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There’s a period during the long night when the three of them don’t see each other for a while. The last time was in Lestallum, briefly, while the Glaives were preparing for a hunt in Cleigne that promised to be grueling. Prompto still remembers it vividly, if only because it was so startling to see Ignis offer a little smile in response to a particularly bad joke. He won’t tell Ignis he worries about him, but he does. He thinks everyone does a little bit. Hard not to when he disappears for weeks or months and they have to rely on rumors from travelers about a blind fisherman they come across on the road. But Prompto thinks people worry about him, too, and that’s why they laugh at his shitty jokes and give those encouraging little smiles; why Monica sometimes makes those campfire griddle cakes for him when he stops by; why Cindy plays along with his half-hearted flirtations when it’s so obvious neither of them is really interested.

He doesn’t think people worry about Gladio, though. And maybe it’s a little bit because Gladio doesn’t want them to, because he’s meant to be tough and sturdy and infallible, built to take a hit—but maybe it’s also because they’d prefer to believe he can watch out for himself. He always has. Everyone but Iris believes he’s just as invulnerable as he pretends to be. They don’t have the energy or will to let themselves think otherwise.

And Prompto’s much the same. He doesn’t worry about Gladio, either, for some time. Doesn’t think to be concerned at all until, after eight months of radio silence, he steps out of a tent at a Glaive campsite by Meldacio and almost doesn’t recognize the man in front of him, who seems at first glance like another Glaive or hunter, or absolutely anyone at all. But then Prompto spots the lines of a familiar tattoo, then crisscrossing scars, whiskey-golden eyes, a heavy frown, and oh, of course it’s Gladio. Of course it is. Except his wild mane of hair has been almost entirely shorn off, now closely cropped and severe, military. Without it, he doesn’t look anything like himself. The man Prompto’s gaping at is a stranger.

He sees Prompto staring but doesn’t say anything about it, doesn’t say anything at all; just gives a nod of acknowledgment and looks back to whoever it is that’s talking to him. Prompto should know her name, but doesn’t. It’s embarrassing to admit, but all of the Glaives sort of blur together for him. They’re all fierce and scrappy and repentant in the same way. And knowing what their casualty rates are like these days, maybe maintaining some distance is for the best. Callous but true.

Later, after they’ve all eaten—breakfast for Prompto, but it’s fruitless to try to name any meal when people keep different schedules, and the time on any clock means very little—he catches Gladio packing up his things. Just stopped in for a quick rest on his way elsewhere, probably. It’s a regular occurrence for those who travel on their own. Prompto was just stopping by, too, in theory, before he let himself get roped into some nonsense with a quetzalcoatl.

“Hey,” Prompto says less confidently than he means to. He pauses, waiting for Gladio to say something, but the man just grunts and continues stuffing a new set of rations into his bag. “So—so you, uh, changed your hair.”

“Yep,” says Gladio.

“It’s really… different,” Prompto offers. “You kinda—actually, you look a lot like the marshal now. But bigger.”

Gladio stops, sighs, looks up tiredly. “What do you want, Prompto?”

“Nothing!” says Prompto, taking a reflexive step back. “Or, uh—I just thought I should—” What, check up on him and see what the deal was, like some kind of insufferable busybody? Even if it’s the truth, it’s not a good answer. He has to clamp his mouth shut self-consciously to keep something stupid from slipping out.

Fastening the leather straps on the backpack, Gladio stands and slings the bag over his shoulder. He doesn’t quite look annoyed, but seems like he could get to that point very quickly. Just tired still. Like he doesn’t have the energy to care much either way. He says, “You wanna head to Old Lestallum?”

Taken aback, Prompto asks, “With you?”

“We’d be catching a ride with Sadda and Jenica, at least for a little while,” says Gladio. “They can take us as far as Alkyrie Haven.”

Prompto has no idea who those people are. One of them was probably the woman Gladio was talking to earlier, he figures. “Sure,” he says. “Just gimme a minute to get my stuff.”

With a nod from Gladio, Prompto darts off back to the tent where he’d left his things, nearly tripping over his own feet and the ground and the air in his too-eager hurry. Because knowing his luck, Gladio might decide he’s taking too long and just leave him behind. That probably wouldn’t really happen, he knows, but he still isn’t going to chance it.

