Here’s the thing about being a paranoid person: you get used to telling yourself you’re imagining things. These people don’t think you’re a waste of space. They’re not laughing at you behind your back or plotting ways to remove you from the group. They like you. They care about you. They want you to stay.
But what if they actually are out to get you?
How do you tell?
Sometimes, though, Gladio will ask about the injuries later on, act like he didn’t cause them himself, and that feels a little weird.
But there’s nothing big. There’s nothing Prompto can’t ignore. Not at first.
“Do you ever wonder why the prince keeps you around?” Ignis asks.
“Whoa, not even a ‘hello’ first?”
Ignis just looks evenly back at him.
Prompto winces. Glances around to make sure Noct isn’t nearby. It’s just the two of them. “Yeah, all the time. Isn’t that kind of a harsh question?”
“Perhaps,” Ignis says, “but I thought it was one that needed to be asked. He has his shield. He has his one-man household staff. What are you?”
This is already a very uncomfortable conversation. Prompto shifts. “Isn’t that a weird way to talk about yourself?” he asks, more to avoid answering than anything else.
“I’ve speculated that he might keep you to hand for his personal use,” Ignis says. “Would you say that’s close to the mark?”
“What?” Prompto asks, bewildered.
“Or are all three of us allowed to take advantage of you?” Ignis asks. “I suppose the question will sound strange coming from me, in that case.”
Prompto stares at him. “What?”
Ignis smiles. It’s not a smile Prompto has ever seen on Ignis’s face before. “Perhaps take advantage is the wrong phrase? You do seem as if you might be willing. But I doubt it would make a difference if you weren’t. His Highness is the crown prince; I suspect he’s unused to being denied toys.”
“What are you talking – hey!” Prompto tries to tug his hand out of Ignis’s grip. He doesn’t know what’s going on in this conversation, but he really doesn’t like it. “I’m gonna find Noct and Gladio, maybe they need help with—”
The shopping dies in his mouth when Ignis ducks his head and licks a long stripe down the inside of Prompto’s wrist. Prompto freezes up, his mind suddenly blank. All he can do is watch.
“The shopping?” Ignis finishes for him. “By all means. Don’t let me detain you.”
Prompto jerks his hand away. Breathes for a couple of seconds while he tries to get his mind working again.
He tries to stand, but his legs are unsteady and he almost falls. Ignis stands as well, sharply, to support him.
“I don’t need help,” Prompto says.
“Of course not,” Ignis says. “You’re wholly independent. You can take down vast daemons single-handedly. No doubt that’s the reason the prince keeps you around. I apologise for ever suggesting otherwise.”
But he tries not to be alone with Ignis, either.
He starts sparring more with Gladio. When he’s moving, when he’s fighting, he doesn’t have to think so much.
It’s fine until one of the weird sessions, when Gladio’s style feels a little different, when he’s using that fancy greatsword Prompto’s never seen him actually use against monsters. Prompto is keeping his distance, looking for an opening, when there’s a flash of red and—
For a moment, Prompto absolutely cannot make sense of what has happened. He only knows that he’s lying on the ground and Gladio is pinning him down, his blade against Prompto’s throat.
There’s no way Gladio could have crossed the distance between them that quickly. Not unless...
“You can warp?” Prompto chokes out.
For a moment Gladio pauses. “What, you can’t? I guess the prince doesn’t trust you with his full power, huh?”
“I – he can’t – huh?”
Gladio can warp? Can Ignis? Why would they hide it from him? They’ve been in so many battles – how is it that he’s never seen them warp, not once?
Gladio smirks down at him. “Makes sense. You’ve never really been one of us. If I killed you right here, how long do you think it’d take us to forget you?”
The words hit so hard that for a moment Prompto thinks he’s been stabbed.
“My money’s on a week,” Gladio says.
He presses the edge of the blade a little harder against Prompto’s throat, just enough to draw blood. Holds it there for a long, long moment. Prompto stares back into his eyes, feeling the rapid run of his own heartbeat, wondering whether he’s about to feel it stop.
