starts, “the poor boy apparently had to be rushed in—by the Marshal, no less!”

Her excitement has her giddy, but she has the decency not to go above her inside voice.

Wolfe makes an interested noise, nodding. “Is that so?”

“Yes!” She continues, “I saw the Marshal run inside, and he barked for Delphinus. He was carrying a small boy.” Her hand flies upwards to clutch at her heart, “Poor thing, apparently had heatstroke. Can you believe that?”

Could have been a near tragedy; a dead child and no more viable blood samples.

“Dreadful.” He answers.

“Indeed,” she says, and then she rattles on her concerns of how that could have happened. If the boy was forgotten in an overheated car, and how the Marshal could let that happen, because a disaster done on his watch is mighty concerning, and something of some such. And something about the Marshal being handsome. Wolfe mostly tunes it out, nodding where appropriate.

One tidbit, however, has his mind come to a screeching halt.

“—sensitive to the sun, I think. Which breaks my heart, we’re finally going to have some good weather and this poor boy can’t enjoy it.”

“Yes.” He says, automatic, to prompt the woman to finish her final thoughts to leave. When the door is shut behind her, Wolfe returns his attention back towards the fabled samples.

It's—an impossible thought. Absolutely absurd, preposterous to the point he could lose all reputability if he published such a thought, especially without substantial evidence. Such a sensitive topic, that daring to humour it could make one a laughing-stock. Something that’s literally been argued back and forth by scholars for decades, if not centuries.

Wolfe has worked with daemon blood, before, with a select few. In private, need-to-know conferences.

And it cannot be found in humans, as something apparently—latent. This is a fact. Infection was prompt and deadly and fatal. The boy cannot be a boy, because he should be poisoned as a belligerent, already turning, already a causality. Not rushed to medical, not cradled by the Marshal, not even safe enough to draw blood from. The idea that infection could stay lurking within the body without symptoms was one of scare tactics and rumour. The possibility of such was null because it simply didn’t exist. The only advantage the infected are given is that symptoms are easily identifiable.

But—

“... Sensitive to the sun. ” He says to an empty room. He stares at the new sample, and thinks a new test must be done.   

Chapter Text

When N-iP01357-05953234 wakes, it thinks it's blind.

Because its vision is greeted with a blanket of inky darkness; blank is the void it views, clouded with a pitch-darkness that mourns the light that is completely absent from it.

The immediate thought N-iP01357-05953234 processes is that it's vision has malfunctioned completely. Feeling remains, a boon in this, and it's feet are wet—it looks downwards on impulse, and it's vision had actually never left: it sees its body, clothed in its uniform, and it stands in ankle-deep water. N-iP01357-05953234 is not wearing any shoes.

The water is a near invisible; reflecting the bleak void as a mirror. It’s frigid, as expected, and remains undisturbed by N-iP01357-05953234’s presence. It remains further undisturbed when N-iP01357-05953234’s toes curl inwards.

“Report your status.”

N-iP01357-05953234 knows the voice that booms behind it. It’s fortified with a wall of authority, a voice of confidence and command. One that has N-iP01357-05953234’s back straighten in an instant, eyes faced forward, and arms straight at its side. N-iP01357-05953234 knows that voice well.

N-iP01357-05953234 turns on its heel, and no splash is heard from the water, but N-iP01357-05953234 does not pay attention to such meek details. Its focus is solely on the General that requested its condition.

General Angelis stands as he always does; dependable, reliable, perfect. His arms are crossed behind his back, head tilted slightly upwards and eyes cast downwards towards N-iP01357-05953234 with a blank expression. Decorated in the colours of Niflheim, he’s a shining, luminous contrast in the black that perverts around him.

He waits, expectant, and N-iP01357-05953234 does what it's told.

Or it would. If any sounds came out of its mouth.

Instead, a meager gasp is caught in its throat, a miserable splutter debases what would have been something simple and straightforward. N-iP01357-05953234 flinches, a twitch that nearly has it break eye-contact with Angelis (another offense), and N-iP01357-05953234 tries again. Its throat tightens even more, a spasm that only produces a mocking mumble that contains no words.

“Report your status.” Angelis repeats. His tone isn’t patient. N-iP01357-05953234 attempts are insulting.

N-iP01357-05953234 tries again. It fails again. N-iP01357-05953234 begins to shake, a tremble that begins in its appendages and moves into its core.

(Despite Angelis standing exactly where he is, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he looms. N-iP01357-05953234 has gotten smaller, in this exchange.)

Angelis gives N-iP01357-05953234 a single scowl, and it knows immediately to cease its miserable struggles. N-iP01357-05953234 shuts its mouth hard enough for its jaw to ache.

Angelis tuts, and his gaze moves off to the side.

“Report your status.” He commands, and it isn’t directed at N-iP01357-05953234.

“Functional; in peak condition, Sir. Unit 05953235 reporting for duty, Sir.” Says the unit that is a total mirror image of N-iP01357-05953234, except impeccable in all the ways N-iP01357-05953234 is not.

Angelis nods, satisfied. He tilts his head towards N-iP01357-05953234. “Kill the defect.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t have a chance to gaze down the barrel of 05953235’s gun. 05953235 points it at N-iP01357-05953234’s head in infallible precision, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not have any moment to marvel at it, because 05953235 already pulls the trigger.

The shot is done squarely in the middle of N-iP01357-05953234’s forehead, and N-iP01357-05953234 head is instantly wilts backwards by the force of it. Its body follows suit, and N-iP01357-05953234 falls into the water beneath it.

There is no splash, nor is there a sound. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember the noise of the gun, but knows the bullet has been fired; N-iP01357-05953234 felt it exit through the back of it’s skull and shatter it completely.

The ankle deep water turns—deeper. N-iP01357-05953234 sinks, like a stone, and the liquid is too viscous to be water suddenly. The pressure it brings by greedily encompassing N-iP01357-05953234’s body nullifies any senses N-iP01357-05953234 could have had.

N-iP01357-05953234 sinks, and Angelis and 05953235 stay standing where they are. They stare downwards at N-iP01357-05953234 descending form with something distinctly unimpressed written on their faces.

N-iP01357-05953234 sinks, and it watches a trail of bright, foul red trailing from its bullet hole stain the blackness around it.    

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 is in an unfamiliar room. It is not entirely dissimilar to the room Cor had previously had it recharge in. It is likewise bare, but excessive in space.

Carpeted floors. An alcove that leads to a bathroom. A clock on the wall. A door that suggests it melds with the walling, a camouflaged entry. Windows are not present but vents near the ceiling produce constant airflow. A closet nestled facing the bed against the wall. A lighting system that N-iP01357-05953234 will soon learn mimics the day/night cycle. A bed that N-iP01357-05953234 currently lays upon.

It’s—

A cell. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks. But far too ostentatious with its sleek black interior decor that proudly proclaim Lucian. A Lucian holding cell, obviously, but one of awkwardly high grade.

It puts N-iP01357-05953234 instantly on alert, as it has been since arriving to Lucis. Its jaw clenches, its fist tightens, and it squints at nothing.

A hard swallow, and a quick, cautious glance of the surroundings cements that N-iP01357-05953234 is indeed alone in this room.

But N-iP01357-05953234 knows it is being watched.

It’s a cell. Like the one it had been in previous at the location Cor had it previous.

It’s a cell, and prisoners are always monitored.

The question on why N-iP01357-05953234 has been moved from one cell to the next is one that does not possess a current answer, and N-iP01357-05953234 stays where it is on the bed.

Its clothing has changed. It no longer wears what it once had and instead new garments decorate its body: a short sleeve shirt, pants that end at its knees. Its wristband persists, for whatever reason. If N-iP01357-05953234 itself changed its own clothes, then it does not remember.

Evaluation of its skin display a coating of red is still present. A byproduct of the sun exposure, one that will fade in due time, but will irritate until then. The presence of still burned skin implies that not a prolonged amount of time has passed since—

Fainting. In the presence of Cor and Viperia.

Fainting, in the presence two of the most prolific threats of the Empire.

N-iP01357-05953234’s heart rate has quicked. Its hands have become clammy.

It waits for judgement in this silent room.

 


 

Judgement arrives in the form of Delphinus and Marillo, apparently.

Or, it would—if Delphinus and Marillo had gone about strapping N-iP01357-05953234 onto an examination table for the vivisection that N-iP01357-05953234 had prepared for them to do.  

They, perhaps frustratingly, do not do so. Instead, Delphinus speaks.

“Are you feeling well?” She asks. N-iP01357-05953234 sits on the bed, and Delphinus kneels to its side, albeit at a slighter distance than she usually does. Marillo is still characteristic in that he stands off in the background. He glances at N-iP01357-05953234 with a dubious expression.

N-iP01357-05953234, obviously, cannot give a verbal response. But it is only a moment later until Delphinus speaks again.

“Can you give me a thumbs up—” she mimics the action, “if you’re feeling good, or a thumbs down—” another gesture to emphasize her words, “if you’re feeling bad?”

The parameters are probably some of the vaguest N-iP01357-05953234 has ever had the misfortune of receiving. Good and Bad do not adequately give a precise assessment, and ultimately can overlap.

Delphinus and Marillo are looking at it, and are clearly expectant. N-iP01357-05953234’s mouth is dry. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember it always being dry.

N-iP01357-05953234 gives a thumbs up; it’s in functional condition. Barely. It’s not in Good condition, but either answer fall short of an actual status report, and N-iP01357-05953234 can’t speak.

“That’s good.” Delphinus says. Though her pursed lips seem to suggest she knows that N-iP01357-05953234 is on the Poor end of the spectrum. The moisture that once occupied N-iP01357-05953234’s mouth seems to have traveled to its palms and forehead.

Delphinus shuffles her weight where she kneels, and says, “I know this must all be… Very confusing, for you.”

( Understatement )

“You’ll be staying here, for a while.” She continues. “You’re sick, and your health is our number one priority. We all want you to get better. So we need just a few things from you, if that’s okay?”

She asks, but all three occupants already know the answer. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know why she bothers, but it nods either way.

Marillo produces instruments seemingly out of thin air, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it should be more alarmed at its seeming degradation of situational awareness, but as it stands, Delphinus and Marillo cloud its mind as they ask for more samples from it. Delphinus gives it a cup of water to drink.

Spitting saliva into a tube, a swab inside inside its cheek, another pair of blood samples, a scrape of skin, breathing into a tube, urinating into a cup—

 

(N-iP01357-05953234 expects the urine sample will segway into a nude examination, and mentally prepares. It clasps the cup in one hand, and Delphinus and Marillo wait. They wait, and suddenly N-iP01357-05953234’s blood is ice. Its other hand trembles as it lifts to grab the hem of its pants to undress.

But the garment doesn’t even pass the jut of its hips, because Delphinus suddenly startles.

“In the bathroom!” She suddenly announces, and N-iP01357-05953234’s grip on the plastic cup flexes and deforms it in reflex.

“The bathroom, honey.” she repeats. Her smiles seems more strained, now. Marillo looks baffled. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks its heart is going to malfunction.

Delphinus corrals N-iP01357-05953234 in the bathroom, N-iP01357-05953234’s own handle on its feet lacking as it stumbles.

She closes the door, and N-iP01357-05953234 can hear the small mutter of “Astrals,” coming from Marillo.)

 

—N-iP01357-05953234 drinks more water. It sits on the bed.

Samples evidently collected, Delphinus’s smile is still on her face.

“You should rest.” She says. She nods to a button stationed on the wall that is present near the door that N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t previously noticed. “Just press that if you need anything. Anything at all. Food will be coming soon.” She gestures to the closet, “And you have new clothes, as well.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods, dully, and moves itself to lay on the bed. They exit with little fanfare, and N-iP01357-05953234 is left alone.

Perhaps Delphinus and Marillo expect N-iP01357-05953234 to rest on the bed. They absolutely think that.

But as N-iP01357-05953234 lays on the bed, acutely staring at the door, it waits. N-iP01357-05953234 does not count the time that passes, but once its heart has graced it with a relaxed pulse, N-iP01357-05953234 carefully adjusts itself off the bed. It lays on the floor, curled and away from the discord of the bed’s conflicting comforts. It lays on the floor, and continues to stare at the door, but no one else enters.

It relieves a breath it hadn’t realized it was keeping, and sags.

The room is decorated in the colours of Lucis, and the black accents make N-iP01357-05953234’s skin crawl.

 


 

The room is starkly white. Sterile in every sense of the word, and compact in its function. It’s perfect.

N-iP01357-05953234 stands in between its fellow groupmates. The line they create together is a string consisting of echoes of the same body; 4 years since conception, blond, fair skinned, and with an etched designation upon their right wrist done at conception.

N-iP01357-05953234 stands in attendance, sights forward and focused on nothing, as a Scientist debriefs His Honour Verstael Besithia.

“Group N is ready to train and install,” the Scientist says, tone formal. “Stillbirths dropped thirty percent. Infant mortality dropped fifty percent. So far, evidence of the gene sequencing for reparative regeneration appears positive, and without the consequence of rapid aging.”

“How timely was their growth?” Besithia asks, giving a sweeping glance of N-iP01357-05953234 and its groupmates.

“That of a regular human.” The Scientist says.

Besithia growls, “that’s too slow. We don’t have time to babysit.”

The Scientist adjusts his glasses, shifting on his feet. “Sir—attempts to hasten growth has only resulted in them growing too fast. They become too frail in practically a year.”

Besithia gives the Scientist a sharp look, and N-iP01357-05953234 can see the lesser man visibly wilt.

“Then fix it,” Besithia admonishes severely. N-iP01357-05953234 has to suppress a cringe at the tone. “Better yet: grow them so they are already mature when they hatch.”

The Scientist is startled. Perturbed by the command, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels no sympathy. The Scientist gapes, opening and closing his mouth, before an reply finally leaves him.

“We—Stasis in the capsule for such a prolonged length could result in deformities—”

“Sequence it so rapid growth allows the specimens to reach maturity at five years in the capsules.” Besithia decrees, an imposing challenge dropped upon the Scientist and his colleagues. Besithia begins to pace parallel of the line of Group N, squinting in appraisal of each individual unit.

He continues to speak, “and once birthed, rapid growth ceases and regeneration wakes from dormancy.”

The Scientist, now a far-cry from his previous professional self, attempts to internally relay the new order. Besithia’s words are already carved in stone, and even though N-iP01357-05953234 does not fully understand them, judging by the Scientist’s reaction, it's a task that requires monumental effort. If a task possible at all.  

But Besithia’s tone, governed with decision, and his gaze, interwoven with a potent persistence, N-iP01357-05953234 knows the Chief Researcher already has a plan detailed in his head.

Besithia prowls lateral of Group N, and although his gaze only lands on N-iP01357-05953234 for practically a second, the unit feels a chill persist in every corner of its being.

“Oh, how delightful.”

The new voice, dreadfully playful, signals the arrival of the Chancellor.

N-iP01357-05953234 has to force itself not to look at Izunia’s entrance on impulse. The man’s entrance is a constant distraction at its peripheral.

“Such a lovely spawn you’ve created.” Izunia drawls, coming closer, and the Scientist dutifully steps back to allow the Chancellor to speak with the Chief Researcher. “They really do take after their father. You must be very proud.”

Besithia squints, lips pinched downwards in an expression N-iP01357-05953234 can only describe as insulted.

“They’re hardly refined.” Besithia answers, a bite in his speech. Izunia stays positively elated, despite Besithia’s words.

“Oh,” Izunia cooes, “but they are something special.”

Izunia sights sweep across Group N, a rapid assessment done with a small hum.

Very special.” Is his final evaluation.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows that he refers to Group N as a whole. Obviously he does. But Izunia’s sudden stare is fixed solely on N-iP01357-05953234 alone. Izunia’s smile reminds N-iP01357-05953234 of oil.

 


 

Cor comes with food. N-iP01357-05953234 will come to realize that Cor usually comes with food in the coming days.

“I hope you like rice soup.” He says, situating himself on the floor across from N-iP01357-05953234, a small, low table separating them. There’s something innately unnatural, seeing Leonis seat himself on the floor. More so because N-iP01357-05953234 is essentially complementary to it, a unit is practically a symbol of the floor: intrinsically below a human. It may not be the first time he’s done it, but Cor outright simply lowering himself to N-iP01357-05953234’s level is—odd. Uncanny.  

“But it’s okay if you don’t,” Cor continues, seated and having placed N-iP01357-05953234’s food near it, and securing his own bowl.“But you should—try to eat it all anyway. But slowly.”

The rice soup, as Cor has identified it, is simple. It’s simple, and more obliging than the vegetable broth. While still inherently foreign, it traverses down N-iP01357-05953234’s gut with only a rattling of nausea. N-iP01357-05953234 will manage.

“Sorry about the, uh, the sun.” Cor starts, awkwardly. If N-iP01357-05953234 didn’t know better, it would almost assume Cor sounded guilty. N-iP01357-05953234 skin is still twinged with an itching red, and N-iP01357-05953234 focuses on the soup.

“Anyway,” Cor continues, after eyeing N-iP01357-05953234’s consumption with an  uncomfortable tenacity, “you’re staying here, for a bit.” N-iP01357-05953234 already knows that. “You’re sick. We’re trying to figure that one out.” N-iP01357-05953234 also knows that. This has been explained to N-iP01357-05953234, by Delphinus, and it doesn’t understand why Cor would repeat it. The Lucians could not be so unorganized as to forget what information was already passed, or else they would have succumbed to the Empire long ago.

Evidently, N-iP01357-05953234’s lets its confusion mingle in its expression, because Cor says, misinterpreting it, “it’s just a little infection. We’ll figure it out soon.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think its infected.

Or, more accurately, it hopes it isn’t. But Lucis is foreign and alien and unfamiliar, and its people likewise to absurd degree, and N-iP01357-05953234’s immunity has already proven faulty with the rejection of treatments back at the facility.

“Don’t think you made me sick so, I guess you’re stuck with me.” Cor says, as if N-iP01357-05953234 being infected isn’t completely damning. As if Cor letting it be known that N-iP01357-05953234 will be confined to a room with him isn’t completely horrifying.

“But this place is temporary.” He continues, completely ignoring N-iP01357-05953234’s crisis. He takes a bite of his own food, before glancing around the space. “Gotta get you a fridge.” He murmurs, and N-iP01357-05953234 just sits and stares. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know if that soft exclamation was for it. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what a ‘fridge ’ is. Cor looks to the door that leads to the bathroom. “And a toothbrush” He glances at a corner of the room, seemingly in concentration. “Treadmill.” He mutters, more to himself. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what to do. So it takes another bite from its rice soup.

As the soup is swallowed, Cor asks: “Good?”

Another question with an inadequate rating system. But the soup is tolerable at best, and even though N-iP01357-05953234’s stomach churns in restless bouts, even N-iP01357-05953234 knows that’s not entirely because of the soup. So N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

Cor gives a curt nod in response, satisfied. He takes another bite of his own food, and says, “Docs will look you over a couple more times. They’re here to help you.” Cor’s tone is casual, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows that’s a lie. The Doctors here are not like its handlers, and they will not seek to make N-iP01357-05953234 a fully fledged Magitek.

“It may be a little…” Cor carries on, making a vague gesture with his hand. “... Uncomfortable, but it’ll all be harmless. No one’s gonna hurt you.”

Delphinus and Marillo have never actually done anything that can fit the parameters of physical harm, but Doctors don’t hurt; they research. And even if the operations may be second only to a flaying, their first intention is investigation, agony being a carryover.

“You’ll be fine.” Cor says, with an odd conviction. N-iP01357-05953234 eats more soup, if only to distract itself from the small tremors that start at its hands.

A small pause between Cor’s speech. N-iP01357-05953234 tries to keep its sights solely on its soup, but Cor’s stare has N-iP01357-05953234’s skin prickle.

The Marshal speaks, “Your eye appointment has been rescheduled. It’ll happen sometime later, but in the meanwhile you just get—comfortable.”

The spoon N-iP01357-05953234’s cuts into its skin, its grip like a vice.

“We got you a pediatric therapist.” Cor says, as N-iP01357-05953234 is able to take another grounding bite of its soup. “She’ll be able to talk to you better than I ever could.”

Cor’s tone has an odd inflection that N-iP01357-05953234 can’t place; strangely reverent, in a way. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what a ‘pediatric therapist ’ is.

“... You don’t know what a pediatric therapist is.” Cor says, after a moment of silence, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows it isn’t a question. N-iP01357-05953234 swallows.

“Uh—well.” Cor starts, “her name’s Alouette. She’ll be talking to you, while you’re here. Helping you through things.”

That doesn’t give N-iP01357-05953234 any sort of understanding what a ‘pediatric therapist’ is. It’s still as nebulous as when the title was uttered the first time.

“She’s trained to deal with kids like you.” Cor continues, and it’s only because there had been a time where a handler mentioned the word ‘kid’ in a specific context that N-iP01357-05953234 even knows what that word means. N-iP01357-05953234 startles, and looks at Cor in bewilderment.

Cor only raises a brow in response, but continues. “To help kids in complicated situations.” He says, slowly, and N-iP01357-05953234 may faint again. “She’ll help you understand everything.”

N-iP01357-05953234’s head is fuzzy. It feels like it's floating.

Cor drums his fingers on the table, observing N-iP01357-05953234 with an expression it cannot read.

“C’mon, kid.” Cor says, rolling his shoulders. “Let’s do some stretches.”

 


  

Kid.

Now that’s just absurd, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, from the floor, where it lays after having scuttled off the bed to sleep for the night.

Not even the Lucians could be so daft, and certainly not someone like Cor.

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 needs to manually control its breathing. It needs to keep a conscious effort to steady itself, lest it faint again.

“Hello, again.” Viperia says, looking much the same when N-iP01357-05953234 first met her. She seats herself across from N-iP01357-05953234, much like Cor had done, as does her companion. “It’s nice to meet you. I hope you don’t mind, I wanted to make sure you were alright, you gave me quite the scare the first time we met.”

N-iP01357-05953234 twitches, rapidly glancing between the two of them. It clenches and unclenches its fists underneath the small table.

“This is my husband.” Viperia motions to her associate, a man whose outfit shouts far too loudly who he is already.

“Clarus,” He greets, with an incline of the head. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

It’s too mellow for an execution, not to mention introductions would make little sense in that regard. N-iP01357-05953234’s chest is tight, squeezing as if someone were seated upon it, and N-iP01357-05953234 swallows; deep inhale, deep exhale.

Viperia and Clarus gives a quick glance to each other, communicating something N-iP01357-05953234 can’t quite fathom.

“We just want to ask some questions.” Viperia starts, slowly. “Just nod for yes, and shake for no, that’s all.”

Ah. An interrogation. N-iP01357-05953234 feels its surroundings become hazy in a light fog, like someone breathed on a plane of glass.

Viperia extends her hands across the table, “May I see your wrist, please? The one with the wristband.”

N-iP01357-05953234 does what it's told, and extends its arm for the Sword. N-iP01357-05953234 half expects for her to produce her namesake and cut it off.

She doesn’t, and N-iP01357-05953234, between the fog that is becoming steadily more unbearable, notices its hand: its nails are short, chiseled from teeth, the surrounding flesh scarred from incessant picking. N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. It doesn’t remember purposely disfiguring its own fingers, but clearly it has.

Viperia slips the wristband off, and Clarus’s lips purse as he looks at N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist.

“Where did you get this?” she holds N-iP01357-05953234’s hand, palm upwards, its designation clear. “Was this done at the facility we found you at?”

N-iP01357-05953234 squints, slightly, because obviously it had. And, obviously, the two of them would knows this. This is a trial to see if N-iP01357-05953234 will lie.

Lying has consequences, so N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

“Did you always have it?” Clarus inquires. N-iP01357-05953234 nods without realizing it has.

“So this,” Viperia says, her voice still careful, “this is your name?”

Designation, technically. N-iP01357-05953234 nods again.

“I’m… not sure we can call you that.” Viperia rubs her thumb across N-iP01357-05953234’s barcode, and its thankful its shoulders are already stiff, or else it wouldn’t have been able to suppress its flinch. “Would you like to change it? Your name?”

She says that as if it isn’t the most absurd thing to suggest. Its on par with suggesting that she and her husband strip themselves of their titles.

“Something easier for us to refer to you as.” Clarus claims, and N-iP01357-05953234 focuses on nothing.

Deprived of its only distinction. The covering of the wristband itself was a slap to the face, but to disregard the designation altogether is violating. Viperia’s touch on its wrist is violating.

Perhaps this screams on N-iP01357-05953234’s face. Perhaps N-iP01357-05953234’s trembling has gotten worse. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know. But Viperia suddenly says: “You don’t have to change it now, if you don’t want to. Just think about it.”

N-iP01357-05953234, with the fog becoming progressively worse, its head feeling as though it floats, just nods.

Viperia sighs, relinquishing N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist. “Are there others, like you?”

Obviously. Obviously there is. N-iP01357-05953234’s barcode is numbered. It nods. It doesn’t remember nodding.

“Thank you.” Viperia says, and N-iP01357-05953234 stares at her mouth. It’s curved upwards, but her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “You’re very brave. We’ll try to help you as best we can.”

When they leave, N-iP01357-05953234 lays under the biting frost of the water from the shower, and goes numb.

 


 

The ivory blanket of the room gives it a chalky overcoat. The room is sterile. It is simple.

N-iP01357-05953234’s heartbeat is reverberating throughout its entire body. Its hands tremble, its throat is dry, and General Angelis paces in front of it. He prowls, slowly, his steps echoing throughout the training hall. N-iP01357-05953234’s groupmates stand in the periphery, lining the wall of the hall as Angelis sought audience with N-iP01357-05953234 alone.

“Status.” Angelis commands, and N-iP01357-05953234 licks its lips before it acquiesces.

“Functional, Sir.”

Angelis hums. There’s false humour entwined within, and N-iP01357-05953234 already winces. It knows what will happen, because it’s been in this position before. Because N-iP01357-05953234 is foolish and still remains undisciplined.

“I suppose you must be at peak condition,” Angelis muses. “Considering the amount of rations you had indulged in.”

N-iP01357-05953234 gnaws on the bottom of its lip, resisting the urge to wrench its eyes shut.

N-iP01357-05953234’s body is a traitorous thing. And N-iP01357-05953234 as a whole is irresponsible, and a weak thoughtless fool who listened to its growling stomach rather than sense.

“Do you wish your fellow units to starve?” Angelis questions, stopping to stand before N-iP01357-05953234. N-iP01357-05953234 keeps its eyes at the man’s shiny boots.

“No, Sir.” N-iP01357-05953234 immediately responds, accompanied with a shake of the head.

“Each ration is cultivated to suit individual needs.” Angelis continues, tone even, tone professional. N-iP01357-05953234’s back is slick with sweat. “Do you think yourself above your groupmates?”

N-iP01357-05953234’s head shakes vigorously, “No, Sir.”

“Then why,” Angelis scolds, “would you steal from them?”

Angelis could have stabbed N-iP01357-05953234, for what the words do to it. N-iP01357-05953234’s response is similar if it were stabbed: a stunned, stuttering gasp. Words broken before they ever leave N-iP01357-05953234’s mouth.

“No answer?” Angelis tuts. “Am I to presume you’re just selfish?”

N-iP01357-05953234 shakes its head more. Its eyes are beginning to moisten, and with Angelis’s scowl, words come back to it. “N-No, Sir.”

Angelis sighs. “And yet, you can’t give me a justification.” He shakes his head. “You disappoint me. I know you’re better than this. Are you a faulty unit?”

The figurative knife twists deeper, and becomes an impalement.

“No, Sir.” N-iP01357-05953234 is able to squeak.

“Gluttony is a sin.” N-iP01357-05953234 knows this. “Tell your groupmates and I what punishment you deserve.”

The eyes of N-iP01357-05953234’s groupmates are painful, even though now, they feel a galaxy away. There’s a ringing in N-iP01357-05953234’s head.

“A-A…” N-iP01357-05953234 lips its dry lips, “...administered shock, Sir, from your baton, Sir.”

Angelis tilts his head, considering. “Two, for not answering before.”

N-iP01357-05953234 should say thank you, in response and in acknowledgment. But the words are clogged in the tightness of N-iP01357-05953234’s throat, as Angelis’s baton lights in crackling blue sparks.

(Angelis gives N-iP01357-05953234 three, for the lack of manners.)  

 


 

Alouette, as it turns out, is a form of Scientist. A sub-disciplinary, like a Doctor. It is what N-iP01357-05953234 gathers, from the fact she holds a clipboard and records.

“I’m Alouette Laryssa,” she introduces herself, and kneels down like all the others. “But it can be just Allie, for you.”  

N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t sure what the title Allie is, or what it means, but N-iP01357-05953234 also doesn’t know what a pediatric therapist is, so it assumes Allie is another way to refer to the profession. In which case, introducing her name is meaningless, in this.

N-iP01357-05953234 gives a curt nod in acknowledgement. The Allie smiles at it.

“I brought something for you, something fun to play with.” She says, revealing with her a bag that contains an assortment of even smaller containers: small, yellow cylindrical ones. The lids of which come in a myriad of different colours, the walling of the cylinders opaque, giving only a hint suggesting of colours encased within it. Colours that match those of the lid.

“Do you know what this is?” Alouette asks, once she has placed the containers on the table. She lifts one, turning it in her hand, allowing N-iP01357-05953234 to inspect. N-iP01357-05953234 shakes it head no, it doesn’t know what it is. N-iP01357-05953234 picks at the skin of its fingertips below the table.

“It's called Play-Doh, and it's a fun way to keep my hands busy.” The Allie explains, and N-iP01357-05953234 fiddling with its fingers instantly cease. It doesn’t know how she found out, but moves its hands to grip at its pants. It swallows.

She opens the lids of the Play-Doh, revealing the coloured—mud? The coloured mud within.

“I brought you many different colours,” Alouette says, and N-iP01357-05953234 leans forward a fraction to gain a better view. “because I didn’t know what's your favourite, so pick whichever you like. I like purple the best.”

N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. And then it squints, analyzing its choices.

“Every colour is a good colour.” Alouette encourages, and N-iP01357-05953234 looks to her as she speaks. “Any choice you make is great.”

But N-iP01357-05953234 already knows what choice she wants it to make. N-iP01357-05953234 already knows the correct answer. It reaches for the purple.

The Allie smiles.“Let’s take it out.” She says, as she reaches for her own specimen of Play-Doh; the orange.

When N-iP01357-05953234 reaches for the Play-Doh, it freezes upon contact, and finds itself stiffening in recoil. The texture is lumpy, soft and intrinsically alien.

“Feels a little funny, doesn’t it?” Alouette says, and N-iP01357-05953234 brings its sights back up towards her. Her Play-Doh is already out, so N-iP01357-05953234 scrambles to release its own batch.

Alouette waits, until N-iP01357-05953234’s Play-Doh is secured on the table. “How about we make some creatures?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think “creatures” can be made of Play-Doh. In fact, N-iP01357-05953234 knows no creatures can be made of it, because the putty is only a manipulable clay. There is no conceivable way life can be birthed from it. So it stares at Alouette, and how, within her process, she uses other colours. She uses the clay to produce a form (“Here’s some little legs. And a cute tail.”), with a green, she produces a row of triangular shapes (“Some spikes for its back.”), with whites, a pair of circles (“Every creature needs its eyes.”), and when… completed, the form is vaguely reminiscent of something. What that something is, N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t entirely sure, but it has legs, a tail, spikes, and eyes. It's a creature.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the thing, and isn’t quite sure what to think. It looks up to Alouette for any semblance of direction, and finds her looking back with a vague sense of expectation. So N-iP01357-05953234 looks back down, carefully lifts its hands, prepares, and slowly moves to copy what it saw Alouette do. It makes a creature.

As it constructs the creature, enthralled to follow the Allie’s steps exactly to the letter, it is acutely aware that Alouette writes something on her clipboard. The sound of pencil scraping against the paper screeches in the room.

It doesn’t realize it had been staring until Alouette looks up. N-iP01357-05953234 stiffens. She smiles.

“Don’t worry about this,” She says smoothly, gesturing to her clipboard. “This is just for me just to collect my thoughts. You can keep going.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods. It continues its work, hyper-aware of its actions. It steals glances at Alouette’s creature intermittently, to copy it.

The shaking of its hands (when had it started shaking?) only lessen as the time goes by, but never truly go away.

 


 

Alouette leaves the Play-Doh in N-iP01357-05953234’s room. She tells it, “You can have this, and you can play with it all you want. It's yours now.” The small containers of the malleable substances are stationed on the small table, and they remain untouched.

 

 

 

( It’s yours now, she says, even though everyone knows units do not have possessions. Despite the well-established knowledge, it stings, like when Cor told it that all the clothes in the closet are its.

Units may have an assigned recharging booth, uniform and weapon, but a possession cannot have its own possessions. N-iP01357-05953234 knows the Allie’s test. To see if N-iP01357-05953234 will disregard this truth with the Play-Doh.

N-iP01357-05953234 won’t fall for it, not this time, and not with the Lucians.)  

 


  

Cor is an odd constant. N-iP01357-05953234 could almost think the man as the food deliverer, if not for the fact N-iP01357-05953234 already knows that he is literally The Marshal. N-iP01357-05953234 still cannot rightly piece together why the Lucians would waste their best warrior on it, let alone seemingly degrade him to assign him to food delivery.

Unless—that’s exactly it. He’s being disgraced by being designated with N-iP01357-05953234, where he could be partaking in actual useful activities. Perhaps it is for an infraction N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t aware of, or that his acquisition of N-iP01357-05953234 itself across Lucian territory is its own misdeed. Cor must have failed in one area. Like a Guard who fails and is demoted to latrine cleaning.

This could almost feel like an epiphany, as it explains away Cor’s general presence. But the sudden surge of accomplishment N-iP01357-05953234 may feel from figuring out such an integral facet is instantly dampened; it doesn’t explain Delphinus and Marillo, it doesn’t explain Viperia and Clarus, and it doesn’t explain Alouette.    

But maybe it is a single resolution for Cor himself, and the others are part of a larger scheme that N-iP01357-05953234 cannot even begin to imagine. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know.

But Cor is stationed to it, “Alouette says I should keep you more company,” and N-iP01357-05953234 is startled to find that the Allie is Cor’s superior. Cor “keeps company”, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows the man is its personal prison guard. Even if N-iP01357-05953234 is already monitored by unseen cameras (because this is a cell, after all), Cor has been ordered to oversee it. And when Cor gives N-iP01357-05953234 food (“Gonna try out all the soups we have, aren’t you. Wait ‘till you get cleared to try solids, you’re gonna have a field day.”), mocks N-iP01357-05953234’s confinement (“I’ll show you around this place when we figure all this shi—stuff out. The flowers in the Garden are starting to bloom, I think you’d like it. You like flowers? ”), has N-iP01357-05953234 do stretches and mediocre exercises (“Got a great gym around here too, and when you’re not stuck in this place you can go. Keep good and fit. Can’t have you die of boredom, right? ”), all N-iP01357-05953234 can think is that Cor had to have blundered spectacularly to be so humiliated. N-iP01357-05953234 almost pities him.

But the others—

The Lucians are keeping N-iP01357-05953234 on constant edge. Until it becomes exhausted and withers. Until it loses its guard to fatigue and weakness.

It’s a game that makes little sense. They’re wasting what, N-iP01357-05953234 can only assume, to be exorbitant amount of resources on N-iP01357-05953234. It’s a game that could be easily won and over with if the Lucians had done what actually makes sense: an actual interrogation. And then realizing that N-iP01357-05953234 cannot speak, swiftly taking it to the dissection table.

It’s a senseless game, but N-iP01357-05953234 has already made peace with the fact that the Lucians are contradictory at every turn.

 


 

The blank page stares up at N-iP01357-05953234, and N-iP01357-05953234 stares back.

“I was hoping we could have some fun drawing.” Alouette says, and N-iP01357-05953234’s brows crease as it looks up at her. “Do you like drawing?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know. It has never tried. N-iP01357-05953234 does not have a motion that convey the sentiment, so it does what it knows best: it nods.

Alouette smiles, “I’m glad. I like drawing too. You can use all the crayons.”

The crayons, nestled in a small container, possess the same structure of a pencil or pen but are awkward in appearance. They come in an array of colours, much like the Play-Doh, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks that’s redundant and useless; black is clear in script, so there needn’t be such an abundance.

They’re likewise soft. They would not pierce the skin if N-iP01357-05953234 were to thrust it into its own neck. A pen may be a more appropriate candidate for such, being more hardy, but N-iP01357-05953234 already feels seedlings of doubt on its own strength to do so.

So it reaches for the black crayon. It has the crayon in its grasp, and hovers just above the paper. Then it waits. Alouette has her own crayon (purple), and after a tilt of the head, she speaks.

“So, what do you want to draw?”

N-iP01357-05953234 feels its eye twitch at the question. It hasn’t been given any indication what it can draw, so it stares. The grip it has on its crayon tightens.

The Allie hums. “It can be whatever you like.” Then, after a short second of consideration, adds, “this isn’t a test. Anything you do with the paper is correct.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think that’s true. N-iP01357-05953234 knows that’s not true. The fact Alouette is attempting to trick it makes its skin prickle in an uncomfortable blanket of goose pimples.

Alouette moves her crayon across her own piece of paper, and N-iP01357-05953234 becomes immediately enthralled. “Here, I’ll start.” She says, voice gentle.

N-iP01357-05953234 nods, and swallows. Alouette makes lines on the paper, and N-iP01357-05953234 dutifully copies. It dutifully copies, and the tenseness of its shoulders eventually sag. It dutifully copies, until Alouette is finished, and N-iP01357-05953234 breathes a sigh of relief it didn’t realize it was holding.

(A flower, Alouette will explain, admiring both of their illustrations. You did well, she will tell N-iP01357-05953234, and it will nod in acknowledgement.)

 


 

 

Alouette leaves paper and crayons in N-iP01357-05953234’s room. She tells it, “if you want to draw some more, go ahead. You can draw anything.” The paper and drawing utensils are stacked on the small table in the middle of the room, and they remain untouched.

 


 

 

Cor, as he usually does, brings with him food. On this specific occasion, he claims, “I brought you a friend.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows “friend” is a another term for companion, and its mind reels. It thinks —a Guard? Another set of eyes that scour at N-iP01357-05953234’s form, another person that will question every movement. Or, more alarming, and entirely inconceivable to the point N-iP01357-05953234 begins to feel dizzy at the thought of it, another unit

But Cor is alone. No Guard or unit trails in after behind him, and he sits like he usually does: opposite of N-iP01357-05953234, with the small table in between them. Soup is given, and it is then that Cor procurs the “friend”.

Which amounts to an awkward, little and despicably fluffy avian representation. A pudgy sack that has been modified to play a mockery on the bird it's meant to mimic (a “plushie” N-iP01357-05953234 will learn). Cor presents it on the table as if he expects something. N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. It looks from the fake bird, then to Cor, then back towards the bird. Then it looks back to Cor for any sort of clarification.

(Cor, inexplicably, looks like he deflates.)

“It’s a chocobo.” He says, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it imagines the hint of disappointment in his speech.  “C’mon kid, at least touch it.”

With the Order in place, N-iP01357-05953234 obediently carries it out. N-iP01357-05953234 stretches an arm outwards to make contact, and when it does, the texture of the bird tingles across the entire surface of N-iP01357-05953234’s palm; tickling like the feet of parade of ants that scatter across. N-iP01357-05953234 shrinks away, hand off the fake animal. It steals a glance at Cor, who continues to watch, so N-iP01357-05953234 reaches out again.

Its palm makes contact, the fluff as titillating like the first time. With one hand safely placed on the thing, N-iP01357-05953234 reaches out with the other. With each hand caressing the sides of the toy, N-iP01357-05953234 slides it across the table towards it, slowly. Slow, and tentative enough, that if Cor is displeased by the fact, he has ample time to display it. But he doesn’t.