He gets all his things packed away that he’d taken out before—toiletries, clothes that need washing, gun mods he’s been tinkering with, and yeah, okay, a plush chocobo he cuddles with sometimes when he sleeps—and sets off for the trucks at a jog, maybe more nervous and apprehensive than he’d ever admit to. But Gladio’s there waiting, leaning casually against the back of one truck with his arms crossed and expression blank. The haircut makes him, if possible, more intimidating than ever, all no-nonsense and tough and utilitarian. At least with long hair he had looked like he had a wild, reckless streak, like he was some kind of aspiring rock star, or possibly a hero on the cover of a tawdry romance novel. Now he looks a bit too much like the truth: a soldier, a guard, a man with a solemn duty.

The two of them climb into the bed of the truck and get settled without a sound. Gladio exchanges a few shouted words with the Glaives up front, then they’re off, little truck rumbling as it carries them out into the ocean of stifling darkness.

It’s quiet between them for a while. Gladio’s sitting cross-legged and staring off to the side of the road, not spacing out but watching, gaze hawk-like. They’re seated diagonally from each other, because it’s an old truck and Gladio’s stupid tall legs cause him to take up too much space, so that if Prompto tried to sit directly across from him he’d be squished by Gladio’s knees. Instead he stretches his legs out in front of him, toes of his boots pressed to metal, and lets his gaze drift around the truck bed, taking in the little details. It’s littered with bits of dirt and hay and dried-up chocobo feed, and there are spots where the paint and finish have worn off the metal and left it to rust over. It’s been through a lot, this old hunk of junk, but every mark on it just shows that it’s still kicking. It’s reliable the way stubborn and ancient things often are.

Eventually the quiet stretches on long enough that Prompto works up the nerve to look to Gladio and ask, “So why Old Lestallum?” He’s lowered his voice and doesn’t really know why. It’s not like the Glaives could eavesdrop. Not easily, anyway.

“Remember Navyth, Noct’s fishing buddy?” says Gladio, still staring off critically into the distance.

“You mean Noct Gar’s fishing buddy,” Prompto replies with a grin, earning a snort from Gladio. “Yeah, what about him?”

“Guy’s found some meteorshards and he’s willing to sell—for the right price.”

Prompto frowns. “Selling? Like, for gil?

“Yep.”

“He won’t just… hand them over to people who can actually use them? Or, I dunno, barter them away?”

“Nope.”

“The fuck, man,” says Prompto.

“Yep,” Gladio agrees. “Fair’s fair, though. He’s risking a lot going away from the outpost to fish these things out of the water.”

“Still,” says Prompto, “it’s kinda…” He stops, presses his mouth into a line.

“Yeah, I know.” Gladio doesn’t seem impressed either, lip curling into the very beginning of a disgusted look. He says, “I told Iris I’d get as much of it as I could. We’ll see how that goes.”

“Yeah, guess so.” Then, “Hey, Gladio? Thanks for bringing me along. Even if it’s just to deal with a sleazy conman fisherman.”

Gladio’s gaze turns on him now, and he starts to open his mouth like he’s going to say something, but he just reaches out and silently pats Prompto’s knee before looking away again. It’s such a strange, awkward gesture that Prompto breathes out a quiet laugh, shifts his leg to nudge Gladio’s. When he doesn’t get pushed away immediately he just leaves it there, and they stay like that for a time, their legs touching inconsequentially. It feels like something. Prompto doesn’t know quite what, but something.

The Glaives make a couple of short stops along the way, when they can afford to. Always in well-lit places—or well enough, between the dim and flickering streetlamps and the truck’s modified headlights. They come across a few wandering daemons, some liches and flans, but the creatures keep their distance. Repelled, probably, by the lights. Prompto likes to think that maybe some of the daemons know of his and Gladio’s reputation, or the Glaives’, and prefer not to risk it.

At the haven, they part company with Jenica and Sadda and set up camp temporarily. There’s no point in staying long when there isn’t a dawn to wait for, so the two of them have a short rest and heat up some tinned meat with a side of bread (“Kinda wish I hadn’t gotten so used to Iggy’s cooking,” Prompto says ruefully. “Rations are even more bland when you compare them to green curry.”) before continuing on their way, alone and vulnerable. “Alone” is relative, though; they still have each other. If Prompto hadn’t been such a pest before, Gladio would be fully alone out here, facing every danger in isolation. Chillingly, it doesn’t seem like a thoughtless choice, but an intentional one. Prompto thinks—suspects—dreads to imagine—that Gladio very much meant to do this on his own.