Gladio stands up and walks away.
Prompto lies where he is, panting shallowly. He thinks this might be a dream. He hopes it’s a dream.
He feels like someone’s hollowed him out and filled him with broken glass.
“Weird how?” Noct asks.
Prompto glances around at the Duscaen landscape, kicks at the grass under his feet. “I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
“Well, let me guess,” Noct says. He catches hold of Prompto’s arm, and—
licks down Prompto’s wrist, exactly the way Ignis did, and Prompto’s entire body goes cold.
“Don’t—” Prompto snatches his hand away. “Don’t do that, that’s creepy, it was bad enough happening once! How do you know about that? Did he do it to you as well?”
“Prompto,” Noct says. “Do you really think there’s anything in your life I don’t know about?”
His smile has a strangely cold edge to it.
Prompto takes a step back. His mind is screaming get away, this isn’t safe, just like it did with Ignis, just like it did with Gladio. But this is Noct. Noct is his friend, right? Whatever happens, that has to be true. He can’t just...
“Ignis was out of line,” Noct says. “You belong to me. I’d advise you to remember that.”
“Noct?” Prompto asks, very carefully. “What’s happening?”
“Maybe you’re starting to think twice about travelling with us,” Noct says. “If you try to run, I’ll find you. You’ll regret it.”
“You were created to serve, weren’t you?” Noct taps the band on Prompto’s wrist. “I’m your owner.”
Everything in Prompto is collapsing. They know? They know?
It explains everything. They discovered his past, and now they hate him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“I expect you to call me Master from now on,” Noct says. “Or maybe I’ll send you back to Niflheim so they can finish processing you.”
“What?” Noct demands, flushing. “Don’t call me that.”
“Sorry,” Prompto says, quickly. Maybe it’s only meant to be when they’re alone?
He tries to avoid speaking to Noct after that. He tries to avoid speaking at all.
He wants to run away. He doesn’t, really – he wants to stay with these three, his friends – but they don’t seem to want him any more. Every time the thought of running crosses his mind, though, he remembers Noct’s threat.
He’s trapped here. Noct owns him. If he runs, he’ll be caught and returned to Niflheim. They’ll strip out everything that makes him human.
It’s better to be here, right? It’s better to be alive and conscious and with the people he cares about, even if they hate him. Even if he’s not sure how much longer they’ll leave him alive.
At night he sleeps pressed into the corner of the tent, as far away from anyone else as he can get, jerking awake at every sound.
Prompto tenses. “Uh, no, thanks.”
“C’mon. We haven’t sparred in ages.”
Because I thought you were going to kill me the last time. “I guess I just haven’t felt like sparring.”
“Or you got tired of losing,” Gladio says. “How ’bout I tie one arm behind my back? Give you the advantage.”
Prompto stares at him. One arm tied behind his back? Maybe that really would be enough to give Prompto the advantage. Maybe he’d be able to bring up his gun before Gladio realised what was happening and—
He feels sick the moment he realises what he’s thinking. He can’t think about – he isn’t going to think about that. It’s not a way out he can take.
He cares about all of these guys. They’re his friends.
It’s just that they’re probably also his enemies.
It’d be easier if they were consistently cruel to him. Most of the time they act like they still care. It’s a constant, agonising reminder that he can never really go back to those days.
He needs a real night’s sleep. There’s a service station that’s within jogging distance of where they’ve pitched the tent, he’s pretty sure. It’ll take an hour or so to get there, and he’ll be on the move at night, with daemons on the prowl. But he’ll take the risk if it means he can get some rest. He feels like his mind is shutting down.
He’ll have to come back before he’s missed, of course. Noct’s threat is a constant whisper in his mind.