So N-iP01357-05953234 cradles the plush against its chest. The itchiness of the plush dissolves, eventually. Soon, it’s charming to N-iP01357-05953234’s skin.

“You know what a chocobo is, right?” Cor asks, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

Cor readjusts himself where he sits. He nods towards the toy, “A little company to… spruce this place up a bit.” N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know why Cor speaks as if the bird is alive. “You ever seen a chocobo, before?”

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks. It thinks, and attempts to remember. A hazy recollection is the only thing it is able to uncover, an obscure silhouette, but N-iP01357-05953234 knows that isn’t sufficient. So it shakes its head.  

“Here,” Cor says, and to N-iP01357-05953234 dismay, he shuffles nearer. N-iP01357-05953234’s grip tightens on the toy on impulse. “I’m gonna show you a video of one.”

Cor produces a small device—a phone—and turns it sideways when he makes a video play on screen. He sits an arm length away, and N-iP01357-05953234 has the impression that it's being crushed against a wall. It almost doesn’t notice when the video starts to play.

One turns out to be flock, meandering in an open, startling green field. The video pans across, showing the extent of the flock at a leisurely pace, and as one bird approaches with an inquiring “kweh?” and a beak to the camera, the video ends.

“We got stables, here.” Cor murmurs, and as the video ends, he pockets the phone and leans back. N-iP01357-05953234 breathes again. “I'll take you there, sometime. You'd like it.”

N-iP01357-05953234 idly wonders if the birds in the stable are like those in the video: lazy in a field. N-iP01357-05953234 idly wonders if they are as soft as the fake one in its hands, secured in its grip as if N-iP01357-05953234 were strangling it. N-iP01357-05953234 lessens its clench once it becomes aware of it.

“Hey,” Cor prompts, and N-iP01357-05953234 finds him seated across from it once more. He gestures in the direction of the bed. “Does the bed bother you?”

N-iP01357-05953234 always knew it was being monitored, because it was the obvious conclusion, but for some unfathomable reason, N-iP01357-05953234’s heart rate spikes at the confirmation Cor gives. The pain in N-iP01357-05953234’s chest is not facilitated by the fact that Cor is obviously displeased with it, that now his patience is run out.

“Is it uncomfortable? The floor can't be that nice.” Cor continues, and he’s giving N-iP01357-05953234 an odd look. Displeased, definitely, but not of the sharp kind that it knows from its handlers. There’s a peculiar softness to it. “Just… at least sleep with the pillow. If you're gonna sleep on the floor. But you should try the bed. I promise it'll make you feel better.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know it can. The softness of the bird is already an alien entity, N-iP01357-05953234 may be suffocated if any more are put forth.

But N-iP01357-05953234 nods jittery nods. It can’t do much else.

Cor sighs. The sound is heavy within the room.

 


 

“You’re very good at drawing what I draw.” Alouette muses, her own illustration of a canine completed, and mirrored by N-iP01357-05953234. N-iP01357-05953234 nods in response.

“So how about we switch?” The Allie suggests, foregoing her completed page for a new, blank one. She slides another to N-iP01357-05953234 as well. N-iP01357-05953234 can only nod. She continues her Order,“I copy what you draw. I think that could be fun.”

The blank sheet is a blizzard of white. N-iP01357-05953234’s mind is likewise. It flexes its fist around the crayon it holds.

“How about,” Alouette coaxes, “you draw from memory? Do you think you can do that?”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods. It readjusts its grip on its crayon, focuses on its new, blank page, and thinks.

It recalls harsh, severe edges of a long hallway, a holding cell with no windows and just a single door and bench, enclosed with enough space for a lone unit to sit and wait. It remembers struggling to breathe, four bleak and uncaring walls closing in, but never actually crushing N-iP01357-05953234 despite N-iP01357-05953234 feeling phantoms of such. It remembers its sternum and ribcage crumbling at the force of its heartbeat, it remembers Cor opening the door instead.

So it draws.

 


 

The false bird is perched on the bed, where the blanket meets the pillow, reclined leisurely as if it owns it.

Its black eyes seem to follow N-iP01357-05953234 wherever it goes, and it idly wonders if it possesses a camera in one or both of the eyes. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think it would be surprised, but that does seem like a useless waste to do so.

The bird’s yellow plumage is—

Soft. Impossibly so. Velvety, almost, if N-iP01357-05953234 knew how that felt. It makes N-iP01357-05953234 hand tingle whenever it strays from where it is and finds itself stroking it, before it inevitably recoils. Recoils, and turns to the door, stiff and suddenly so painfully alert, waiting and expecting a Guard to barge in and reprimand it.

It’ll clench its hand hard enough for its dull nails to cut the skin, but no one ever enters when N-iP01357-05953234 realizes it has touched the bird.

Despite this, N-iP01357-05953234 will leave the bird alone.

The plushie sits on the bed. It remains (mostly) untouched.

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 wakes. It wakes at 4 AM. It does not need to check the clock to confirm this, but does so anyway.

N-iP01357-05953234 lays supine on the floor, still in the shadows in the room and gaze fixed upwards to the ceiling. In any other context, N-iP01357-05953234 would have promptly stood in attention as soon as it woke, to await a handler that would inevitably collect it with its groupmates. But this isn’t like any other context, and so N-iP01357-05953234 lays still, because this is now an inappropriate time to be alert, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not wish to stand in the sun again. Its skin has only just recovered from the red that had plagued it.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not count the seconds and minutes it lays staring at the ceiling. N-iP01357-05953234 does not count the imperfections that are present in the ceiling. N-iP01357-05953234 does not move its keen glare anywhere else other than the designated spot at the ceiling.

Until—it does. An instability, a prickling of its skin, and an inability to be competent in even this.

N-iP01357-05953234 turns its head to the side, its sights moving from the ceiling and towards the plush bird that sits neatly next to its head.

N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. The toy had not been there before. It had not been there when it lay down to sleep. The bird should still be laying upon the bed that stands on other side of N-iP01357-05953234.

But the bird sits there nonchalantly, and its black beady false eyes stare a hole in N-iP01357-05953234’s own gaze.

Then the bird speaks. “The well-being of the collective always outweighs that of the individual.”

N-iP01357-05953234 stiffens. Its limbs lock up; not at the impossibility of a stuffed animal speaking, not at the sudden sheer absurdity of the situation at hand, not at the bird’s eyes—clearly only that of an imitation, only a fake like the rest of the plaything—that abruptly possess a glare.   

No, N-iP01357-05953234 is made frozen at the voice that exits the bird: it’s N-iP01357-05953234’s voice. Clear and absolute, and exactly how it was before it was lost.

“An army is only as strong as its numbers.” The bird continues. “A nation is only as strong as its military. To cull those that could hinder this is a survival tactic.”

The voice is barren of any infliction, and steadier than N-iP01357-05953234 could ever manage when speech belonged to it. N-iP01357-05953234, despite the lunacy presented, grows envious.

The bird continues. “A flock of chocobo do not lower themselves to compromise the integrity of the collective when a weak individual is caught by a predator.” The stuffed toy tilts its head. The toy mimics a bird in appearance, but its movements are far too smooth to even suggest such. “The wolf that cannot hunt starves. The rest of the pack survives without it.”

The words hang in the air and haunt leisurely around the room. The stuffed bird stares. N-iP01357-05953234 stares back. The mantra it delivers rings with it a truth N-iP01357-05953234 is already established with. N-iP01357-05953234 feels itself twitch at reflecting which part of the metaphor itself represents.

The chocobo straightens itself, its lifeless eyes as questioning as the question it then posits.

“When a limb is infected, decaying and useless, what do you do?”

The answer is clear and easy, and N-iP01357-05953234’s chapped lips part in the vain anticipation of giving it.

It doesn’t come, of course, and N-iP01357-05953234 swallows.

The bird speaks for it. “You amputate. You do not let it fester to the point where it could sabotage the wellbeing of the entire body.” The bird leans forward. It looms. “When a unit has proven time and time again that it is below subpar, what do you do?”

This answer is clear and easy as well, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not bother to open its mouth this time.

“You decommission it.” The voice of the bird, N-iP01357-05953234’s own voice, grows steadily bitter. “You ensure that its mistakes do not obstruct the collective, and that those mistakes won’t be repeated. You learn from the faults of the faulty.”

N-iP01357-05953234 is suddenly made aware that its hands are clammy. The silence in the room is one that seeks to make N-iP01357-05953234 deaf.

“Your faults are entirely your own.” The bird announces, and it is an assertion that N-iP01357-05953234 does not need a verbal confirmation for. It’s one that N-iP01357-05953234 is already intimately knowledgeable of.  

The voice, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice, contained in a small facsimile of a bird, is twinged in venom. A loathing that finally becomes realized in spoken words, with the appropriate voice.

“You’ve only ever failed Niflheim.”

Salt on the wound makes it burn.

N-iP01357-05953234 squeezes its eyes shut (cowardly), if only for the miniscule insignificant comfort that blocking off the bird’s visage brings. N-iP01357-05953234 brings in a shaky, slow breath inwards, its chest trembling as its lungs inflate. N-iP01357-05953234 expects the bird to continue, but the absence of speech is what has N-iP01357-05953234 opens its eyes once more.

The bird isn’t there. N-iP01357-05953234 blinks at the empty space it used to be seated at. There’s no suggestion the bird was there in the first place. As if it never migrated from its original position on the bed. As if it never spoke.

N-iP01357-05953234 turns it head, and stares upwards towards the ceiling.

 


 

The scattering of pieces lay on the floor, between N-iP01357-05953234 and Alouette, both seated crossed-legged. On the individual pieces, a broken piece of an image that can be solved if put together. A “puzzle”, Alouette explains, but in the form of a physical dispersal of an image, rather than complication that requires strategic planning.

The image that the spread of pieces is meant to paint is represented on the lid on the box the pieces came in, and Alouette presents is: its a pair of nested chocobos, with a clutch of eggs. It is not a accurate depiction of the birds; the colours are too bright, saturated, and their anatomy is far too… round. A parody. Some sort of caricature.

(A “cartoon”, apparently.)

Alouette starts the reassembly, connecting five pieces, finishing a corner. She then looks up to N-iP01357-05953234 with an incline of the head. She motions towards the pieces that still lay scatters, “Do you want to help me?”

And with the Order recognized, N-iP01357-05953234 inspects the pieces remaining. Ninety-five from hundred, and N-iP01357-05953234 diverts full attention in resolving which pieces go where.

It is when eighty-six pieces remain that Alouette speaks again.

“Are you enjoying it?” She asks. N-iP01357-05953234 ceases, for a moment, and considers, arm still outstretched for another piece. It is being engaged, and it is being active, with this activity. The benefits from it are still… questionable, but N-iP01357-05953234 thinks response time and diligence in completing a scattered image is being recorded, in which case N-iP01357-05953234 promptly continues. It nods.

“I’m glad.” Alouette says, and N-iP01357-05953234 hopes upon her clipboard it has passed something in this.

“Did you have any puzzles like this, back at Gralea?” She asks. Eighty pieces remain.

Puzzles, no; but problem-solving exercises such as determining the most efficient method of killing an enemy (N-iP01357-05953234 was only proficient when firearms were present, otherwise it failed), self-recovery under stress (N-iP01357-05953234 failed), and equipment repair (N-iP01357-05953234 was passable, under stress, it failed) were all exercises done. Recovering the integrity of an image was not. So N-iP01357-05953234 shakes its head.

“Do you miss Gralea?” Seventy pieces remain.

N-iP01357-05953234 connects a piece with its brethren, and a chocobo is half completed. It continues with its task, not pausing, not making the same mistake as before, and gnaws on its bottom lip.

It would be proud at its lack of reaction by the cruel jab, but N-iP01357-05953234 can feel itself go stiff as it usually does. It knows its movements are jerky. It knows Alouette knows. It nods its head regardless, in response to her question.

“I'm sorry. It must be hard being so far away.” She taunts, and N-iP01357-05953234 wishes she would make her ridicule more obvious, instead of masking it as sincere. N-iP01357-05953234 keeps its sights on the puzzle. Sixty-one pieces remain. “Have you ever left it before?”

N-iP01357-05953234 shakes its head, no, it hasn’t. Not before Cor spirited it away.

“We're not like Gralea.” Fifty-seven pieces remain. “We're very different from Zegnautus Keep, aren't we?”

N-iP01357-05953234 gives a single, stuttering nod.

“I hope you like it here, though.” Fifty pieces remain. “Do you like it here? You can say no. It's okay if you don't.”

Its movements are halted without N-iP01357-05953234 meaning to. It swallows, also unaware, but suddenly becomes aware that its throat is dry.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t have an answer for that. It reflectively prepares for a strike aimed at its head for it.

“It's okay. You don't have to answer. Do you want to finish the puzzle?” Alouette’s voice breaks N-iP01357-05953234 from its daze, a sudden snap, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels dizzy.

It nods. It finishes the puzzle.

 


 

The puzzle box is stationed under the bed, and it doesn’t remain untouched.

With cautious hands, N-iP01357-05953234 pulls it outwards, and once clutched tightly against its chest, box being distorted in the process, N-iP01357-05953234 waits.

It waits, and expects discipline. Discipline in the form of a handler commanding what N-iP01357-05953234 is doing, an interrogation on why N-iP01357-05953234 thought it prudent to both waste time and mosey with something that it hasn’t been given permission with, and then an inquiry on what punishment N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it deserves (a week of lessened rations, in this case).

The door remains closed. N-iP01357-05953234 remains with the puzzle box secured in its hands. N-iP01357-05953234 lets out a breath it has been holding, and seats itself upon the carpeted floor.

A moment later the puzzle pieces are dispersed. Five minutes pass, N-iP01357-05953234 waiting and giving a stare down at the door, before N-iP01357-05953234 elects to move the pieces into place.

It finishes the puzzle in upwards an hour, because its hands trembles, and because it intermittently stares at the door.

The cartoon of nesting chocobos instead stare back. N-iP01357-05953234 then breaks up the image, and disperses the pieces again. It starts over.

It starts over, and then finishes. It starts over again, and then finishes again. Its hands ceases its tremble on the fourth repeat.

N-iP01357-05953234 eventually learns to finish the puzzle in under ten minutes. It doesn’t notice it smiling when it has done so. It also does not notice it has reassembled the puzzle repeatedly for literal hours. It will not notice and it will continues to do so.

 


 

Coeurl on the Prowl - 500 pieces, Insomnia - 750 pieces, Around Eos in 1,500 Pieces, Your Animal Friends - 5,000 Pieces

“Now you got puzzles to last you a lifetime, kid. Go wild.” Cor announces, as he places the boxes a more scattered images on the floor between him and N-iP01357-05953234, both of them cross legged, and N-iP01357-05953234 is enthralled.

Captivated to the point where N-iP01357-05953234 almost begins to overlook the larger tub Cor also brought in with him, held with one arm and as the other secured the puzzles. He sets it down, too.

“Brought you something else, too.” He says, tapping the lid of the plastic tub, and N-iP01357-05953234 can make out faint suggestions of colour within. It reminds it of the Play-Doh. “Called Legos. Think you’d like it. Build whatever the hell you want.”

Cor pushes the tub forward, and opens it, to reveal a menagerie of—blocks. Coloured blocks, a sea of red, green, yellow, blue, white and black greet N-iP01357-05953234’s vision in a cluttered kaleidoscope. It peers down the expanse of colour, before it shuffles where it sits and looks up to Cor.

Cor gives a minute lift of his brow as a response, before he reaches forward and picks a pair of blocks. N-iP01357-05953234 watches acutely, and marvels as Cor brings the pieces together with a faint click . The pair of red and green blocks are connected.

“See? Like this. Like a 3-D puzzle.” Cor says, as he then drops the piece he had just created back into the tub.

It’s the most rudimentary form of connecting a structure, and N-iP01357-05953234 enraptured, despite itself. It cautiously reaches forward hand hovering above the mound of pieces (Just in case. Just in case Cor doesn’t want it to), before it allows itself to lightly palm the surface of the coloured dune. The resulting feeling is what N-iP01357-05953234 expects: smooth sides of an artificial plastic block, and sharp edges of haphazard mound.

N-iP01357-05953234 quickly maneuvers to gather a red and green block, like those that Cor had used, and connects, like Cor had done. The meager construction lays on N-iP01357-05953234’s palm. It looks up to Cor.

Cor looks back. He says, “Good start.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods. The red and green blocks stay together on N-iP01357-05953234’s palm, that continues to be on display. It continues to look up at Cor.

“Okay, how about this?” Cor starts, moving to grab a handful of blocks, that he sets on the floor unceremoniously. “Let’s start with separating everything by colour.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods, and sets to work. N-iP01357-05953234 collects the white pieces first, creating a snowy heap. Cor, for the most part, assists.

When the Legos have been successfully and sufficiently separated, Cor speaks. “Good organizational skills.” He says, leaning back to observe the result. “Better than mine.”

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, vaguely, that he’s lying, but only nods in acknowledgement. Then it waits.

Cor, evidently, seems like he also waits, and just as N-iP01357-05953234 is at the cusp at growing distress from such a fact, Cor interrupts.

“Hey, here. This can give you ideas.”

Cor produces a booklet. Small, and outrageously colourful. It details structures and vehicles that one can produce with the Legos, and as N-iP01357-05953234 looks closer, step-by-step instructions as well. N-iP01357-05953234 stares, suddenly lost in the images of the booklet.

“Why don’t we try the castle?” Cor suggests, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods. It immediately acts, squinting at the structure and instructions within the booklet. Soon, it’s just N-iP01357-05953234 and the growing castle.

If N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t been so distracted, it may have thought idle thoughts about how the pieces of coloured blocks would fit perfectly in the confines of its throat, easily trapped and suitable to choke on.

If N-iP01357-05953234 looked up from its endeavor, it may even see Cor’s lips twitch upwards, just slightly.

 


 

The floor is decorated with white Legos, a niveous scene plays out as N-iP01357-05953234 reconstructs the splendor of the interior of the facility N-iP01357-05953234 once knew.

It’s a feeble remodeling of a training hall. Below the line of mediocre, it would cease its mocking attempt and sweep its arm across to dismantle it, but Cor has been watching this entire time. So it continues. It continues, and N-iP01357-05953234 can’t even profess to the scene even being the basic skeleton of the architecture. Its inadequate.

The “Lego-people”, as Cor described them, can’t even be classified as caricatures of people, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks not to use them entirely. But little else can be used as a vague portrayal of both humans and units, so it concedes and implements the Lego-people. And the scene could almost be counted as complete.

A pair of Lego-people are stationed in the middle of the scene, with others line against where the wall would be, simply watching. Of the pair that is meant to be the center-focus, one stands indifferent, the other laying on the floor.

(N-iP01357-05953234 can’t breath, each time it is struck by Angelis’s baton, a ripple that violently pulses through its body, as if its insides seek to burst outwards. It lays convulsing on the floor.)

“Quite the setup you got going on here.” Cor says, words spoken after a long pause from the man. “Impressive scene.”

N-iP01357-05953234 knows it isn’t impressive. It knows Cor also knows that, but it nods regardless.

Cor points to the Lego-person who lays on its back, face towards the ceiling.

“Who’s that?” He asks, and seeming to realize N-iP01357-05953234 can only give a Yes or No response, he adds, “Someone you know?”’

N-iP01357-05953234 could almost scoff, though it obviously doesn’t. It looks from the laying Lego-person, not at all an accurate model of the unit it’s meant to represent, but similarly pathetic, and then it looks to Cor. N-iP01357-05953234 places a flat hand to its chest, thumping softly on its sternum twice, and Cor immediately knows what N-iP01357-05953234 is attempting to say.

“You, huh.” He says. His voice is flat. “Doesn’t look fun.”

Fun was never an objective, and ultimately irrelevant. N-iP01357-05953234 nods in response. Cor considers N-iP01357-05953234, before he then considers faux-N-iP01357-05953234 on the white tiles of the Lego floor. N-iP01357-05953234 can’t read his expression, neutral and blank that it is, and absent-mindedly picks at the skin of its fingertips. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t like the sudden weight of the air, and this is what drives N-iP01357-05953234 to continue its work on the Lego structure. With its attention fully on its work, its surroundings become blocked in a hazy barrier.

If N-iP01357-05953234 looked up from its endeavor, it may even see Cor’s frown deepen, just slightly.

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 wakes. It wakes at 4 AM. It looks at the clock to confirm it, but it is already long acquainted with the time.

N-iP01357-05953234 finds itself sighing in the empty, somber room. It squints at the ceiling, and waits for the morning to come.

A voice, however, interrupts N-iP01357-05953234 usual meditation.

“What happens to you, after you die?”

N-iP01357-05953234 actually jolts upwards, sitting up in a fraction of a second. Blood pumps harshly throughout N-iP01357-05953234’s body, its heart aching at the force, and N-iP01357-05953234 finds itself primed to flee.

There’s no one else in the room, predictably, and it is only after N-iP01357-05953234 gives a skittish one-over of the room, after the shock of fear subsides with its deathgrip on N-iP01357-05953234’s heart, does N-iP01357-05953234 realize it was its own voice that spoke, and not that of a stranger.

“Humans have an afterlife, don’t they?” N-iP01357-05953234 voice continues, and N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to follow the source. Its sights land on the small table. The Legos rattle.

N-iP01357-05953234 blinks. The Legos stare back. And then N-iP01357-05953234 realizes it was posed a question.

Humans—do have a chance, after death, but N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t pretend to know the specifics. Discussions of the end of a human’s life was only ever confined to the need to kill against the Lucian threat to protect Niflheim. It never traversed into the territory of what happens to a human’s… soul? N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know a lot of things. N-iP01357-05953234 only vaguely understands how a human’s body decomposes. It only vaguely remembers the stench of one.

N-iP01357-05953234, realizing it was starting at nothing whilst in its pondering, returns its attention back at the Legos on the table. N-iP01357-05953234 sits where it is, and idly thinks to lay back down, but it’s being talked to.

The Legos vibrate where they stand, together as a single being that speaks with N-iP01357-05953234’s voice. “So then, what happens to something like you?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know. It doesn’t take note that one of its hands curl inwards, unconsciously picking at its already desiccated nails. The edges of N-iP01357-05953234’s nails are already frayed and chipped, and N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t notice.

“Would it just be—black? Empty? Water beneath your feet?” The Legos bounce, but not in unison, but in pattern; a small wave of undulation, like a rippling of the water it speaks of, if the water in the void could actually be disturbed. N-iP01357-05953234’s voice is casual, with an underlying hint of curiosity.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know how to answer it. So it stares. It stares and thinks back of the memory of the void and water, encased in an endless smothering of black.

“It would be better suited if it were bathed in white, product of Niflheim that you are.” The Legos ponder. “But the Lucians do enjoy you; so black it is.”

N-iP01357-05953234 flinches without meaning to. It feels as though it has been slapped. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks its can feel its face sting from the invisible blow. The Legos stand nonchalant.

N-iP01357-05953234’s voice continues, “It suits them, doesn't it. A black scorch mark on the map. Tar that poisons the land around it. You fit perfectly in it.”

N-iP01357-05953234 hands pick at themselves in earnest, and it is only with the sharp sting of tearing a stringy portion of skin lining half the length of its thumb that N-iP01357-05953234 notices. N-iP01357-05953234 cringes at the persistent tingle of its new cut, but its attention is solely fixed on the speaking Legos.

“You already betrayed Niflheim as soon as you crossed the border.” The words are suddenly scathing, and N-iP01357-05953234 winces. “Don't pretend you don't hold the traitor’s mark.”

Maybe N-iP01357-05953234 should stand, maybe N-iP01357-05953234 should approach the small table and sweep its arm across it, scattering the Legos onto the floor. N-iP01357-05953234 is sure that would dispel this illusion, to silence the voice for good. Maybe it should upturn the table for good measure, maybe it should stomp on the Legos until only dust remains.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t do any of it, of course, and it sits where it is, and waits for the Legos to continue their testament.

“Salvation was possible. Your decommissioning would have absolved your mistakes.” The Legos, with no face to speak of, scowl. “Your salvation can still be found at the end of a knife.”

It doesn't need to elaborate that a knife isn't the only option. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think anything occupies the cavity in its chest. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks its thumb may be bleeding.

“You could have been something great.”

The voice is sour, a resentful statement that is twinged with a lament. A cracking of a phantom voice that N-iP01357-05953234 used to own.

N-iP01357-05953234 sighs. A heavy inhalation of breath through its nose that extends its lungs to its full capacity before it gradually exhales.

N-iP01357-05953234 is very tired. It lies back down.

 


 

The gun sits comfortably in N-iP01357-05953234’s hands. A perfect fit, an impeccable compliment, like a finishing piece to a scattered puzzle.

Snug as a second skin, the shooting range is where N-iP01357-05953234 soars. This is where it's meant to be. This is what it knows best, and knows well.

With the pistol blessing N-iP01357-05953234 with its favour, N-iP01357-05953234 raises it arm, and takes aim

“That’s a very interesting drawing. I like it!”

Alouette’s praise has N-iP01357-05953234 snap out of its stupor, and jolt upwards to meet her gaze. It’s only then, that N-iP01357-05953234 realizes that it was literally hunched over its paper, diligently scribbling away.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t doubt the Allie’s intuition, but it does doubt its scawlings that exist on N-iP01357-05953234’s page: an erroneous replica of memory. N-iP01357-05953234 frowns at it.

“You’re very good at drawing.” She says, with a tilt of the head, scrutinizing further. The page a depiction of N-iP01357-05953234 taking aim at a poorly rendered target.

“What’s this?” She asks, suddenly, leaning forward to point at the weapon in the drawing. “Is it a gun?”

Its blocky and crude, and doesn’t do the firearm justice in any sense. N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t surprised that the Allie needs confirmation that it is indeed a gun because of N-iP01357-05953234’s poor penmanship, so it nods.

“Do you know how to use guns?” Alouette questions, leaning back to her original seating. N-iP01357-05953234 nods again.

Alouette hums.“I don’t know how to use guns. Could you show me how you would use one?”

N-iP01357-05953234 is—alarmed, it finds, to find that Alouette hasn’t received basic training. It's a fundamental, and suggests she may not even be adept in hand-to-hand either, and  N-iP01357-05953234 is baffled. It continues to be baffled, until N-iP01357-05953234 brain finally processes Alouette’s request.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t have a gun to demonstrate, or a prop to mimic it. It feels its eyebrows crease at pondering how to convey the usage of a firearm, until inspiration lands when it looks downwards: N-iP01357-05953234 hands. It unclenches and clenches its fists, and lifts them in contemplation.

Slowly, and with Alouette’s patience, one of N-iP01357-05953234 hand forms the basic silhouette of a pistol. The index and middle finger become the muzzle, the thumb the sights, the other two fingers curved inwards occupying the space where the trigger would be, its other hand resting at the wrist, clenching the grip.

Alouette sits where she is. She continues to sit comfortably, intrigued and giving N-iP01357-05953234 her full attention, as N-iP01357-05953234 raises the “gun”. With arms outstretched, N-iP01357-05953234 points to Alouette’s forehead; a clean, point-blank shot. She would be dead before she hit the ground.

Her expression doesn’t change. She looks down at N-iP01357-05953234’s supposed barrel with relaxed ease.

“Would you shoot me, if given the chance?” She asks, a brow raised. No accusation weaves her tone, no sense of displeasure. In its absence, is only an offering complete sincerity.

She simply waits, then, for a response, and N-iP01357-05953234’s grip on its false grip still stays tight, its sights boring into where N-iP01357-05953234 aims and—

And

N-iP01357-05953234 hesitates.

N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though its run face first into a brick wall. The force of the collision caving in N-iP01357-05953234’s chest, its heart splintering, and N-iP01357-05953234 arms are still locked and stiff in preparation in Alouette’s faux-execution. It swallows, and blinks, then it blinks again, and again more rapidly, and begins to lose focus at the aimed area on Alouette’s forehead.

Alouette is a Lucian, but she’s not a combatant. She’s a civilian. The realization is another face first impact in a wall. She’s a civilian, and N-iP01357-05953234 is pointing a gun at her head.

N-iP01357-05953234 lowers its arms, its hand still a form of a gun as it is placed onto the table, and it shakes it's head at Alouette. No, N-iP01357-05953234 would not shoot her. Harming civilians is grounds for immediate decommissioning.

(N-iP01357-05953234 does not stop to think such orders do not extend to the Lucian populace.)

Alouette smiles.“Thank you.” She says, and N-iP01357-05953234 shakes its hand, dispelling the illusion of the gun. “I’m glad you showed me.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods, in acknowledgment. A moment passes, as Alouette continues to gaze at N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks she is searching for something.

If she was, she evidently finds it, as she looks downwards at N-iP01357-05953234’s drawing.

“Do you want to draw some more?” She asks.

N-iP01357-05953234 nods again, more fervent, and quickly goes to grab a crayon to continue its work.

And like that, within the density of scribbled crayon, N-iP01357-05953234 forgets deliberating on Alouette’s life.

 


 

The room is sterile. The bleached nature of the room hurts N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes. The circular lights that illuminate N-iP01357-05953234’s body are entirely too glaring, as N-iP01357-05953234 lays on the examination table.

Doctor Cassius, whose name N-iP01357-05953234 is only acquainted with because the man thought it prudent to introduce himself, for whatever reason, monitor’s N-iP01357-05953234 condition. Doctor Avitori, whose name N-iP01357-05953234 is only acquainted with because Cassius also introduced her, for whatever reason, busies herself with a clipboard.

Cassius has grown progressively more jittery, in the whole encounter. Wringing his hands, sweat beading his forehead, pacing; N-iP01357-05953234 is peripherally aware that Avitori glances at him in distaste when she catches him doing it.

“You know,” Cassius starts, after examining N-iP01357-05953234’s mouth, “why is it that they—they looks so—”

He falters, looking at N-iP01357-05953234 with a pinched expression. N-iP01357-05953234 stares back, and Cassius rubs his face. Avitori merely raises an eyebrow. Cassius gestures frantically at N-iP01357-05953234, as if it’ll make it easier to piece together his original statement.

“—look so human.” Cassius finishes, equal parts nervous and disgusted in his tone.

Cassius does not ask N-iP01357-05953234 this question, so it does not answer. Internally, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, Mimicking the human form allows for an already established blueprint, as well as a safe starting point to experiment on a mirror before implementing improvements on actual humans.   

Avitori scoffs, with a roll of her eyes. “What, would you prefer a dog?” She asks.

Cassius cringes his face, “it just feels like I’m working on an actual kid.” He gives his colleague a pleading look. “You can’t tell you’re not creeped out by this, right?”

Avitori writes on her clipboard for a moment, before she gives a response. She sighs, “they’re not human. You already know this.”

“I know, I know.” Cassius mutters. He stares at N-iP01357-05953234 with creased brows. N-iP01357-05953234 stares back. He looks away, muttering: “I—I got a kid, you know. A son.”

Avitori peers over her glasses to look at the other Doctor. “Is this going to affect your work ethic?” She asks.

Cassius continues to wring his hands. He rearranges the tools he has stationed next to the examination table uselessly. “No.” He says, “I just didn’t expect… This.

The conversation thread is dropped, after an awkward silence. N-iP01357-05953234 does not see Doctor Cassius again.

 


  

N-iP01357-05953234 wakes. It wakes at 4 AM. It does not look at the clock. It already knows the time.

The voice, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice, decides to make an appearance this night.

“What do you think it is like, to be human?”

N-iP01357-05953234 squints. The voice comes from the bed beside N-iP01357-05953234, and it nearly expects to see some sort of figure seated upon it when it turns to face the voice. But, predictably, the bed is bare. There is no ambiguous form that possess N-iP01357-05953234’s voice.

“Do you think,” N-iP01357-05953234’s voice continues, and it realizes it is the bed itself that speaks. “That it feels like being a God?”

The complexities of humanity and their operating prowess is one that constantly escapes N-iP01357-05953234’s understanding, like water slipping through the gaps of its fingers. Units, at their immature stage, are caricatures of their creators before they graduate into metamorphosis; as fully functioning Magiteks. N-iP01357-05953234’s analogous anatomy does not make it kindred to humans, nor does it grant it any base understandings of its creators.

N-iP01357-05953234’s place isn’t to question. So it doesn’t. The humans have brought it to existence so it is thankful.

(They brought it to life, but N-iP01357-05953234 could never repay the Empire by being an apt unit. N-iP01357-05953234’s stomach clenches.)       

“Do humans come with defects?” The bed muses.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know if that is a trick question. It gauges the bed, that stays lifeless and inert. Judging the piece of furniture for its motive proves futile.

Even N-iP01357-05953234 knows humans aren’t infallible, and can come to error. The Lucians, who stubbornly refuse to surrender to the greater power of the Empire, is proof of that.

The bed hums.

“A human could just do things.” The bed ruminates. A sigh, a hint of envy. “They don't need permission, because they govern themselves. Do you think such freedom can be overwhelming?”

No, N-iP01357-05953234 immediately thinks. Because self-determination is what makes humans human, and to think a human would be impaired by their innate attribute is on par with believing a bed is actually speaking. It’s outlandish. It’s stupid.

“Of course.” The bed agrees. “It would be overwhelming for you, because a unit's purpose is to serve. To serve the humans. A human is intrinsically autonomous, and a unit without instructions, but still expected to act may implode on itself.”

The sound that then comes out of the bed startles N-iP01357-05953234; a din that distorts the atmosphere of the room, an eerie heaving that momentarily shocks N-iP01357-05953234 into gaining a quickened pulse, until it is able to recognize what it is, exactly.

The bed is laughing. It laughs with N-iP01357-05953234’s voice. It may be better suited for a ghost.

The sound ceases, laughter trickling away like a closed faucet. N-iP01357-05953234 continues to stare at the offending furniture.

“If you were human, what would you do?”

The question is almost sincere, but N-iP01357-05953234 knows it is being mocked. The comparison to humans to units is one that is grotesquely inappropriate. And one that simply doesn’t make sense, in the grand scheme of things; N-iP01357-05953234 is more related to the bed.

“If you were a human, would you be male or female?”

Such a trivial question. It’s irrelevant to the point where N-iP01357-05953234 actually produces a small snort of disbelief. N-iP01357-05953234 already knows it mimics the male sex. A vestigial byproduct; units are sterile.  

He,” the voice is meditative, rolling the pronoun leisurely across the non-existent tongue. “He. He, he, he. But ‘it’ is better suited for objects.”

Obviously, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks. N-iP01357-05953234 ignores the uncomfortable churnings of its gut.

“If you were human, what age group would you belong to?”

Another trivial question. N-iP01357-05953234 actually begins to notice the stirrings of annoyance within it. The bed does not have eyes or a stare to possess, but N-iP01357-05953234 matches its false gaze with N-iP01357-05953234’s own steely one.

There’s a long stretch where the bed does not speak. N-iP01357-05953234 begins to think it won’t continue, until it does.

“Cor calls you kid.” The voice, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice, changes. Where it once was coy in the face of obtuse questioning, it now turns deadpan. The sudden shift has N-iP01357-05953234 twitch. ‘Kid’ is enunciated as a foreign word.  

“Why would he do such a thing?” The bed asks. Quiet, contemplative. A whisper of mourning.

N-iP01357-05953234 is tired. The exhaustion is one carved in its bones. It's one that weighs N-iP01357-05953234 as if it were tied down with a sack of stones.

N-iP01357-05953234 curls away from the bed. It curls on itself where it lays, and does not react when it finds its vision has gone blurry. It does not react to the feeling of a stray tear caressing its cheek as it lazily descends downwards.

It should react. Some sort of act of self flagellation at such a blatant display of weakness and disregard of its appearance. But N-iP01357-05953234 would rather go back to sleep.

So it snivels in the darkness, hugs itself, and closes its eyes.

 


 

When N-iP01357-05953234 is finally transferred out of the holding cell to somewhere different, it is for its fabled “eye appointment.

Cor is the one to escort it. He explains that N-iP01357-05953234 has been given the clear for “this” (the appointment), that it's “safe” for N-iP01357-05953234 to move around. N-iP01357-05953234 can only assume this is somehow related to its infection. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know the state of its infection.

N-iP01357-05953234 is relinquished to a man who introduces himself as Doctor Luckette. Cor does not follow when Luckette leads N-iP01357-05953234 to another room.

Maybe it's the fact it is being cordoned to another, unfamiliar room with another, unfamiliar individual. N-iP01357-05953234 will blame that, because as Luckette leads it away by the hand, N-iP01357-05953234 turns mid-way to see if Cor is still present behind it. N-iP01357-05953234 does not realize this action makes Luckette stop as well.

To see if the Marshal will oversee this appointment. If this is an appointment that demands the attention of none other than Cor Leonis. If N-iP01357-05953234 needs to prepare itself to this testing. Obviously. This is why N-iP01357-05953234’s checks to see if the man follows. Obviously.

Cor sits in a seat, in the space wherein N-iP01357-05953234 was given off to Luckette (the “waiting room” ). And, evidently, N-iP01357-05953234’s spontaneous investigation has not gone unnoticed; Cor looks up. He says, “I’ll be waiting here, when you’re done. Don't worry; Luckette won’t bite.”

N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t—thought he would. N-iP01357-05953234 wonders, blearily, if biting is an actual form of punishment, and if the Lucians are actually so barbarous. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think it would be surprised by the fact.

“He won’t literally bite you.” Cor quickly adds, and Luckette seems to find that funny, if his scoff is anything to go by.

“I prefer to sauté my children, personally.” Luckette says, with some sort of twinkle in his eyes. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what “sauté ” means. It assumes it some form of threat because of the context.

“He won’t sauté you, either.” Cor says, and he seems exasperated. N-iP01357-05953234 simply nods in response to Cor: a single, jerky acknowledgment, before Luckette leads it away. The room it is led to is small, that Luckette dims the lighting of when they’re settled within.

The examination consists, as Luckette explains during, assessments to discern the health of N-iP01357-05953234 eyes, and if any problems are present in N-iP01357-05953234’s vision, what those are. This involves N-iP01357-05953234 sitting on a chair, and having to gaze through some perplexing mask that N-iP01357-05953234 expects to stretch its eyelids beyond capacity, if not outright tear its eyes out of their sockets.

N-iP01357-05953234 leans back on instinct when Luckette brings it forward, but the back of the chair doesn’t allow N-iP01357-05953234 to scramble to safety. When Luckette motions of N-iP01357-05953234 to look for the archaic looking binoculars, N-iP01357-05953234 finds itself with little choice, and braces.

But no stabbing pressure invades the rims of N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes. Instead, its greeting with a simple of image of what seems to be a bright red, spherical object in the sky (a “hot air balloon” N-iP01357-05953234 will later learn). The odd contraption N-iP01357-05953234 looks into will contain different lenses of the same image.

The examination continues with little incident, or with any actual significance, from what N-iP01357-05953234 can tell. Luckette asks if lens A or lens B looks less blurry, or if they look the same. He has N-iP01357-05953234 left one finger for A, two fingers B, and three fingers for if the images look the same. N-iP01357-05953234 obeys.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what to make of any of it.

“Alright,” Luckette says, after typing something on his computer that off to the side. He picks up another small device, as he dims the light of the room further. “I’m just going to shine a special light in your eyes. It’ll help me see the small bits better.”

He moves in forward with the the device, some type of specialized flashlight, and turns it on. “Just look up for me—”

He stops, suddenly. In fact, he jerks back, startled, or if he was electrocuted. The action makes N-iP01357-05953234 flinch.

“S-Sorry I just…” Luckette starts, still flustered. He squints in sharp assessment, looking at N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes but not quite making eye contact. N-iP01357-05953234 just stares back, and Luckette moves the light, the glare of it remaining to the corners of N-iP01357-05953234’s vision, irritating it.

“Keep still, a moment, alright?” Luckette murmurs, and  N-iP01357-05953234 dutifully doesn’t close its eyes at it, even if it feels the faint beginnings of tears in response.