They cut through fields lined with dense shrubs, fighting off small packs of havocfangs and leery spiracorns. The wildlife, too, has seen a change in the long night, more combative out of necessity with the constant threat of daemons bearing down on them. Prompto’s never liked hurting animals, but he feels worse about it now, knowing they’re trying just as desperately to survive as the people are. He tries not to dwell on it too much as they move swiftly along the dark, wild countryside of Cleigne, watching every shadow.

There’s a large building not quite halfway into their journey. Prompto squints at it, trying to make out what it is, but on top of the blanket of Starscourge obscuring the world the prescription on his contacts is more than a little out of date. He hopes there’s an optometrist out there who’s survived the end of the world. If not—well, he’s already at a disadvantage trying to land shots in the dark. It can’t get much worse anyway. Or he hopes not.

“Imperial base,” says Gladio, filling in the answer for an unasked question. “One of the places you took a picture of for Vyv.”

“Oh, right.” Prompto faintly remembers being swarmed by magitek assassins and nearly dropping his camera. “Home sweet stronghold.”

“What was that?” Gladio shoots him a frown.

“You know, because I’m—a clone? So the base is—never mind,” he mumbles, seeing Gladio’s frown turn into narrow-eyed disapproval. He forgets sometimes that other people don’t always address their baggage and trauma by cracking jokes about it. He makes a mental note that Gladio apparently doesn’t find I’m-a-failed-MT jokes amusing.

They follow the cable car lines, fighting through ice bombs and sprinting past a pair of red giants, which only give chase for a short time before giving up. Small miracle. It’s smooth sailing after that, though, just one final cluster of hobgoblins showing up to pester them before they make it to the blockade on the perimeter of the town.

“Identify yourselves,” someone on the other side of the blockade of barbed wire and bright lights and sturdy fencing shouts.

“Gladiolus Amicitia and Prompto Argentum,” Gladio calls back. “You wanna let us in before we get mobbed out here?”

“Hold on just a second.”

“Does that translate to ‘wait while I open the door,’ or ‘lemme check with my supervisor to see if we’re allowing Crownsguard into our outpost’?” asks Prompto.

No answer. Prompto and Gladio exchange looks. After a moment, a section of wall opens, revealing a slightly haggard-looking hunter. Not as haggard as Dave, though. That’s a next to impossible feat.

“First one,” says the hunter, gruff as his kind always are. “We’re not in the habit of keeping people out of the town anyway, least of all the king’s personal guard.” He ushers them inside, then closes the gap in the wall again behind them.

The business with Navyth doesn’t take long. He either pretends not to know who they are or genuinely doesn’t remember, but it doesn’t matter either way, really. Gladio still manages to squeeze some extra meteorshards out of him by looming and glaring, as he’s wont to do. It all works out, more or less. Even if Prompto comes out of it feeling just a little dirty about the whole ordeal. The idea of anyone profiting in times like this—he doesn’t know. It’s such an uncomfortable thing. He’d spent most of the transaction staring off into the black waters of the River Wennath, wondering if the salmon were still around.

And that’s it. Gods willing, they can hop on the next truck bound for Lestallum after this. There must be someone who wants a delivery or escort made. There always is. And once they’re back in town, they’ll—Prompto doesn’t know, actually. They’ll part ways again after finding Iris, more likely than not. Talcott would probably know where Ignis is—he always has an ear to the ground, always knows what’s going on and where everyone worth knowing is—so maybe Prompto could talk to him, track the guy down. He knows it isn’t his job to meddle in anyone else’s unhappiness, but when it comes to his friends, doesn’t he owe it to them to at least try? Even if all he does is stick with them for one stupid adventure and then leave, with the hope that it won’t be the last time he sees them?

Except he remembers, abruptly, that he wasn’t really meddling this time. That Gladio asked him to come. All Prompto did was stutter and bumble, nervous as ever, and Gladio extended an invitation Prompto wasn’t going to ask for to begin with. So maybe, just maybe, this venture wasn’t so fruitless. Maybe he should take the invitation to care and push it just a bit further.

They’re supposed to talk to a weapons vendor about helping with a shipment, but Prompto stops in his tracks in the middle of the street to blurt, “Are you gonna explain the hair or not?”

Gladio stops, too, turns to him with a furrowed brow and defensive sort of rigidity in his posture. “Who said I would?”