Jogging alone at night is pretty scary, but, to be honest, it’s not much scarier than his day-to-day life by this point. Eventually he reaches the service station unscathed and snuggles into the caravan bed, gratefully. Just one night, one night where he doesn’t have to be terrified. He can sneak back to the tent before sunrise. Nobody has to know he was gone.
There’s a creak.
Prompto goes stiller than any living being should technically be able to. There wasn’t a creak. He’s imagining things.
There’s a creak. It sounds like someone opening the caravan door very, very slowly.
Prompto should jump up. He should grab his gun. He should scream. He should – he should do anything other than just lying here, petrified, as someone creeps through the door of the caravan.
There are footsteps approaching the bed. He’s going to die.
He cracks his eyes open the tiniest, tiniest amount.
Did he follow Prompto all the way here, through the dark?
The footsteps stop by the bed as Prompto shuts his eyes tight again. Did Noct see? Does he know he’s awake?
A pause. And then Noct stoops down and – shit – presses two fingers against Prompto’s throat. Checking his pulse.
He’ll know that Prompto isn’t sleeping. Prompto’s heart is beating like a spiracorn stampede. There’s no way Noct can’t tell.
But he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t suddenly seize Prompto’s neck and strangle him. He just takes his fingers away and... sits down on the side of the bed.
Leave me alone, Prompto thinks, desperately. Please.
All Prompto can do is lie there frozen, barely breathing, definitely not sleeping. Trying not to open his eyes, even when his mind is screaming you can’t see what he’s doing, he might be gearing up to kill you right now.
Hours pass. Years pass, maybe, if a night can last years. Every muscle in Prompto’s body is tensed.
Eventually, when the birds start singing in anticipation of the dawn, Noct stands up and leaves without a word.
Prompto lies there for a full hour before he can bring himself to get up, just in case Noct is still outside the caravan door.
It’s a message, he thinks. Noct is reminding him that he can’t get away. No matter where he goes, he’ll be found. As long as Noct lives, Prompto belongs to him.
He heads straight back to the tent; Noct has made it clear that it’s not a good idea to stay away any longer. It’s quiet when he reaches it, and Prompto sits down just outside. He doesn’t have the nerve to go in.
Ignis is the first one to emerge.
“Prompto,” he says. “Good morning. You’re up unusually early.”
Is there a coded message there? Is he saying he knows where Prompto went? “Mm. Guess so.”
“Would you like to help with breakfast, if you’re lacking for occupation?”
Maybe he should agree. Just... to make sure nothing poisonous-looking makes its way into the pot. He’s been getting more and more nervous about eating Ignis’s food.
But agreeing would mean he’d be a little too close by when Ignis is working with knives.
“Nah, I’m okay over here. I’d probably just screw it up anyway.”
Ignis shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Gladio is next; he just greets Prompto briefly and heads out for a morning jog, which isn’t too terrifying.
And then Prompto is just sitting there, staring at the tent, waiting for Noct.
What is he going to say? What is he going to do? Is Prompto going to be punished for running away?
Eventually, Noct drags himself reluctantly out of the tent. Prompto’s breathing stops.
“Hey,” Noct says, raising a hand. “You think Ignis’ll let us take a fishing detour today?”
Prompto stares at him.
He was there all night. There’s no way Prompto imagined that. Does Noct think Prompto didn’t notice him? But it was meant to be a threat, right?
Noct sighs in response to his silence. “Yeah, guess not.”
He has to sleep tonight. He can’t creep away to do it – Noct has made that clear – so he’s going to have to sleep in the tent, with the others. He doesn’t care how dangerous it is. He needs to sleep, or he’s just going to break down like a piece of overworked machinery.
But he’ll... he’ll feel a little safer if the others are asleep first.
So he forces himself to stay awake, until the others go into the tent. He’s vaguely aware of Gladio saying, “G’night.” Suddenly much more aware when Gladio touches him.
It’s just a pat. It’s fine. His heart is hammering in his throat. It’s just a pat on the shoulder as Gladio heads towards the tent.