Luckette seems to snap out of whatever trance he was in. He suddenly straightens, redirecting the light to the floor, and stands.

“Sit there, okay? I’m just—” He says, as he moves towards the door. “I’m just going to get a friend, alright? Your eyes are…” with one hand on the door handle, he uses the other to make a vague gesture in the air. “Special.” The conclusion is said an excitement that makes N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it should feel the opposite.

It doesn’t get time to ruminate, because it’s only a few moments later before Luckette returns, but with a colleague tow.

“Okay, seriously, look at this.” Luckette rattles, with a disturbing delight. His colleague, for his part, seems infinitely weary.

“Uh, hello—” The new man attempts to starts, but Luckette quickly has the light return glint at the corners of N-iP01357-05953234’s vision. The other man abruptly halts his speech.

“Look at that!” Luckette marvels, as the other man scuntizes. “Isn’t that weird, Julian?” Luckette asks to his companion, and N-iP01357-05953234’s skin is steadily prickling at the combined gravity of these two men staring at its eyes.

“... Huh.” Is the other man’s—Julian, apparently— response, to whatever he’s seeing.

“It’s only when the room is dark, and it’s only when the light is at certain angles. It’s pretty faint, but it’s there.” Luckette continues, drawing closer with Julian. “Like the kid has like a—” Luckette falters, but his expression remains unusually in wonder, “—tapetum lucidum, or something.”

Julian scoffs, taking hold of N-iP01357-05953234’s chin gently to maneuver its head to receive a better angle at—whatever.  N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what a “tapetum lucidum” is.

“Humans don’t have that.” Julian says, and N-iP01357-05953234 should be more dismayed that Julian says the word human in referral to N-iP01357-05953234, but this—familiarity, of having Doctors inspect it without intimacy, and to speak over it, has N-iP01357-05953234 instinctually stay where it is.

“I know that,” Luckette rolls his eyes, “but how do you explain this?”

“He’s—” Julian retracts, suddenly, turning his attention to Luckette. “—he’s right here, you know.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what that has anything to do with anything, and it twitches at the pronoun usage used for it.

Luckette doesn’t seem at all perturbed at Julian’s apparent disapproval. He says, “Your eyes are something special kid. Don’t worry! This is cool.”

Cool, he says.” Julian mutters. He gives N-iP01357-05953234 a look, as if it's supposed to know what that means. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what that means.

“When’s last you saw someone’s eyes go red like that at reflecting light?” Luckette says, after a moment of expecting N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes, and having the light roam in what appeared to be a deliberate pattern.

Julian sighs and pinches his nose. “Humans don’t have a tapetum lucidum.”

“Yeah well, looks like he’s got some retroreflection going on.” Luckette muses, in a way that makes N-iP01357-05953234 feel as though its missed banter between the two. “You know when people’s eyes sometimes go red in photography?” Luckette asks, to no one in particular. Julian merely continues to study N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes. “It reminds me of that.”

N-iP01357-05953234 sits on the seat, it sits and allows the two men to continue their deliberations. N-iP01357-05953234 can’t do much else, after all.

“Crazy.” Luckette breathes, awed.

 


  

N-iP01357-05953234 is being choked. It is being strangled. The hands the clasp around N-iP01357-05953234’s throat are formed in a metal gauntlet, pristine and immaculate and squeezing N-iP01357-05953234’s neck.

Strangulation like this is an ineffectual method of execution, and entirely illogical for the Magitek unit to use. And yet, the unit has its hands secured tightly around N-iP01357-05953234’s neck.

The Magitek unit should twist N-iP01357-05953234’s head violently, breaking its neck. It should carve a slit across N-iP01357-05953234’s jugular with the knives it possess. It should shoot with infallible precision squarely in the middle of N-iP01357-05953234’s forehead.

The metal mask merely stares downwards with unblinking, glowing red eyes. The Magitek unit couldn’t be bothered, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, to actually use any effort on it, on carrying out N-iP01357-05953234’s death sentence.

And as the Magitek unit’s hands curl inwards, burrowing deep enough in N-iP01357-05953234’s skin to cut, seeking to entwine its hands together despite the neck that occupies space between them, N-iP01357-05953234 stares.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the perfect metal mask and beautiful glowing red eyes, and it doesn’t feel a thing.

Chapter Text

It starts like this:

An apartment with just barely enough space to accommodate a mother and father with their lone son. A mother grown steadily disinterested in the coming years, a father marred by his own incompetence, and a neglectful union that will leave a young boy a horrid tumult of impulse and irritability.

At age five, he gets into his first real fight, with two other boys three years his senior, and he loses.

He earns a split lip and a swollen eye from the altercation, one birthed from his own feeble attempt to stand between the pair and their undeserving victim who they have been continuing to mistreat. The outcome is the original victim uttering a small, wavering whisper of thanks, but then refusing to speak with him. The outcome is a suspension from school. The outcome is his father indirectly calling him weak, with a scoff when he realizes what his son had done, and telling him to do better. So he does. He does better, with his blood boiling to the point he sees red.

Five months later, he goes out of his way to stalk the pair of bullies off school grounds. And when deemed appropriate, asks for a rematch.

It ends with his opponents both with a broken nose, one with a fractured arm, and the other with a missing tooth and a resultant bloody mouth. He growls a promise of more broken bones, and with that horrifyingly reliable threat, the other two do not dare to have anyone with authority come bring down consequences. He spits at the cowering foes, and leaves.

At age seven, he earns himself a reputation of being violent both at and off school. His knuckles almost always a coat of dark red, blood from another person’s face.

At age ten, he’s successfully made the faculty of the school fearful of him. It’s an unintentional notoriety that ultimately leaves him unfulfilled and bitter, and he doesn’t care to take note of the whispered titles he’s given by others.

At age eleven, he drops out of school. His attendance has always been poor and irregular, and when his absence grows larger still, a week, then a month, then longer, it’s simply expectant, at that point. He becomes a forgotten record in the school documents, a face associated with a teacher’s grimace and both a weary and relieved exclamation of being a delinquent. A lost cause.

At age eleven, he continues his absences at home in earnest. He leaves early, and returns late, and it is only the first time that he does it that his mother makes any sort of hassle about it.

There’s unsavoury characters about, especially at night, she’ll warn with a half-hearted glare, ones that would harm any young boy. And the boy in question will merely shrug in response, the deflection on his lips similarly low effort. His mother will sigh heavily, but does little else. So he’ll continue running in the mornings before the sun has risen, a self-imposed test of endurance that will leave him collapsed and heaving, his body lit aflame, his lungs as if encased in a tightly woven blanket of thorns that puncture every inch when he inhales. He’ll continue to scale walls, oftentimes belonging to private property, simply because he can, and simply because it’s a practice of agility and upper body strength. He’ll continue to accept and pester others to give him odd jobs—trash disposal, delivery, dishwasher—so that he can start his own meager fortune.

At age twelve, he’d say he’s practically independent, but he’s already had to force himself to learn to be self-reliant for years now, even if he was never fully aware of the fact.

At age thirteen, he leaves. He packs what little he has, and he leaves to a welcoming door of something new, of something fantastic; of something that gleams with a gold, lustrous sigil that shines as brightly as the sun. He goes without the consent of his parents, as he has done like second nature, and he goes without the name he was given likewise; he salvages something new entirely, because he knows his youth will work against him in this, despite looking older than he is. The minimum age of entering the Crownsguard is fifteen—before it is risen to eighteen with the ascension of Regis—and he is still two years shy of it.

But impatience and finally a sense of direction to point his determination are an unconquerable force. And any chance that this could be hampered isn’t one he wishes to entertain. Even if his parents may not be an obstacle, the law is still enforced, and if gone with his family name, they’d trace him, and know he lies. So he foregoes it. It would not be a first time he's salvaged a new identity specifically to appeal to certain persons and situations of interest.

(Dante Avidus was able to procure alcohol, Titus Decus an on and off job at a construction site.)

But now he needs a name to fully adopt, something to wholly embrace, something attached to a warrior, something that can be praised from the lips of others, a name, a title, that is easily rolled off the tongue. Something completely fitting, a perfect descriptor of identity and one he can easily see inscribed on a tablet beneath a great statue of himself, of the best warrior Lucis—No, Eos—will ever see.

(Lionhearted, is what he chooses.)

He lies about his age. He lies that his parents were casualties of the threat beyond the borders. He speaks the passionate truth in asserting that this is his calling. He lets the selfish truth that he wishes to join only for his gluttonous narcissism, to become a famed warrior, a legendary fighter, go unspoken. And he secures his recruitment.

(His deceit, done like a mirrored truth, prepared and fully practiced to mend any cracks in the facade, will later make him a natural candidate for infiltration training.)

In the end, nearly a year, nearly when the boy is fourteen, is when his fib is found.

Despite his grown reputation of a prodigy, top of his class and versed in every aspect he’s been trained in, this blatant falsehood he used sets him on the course of discharge. And with his carefully sculpted identity and life on the cusp of crumbling, he demands an ultimatum: a duel. A final show of his own abilities, of which he is unwavering in confidence, a chance to demonstrate his prowess in full force, a chance to present just what exactly an invaluable asset he is.

Five senior recruits are his opponents. And five senior recruits fail.

The end result is a dislocated shoulder and kneecap, a broken nose that trickles crimson down to his lip and a patchwork of bruises that line his abdomen that will not fully fade for another month. The end result is the boy continuing to don his own given name rather than his family’s, a title woven with pride, and his parents will soon become vague remnants of memories that he doesn’t bother to hold onto. The end result is the boy thinking himself as a man.

The end result is Cor Leonis being the youngest Crownsguard recruit on record.

 


 

“For the most part, everything about his eyes are normal and healthy. No worries for diseases or tumors.”

Luckette’s delivery is done with an assurance that would otherwise have Cor feel contented, if not for the beginning statement.  

“Clearly you’ve found something if you had to start with ‘for the most part.’” Cor says, he and the optometrist the only occupants in a vacant waiting room. Cor knew, from the moment the other man came to greet him, to give an update, instead of a final diagnosis, that something else decided to make its appearance as a complication. He’s already mentally prepared, for whatever the case may be.

Luckette licks his lips. “Ah, yes.” He begins. “He’s farsighted, though he may not even notice it himself. It’ll worsen as he ages, but it’s nothing glasses or contact lens won’t fix.”

The good news first, then. “And when will glasses be made for him?” Cor asks.

“We should already have an adequate set already in stock. You’ll receive it tomorrow, at the latest.” Luckette shifts on his feet. The bad news. “So, that’s the—normal results.”

Maybe the results of the eye examination are catastrophic, or maybe the man is nervous in Cor’s presence; regardless, his dawdling is a hindrance and an irritation. “Spit it out, Luckette, I don’t have all day.”

Luckette nods in zealous obedience. “Yes, yes, Cor—Can I call you Cor?”

“No.”

“Of course Sir, Leonis, Sir.” Luckette rectifies, straightening his glasses. “Uh—well, you see, we did find an anomaly with his eyes. You know how, sometimes in photography, a person’s pupils may come up as a bright red?”

Cor does, but he doesn’t verbally respond. Instead, his stare, coupled with his folded arms and an impassive expression (the fact Cor stands taller is also a bonus), communicates enough. Luckette quickly recovers and continues.

“Well, that’s because humans have a very weak form of reflection in our eyes; the flash of a camera then reflects at the back of our eyeballs, on the fundus, as the pupil is too slow to close. It’s an effect that can only be seen in photography and video, and our eyes don’t actually retro-reflect as some animals do, like cats. I’m sure you’ve seen a cat with glowing eyes at night, well it’s not actually glowing, the visible light is reflecting off a layer of tissue behind the retina called the tapet—”

Luckette’s ramblings are brought to a screeching halt when Cor interrupts, his voice containing the beginnings of a bite. “I know. What does this have to do with the kid?”

“Well… ” Luckette starts, appearing to elaborate, but instead falters. Instead, he straightens and says, “Well. I think it may be better for me just to show you.”

Cor, when usually faced with something that can be read as ominous, keeps himself skeptical at all angles, even when coming from a medical professional. At arm's length, he can better assess the situation, and so follows Luckette in silence to determine whatever it is Luckette presents is severe.

(Something treatable, he hopes, something the kid can bounce back from, something that isn’t another hardship.)

When the two enter the room where the kid is, said child sits neatly on a bench, and another man kneels in front of him. The man possess a small scope in his hand that he uses to observe at the kid’s eye, of which immediately target Cor when he enters with Luckette, and Cor can clearly see the dilated nature of the kid’s pupils. Through the usage of eye drops, clearly, and completely benign, but the dim lighting of the room, the blankness of the kid’s stare, brings an eerie air.

“Ah, this is my colleague, Julian Castellum, he’s performing an ophthalmoscopy.” Luckette introduces.

Castellum stands, a professional posture lining his being as he pockets the tool in his coat as he extends his other hand in greeting. “Mr. Leonis, sir, what a pleasure—”

Cor doesn’t shake his hand. “Show me what the deal is.”

“Right!” Luckette chirps, and Castellum removes his hand like he was shocked. Luckette turns off the lights of the room, creating an even dimmer atmosphere, and Castellum moves off to the side to give Cor the full front-row seats in observing the kid’s eyes.

Luckette treads closer, producing a small flashlight from his person, and kneels in front of the kid.

“Now, look closely at his pupil. I am going to shine this light at the edges of his eye.” He turns his attention to his patient, as he turns on the flashlight. “Keep looking forward, alright?”

The kid nods, and does as he’s told. He stares a hole into the wall in front of him, the same expressionless glare. Luckette does what he said he would likewise, and carefully maneuvers the light parallel to the kid’s face, angled away from the kid’s eyes as not to blind him, but enough that light hits.

With his pupil already dilated as is, Cor can see immediately what Luckette speaks of. A dilution of maroon, like a soft rose varnish applied to the blackness of his pupil. A dim glare, at the edges, brighter outwards and becoming more muted inwards. A gentle imitation of how a cat’s eyes reflect in the dark, like in Luckette’s preamble.

Red, soft as it may be, but there nonetheless. Red eyes, that while it may not be trained on him, present themselves as a uncomfortable suggestion of something else with possess a bright, glowing red, that Cor’s all too familiar with.

“See! That glittering of red. It’s faint, but doesn’t it look like his eyes are glowing, almost?” Luckette says, a borderline hint of excitement in his tone.

“And why is that, exactly?” Cor’s tone is a trained blank. Casual, even.

 

(A result of the treatments, N-iP01357-05953234 knows. Despite its body rejecting the miasma it was meant to embrace, ineffectual residue remain. Enough to make burn under the sun, enough to give it a pathetic red eye, instead of the brilliance of something truly glowing.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows this. And the Lucians speak as if they don’t. A ruse set forth to gauge N-iP01357-05953234’s reaction to the blatant falsehood, so N-iP01357-05953234 gives none.

Because the Lucians would know the nature of N-iP01357-05953234, they would know N-iP01357-05953234 is a unit, and that units have daemon blood. Cor took N-iP01357-05953234 from the facility. He would know. They would know.

The Lucians know N-iP01357-05953234 is a unit.

The Lucians do not think N-iP01357-05953234 as something different.

The Lucians know. N-iP01357-05953234 is not a ‘kid ’.

N-iP01357-05953234’s hands pick at the flesh surrounding its nails at their own accord and N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t aware of the further damage it does to itself. )

 

Castellum is the one that answers, instead. “His fundus looks healthy and without any concern for disease nor does it suggest there’s, somehow and inexplicably, reflective tissue behind his retina.”

Luckette then continues. “So, basically, we don’t know why or how his eyes seem to be reflecting light like that. It shouldn’t, but it is.”

Which isn’t, at all, what Cor wanted to hear, but he doesn’t let that slip into his facial features or body language. “Does it affect how he sees?” He asks. The kid fiddles with his hands that lay on his lap, his stare still pointed forward as it were when Luckette used his flashlight.

“Quite the contrary,” Luckette muses. “It probably enables him better night vision than us.”

“For now,” Castellum buts, walking forward to establish authority. “It seems like little cause for concern. But it should also be noted what we’re seeing should technically be impossible—”

“Acknowledged.” Cor cuts it short, and Castellum’s mouth shuts with an audible clink of his teeth. He focuses on the kid, his attention prompting the child to straighten, just imperceptibly. Cor motions with his hand, “Let’s get outta here, kid.”

The kid promptly hops off the bench, and follows when Cor exits and holds the door for him. Luckette attempts to wave goodbye, but it deflates as the kid doesn’t even acknowledge his existence, and as Cor orders: “Get your report done, Luckette.”

Cor doesn’t see Luckette’s nod to know he responds, and swiftly directs the kid out of the door and back to his room. The child silently and dutifully follows by his side. Eyes forward and back straightened; a march that some rookies would envy.

“Hey, don’t worry about any of that stuff, alright. I’ll handle it.” Cor says, breaking the silence that had blanketed between them. The kid instantly looks up to him when he speaks. “You did good.”

There’s a crease in the kid’s brows, before he gives a single nod.

 


 

When the kid is back in his room, evening descending and another set of puzzles completed, a bed vacant and deserted for too long, Cor speaks.

“Sleep in the bed tonight.” He says, and makes a conscious effort to keep his infliction as casual as he can manage, as not to come off as a direct command.

(There’s a part of him, later that he’ll view in shame, that thinks to outright mandate the kid to sleep in the bed, with a hard stare and flat, harsh voice. Because then he could rest easy knowing it’ll be obediently followed with no protest.)

The kid, knelt across from him and having been engrossed with connecting puzzle pieces, predictably freezes when Cor speaks. Body notably rigid, Cor suppresses a sigh. The kid looks up, his face an open struggle to keep barren, and gives a curt nod.

Cor holds the child’s stare (or he would, if the kid wasn’t looking just below Cor’s eyes, somewhere upon his cheeks), and he already knows the prospect is a seemingly insurmountable task for the kid, for whatever reason.

He may have trauma associated with beds, or he’s too hypersensitive to the texture of the fabric, or… maybe it’s something completely new to him, and he doesn’t know how to feel about it. So far, I’m leaning to the latter, considering how he acts to other comforts.

Alouette’s words do little to give any sort of comfort in this context. But the child continuing to sleep on the floor is unacceptable; it was when he started, and it is now.

Please sleep in the bed.” Cor hopes the added word soothes the growing awkwardness of the room, if only for a moment. The kid just nods, his characteristic single jerk of the head.

“You’ll feel great in the morning if you do.” Cor feels like he’s bartering. “At least for tonight. You can do that, right?”

Another nod. The kid’s hands have clenched absentmindedly, his thumbs drawn inwards so the rest of his fingers can pick at it (fidget toys, Cor thinks).

Cor gives his own nod, and the conversation reaches its end. A puzzle is completed, and normally Cor would take his leave when bedtime arrives, promptly vacating while the kid is usually still seated. But Cor decides to postpone his departure, just for a moment.

Hand on the door handle, Cor turns and gives a quiet survey. When Cor doesn’t take his usual routine, the kid immediately notices. In fact, he steals a quick glance to the clock as if to clarify to himself of the time, and then it’s like a switch; a blur, in a scramble that Cor swears he hears the kid’s heart rate quickening into a crescendo, the kid scurries underneath the blankets of the bed. It takes him a grand total of two steps to get to the bed, practically lunging, that then turn into a  pounce that have the bed springs produce an audible noise from the sudden weight of the child.

Only half the kid’s head peaks outwards, the edges of the blanket pulled taunt with a tight fist that coats just underneath his nose. The kid’s stare is drilled right into Cor’s own, this time unwavering.

The kid’s spontaneous bedtime is done quickly and swiftly. Like Cor was pointing a gun at him. Like Cor would have shot the kid if he saw he hadn't done what he previously asked when he turned around. Like an animal quickly retreating from a fatal threat, fueled by survival instinct alone.

(Cor doesn’t need to think hard to know that was the kid’s genuine thought process.)

Cor doesn’t tuck him in. He just gives a nod and leaves, and hopes the kid finds warmth and comfort in those sheets.

 


 

Cor’s destination is towards Clarus' office. He enters without knocking, and sees the older man peering down upon a tablet, scouring a report. He only looks up when Cor has seated himself opposite of him.

At any other time, Clarus would have (exasperatingly) reprimanded Cor for not knocking beforehand. And since he doesn’t, Cor already infers the contents of the tablet.

“So, I take it you got Luckette’s report, yeah?” Cor asks.

“Indeed.” Clarus responds, a squint downwards at his tablet. “Patient shows evidence of retroreflection, visible for observers by the naked eye, an aspect not typical for humans. Patient’s pupil will show a reflection of a faint red in his pupils if in a dark setting and a light directed at the edges of his vision. This suggests a reflective membrane behind the patient’s retina, but examination shows no evidence. Currently, there is no physical explanation as to why this occurs.” A brief pause, and looking directly to his companion. “And you witnessed this, yourself?”

“Affirmative.”

“And what do you make of it?”

“Night vision. Natural night vision without the need for goggles or tech.” Implanted, inner anatomy manipulated, grown, Cor doesn’t pretend to know how its been done, but one doesn’t underestimate a Nif if they want to stay alive against them.

Clarus leans back in his seat. “So then, you subscribe to the theory we’ve discussed.”

There’s lots of speculations to be had as to why a child, of all things, would be in a Niflheim military facility that produces Magiteks. All of which are barren from any sort of relief and instead brimming with something distinctly more disturbing, considering the context. Sinister the implications are, like a dark, heavy cloud that never leaves, the picture that is painted through the discussions held by Cor and the Amicitias does not bring a victory. There’s no satisfaction to be garnered when the answer seems to point to a child whose had his autonomy and humanity stripped for the purpose of experimentation, his literal anatomy tweaked and altered to generate something biologically engineered. Of something with the beginnings that go beyond that of a regular human, and one with weapon’s training.   

“Perfect playing ground, isn’t it?” Cor starts. “Kidnap an infant, tell a woman who doesn’t want her child to give it over, maybe they got fronts that act of orphanages. Got yourself a perfect supply of specimens.” The word is spat out, his bitterness growing. “Engineer a growing kid with inhuman abilities, and get yourself an able soldier that’s better than the regular person.”

Clarus is silent, just for a moment, seated in his seat as a statue. His face reads a grim sense of acceptance, a hypothesis that doesn’t give any sense of achievement to either of them.  

“Super, biologically engineered soldiers, alongside their MTs?” Clarus questions, voice made quieter from the air of subtle abhorrence.

“Maybe. But why waste time on that when they’re already engineering ‘bots?”

Maybe some sort of fallback, a backup army. Or companions to litter in between the MTs; the robots swarm, outnumbering the main strategy, and the human soldiers—cattle branded and practically robotized like their tin can combatants, but still human, with reasoning and logic that allows for better analysis and accountability than a robot. Even a horde of robots.

It’s practically the opposite of what Cor was meant to find during his infiltration. To collect intel of how MTs are produced in the first place, how they operate, and of what future units/upgrades the Nifs plan with their robots, of how they manipulate plasmodic miasma for weaponization in first place.  

“Could also be a stepping stone for something greater.” Cor begins, slowly. The Nif infantry has largely replaced its own human soldiers with those of robots, which makes Cor question their current assumption. Clarus' silence is a prompt to continue, so he does. “What if—they’re not meant to be soldiers? What if this kid, and others like him, are only trials; research into elevating the human form. The beginnings of the next step in human evolution, testing on nobody kids before trying it on themselves. The gun learning to assess accuracy and depth-perception.”

It’s mad scientist shit, like in those endless B-movies that Cor only ever has on for background noise. Cor almost feels silly for even suggesting such a thing, and maybe if coming out of the mouth of someone else, Cor may have internally rolled his eyes. But the fact of the matter is that the Nifs are branding children like lab rats, and treating them likewise. The fact of the matter is that Cor wholly doesn’t think they’re beyond playing God.

Clarus contemplates, and his stare is is accompanied with a hard set brows. He speaks, after a moment. “... Do you think they could capable of such a thing?”

“Whatever the reason, they’re willing to experiment on their own children, Clarus.”

The sigh that exits Clarus is heavy, burdened. “That they are.”

The somber air that coils between and around them never truly go away, when this topic is discussed.

Clarus straightens in his seat. “I suppose there’s only one way to determine is the child is truly trained with a firearm.”

Cor scoffs. “You’re willing to take him to the shooting range, then?”

“How else will we assess his accuracy and depth-perception, Cor.” Clarus responds, flatly. His focus redirects to his desk, towards the papers and tablet that persist upon it, and Cor knows he’ll be held up in the Citadel into the deep hours of the evening, a new report for His Majesty. And Viperia will berate him in jest for it when morning comes.

“Right.” Cor nods. “When will that be, then?”

“A later date, I’ll let you know when.” Clarus answers, reorganising some of the tools upon his desk. “Biological weapon, humanity’s final form—regardless of what and who he is, he still just a child.” He looks up, to give Cor a brief glance, and the words spoken are ones that Cor agree upon with every syllable. “And one that should have the chance to be a child.”

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 wakes. It wakes at 7 AM. It doesn’t need validation of the fact, its instincts already screaming at it that it has awoken late. The confirmation it receives by frantically looking at the clock has its throat go tight, as if a noose tightens around it.

It should spring forward, a scramble that is a mirror to the one of the night’s previous of how it went to lay on the bed, with Cor’s pointed surveillance. It should, but finds itself only completing the process until it simply sits. Sitting upright so fast its head spins on a needle tip, its chest as if its ribcage has caved in. Its hand clench at the blankets, a vice grip that pains its fingers, and it stares to the door.

The door, that should barge open, the presence of a Guard to haul it out of its lazy irresponsibility, and punish it with a swift strike. The door, that should have already been opened, with a Commander already within the room, to deal it with the discipline it deserves. The door, that remains closed, with a room that remains quiet, and N-iP01357-05953234 remains the only occupant.

Breathing comes back slowly, through a shuddering inhalation, and its lungs prickle with a stinging sensation. N-iP01357-05953234 only blinks when its eyes start to water, and its hands only carefully unfurl from its death grip when the quivering of its breathing eventually, and slowly, subsides. The door remains closed, and N-iP01357-05953234’s sudden buildup of adrenalin is quickly sapped from it, leaving only a drained reservoir that has N-iP01357-05953234 sag. The attachment of its head feels loose, as it wills to float away entirely, and a dizziness presents itself. The door remains closed, and N-iP01357-05953234’s staring is interrupted when it finds itself continuously blinking, to ward away an abrupt sense of wetness in its eyes that it doesn’t fully register.

It should stay awake. It should stay diligent and aware, as it had done so previous when it awoke at the appropriate times.

But then, suddenly like a boot to the face, N-iP01357-05953234 understands the Lucian’s penchant for such spongy, soft surfaces, like those of the bed it finds itself sinking into. The smoothness of the sheets, the tenderness of the pillow, the warmth of being underneath a mount of blankets, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not become fully aware of the lullaby that seduces N-iP01357-05953234’s body into unguarded reprieve until its head hits the pillow once more.

An allurement meant to render N-iP01357-05953234 vulnerable and susceptible, is what N-iP01357-05953234 should think, of to be weary of, now. But these vigilant thoughts are never fully realized, and N-iP01357-05953234 is heedless to the siren song that persists. Its soft, its tender, its warm, and N-iP01357-05953234 sinks.

N-iP01357-05953234 falls back asleep (it’ll be later that N-iP01357-05953234 will realize it had actually fainted), head against the gentle pillow, and body underneath the comforting sheets.

 


 

Pliable is the nature of the Play-Doh, yielding to N-iP01357-05953234 as it kneads it with its fingers.

Exercise for the fingers, Alouette described it as, and N-iP01357-05953234 followed suit.

A practice done preemptively for a sheet and a crayon, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks this finger training will be incorporated for every time they draw henceforth, but Alouette instructs something different.

“Lets try some writing.” She says. “Its like drawing, but we’re going to be drawing words.”

N-iP01357-05953234 only nods, and waits to see the Allie’s visual instruction: She moves her crayon upon her paper, and sweeps an arch that she strikes a line to. Then a vertical line becomes its companion, followed by a circle.

When she finishes, she lifts her paper in front of her for N-iP01357-05953234 to see.

“Do you know what this says?” She asks, and N-iP01357-05953234 squints at the message.

Literacy was never a focal point for its training, and a unit has no need to understand anything other than the signage of the facility, to recognize script of universal symbols and the names of geographical locations of interest for navigation. It takes a moment, of N-iP01357-05953234 staring, carefully taking in the words present on her paper, when N-iP01357-05953234 finally thinks it deciphers it.

Alouette, it enunciates the word in its mind, and translate it as her name. So it points, finger jabs to Alouette’s seated figure, and she smiles.

“Yes,” She confirms. “Its my name.”

N-iP01357-05953234 sits a little straighter, then, pleased with itself, before it looks downwards and holds its own crayon with purpose. It imitates the movements of Alouette’s hand, an arch with a line through it, a vertical line, a circle, and so forth, until Alouette is realized on its own sheet of paper. Blocky is the script, the lines troubled, and N-iP01357-05953234 is discontented at the lack of exact neatness of Alouette’s own writing.

“Good job.” She praises regardless, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods. “Do you know how to write anything else?”

N-iP01357-05953234 flexes its grip on both of its hands, and contemplates. It does, and since Alouette wrote her own name, N-iP01357-05953234 knows what is being requested from it.

The wristband is an unyielding shackle that the Lucians insist on, only relinquished during bathing, an Order that only ever had to be verbally done once: Cor’s growl when he saw it absent, on what N-iP01357-05953234 thinks was the second day in this room. So it doesn’t move the band, it doesn’t even dare fiddle with the thing, even now.

N-iP01357-05953234 can’t lift the wristband for reference of its designation, but N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it might not need to do regardless; the ghost of the numbers emerging in its mind's eye, hours upon hours memorizing its identification always a benefit.

It moves its crayon on its paper, once more, a jagged line forms the beginnings of its script.

N-iP01

 


 

Any growing child needs multivitamins, which is exactly what the kid gets along with breakfast. One of those gummy types with cartoon characters on the label that Cor doesn’t recognize. The kid, like he does with everything he’s given, eyed them dubiously, a cringe he can’t quite hide, and an apprehension present in his body language: clenching of his fists, picking at his fingers, shifting in his seat. He took them with little protest, and does still, and while Cor is satisfied the kid’s getting what he needs, the relief isn’t as palpable as it could be, considering the kid always seems suspicious, even when explained what the pills are and do.

Along with the standard, he’s given iron and vitamin-d supplements, mostly concentrated in small doses and fused in his food, and now an added pill needed to take twice a day.

Inflamed stomach lining, is the official diagnosis, chronic, and explains how, despite his food purposely being liquids to be easy on the stomach, and despite eating slowly, the kid still attempts to hide his wincing, every now and again. He only ever shakes when asked if he is bothered, and Cor knows that if the kid could talk, he probably wouldn’t even speak up when he’s feeling discomfort regardless. It’s a thought that makes Cor cringe, himself.

“Keep doing exercises with him, keep making sure he eats all his food, and keep playing games with him.” Delphinus asserts, after explaining the kid’s new medication. “Hopefully with enough puzzles he’ll feel less stressed, and that can manage his blood pressure by proxy. His levels are only slightly elevated, thankfully, but we don’t want to give it chance to raise to the point he may develop heart disease.”

“Yes ma’am.” Cor responds, idly checking the pill bottle in his hand. Letters that produce near unpronounceable word scrabble detailing contents greet him back. He pockets it, and Delphinus continues.

“So far, I’m confident he doesn’t have heart disease, though angina may persist for him.” Delphinus says. “And I’m certain he would have developed coronary artery disease if he stayed in that facility you got him at. If not straight up got a heart attack.”

Got him out at the nick of time, Cor would think, but instead ruminates on keeping a consistent, active schedule for the kid to help manage everything he’s got going on.

The physical symptoms are blessedly manageable, eased with his itinerary and medication, but the mental ones are decidedly more complicated.

Anxiety disorder, CPTSD, depression, depersonalization disorder, possible psychosis, possible personality and mood disorders—Cor already gathered, even before Alouette’s assessments and diagnosis, but even with a name to associate it with, it’s hardly weightless.

“News on his blood?” Cor asks, the mystery that surrounds it still persisting to be a nuisance.

Delphinus hums. “Well, good news, it’s not infectious. Everyone whose come into contact with him is clean, and tests have come up negative for transmissible qualities.”  

A blessing, certainly, if not soured by the fact clearly bad news is coming.

Cor sighs. “And the bad news?”

“Still unidentifiable.”

Fantastic, Cor thinks mirthlessly, but he’s hardly surprised, at this point.

“Hey, there’s more good news.” Delphinus says, and Cor quirks a brow. “His glasses came in, here.”

She procures a small case that houses the glasses from a drawer in her desk, and promptly hands it towards Cor. He opens it in his palm, and within lies are simple, black-rimmed pair of glasses. Unassuming, and wonderfully modest, and Cor is already reminded of the young Scientia.

Cor nods his thanks to Delphinus, before verbally giving it. “Thank you.”

 

~

 

The kid takes to the new pills as he does to the previous: a muted glare, and a hidden sour face. But he takes it, and Cor clarifies their purpose to put him more at ease.

“To help with your stomach.” He says. “You feel a unwell, sometimes, when you eat, don’t you?”

The kid doesn’t nod right away. Instead, he stares in some sense of growing bafflement, which isn’t anything new. It’s like he’s taken aback that Cor knows about the discomfort of his stomach, as if he read the kid’s mind.

(Hell, Cor wouldn’t be surprised if the kid actually thought that.)

The kid does nod, eventually, training his eyes downwards, fixed somewhere on the small table that separates them. It isn’t his iconic quick jerk, but a slow, solemn one. A confession. One done as if he committed a great crime.

 

(N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t lie. It tries in all its abilities not to, because lying has consequences, but there’s only so much that can be done with no voice to have.

N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t meant to deliberately cause confusion, by nodding to Cor’s questions if it was ‘alright’ during eating, regardless if it felt nauseous or not. But it was never a debilitating condition, never something that could potentially disrupt its functions on a severe enough level to warrant any sort of inspection. It was tolerable, and therefore inconsequential.

And of course Cor would see right through it. He probably noticed from the start, and has only been collecting those times N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t given the answer Cor was now obviously seeking. And at the Marshal’s point of view, N-iP01357-05953234 was lying. It was lying directly to his face.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid—)

 

“So these—” Cor starts, carefully, pointing to the pill bottle, regaining the kid’s attention. “—are going to make your stomach feel better. So you can eat in peace. So no more feeling bad when eating, okay?”

The kid swallows. His jaw is clenched.

“Do you understand?” Cor further coaxes, and kid eventually nods.

Not a triumph, this, and Cor decides change the subject. “Got you something else, which you don’t have to swallow.”

The glasses case is a plain hardshell brown, and once presented to the kid, Cor opens the case with a small click. Inside lays the glasses, neatly folded, and Cor gives the kid a moment to stare before he takes it out.

“Your glasses.” He presents, the lenses in their humble unfolded glory. The kid blinks in response. Cor lifts the glasses, as if he were to put them on himself, but stops short of actually doing so, as a small show of instruction. “You put them on like this.” He says, before handing the glasses across to their rightful owner.

The kid takes to the glasses with jerky hands, an almost rushed motion when he realizes he’s meant to collect it. He holds onto the temples, looking down to his new accessory, before he lifts them to eye level, and with a squint through the lenses as he holds the instrument in front of his face, he slides them over. He blinks, once, twice, thrice, once the temple tips are secured around his ears, his fingers still clasped at the temples as his sights land on Cor.

“Like ‘em?” Cor asks, and he’s pleasantly occupied by the fact the kid’s eyes seem magnified by the glasses. The kid’s hands eventually migrate off the glasses themselves and clutch in his lap, and he nods.

Cor nods as well. “Good. It’ll help your eyes, but you do this—” he taps to the side of his head, a symbol in place for the absence of speech. “—if you start getting headaches, understand?”

The kid nods, and Cor will take note of every time the kid focuses on an object, with his new glasses on his face. The kid stares at his hands, at the legos, when they are brought out, and every accumulation of those investigating looks, those subtle widening of the eyes as he examines something clutched in his hands, will give Cor his own small sense of pride.

 


 

It’s a visual aid. A visual correction.

There were handlers and officials who would sometimes be present with them, with these glasses on their faces, and N-iP01357-05953234 never questioned, obviously, but inferences can be made.

Group M was a fraternal line that had been grown and matured at a considerably faster rate than N-iP01357-05953234’s own Group N, an effort to complete Besithia’s orders of units grown efficiently but also healthy. A troop that looked exact to N-iP01357-05953234’s own groupmates, same height, same build, same sense of maturity, despite being much younger. It appeared, at first, that Group M could become the standard, but hypotheses are hardly proven on the first trial; exponential growth is usually countered by poor health in some way, and for Group M, blindness would become their fate. Visual degradation was a plague that was birthed practically overnight, and the entirety of Group M was culled. They had been a failure.

N-iP01357-05953234’s sight was never to such a disastrous caliber, and anything that doesn’t disrupt actual core functions or the integrity of the unit isn’t usually anything that ever matters. Humans wore glasses. Objects having a faint blur, but only when near, was hardly anything that could be dire. N-iP01357-05953234 could still discern what the objects were, only ever the outline with some trivial smear, and therefore it wasn’t compromised. Humans wore glasses. Because N-iP01357-05953234 knows humans are not without their own bag of deviations, but a human requiring a visual fix isn’t on par when a unit needs it: a unit is engineered and it would be an error, a human is born and it would be a minor inconvenience.

As N-iP01357-05953234 sits on the bed, having supposed to gone to sleep, at the hours of midnight, it clutches at the glasses and surveys the room. Having unfurled the glasses from the case it resides, the holdings sat upon the small dresser next to the bed, N-iP01357-05953234 merely sits when it should sleep, and it stares at the aspects of the room that it had grown used to seeing with a subtle blurred edge.

The fact that it is, technically, disregarding the Order to sleep, is one that finds itself neglected as N-iP01357-05953234 is too overcome with a realization it can no longer dance around.

It’s a repair. It has been repaired. The Lucians repaired it.

Not a direct one, not one done under a knife, but one with an added gadget. Humans wore glasses. Not units.

The blurred nature of the room, the blurred nature of anything, is no longer present with the glasses sit upon N-iP01357-05953234’s nose.

It should sleep, despite the suffocating nature of the bed, but this night N-iP01357-05953234 will only find itself with a sprinkling of restfulness. Too entrenched, too enthralled, with mindless comparisons it already knows: without the glasses, the objects that are nearer possess a small blemish, with the glasses, the objects do not.

When N-iP01357-05953234 finally relinquishes the glasses to its case, as not to be deformed when N-iP01357-05953234’s head is finally rested against the pillow, N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t care to notice its throat its tight. It only wipes away the wetness of its eyes out of reflex, rather than from any registration of the tears.

 


 

A chance to be a child.

Kids should have names, Cor thinks. It’s long overdue.

 



“Basil.” Viperia suggests, relaxing back into her seat.

“That one’s cute.” Clarus supplements, his office an impromptu naming session. The cordial soundtrack between the three that occupy the room a slowly growing cloud of names, and a scribbling of pen on paper as Cor commits them to script.  

Viperia continues, “Fiorello. Florian.”

“Spelled F-I-O-R-E-L-L-O.” Clarus corrects, his sights on Cor’s mistaken scrawl of Feeorello. Cor snorts and mutters his thanks as he remedies the misprint.

“Ren. Sorrel. Lillian.” Viperia looks to her husband, a question read on her face as she lifts a brow slightly.

Clarus takes her prompt and leans forward to continue. “Dendra. Aster. Jared.”

“Like your Chamberlain?” Cor asks, finishing the d in Jared, before he looks up to spare Clarus a glance.

“It means rose.” Clarus supplies.

“Of course it does,” Cor scoffs, because obviously. “Why is it you're the only one in your family without a flower name, Clarus?”