“No one, just, I dunno,” says Prompto. “It feels like the kinda thing someone does when they want people to… to be surprised, or wonder, or maybe ask about it?”

“That so,” says Gladio, looking unmoved.

“Am I wrong?”

The pause is tense, loaded. Prompto has a barely-there memory of Noct telling him about Leviathan, how he felt like the only thing to do was challenge her, because if he couldn’t convince her she owed him her power then he wasn’t worthy of it anyway. This feels like that. Like if Prompto backs down now, he won’t have proven himself worthy. So he doesn’t cower under Gladio’s glare, even though his impulse in situations like this is normally to backpedal and apologize and drop the subject entirely. Being meek and accommodating hasn’t worked with Gladiolus Amicitia so far; Prompto will have to be firm instead, unrelenting.

The silence ends with Gladio relaxing very slightly and saying, “Guess not.”

Prompto waits, but there’s no further answer or explanation. “Okay, so?”

Gladio shrugs. “You asked,” he says. “Didn’t say I’d answer.” Then, “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

Is it frustrating? Yes. Of course it is. But they continue on and ask around about work, and eventually the outpost leaders, Ernie and Elyria, secure them a truck, after they promise to deliver supplies to the leadership at Lestallum. Things salvaged by hunters, mostly. Prompto spots a large claw peeking out under some canvas and decides not to ask.

They bicker for a bit over who’s driving, and Prompto has to goad Gladio into a game of rock-paper-scissors to settle it before it comes to fisticuffs. Prompto wins, naturally, because Gladio’s tells are still the same as ever, and Prompto knows when he’s going to pick scissors. So Prompto gets behind the wheel, doing his best not to be too terribly smug about it as he starts on the drive back north, up the same road they were following before.

This time, they stop at Alkyrie again because it’s the halfway point, and because Prompto’s just the slightest bit tired after all the time spent traveling and battling. He parks the truck on the side of the road by Coernix Bypass, under a streetlamp that flickers slightly less than the others. It won’t deter scavenging animals and the like, but it’s better than nothing.

He yawns as he kills the engine, unbuckling the seatbelt he wears as a small concession to Ignis, who made such a fuss about it in the past that Prompto had no choice but to give in. He thinks if he ever doesn’t wear it, Ignis will be able to tell. He’ll smell it on him, the recklessness and deceit. Best not to chance it. Then Prompto opens the car door and slides out sluggishly, hardly paying attention to what Gladio’s doing as he thinks about how nice a nap sounds. The weather’s not too cold, and the soft glow of the haven is comforting in a way that even the safety of a real bed somehow isn’t.

As he’s stretching, Gladio comes round to his side of the truck, and Prompto doesn’t even have time to voice his plans for a short sleep before he hears, “It was an impulse thing, alright?”

Prompto blinks, arms raised mid-stretch. “Huh?”

“The hair,” Gladio practically snaps. “I was pissed off and just went ahead and did it.”

“Oh,” says Prompto. He lowers his arms, rubs awkwardly at his neck. “So… there wasn’t any deeper reason for it?”

Gladio crosses his arms, and there’s that defensiveness again, that faint hostility. “Look,” he says, “sometimes you just have to change something.” He opens his mouth, then appears to hesitate. He says, “You ever feel like there needs to be one thing you can control, so it might as well be yourself?”

Prompto, who ran for miles every morning as a teenager so he could have just one thing he liked about himself, nods. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Yeah,” Gladio echoes.

“Thanks,” says Prompto. “For telling me. Y’know.”

Gladio looks at him, gold-colored hawk eyes all dubious and guarded, the lines of his scars stark, harsh, angry. He frowns with his entire body. Prompto reminds himself not to cower, not to step meekly back. You can’t show fear when you want something. So he reaches up and ruffles Gladio’s hair, causing the other man to freeze in brief, obvious shock.

“It’s a good look on you,” says Prompto—because it’s true, he thinks, looking up at a severe but handsome face, feeling the dense bristles of hair under his fingers, spiky like a hedgehog—“even if it makes you seem even mo—”

The kiss makes his words and breath both die right there, and for a moment Prompto’s mind goes completely blank just before his thoughts start racing at a mile a minute. He doesn’t even figure out how to react to it before it’s abruptly over, and Gladio pulls back, grimacing. Prompto watches, stunned, as Gladio wipes at his mouth.