Okay. That’s Gladio. Just Noct and Ignis to go, and maybe finally Prompto can get some slee—
Noct isn’t here. He must’ve gone to bed already. Prompto must have been too tired to notice. He can’t think.
Noct isn’t here, and that means Prompto is alone with Ignis.
Prompto takes his gun out of its holster, trying to be surreptitious about it. He’s taken to carrying it around with him, just in case Noct cuts off his access to his weapons one day. He’s not planning to use it, obviously. But he feels a little safer with it in his hand.
He gets to his feet. Maybe he can go into the tent. Just... make it look casual. He should have thought about this, he should have remembered that, oh, yeah, if you’re trying to be the last one into the tent you’re going to be stuck with the second-last one at some point.
Ignis is looking right at him. Prompto tries to breathe.
There’s a moment’s silence before Ignis speaks. “I’m concerned about you, Prompto.”
They’re alone. It’s the only thing in Prompto’s head. There’s nobody else here, and when they get him alone – that’s when they drop the pretence.
They must be working together. They can’t all independently be trying to freak him out. But, for some reason, they hold off when they’re not one-on-one.
“You’ve been acting rather oddly. A little on edge, you might say.”
Prompto laughs, probably too loudly. “Have I? I guess maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep. I’ll just...” He takes a couple of steps back. “I’ll head into the tent.”
Ignis’s frown deepens. “Are you having trouble accessing the arsenal?”
Crap. He’s noticed that Prompto is holding his gun.
“Nah, I thought I heard something,” Prompto says, scrubbing his hand through his hair. “Daemons.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Ignis says. “In any case, we’re at a haven. You’ve nothing to fear.”
Oh, yeah, Ignis, that’s hilarious. “Yeah, but it was a really scary daemon noise.”
He has to get into the tent. Ignis won’t mess with him if the others are around. The others are dangerous too, of course, but not when they’re together.
Maybe that’s why they only act weird when they’re alone with him. They’re just trying to – trying to get Prompto to let his guard down when he’s around all three of them, and one day they’re all going to pin him down and—
If they want him to let his guard down, though, they shouldn’t have started acting weird in the first place, right? They’re obviously capable of acting like they don’t hate him; they manage it most of the time. It’s like they want him scared. It’s like they’re... it’s like they’re playing with their food.
For a heart-stopping moment, when he sees the shadowed figure coming in, he thinks it’s Noct again. But – wait, Noct should already be here, shouldn’t he?
He glances to the side. Yeah, Noct is still there. Sleeping. Or pretending to sleep.
Gladio and Ignis are here too. Whoever’s in the entrance to the tent, whoever it is with the strangely Noct-like silhouette, it’s a stranger.
Relief floods him. It’s not one of his friends. It’s just a stranger, breaking into their tent.
“Help me,” Prompto whispers.
The stranger goes still, considering Prompto, then seems to turn his head to look at Noct.
“Please,” Prompto whispers. “Don’t leave without me.”
But the stranger is leaving, and no, no—
Prompto scrambles for the entrance to the tent, as fast as he can while trying to be silent. He can’t – he can’t lose this chance. He doesn’t know who this is, but maybe they’ll be able to help him. Maybe they’re the real Noct, the kind Noct, the one he met at school, the one who made him feel real and loved and valued—
“Noct!” he tries to call in a whisper as he stumbles out. He can’t wake up the Noct inside the tent. If this is the real Noct, the fake Noct will kill him.
Nobody is in sight. No Noct, nobody else. Just the tent and the haven and the fringe of the wood nearby, and maybe his one chance at rescue just disappeared into the trees.
He turns around. Stares at the tent.
Was it real? Did someone really come in?
Someone opened the tent’s entrance. He doesn’t remember doing that himself to get out. But they looked so like Noct, and Noct was definitely sleeping nearby. Is that possible?
Someone grabs him from behind.
Prompto tries to scream, but a hand is clamped over his mouth. He’s almost grateful for it. If he screamed, who would hear it? Only the ones inside the tent.