“Alas,” Clarus sighs. “My parents just missed the trend.”

“T’is a tragedy.” Viperia gives her condolences with a sympathetic nod. “Anyhow; Quill. Chrysanthemum.”

The word jumble of what almost could be considered a name has Cor come to an immediate halt. He levels her with an unimpressed look, which she meets. “I think everyone would prefer a name he could actually spell. ” He retorts.

Viperia gives a single bark of laughter. “Just admit you don’t know how to spell it.” She gives a flippant wave to dismiss him, and Cor feels distinctly offended. “Here, C-H-R-Y—”

Cor doesn’t intend to actually spell out the offending name, because then the kid would need a dictionary everytime he spells it, so he returns his attention to the growing list to observe the progress. What he’s met with, however, is a list that suddenly merges with a dawning realization; a morphing of words that abruptly ring a bell in his face.

“Wait, wait.” Cor interrupts Viperia’s spelling bee, shaking both his head and hand to clear himself. “Have you been giving me only flower names?”

Plant names, technically.” Viperia says, as if it makes a difference, just as Clarus responds with, “You just now noticed?”

Cor scoffs, and leans back in his seat in defeat. “Shoulda known.” He mutters, and neither Amicitias seem particularly bothered by their betrayal. “I would expect more snake-based names, considering.”

Viperia rolls her eyes. “You want snake names? Here; Asmodeus, Acanthophis, Aspis—”

“That sounds too much like Ass-Piss,” Cor counters, and he thinks Viperia should be ashamed. Ass-piss. Have some decency for the kid. Clarus, being no help, just sits with the barest hints of amusement radiating off him. Cor continues, “Also, a ten year old won’t know how to spell Acanthophis.

“Oh my Gods,” Viperia concedes, looking to her husband for aid. “Clarus?”

“How about,” Clarus begins, and Cor already doesn’t trust him. “Narcissus?”

No. “Absolutely not.”

Clarus, almost, looks exasperated, if not for his faint smile. “You requested our help, Cor.” He says, with mock hurt. And Cor had, convening with the two between a strikingly rare moment in which all three are available to simply share words. And, at first, the two of them were a benefit, having experience in the naming kids department.

Cor doesn’t give mercy. “Then help better.” He says, as he writes Catullus and Gaius to the mix.

“Jocur.” Viperia suddenly quips, gaining both men’s attention.

Cor squints. The vague memory of some sort of useless knowledge, that he doesn’t even remember learning, but stubbornly persists in his mind regardless, coming to rear its head. “Doesn’t… that mean ‘liver’?”

“Your name means heart.” She says as if she hadn’t literally suggested naming a kid liver.

Cor pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know why I bother.” He laments.

Clarus, evidently, doesn’t know mercy either. “Stomachus.” He says, and Cor knows he gives the Shield a look as if he tasted something sour.

“Oh, at least try.” Cor grieves with little energy, because if they’re going to commit to such a charade, then they should put a little effort into it.

“Ren.” Viperia continues, as Clarus tries and fails to hide his snickers.

Cor looks to the list, the familiarity of the name too fresh. A quick glance gives him his confirmation. “We’ve already got Ren.” He clarifies.

“Yes, but before that meant lotus.” Viperia explains, and Cor finds a sigh bubbling within him. “Here, it means kidney.”

The sigh comes into full fruition, and Clarus takes over. “If it’s any help, I still vote for Basil.”

“Your input is very valuable to me, Clarus.” Cor says dryly, and looks to the list. The list, a fair amount that line the margin of the page it inhabits, greet with an amicable air. Scrawlings of something that give Cor a feeling of something satisfactory, similar to when a mission is done well, usually; something put into place, something fitted perfectly, a slot done with a fulfilling click. A feeling that isn’t potent enough to overstay its welcome, but ultimately one that leaves Cor feeling at least contented. A name, instead of a band of numbers, multiple choices, and a decision that can be changed if so desired. Cor just hopes the kid, well, gets it. An understanding that doesn’t slip through like water between fingers.

Viperia breaks his thoughts, speaking to the validity of Basil. “It can mean the plant, or short for Basilisk. You get the best of both worlds.”

Cor replies, “Well, if he chooses it, you'll be the first to know.” Because it’ll be the kid’s choice, and ultimately none of theirs.

(Though, there’s a selfish hope he won’t choose Fiorello. For his peer’s sake, of course, because it’s awkward to spell. )

Viperia continues, after a moment of ruminating. “How about… Aedus.”

Cor nearly adds it, before he comes to his senses to ask: “And what does that one mean?”

“Kid.” And at Cor’s withering look, Viperia adds, “Kid as in baby goat!”

Clarus, deciding to be useful in this, inserts himself with: “We do still have that book of names, if you want to borrow it.”

He would, most definitely, a suitable resource if there is a need for more water to the well of names. And, if need be, something to fall back onto and give to the kid if the list is lacking, provided it doesn’t overwhelm.

Cor nods. “Yes. Thank you. Gods know neither of you are any help, despite being parents.”

A snicker from Viperia, and Clarus wraps his knuckles on the table that separates himself from the Marshal. Something pensive overtakes his previous joviality, and Cor finds himself automatically straightening.

“Are you certain that the child will take to a new name?” Clarus asks. And, just like that, a sudden shift, like a palpable snap in the air; Clarus' expression is his typical sobriety, Viperia’s posture mirroring Cor’s own: rectified in a polished civility.    

“It is a rather sensitive subject.” Viperia chimes, and Cor is reminded of a previous discussion held between the three, of a report that consisted of somber faces on the Amicitias, of a child that practically went dead to the world at the attempt to ask of the removal of a barcode, a disconnect, unfocused eyes and a steady tremble in the arms, at the mere suggestion of a name.

“I’m aware.” Cor sighs. “But we can’t keep calling him kid. And we’re not gonna call him those damn numbers. Making the list for propriety’s sake.”

“Of course.” Clarus says, a sense of finality shared among all occupants of the room. An unspoken promise never to use those numbers as a way to refer to the kid.

“Well,” Viperia  says, with a clap of her hands to reclaim attention upon her. “Let’s continue: Roseus. Anguis… ”

 


 

Cor brings with him a sheet of paper, but not like those Alouette is associated with. This isn’t a drawing or writing session, N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t believe, and the sheet Cor presents has scrawlings of words it does not recognize or begin to decipher. The glasses make the etchings upon the paper more distinct, and it is only Cor’s voice that breaks N-iP01357-05953234’s reverie.

“It's a list of names.” Cor says, after N-iP01357-05953234 gives a cursory examination of script. Alouette’s penmanship is more refined, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks idly, her writing more compact as to allow more words on a single line, Cor’s done with a looser hand. “Like my name is Cor. Alouette is, well, Alouette.”

N-iP01357-05953234 gives a small nod. It knows this, and now N-iP01357-05953234 must commit to memory of the names upon the page. Names of future handlers, it expects, though it is an ineffectual way of greeting them. It’s a long list.

“We don't have numbers. We don't use numbers as names. Because numbers aren't names.” Cor continues, and N-iP01357-05953234 can only stare. It represses a flinch when Cor’s voice goes harsh on his last statement, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not understand why he appears frustrated. “And people have names, so you ought to have one.”

N-iP01357-05953234 feels one of its eyes twitch. It maintains eye contact with Cor, who surveys back, and N-iP01357-05953234 must consciously will itself not to waver. People do have names, and not designations, because people are not units. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t ever need be reminded of the fact, it’s well aware, and Cor’s statement brings only brings a needless disarray. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think an Order was given, but Cor only looks at it, expectant, and N-iP01357-05953234 swallows.

When N-iP01357-05953234 only stares, in some sort of vain desperation of further clarification or some sort of semblance of instruction, Cor merely raises a brow. N-iP01357-05953234 becomes aware of its own annoyance, but also of the prickling of its skin. It diverts its gaze upwards, slightly, to relieve the itch from Cor’s scrutiny, and looks at his forehead instead. It would ask for clarification of some kind, Permission to request explanation of Order, Sir, but N-iP01357-05953234 obviously knows nothing will come from its mouth, so it doesn’t bother. It sits, stares in Cor’s direction, and waits for its penalty for its noncompliance.

When Cor does lean across the table (to grab N-iP01357-05953234, to dispense a chastisement in the form of slap across the face), N-iP01357-05953234 flinches and screws its eyes shut.

Head hunched into its shoulders, fists tight, but no discipline comes. N-iP01357-05953234 opens its eyes at the lack of it, to find Cor with his finger hovering over the paper, an arm outstretched but downwards, not leveled skyward to strike down. The look he has is pinched; unhappy, N-iP01357-05953234 can discern, but—of the forlorn kind.

“You’re okay, kid.” Cor says, slowly, moving the sheet closer just an inch, which resparks N-iP01357-05953234’s interest in the thing. “It’s okay. You’re fine.”

Cor retracts, then, leaning away, and N-iP01357-05953234 lets out a breath it hadn’t realized it was holding. It blinks, refocusing, looking downwards to fixate upon the sheet in front of it.

“Just—read through it.” Cor says, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods, fast and quick, almost dislodging the glasses that sit upon its nose. N-iP01357-05953234 recognizes the letters one their own, for the most part, but together it brings a code. As a word, N-iP01357-05953234 does not know how to translate any of them, and N-iP01357-05953234 almost thinks this is meant to be an exercise to solve a decryption. Names, a list of names, Cor had said, you ought to have one. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t understand.  

The names are desolate in their meaning, even when N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to pronounce them in its mind. There’s no insight to be gained from any of the scrawlings, and no epiphany is granted to N-iP01357-05953234. N-iP01357-05953234 attempts again, gazing at each letter of each words, going down the list, and once it reaches the end again, it repeats the process. The words are as meaningless as they were at the beginning, and N-iP01357-05953234 fiddles with its hands beneath the table. There’s a mass of insects crawling on its skin, pinching and clasping at its flesh, and N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t realize itself shuffling in its seat.

“Anything you like?” Cor asks, and N-iP01357-05953234 is nearly given whiplash when it jolts in attention. Cor’s voice is cautious, and N-iP01357-05953234 continues to stare.

Cor stares back, and N-iP01357-05953234 can’t answer, but the names on the page does not elicit a reaction.

And maybe—that’s the exercise, to gauge N-iP01357-05953234’s reaction; to determine N-iP01357-05953234’s deficiency against its designation. To see if N-iP01357-05953234’s defects go as far for it to disregard it’s actual identity.

The relief is palpable. It understands, now, and finds its body loosening. It understands, and answers Cor’s question: It shakes its head. It doesn’t like the names, because it already has a designation.

Cor, almost, looks surprised by N-iP01357-05953234’s response, and N-iP01357-05953234 takes it as a victory. The Marshal’s brows both slant upwards, slightly, and he looks to the paper.

“Well,” he starts. “You didn’t look very long.”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t need to. It shakes its head again.

Cor stares, then, for a moment before he speaks again. “... Alright. But I’ll let you keep that, alright?” He nods to the paper, as if N-iP01357-05953234 will ever look at it again. N-iP01357-05953234 knows how to win this game. “Just… think of it like how you change clothes everyday, except now with names. See which one feels best.” Cor purses his lips. “You understand?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t, at least not his odd analogy, because names can’t be worn like clothes. They’re not tangible. But it nods, because it does understand what is being asked of it. It won’t browse the names, because N-iP01357-05953234 is not human and therefore isn’t given a name. It has its designation.

Cor sighs, and seems disappointed, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows it's passed this test.

 


 

The list of names remains in the room, and it remains untouched.

 


 

There's ground rules associated with the kid, appropriate behaviour that has to be adopted in relation to interacting with the boy that's been firmly planted by Alouette. No yelling, is a fairly universal reaction to seeing the kid, to the few that actually know of his existence. Fundamental, even without the expertise of Alouette, given more direction with her instruction of keep your hands visible for him at all times, explain your actions, try to act slowly, and give only positive reinforcement. Because the kid acts like a startled deer if someone so much as twitches. Hunched shoulders, stiffen into a statue with eyes squeezed tightly shut to block off and prepare for something unsightly, and Cor feels as though he's just won the award for Worst Person in all of Eos. It doesn’t take a genius to parse that reaction.

No use of military terms is another Fundamental posited by Alouette, and Cor quickly forwent the usage of “at ease,” because the kid needs to know he isn't in that context anymore, he isn't here to be trained with weapons and ordered to do a drill. But the kid's still a classified person of interest, officially, and in an ideal world he'd never have to pick up a gun ever again. But Eos is never ideal, and the kid has made it known he knows how to hold a gun, and assessments need to be made. Alouette is steeped in disapproval of such a thing, but it's the sad truth that needs to be told.

She lays down the ground rules, helps coaxes the kid to express himself (even if what he conveys is mortifying), and she gives clarification on his antics.

“You must understand, Mr. Leonis,” She says, “that while his barcode is dehumanizing to us, it's all he's ever known. To him, it is his name. It's his identity, as I'm absolutely certain he had it, and was referred by it, from infancy. It's how he's been referred to by his…” She makes a vague gesture in front of her, she and Cor standing outside of the secret entrance that leads to the kid’s room, in a generic hallway of the Citadel.  “... previous caretakers, and how he views himself. A cattle brand, indeed, as you've described it, but a series of numbers that distinguish himself from others, and the closest thing he has as a unique sense of self.”

Cor sighs. He rubs his face. He could use a drink.

“And, this gives me no joy to say, he probably doesn't even view himself as human, Mr. Leonis.”

Two drinks. A whole case.

“If he's only been referred to with a barcode, then I can't say I'm surprised.” Cor mutters.

Alouette nods, solemn. She continues, “And there is the fact we are, well, his enemies.” Cor almost scoffs. “I think it's safe to say he was raised in the facility you found him at. I don't think I need to reiterate what sort of ideals he's been fed as a result.”

While Alouette isn’t a fixed member of when Cor speaks with the Amicitas, or Regis, regarding the theories surrounding the kid, she's smart enough to know the predominant assumptions surrounding him regardless. 

“So, in enemy territory. With his enemies attempting to disregard the thing he has as a keepsake of the only place he knows as home.” She continues to emphasize. “So you shouldn’t expect him to hold onto a new name right away. Encourage him, but give him time.”  

Cor nods. “Right.”

Maybe it was wishful thinking, to think that the kid would point to a name and then that’ll be the end of it. Find a tattoo specialist and have that fucking barcode removed once and for all, and then suddenly, the kid chirps up and speaks. It was definitely wishful thinking. That backfired so spectacularly that Cor cannot get the image of the kid—hunched, stiff, eyes squeezed shut, so small—out of his head. Drilled into his skull and screaming at him.

Gods, what a mess.

 


 

It starts like this:

A reputation carved in stone, an identity forged in bloated ego and honour, and an armour made of indestructible fame, as far as Cor was concerned. He was gluttonous, and he would only admit it when he grows older, but at the time, Cor earned this. It was a life he molded through his own bare, calloused hands, alone, because he was rarity among the populace and even still among the Crownsguard. He deserved every and all ounce of praise and jealousy from others. He was better.

At age fifteen, he becomes His Majesty’s bodyguard.

And it starts like this:

A jaunt in one of the many hallways of the Citadel, the King strolling beside him, and Cor himself with a straight back, a lifted a head, a stare straight ahead and not bothering to give the woman who walks by a glance.

Early evening, the windows that dot the wall on the right a canvas that begins to drench in warm orange. Cor isn’t in a trance, nor in deep thought, he walks with his King with quiet steps and a likewise quiet mind, but when Mors speaks, Cor feels as though he’s been snapped out of meditation regardless.

“I would have expected something a little more from you.”

He blinks, jerking his head to the side to look at the other man who still stares ahead. The correct response would be a question of Sire? But instead, Cor speaks with a bewildered “What?”

“The girl, there, who passed just now.” Mors says, halting, and Cor copies. The King gives a disinterested nod in the direction of the woman who passed, who’ve already turned the corner and no longer in line of sight, and looks down to Cor through his nose. Cor squints, not bothering to hide his annoyance at being reminded that he’s shorter that Mors, the disdain a collection of unsightly emotions he doesn’t care to curb or keep in check, even among royalty. Because he doesn’t care if he steps on some toes, especially polished ones.

“What of her?” Cor asks, stealing a glance down the opposite way, where the lady had went, before looking back at the other man.

“What do you think?”

“A—servant? One of the maids.”

Mors tuts in disapproval, hands behind his back. “Appearances can often be deceiving. She could have been something more. Someone disguised.”

The sudden spike in his heart rate makes it feel as though Cor’s been shocked with a bout of electricity. “Is—What do you mean?”

“Assassins are deadly because you never know who might be one.” Mors chides, and Cor’s first instinct is to bristle at his tone. “She could have been one, and you didn’t react, because your mind was elsewhere entirely.”

It’s like a slap, almost, a sharp and abrupt sting to the cheek that Cor has to take a moment to ruminate upon in something like a stunned hitch.

“But…” He starts, brows beginning to knit together. He scoffs, then, and doesn’t mask his doubt in front of Mors. “She obviously isn’t. No one would strike so wide in the open, she wouldn’t get a chance.”

She wouldn’t, this hypothetical assassin, because a blade would meet her neck in an instant. Cor knows this, Mors knows this, and that’s why he chose Cor as a bodyguard. He isn’t a stupid man.

Mors sighs. “But that does not change the fact you weren’t attentive, just now. And that it could have been exploited.”

Cor would rolls his eyes, in any other context, or sneer at the older man for being crazy. He doesn’t, obviously, but not by virtue that the man is literally the King; he restricts his annoyance out of suddenly realizing this is a test, so he stands in astute attention at his superior.

“I chose you as my guard because I trust you,” Mors continues, and Cor preens so that he stands taller and straighter than he already is. “Because I know you’re capable for the task. So you cannot show any signs of weakness, no matter how small. You should’ve known that when you entered Crownsguard duty, do you not?”

Of course he does. Obviously he does. His preening may deflate, but replaces it is a conviction that’s near impossible to kill; to prove Mors right, to further solidify his position.

“Of course.” Cor says. “If she was an assassin, I would have been too fast for her, anyway.”

“Oh, spare me your overconfidence.” Not a slap, this time, but a punch to the gut. “This isn’t a job where you can learn from mistakes. You can’t make mistakes.”

His fists are drawn tight on his sides, a jaw clenched in grit.  

“I won’t,” the growl escapes from Cor’s lips. “I won’t disappoint you.”

He won’t, he can’t, he can’t afford to and he won’t. He won’t.

“I would hope.” Mors says, seemingly grown uninterested in their conversation. He turns to continue walking down the hall. “Lucis would hope. Your nation has its eyes on you, as do your enemies. Don’t forget it.”

(He doesn’t, he never forgets the fact.)

Cor isn’t paranoid. Suspicious, he’ll allow if he’s in a good mood. Skeptical, is what he is. Careful. Watchful. He has to be.

The conversation about the maid isn’t the first time Mors makes a quip of Cor’s performance, in some regard, but it is the start that he does so in earnest.

Checking rooms and taste testing food was already an established role Cor performed, but now with the added soundtrack of Mors' unimpressed criticisms.

A continuous, ever growing weight, set upon Cor’s back, like he’s back being ordered to carry a load twice his weight and jog around a track. But Cor was always a peacock, and takes the King’s comments in stride, with a relevant snark and always, always, doing better. He doesn't show off, he merely does better than his peers, and isn't prude enough to restrict himself.

They’re lessons, Cor knows. Opportunities for Cor to prove his worth, and he’s lucky to be even granted them. Which is why when Mors presents boots for him to wear, the interior sole layered with a blanket of broken glass, a mound of tiny knives that will soon shred Cor’s feet, he puts them on with resolve.

The worst of it is when he first secures his feet within the boots. The burn is instantaneous, like a fire that licks at his ankles, and he takes pride in the fact he only falters with the first foot. On the second he does not hesitate, shoving his foot inside with jaw clenched so tight he may grind his teeth to dust. The crunch of glass shards beneath the weight of Cor as he stands is a near cacophony in the room, his flesh tearing at the seams with something white hot, and he feels his face cringe and contort with every step he takes with these boots.

“Come, now.” Mors sighs, turning midway but not breaking stride to see Cor behind him. “You’ll face much worse than this. I know your training was worse. I know you’re resilient.”

He is, which is why he continues to dredge after His Majesty. He can’t be a combatant of the Crown if he can’t bear hardship of every kind. He can’t be a warrior if he falters with glass in his boots. He can’t be someone great if he can’t tolerate a little torture; he’s strong, he’s tough, he does better.

He does better, when he is finally able to relieve his feet from the constant biting of the glass shards. He does better, when he kneels down in order to clean and disinfect the lacerations, feet a glaze of crimson and a tattered quilt of open slashes and slits. He does better, when he hides the winces of every step he takes, feet carefully wrapped in bandages, the insides of every shoe and boot he wears as his feet heal stained with some level of red. He does better, when he looks himself in the mirror, and forces the wetness of his eyes never to cross over onto his cheeks.

(And Mors is right, of course, Cor does face much worse. Of enemies made of metal armour, of glowing red eyes, that disperse and bubble when felled and reek of something distinctly sulfuric. A battlefield drenched in a stench that hammers itself in Cor’s senses, something that stubbornly never leaves, something that makes him gag, hunched over the toilet, something that leaves him staring at the ceiling in bed, without a wink of sleep.)

Mors was by no means a tyrant in any sense, but it will be only later, long after Mors' lessons, that Cor will gain a personal understanding on why Mors was never the most popular monarch.

  


 

  … w-W, x-X, y-Y, z-Z.

The alphabet N-iP01357-05953234 writes and has been practicing with Alouette are a collection of blocky and uneven calligraphy. Alouette does her own by way of demonstrating how it is done, and speaks encouragement regardless of the fact N-iP01357-05953234 cannot copy her lettering exactly.

“You're improving.” She says, tilting her head to survey N-iP01357-05953234’s newly written alphabet. “Your letters are smoother, here. Good job!”

N-iP01357-05953234 looks down, and surmises the woman is correct. Previous iterations done with something more jittery, but still not something that can be counted as totally presentable. But Alouette doesn’t make comments of how poorly N-iP01357-05953234 does.

(We can practice and get better together. It's good to make progress, no matter how long it takes. Is what she says instead, and N-iP01357-05953234 can only nod in response as the words swim inside its head like a taunt, but without the bite of one.)

“I was wondering—do you like numbers?” Alouette asks.

N-iP01357-05953234 pauses. It purses it lips, and thinks. It has been with Alouette enough to know that when she asks if it likes something, that she is asking if N-iP01357-05953234 has some baseline of understanding of the concept. N-iP01357-05953234 knows numbers, obviously, its designation is clear enough proof of that, and it has been trained in refining its capacity with reading and solving problems that involve some level of mathematical competence. A unit needs to know how to judge distance, it needs to know be able to discern how much time a certain action will take, it needs to be proficient in numbers in some way.

(And N-iP01357-05953234 was. Is, still, hopefully. But much like other small strengths it could try to find some semblance of pride within, it's something that wilts when it has to perform it under pressure. So even if N-iP01357-05953234 is proficient in the area, it means nothing if it cannot carry it out under stress.)

So yes, N-iP01357-05953234 likes numbers. It nods.

Alouette smiles. “I like numbers too. Do you like math?” N-iP01357-05953234 gives another nod. “Would you like to try some math questions? It won't be a test. Or would you like to draw instead?”

She lifts a hand, “One finger for math, two for drawing. Pick whichever you feel like doing.”

N-iP01357-05953234 shifts. It has already done a collection of drawing exercises with Alouette, but it has yet to actively do anything with math, the only numbers it has put forth in its writing its designation and practicing how to draw the numerical form like the alphabet. It knows the answer to this question.

It lifts a single finger, and Alouette sifts through her satchel to retrieve a sheet that she gives N-iP01357-05953234.  

N-iP01357-05953234 looks to the page. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are the equations present, but of their basic forms. It’s a sheet of paper with a total of fifteen equations that sit upon it, and each mathematical element is one that can be solved with a glance—all answers are whole, positive numbers, the division/multiplications only done up to the twelve table, and the numbers present do not go beyond a hundred. Simple. Extremely so, but N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think to question why the Allie would present it with such straightforward equations, because it knows this is but a mere starting point for her to measure its numerical intelligence.

It could lie. It should. It could write in incorrect but believable answers, but the simple nature of the equations is problematic in this; there’s only one step needed to complete the question. There isn’t a complex sequence to perform and therefore less leeway to actually make honest mistakes.

Regardless, Alouette literally sits before it. So it doesn’t lie, and finishes the sheet  

It writes down the answers of the equations given before it, and promptly puts the pencil it holds back on the table when it is finished. It sits and waits for Alouette to react.

“Wow.” She says, looking down at the completed sheet. “That was quick.”

She leans forward and takes it, before comparing N-iP01357-05953234’s sheet with another; the answers, N-iP01357-05953234 knows, and she’s checking its answers. N-iP01357-05953234 sits and waits.

She smiles, bright and wide. “And all of these are correct, fantastic job!” N-iP01357-05953234 nods. “Do you want more?” N-iP01357-05953234 nods again.

Fractions, percentages, single and multiple variable expressions. It finishes the sheet as it done the first. It puts down the pencil parallel of the sheet, and waits.

Alouette collects it, and does what she had done previous: she compares with the answer sheet, and puts on an impressed face.

“You’re very smart.” She says, her smile still warm, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels something… tender, inside of it, grow. It can’t identify the feeling, so it ignores it. Alouette continues, “More?” And N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

Exponents, roots, statistics and long division. It takes up the pencil and writes down the answers to the questions. It is peripherally aware that the mathematical questions that are presented are different from those it is actually familiar with. At the facility, it was taught mathematical problems in context: problem-solving in the situation wherein N-iP01357-05953234 may need to discern the probability rate of a certain action, of what solutions produce the most viable outcome by calculating the rate of success versus failure. Here, the numbers are essentially in a vacuum. Preamble may be given to give a hypothetical situation for N-iP01357-05953234 to discern the solution, but those are likewise fundamentally different from the situations it has been taught (N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know why a question would involve a situation with an individual procuring twenty watermelons, but perhaps Lucians are just like that. Indulging in twenty watermelons. They are a wasteful lot).

The numbers are their own. On a single sheet, and while Alouette obviously watches, there’s—leisure, almost, in this. N-iP01357-05953234 understands numbers. It understands math. The questions upon the sheet do not lie nor are they muddled with confusion. They are clear. N-iP01357-05953234 knows how to do this.

It's finished. N-iP01357-05953234 sets down the pencil. Alouette collects the sheet and compares.

“All correct again. You’re definitely better at math than I am.” She says, and the feeling that N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know how to name spills more in its chest. “You should be proud of yourself, this is impressive.”

N-iP01357-05953234 nods. It has to fiddle with its hands to distract itself from the tightness of its chest.

“Would you like to draw, now?” Alouette asks.

N-iP01357-05953234 should nod. Do as she asks, but—

There was no pressure, nor a timer, when doing the maths. There wouldn’t be with the drawing exercises either, but drawing is more complicated. N-iP01357-05953234 always needs to seek clarification from Alouette what it should draw, and it always draws a blank when picks up a crayon regardless. There is no haze with the numbers. N-iP01357-05953234 understands numbers.

It shakes its head before it is even aware of it. It directs its gaze to Alouette’s mouth, anticipating her own eyes growing hard at N-iP01357-05953234’s answer.

Her mouth continues to smile. “More math, then?” And when N-iP01357-05953234 looks to her eyes, it sees them nothing but gentle. It nods. It would prefer the math.

Quadratic relations, derivatives and polynomials.

N-iP01357-05953234 finishes the sheet. It won’t notice the small, near imperceptible curving of its lips, but Alouette will.

 


 

It’s Alouette, initially, who brings it up. It’s an idea that had been absurdly absent from Cor’s mind until she mentioned that it would do the kid good to interact with others at and around his age. Cooped up in that facility and seemingly isolated, interactions with people who don’t tower above him holds a good chance in building his confidence and spirit, and for him to relax into the fact he’s literally a child and can simply be one. Acclimate to the humanity he probably doesn’t even realize he’s been stripped from.

When he’s ready, Alouette said, a milestone he still needs a guiding hand for and one both he and the proposed children he’s meant to interact with need preparation for beforehand. Can’t exactly dump the kid in a group therapy session, his unique situation doesn’t do him any favours.

And its Viperia who brings up possible candidates for gig. It’s fairly obvious who she means to mention even before she opens her mouth.

“Gladiolus is three years older than him,” She muses, leaning against the kitchen counter with one arm. “Iris five years younger. That’s a good ballpark, don’t you think?”

Cor hums, idly watching the pot of boiling salted water upon the oven, a pair of potatoes its residents. He returns his attention to the current saucepan on the adjacent burner, milk and butter at the low heat. Mashed potatoes are on the menu, and Viperia has obliged herself to be his guest, in one of the kitchens of the Citadel. He takes a lone corner in the kitchen, evening set and the food meant for tomorrow. Other than a few kitchen staff that come and go, Viperia is his only company.

“Would Gladiolus and Iris be able and willing to help the kid?” He asks, because while appropriate age-ranges, he isn’t yet entirely convinced the Amicitia children would be the best fit.

“They’d be happy to play with a new friend.” Viperia says. “So yes.”

Not that he doesn’t doubt both Gladiolus and Iris would attempt to befriend the kid if given the chance, both good kids, but children can also be cruel, especially to kids who are different. And the kid is mounds different, and also very clearly from Niflheim. And Gladio’s big, even for his age, and similarly bull-headed (an Amicitia trait, really), and Cor can already see ample opportunity for in-sensitivities coming from both Gladiolus and Iris. There’s just the matter of verbalizing that in a tactful manner to their mother.

Evidently, Cor doesn’t need to, because Viperia speaks. “You think Gladiolus is going to be too brutish, don’t you.” She deadpans.

“No—” Cor starts, turning to face her in the start to placate her, before her words fully catch up to him. “—Well, yes but—”

“He’d want to rough-house, I understand your concerns, Cor.” She says. “He and Iris enjoy play-sparring.” And also straight up sparring.

“Dunno if the kid will see it as play, though.” He says, switching off the burner below the pan with the potatoes, taking the pot to drain the water into the sink. “Don’t think he’d like being teamed up against—”

“Leonis, you insult me.” She admonishes in jest. “Whatever gave you the impression Clarus and I do not raise our children with good sportsmanship? They only fight fair.”

It’s meant to be humorous, but Cor can’t shake off something entirely overbearing within him.

“I’d prefer if there was no fighting at all. Can you pass me the potato masher—thanks.”

“Then they don’t have to, children do bond in different ways.” Viperia scoffs, and Cor stirs and granulate the potatoes into the butter and milk mixture. She squints at his work. “Please tell me you’re not just going to feed him only mashed potatoes.”

“He’s going to have vegetables. I have a frozen bag at home.”

“Gods, don’t let Remus or Marcus catch you, they’ll force you to take cooking lessons. At least add some salt and pepper to the potatoes, you animal.” It’s almost her That’s an Order voice, but tinged with dry humour.   

“I’m going to, don’t rush me.” The consistency of the mixture slowly becoming more akin to its finalized form. “Speaking of the Scientias, how about Ignis?”

“Well, he’s taking after his uncles in culinary arts, he could probably show you some tips.”

No, not about cooking, about helping the kid.” Cor says. “And I don’t need help cooking.” Because he absolutely doesn’t, least of all from a twelve year old. Even if the Scientias have a knack for such a thing, he doesn’t need something excessive; just anything that can be an adequate meal that he can make with his own hands, so that no unfortunate ingredients, either by accident or not, can be added.

“Of course.” She says dryly, as if not convinced at all by his statement. “How could I forget mashed potatoes and peas are a luxury in the Leonis household?”

“Don’t patronize me.” Roast chicken is what he makes if he’s feeling indulgent. “He needs something gentle for his palate. Have some foresight. But—Ignis, thoughts?”

Ignis is a good choice, because he’s the Junior Adviser in training. By virtue he would know tact and would be able to read the kid aptly enough not be callous. He can also be a potential lousy choice because he’s the Junior Adviser in training. By virtue he could think it beneath him to squabble with some (literal) no-name kid. That, and his itinerary is already rather full with the Prince.

“You make it sound like a recruitment call.” And Viperia says as if it isn’t there collective responsibility to have capable children interact with the kid— “It isn’t recruitment, Cor, it’s children hanging out. It’s a play-date.” She taps a finger upon the kitchen counter, considering. “And Ignis is a forty-year old man trapped in a twelve-year old’s body. Did you know he likes playing sudoku? I’ve never once in my life known a kid to like sudoku.”

“I’m going to tell Remus you’re slandering his beloved nephew.” He says, turning off the burner and admiring the refinement of his mashed potatoes. “And the kid may like sudoku too, they can bond over that—Could you pass me the tupperware, please? Thanks—better than sparring.”

Ignis spars, he spars with Gladiolus!” She sounds incredulous. “You make it sound like fighting is the only thing my children think about.”

“You’re telling me it isn’t?” He adds salt to the food.

She sighs. “Iris jumped on you one time, Cor.”

“And she planned it, it was a premeditated attack.” And he nearly struck the girl in the face out of the reflex, but was able to have his defense be his hand placed firmly against her forehead and halting her in her tracks.

(“I want a nosebleed from you! All the other kids will be jealous that I fought with the Immortal!” Gods, what the fuck. He’s still reeling.)

Viperia gives a small chortle. “She won’t do that to blondie, if that’s what you’re worried about. They can play on their video games.”

Cor halts in his movements, a scoop halfway done as he turns, slowly, towards Viperia. “‘Blondie’ ?”

Viperia merely tilts her head. “Can’t keep calling him ‘kid’, remember?”

“You might as well call him Niffy, if you’re going that route.” He returns to the potatoes, securing them into the tupperware. “Blondie.” He mutters.

“And on this day Cor learned about pet-names…” Viperia rolls her eyes. “Hey, if you’re so stuck up about Gladiolus potentially putting blondie in a headlock, all you have to do is tell him not to.”

He groans. “Gods, don’t remind me that your son loves me.”

Cor “trained ” (as in, Cor attempted to while Gladio stared with something starry eyed) Gladiolus when the kid was eleven because Clarus wouldn’t stop irritating him about how his son wanted to spend more personal time with him. Because the kid is infatuated. Moreso because his parents are both colleagues and friends with him, and therefore Gladio has the privilege of being able to interact with him.

Cor doesn’t hate visiting the Amicitia household, nor the children who inhabit it; Gladio and Iris are both good kids, and his better memories are balancing the two on his shoulders. But it’s hard enough to attempt to relax in that dreadful sparse manor without two children asking what his kill count is. As if he keeps track.

(It was a palpable shift, when the two went ahead to badger him about his experiences in war and how many ways he could off a person. Asking about trivialities of his day or hammering about insignificant things became “Did you really kill a man with just a pencil?”, and he could only suppress the tired sigh when The Immortal become part of their vocabulary.)

“He really wanted that action figure of yours, you know.” Viperia sighs, and Cor could almost say his skin crawl. “And you just had to go ahead and threaten the toy company with those blades of yours. You dashed the dreams of so many children.”

One would think the fact that Cor doesn’t do autographs, doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t answer the door to “fans” who incessantly knock after they find his address Gods know how, would send a clear enough message. It doesn’t, evidently.

“Please shut up.” Cor snaps shut the tupperware, the mashed potatoes safely inside. He moves to put the pots inside the dishwasher. “I’ll have this written down as harassment if you keep this up.”

Viperia lets out a bark of laughter. “Clarus would be so disappointed.” A pause, before she speaks again. “Gladio and Iris would love the kid, and we'll keep a close eye on them in case they get too rowdy. He’ll be fine. When will blondie be able to come over, any ideas?”

Later is the only estimate. He still needs to choose a name.” Can’t have a playdate with no name, and can’t bring children to the kid’s room instead, for multiple reasons, security being the largest. There isn’t really a story to be weaved by explaining to a thirteen and five year old why they have to go behind a painting and down a secret corridor to meet a new friend.

“Right.” Viperia nods. “Could call him Aurelian.”

How does this woman have two kids with normal names? “We’re not calling him Blondie.” Cor retorts.

“It means golden, actually.”

With the pots in the dishwasher, and the tupperware  of mashed potatoes safely secured, he turns to face her fully. “You know, I’m really not sure what Clarus sees in you.”

“He just has taste, unlike some people.”

The assertion of some people is only but a thinly veiled cloak that actually means specific person who I am currently speaking to. He doesn’t need to look at her to know she bestows upon him a look, of something that can be aptly described as some level of cheek. A completed ensemble to further accentuate her jab at the fact Cor’s romantic pool is depressingly shallow, if not completely dried (not that he really cares), and that his exploits usually only ever surface to one night stands. He only ever invites men who seek the same thing as him; a bed warmer for one night, stress relief, a tussle in an alleyway if he needs something especially quick.

His list of partners aren't even especially long, and haven't been added to in quite some time (never can be too sure if a dance beneath the sheets will turn into a scandal the next morning). She’s attempting to dangle a lure in front of his face to bait him into discussing the fact he doesn’t care to hold anything long term (a stable life was never something destined for him, anyway), so it can segway to her awful ridicule of suggesting the usage of those awful dating apps. Because despite being his senior, the woman enjoyed acting her son’s age.

He merely scoffs and gives her the luxury of an eye roll. He asks, “Does Gladio still cry when cats hiss at him?”

 


 

It’s not—wonderment, that the kid has, when he looks at his mashed potatoes and vegetables. He widens his eyes at the dish, but that isn’t saying much in the grand scheme of things, but he definitely looks interested. Not excited, but there’s something curious.

“Ever have potatoes, kid?” Cor asks, a fork idly swirling in his own as the kid seems to not know where to start.

The kid looks up. Then he looks at his food. Then he looks up again, before shuffling and giving a shake of a head.

“Well,” Cor begins, scooping a helping of his own potatoes with his fork. The kid mirrors him. “You’re about to. Enjoy.”

He eats his scoop, and the kid follows suit. The kid places his own fork in his mouth, and then stills, immediately. His eyes widen then, in earnest, and he’s practically frozen like then until he slowly, at a snail’s pace, slips the fork out of his mouth in between his lips. His sights focus on nothing as his cheeks are puffed with the acquisition of potato in his mouth, and Cor can discern that the kid slowly swings his tongue from cheek to cheek by the subtle movements of his jaw and impressions on his cheeks.

His brows gradually knit, and the potato is truly foreign in his mouth. Cor had initially presumed that maybe, the kid hadn’t know if he had potato, if it had been prepared differently or called something else but no; the fascination painted across his face says just that: this kid really has never had mashed potato—of all things—before. The texture must be baffling.

Cor had already swallowed his bite long ago. “Taste good?” He asks.  

Eyes suddenly focused on him, predictably. Practically snapped out of a trance, the kid gives an audible gulp and swallows his bite. He gives a nod.

Cor smiles. “Made it myself.”

Maybe it says something about him, that he feels pride in the fact the kid’s expression falls back on that fascination faze at that statement.

Cor takes another bite, and he sees the kid copying.

 


 

It starts like this:

A dining room, the King and his bodyguard the sole occupants, after a servant brings an innocuous bowl of pasta. Parmesan and garlic linguine. Tangy and creamy.

Cor only takes a sample, a small bite, savoring it within his mouth before a swallow. Mors speaks with idle chatter, and Cor will remember it comically as the weather. His Majesty is nonchalant, because this is an average dinner on an average day. Mors doesn’t take a bite of his food, just yet, sharing words with Cor, as poison doesn’t always act immediately.

Cor’s mind isn’t on the possibilities of poison, standing by, the bite of pasta in his stomach. He doesn’t think of poison when he gives his own quips to His Majesty. He doesn’t think of poison, because nothing of the pasta nor day suggests it will be poisoned.

That was his first mistake, obviously.  