“Anyway,” Gladio mumbles, not looking at him, “if you need a break, I can take over.”

“Oh,” Prompto says weakly, still reeling. He can feel his face burning hotly. “Sure, if you’re… not tired.”

“Nope.”

“Okay.” Prompto gulps. “I’m just… gonna pee first.”

And he runs, quick as he can get away with, escaping to a space just behind the small plateau of the haven and bracing himself against the rock. He rests his forehead against the stone to try to cool off, which doesn’t work, leaving him desperately out of breath and overheating from baffled mortification. Thinking about it, he realizes with dread how it must look, him running off in fear after hardly being kissed, but it’s just—

No. Okay. Whatever. He knows it didn’t really mean anything, and Gladio’s already chosen to pretend it didn’t happen, so Prompto’s going to do the same. He’ll erase it from his memory and move on, ignoring it because—because it’s easier. Easier to latch onto the maybe-lie Gladio is offering and just assume everything is normal, telling himself it’s simpler in the long run. The alternative is terrifying. Because what would have happened if Prompto kissed him back? Probably nothing good. He knows that much. And whatever that tiny something was that Prompto felt earlier, heart stuttering as their legs touched in the back of a beat-up old truck, it would’ve been ruined. It’s not worth it.

Back in the cab of the truck, they don’t say anything, and Prompto doesn’t sleep, either. The road takes them meanderingly northeast, and they pass through the hills and into Lestallum, where they part ways after unloading the truck. Nothing is said at all, except when Prompto murmurs an awkward request about saying hi to Iris for him, and Gladio grunts something that may be an agreement. Then Prompto just runs off to talk to Monica, who’s in charge of organizing hunts, because he needs to do something, and this is the least cowardly thing he can think of. He decides he’ll start learning the names of the Glaives finally. He’ll do whatever he has to in the name of keeping himself busy.

It’s still cowardly, though, in its own way. He pretends not to have realized that.

 

 

 

They’ve each prepared a story in anticipation of Noct’s return, something to rattle off that’s meant to keep him from worrying too much, and they’ve collaborated on them to keep them all straight, like alibis. They tell him Prompto still has that whatever-it-is with Cindy, but he’s grown up about it, stopped being a kid with a crush; Ignis is keeping himself busy and honing his skills in the kitchen and on the battlefield; Gladio has a sweetheart he might settle down with once everything’s over, if he ever gets his shit together. All maybe true to some extent, apart from Gladio’s, which is a fanciful lie. That doesn’t stop Prompto from flinching, tugging on one of his wristbands anxiously. He doesn’t really think he has a right to feel awkward about it, but he does anyway. Doesn’t think he should fixate quite so much on Gladio’s long, tied-back hair, but does anyway.

The point is that the time they have together is short, and they want it to be a happy time for Noct, even if it’s dishonest. So they don’t have the heart to tell him about the crushing weight of Prompto’s inability to connect with anyone in a way that matters, or all the time Ignis has spent chasing the specter of someone he never learned how to live without, or Gladio’s obstinate refusal to unearth the bit of himself that deserves happiness. As far as Noct is concerned, they’re all okay, will be okay, and he doesn’t need to hesitate or have any regrets or feel guilty whatsoever.

But it’s not enough. They still have to just sit there while he cries by the firelight, saying how hard it is, being here and looking at all of them, knowing what’s going to happen. If Prompto were crueler he would say, You think it’s easy for us? You think we wanna say goodbye? Everything sucked without you, and it’ll suck more this time. For Ignis especially, but for us, too. It wouldn’t help. And Noct probably knows on some level already. He must be aware that they’ve invested their lives and selves and whole sense of meaning in him and what he is to them. He must know they love him. It would be impossible not to.

After, Noct and Ignis isolate themselves at one corner of the camp, talking quietly about something that isn’t any of Prompto’s business at all. He doesn’t so much as look at them, not wanting to see their pained, earnest expressions. It’s as much for his sake as theirs. He tries to keep his mind and hands busy by cleaning the old revolver they picked off that terrible snake woman a decade ago. Barely used all this time. If he’s being honest, it’s because he’s sort of elitist and finds older guns like this clunky and inconvenient, not sleek enough. But it’s perfectly serviceable. Packs a decent punch. He needs to get over himself, really.