“Going somewhere?” Gladio growls into his ear.
Prompto’s body is trying to take panicked breaths, but Gladio’s hand is covering his mouth and half his nose and he can’t get any air, he can’t – he’s already getting dizzy, and there’s a part of his mind that hopes he does black out, at least that’s something close to sleep, at least then he doesn’t have to be conscious for whatever happens next—
Gladio grabs him by the scruff of the neck and forces him down to his knees, there on the stone of the haven. There’s no way Prompto can even think of breaking away. It’s Gladio. Prompto can’t dream of being a match for him in a struggle.
When did he leave the tent? When did Gladio get out of the tent?
Gladio shoves Prompto’s face down against the stone. “Thought you’d learnt not to go wandering off at night,” he says. “I guess you never do learn, do you?”
He’s taken his hand away from Prompto’s mouth, and Prompto draws in a few desperate breaths, forces them in with his mouth half-pressed against the haven floor, before he tries to answer. “I just – I wanted to – I was gonna take some pictures—”
Gladio kicks Prompto’s knees out from under him, and Prompto collapses onto his side with a yelp of pain.
“Keep your whining to yourself,” Gladio snaps. “It’ll only get worse if you wake the prince. I don’t care if you want pictures; you stay where we can see you. You’re royal property.”
Prompto barely hears it. He can’t focus on the words; all he can focus on is trying not to cry out, not to wake anyone, not to make things worse.
But maybe he’s already failed. He can hear rustling from inside the tent.
“Prompto?” someone calls, muffled by canvas. Prompto can’t make sense of the voice.
Another Gladio emerges from the tent. Stands for a moment, staring. “What the—”
Prompto can’t stop screaming. He’s barely aware of when he started. He can’t defend himself against two Gladios. He wouldn’t even be able to defend himself against one. Two? He might as well try to take on an Iron Giant by himself.
“Ah,” the first Gladio says, his eyes on the one who just came out of the tent. “Well, I suppose this was bound to happen sooner or later.”
He’s not looking at Prompto.
Prompto scrambles to his feet and bolts into the woods.
It’s a lot less scary than the thought that he might be found, at least.
The thing he’s really afraid of is that he might have got turned around, he might be heading back towards the campsite. Every so often he goes still and quiet, listening. Most of the time he hears nothing but birds singing, the wind rustling the trees. He’s probably far enough away by now, but he can’t risk—
That’s Ignis. His heart almost stops. That’s definitely Ignis’s voice, calling his name.
Prompto starts running again. They’ll be able to hear him, but he can outrun them; he knows he can. He has to be able to. If he can’t, what were all those years of jogging for?
He risks a glance back over his shoulder, and—
He barrels into someone, so hard it almost leaves him winded.
For a moment he’s hyperventilating too much to look up and see who he’s run into. He doesn’t think it’s one of them. It doesn’t seem like the right build for one of them. Oh, Six, please don’t let it be one of them.
“Oh, we are in a hurry, aren’t we?”
Prompto looks up.
It’s the Chancellor. It’s Ardyn. Here in the woods?
Ardyn has always seemed kind of... sketchy. But he’s helped them before, and right now Prompto is so relieved to see someone who isn’t one of his friends that he just grabs two fistfuls of Ardyn’s coat and collapses weakly against his chest.
“My poor little chocochick,” Ardyn murmurs, stroking Prompto’s hair. “All alone in the woods. But not for long, I suspect. Your pursuers will be upon you any moment.”
“Don’t let them get me,” Prompto says, desperately.
Ardyn smiles. “How could I deny those innocent eyes? My dropship isn’t far. I can take you somewhere your friends will never find you.”
Prompto presses his face into Ardyn’s coat. “Thank you.”
It doesn’t occur to him to wonder, until the dropship doors close behind him with a dull metallic clang, how Ardyn knew his friends were the ones he was running from.