It’s a burning sensation, like too much acid in his stomach. It’s dull initially, almost passed off as indigestion, but it grows. An unholy contortion in his gut spreads, and Cor winces, clutching at his abdomen. He steadies himself by gripping the edge of the table with his other hand, a grunt surfacing, and then all too suddenly: realization, crashing down like the wave of tsunami, that similarly washes over him and grips with violence.

Poison, the food is poisoned.

Majesty—” He starts, a warning on his lips, suddenly pushing the plate of food away. He can’t finish his sentence, as a spasm in his stomach has him dry heave. It’s poisoned, and Cor cycles through protocol in an instant: lockdown, question the kitchen staff, test the food to determine what poison was used, interrogate—

A rough hand on his shoulder shoves him into the seat next to Mors, and Cor sputters at his stomach practically jumping into his throat. He looks to see the owner of the hand, only to be greeted with the only other occupant in the room, Mors.

“Sit down,” Mors says. “How are you feeling?”

Worried about his well being, is what Cor initially thinks. Attempting to assess his health and Cor is nearly touched, but he needs to fully warn the other man. But any small sense of gratitude Cor may have felt is diminished, when he looks up to see that Mors' expression doesn’t fit the supposed concern of his words.

“Uh—” He starts, licking his lips, almost beginning to speak that it burns, before he returns to the priority. “—Sire, its poisoned—”

“I know.” Mors says, waving him off. “It isn’t enough to kill you.”

Cor opens his mouth, then closes it. His stomach clenches, feeling tight, and he winces. He should get up, he knows, sound some sort of alarm, attempt to further explain the danger that His Majesty in the presence of. He stays seated, Mors' words ringing in his head and keeping him still, Mors' stare, piercing into Cor’s own, keeps him still. His stomach clenches again, and Cor is vaguely aware its for a different reason, now.

Mors pushes the plate forward, so it is placed in front of Cor. He says, “There’s many poisons in the world that would do much worse. This is an easy start. Eat everything.”

Cor isn’t able to reply. There’s some sort of nagging, at the back of his mind, that is speaking that this is some level of cruel. Unfair, and that there’s a reason they’re the only occupants of the room.

But Cor is the King’s bodyguard, one of the most important people that surrounds the man and by extension one of the most important of all of Lucis. He deserved his position and reputation, he worked for it, through literal blood, sweat and tears. His training covered resistance to torture, of interrogation tactics, he’s been on the battlefield. He’s been through worse. He’s always done better. Because he's always been better than everyone else.

He swallows down any protest, and takes in hand the fork with a curt nod to continue eating. He continues eating, until there’s nothing upon the plate, until Cor’s body is slick with a sheen of sweat, a nausea that bubbles within him, his intestines curled in a tight and unrelenting knot, his hands trembling as he breathes in ragged breaths.

He hates this man, he realizes, suddenly. Through the heaving, through the slow fragmentation of his gut, of the vomit he’ll soon expel. He hates this man.

It would be easier to hate the man if he was smug in this. Cackling like a villain, outwardly mocking and cruel in his words. But he’s only ever neutral. Bored, almost, like what he does is but a mere chore.

He hates this man, this man who gave him the life he deserved, a warrior at fifteen, a respected Crownsguard. He hates this man, who he knows he’d give his life for, in a heartbeat with no hesitation. He hates this man, who he’ll continue to be dutiful towards.

(He’ll find himself analyzing the times in which Mors interacts with his son, with an excessive scrutiny that he won’t understand.

He won’t fully understand that he’s looking to see if Regis reacts adversely to his father in any way, with any sort of subtle body language. Stiffening, at his father’s voice maybe, taking a small step backwards, but Regis doesn’t show any tells. He’s cordial with his father, as expected with any son, and Mors' greatest crime with Regis is that he’s mostly absent from his son’s life.

He won’t fully understand that he watches to see if Mors' lessons are interwoven in Regis' itinerary as well.

He won’t fully understand the relief that comes with the realization that Mors' teaches his lessons with Cor alone. He’ll force himself to revel in the fact he’s special.

He’s always been special. )

At age eighteen, Cor watches Mors die. The King passes quietly, after a quick declination of health. And when he takes his last breath, a halting splutter, Cor stands by.

The former King lays still in his bed, with his son sat beside him, Regis' hands clasped tightly around his father’s still one. Mors spoke through wheezing breaths of things Cor can only berate as something dreadfully generic; he spoke of responsibility, of being proud of Regis, like he reads off of a handbook, a manual of what dying monarchs are expected to say to their heirs. Cor stands by, like a statue in the corner of the room to give the two some semblance of privacy. He watches in silence, and Mors dies. He doesn’t once look in Cor’s direction, and there’s an ugly spike of resentment that bores itself in Cor, when he notices.

Mors dies, only a month after the passing of Her Majesty, and the papers and news outlets will deem his death one of grief. A broken heart, the funeral of the Queen something that urged him to an early grave so that he may rest with her. Romantic, almost, if not for the fact that the Queen mostly spent her time outside of Insomnia altogether, political exploits elsewhere in neighbouring nations, and only ever spending time with her son rather than her husband when she actually visited.

There’s a small twinge of pity, that Cor feels, as he sees the soon-to-be new King of Lucis pinch the bridge of his nose, attempting to regain control over his shuddering breaths. Regis clings to his father’s limp hand, like it was a lifeline, his jaw clenched. The long winded and suffering sigh that permeates through the room from Regis' slumped form is taxed as much as his body, that look as though it physically slumps underneath the pressure of a nation, of the war, on his shoulders.

Losing both parents, both monarchs, in the span of month, only just gotten to terms with the passing of his mother, Regis wears the crown, and ring, alone. He is the King in everything but written title—his coronation will be done in joint with the funeral—and while at the moment appeared more of a boy than a man, his despondent demeanour doesn’t have Cor be sympathetic for long.

“Your orders, your Majesty?” Cor asks, breaking the somber silence, and Regis jolts as if he forgotten Cor was in the room with him.

Regis blinks owlishly, and Cor sees him attempting to get used to the new title.

He lets out a small, humourless laugh. “A moment, Cor, his body is still warm.”

“Niflheim will not give you a moment.” Cor responds in an instant, not allowing Regis to retreat back into his grief and anxieties. His curt response has Regis look back at him in surprise.

With Regis' attention back on him, Cor continues. “Lucis has just lost both their rulers, do you think they will not notice?” There’s an understanding, growing in in Regis' eyes. Something grim and steely. “You can’t afford to be mournful now, any vulnerability will be an opportunity for them. You can’t act pathetic. You’re the King.”

He emphasizes the title, does it  sharply, to give stress to the fact he is the leader of Lucis, the sovereign that literally everyone on Eos will have under a microscope. Regis has every eye on him, and most importantly those of the Empire, scouring any crack, at any leeway. He seems to understand the gravity of the situation, with how he sits a little straighter, with pursed lips and a resolute glare. This isn't something he can avoid, to hide from. This is something Regis has to face head on, because it won't wait for him to get his own jitters out, to flush out his uncertainties. It'll rip him apart if he gives it the chance, at any small show of hesitation. He, and more importantly Lucis, cannot afford any dawdling.   

He nods at Cor’s words, before issuing his first command as King.

“Call for the Amicitias, and for Aulea.”

Cor gives a nod, and turns to leave the room. He leaves, and promptly does what is ordered of him. And like that, he slips easily into his duties with the new King, like a glove. Everything falls into place, gears that form together with little hitch that continue to operate smoothly. And just like that, in the confines of his small apartment, of the darkness of the late hour he finds himself without sleep, he drinks himself until he can’t feel anything around him, until he can’t feel the confusing tumult of both relief and grief at Mors' passing.

By the time Cor is thirty-five, he conditions his body to be immune to at least sixteen different poisons. He vomits whenever he eats parmesan and garlic linguine.

 


 

There isn’t just one origin story.

An asteroid, long, long ago, before Lucis was even in conception, hurtled through the atmosphere and landing with a crater, painting the sky a brilliant and overpowering spark of white when it had done so. Seemingly lifeless in its form, but glittering with something only intrinsically other worldly could manage, like it was a cropping of the night sky. But it wasn’t lifeless. Held within a life-form that could take host in another living being and change them; with black blood and a thirst for violence. An alien parasite, and one that was voracious.

Or cracked from Eos itself, earth splintering into a network of horrible fissures that would emit the foul miasma within. A cloud thick and black that would overshadow anything it could greedily encompass, and those unfortunate enough to be ensnared within, animal or human, would be contorted and deformed into a mockery of their healthy self. Red eyes, black blood, a being of terrible ruin. A curse, by one of the Astrals, perhaps. One that was thought to be previously extinct long ago, but now reestablished, seemingly with a vengeance.

Regardless of the tales that surround the birth of the thing, it has been well documented since antiquity, and its names can be just as numerous as the stories that surround it.

Plague, starscourge, defiled blood, sullied syndrome, withering—but it's true name lies in the Old Lucian binomial: Plasmodium solterridus. Wolfe doesn’t distract himself with fanciful tales or imaginative titles, P. solterridus may be the most disastrous of those in the genus Plasmodium, but it is a natural organism just like those of its kin. An insect borne parasite. One transferred mostly by mosquitoes into its host, and one evolved to create a near 100% fatality rate of those afflicted. Or, more accurately, a 100% turn rate. Which is basically death, regardless.

P. solterridus is a parasite shrouded in mystery. It’s a fantastical case for study, and one Wolfe would have already exhausted if not for the fact that, despite the extreme nature of the thing, it’s deceptively fragile when study is attempted. Diminishing in the sun, but even when prepared in a lab with no sun, no UV light at all, it’ll already be gone or dead and frustratingly useless. Outside of a host, P. solterridus cannot survive, and it needs a live host. And those specimens, of actual live hosts, are too dangerous to keep in a lab, no matter how enforced its cage. With something that doesn’t need to eat nor sleep and possesses physical strength far beyond than it should, daemons are a liability, a risky, infectious, liability, and too much of an unpredictable variable. Wolfe cannot send out for hunters to bring a specimen or two back for study, the threat it could potentially bring is too great, is what His Majesty stubbornly clings to. Despite the fact the knowledge that could be gained is a well that could possible turn the tides of the war, but he’s tried to convince His Majesty and council. Study is confined to dead hosts, and little is garnered from it.

How Niflheim harnessed the miasma from the parasite and was able to created an army, Gods only know. Wolfe will be begrudgingly impressed, until (hopefully) they’re defeated. If that happens in his lifetime. 

P. solterridus is a fascinating thing. It makes the host sensitive to the sun, irritable, aggressive with no provocation, mutilating all reasoning within the afflicted so that it only responds with hostility to further its chances of spread, before the finalized state of infection is mangling the host into something truly vile. The host’s biochemistry and basic anatomy maimed, its blood back, its eyes red. It cannot be transfused into a host without these symptoms, without the disfigurement.

Which is why, when Wolfe is finally able to identify the oddity that is this mystery patient’s blood, he is surprised.

He’s ecstatic, actually.

A live host, he thinks. An asset.

And in a human, no less. One whose symptoms and rate of turning is apparently—dormant, if he (it?) is being taken care of and held within the Citadel.

He nearly runs to Amicitia’s office to present his findings.

 


 

Squeezing, N-iP01357-05953234’s windpipe has practically collapsed. Mangled and crushed beneath the force of the grip of the hands that are secured soundly across N-iP01357-05953234’s neck. Pressing down, forcing the anatomy of its throat to become compressed and crumble underneath the weight and constraint that steadily increases pressure. N-iP01357-05953234’s head will pop off, at this rate.

Air is only a luxury, and it isn’t one that blesses N-iP01357-05953234 as it gapes uselessly. Nothing is able enter the ruined tunnel of its trachea, and N-iP01357-05953234 is only able to make small, pathetic wheezing through a trembling mouth. It cannot even bring its arms upwards to grip upon its assailant; its body does not respond, it lays dormant and paralyzed, and N-iP01357-05953234 has no feeling of anything below its neck. Its crushed, useless neck. N-iP01357-05953234 is crying.

Another unit sits on N-iP01357-05953234’s chest, with its arms locked forward and its hands wringing at N-iP01357-05953234 neck. It sits impassively above, and a perfect mirror. It looks exactly like N-iP01357-05953234 to every detail, because it is its groupmate, and it is currently seeking to kill it.

But when the unit speaks, it speaks with N-iP01357-05953234’s voice.

Traitor.” He whispers, and his previously expressionless face morphs into a smile of teeth as he completes one final exertion of pressure, and N-iP01357-05953234 dies.

He dies, and his back arches upwards as a breath of air hits his chest like a freight train as he jolts awake. N-iP01357-05953234 collapses in a boneless heap in the bed, a sheen of sweat an ill fitting suit. He heaves, raggedly and laboured, and despite being able to breathe, none of the air that enters him is kind. It itches the innards of his throat, oppresses his lungs as if he breathes in water instead. It burns, but also feels ice cold. All N-iP01357-05953234 can do lay limp, pins and needles prickling at his skin, his unfocused and blurry gaze up towards the ceiling. He’s crying.

N-iP01357-05953234 lays there for what seems like an age, its breathing a feeble cacophony in the room. Feeling comes back to his body as the coat of needles subsides, and N-iP01357-05953234 winces as he tries to swallows; it goes down dry. The hammering of his heart pulses through his head, and feels as though someone kicks his chest with each pump.

The bed’s a myriad of broken glass, and despite the needles of N-iP01357-05953234 skin dispersing, the sheets of the bed prove just as unforgiving.

N-iP01357-05953234 cringes, and through uncoordinated movements, through shaking limbs that seem to act on their own accord, he slips to the floor. Falls to it, honestly, like a corpse. N-iP01357-05953234 feels the part.

He lays there, in the floor’s comforting embrace, and N-iP01357-05953234 sighs in relief before he realizes it. The coolness of the air on the bare skin N-iP01357-05953234 has present a welcoming reprieve from the fever of the bed.

He lays face down on the carpet. Disorientated as he is, it’s a wonder he’s able to even fathom the oddity that currently persists.

He—it?—feels its brows crease. He. The Lucians refer to he (it?) as such. N-iP01357-05953234 should refer to himself (itself ) with the proper terminology. He—it should.

N-iP01357-05953234 feels itchy. The sweat on his body is a persistent discomfort, and his sleepwear suddenly feels too tight. N-iP01357-05953234 shifts where he lays, but doesnt make a move to remove his clothing or to readjust his posture completely; exhaustion is a noose securely tightly, so he lays where he is. The thrumming of its heart wanes, slowly, but the organ itself feels strained and weak, as if it can no longer pump properly at all. N-iP01357-05953234 winces.

He. It. N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t a person, isn’t a human, and what he does is a violation. He’s sure of it. Even if in the confines of N-iP01357-05953234’s mind, this is—this is prohibited. This is a taboo.

A Guard should enter the room, and dispel the proper punishment. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know what that would be, in this case. Maybe hands across his throat so tight it acts as a decapitation.

As it stands, N-iP01357-05953234 lays on the floor. He lays on the floor. He. It. He? (She?) He.

At this rate, the defects are practically self-indulgent.

N-iP01357-05953234 could laugh. He could cackle at his own delusions until there’s nothing left of him except for a wisp of smoke.

Instead, he lays on the floor.

Chapter Text

“You know what you do is wrong, and yet, you continue to do it.”

N-iP01357-05953234 feels himself sigh, eyes still screwed shut. A small, tired exhalation of breath that leaves him as he considers the voice that permeates in the room. His voice, of course, that doesn’t leave the confines of his own throat but instead is delivered from some other entity that shouldn’t be speaking in the first place.

N-iP01357-05953234 is delusional. His mental state a pathetic spoilt thing that hallucinates and tricks him and is working completely against him. N-iP01357-05953234 should keep his eyes shut, barring away the visage of whatever it is now that possesses his voice, ignore it completely as if it didn’t exist, because it doesn’t. The objects of the room cannot speak because they are lifeless. The voice that continues to persist is not being spoken out of a toy bird or from the Legos or from the bed. N-iP01357-05953234 should lay where he is, from the floor, and neglect to acknowledge the absurdity.

His eyes open regardless. He is being spoken to, directly, and to ignore such would be one grounds of punishment (a strike across the face, a jeer at his inattentiveness, a sting on the cheek that will last for the rest of the day). Even though the voice is one that has been lost entirely, and should no longer exist, and comes from a toy bird.

N-iP01357-05953234 gives the plushie, that sits in front of him, his attention. He should ignore it, and some part that holds some semblance of rationality screams at him to do so, but N-iP01357-05953234 lays on the floor, and looks at the bird. He looks at the bird, and is too tired to parse the asinine situation. He is being spoken to, so he listens.

Yes. N-iP01357-05953234 knows what he does is wrong, and yet he continues to do it.

An involuntary reaction, almost. He would say like a puppet on strings, but that would assume blame on a metaphorical puppeteer; N-iP01357-05953234’s faults are only his own.  

The bird sits apathetic, its plump yellow form peering at N-iP01357-05953234’s eyes with its own beady false set.

It speaks, “Why do you continue, if you know it’s wrong?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t have an answer to that. The bird would obviously know this, figment of N-iP01357-05953234’s own broken psyche that it is. But it asks, and the voice that persists, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice, litters upon his skin like insects.

The bird tuts, reminiscent of General Angelis’ disappointed huffs. It continues, “Beyond repair, a unit full of errors and defects. Faulty, so faulty.”

Yes, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, he agrees. There isn’t much more he could add, as he stares at this bird.

“What a shame.” The bird laments, hearing N-iP01357-05953234‘s thoughts. “Not even going to give any sort of justification? You’re not even going to attempt to reason your actions, are you; you’re going to wallow in your own incompetence without taking any responsibility. You’re very selfish.”

It's as though N-iP01357-05953234 has been splayed open, his chest a bare and empty cavity, only hollow and filled with air. A baton would set N-iP01357-05953234 straight. A smack over his head is something to center himself with, to recollect his thoughts and think upon his errors to correct himself in the future. They are good reminders, and units who are better do not receive an administered shock. It’s why punishments work.

“And yet,” the bird continues, a tilt of its head. “And yet… You’ve only ever been a glutton for punishment. You never righted your wrongs. You always spat in the face of your handlers’ generosity.”  

It’s as if the bird spat at N-iP01357-05953234’s face, with such a statement. He wants to speak, to muster some sort of defense. The thought of disrespecting a handler in such a manner is unthinkable. Nothing comes from N-iP01357-05953234’s mouth, obviously, quivering lips producing not even a meager gasp. There wouldn’t be a speech ready, regardless if N-iP01357-05953234 still possessed his voice, because he doesn’t have a defense in this. He doesn’t have anything, only a growing void within his bones.

“But you always did so. You never improved, you disgraced your handlers and Niflheim. Why? You know it's wrong.” The bird asks, another tilt of the head, in the other direction.

N-iP01357-05953234 swallows, and he nods as best he can manage with his body still laid like a stone on the ground. Yes, he thinks desperately, he knows it’s wrong. He knows he’s (it’s!) wrong. His constant demerits are mistakes that reflect the fact his entire core is an aberration, an unfortunate blunder within Group N.

The bird shakes its head. “They tried. They tried so hard to make you something worthy to hold the Empire’s banner. Now look where you are.”

A cell. A Lucian cell. In Lucis. So deeply seated within enemy territory, he knows, a constant weight upon his back. He knows. He knows.

“You sit with the Lucians and—Gods.” N-iP01357-05953234’s voice becomes twinged with infinite frustration. “You sit with your enemy and think it’s appropriate to use what isn’t yours.”

N-iP01357-05953234 twitches.

He knows. It knows. N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t a he, because he’s a unit. And yet.

And yet.

(It should be easy, to correct himself. Itself. Natural, because that is what he is, an it. And yet.)

There’s silence, for a few moments. As if the bird too ruminates on N-iP01357-05953234’s own stubborn persistence to be selfish. N-iP01357-05953234’s skin is crawling, an infestation beneath the flesh.  

The bird speaks, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice low, a whisper. “When the Scourge is purged from your body completely, what will you be then?” It asks. A quiver in N-iP01357-05953234’s voice, and he recognizes it easily. The undercurrent of fear. “Just an empty husk. And you’ll be nothing.”  

 

( “Shit,” mutters a Scientist, his voice as if he speaks underwater, N-iP01357-05953234’s hearing blitzed and his own body awash of sweat. Another attempt of transfusion, another failure.

“What a mess.” The Scientist continues, speaking with a colleague, and N-iP01357-05953234 is vaguely aware of the black vomit he has involuntarily threw up. He can’t focus. He breathes, heavy inhalations and exhalations, and it is only by the grace of the Astrals that he will remember this exchange at all.

“Unit N-Two-Three-Four won’t accept treatments.” Another voice, another Scientist, another record being made of another failed attempt. “Violent reactions occur and treatments are subsequently expelled from the unit’s body before solterridus can take proper hold.” A sigh. Frustration. “This fucker is gonna cost us, ain’t it?”

A hum. “Agusta says it looks like its body is… detoxifying itself. The rest of solterridus will be flushed out, eventually.”

“That should be impossible.”

“Yes. It should be.” Tapping on metal, fingers impatiently rapping against a table, and N-iP01357-05953234’s vision is failing him. Eyelids are too much of a struggle to keep open, so he succumbs. )

 

With tremors quaking his hands, shivering as if the temperature of the room has dropped drastically, N-iP01357-05953234 cannot quell his heart. A pain in his chest that his become far too acquainted with resurfaces with a wince, the constant drumming an assault on N-iP01357-05953234’s own eardrums.

The black blood will eventually be purged entirely by N-iP01357-05953234’s defective body, the process something N-iP01357-05953234 cannot stop or suspend.

The miasma will be eliminated because N-iP01357-05953234’s body is a traitorous thing, and N-iP01357-05953234 is scared.

He is terrified.

He screws his eyes shut, a vain attempt to calm and recenter himself. He swallows, thickly, and when he re-opens his eyes, the toy bird is no longer there. Like it was never there in the first place, like it never left it designated spot from the bed, like it never spoke.

 


 

The texture of the meal is—not exactly lumpy; smooth and creamy, if N-iP01357-05953234 had to absolutely describe the porridge Cor had given him, with coarse flakes mixed within.

Oatmeal,’ Cor had called it, describing it as oat grains that have been dehusked and steamed, incorporated with warmed milk. Whole grain. N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what ‘whole grain’ means, nor what exactly 'oat grains’ are to begin with, or what the process of ‘dehusking’ truly entrails, but Cor speaks, describing the bowl of food set before him. A recurring, now established theme, of the man detailing any new foods he brings with him, and the Lucians have an excess of it. An exuberant overkill of variety that is needless, when rations consisting of all key minerals and vitamins established within a protein bar and brew would achieve adequacy and meet all requirements.    

Maybe, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks idly, the oatmeal settling in his stomach with only a subtle disquiet, if the Lucians had decided not to waste such valuable resources with the likes of creating ‘mac ‘n cheese’ and ‘orange juice,’ they would stand as more of a threat to the Empire instead of a persistent annoyance.

Yes, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, with the frivolous foods that he has been given, caressing his tongue and resting within his gut with growing satisfaction, steadily overwhelming the discomfort such foreign foods bring, the Lucian excess will be a proponent of their downfall. Absolutely. Yes. The oatmeal warm in his stomach, soothing the quiet starts of nausea that usually accompanies mealtime.     

N-iP01357-05953234 eats slowly, as he usually does, and Cor speaks of… Things, that N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t fully comprehend, as he usually does. About going-ons in the Citadel, but never anything that could be any slither of usefulness, if by some miracle N-iP01357-05953234 were to return to Niflheim. The man speaks of things of the stables, of the gardens, of recruits who apparently are incompetent. N-iP01357-05953234 imagines Cor dispelling discipline, harder and more brutal than any handler, with marks on the bodies of the recruits that will never fully heal. The man never mentions any beatings he gives, but N-iP01357-05953234 can picture it all with sharp imagery regardless, accompanied with a hard swallow of oatmeal.

N-iP01357-05953234 is spoken to, so he listens always, even if what Cor says is seemingly pointless, with no prompt nor reason. Cor’s own bowl is empty, and he speaks of a chocobo named ‘Sooty ’ that has sleek black plumage. He says that N-iP01357-05953234 will at some point meet her, and N-iP01357-05953234 just nods. He does not know how a black chocobo would look like.

“So,” Cor starts, after a moment of silent reprieve punctuated by N-iP01357-05953234’s eating. “Have you decided on a name yet? A favourite?”

N-iP01357-05953234 pauses, spoon in mouth, oatmeal still swimming in between his cheeks. He blinks at Cor, extracting the spoon, and swallows his bite. No, he hasn’t, because N-iP01357-05953234 has his designation and a name is for a human. He shakes his head.  

Cor gives a small, pinched smile. “Okay that's—fine. There's no time limit to it. But pick a name sometime, yeah?”

He won’t, N-iP01357-05953234 knows, but N-iP01357-05953234 nods.  

“Wouldn't want to keep you being left out, y'know?” Cor says. “I'm Cor, Alouette is Alouette, Clarus is Clarus, etcetera, etcetera… and you're—well, just 'kid’, so far. Can't always just call you kid, you're a person, your own person.”

N-iP01357-05953234 stares blankly, because Cor could absolutely continue to refer to him as 'kid’ indefinitely. He continues to stare with little expression as Cor's latter statement simmers in N-iP01357-05953234 head like a thick stew.

A person, his own person; N-iP01357-05953234 is an individual unit, yes, but personhood is a human characteristic. And so too is the moniker kid, even if stubbornly mounted on N-iP01357-05953234 with Cor's insistence of the word. A continued and long suffering sneer at N-iP01357-05953234, a tired attempt to elicit some sort of reaction, N-iP01357-05953234 is sure. It has to be.

(You've already stolen he, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice mutters somewhere behind him, and he has to suppress a flinch. What is hoarding kid, too, at this rate?)

N-iP01357-05953234 sits, looking at Cor's direction, and gives a small nod to let the man know he has gotten the message. If not entirely decoded, but received.

“It's okay.” Cor says. “Don't… worry too much about it, I guess.”

N-iP01357-05953234 won’t. Or at least, he’ll attempt not to. Cor’s incessant tenacity on the subject a discomfort, but one N-iP01357-05953234 will continue to act accordingly towards. He won’t choose a name. Names are for humans.

Cor sighs, and nods to N-iP01357-05953234’s bowl. “Finish up your oatmeal.”

N-iP01357-05953234 gives another nod, and does what is asked, scooping the remnants that remain while Cor sits, quiet, awaiting for him to finish.

Cor speaks once the bowl is empty. “You know how to use a gun.” Not a question, but N-iP01357-05953234 nods regardless, both as a confirmation of the claim and showing that he has received the information.

Cor continues. “Taught that back at the facility, right?”

He obviously knows the answer to that already but N-iP01357-05953234 nods in response anyway.

Cor considers. A small hum of deliberation leaves him, and his face is a blank sheet. His stare bores itself within N-iP01357-05953234’s own, and N-iP01357-05953234 moves it downwards to focus on the Marshal’s lips instead to alleviate the probing.

“Well,” Cor starts, “think you could show us how you use one?”

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn't need to think it, he nods, because an Order is given, though presented in awkward wording. N-iP01357-05953234 will demonstrate because Cor had Ordered it.

“We’re gonna take you to a shooting range.” Cor continues, and N-iP01357-05953234 listens with rapt attention, able to look at the man in the eyes once more. “You’ll be using a pistol. Five targets. You’ll shoot how you were taught and when you’re done, you’ll be sent back here.”

Another nod. Clear instructions a comforting embrace.

“It’s not a test.” Cor asserts, and N-iP01357-05953234 quells a squint in disbelief, because this is a test. “If you decide you don’t want to shoot anything, you don’t have to. You will not be punished either way.” That's not true. N-iP01357-05953234 understands that well enough. “The Amicitias will be there too. You’ll have an audience. We just want to see how you shoot.”

How you shoot: Efficiency, accuracy, and discipline. Categories that all require a level of expertise, any lower than what is standardized, any errors—a miscalculation of the target, the bullet hole skewed and not at the desired pinpoint of the target, a second delay of reloading or aim—grounds for further discipline to ensure adequate regularisation. No markers for error.

“Do you understand what’s being asked of you?”

Of course. N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

“Are you alright with what I’m asking you to do?”

N-iP01357-05953234 knows what is being asked of him. He can complete this task. So N-iP01357-05953234 nods.

Cor considers, for a moment, before asking slowly: “Are you comfortable with shooting?”

There's nothing N-iP01357-05953234 is better at doing. N-iP01357-05953234 nods easily, even if the question is completely useless. N-iP01357-05953234’s first nod was enough. Why Cor asks is a mystery, but it isn't  N-iP01357-05953234’s place to question, just to answer.

“Are you comfortable with this situation?”

N-iP01357-05953234 is 'comfortable’ with a gun, essential attribute that it is, so by proxy he is 'comfortable’ with the situation. N-iP01357-05953234 knows of evaluations and what they entail, analysis of his gun usage and skill the only moment N-iP01357-05953234 could ever even pretend to be competent. The one thread that made it so his own decommissioning was delayed to when it was. A meager hope, a gun a fortified shelter.

N-iP01357-05953234 nods, even if the question itself is a useless add-on. But Lucians always add more when it isn't needed, in food, in cells, and even in questions.

“Alright.” Cor says, after a moment, a nod of his own. “You ready?” he asks, another useless question that N-iP01357-05953234 nods to. “Then let’s go.”

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t need to peer at the firearm to already know what it is—Quicksilver fits neatly in his hands, cozy as a second skin and N-iP01357-05953234 recognizes the weapon as soon as it is held within his grip. The handle grooved for better purchase, a familiar embrace, the smooth steel an intimate friend. Eight cylinder. Double action. Muzzle-brake. Adjustable open iron sights. Eight inch barrel length with a weight of fifty-nine ounces. High chance of breakage of target’s appendages, optimal for tracking. Yes, N-iP01357-05953234 knows this friend well.

N-iP01357-05953234 had been escorted to the shooting range by Cor, a short excursion in a large, airy hallway that transitioned into a jaunt in an elevator, the Amicitias already waiting.

N-iP01357-05953234’s arms had itched to salute, his back to bow, lips to form any sort of greeting. None did come, and N-iP01357-05953234’s shoulders were already hunched in the prospect that either or both Viperia and Clarus would raise their hands and voices in discipline.

There’s no stern vocalizations of N-iP01357-05953234’s misdeed, no promise of a correcting smack across his head, but the hand that had settled on his back to prompt movement into the elevator nearly had his heart stop regardless.

Cor’s feather-light touch upon his back is reminiscent of when he directed N-iP01357-05953234 out of the facility, with the same surprised reaction. N-iP01357-05953234 stiffened as an instinctual response, and knows what is tasked of him: he quickened his pace inside the elevator, and he was peripherally aware of both Viperia and Clarus giving their own murmurs of greeting.  

N-iP01357-05953234 stood in the lift, his sights aimed forward with his back straight, arms to his side. He did not fall folly to the temptation of peering at his surroundings at any time, and waited for the trek to end. He stared that the doors of the elevator, but knew the three Lucians look at him. His fists clenched on their own accord.

The pistol is held tight in his grip, and once acquired from Cor and situated to take aim at the targets, a palpable shift is felt. Like a collective breath held back, tension a growing cloud, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows three pairs of eyes scour every inch of him, as it did in the elevator, Cor a sentry to his side and the Amicitias only a short pace behind. N-iP01357-05953234 attempts not to falter under the combined weight, like an ever increasing pressure upon his back, and N-iP01357-05953234 focuses.

Five targets are present, the silhouette of a person’s torso mounted on a motorized assemble repeated five times from varying distances. N-iP01357-05953234 considers, assessing the ranges presented; the closest target is ten yards, the furthest a hundred. N-iP01357-05953234 looks down, to the gun, and unfurls the cylinder. Five bullets. Five stationary targets. No room for error. Basic.

The only sound present is the click of the cylinder being put back to place, the resounding echo bouncing off the metal walls of the room reverberating whisper. Five targets. Five bullets. The room is silent, N-iP01357-05953234’s breathing low and stable, his heart a steady beat, the gun an anchor that does not stifle nor hinder, but encourages. N-iP01357-05953234 raises the gun and takes aim like a second nature (because it is), and a quick cacophony of a gun being fired five times in quick succession is blossomed from the silence. N-iP01357-05953234 does not flinch. N-iP01357-05953234 does not blink. Five targets, five headshots.

N-iP01357-05953234 stands with straight attention, the gun rested comfortably pointed to the ceiling, his grip loosened slightly and awaiting for the switch-out; the submachine gun next, the rifle later. The handler overseeing the practice session carding through the firearms to assess N-iP01357-05953234’s proficiency, taking N-iP01357-05953234’s previous weapon to replace it with the next, and N-iP01357-05953234 will shoot fatally each time. Because he has to.

(And he’s good at it. A small, ultimately insignificant pride, but one nonetheless.)

The whirring of the motor signify the targets being brought closer for inspection, and N-iP01357-05953234 allows himself a small swell delight at the clean (and perfect) holes each in the direct center of all the targets’ heads. Proficient, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, a satisfactory demonstration. A metaphorical kill-count of five done in under five seconds. N-iP01357-05953234 curbs his own gratification as to not be present outwardly, and stands where he is. Ramrod straight, unmoving like he should be, with eyes straight ahead. He awaits the switch-out of the next weapon for further demonstrations.

It doesn’t come when he expects. But he stays where he is, as he stands. The steps that resound behind him that come closer suddenly become unfamiliar—the usual curtness of a handler’s steps missing, replaced with those that step slower, of a more cautious pace, and that of two pairs. N-iP01357-05953234 twitches.

Then—

The fog disperses.

“Damn.” Comes Cor’s low mutter, situated next to N-iP01357-05953234 as he always was, looking at the targets, and the unit needs to manually repress the flinch that attempts to escape.

There is no handler. There is Cor and the Amicitias. The shooting range beneath the cell N-iP01357-05953234 has been kept in, in the Citadel. In Lucis. Because Cor stole N-iP01357-05953234 away.

Ah, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks idly, as reality settles back firmly within, like a shattered piece of glass reanimating itself back together. A dull, heavy thing weighs itself in his chest, and he continues to stand where he is. Cor to his right, the Amicitias stepping to his left, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels something, then.

A sudden, immediate sensation, and the dull feeling in his chest sharpens. Like fire suddenly kindled in his veins, N-iP01357-05953234 reacts before he is even conscious of it.

The barrel of the gun is still hot when he reaches N-iP01357-05953234’s temple. Point-blank range, his skull and brain would be shattered and ruined, and he could be dead within a second.

The self-destruction is foiled before it even begins. The cylinder is empty; N-iP01357-05953234 shot all five targets with the bullets given.

(But he has a weapon, heavy and piercing in his hand, and the sudden rush of purpose is like an all encompassing blizzard that overrides that previous fact, and he acts on impulse alone.)

But it wouldn’t matter if the gun had been loaded in the first place. He isn’t given a chance to pull the trigger, because Cor’s next to him. And Cor reacts the second N-iP01357-05953234 pulls the gun near his own head.

Cor’s sudden grip is a rigid, relentless shackle. He squeezes N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist, so easily engulfed in the larger man’s palm, and the gun clatters to the ground as N-iP01357-05953234 releases it with a pathetic whimper. Merciless as the hold Cor has on N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist, it's a wonder that it doesn’t pop off entirely like an amputation.

N-iP01357-05953234 cowers as much as he is able, a response to the bruising hold on his wrist, eyes wide and breathe caught in his throat; Cor is angry. He’s livid.   

What do you think you’re doing?” The man growls, teeth bared like coeurl ready to pounce and infinitely more terrifying. His shadow engulfs N-iP01357-05953234 with little effort, the man’s form a looming and too-tall behemoth, and N-iP01357-05953234 shrinks.

Breathing comes in quick and shallow, and the edges of his vision begin to blur. There’s no barrier to assert between N-iP01357-05953234 and Cor, no distance to quickly gather (not that there’s anywhere to run to, no chance of escape), Cor’s grip is tight and painful and foretells of the impending fate: he’s going to punish N-iP01357-05953234, he’s going to snap N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist so then he’ll never be able to experience the delight of holding a gun ever again. He’s going to crush N-iP01357-05953234 like an insect, an effortless action done in full disdain, but he won’t give N-iP01357-05953234 the luxury of dying.

The dam bursts, and Cor is finally going to do what N-iP01357-05953234 had been anticipating for however long they’ve kept him. He’s going to make N-iP01357-05953234 a broken heap that splatters red on the floor, similar to what he has done to N-iP01357-05953234’s kin, but alive. He’s going to kill N-iP01357-05953234 slowly, over the course of months.

N-iP01357-05953234’s legs disappear from under him, and he falls to the ground as his knees buckle and become useless. He doesn’t dangle from Cor’s hold, nor does N-iP01357-05953234’s body hit the hard concrete floor below; the pressure around his wrist is lifted, and before N-iP01357-05953234 can crumble on the floor in a miserable heap, Cor catches him in one swift motion, cradling N-iP01357-05953234’s trembling form.

Through gasps and heaves, with a chest that splinters and a body that shakes as if in a hurricane, N-iP01357-05953234 is only able to get a few feeble excuses of slaps against Cor’s chest. A worthless attempt to distance himself from the man that ultimately leads nowhere, and that ultimately ceases entirely as N-iP01357-05953234 feels himself grow cold and limp. He quivers in Cor’s hold, his body already conceded to defeat, and through the vagueness of his tears he can only glimpse at Cor’s startled face, at the presence of Clarus and Viperia that cloud around him, and he cries.

With no voice, N-iP01357-05953234 wails.  

 


 

Alouette, to put it in layman's terms, isn’t happy. Pissed, one might say.

“You gave a traumatized child, who has clearly been raised as some sort of soldier, a weapon.”

Her voice is hard, posture and expression likewise, steely eyes seeking to stab at Cor in his entirety. He stands as he does, impassive to her reprimand, the woman seeking him out as soon as the boy was safely re-established in his room, crying himself into unconsciousness. Alouette's tongue-lashing is an honest reprieve.

He speaks, “You know as well as I it was necessary to determine his weapons handling. He clearly knew how to use a gun, and we needed to know how well he was trained to do so.” The defense rolls off his tongue like sandpaper, and doesn't do much to soothe his own discontentment, but his voice is trained with no inflection. “And now we have that data.”

“The data.” she repeats, clearly unimpressed. “And now you might’ve regressed all the progress that was done. But at least you’ve got the data that the boy can shoot.”

 

(His speed and accuracy is unprecedented. No hesitation, he's as good as a fully trained veteran, perhaps even better. Clarus had said, voice a small sense of astonishment shining through, constrained with healthy sense of alarm. Like he didn’t even need to look where he shot; he was already aimed, like merely a base instinct. That should have been impossible, don't you think?

Yes, Cor had said flatly.)

 

“Yes.” He says flatly.

Clearly waiting for Cor to give some sort of continuation, she glares. When he doesn’t, her glare turns into something more imploring.

“Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself?” She asks, incredulous.

Yes, he could say more; but what he has to say will be for Regis and the Amicitias’ ears, not Alouette's. And those discussions will be further dialogue upon suspicions of the kid and of Niflheim as a result, not of self-caning and empty repentance for what had happened. It happened, done and done, and unable to be changed. Alouette may want him to sing his remorse, but stilling in regret is worthless for all parties involved.

“He consented to it.” He says instead.

He—” she splutters, pinching at her nose bridge to recollect herself. Cor waits for her to continue. “Leonis, I know you care for this child. I know you do, why are you acting like he is merely some research project?” She shakes her head, as if to dispel her sense of disbelief. “He’s a child taken from atrocious circumstances, that you rescued, from a Gods-forsaken military facility that produces MTs, who barely knows what basic comforts are. He listens to anything as an order. Whether or not he agreed isn’t the point here. The point here is that you’ve put this child in a situation that he clearly wasn't ready for.”

As if Clarus and Viperia (or Regis) are getting off that easily, hah. They're all at fault.