He’s so willfully distracted by his fussing over this shitty, trivial thing he forgets Gladio is sitting by him, too, until he hears, “When are you gonna put that thing on your face out of its misery?”

Prompto nearly jumps out of his skin, looking up quickly with too-wide eyes. “Wh-what?”

“The goatee,” says Gladio. He doesn’t even glance at Prompto, gaze fixed instead on the book in his lap. “You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know.”

Prompto bites the inside of his lip. The thing is, firstly, that he doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for the choices he makes with his appearance, and that’s a point it’s taken him a long, long time to get to. But secondly, even if he did want to explain it, it’s too difficult. He doesn’t know how to convey, without sounding pitiful or strange or maybe hysterical, that he’s trying to prove—to himself, to the world, to a man who’s been dead for ten years now—that no matter how much he looks like Verstael Besithia, he will never be him. It’s a small thing he’s held onto, something he decided after seeing an old, horrifying picture buried in a facility he helped Aranea and her men raid over a year ago in Succarpe. The eyes and bone structure and shape of the mouth were all him, even marred by a cold glower as they were. But he doesn’t want to be afraid of that anymore. He’s decided instead that there’s something empowering about taking this small aspect from the worst thing about himself and saying You can have this much of me and nothing else. It’s a necessary reminder some days.

To Gladio, he just says tiredly, “Fuck off, Gladio.”

That gets Gladio to look up finally, brows shooting to his hairline in surprise at the sincerity and lack of playfulness in Prompto’s words. But Prompto’s already turning his attention back to his firearm. He isn’t interested in… whatever this is. Not right now. Gladio’s only ever quiet or very slightly hostile with him, and Prompto isn’t in the mood to tiptoe around his inexplicable moods.

Everyone’s spirits are low when they finally turn in. Prompto isn’t sure at first if he’ll be able to sleep at all. He clings tightly to the stupid, ridiculous, falling-apart-at-the-seams stuffed chocobo he made sure no one else saw, holding it to his chest. When he finally does drift off, he dreams of being a small, lonely kid again and running up that impossible hill in his neighborhood, except the hill never ends, and he just keeps running and running, going nowhere. When he wakes up at the sound of someone leaving the tent, he fools himself into thinking for one sweet moment that he’s twenty, and they’re camping under the stars in Duscae, the Regalia parked nearby with some gawdy paintjob Noct chose on a whim. It’s a nice thought, for the second that Prompto can believe it.

They all get up and eat, and everyone’s mood is brighter, probably because they have to be. Through some sort of unspoken mutual understanding, they decide not to pack up the camp, leaving it as is. Before they set out, though, Prompto hesitates.

“Wait,” he says, and they do. He takes out his camera and just holds it, gulps anxiously. Then he says, “Let me get this shot.”

Noct smiles a sort of watery smile, and for a moment that’s enough.

 

 

 

It’s been nearly two months, and there’s still a Gladio-sized shadow haunting the living room of the apartment Prompto’s sequestered himself in, taking up the unwashed couch for long stretches of time. Prompto can’t exactly judge, because he doesn’t really want to do anything most days, either, except hide and sulk and attempt to hibernate. He’d do it if he thought he could get away with it. It’s strange, though, to share a living space with someone and not feel like they’re there at all. It’s like living with a ghost, a dream. Sometimes he thinks if he touched Gladio he’d pass right through him.

They’ve all dealt with their grief in different ways. For Prompto it’s palpable, like an unsightly growth he thinks everyone can see on him at all times. The miracle is that he keeps going in spite of it, not that he manages to suppress it at all. He tries. He really does. Gladio, though—from the moment he trudged in through Prompto’s front door, he’s been so drained it’s like there’s nothing left of him, and even though he spends much of his time sleeping he always seems tired. It’s the burden of failure, Ignis said once, because Gladio never managed to do the one thing he’d sworn he would, the thing he dedicated his entire being to. He never bothered to figure out his worth outside of it. Ignis stopped after that, like he’d said too much, and didn’t speak another word until Prompto thanked him for the coffee and left.

Tonight Prompto pauses on his way to the small bedroom, looking at the large, pitiful lump curled up on the sofa. He mouths a silent curse he doesn’t quite have it in him to say.

“Hey,” he calls out just a bit softly. In the shadows he sees the shape stir. Without his new glasses on, he can’t see well enough to tell if Gladio’s looking at him, if he’s even awake. “You wanna bunk with me? Not like that,” he adds. “But. The bed’s big enough for both of us, and I know the couch isn’t great.”