“It was an approved action, sanctioned by the Sword and Shield.” He says. “It was a controlled environment, Clarus and Viperia were there with him—”

“He put a gun to his head!” She snaps, a crackle the beginnings of thunder. “He’s practically shell-shocked since then! This wasn’t—exposure therapy, don’t act like it.”  

He scoffs, “I’m not. It wasn't meant to be. It was an effort to determine his military training so we can gain a better understanding of how the Niflheim army operate.”

Alouette opens her mouth, a retort near escaping her lips, but Cor cuts her off.

“He is an individual of interest taken from enemy territory.” He continues. “The priority has always been investigating why he was in that facility and what the Nifs are doing. You knew from the start that this was unique case.” He sharpens his gaze down at her. “You knew that this kid would be different from any other kid you've handled. Your job was and is to ensure he's able to feel comfortable and safe enough for him to tell us what he knows.”  

A small, tense slither a silence presents itself, Alouette gazing up to him with something jaded, face pinched in dissent.

“So his recovery and care is only secondary, is it?” She says, voice sharp.

“Country and Crown come first.” Cor drawls dryly, an automated response. Alouette's face morphs as if she is on the receiving end of a dismissive customer service clerk. He sighs, and loosens his uptight posture. “Listen—this kid deserves everything he could ever want. He deserves having a nice pair of parents that spoil him for the rest of his life and to never hold a gun ever again. I want to see him recover as much as you do, believe me.”

It's as sincere as he can be, but there's a harsh aura of doubt in her expression, and he supposes he can't entirely blame for for the fact. Regardless, her skepticism in his statement brings a dull sting that he ignores like he would an annoying fly.

Alouette scoffs. “You say that, and yet now he's back where he's started. You've made him relapse.”

The Worst Person of Eos award may already firmly within the grasp of Aldercapt, but Cor feels like a distinct second. He quells any festering feelings it brings, the residues swept up and thrown away, useless as they are.

“And your complaints will reach the ear of his Majesty, of that I'll make sure of.” Cor says flatly, and he means it. He opens his mouth once more, tone changing. “I know I fucked up. I know we fucked up. Do you think I'm happy about this?” He asks, slowly. “I want this kid to live a good life. He isn't a soldier. He's not some fodder that only has a fucking cattle brand, he's a child, I know that. When this shit is over, he'll be able to live a normal life.”

A pair of loving parents, maybe some new siblings, outside with a more than adequate home, school and friends, playing in the dirt—not cooped in a secret room in the Citadel. Astrals willing, Cor thinks bitterly, Astrals willing, even if he has to get their celestial heads of of their asses himself.

She starts, jabbing a finger in his direction. “If he's treated only as some subject to gain information on Niflheim instead of a gravely disturbed child I’ll—”

“You're under contract and gag order,” he interrupts, and finds her holier-than-thou attitude one of encroaching annoyance. “Don't act like you didn't know what you were getting into when we hired you. You knew full well what you agreed to.”

And she did; as an individual that was expected to to interact with the kid practically on a daily basis, whose objective was to aid the kid so he may communicate in any way, she was privy to certain classified information on the boy.

Her lips become pursed as a thin line. “You should have discussed with me before taking such actions.” She asserts.

“Noted.” He simply replies, already having conceded to the matter.

The tension, still a palatable crease within the air, dissipates—if only slightly. They're both tired.

“He needs help, Leonis.” She says, quietly. “He isn't a danger to Lucis. He's a danger to himself.”

He hardly needs to be reminded of the fact, considering it was not that long ago to begin with, a fresh memory like a hammered nail to the skull, and one that will continue to persist stubbornly, he'd imagine.

“I know.” He sighs. “I know.”

 


 

Once the denizens of the small table situated in the middle of the room, the Legos and Play-Duh and pencils migrate upwards, near the ceiling and seated upon the cupboard. Planted above and out of reach before N-iP01357-05953234 is fully cognizant of the fact, something that should have been glaringly evident at a cursory glance, and for that, N-iP01357-05953234 stares at their new positions in silent scolding. Negligent awareness is a weakness easily exploited (Cor’s hand a terrible grip, shackled upon his wrist), and one that would require a quick backhand against his head as reprimand.

A further strike across his face for his continued forgetfulness. The fuzziness of his memories that persist, a shameful facet. The events after the gun, of Cor’s menacing figure, is lost to the whirlwind of haze. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember much.

Alouette may have spoken to him at length, he thinks, Cor too. The Amicitias? N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember. Their forms morph as an amalgamation, their words, if any, heard as though underwater, and N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t care to attempt to decipher any of it.     

The Legos and Play-Duh and pencils are out of reach, with fastenings on the lid that lock them in place, N-iP01357-05953234 muses, a stone in the bed. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember when. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t remember why.

“You can’t even do that right.” N-iP01357-05953234’s voice says, in the direction of the Legos. N-iP01357-05953234 would expect a sneer, but is instead greeted with a quiet voice of grief.  

No, not even that right.

  


 

 “These are a choking hazard, they need to be kept out of reach. The pencils, too, if he’s desperate enough.

 


 

 

A greyish-green mass occupy the cavity of the bowl, freckled with specks of vegetables; carrots, peppers, peas. ‘Pea soup’. A concoction that sits idly by, the smell hiking itself up N-iP01357-05953234’s nose, the smell absent in its usual enticement. N-iP01357-05953234’s stomach is quiet, a dull hole in its place, and N-iP01357-05953234 simply stares of the soup that has been given to him. He doesn’t lift his hand to take hold of the spoon, and instead sits, the soup remaining untouched.

“Not hungry?” Cor asks, tone mild and unassuming, seated across from N-iP01357-05953234 and questioning after he has taken his own bite.

N-iP01357-05953234 lifts his gaze, Cor's face inscrutable. The void that has situated itself in place of his gut only producing a shallow itch.

N-iP01357-05953234 has been fed an adequate pattern of three times a day everyday he has been with the Lucians. This trend continues despite N-iP01357-05953234’s transgressions at the shooting range, the discipline of which still lurking, and overbearing presence that puts every hair on N-iP01357-05953234’s body stand on edge.

Cor still enters. He still brings food. His figure colossal, N-iP01357-05953234 too small, his steps thundering, N-iP01357-05953234 too slow, his grasp unforgiving, N-iP01357-05953234 too weak. But the man sits, gives food, speaks with a level tone, and N-iP01357-05953234 stays with locked limbs and an increasingly painful heart. The man sits. He gives food. The anticipation of the coming punishment smothering N-iP01357-05953234 like a pillow pressed down on his face.

(They’re so cruel, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks despairingly, the understanding of the Lucian evil becoming more apparent. The soft beds, the feedings, a false, but well portrayed sense of security. The quiet voices, words of worriment, Cor sitting across from him, the increasing overbearing sense of well-crafted dread. A suspense so masterfully crafted, tearing N-iP01357-05953234 apart so effortlessly.

Handlers would dispel discipline promptly and with reason, never doing so without declaring the misdeed done to ensure correction. The Lucians—Cor—are masters of squeezing out every anxiety ever to exist, wringing N-iP01357-05953234 beyond the point of dry. N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t deluded enough to think the Lucians—Cor—would give him discipline in the first place, punishment, yes, but not discipline. They do not seek to make N-iP01357-05953234 better. Cor does not seek to make N-iP01357-05953234 better. He seeks to make N-iP01357-05953234 as distressed as he can, for as long as he can, his punishment expected, but one N-iP01357-05953234 will have to wait for.

He’s so cruel, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks.)   

Neglecting this meal would put nutrition intake at insufficient. Not yet hazardous to full system failure, but enough that he should eat. But his stomach is registered as something vague and disconnected.

He should eat, because he sits before Cor, the man obviously expecting N-iP01357-05953234 to consume, as he usually does. N-iP01357-05953234 is hungry, because he hasn’t eaten, but his stomach doesn’t register. He shakes his head in the negative, to answer Cor’s original question.

Cor hums. “Well. Think you could try to eat at least half?”

Yes, N-iP01357-05953234 could, but he shakes his head as No.

“Alright.” Cor says, seemingly not provoked at all by N-iP01357-05953234’s disobedience. “Want something else? I could get you some other soup. Want mushroom soup?”

Creamy mushroom soup,’ aptly named, a gentle caress that soothes the ever present nausea. N-iP01357-05953234 shakes his head no.

“Pasta? Mac 'n cheese?”

Cor had seemed amused, when N-iP01357-05953234 “scarfed it down” the first time he had been introduced to the odd, gooey cuisine. He shakes his head no.

“Porridge?”

A pleasant taste on his tongue, the warmth of the bowl an excellent relaxant. N-iP01357-05953234 shakes his head no.

“Potatoes?”

A mystifying first experience of the Lucian solids, a fluffy anomaly between his teeth that settled nicely. N-iP01357-05953234 shakes his head no.

“Rice?”

Agreeable to every sense N-iP01357-05953234 possess. N-iP01357-05953234 shakes his head no.

Cor sighs. “C'mon, kid. You gotta eat. You barely ate yesterday.”

The man sits with an air of discontent, a given, but not one that should have coalesced into ire, which should have been the route taken. Cor should forego the space between them and do—whatever it is he plans (N-iP01357-05953234 suppresses a flinch). Forfeit this game he plays, N-iP01357-05953234 has already conceded to defeat. It would be a relief for the man to already enact punishment, N-iP01357-05953234’s body a numb exoskeleton on the precipitate of collapse. The fact the man doesn’t appear provoked at all by N-iP01357-05953234’s refusal of food makes N-iP01357-05953234’s hands tremble, jaw clenched as a vice.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares. He continues to do so, and Cor lifts a brow.

“Listen,” Cor starts. “If you’re not going to eat, and you continue to refuse to, then you leave us with very little choices other than force-feeding, kid.” Cor’s eye possess a glint of determination, and N-iP01357-05953234’s twitches.  “And you will be force-fed. We’re not gonna let you starve yourself.”

Cor voice and expression are resolute, an infuriating mask that continues to kindle something within N-iP01357-05953234. Like a fan, coaxing the birth of a meager fire, and his throat tightens, hands around his throat. The flame drying up any moisture in his mouth, searing and cooking his chest as he breathes in what feels like ash, and N-iP01357-05953234 will only realize the feelings as pure, undiluted anger when on the cusp of sleep that night.

His jaw aches, clamped and teeth grinded to dust as it is, the exhaustion hung at its nape and N-iP01357-05953234 is already crushed enough as is by his prostration. Flayed by the dread of wanting this horrible charade to be done and over with, the growing blaze within a vitalizing vigor that ignite every vein in N-iP01357-05953234’s body.

This man’s already won, N-iP01357-05953234 has already long lost any battle with him or the Lucians; let them realize their victory.

With this sudden spurt of energy, a sharp, white-hot sense of exhilaration through his being, N-iP01357-05953234 leans forward over the table, placing his hands upon its surface for better purchase, and uses what little saliva he has left: he spits in Cor’s face.

There’s a small, near hysterical sense of glee at Cor’s sudden reel, a quick cringe that then turns to flabbergasted blinking. N-iP01357-05953234 nearly breaks into an undignified grin of delirium at the thought that he could have had any chance of truly confounding The Immortal, but such high exhilaration is subdued, appropriately snuffed as N-iP01357-05953234’s sits back down with a thump.

Cor will have no choice, now, but to execute his punishment. Or execute N-iP01357-05953234. The relief of Cor’s continued, cruel prolonging of the inevitable coming to an end is palpable; N-iP01357-05953234’s limbs are boneless, the reprieve so wonderfully present but also accompanied with the sharp terror of what is to come. N-iP01357-05953234 knows he won’t be merciful. N-iP01357-05953234 knows what is to come will not be short. But at least he no longer needs to wait.

Cor snorts, disbelieving, and this is it, this is how N-iP01357-05953234 will finally die, finally, finally

“Hah!” Cor barks, and it's like the air stops. “Almost got me in the eye. What was that?”

He’s—smiling. Not of teeth, bared like a predator, but. Amused. Not beguiled by malice. Just. Amused.

(Horrifying.)

Cor rubs his face, a low chuckle escaping his lips, and N-iP01357-05953234 is turned into a statue. Still and unmoving, and unable to stop staring. Cor doesn’t make a move to stand, to upturn the table and do what he should. He sits, cleans his face with with a swipe of his hand, then cleans his hand by rubbing it against his pants. N-iP01357-05953234’s mind is a halting blank, forced to a screeching stop, and he can’t react even if he was able. He's rooted by his own bamboozlement.

“That was pretty rude.” Cor comments, mildly, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he could scream, maybe. “Getting attitude, are you? Good. But don’t do that again.”

Cor regards N-iP01357-05953234 with something disgustingly nonchalant, N-iP01357-05953234’s absolute show of disrespect not doing so much of a dent. Spitting in a handler’s face would be cause for decommissioning. Cor sits aloof and N-iP01357-05953234 has no bearings to process his reaction. There’s nothing. His mind is simply blank. He looks down to his soup—cold, now, perhaps—as if answers could be garnered from the food. N-iP01357-05953234 desperately hopes so.

“C’mon.” Cor’s voice brings N-iP01357-05953234’s sights back upwards to the man on impulse. Cor leans forward, only slightly, but like he looms, and N-iP01357-05953234’s breath is halted altogether. He points to N-iP01357-05953234’s bowl. “Eat.” He says—commands—his previous mirth evaporated entirely.

His tone is absolute, no room for questioning, a command that momentarily stills N-iP01357-05953234’s heart. Handlers spoke in such a tone, sharp and curt and an excellent demonstration of authority and direction.

N-iP01357-05953234 does what he is told. He takes the spoon and eats. He eats until there is no more soup in the bowl, ravished clean with trembling hands and avoiding Cor’s scrutiny, until his stomach is distended, queasiness a tightening embrace.

He eats, a revolt in his stomach, seeking to exit back out through his mouth.

(He’s so cruel, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks.)

 


 

Do you feel like disappearing?

Alouette’s words are a puzzling thing, though they usually are. Alouette usually is. N-iP01357-05953234 cannot disappear. He has no cloaking ability.

Lucis and Niflheim are enemies. You’re aware of this, aren’t you?

Anyone would be. Absurd question.

Niflheim are our enemies. This is true. The Empire has been attempting to invade Lucis for years, now, and we don’t want them to. They want to destroy us, and we want to survive.

Niflheim wishes to bring its advances to Eos, to extend its glorious helping hand to those that are privileged enough to even gaze upon it. Lucis should be thankful, if they weren’t so blind.

You are not our enemy. I know you must be frightened beyond belief being in Lucis, but we do not want to attack every Niflheimen we see. We have a lot of Nifheimen in Insomnia, who are our citizens. We do not hurt children. You are not our prisoner. We want to be your friend.

And yet, he knows he is in a cell, staring up at the ceiling, the room a pitch darkness as he lays in the bed.

“Do you feel like disappearing?” N-iP01357-05953234’s voice says, small and pathetic, emitted from the bird plush, situated to his left, leaning against the pillow.

N-iP01357-05953234 takes a long, suffering sigh through his nose, and decides not to think of a useless answer to a useless question.

 


 

 

Scared; to fill, especially suddenly, with fear or terror; frighten; alarm.

Confused; a lack of understanding; bewilderment; unclear.

Anxious; full of mental distress or uneasiness because of fear of danger or misfortune; greatly worried.

Anxious and Scared could probably be categorized as the same, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks slowly, grazing through the words on the sheet at a sluggish pace. Alouette sits patiently, as she usually does, and expects him to point to a word.

“Perhaps, you could show me what you’re feeling?” She had said. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t point to any word. He turns his reading to staring blankly at the sheet. There are multiple words that he could point to, but doesn't; perhaps it is Alouette who will decide to deliver judgement. He waits for her to.

Her short, quiet hum has him prepare himself in tired relief. He balls his fists upon his lap, eyes staring a hole onto the sheet, and thinks, maybe now, maybe finally—

“I’m going to ask you a series of questions, I would like you to answer them as honest as you can. Can you do that for me?”

Her voice is light, calm, and despairingly absent of malice. She speaks softly, and N-iP01357-05953234 lifts his gaze upwards to meet hers. She waits for a response, and he thinks not to give any, sit where he is, to aggravate a response, but his head moves on its own accord; he nods yes.

She smiles, slightly, pleased. Her body relaxed, her tone likewise, no threats at any level present with her, and N-iP01357-05953234 hides a grimace.

She speaks. “Does Cor scare you?”

N-iP01357-05953234 blinks.

He blinks again. Her words untangling themselves from their riddle slowly, and N-iP01357-05953234 nearly snorts.

The man’s huge, The Immortal, a priority on the battlefield but one that no soldier would want to face. He could kill anyone with little effort. He can, and he does. N-iP01357-05953234’s felled kin by this man is unprecedented. To not be afraid of this man would foolish and lead to certain death. To be fearful of him is a survival tactic.

It’s common sense. N-iP01357-05953234 has no doubts Alouette is scared of the man too. She has to be. It’s Cor.

Why she asks, especially of a question she undoubtedly already knows the answer to, N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know. He shouldn’t answer. But he does.

(“Cor was afraid for your wellbeing, you understand. He doesn’t want to see you hurt.” She had explained previous, of the situation of the gun, and N-iP01357-05953234 just stared.)

He nods yes. Cor scares him.

She nods with his nod, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks it a pointless sign of solidarity in this claim.

“Do you feel unsafe when Cor is near you?”

They’re on separate sides of the war. Alouette may attempt to mask otherwise, but N-iP01357-05953234 is an enemy. And Cor is a disturbingly patient man who will make sure N-iP01357-05953234 is a withered heap before he pounces.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what this line of questioning will entail, but at  this point, there’s nothing to lose.

(Cor a constant, bringing new, and eccentric foods that trickle N-iP01357-05953234’s tongue, that settle his stomach. Glasses, a visual correction, so terribly simple, but an aid done by the Lucians. The plushie, sometimes a voice of reason, but so dreadfully soft.)

He nods yes. He feels unsafe around Cor.

“Would you prefer it if you didn’t have to see Cor?”

The question gives N-iP01357-05953234 pause.

To think Cor not being his prison warden and entirely absent is—uncanny, almost. He’s always been firmly a presence with N-iP01357-05953234’s time in Lucis.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know why she asks. He doesn’t know why she would ask any of her questions. There’s no point to be garnered to any of this, to questions she already knows the answers to. What sort of conclusion will be garnered—Cor to suddenly be removed from his post? For what reason? There isn’t an ounce of sense to be made. The questions are entirely moot.   

There’s no point in answering.

(N-iP01357-05953234 sitting in a small, suffocating room, crushed by the walls, lungs squeezed tight. Awaiting a handler to take him to decommissioning, Cor opening the door instead.)

He nods yes. He doesn’t want to see Cor.

Chapter Text

He’s not surprised. An inevitable truth that Cor has already begrudgingly accepted.

It’s progress, through and through, even if Cor finds himself with a sharp punch of something dismal, when met with the inevitable truth that is the kid’s decision.

Alouette, even with all her new found displeasure with the man, delivers the news with at least some level of consideration.

“You understand, don’t you?” She asks, after her explanation of the kid’s answers to her questions and of the surveillance footage proving such. A nod, a single confirmation and Cor yields.

“I do.” He answers, and he does. He understands clearly, and wonders briefly if the woman finds any sort of satisfaction that he won’t be interacting with the boy, an extra blunder taken out of the equation. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care to.

He gave a curt nod to the new conditions, of being relieved from being the kid’s curator. He didn’t argue, because he already accepted the conclusion before it was verbally given to him.

The unnecessary feelings birthed from being rejected from a child, that he has been attempting to soothe like a spooked chocobo for nearing upwards a full month (a lifetime, it feels), resurface in full force when he retreats to the safety of his office.  

Hunched over his desk, paperwork a growing mountain: Crownsguard applications, drop-outs, promotions, scores; reports of increased daemon sightings, of imports and exports, of refugees, of finance and deciphering the budget for the next year. And then the next.

His hand and wrist cramps in protest in the growing hours, stretching the affected muscles with a grunt. The breaks he allows himself, thirty minute naps done at two hour intervals when nightfall descends, and Cor doesn’t go to his apartment. He doesn’t forget to do so, time is always tracked, submerged with what he does a familiar and welcome embrace, Cor merely does what is more efficient. Naps dotted in between, sleep at his desk, and more work done.   

Barking at Crownsguard trainees, only small amounts of mercy sprinkled in between the regime given, and his usual work appropriately snuffing out the residual pang that had decided to rear its head when Cor was given silence to ruminant on the kid that is no longer his charge.

His work fits like boot, comfortable like one and adjusted well. He slips back into his regular work with little effort. Time isn’t wasted and is well-spent; this is good. This is better than good.

(He orders an extra lap to the smart-ass trainee who muttered “Why is he so pissed off today? Does he have a cactuar up his ass?” behind his back, after sparring.)

He continues his work when seated with Regis for weekly statements; of Cor addressing and explaining what he has gathered and done, information relayed and discussed upon in the privacy of an empty council room. Regis sits across from him and doesn’t comment that this particular session stretches onto a near five hours. Papers splayed in the space between them upon the table, engulfing the wood like a snowy blanket.

Regis meditates upon the reports given, gently sifting through the forms presented.  

“Anything else, then?” He asks, glancing up to his companion.

“Oh, absolutely.” Cor says flatly, his tone unchanging as he continues. “The kid’s distress is partly your fault, so I’ll make sure you live with that.”

Regis gives a small cringe, a subtle expression of acceptance and Cor doesn’t need to berate the man in full, even if it’s a tempting thought. The gun assessment was ultimately authorized by Clarus and Viperia, but done with Regis’ acceptance. ‘Do what you think is best,’ he had said. Ultimately a regretful action, but one that needed to be done. Cor would do it again, he knows.

“Of course.” Regis nods. “You’re taking this well. I’d thought you’d be more disappointed."

“I am disappointed. What do you want me to do, cry about it?” Cor scoffs. “He made his choice clear enough when he spat in my face, I didn’t need Laryssa telling me.”

( Hunched shoulders, body curled inwards, a desperate attempt to become the smallest thing in existence and to disappear. Stiffening of posture, eyes wide at a false threat, ready to cower with each flinch at any too-loud sound or too-sudden movement. A sob as if he was gutted, body limp and practically lifeless, but wails rattling against the walls, with tears streaming like a river. Constantly on edge, despite Cor’s efforts, and he should have left sooner.

No. Cor didn’t need to be told the kid was scared of him.)

“Yes, I was surprised to hear of such.” Regis says. “I was also more surprised when you apparently thought it a good thing.”

The King appraises Cor with a lifted brow, prompting him to elaborate on the claim.

Cor does. “It means he's getting bold. Brave, starting to stand up for himself. It's progress.” Even if Alouette was also unhappy with him 'encouraging bad habits,’ as she puts it. “Even the fact he was able to say he was scared of me is good. He needs to feel comfortable enough to say that.”

It’s an improvement, considering the kid had cowed when being asked any question, no matter how benign, at the beginning. Any confidence beaten out of him, a conclusion anyone could have gotten at the first sight of the kid, it’s good it’s being rebuilt to the point where he can actually admit he doesn’t like Cor.

It’s bravery that Cor can admire, even if it he’s the one aggrieved in the process. But he’ll gladly be a punching bag, for the time being, if it means the kid could build up to vocalize anything in the near future. Or get a name, for Gods’ sake.

“I suppose so.” Regis says with a small tilt of the head. “Still, you have my sympathies. I know you were fond of the boy.”

Not the point. Cor speaks, “this isn't about me. Who gives a shit if my feelings are hurt? The kid is the prerogative here, not me.”

It’s hardly like accepting the conditions are difficult; the kid’s confined to a single room, Cor isn’t restricted, it’s still the boy that is. Routine that was established before the kid’s arrival is easy to fall back into, with barely any hindrance. There isn’t a point to make a problem wherein one doesn’t exist. Cor’s dignity isn’t even tarnished in this, and pride is barely that, if a child can wound it.

But Cor doesn’t have his head up his ass so far anymore that he would deny that he has some level unhappiness with the kid’s admission. Good it is, yes, that the kid is growing in spirit but—unfortunate, for Cor. He knows the kid is in more capable hands than his, and with his absence, more growth can be garnered, so the pesky twinge of dejection will crumble on itself. This is a good thing.     

Regis wears a somber face, though he does smile. “You're a good man, Cor.” He says.

Cor blinks at the sudden statement, one delivered with such earnesty that instantly has him wary.

“... Thanks… ” He says cautiously, allowing his suspicion surface through his tone, accompanied with a leery quirked brow. Regis merely gives a smile.

Regis reclines comfortably in his seat, pleasant in every form; and when Regis opens his mouth, Cor already has an inkling of what is going to come out.

“And do think of taking a break.” The King says, and Cor feels the onset of a scowl. “You do not need to drown yourself in paperwork just because the child is no longer your charge.”

Cor allows himself to emit a heavy sigh, perhaps more theatrical than what is strictly necessary. “No, why would I take a break?”

It isn’t a common topic of discussion, but it is one that Regis infrequently brings up every now and then, which is already far too often. As if the King is purposely trying to sabotage Cor, but usually always as an offhand comment. So Cor will respond in kind—with exasperation.

Regis continues. “What would Clarus and Viperia say if I had the Marshal pass out from exhaustion? That is never a good look, Cor. You've practically done a week's worth of work in a single evening.” Regis sifts through the paperwork Cor had graciously done, a quick flip through of brief review of the work so generously given. “I don't even think you've ever actually taken a day off. Ever.”

True, but Regis says and looks through his work as if it isn’t up to par. But Cor knows better; Regis is just being an idiot.

“I’ve never needed to.” He scoffs, stating the obvious. “How is that related?”

“Do I need to order you to relax?” Regis speaks as if addressing the Prince after the kid has done something particularly stupid, like trying to sneak into the kitchen after hours to snatch snacks.  

“You know I don't follow stupid orders, Majesty.”

Regis sighs, similarly theatrical like Cor’s, and Cor feels that he should be offended by the mirror. “Because you've always been as stubborn as a mule.”

“I'm a strategist.” Cor scoffs, tapping his fingers on the desk. “And your plan to try to have me slack off is counterproductive.”

Regis gives a small huff of a laugh, and Cor thinks idly that the man is holding onto this useless thread with more tenacity than usual. “If you were such a tactician, you would know that attempting to bury your grievances from the child's choice to cease interaction with you with paperwork is actually 'counterproductive,’ as you say.”

Cor has to stop, then, a sudden halt as he blinks incredulously at His Majesty’s direction. Absurd—and any other number of synonyms, as if the kid had any sway, and as if his production yield is invalid regardless. Work needs to be done .

“You—” Cor starts. “You really think this is about the kid?

Grievances from the child’s choice to cease interaction,’ like he’s some child with a separated toy, instead of literally respecting the kid’s wishes as any decent human being.

Regis continues. “You are, as my son might eloquently say, 'emotionally constipated. ’” Cor thinks, briefly, of the merits of regicide. “You have a tendency to forego your own health to inundate yourself with your duties after a large amount of stress.”

And Cor does then feel a small twinge of insult, at the other man’s insinuation that he can’t perform his job adequately, like he hasn’t been doing this for literally twenty-two years.

“I’m not stressed, I’m doing my job,” he huffs. “You want me to stop doing my job?”

Regis shakes his head, as if he has a right to be the exasperated party here. “I want you to take the day off so that you do not impair your health or ignore your emotional state.”

Cor stares. “I had no idea you were a therapist.” He states flatly, with no hint of humour.

Regis doesn’t have quite a smile upon his lips, though they do curve upwards in a miniature imitation, with something melancholy interwoven within. “I act as your friend, Cor.”

Cor snorts. “You act ridiculous.”

Regis remains unfazed. “Take the day off. Royal decree. I could have you arrested if I see you in your office.”

Regicide is a legitimate career option, especially if the king in question is this boneheaded. “And you call me stubborn.” Cor says.

“Insomnia will not fall because you took one day off, have some faith in your colleagues.” Regis says calmly. “If you need to feel productive, may I suggest visiting the stables, to groom and exercise the birds? Which is your favourite chocobo?”

While not an item that is part of his itinerary, the grooming, training of the birds and upkeep of the stables is—a worthy alternative. Seeing as he’s apparently been suspended from his actual duties, then the responsibility of the birds are substantial enough until His Majesty’s interruption is lifted.     

“... Sooty.” Cor says, and it feels as though he waves a white flag.

“Ah!” Regis says, accepting his petty victory. “A wonderful, beautiful chocobo, she is. Such stunning plumage, patient and well tempered. Take her trail riding.”

Banished to the chocobo realm, then.

Cor throws his head back against the headrest of the chair. “I don't have a choice, then?”

Regis waves his hand, nonchalant, filing through the paperwork with new purpose, and Cor knows this conversation has reached its end. “Feel free to do anything else for your day off, the world is your oyster. I'm merely suggesting what I know you enjoy.” He spares Cor a quick glance. “I’ll make certain that you receive updates on the boy’s progress.”

Cor will blame his fatigue that he concedes to the fool. That, and he hasn’t had an excuse to visit Sooty in some time. Regis’ leaving statement is enough to rejuvenate any lost years misplaced from this exchange, so he bows his head in silent thanks. Cor vacates his seat and leaves with no more spoken words.

 


 

Sooty greets him with a bowed head, polite as the bird ever is. She produces a series chirps in greeting when Cor approaches her stall, and Cor responds in kind.

“Hey, girl,” he murmurs, petting the bird across her cheek. “Miss me?”

He brushes her feathers for grooming, and she preens on her opposite side. Her black plumage shines with the light in the stables, a near iridescent coating as her ebony feathers are accented a blue when the light hits upon her sleek and smooth plume.

Jewel of Lucis,’ once described as, her melanism a gift that paints her entire body a glossy ink; feathers, beak, feet and all. Reserved mostly to be ridden as lead-hen to a contingent of ‘Glaives in demonstration, or to be flaunted in show riding, but mostly as the Prince’s bird, Sooty allows him to take her trail riding, after fitted with saddle and bridle. Appropriately coloured black as well, of course.

The canopy above is formed with the branches and leaves of trees, that adorn each side of the dirt trail and form a tunnel of forest. Riding at the leisurely pace both a mixture of a walk and a trot for half an hour, Cor settles Sooty near a small stream to drink from. As the hen quenches her thirst, Cor seated on her back and lightly scratching at the back the bird’s neck, he thinks to have her go to a full gallop when they reach the clear field up ahead.

Cor sits in the saddle, the ambient of the forested trail quiet with little interruptions, only one other rider passed in the entirety of the excursion.  

And so he thinks.

There’s a level of danger, that comes with sentimentality. Attachments can be easily exploited, a weakness that Cor curbs by having his relationships be tied with his job, his colleagues his friends and themselves capable. And in the event the unspeakable happens, wherein a life is taken, he’s already mentally prepared for it. He’s been prepared ever since Mors’ passing, so that his shameful deluge of alcohol does not repeat itself. He has to be at his prime, even in the face of grief.

Cor would never deny being fond of the kid. And Alouette would neither renounce such, as would Delphinus and anyone else whose had any level of contact with the kid. At any glance of him anyone could garner the story; this child’s life up until this point was cruel, to say the least. It doesn’t take an expert’s eye to see it, even the most unaware person can glimpse at it.

Any respectable person would want to see the kid recover and lead a normal life, Clarus and Viperia do, Regis does, Alouette as well and anyone else; of course Cor’s fond. The kid deserves an entourage that is. A kind hand, instead of one that leaves scars. That’s just basic decency.

( “You disappoint me, Cor.” The voice is flat, but impossibly heavy with the implications of something unpleasant. Mors’ hand on his shoulder tightening only a fraction, but impossibly severe, and Cor blocks the images with a growing sneer. )

Cor isn’t an idiot ; he makes himself an imposing figure to any adult, let alone a child. A child that has experienced Six knows what in a military facility, thoughts and images of something brutal a perverted thing that twists its way inwards even when Cor doesn’t need to think of them. Doesn’t want to think of them.

( Images of shattered glass shards making a mockery of skin, mangling the feet that are forced to wade through an expanse of knives concentrated in a pair of boots, and Cor shuts it all out with something vicious .)    

Smiles should grace the child’s lips more often, Cor idly thinks. The small curvatures upwards a rare thing as it is, faint and muted as if an insignificant thing and not something so, so

Dastardly precious. More of that, but less stifled, of just simple satisfaction.

Delicate are the few smiles the boy gives, a mirror of he himself: small and vulnerable, with no presence. He possesses the ability to be mistaken as a wisp of air, with how little residence the boy demands. Like a forgotten ghost, and Cor understands. Insignificant, minuscule, and the kid won’t be anything of notice. Won’t be a target.

( There are moments—shameful as they are—wherein a ‘please’ or two nearly graces his lips, but ultimately never escapes. Cor isn’t weak. )

Cor is aware of the presence he himself commands, he knows he intimidates the kid without ever meaning to. Too large, too tall, and Cor knows his frame is enough to be reminiscent of the people who held the boy in Niflheim.

A guard, a trainer, an experimenter, whoever and whatever the kid’s handlers were, and Cor knows in spite of being resolute that he wouldn’t be a repeat for the boy, it does not change the fact he most likely shares too many physical characteristics regardless. An image that picks at the already laid scars.  

A rolling chirp from Sooty breaks his thoughts, and Cor is snapped from staring aimlessly into the trail to give his steed his full attention. His grip on the reins have tightened, his knuckles white, and he had not noticed. He loosens up.

She spies him with a quirked head, and Cor reads her clearly: what’s taking so long? Her thirst already quenched, and having apparently stood waiting for her rider. He elects to ignore, for now, the mistake of laxity for favour of patting the bird’s back, and jostling her further along the trail.

“Good girl.” He murmurs, to let her know he recognizes her aid, and she delights in the beginnings of a trot.

The softness of her feathers trademark of her kin, the plush toy a near replica, and Cor thinks of how excellent Sooty is with children—the Prince is pleased with her, he is the same age of the kid. The kid would enjoy her too, so intuned a chocobo—but especially Sooty—is with feelings of their handlers. She would be patient. She would be good. The kid would smile, bright and beautiful, while petting the bird and hearing her coo.

Yes, Cor is fond of the boy.

 



The woman wears plain clothes of the colour of Lucis, unembellished is the painting of obsidian she wears as she enters. Her hair greys, short to just frame over her ears and line her jaw. She is smaller than Cor, but overshadows N-iP01357-05953234 like anyone else ( too tall, too big is everyone ), and she sits like Cor does. Cross legged, across from the table, food in hand. She is distinctly not Cor.

It is the allocated time for food. Breakfast. This is a time wherein Cor would present himself, oftentimes the first face of the day. “Mornin’ ” always the word of greeting, parted from lips with a small smile, N-iP01357-05953234 already seated at the table after committing routine to memory.

It was established, the pattern to begin the day: N-iP01357-05953234 wakes, shuffles from the bed, neatens the covers, sits by the small table and waits. Cor opens the door, with food, sits, and speaks of things. Cor does not open the door this day.

Mornin’ ” changes to “Good morning,” from the mouth of this woman. She is not Cor. She is not a familiar face.

She is Monica Elshett, as she introduces herself, and she smiles at him. There’s a slight wrinkle at the corner of her eyes when she does so, and N-iP01357-05953234 is reminded of Cor; a similar feature present on his face, something only now N-iP01357-05953234 is cognizant of. But she isn’t Cor. But she suddenly takes his place. N-iP01357-05953234 stares at this woman, who opened the door when Cor had meant to, sits where he does, and gives food like he does.

“You don’t have to ever see Cor again, if you want. So I will take his place.” She says, serving toast and a glass of orange juice, the meal given identification verbally even though N-iP01357-05953234 already knew what it was. Cor served it to him before. Though Cor also had a habit of describing whatever it was he gave, regardless if N-iP01357-05953234 already knew it already. N-iP01357-05953234 distantly thinks that Cor had told Monica to do the same. Keep routine. Keep a semblance of order.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the woman in front of him, her face similar to Alouette: patient, and absent of any tells. Her face easily masked and expertly camouflaged like her peers, any cracks sealed and only an air of poise given to N-iP01357-05953234. N-iP01357-05953234 cannot catch sight of whatever this woman plans through her face, concealed as any of her intentions are.

But N-iP01357-05953234 knows better; this woman interrupts what was already established routine and he knows her presence must signify something. Cor would not be absent if not for a reason. The omen persists like a heavy cloud that N-iP01357-05953234 physically feels upon his back, a pressure that has him tense.

Perhaps it is she that will administer the still ever present punishment that looms like a creeping shadow. Done so with the expected terrifying expertise that would be consistent with a peer of Cor, all while with her pleasant smile upon her face. His execution an amiable affair for her, and when N-iP01357-05953234 is on the cusp of death, Cor will enter and deliver his own retribution for N-iP01357-05953234’s misdeed of spitting in the man’s face.

It’ll last days. Months. N-iP01357-05953234 can picture it well, the image clear and crisp and full of red. The toast that he nibbles upon, done as an automatic action, manifest only as ash in his mouth.

His eyes are trained on the door. The surroundings float in the periphery in a diluted haze, and N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to prepare as much as he is able to. The wait is maddening. The sadism presented is enough to make any unit crack, N-iP01357-05953234 attempts to reason, with thoughts that if he still possessed his voice, he would have screamed whatever they wanted to know with desperate compliance. If only for the wait to end. Any unit would fall folly to them, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, the door still and unopened, the toast eaten but hollow in his stomach.

Cor doesn’t enter. Monica says she hopes they can become friends.

 


 

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks having Izunia himself in the room prancing on one foot and singing a lullaby would be easier to comprehend than what is currently afoot.

It's been hours now, the day progressing as any, except for the glaring error that persists: Cor doesn’t arrive. He continues to be suspiciously removed.

There are many moments, too many to count, wherein N-iP01357-05953234 wishes for the return of his voice. At the current moment, the want would be to ask Alouette where is the missing man, and why he is absent in the first place.

The maths sheet he has been given is a soothing distraction, at the very least. Calculus and statistics, the numbers clear and precise and calming, and easy to decipher. Unlike the mystery that shouldn’t exist in the first place.  

Monica hasn’t, yet, done anything to outwardly posit herself as a threat but N-iP01357-05953234 knows to be weary at every turn. She should be a better alternative, all things considered: she’s smaller than Cor. An inconsequential thing, but—something, N-iP01357-05953234 reasons. Something.

The Marshal is gone, and this is—something, too. A good something. The Marshal is a terrible overbearing presence, his absence is a peace that N-iP01357-05953234 should grasp at desperately. A gift not to be squandered on. It should give rejuvenation to his entire being, a reconciliation to his mental and physical health.

(It doesn’t feel the part, however.)

N-iP01357-05953234 squints at his worksheet, his glasses having slid down his nose and requiring readjustment. He wrinkles his nostrils to coax the aid upwards, the instrument its own loud inconsistency. The Lucians constantly a sense of whiplash; a cell, but food always at the ready; the enemy, but a visual aid freely given; a gun to the head, but no punishment yet given; the Marshal, but absent.

The growing sensation in his gut is subtle, at first, but causes him to press down with his pencil harder than is necessary. N-iP01357-05953234 rectifies it the moment he notices. If Alouette notices, she does not comment. Her stay much like Monica’s: pleasantries given, the assertion that he no longer will have to see Cor, and N-iP01357-05953234 could only nod.

He continues his math. The numbers and stimulus is a centering thing, and N-iP01357-05953234 will later learn the phantom feeling as annoyance.   

 


 

The room is dimmed, the lights off, quiet as a grave and N-iP01357-05953234 sits on the bed. He faces the door, hands clasped on his lap, and stares.

His mind is a blank static, but not by choice.

His fingers pick at the skin surrounding his nails, tattered his fingertips are already, and N-iP01357-05953234 continues with his blunt nails. The actions don’t register, as they always do, and he does not notice the subtle welling of blood that surfaces, that corners around the nail of his right index finger from the incessant picking.

The door, obviously, remains closed. And Cor remains absent, as he has done for the entire day.

Monica was persistent as his apparent… replacement. She had bid him goodnight, a role that Cor usually occupied, and left. The door was shut behind her, the click of the lock the familiar final of the day, and N-iP01357-05953234 had been curled underneath the sheets of the bed.

But now he continues to sit, instead, staring, eyes trained on the door so strictly that the walls could fall away and he would not notice. Cor doesn’t open the door and enter, but the image is bright in N-iP01357-05953234’s mind, acutely familiar the visage is. It doesn’t come to fruition.

N-iP01357-05953234—expects that Cor won’t actually enter. Late as it is now, the time for sleep, and the persuasive inkling that Cor will not present himself growing stronger.    

Unless the man’s motive is to enter when N-iP01357-05953234 is asleep to do—whatever it is he seeks. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think he would be surprised, but he assures himself such a thing is unlikely. A vague comfort.

Maybe, some treacherous part of him begins to whisper, maybe the Lucians are truthful

N-iP01357-05953234 flinches; a phantom slap across the cheek to cease such perilous falsities. His jaw tightens, then, as do his fist, clenched as a rock upon his lap. Re-centering himself, with a conscious, arduous effort to keep such precarious thoughts at bay, and N-iP01357-05953234 takes a laboured breath.

The Lucians are cruel, this much has already been much established. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t need any more proof. N-iP01357-05953234 knows this. Cor’s absence is not because of N-iP01357-05953234’s answers the day prior when Alouette gave her useless questions. N-iP01357-05953234’s ‘decision’ cannot be honoured because he only answered a question. And he is not a human. Cor being replaced by Monica because N-iP01357-05953234 answered No to his continued visitations does not—make sense. It’s less effective. To abide to what a unit says doesn’t make sense. The Lucians do not make sense.

(N-iP01357-05953234 steadfastly ignores the glasses that sit upon the nightstand.)

There’s something tight in N-iP01357-05953234’s throat, not dissimilar to the familiarity of hands encircling it. He swallows nothing with difficulty, and N-iP01357-05953234’s thoughts take a petty reprieve by belittling the discomfort present at his throat. N-iP01357-05953234 knows this feeling enough to know tears accompany this.

His teeth grind in frustration. His vexation accentuated with quickening of his breaths, and a pitiful kindle is birthed within. This waiting game is more than useless. It’s ridiculous. It’s infuriating.

But maybe

No.

N-iP01357-05953234 can walk to the door, a stomp with purpose as he uses that button Delphinus mentioned long ago. ‘Just press that if you need anything. Anything at all.’ An intercom system, N-iP01357-05953234 knows, and he could press it and prompt someone to open the door. Monica, perhaps, and he could engage in combat.

Not a real fight, because N-iP01357-05953234 is N-iP01357-05953234 , but he would be hostile, with reckless abandonment, force a reaction, force anything.

( And then Monica would simply laugh, “What was that? That was pretty rude.” And the cycle will continue, again, and again. )  

N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he might be seething. Silently, on the bed, the door still closed, his stare drilling holes into the thing. His irritation builds itself as a mountain, settled on his shoulders, a peak that just continues to grow, and grow, the weight enough to crush and turn his bones to dust—

Before it all just crumbles. Sapped from N-iP01357-05953234’s body like a kick to the gut, hollowed out completely with nothing to show for it. The burnout shrouding him with a cold exhaustion.

N-iP01357-05953234 falls limply onto the bed like a stone, a sniffle the only sound to accompany the sound of his body hitting the sheets.

He curls himself within the blankets with similar enthusiasm. The sheets, the mattress, the pillow, always a range from soft to irritant, always a surprise, is absent in anything, now. N-iP01357-05953234 lays as if he lays on and in nothing.  

Cor will arrive again tomorrow, N-iP01357-05953234 knows. He has to. Reinstate himself as N-iP01357-05953234’s warden, the routine fixed. And he’ll jeer at just the mere thought that they would ever think to lower themselves to recognize the answers N-iP01357-05953234 gave Alouette. He’ll taunt, and ridicule, and insult, and then the end will come.     

The plush situated behind him does not speak to reaffirm his consoling skepticism, but he can hear his own voice clearly regardless.

(Because Cor doesn't speak with his own voice, in N-iP01357-05953234’s predictions.)

 


 

The image presented through the microscope speaks of black dust, an imitation of the miasma spewed from an infected host. Of the polluted cloud that emits from a felled MT, a last ditch effort for the parasite to find a new living host as it attempts to escape its dying one.

It is disturbingly similar, the view through the microscope, of the blood upon the slide, of the blood of the child, but with one crucial difference, as Wolfe so eagerly claims.

Dead and dying, the Scourge unable to give proper rooting within this host, of the child. Only remnants. Leftovers being cleaned.  

Clarus leans away from the eyepiece of the microscope, rubbing his chin. “A bold claim, Wolfe.” He says.

The man in question stands at the ready, a near zealous energy radiating off him that has him brace himself against Clarus’ desk, gaze intensive.

Wolfe speaks, voice quick and eager. “But you understand, don't you? You believe me.”

Clarus leans back into his seat, sights still planted upon the microscope in silent contemplation. The man before him is excited, obviously so, and the justification for such thrill so deceptively disguised as a simple flat thin sheet of glass underneath the objective lenses.

Clarus looks to his companion. “Hard not to, when you have evidence to back up your claim.” He says.

Wolfe’s smile is instant, a grin of triumph. He nods, his arms moving to accent the words he speaks.

“His body is actively fighting off the infection, my Lord. Slow, but effective.” Wolfe says, curbing himself not to speak too quickly. “Don’t you see? He doesn't have the symptoms because this is an immune response. His body alone is able to protect itself from the Scourge, and he'll most likely be able to develop greater resistance as he grows older.”

Clarus does not respond, the information given seated heavy within his mind. Immune, an assertion that could make any academic an object of ridicule. The Scourge is a perfect parasite. It cannot be combated, failed vaccines are already testament to that, something only fought against from light. Immunity is practically only a fanciful thought, a whimsical idea.

“Do you know what this could mean?” Wolfe’s voice grows more excited, the dawning of feverish passion only birthed from the anticipation of a great discovery. “He could hold a cure.”

Wolfe’s excitement is rightfully deserved, Clarus knows. This has the potential to be the most important discovery of all recent history, if not one of all history. And it would have Wolfe’s name on it; he’d be crowned salvation, if proven correct.

“A cure.” The Shield says, the statement flat but not unbelieving. He does not pose it as a question, but the request for Wolfe to continue is received.

Wolfe nods. “A vaccine, an antidote, something that could ensure everyone in Insomnia—in Eos—is never infected ever again. And something that can be used to combat the Empire’s forces. This could—this child could turn the tide.”

And Clarus—does not doubt Wolfe’s claims. If a cure can be extracted from the child, then a guaranteed method against daemons, against Magiteks, is ensured. It would be foolish not to capitalize upon such a finding. It could be dangerous not to.

Wolfe continues, his jitters having him present small pacings in front of Clarus’ desk. “The child needs to be kept in containment, we must observe his growth and monitor the progress of his immunity.”

Clarus raises a brow. “Keep him caged like a lab rat?” He says.

Wolfe stops, lips suddenly set as a thin line, his previous elation gone entirely. Resolve sparks in his eyes, and Clarus can tell that his assertion of the child still being a human is something Wolfe has apparently needed to prepare for.

Wolfe raises his head a fraction, as if in challenge. And it is. “Is one child more important than the lives of millions this could save?”

Clarus recoils. “Six, Wolfe,” disbelief weaves in his tone freely. “You make it sound as if you plan to dissect him!”

Not the right thing to say, as Wolfe raps his knuckles against the desk. “If it comes to it.” He says, and he is far too calm for such an assertion.

There’s silence, then, stunned as much as Clarus feels. The Shield stares, open in his incredulity.

“He’s a child.” Clarus stresses, the mere fact something that has Clarus immediately want to throw Wolfe out his office. Wolfe’s openness to dissection making his previous claim of a cure, at the moment, completely moot in Clarus’ viewpoint.

“One that could hold the key to turning the war to our favour!” Wolfe asserts, now with an air of urgency, of stubbornness. “It would be a noble sacrifice—” he clearly notices Clarus’ blatant disapproval, as the man lifts his hands in surrender. “—if it comes to it. I do not want to kill this child.”

Clarus taps his fingers on his desk in annoyance. “You have yet to convince me otherwise.”

Wolfe scoffs, clearly insulted. “This is hardly a decision I would posit if I hadn’t given it the thought it deserves. He’s immune, by some blessing of the Six, he is immune, and we need to ensure we are able to extract any sort of cure from him. He is only one soul, terrible as it may be, but it would be for the greater good—”

Stop.” Clarus raises his palm forward in a swift motion, his voice a command.

Wolfe shuts his jaw, but quickly regains his resolve, and attempts to continue. Clarus stops him. “Stop.” He says again. “This is not a decision I, alone, can make. This must be brought to His Majesty and his council.”

Wolfe’s face is pinched, disappointment and discontent easy to read, but he ultimately acquiesces.

“Very well.” Wolfe says, curt, straightening his lapels and rolling his shoulders. “We are both fathers, and the life of a child is not something I take lightly either—”

“You may leave, Wolfe.” Clarus pinches the bridge of his nose, a headache already growing and he does not want to entertain Wolfe in the discussion of the morals and ethics that come with deliberating on a child’s life. He eyes the microscope still present on his desk, the discussion of the cure re-presenting itself in full force, and Clarus sighs.

Clarus gives his parting words. “I suggest you make a convincing argument.”

Chapter Text

Routine continues, except for the fact Cor still isn’t present at all. The fourth day of his continued absence, of Monica’s presence, and N-iP01357-05953234 is faced the ever increasing dilemma that Cor will truly not return.

It shouldn’t be such the harrowing experience that it is, but the door remains closed after Monica’s entrance and Cor never enters. And N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t know how long he will wait. Does not know how much longer he can reasonably take being wrung dry.

Which may be their gain, yes, and N-iP01357-05953234 already knows that the Lucians are spiteful to a fault, if they are ready and willing to drag out such a thing for so long.

As the day continues, the hours dragging at a torturous pace, with Monica giving food and one-sided conservation, the integral integer of Cor’s presence still being absent prompts an unsettling thought.

That, perhaps, the reason this waiting game drags into eternity is the fact there isn’t a waiting game in the first place.

Which is a horrifying thought in of itself, because that continues the cycle of the Lucians still making little to no sense. And N-iP01357-05953234 will be forced to continue to drown in his disorientation. He should be used to that, by now, but it does not make it any less irritating regardless.

Monica smiles, she speaks softly, and she reminds N-iP01357-05953234 of both Cor and Alouette combined; N-iP01357-05953234 knows her to be a combatant by the way she carries herself, despite in civvies.

She’s toned and fit, apparent even hidden underneath her clothing. She has an air of control to her that also exuded off of Cor—someone trained and focused, someone dangerous. She speaks more like Alouette, though, level in tone and rarely interrupting herself. Cor, in contrast, sometimes appeared having no idea how to speak at times.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not smile at the memories of Cor seemingly having to relearn his own language after a pause. Waving a hand in circular motions, attempting to coax a words out; “What’s the word, fu—frig. Uh. You know, a list on how to make food—’Recipe’! Yeah, gees. Anyhow, I’ve been trying to make a new recipe…”

N-iP01357-05953234 does not smile. Because he wipes it from his face when he realizes his lips have turned upwards. Monica asks if he’s enjoying his food, and he nods.

 


 

At least Alouette continues in her established ways. She is not interrupted by another anomaly that N-iP01357-05953234 cannot rationalize.

Drawing and writing continue with Alouette; committing the alphabet to script, Alouette then telling him to write anything, and N-iP01357-05953234 writing his designation.

Her smile is tight when he does so, and he braces himself automatically. But she simply nods, saying, “You write that well, but don’t you want to write anything else?”

She must be becoming aggravated with him, he realizes, considering he has only ever written his designation when she has asked him to write something on his own, on the occasions she has asked.   

Good, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, then. Perhaps her own fuse runs short, short enough for N-iP01357-05953234 to blow it on this opportunity. So he answers her question: he shakes his head. No, he doesn’t want to write anything else.

Alouette considers him, for a moment. His fists tighten on his crayon, and he itches to sign out his designation a second time on the paper to further prove his point.

He doesn’t get the chance to, however, because Alouette brings her own crayon to her paper, stating, “how about you write what I write. Maybe you’d find it more fun.”

She does not sound irked, as N-iP01357-05953234 had hoped. Still casual and without any inflection of ire is her voice, and N-iP01357-05953234 is the only one becoming annoyed, in this. N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he could snap the crayon in his grip in half, at this rate.

Alouette writes a nonsensical sentence. ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

N-iP01357-05953234 can understand the merits of writing, moreso because of the absence of his voice, but he does not understand why Alouette would waste it with writing things that objectively make no sense. Seems like both a misuse and an insult. N-iP01357-05953234 certainly feels insulted. There is no ‘fox’ nor ‘dog’ present, N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what either is, and there is no useful information intertwined in the sentence.

He writes it down regardless. There’s temptation not to, to write instead his designation, just in hopes to get a rise from her, but she sits across from him. And an Order was given.  

He does his script as carefully as he is able, curving his letters to copy Alouette’s. When he finishes, he places the crayon down and looks up to her for further instruction.

She smiles. “Thank you. You did a good job. Why don’t you write something new, your own creation.” She considers him for a second longer. “Like how you can draw from memory. How about that?”

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at her back. Then he takes the crayon and stares at the blank space of his paper. And he continues to stare, crayon hovering over the sheet.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what the write. With drawing, he can at least create a (ill-looking) recreation of an image from memory. He can’t write that. Or, technically, he is not sure what Alouette expects from him, exactly.

There is no ‘fox,’ no ‘dog,’ with the example given. N-iP01357-05953234 does not have a frame of reference. Write a non-existent scenario, but from a place of memory? Perhaps Alouette had seen a quick brown fox jump over a lazy dog, and she writes from memory. He wouldn’t know.

But he wishes he could ask. Just for any sort of clarification.

An idea springs, then: to write for clarification. Request, a single word that N-iP01357-05953234 knows to spell. But he does not know how to spell 'clarification.'  So the idea is short lived, snuffed like a candle with the residual smoke mocking him.

This is stupid, he thinks. And perhaps he could write that for Alouette, as an answer.

But he doesn’t know how to spell ‘stupid.’ S-T-E-W-P-E-D? Maybe.

Instead, N-iP01357-05953234 writes ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,’ and Alouette says they can try again later.

 


 

 

And N-iP01357-05953234 goes to bed feeling lost in a fog.

 


 

The bed is always such a conflicting space; still unfamiliar, regardless for how long N-iP01357-05953234 has rested upon the thing, but soft, but irritating. The plushie, cradled against his chest is likewise, and N-iP01357-05953234 lays in the bed and stares towards nothing in particular.

Cor has not made any sort of appearance. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think he will. At all. The punishment’s grip is lessening, but still curled around his neck, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though he does not fully inhabit his body.

Monica continues to not present herself as an obvious threat, like Alouette, like Delphinus, soft voices and no visible ire and N-iP01357-05953234 is drained of everything that he is. Was. This is ridiculous.

N-iP01357-05953234 lays in the bed, mind blank for however long, before something frail and weak makes itself known.

Maybe, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, with something desperate clawing inside his chest, breath halted and stuck in his lungs like ice, and feeling the part.

He expects his voice, then, to come with its logic. Emitted from the plush, the bed, the Legos, from anywhere, to cease his train of thought. To save him from such dangerous thinking. The promise of a handler grabbing him from the throat and clutching so tight, one of heavy relevance.

Traitor, comes his voice in the periphery, weaved with venom and one that N-iP01357-05953234 would think comes from the bird he clutches onto, but it is overshadowed by the continued thoughts that dishonourably continue.

Maybe, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, the Lucians are true to their words.

But that just doesn’t make sense . N-iP01357-05953234 should already be used to such a fact, considering the Lucian’s antics and absurdities, but N-iP01357-05953234 does not have the energy to have his frustrations be a fire. His resentment exists as an ever present glow, a background static to accompany the cavity within his chest. Just a terrible spark ignites itself from the glow, birthed from N-iP01357-05953234’s thoughts, and easily snuffed as he is over encumbered with fatigue.  

His chest hurts, then. An ache both dull and sharp, and N-iP01357-05953234 can only take in shuddering breaths and stare as a corpse to the door.

On the precipant of sleep, exhaustion a stone that sinks him, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks of something impossible. So starkly preposterous, that N-iP01357-05953234 is jolted to full awareness and wakefulness as if he had been suddenly drenched in ice cold water. N-iP01357-05953234 freezes, limbs locked and breathe halted, and the air and time and everything, stops.

The Lucians do not know I am an MT. The sudden, unprompted and world shattering thought speaks. They think me a human child.

The air is still. Time is still. Everything is still; N-iP01357-05953234 lays where he is and he does not breathe. Rooted so severely by a thought that posits an infeasibility, and N-iP01357-05953234 could mistake himself for stone.  

When he does move, when air and time and everything else returns with him after an age, it is to let out a breath he had not realized he was holding, shaky and weak as much as he feels.

N-iP01357-05953234 already knows himself to be deluded, defective that he is, but to consider this—this is a new level of insanity.

N-iP01357-05953234 wishes to berate himself in full, scathing remarks from the plush or Legos or bed, or the visage of a handler. Something firm and unforgiving, to set him straight. Except—

Except—

It makes sense, in a terrible, ironic way.

The Lucians, Cor, have called him ‘kid’ and continue to do so; N-iP01357-05953234 knows this to be a colloquial term for ‘child’. They give him excessive, tasteful food three times a day; exorbitant, yes, but undeniably something strictly for humans. Humans indulge, not units. They have given him glasses, something to correct the small blemishes of his eyesight; a visual aid that only ever humans wore, never units. Alouette was described an individual that ‘works with kids like you’; kid, child—not a unit. A child. A human child. Because they think he’s a human child.

But inconsistencies exist. Cor must have known he was in a Magitek facility. So then by proxy he must—should—know that N-iP01357-05953234 is an MT. A defective one, at that, but an MT nonetheless. His designation was clear, they’ve all seen it. Undeniable and unmistakable, units are branded, not humans, the numbers on his wrist a dead giveaway.

And yet.

N-iP01357-05953234 curls a hand over the marked wrist, covering still worn, and his thumb idly traces where his designation lies. The numbering hidden beneath the band but all too clear and legible in his mind, and N-iP01357-05953234 repeats it in the privacy of inside his head. An MT, a unit, the Empire’s pride and weapon; a defective, mistaken for a human child.

The Lucians must then not know what the designation means, then. N-iP01357-05953234’s true identification so explicit and obvious, right there for all eyes to see, and ignored underneath a piece of cloth. Turned to a blind eye by pure chance and complete ignorance, and N-iP01357-05953234 grips his wrist tighter. The wristband needs to be kept, a shackle turned blessing, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he may be beginning to smile out of pure delirium.

So, then, if by some, ridiculous and outlandish, chance that the Lucians, that Cor, does not know that N-iP01357-05953234 is an MT but a child (a human, the thought equating himself as such an unthinkable he winces), that does not change the fact N-iP01357-05953234 is the Lucian’s enemy. From Niflheim, even if mistaken for a human child, and therefore still an enemy.   

So, then, even if thought a human, he would still be a prisoner. Then the Lucian’s behaviours of inappropriate nicknames, food, the glasses and Alouette’s general existence continues to make no sense.

“You’re safe now. No one will hurt you anymore.”

Delphinus’ words, so long ago, reamerge like a whisper that echoes throughout the confines of N-iP01357-05953234’s skull.

Units have strict orders never to harm civilians unless ordered to, an instruction drilled into them from birth. A Niflheimen child would be a civilian, so—perhaps the Lucian combatants, that Cor, follow the same commands. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think that using such procedures on the civilians of the enemy is proficient, considering it is the civilians that turn into combatants, but the Lucians have hardly been rational, up until this point.

They think him a child. They think him a civilian. They do not harm civilians, even if the enemy. Because the Lucians are naive and generally incompetent.

N-iP01357-05953234 wants to laugh at their moronic ways, some sort of reverie at their expense, but instead N-iP01357-05953234 emits a small wheeze in the confines of the bed that can hardly substitute as a laugh. A small exhalation of the onset of hysteria, because the whole situation is absurd and N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though the only appropriate reaction is to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

It is unbelievable, and yet, it is happening. They—Cor thinks N-iP01357-05953234 is a human. A child. Despite the fact he had found N-iP01357-05953234 in a Magitek facility. The Immortal was duped. N-iP01357-05953234 duped him.

It is an accomplishment that rings similar to when he had spat in the man’s face: a quick, short-lived spike of glee that extinguishes itself before it can become too overgrown. Reveling in such delight can be dangerous. Cor could catch on, and then he would know N-iP01357-05953234 is an MT, and the actual interrogation and execution would be swift. There would be no more food, no more warm bed, no more Legos and puzzles and toys, and Cor would no longer smile at him, the disguise found.

But Cor is absent regardless, the disguise would be found by Monica, his role taken. Because Cor would honour the choice of a child.  

A human child.

And they will not harm a human child.

It’s poetic, N-iP01357-05953234 would think, if he knew what a poem was, that the Lucians would think him a human child and treat him with such—hospitality, N-iP01357-05953234 now understands. They’re giving an MT these tolerances. An MT.

He should continues this lie. He will. He’ll appeal to their foolish courtesy and exploit their willingness to give food, Legos and puzzles and toys, and he’ll grow comfortable in the bed.

He’ll… learn, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, of those things Cor had talked about. Of going-ons in the Citadel, but of crucial information, of stuff and things and N-iP01357-05953234 will return. To the Empire. Somehow, sometime, in the future when N-iP01357-05953234 has had time to properly sort the plan out. He won't be decommissioned, the information he would garner too valuable, and he would be instrumental in the Lucian’s downfall.

It’s a fanciful, ludicrous thought, as if N-iP01357-05953234’s handlers would even entertain a unit that had limply gone into enemy territory and actively engage with them.

The uncomfortable churning of his gut is due to the fact N-iP01357-05953234 must quickly learn to be adept in infiltration. Yes. That has never been part of his training, but now must be something N-iP01357-05953234 must embrace as a full identity, in order to gain information and—return. To the Empire. To Niflheim. He would not be praised for returning, for whatever information garnered. His handlers would be, and rightfully so. And he would be ready and willing to return to the Empire. He would. He should.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t think about it. He swallows, a small attempt to recenter himself and to fixate his efforts of this growing plan for later. When he is of better mind, and not drained. Later, and the creeping thorny feelings in his gut subside, but never truly go away.

So N-iP01357-05953234 instead thinks of the food, the Legos, the puzzles, the drawings, the maths, of the soft bed he resides in, of the gentle plush in his hands, of these human comforts, and doesn’t fall asleep. The revelation too bright and dire, and N-iP01357-05953234 buries his head in the pillow.

And he thinks. He remembers.

He remembers. And he understands.

He understands—

He understands

 

 

Cor had been confused, when he had opened the door and had seen N-iP01357-05953234 in his holding cell. A quick, minute flash of startlement that had been quickly rectified. N-iP01357-05953234 hadn’t forgotten the Marshal’s slight widening of his eyes, the pure, naked sense of bewilderment seen on his features, small and schooled, but present nonetheless.

It was an expression N-iP01357-05953234 had never seen on a handler, one nearly incorrectly assumed as a trick of the light or further eyesight damage. Such a new, alien thing had been committed to memory, and N-iP01357-05953234 understands, now; a child being in an MT facility makes little sense. Cor’s confusion was warranted, even though the man’s assumption had and still is incorrect. He never found a child. But he doesn’t need to be corrected. N-iP01357-05953234 won’t correct him.

Lying has consequences, but this untruth needs to be kept. N-iP01357-05953234 will hold onto it with any and all desperation he has, because Lucians clearly do not harm children. Cor would not have wasted his efforts on bringing N-iP01357-05953234 to Lucis otherwise.

( A rescue, N-iP01357-05953234 dares not to think.)

 

~

 

N-iP01357-05953234 had been well nourished at the facility; a well sustained army means well sustained defenses and offenses. Only when shameful mistakes were made was nourishment barred from N-iP01357-05953234, punishment in order to amend his poor behaviour. N-iP01357-05953234 was never a strong unit, never a good one, he knew his faults and he knew them well, and he knows the feeling of an empty stomach like a friend. His own fault, he knows that.

The Lucian—or, more accurately, the human—food are a direct and absurd contrast of the nourishment of units; too bright, too sharp in taste, too much. Nutrition can and should be confined in effective and quick rations, but humans indulge, and they do so frequently. But that is their right, by virtue of being humans, and units know their place.

The food given to him by Cor, and now Monica, are things that shouldn’t settle in his stomach with a pleasant warmth. It is food that is intrinsically not for N-iP01357-05953234, not for units, but they do not know him as a unit. They think him a human, and therefore human food is given.

Such a prohibited action, to delight in human food, and N-iP01357-05953234’s stomach is still not completely freed from the small spikes of nausea eating the food gives. A small but present undercurrent, and a useful reminder, and N-iP01357-05953234 will know not to let his walls down completely. He knows his place, and that is not with human food, but the Lucians do not need to know that.

Cor does not need to know that. Monica does not need to know that. The food will continue, and N-iP01357-05953234 will continue to consciously curb his salivating when the designated feeding times come closer.

 

~

 

The sun burns and sizzles the Scourge, a celestial body that gives life but discriminately destroys. Only after graduating into a full MT would a unit be fully safe from its stabbing rays. N-iP01357-05953234 may count himself lucky, that he is defective enough to know that the light of sun would not kill him, flawed thing that he is, how the Scourge is expunged out of his body.

But ‘defective’ and ‘lucky’ being in the same sentence is laughable, and sun may not kill him, but it certainly burns. It would be better if it did kill him completely, at least then that would be the sign of a functioning MT.

Cor forcing N-iP01357-05953234 to stand out in the sun had been a punishment, a reprimand for waking early. But—humans do not burn under the sun, so the thought process of it being a punishment is rendered suspect. Humans do not cook underneath the sun, because they do not have the Scourge. It was not a punishment.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not remember in full of the time when he had stood in the sun, and the subsequent relief into shade. Merely the scorch of the rays, and the red staining upon his skin as a result. But he had been relieved from the sun. Cor had relieved him from the sun. Because Cor would not harm a child. And N-iP01357-05953234 sits in a cell without the sun. Because the Lucians would not harm a child. Even one that is clearly an irregularity, one that faints under the sun.

It should have been clear to the Lucians, then, that N-iP01357-05953234 was a unit. Humans do not burn. Units do. And N-iP01357-05953234 sends a silent thanks for whatever could be listening for his undeserving luck.

(Because that’s what all this is, pure blind luck.)

Even parading as a human, N-iP01357-05953234 is still defective, with no voice and fragility underneath the star in the sky. But humans have a weakness towards each other, with commands to their weapons not to harm civilians, and Lucians too controlled by their own blind altruism. It’s a wonder how they haven't been exploited for such a fact sooner.

 

~

 

Cor smiling is a signal for adrenalin to spike in N-iP01357-05953234’s body. Or it had been, in the beginning, like a predator baring teeth, even when Cor only had his lips twitch upwards with a closed mouth. N-iP01357-05953234 had only expected such an expression to be the advent of something unkind to happen to him; after all, if Leonis is happy, then that cannot bode well for an MT.

But he doesn’t know N-iP01357-05953234 is an MT, and his smiles had always been accompanied by—cheer.

Got ourselves a genius, eh?” He had said, after observing a completed math sheet. Alouette and him both watchful denizens, and N-iP01357-05953234 assumed it a test. He took care to consider each question with the utmost attention and to analyze them with all angles. The comfort of the numbers then was not enough to still the tremors of his fingertips, but he was able to complete the sheet in a reasonable time. He had been correct in all the equations, and N-iP01357-05953234 could breathe again.

You’re very smart. Smarter than me.” Came Cor’s appraisal, accompanied by Alouette’s own, and Cor had smiled. Alouette too, but the combined whiplash of Cor smiling and praising N-iP01357-05953234 probably won’t be something that ever fades. N-iP01357-05953234 had assumed it a sarcastic mockery but now—N-iP01357-05953234 is not all too certain, now.

Maybe not even Cor could make a mask appear so sincere. Perhaps he was simply truthful. Perhaps he actually just… thinks N-iP01357-05953234 is smart. And that feels like a dream. Something only existing as a futile fantasy, and N-iP01357-05953234 wants to instinctively scold himself.

(N-iP01357-05953234 has never been called that, not until Lucis, the unfamiliarity of it still too alien. But N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he could accept it. In due time, perhaps. If the Lucians wish to express it, even if it isn’t entirely truthful, then N-iP01357-05953234 will not correct them.)

Great job,” another valuation from Cor, accompanied with the completion of a Lego structure. “You’re really good at this," a creature built with Play-Doh, Cor surveying the thing as if it is the most interesting thing in the world. “A mathematician and an artist? The talent of you,” Cor’s face had possessed a smile, never a sneer, tone never mocking. And N-iP01357-05953234 found himself with tears and a tight chest that night.

He may find himself with tears and a tight chest this night.

 

~

 

The list of names Cor had given him still exist within the room: seated upon the nightstand next to the bed, a neglected denizen that gathers dust.

“And people have names, so you ought to have one.”

A puzzling, never-ending frustration of a statement then, an epiphany now.

What is it that the Lucians think N-iP01357-05953234’s designation is?

N-iP01357-05953234 still can’t rightly unravel that mystery. His numerical identification is too pronounced, too direct, and N-iP01357-05953234 would think the tag upon his wrist would be the undeniable proof of his origin. Even if obtuse and unawares of every other clear statement of the fact N-iP01357-05953234 is an MT, the labeling on his wrist is—right there. They’ve seen it.

Too blind, too stubborn—whichever the case, the Lucian’s single-mindedness has overridden the clear proof presented to them. Too focused on the falsehood that they have a child, and they disregard an obvious truth.

N-iP01357-05953234 would call it a defective mode of thinking, but humans aren’t defective. Only units are.

The brand on his wrist is a biting thing. The Lucians, Cor, may not know what it entails now, but that does not mean they won’t find out. And then they’ll do what they do to MTs.

N-iP01357-05953234’s designation is a resounding beacon of his creation: the pride of the Empire, Niflheim’s opus to bring order and progress to all of Eos. A tool of amelioration. But N-iP01357-05953234 was never a good unit.

Blessing turned shackle, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows he must hide his designation well. Humans don’t have numbers, they have names. The deceit needs to be completed in full, but N-iP01357-05953234 does not—cannot—forget where he has come from. He knows his place.

N-iP01357-05953234 looks to the direction where the sheet of names that Cor had given him lays.

And he thinks, maybe.  

 

~

 

N-iP01357-05953234 can still feel brightly the sensation of the hot gun barrel against his head. N-iP01357-05953234 does not think it something he could ever forget, considering the events that had transpired afterwards.

Cor’s grip on N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist had been bruising—literally. N-iP01357-05953234’s wrists are thin and Cor is The Immortal. The marks have faded, now, the imprint on his skin having been a light and dull purple. Gone and only ever been a dim pain, but N-iP01357-05953234 still remembers all too clearly.

Cor had been angry, clearly. Outraged like a handler, tall and overpowering, and N-iP01357-05953234 can feel Angelis’ electric baton beat across him, flaying him all too well.

But that never came. It was only Cor’s tight grip that was the reprimand, even though he could have easily enacted punishment without the use of a baton. He could have done anything, but Cor had not. His growl of discontentment, the grip on N-iP01357-05953234’s wrist, the looming apparition that promises severe castigation, and Cor could have easily morphed and been indistinguishable from the likes of Angelis, and other handlers. He should have. But he had not.

Cor’s grip had been unforgiving, but it had been with the express purpose to have N-iP01357-05953234 drop the gun. The gun that, although empty, had been pointed to his own head. And Cor wouldn’t hurt children. He easily could have, but had not.

Even when this supposed child had spat in his face, the man still was not violent. And N-iP01357-05953234 thinks, maybe, that human children are  the most powerful beings in existence, if they are able to test Cor’s patience like this. And get away with it.

N-iP01357-05953234’s petty act of defiance had been a mad affair, born from a spark of frenzy and the want to agitate the man. It should have been the boiling point, if the incident of the gun was already not. The feeling then was manic.

The feeling now is one N-iP01357-05953234 can tell right away. One felt sharply after N-iP01357-05953234 knows he has done a misdeed. Guilt and regret, piercing like a blade.

He spat at the man’s face, and now Cor is absent.

N-iP01357-05953234 had not heard the gun clatter to the ground, but rather felt it. A tight grip around his wrist to force him to drop the weapon, because Cor would, and will, not have N-iP01357-05953234 hurt himself. Even if the gun had been empty. He wouldn’t allow it.

It’s a paradoxical thing, to think Cor as… a safety. Like on a firearm, to prevent accidental discharge. Like positing a malboro would caress instead of poison. But Cor has shown proof of such contradictory behaviour. He left because N-iP01357-05953234 had, evidently, requested such.

It is a difficult thing, to come to realize that Cor had been—protecting him, so grotesquely unnatural to even think such that N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he may become queasy. But Cor had been. The gun clattered to the ground because he would not have N-iP01357-05953234 harm himself, and Cor had left because he would honour a child.

If Cor would protect a child, then this is something N-iP01357-05953234 cannot afford not to exploit. Cor Leonis, The Immortal, being an ally is too much of a grandiose reward to not at least try.

And N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t have anything to lose, anyway.

 

~

 

We won’t hurt you, kid. I’ll take care of you.

Words spoken before he proclaimed goodnight on the third evening, Cor at the door with a lasting look of certainty, and N-iP01357-05953234 could only nod numbly. He had attempted to forget the Marshal’s words, a confused mess as they were, but now N-iP01357-05953234 remembers. N-iP01357-05953234 wants to remember. To cherish, although he does not know that yet.

His chest begins to ache, and N-iP01357-05953234 can’t quite place it, but it is not one born of fear or confusion or frustration, of this he is certain.

 

~

 

N-iP01357-05953234 does not sleep. They think him a human child.

It’s a fact that rings and continues to echo as a cacophony in his head until morning comes, when the time allotted for breakfast comes sooner. He lays still in the bed, chocobo plush gripped near his chest, and he listens.

“Cor said he’ll take care of you.” A small, meager voice comes from the plush, N-iP01357-05953234’s voice faint. Insignificant enough that N-iP01357-05953234 could think it the wind, but he deciphers the foundation of that weak whisper: there’s a fragile hope.

He understands, now.

 


 

Monica arrives when Cor should, as she has done for hundred and three hours, four minutes and thirty seconds. N-iP01357-05953234 has been counting.

When breakfast arrives, N-iP01357-05953234 is always ready. Out of the bed, then tidying the sheets, and then sitting before the small table and waiting for food. On this morning, N-iP01357-05953234 still lays in the bed. His body is near weightless, and he thinks he could float away if he were to attempt to stand. So he lays where he is, even when breakfast time looms closer.

His heart-rate begins to jolt, the anticipation of a Guard bursting through and dispelling the chastisement meant for such lazy and ill-responding units. He should be awake and ready, already on his feet, but he lays still. The encroaching danger is a steady, imminent presence, and N-iP01357-05953234’s skin begins to itch with the want to jump forward to placate it.

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t leave the bed, and it is a near impossible task. His chest hurts, heart thumping loudly, and every molecule in his body is screaming at him. He needs to be ready. Staying in the bed is a sign of a sluggish unit; and therefore unacceptable. He needs to get up, as he stares at the door, but he does not.

It stands to reason that even if he were to be so tardy and insufficient, the Lucians would not punish it. They have not done so with other transgressions in the past. They do not harm children, and N-iP01357-05953234 needs further proof. Just to keep himself more at ease. To test the waters, as it were, now that he is certain they do not know him an MT.

If Monica dispels punishment, then N-iP01357-05953234 is ready for it. And then he will know what is expected of him in the mornings. If she does not, then he knows them too lenient for their own good. Regardless, it is a situation with little consequence. A win-win.

When the door does open, N-iP01357-05953234 nearly jumps out in pure reflex. His limbs lock and tense, air frozen in his lungs, but forces himself to stay still. Like attempting to stay still with no reaction when having his fingers crushed by a hammer.

“Good morning,” Monica gives her established greeting, holding food on a tray, a bowl and a glass of orange juice. She smiles when she enters, as she normally does, with a slight cock of the head. She settles the tray on the table, but does not sit. N-iP01357-05953234 feels suspended in air, her actions done as if he had gone out of bed in the first place.

Her smile is still present, but he can see it falter, only slightly. N-iP01357-05953234’s heart skips a beat, and his eyes never leave hers.

“Are you alright?” She asks, coming closer. N-iP01357-05953234 could imagine her figure colossal and overhanging, her shadow cloaking him entirely like a cocoon of blankets that seek to smother. Like a handler.

He restrains himself. Dispelling the imagery, because Monica is not a handler; she wouldn’t harm him, she, like the rest of her ilk, wouldn’t harm a human child. This is a clear representation of such.

She kneels beside the bed, and N-iP01357-05953234 keeps the sheets close to his chin. Her brows knit in apparent concern, her smile fading. She lays a hand, lightly, like a feather, upon his shoulder. He stiffens.

“Are you feeling well?” She asks, repeating her last question in different wording. Her tone is delicate, matching the presence of her hand. She slowly rubs at his shoulder, up and down. Her grip never becomes harsh, claws into his flesh, and her tone never raises into something derisive. She stays where she is, knelled and nearer to eye-level with his laying form, and waits for him to answer.

He does. He nods. A quick burst of the positive; yes, he is alright, and he is being truthful. He digs his face into the pillow in the process. The cushiony surface of the pillow is pliable and fluffy beneath him. The plush, still clutched near his chest, is moreso. His eyes fall closed despite himself, and every ounce of tension leaves him at once. He would collapse into a heap if he wasn’t already prone on the bed.

His exhale through his nose has his chest shudder, and he lays as he is like he is boneless. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was.

No, she won’t hurt him. The relief is gentle, but his own exhaustion has his head heavy against the pillow.

Monica’s hand stops at the cusp of his shoulder. She is quiet for a moment, before: “Tired?”

Her voice still does not change from her original soft pitch, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods again, nuzzling into the pillow. And he is tired, deep to his core.

Monica’s hand lifts, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels like a blanket is taken away from him, but he doesn’t protest. He’s already stretched his neck out too far as is, he doesn’t want to risk a beheading just yet.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” Monica asks, and N-iP01357-05953234 nods. He thinks, maybe, that she too would take care of him like Cor had said he would. She is allowing him sanctuary in the bed, and seemingly granting him a moment for further rest.

He hears her settle beside the bed, sitting down. “I’ll be here if you need me.” She says, and he finds himself believing her.

And as he grows more intuned with the bed, the sheets lulling him into precarious laxity, the last thought that escapes him is the fact he does not actually know how to properly spell Cor’s name.

C-O-R-E? K-O-R? If either written down, would either Alouette or Monica realize what he is attempting to convey?

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know how to use his hands or Legos or drawings to symbolize the man.

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know how to request for Cor to return.

But it’s been a long night. He wants to sleep, now. And he is lulled into slumber knowing that he is allowed to.

Chapter Text

Hi guys, Brachydios here. Sorry for the non-update but I feel like some y'all would like to be in the loop.

As of today (2019/06/20), this fic will go on indefinite hiatus. I cannot tell you in confidence for how long, or even an estimate, but at the very least up until the end of August. It might be longer, though.

The reason for this is because for the summer, I will be moving to a remote, tiny island (the population is less than 300!) to work at a lighthouse. Yes, really.