After a short moment, Gladio gets up without a word. Prompto nods and gives him half a smile, continuing on to the room while Gladio shuffles along behind him.

It’s not a large bed, but Prompto doesn’t take up much space. He gets a little sliver of mattress, the side hugging the wall, and doesn’t even think to complain about the large mountain that is Gladio beside him. The presence of another body at his side is more comforting than he thought it would be. He’d forgotten how nice it felt, how reassuring.

After he’s already closed his eyes, he hears Gladio murmur, “Thanks.”

Prompto hums. “No problem, big guy,” he says. “Sorry in advance if I kick the shit outta your shins.”

Gladio breathes out a noise that may almost be a laugh. “I can take it.”

Prompto thinks he responds, but he’s too out of it already to keep track. He falls asleep quickly, easily, fearlessly for the first time in years and years.

When he wakes up, the sun hasn’t even risen, and Prompto doesn’t even have his usual irrational fear that it somehow won’t. They’d gone to bed just an hour past sunset, which happens earlier in autumn than Prompto had remembered, and now, even though he’s fully rested, it’s still ungodly early. He groans defeatedly into his pillow.

“You up?” Gladio.

Prompto lets out an inhuman noise that was supposed to be mmhm when it left his brain. He extracts himself from the pillow and squints blearily at Gladio. “Morning,” he croaks, still not fully awake. And because it’s been on his mind lately, he asks, tongue still clumsy with sleep and slurring all the words a bit, “Hey—why’d you kiss me all those years ago?”

Gladio looks so unsurprised by the question it’s like he’s expected it all along. He says quietly, “’Cause you gave a shit, Prompto.”

“Oh,” says Prompto. He thinks suddenly that he isn’t awake enough for this conversation, but he reaches one of his feet to very lightly kick at Gladio’s legs, then lets it rest there. They’re so close that, even in the dim lighting, Prompto thinks he could count every hair in those ridiculous bushy eyebrows. His chest feels strange and tight. Instead of any of the dozens of things he could say, should say, he opts for, “Do you want me to cut your hair?” He realizes only belatedly that it might be a rude offer, because the hair in question has gotten so tangled and matted from lack of care. But that isn’t the point.

He doesn’t know what Gladio’s answering expression means, what that look is in his eyes, but the man says, “Yeah. I’d like that.”

So Gladio winds up hunched over on a little stool in the dimly-lit bathroom at not quite six in the morning, with Prompto guiltlessly lopping off chunks of long, soft, wavy black hair. The clippers are next, setting just on the edge of the sink, guard already in place. One step at a time, though. First comes the trimming.

As he does this—meticulously, not at all in a rush—Prompto confesses the stupid truth about the goatee, because it feels like the thing to do, and because he doesn’t have to see Gladio rolling his eyes when he’s looking at the back of his head. At the end of it, though, Gladio says, “I get it.”

“Do you?” Prompto replies skeptically.

“Yeah,” says Gladio, not explaining or justifying any further. There’s something nice about that, the lack of excuses or rationalization. It just is what it is.

Once the mass of hair’s been shaved down to angry bristles and there’s a whole field of curling black grass making up the bathroom floor, Prompto admires his handiwork, tilting his head this way and that to get a look at the new Gladio—or maybe the old Gladio, who hasn’t been around for a startlingly, terrifyingly long time. Still, Prompto can’t help but smile; when all those layers of unkempt hair came off, so did the weight on Gladio’s shoulders, and he doesn’t look so weary anymore. It’s something. It’s good. They need good things these days.

“Alright, no hand mirror,” says Prompto, “so you have to get up and tell me what you think.” As an afterthought, he picks at a tuft of hair that got caught in Gladio’s beard on its way down.

Gladio doesn’t get up. He gazes up at Prompto with those too-serious eyes on that too-serious face, and maybe this isn’t the old Gladio after all, because he never looked at Prompto quite like this before, with a sort of calm, frightening certainty. But at the same time, it couldn’t be anyone else: When he touches a strong, firm hand to the back of Prompto’s head and guides him gently down into a kiss, Prompto feels a spectacular, embarrassing heat burst across his skin. He doesn’t freeze this time, and Gladio doesn’t pull stiffly away, and as Prompto presses back against a warm mouth with his own, it isn’t some terrible, impossible thing. Just good.