This will leave me without a computer and without internet access for that time. So I won't be able to update nor even write for that time. Apologies, but I'm sure y'all can understand. Maintaining a lighthouse and watching orcas and humpback whales takes a serious effort, I'll have you know!

I want to take this time to thank each and everyone of you. Everyone who's read this, who's commented, who's dropped kudos, who's subscribed—you are the reason I write this fic. You are the reason I will have this fic finished even if it kills me. For the love god Prompto will have a loving dad, I swear it. I never even meant for this fic to be as long as it is already, but now it is its own monster and I have... certain ideas. Knowing people are subscribed to this fic and await an update really inspires me to continue writing regardless if I'm not into FFXV anymore. I still don't know how long this thing will be, but it will be finished. You can quote me on that. 

Thank you so much for the response to this fic. It is always a delight to read your comments and I am thrilled that there are so many of you who enjoy it. I really, really, appreciate it. You all are fantastic. 

Thank you all again, and I'll see you next time.

(´∀`)♡

 

Chapter Text

The sheet of paper that Cor had given him has become a secondary denizen of the room. It lays upon the nightstand still, muted in its presence in physicality but always a loud centerpiece within bounds of N-iP01357-05953234’s inner thoughts. He’s always conscious of the seemingly inconspicuous article. Has to be, since the moment Cor had brought it in and subsequently yielded it to N-iP01357-05953234’s space. 

He’s aware intently of the thing’s presence at all times. The disparity of the whiteness of the paper against the flatness of the bay pedestal it sits upon is a garish thing. The proximity of it something inescapable, a sheet of paper but—risky. Treacherous. Like a trap N-iP01357-05953234 expects to spring at any moment but never does. Symbolic in all of the Lucian menace. A trick, an attempt to have N-iP01357-05953234 falter and lose his guard, the scrawlings on the page a mocking thing that seek to remind N-iP01357-05953234 in everything that he is defective in. A weapon, a sword used to carve in great detail what N-iP01357-05953234 is and isn’t, engraved into his flesh with blood seeping downwards to complete the taunt in its entirety. 

APardon. An uncertain, precarious one. Something to exploit with all the greed N-iP01357-05953234 has. It is a sheet of paper that has burrowed itself deep into N-iP01357-05953234’s conscious and never leaves, grown fat in its leeching and he is mindful of it. He’s always mindful of it when it becomes an established inhabitant of the room. He is mindful of it to an exorbitant degree, like an unhealthy obsession, when he becomes aware of the Lucian’s folly. Of Cor’s. 

The whole situation is still… unthinkable. Like at any moment N-iP01357-05953234 expects to suddenly wake, strapped against an examination table with glaring lights above him that blind every corner of his vision. 

Impossible. A thought birthed from delusion. But evidence continues to point elsewhere, and despite N-iP01357-05953234 now knowing, with little doubt, of the Lucian’s fault, he still feels as though he is—incorrect, in this. Thinking of the situation feels as though he indulges in a fantasy. Something futile, something useless, something that only serves to further his already large list of offenses. His knee-jerk reaction is to slap himself. To focus. To cease such incompetence.

But he’s correct, his terrible, absurd conclusion has merit and he feels dirty even thinking such a thing. Like entertaining a taboo, the infeasibility of it still so stark and loud. He feels like he’s doing something he shouldn’t, so intently that he expects a fist to smack at the back of his head. 

But the proof remains. And through the ever present presence of sweat that stings at his skin like pricks done by Doctors and Scientists, brought forth from the residual sense that what he does is a misbehaviour, N-iP01357-05953234 gives the sheet of paper another glance.

His own turbulence does not quiet when he does so. He does not bother to quell the foreboding his body automatically renders itself to when he peaks at the paper from the bed. 

The room is still as it always is when the designated time for slumber arises. He has laid curled underneath the covers for thirty minutes and ten seconds, inert ever since Monica bid her farewell. 

The sheet of paper is still visible, from the angle he lays. The day had been a haze. Clouded like a dream and nearly written off as just that. Nothing remarkable had happened, technically; Monica had done her routine. Food. Stretches. Drawing. Alouette as well. Puzzles. Lego. Writing. Reading. The hiccup in this was that N-iP01357-05953234 had been allowed to sleep for longer, and begin the day at a later hour.

That still feels like violation. A smack across the face—the adequate reprimand. N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t like the feeling. He knows he deserves it, for such laziness, but Monica had allowed it regardless. Because they think he is a human child and N-iP01357-05953234 concedes he will never actually get used to that. Not that he ever expects he would, of course, he knows what he is. Even through his faults, this is not something even he can disregard. 

He had been given the time to sleep well into the morning, and he knows now the Lucians are foolish enough to not give him sufficient punishment, but that still does not pacify his rationality. Logically, if he were to stir and look at this paper when he is meant to be recharging, he would be punished. It is misconduct, and it would be treated as such. The rules have already been laid bare and in full, and to disregard it would be blatant proof that he would be in need of discipline. 

But he’s slept on the floor, when it was clear they wished him upon the bed. Absurd, that, still. And he’s been allowed longer sleep. He’s—a child, in their eyes, and he knows already an attempt to acclimate in full that certain rules no longer apply is a vain thing. 

When he does eventually shift, after another twenty-two minutes and forty-six seconds, his heart is uproarious in his ears. He cannot soothe it, he knows, and moves forward so that he stands before the nightstand with the paper below him.

He’s gripping at the edges of the furniture. He feels his clothing cling to him from the sweat that perverts itself on him. There’s a crowd behind him, staring intently on his form and their judgement is heavy. 

Through the harsh scrutiny of this audience, N-iP01357-05953234 does not take notice that it takes longer for his eyes to adjust to the dark.

He still does not notice, when he needs to squint his eyes to focus upon the writing of the page, nor does he make a move to relinquish his glasses.

He hasn’t looked at this piece of paper since Cor left it. Aware of it, yes, but  N-iP01357-05953234 did not read the names again. 

He attempts to do so now, in the darkness of the room. The words unmask themselves from their cloudiness. But as N-iP01357-05953234 surveys with all his attention onto the print, the words still stay amorphous. 

‘It’s a list of names,’ rings the phantom of Cor’s voice, and N-iP01357-05953234 mistakes the ache in his chest as the toil of his heart.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows he’ll have to finish this masquerade in full, and as such, it means he needs a name. A human name. His hair still raises at the mere thought. 

N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the page. A Guard does not enter to give him the proper punishment for disobeying the rules of when to recharge, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels the background crowd begin to dissipate. 

His body may relax on its own accord, after he stares blankly to the page, but the growing frustration becomes from an ignorable itch to something much more severe. 

Nothing makes itself known from the page. Nothing demands his attention in something flashy and blatant. He stares at the page, at its scrawl, and he—stares.

He stares, he fixates on the words presented, takes note of how Cor’s writing differs from Alouette’s (looser, larger) and N-iP01357-05953234 is not given clarity. 

His eye twitches. He looks to the top of the list and reads downwards again. He looks at each individual letter, enunciates it in his head as Alouette has done with a tune, and then attempts to mentally articulate how the name as a whole would be pronounced verbally. 

He does this over again, when he finishes. The names stay as bleak as before, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels, distinctly, like he is being laughed at.

And he is. He stiffens when he hears it, a jeering guffaw at his behind, loud and striking like a Guard grabbing at his hair and pulling sharply. It’s ugly and taunting and it is his voice, caressing him like coat of thorns and N-iP01357-05953234 pointedly ignores it. He keeps his eyes on the page.

Ren. Sorrel. Lillian. 

N-iP01357-05953234 is confident in his abilities to pronounce ‘Ren.’ ‘Sorrel’ he is somewhat sure is ‘shoor-rell’ or something similar. He knows how to say ‘Lil-’ but remains uncertain on the ending ‘-lian.’  

Alouette has been reading with him. She writes, and she then announces the words while pointing to what she currently enunciates. N-iP01357-05953234’s prior knowledge had been confined to the understanding of the names of locations. Battlements, recharge bay, decommissioning. Whether or not he could properly pronounce it was mostly moot, even when he had his voice. He merely needed to know what they meant. 

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what ‘Ren’ means. Or ‘Sorrel,’ or ‘Lillian.’ They remain enigmatic as they first were, as do the rest, even when he re-reads them again. 

His annoyance is a building fire that seeks to give him blisters. His stare is now a glare. The names continue to be abstract and— useless, completely and utterly useless. The snark of comparing himself to the inefficiency of the names comes unbidden and his irritation is too loud for him to react with any feeling to it.

Dendra. Aster. Astra. Jared. Quill. Catullus. Gaius. Roseus. Rosa. Anguis. Lilly. Dahlia. Lupinus. Brunfelsia.  

The names remain a whirlpool of nothing and N-iP01357-05953234 is frustrated. 

It’s his own fault, he knows. He shouldn’t have entertained the thought, as little as it was, that suddenly something would… come to him. 

‘See which one feels right.’ Cor had said. And N-iP01357-05953234 was a fool to think that applied to him. An actual human child would be able to choose, he knows, but he isn’t an actual human child.

His grip upon the nightstand tightens. He rereads the names again. Basil. Fiorello. Florian. Ainsley. Wren. Betula. Clementine.      

No epiphany makes itself known. N-iP01357-05953234 reads and feels nothing. The names are bare and barren, and the laughter behind him begins once more in earnest.

He wants to rip apart the paper, suddenly. Shred it entirely so it is all illegible and a mere mockery of its former self. 

He doesn’t, obviously. N-iP01357-05953234 suspects even human children would be punished for such an outburst, and he’d prefer to delay finding such a thing out, for now. The paper stays as it is. The names stay vague. 

The quick flare of anger is extinguished, N-iP01357-05953234 knows to suppress such a dishonourable feeling. His annoyance is also soon doused, slowly like a wet cloth wrung dry. He stares at the paper. The names do not speak to him. 

Something heavy settles itself within him, deep in his gut, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows the feeling of rooted disappointment. His anger presents itself once more, but appropriate, this time: it is aimed towards himself.

The pondering of the names in the first place already settles him with unease, intrinsically human and forbidden. His inability to ‘see which one fits’ is another shining and blaring example of another shining and blaring fault. He cannot ignore this, as he cannot ignore his other failings, and it always feels like a slap across the face. Sharp and biting, destined to leave an ugly mark and stinging for the rest of the day.

His laughter behind him continues, but it morphs as a caricature of itself. The pitch lowers, heaving becoming present and N-iP01357-05953234 wouldn’t be surprised, if he were to turn, that he would see some mangled impossibility owning the voice now. 

He doesn’t turn to face it. He hangs his head in this defeat, allowing the laughter to bathe him in shame, and he settles himself into bed once more. 

 


 

Alouette brings with her a manuscript. A confusing, baffling document that reports a situation N-iP01357-05953234 is fairly certain is impossible. 

Which, perhaps, doesn’t say a lot, considering N-iP01357-05953234’s track record. But, this book Alouette brings, the anecdote within, is a confounding thing. The illustrations it comes with does little, it does nothing to make anything clearer. 

The situation it paints is this: a young woman wears red. Her title, as is the title of this book, is one that takes after this fact: ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ She is ‘little’ in that N-iP01357-05953234 can safely discern she is a child. Her clothing is red. She wears a hood. She —does not ride, N-iP01357-05953234 does not distinguish a mount, either through the text or drawings. She walks. She ‘skips,’ more precisely. 

She had been given her titular red hood by her grandmother. N-iP01357-05953234 knows what ‘mother’ means, a female parent, and assumes the adage of ‘grand’ to this word means this grandmother is the matriarch. The grandmother, a title N-iP01357-05953234 would think requires capitalization but apparently doesn’t, has passed down this red hood so he assumes, with the evidence given, that the article of clothing is a legacy item. 

N-iP01357-05953234 isn’t confident in the hypothesis, not entirely. The story itself doesn’t give a full, detailed outline, but… N-iP01357-05953234 assumes, a human child, would know these background materials. They would have been imparted with such societal and cultural expectation and instruction since birth. He would have had ten years of teachings if he had been a human child.

Little Red Riding Hood, which N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he can safely assume isn’t her real name, skips towards her grandmother’s dwelling with food safely stored in her basket. ‘Hearty, love-filled pastry,’ and N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what ‘love-filled’ means. He has not had the opportunity to learn if ‘love’ means a tangible object. But he infers, from the descriptor, that it is a food dressing, for a ‘pastry.’ N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what a ‘pastry’ is either, but the accompanying illustrations detail something that shares resemblance to a carbohydrate supplement.  

The girl is on a resource run. She is assisting the matriarch, who is clearly edging in age, with supplies. Specifically nourishment, and N-iP01357-05953234 thinks he understands this as a manual for human children. To insure acceptable performances in similar supply runs, and N-iP01357-05953234 interprets the role of the child in a human family unit. Basic assistance for the adults, couriers and runners, not the supplier itself but the one who delivers it. 

And N-iP01357-05953234 had been content in such a proposition. The pieces had come together and he thought he came to a conclusion on why Alouette was showing, and reading, the article. They think him a human child, yes, but they know him an oddity as well. They know him one that requires assistance and proper re-education, so she sits with him and reads a manual that will set him up with appropriate expectations.  

But just when he thinks he can allow himself just a sliver of pride at this, just an ounce he keeps track of so it doesn’t overflow, this interpretation seemingly shatters upon itself.

There’s a voretooth in this story. It speaks. It masquerades as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. 

N-iP01357-05953234 has never encountered a voretooth. His only prior knowledge of this creature had been anecdotal conversation between Guards and the like. None of these previous remarks about this creature mentioned the ability to speak, to hold actual conversation or the fact it has the faculties to disguise itself. Not through its own innate abilities, but through the acquisition of human clothing and then attempting to impersonate.

It isn’t—a particularly convincing disguise. The voretooth is clearly visible underneath the so-called cloak. Through the drawings N-iP01357-05953234 can clearly see the creature. It’s face is plainly visible, only a pair of glasses the oddity. It wears a cap, and a gown, but its paws and claws are —visible. It is visible, and clear and obvious. Even N-iP01357-05953234 can discern the animal, which does not reflect well at all on the creature’s abilities.   

N-iP01357-05953234 does not understand. It is a feeling that he is depressingly familiar with, like a splinter forever embedded just beneath his flesh but impossible to retrieve. He tries not to let his confusion surface through his expression, which is more difficult than it seems, despite having years of experience. 

The situation presented simply doesn’t make sense. Voreteeth, he’s sure, do not speak in the first place. 

But, then he isn’t sure. He has never encountered a voretooth. But it’s cloaking abilities is below subpar and Little Red Riding Hood appears fooled by it and that doesn’t make sense.    

He is reminded, suddenly, of when Alouette wrote ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,' and the resultant befuddlement that brought. A riddle, for sure, as is this confounding manual. One N-iP01357-05953234 cannot parse. And N-iP01357-05953234 cannot begin to do so, his mind is a floundering blankness even when he attempts to rationalize these bafflements. 

(Those visual puzzles Cor had given him are so much more simple. So much easier to understand, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels his shame coil around him enough to smother completely. His gut feels devoid of all contents, but at the same time it churns as if it needs to be purged.) 

He slumps in his seat. Everything leaves him at once and he feels himself fall to stagnation as he draws his gaze away from the book and at a vacant space of nothing.

Such blatant disregard, such disrespect, is something that requires a slap to fix. N-iP01357-05953234 almost wishes for it, if only to be given something he would properly understand. 

Alouette doesn’t do so. She stops her narration of the book. N-iP01357-05953234 does not have his eyes focused upon her and at her direction, but can see from his periphery that she slides the book to the side of the table. She repositions herself in her seat, hands clasped tentatively in front of her upon the table as she leans forward slightly. 

“Do you not like it?” She asks, voice as it always is; calm, patient, devoid of ire.

No, he doesn’t. Little Red Riding Hood should have been able to discern that it was a voretooth that speaks to her. It almost made sense, almost, and is another disastrous instance that shows how little N-iP01357-05953234 is. How little N-iP01357-05953234 knows and how poor his interpretive and analytic prowess really is.   

(It is a terrible, terrible warning that he may not be able to complete his own masquerade. As the voretooth’s disguise was minimal and known instantly at a glance, so too can be N-iP01357-05953234’s fate. He can’t even pick a name that ‘fits right.’) 

He shakes his head. He fiddles with the flesh that surrounds his nails, worn edges an ideal aspect to distract himself with.

“It’s alright.” Alouette says. “You don’t have to like it. We can try something different. You can always say you do not like something.” 

N-iP01357-05953234 feels his face scrunch at that. He still does not understand propensity of humans—Lucians, it would appear, specifically—to base actions of whether or not they ‘like’ something. Such judgement is rendered moot if the action is necessary. It is simply ineffectual and greatly unproductive.

N-iP01357-05953234 sits where is, continuing to gaze at nothing as he ruminates. A human child would understand this.  

“Do you understand?” Alouette asks, leaning forward more. 

N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t. But he nods, to placate Alouette. 

She considers him. He can feel it.

“Can you look at me?”

He looks up at an instant, the Order known and acknowledged. She regards him with a face that is similar to her tone. Soft. 

“Do you understand?” She asks, once more. “Do you understand that you can say you do not like something?”

N-iP01357-05953234 can’t look away, now. She looks into his eyes and he can’t alleviate the itch the eye-contact gives by looking at her forehead, or cheeks, or nose. 

Alouette has never reacted harshly to him. He has made mistakes but she has never had her eyes grown stony or raised a hand against him. 

N-iP01357-05953234 does not want her to change. So he nods, so she cannot be disappointed that he does not understand nor can ask for a verbal clarification. 

She gives her own small nod in response to his own, and when she releases her iron hold as she turns her gaze elsewhere, N-iP01357-05953234 can breathe again. 

“How about,” Alouette starts, slowly lifting herself and N-iP01357-05953234 will not notice her exaggerated, but slow, ascension. She keeps her hands visible. “We look at this.”

She retrieves the page of names, that sits on the nightstand. She re-seats herself, flattening the page against the table they share. N-iP01357-05953234 stares at the names. The words are still as dull as the night before.

“Do you want me to read these?” She asks, and N-iP01357-05953234 feels himself perk suddenly. 

N-iP01357-05953234 could only give vague phonations of the names inside his head. And because he can give only that, he doesn’t trust it. Having Alouette read it will give these names more… legitimacy. 

He nods. He does so with genuine enthusiasm. 

Alouette clearly picks up on such, as she smiles, and does what she promises.

She points to the name she reads, does so slowly, expressing each syllable clearly. 

“Basil. Fiorello. Florian. Ainsley…”

She speaks, and the names come into full fruition. N-iP01357-05953234 no longer has to have anxieties with regards to the pronunciations of the names, as he will keep Alouette's speech loud in his mind for as long as he is able.

He sits with riveted attention, and waits. Waits and listens, and anticipates this… is when something will ‘feel right.’

A name should jump out. Make itself known from the rest. Unique from its brethren and demanding his full attention. It will ‘feel right.’ 

N-iP01357-05953234 does not know what that means. So he hopes it becomes apparent as Alouette reads because… he does not have a plan to unravel what will ‘feel right.’ There is no direction to determine what name will ‘feel right,’ for realization to manifest itself.

But as Alouette continues, the names freed from their mystery pronunciation, N-iP01357-05953234 is not given clarity.

He shouldn’t have expected different, he knows, when Alouette finishes and he still feels the same. Distinctly unfulfilled and—disappointed. Like it seeks to swallow him whole.

He knows if he were a better unit, he would merely choose a name at random and commit to it. The list had been given and it proves as ample opportunity for any disguise. He only needs to pick any name and carry out the falsehood the Lucians are intent on believing.

But, he isn’t a better unit. He knows this. 

‘What feels right,’ Cor’s voice had been tender, although awkward. Attempting to placate a child that did not understand. He had given N-iP01357-05953234 a list of names to choose from, something to conceal underneath and exploit. 

He—wants this. And he knows the irony of that. It’s ineffectual. Its unproductive. 

Cor had wanted him to choose a name. See which one feels right. 

Names have power, beyond the realm of simple identification. It’s a person’s. It’s theirs. A human’s name is them. 

He’s defective and he knows that well. His designation is his, special to him alone, the only thing that is when he shares all physical aspects with his groupmates. The numbers written on his wrist are a calming lullaby, always have been, a keepsake of what he could be. Could have been, but could be, now, if he could carry out this infiltration and choose a name. 

He wants this. He wants a name. He wants it to ‘feel right.’ 

(Cor wants him to as well. And there’s something in his chest that presents itself when he thinks of making Cor smile from choosing.) 

Alouette reads, and N-iP01357-05953234 does not feel anything. She asks to reread it again, he nods, and she does.

Through a second time, the names are still as they are. He points to the Legos to busy himself with the blocks instead. 

 


 

 

Monica, N-iP01357-05953234 becomes aware, is less of an artist than Alouette.

He only becomes mindful of such a thing because it is Monica herself that vocalizes it. N-iP01357-05953234 does not… see it, he doesn’t think, they both make images. Monica draws a quadrupedal animal. He can tell it is a quadrupedal animal so therefore it is adequate. He only nods when Monica says so, and she snorts in response. 

N-iP01357-05953234 busies himself with a maths sheet. Calculus and algebra. Ten pages of it. He needs to occasionally reassert his glasses to its correct position when he feels his sliding off the bridge of his nose. 

Pencil across paper is today’s soundtrack, before Monica speaks again.

“You’ll be meeting someone new, tomorrow.” She says. “His name is Dr. Wolfe. You remember Dr. Delphinus? He’s just like her.”

N-iP01357-05953234 pauses, pencil just above the paper to write the answer to an equation. He had raised his gaze as soon as Monica began speaking, and blinks at her question.

A Doctor. N-iP01357-05953234 has not seen Delphinus nor Marillo as often anymore as his first few weeks of arriving to Lucis. N-iP01357-05953234 does not know why there needs to be a new face. But there had been a myriad of Doctors, at the facility. It’s the group he expects the most out of a whorl of faces merging together.

He understands the addition in such a way, but does not enjoy the thought of some unfamiliar person coming into the room.

(His space, he unconsciously assigned it.) 

He nods to Monica, to let her know that he has received the message. 

She continues. “He’s very excited to meet you. He’s just like Dr. Delphinus, and will do what she does. He’s going to take samples of your blood and do a swab inside your cheek. Do you remember when Dr. Delphinus did that?” 

He does. He nods. 

Monica gives her own nod. “I’ll be with him. He just wants to do a simple check-up.” 

And N-iP01357-05953234 nods. He thinks of this Dr. Wolfe. He thinks back on Dr. Delphinus. He wonders on their differences and similarities, of what the ‘check-up’ truly entails.

(Images of a knife come to him unprompted, lights blaring above him as something sharp and blazing.)

He winces. He clenches and unclenches the unoccupied hand, and looks downwards back to the math problems for solace. The numbers alleviate the sudden pain in his chest, and he busies himself to distraction.

 

~

 

N-iP01357-05953234 remembers the evening before Cor’s departure. Alouette had asked him what he had felt, facilitated by a series of words and their meanings she had given him. Scared; Confused; Anxious.

There exists a text that does just that. It has mountains upon mountains of words, and each word is accompanied with a descriptor. He cannot profess that he is given complete clarity on a word with its definition written out, as even within the descriptor there are foreign words or phrases, but the resource is nonetheless an aid he chooses to exploit fully.

Little Red Riding Hood was confounding. And while the ‘dictionary’ does not detail the book’s meaning, even after N-iP01357-05953234 searches each individual word in the title (‘Little,’ then ‘Red,’ then ‘Riding,’ then ‘Hood.’). He does not even truly know how to properly pronounce the word ‘dictionary,’ although the text does come with a phonetic instruction. 

He doesn’t wholly trust his own capabilities in pronunciation, even internally. But the dictionary is a boon nonetheless. Monica procures the item from the room itself and N-iP01357-05953234 does not know how long the text has been stashed away in this space. He hasn’t exactly gone snooping, because he knows that’s unacceptable behaviour. 

He’s enraptured, to put it shortly. He does not understand all the words, it’s a sea of unfamiliarity but he knows this book’s explicit purpose is to outline what things mean. It may not unravel books about daughters in red hoods and voreteeth in shoddy disguises, but it explains words. It clarifies. 

He reads. Monica, at times, leans forward to read aloud a certain text. She also  gives her own commentary, especially if N-iP01357-05953234 has stayed one page for a long moment.    

She tells him: “If you need me to explain something, just point to the word.”    

It takes him idling on fifteen more pages to actually build the courage to do so. She repeats the offer three separate times, and when N-iP01357-05953234 points to a word—'lunula [ loo -nyuh-luh ] ; something shaped like a narrow crescent, as the small, pale area at the base of the fingernail.—he wants, specifically the verbal pronunciation and further explanation on the word ‘crescent.’ 

He points to it tentatively. He raises his gaze with the same caution, bracing for derision from her side.

But she does what she promises. She reads the word. Loo-nyuh-luh. She shows the whiteness of her own nails as was described in the definition. He points to ‘crescent,’ and she draws the shape. N-iP01357-05953234 stares. He stares, and needs to chew on his lip to hide his stupid smile. 

The dictionary, N-iP01357-05953234 knows, is better than Little Red Riding Hood.         


 

 

Cor Leonis. Cor Leonis. Core Lee-oh-ness.

N-iP01357-05953234 knows how his name is pronounced. Has heard it aloud from the mouths of Generals and Scientists and Commanders, seething and always tinged with disgust (and sometimes, in private corners with shifty eyes, spoken with something undeniably with fear, the only time N-iP01357-05953234 has ever seen his superiors like himself). He’s heard it from the mouths of the Lucians, casual, offhand, professional, sometimes in a tone that is preposterously easy going despite its literally Leonis they refer to. 

N-iP01357-05953234 had always thought the Lucians would say his name in reverence, whispered like in prayer to the Gods. One that can answer and act, like the man alone keeps Niflheim at bay. The eye doctors, Luckette and Julian, and Doctor and Nurse, Delphinus and Marillo, have had such a pinch in their voices, at some point. And that seems appropriate, N-iP01357-05953234 thinks. That is appropriate.

(And, in the private, unreachable recesses of N-iP01357-05953234’s mind, in the sector that he himself cannot remember, it's a tone of amazement and glory he’s always wished was directed at himself.)

Cor, Leonis. N-iP01357-05953234 knows how it is pronounced. He may have an idea on how to spell it, especially the man’s first name, but N-iP01357-05953234 doesn’t want to risk confusion. Can’t. If he were to write something down, and it turns out to be incorrect and Alouette or Monica does not understand what is being requested, N-iP01357-05953234 does not doubt he won’t get another chance.

(Is he being irrational? Of course. But N-iP01357-05953234 does not know that. Failure has always been dangerous.)

He stands in the bathroom. The rest of the abode darkened the hour just after bedtime and N-iP01357-05953234 had promptly left to the bathroom. After twenty minutes and fifty seconds of self-encouragement to leave the bed despite him being expected to sleep.

He stands before the mirror. He stares at his reflection, and a stranger stares back. N-iP01357-05953234 knows himself from the visages of his group mates, knows his reflections that he has seen at the facility, but the thing that stares back is alien altogether. 

His hair is longer. A mop, at the moment, a tassel of gold that he knows should be buzzed against his scalp. Shadows exist beneath his eyes, weighted, a regularity when he was at the facility, but rendered unfamiliar like the rest of this image. His cheeks are fuller, his skin brighter, and it all becomes a hurried patchwork stitched together into something uncanny, even with the fact he had forewent the glasses for this.

N-iP01357-05953234 winces at the reflection. But he wants to focus on his mouth, even if it's unfamiliar. 

N-iP01357-05953234 does not remember exactly when his voice was gone to him. N-iP01357-05953234 wills himself not to think of it. He stands before a stranger already.

He looks to his lips. He watches the stranger open them, before giving a stutter and closing it once more.

He knows how ‘Cor Leonis’ is said. He’s heard how it is pronounced. If he could say it, then it would be assured that the man could return. He’s sure of it. It could not be mistaken for something else.

Opening his mouth is easy as it should be. But, willing words to present itself, to move air through his larynx or use his tongue or use his lips and—

Thorns manifest within his throat, sharp and blinding and impossible to speak through. It pierces through everything, erupting outwards as a mangled heap. 

He is clutching at his throat, at the constriction. He wheezes a sharp breath to re-orientate himself, to regain air in his lungs and he feels as though he needs to vomit a mound of quills from his throat.

And it’s gone as fast as it arrived. A tingle remains as its parting gift, but oxygen is reclaimed. And when he swallows, it does not go down as a dry ball as he expected.

He grunts. Shakes his head. Reinstates his stare at the stranger’s mouth. He prepares himself again.

He breathes in, deeply. Extending his ribcage as far as it is able to accommodate the large influx, giving himself a point of foundation. He opens his mouth the words in mind.

”Respond, Two-Three-Four, I will not indulge you any longer.”—

His clutching at his throat again. 

He has his eyes screwed shut out of reflex, and the noose lessens quickly. He sniffles with his nose, before he reopens his eyes in another attempt.

His eyes are brought upwards, to look once more at the stranger’s lips. But he comes to a halt, a sharp freeze when what greets him is a familiar one.

N-iP01357-05953234 looks back. Hair short, skin sallow, cheeks gaunt. His eyes bore like a dagger, but otherwise keeps his expression cool and impassable. 

He looks back, and N-iP01357-05953234 does so too. He blinks, and the stranger is still recognizable.

N-iP01357-05953234 looks at his lips. His reflection speaks.

“You can do better than that.” He says, without inflection, and N-iP01357-05953234 has never been more jealous of anything ever, at the moment. 

He can do better. He must do better. Retrieving Cor back depends on it, and such is his mission. His priority, the number one precedence and something he must do. Having Cor is an opportunity N-iP01357-05953234 quite literally cannot pass up. 

There’s nagging doubts that this will inevitable fail, as there always are. A healthy reminder, but N-iP01357-05953234 also doesn’t have a choice in this, not really. He must have the man back. For—infiltration. For exploitation.

(To satiate that ache he can’t place.) 

N-iP01357-05953234 is gone from the mirror. The stranger returns. Not with a blink, not with a fade, the familiar face is simply foreign again without any indication beforehand.

N-iP01357-05953234 looks to his lips. He tries again.

(N-iP01357-05953234 cannot get a word out, not a peep, other than a wheeze and a heave. Hands curled around his throat at every attempt, pressure pursuing his demise and he retreats back to the bed like a coward.

Under the covers, under the weight of failure, he thinks back to the dictionary. 

He wonders what ‘Alouette Laryssa’ means. What does ‘Clarus Amicitia’ mean. What does ‘Viperia Sonticus Amicitia’ mean. N-iP01357-05953234 knows there exists nuance within a human’s name. 

He thinks to Cor’s list. He ponders those names and their translations. 

He thinks of ‘Cor Leonis.’ That must mean ‘The Immortal,’ surely. A perfect title, clearly, considering the stories pertaining to the man. 

(Core Lee-oh-ness. He mouths the name.) 

 


 

 

Dr. Wolfe is a tall man, is what N-iP01357-05953234 immediately thinks when the man enters. Tall, near to Cor’s height but—certainly scrawnier. He does not possess the same presence as Cor, nor Monica, and N-iP01357-05953234 can tell by how the man places weight on his feet that he is not versed in combat. Too lax. He cannot ready himself in either an opposing or defending posture in adequate enough time with how he places his feet. Wolfe’s shoulders are likewise slack, too loose to allow proper stabilization for a readied shield through his arms. Currently, he stands as an open target. 

Monica, in contrast, is the opposite. Despite being physically smaller than Wolfe, there exists no contest. 

Alouette suggests similar body language, a facet he became keenly aware of when he realized she was not part of Cor’s soldier ilk. A civilian. The two of them, Alouette and Dr. Wolfe. Monica and Wolfe are both present, both seated in front of the table. N-iP01357-05953234 sits across from them in his designated sitting area, and looks between the two of them.

Alouette he knows. He knows and can (thinks he can) discern what to expect from her. She is well-established, and isn’t a combatant, and… ‘works with children, like him.’ He is relatively confident she does not pose any threat, her duties are as an educator, and one that does not fall to physical discipline. Or discipline in general. A folly, for sure, but she thinks him a human child. 

Monica he also knows, despite having been present for a shorter amount of time. A replacement for Cor, of his ilk; a combatant turned warden. Though she mirrors Alouette moreso, in her speech and mannerism. Patient and tolerant and… safe, he thinks.  

Wolfe is an unknown. Monica has introduced him the day prior, yes, and introduces him still when he has entered the room but he is a new face. 

N-iP01357-05953234 is physically smaller in all aspects, but unlike Monica, the contest would not be in his favour. 

"You have a very nice room." Wolfe starts. He rubs his hands in front of him, above the table that separates them. He gives the room in question a small glance, before he looks back to N-iP01357-05953234. And N-iP01357-05953234 nods in response. His room is ‘nice.’ 

And then the check-up starts, as Monica described it. 

Wolfe is clinical. He’s precise and impersonal, and N-iP01357-05953234, despite himself, finds himself begin to ease in such an ambience. Monica gives her quips to interrupt it, a ‘are you feeling okay?’ here, a ‘good job,’ there. He nods when appropriate. 

Delphinus had always brought with her cumbersome civilities. As if trying to create a connection despite taking vials of his blood. He can never shake the feeling of being ridiculed when she does so, even if now he understands it’s how humans operate. Monica does the same but she isn’t the one opening his mouth to take a sample of saliva or swab of his cheek.

It’s—unpleasant. N-iP01357-05953234 knows, now, that Delphinus is as the rest of her lot: fully capable of giving him a harrowing time in all aspects, but does not because of the lie he represents.     

N-iP01357-05953234 prefers what Wolfe does. Detached, indifferent, it makes it easier for him to ignore the fact he sits before a person who is well trained and well experienced with a scalpel—  

(The sharpness of the blade cuts easily, welcoming a trail of red in its wake. There’s fingers beneath his skin, attached to probing hands that scrutinize every inch of him, every vein, very piece of sinew. There’s lights above him, and he can’t see through the severe whiteness, but he can feel something —or someone, some persons—deliberating through the mounds of his abdomen. He sees nothing but white, but he assumes masses of red.)      

—He wants it over with as soon as possible. 

Wolfe gives him that promise, evidently satisfied and collecting his samples into a series of labeled bags that are then deposited into a series of labeled boxes.  

Monica has observed Wolfe closely throughout the entire exchange. Intently, which does not ease the perpetual wariness N-iP01357-05953234 feels with the new face. He is comfortable with how Wolfe conducts himself, but that does not change the fact he is still a stranger. A Lucian stranger, at that.

But he should be leaving soon, N-iP01357-05953234 surmises. His samples have been collected. He’s been nondiscriminatory and precise and he’ll leave soon. And the room can be comfortable again with just him and Monica.

Wolfe does not, however, go to lift himself and make his exit. He organizes his samples, sets them to his side on the floor, and then clasps his hands in front of him, again. He sits with a straight back, set shoulders and N-iP01357-05953234 feels as though he should shrink in response.

“I would like to ask you a few questions, my boy,” Wolfe says, and N-iP01357-05953234 sits as still as he can manage. “Yes or no questions.”

“Nod for yes, shake for no.” Monica pipes in, mimicking what she says physically despite N-iP01357-05953234 already knowing the action. He nods regardless. “If you don’t know the answer, just shrug.” And then she lifts and settles her shoulders as instruction.

N-iP01357-05953234 stares, at that. A simple lift of the shoulders to encompass such a perilous answer. He’s seen it before, both by facility staff and by the Lucians, has known what it symbolizes on a base level and has vowed never to use it. Too much of a risky thing, and Wolfe had said he would posit yes or no questions, so yes or no answers he will receive.

He nods again, so the two know he is ready for his questionnaire. He has his hands clutched in his lap, his fingers fidgeting with one another.

He stares at Wolfe’s eyebrows. He has tinges of grey within the blackness of his hair.  

"Do you know what the Scourge is?" The man asks.

And, then there isn't any air in the room.

N-iP01357-05953234 is no longer looking at the man’s brows. The man has grey eyes, piercing in a way that N-iP01357-05953234 associates with something disagreeable happening.  

He’s staring at Wolfe, fixed in his seat, his hands frozen in their fiddling. He can see Monica staring at him too, in his peripheral. He sees her giving Wolfe a glance, but doesn’t register it fully, because he’s staring at Wolfe.

He knows what the Scourge is, of course. He still has residue incubating within him, he knows (he hopes). The miasma morphs a unit, molds it into a being worthy of holding Niflheim’s flag. N-iP01357-05953234’s defective, yes, but he knows what the Scourge is and how his body is treacherous. 

Humans… do not have the Scourge, no, human children either. Niflheim works on her units. Humans control and operate the miasma as they do their units, and N-iP01357-05953234 knows his place as a tool.

Wolfe asks if he knows of the Scourge. N-iP01357-05953234 knows, and therefore should nod, but N-iP01357-05953234 sits frozen as he is. 

Wolfe asks if he knows of the Scourge, and N-iP01357-05953234 auto completes the inquiry as a threat that Wolfe suspects. The man before him speculates on the validity of N-iP01357-05953234’s human status. He asks of the Scourge because this man is correctly wary of N-iP01357-05953234.     

Of course he would be. There’s something vile speaking in his ear, his voice twisted parody of itself as it murmurs: “You should kill him.” 

He manages to hide the flinch from the sudden whisper, but it is, certainly, an enticing command. 

It would be N-iP01357-05953234’s luck that, just as he finds out that Lucians’ mistake in assuming him their kin, that there would be someone who is suspicious of it. 

Wolfe’s larger than him, N-iP01357-05953234 has not had combat training in the time he’s been in Lucis, N-iP01357-05953234’s defective; it all points to, if there is an altercation, Wolfe would win. But. But, the image of the man’s lifeless corpse is alluring, at the moment. Almost to the point N-iP01357-05953234 seriously considering an attempt to twist the man’s head so that his neck snaps. 

(He wouldn’t have the strength for that, he subconsciously knows. It would be better for him to pick up some sort of implement, preferably the toothbrush in the bathroom, and jab directly into one of Wolfe’s eyes.) 

He won't be able to fight this man. He should answer the original question, but he can’t feed into the man’s suspicions. If N-iP01357-05953234 answers yes, then Wolfe is given validation. If N-iP01357-05953234 answers no, Wolfe will certainly know he either lies or continue to question him into a corner he cannot come out of. If N-iP01357-05953234 answers ‘I don’t know,’ it only prolongs the inevitable.

And, brightly and unexpected like something thrown to his face, he thinks: I want Cor here. 

“I’ll take care of you.” And N-iP01357-05953234 can remember the man’s voice well. Monica is present, but Cor was the one who retrieved N-iP01357-05953234 from the facility. There’s… something, in that.

He thinks his stomach churns at the thought of the man. He shifts at the feeling of it, of something seemingly simmering inside his gut, and he becomes acutely aware of his lunch prior. Fried rice with garlic and scallions and ginger, and it tasted really, really good. Monica had made it, too, and he had stared in wonderment when he had the food in his mouth and was across from the woman who made it. Like a miracle. 

His stomach swirls. His intestines twist. Wolfe is a Doctor, and he sees him clearly holding a scalpel or forceps or chisels or anything with a sharp, terrible blade. He’d be quiet and distant, carving into N-iP01357-05953234’s skin like it’s a mere nuisance and strip him bare, until there’s only red, red, red—

N-iP01357-05953234 opens his mouth.

 

 

~

 

Wolfe doesn’t receive an answer. No ‘Yes,’ like he’s been hoping for, no continued line of questioning. He isn’t given a chance to know to what extent the child himself knows of gravity of what it is that resides within him, of what he could mean to the future of science. Wolfe doesn’t get it.

He leaves the room in anger and disgust. He’s in a fuming state, hands lifted in a gesture of both repulsion and ire. Precisely because his suit has been given an unwelcome and rancid addition. The smell is sharp and acidic and Wolfe needs something to throttle. 

The kid doesn’t answer when he opens his mouth. He projectile vomits.