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It was like Cor had reached into Gladio’s dreams and made them real. A little house so deep in the woods no one would ever find it. A wood stove, which Ignis regularly used to work his culinary magic. Plus a real stove, and electric lights, and plenty of hot water, because Insomnian technology was a goddamn miracle. Hiking into town once a month to get supplies. Living off the grid in cozy comfort.

He was having trouble enjoying it, though, since just about everybody he used to know was dead.

Iggy’s night terrors were back, and he’d had three panic attacks since they’d been out there. Helplessness didn’t suit him. Noct was crushed. He hadn’t taken it well, any of it. Not the fall of Insomnia, and not the fact that the King tricked them into leaving the city beforehand.

The late King. King Regis. Technically Noct was king now.

King of ashes, he’d said, the only time Gladio had brought it up. That had lit a fire in his veins that sent him out into the lush summer woods, walking for hours to keep himself from marching back into the stone cottage and saying something he’d have to pretend he didn’t regret.

That was back when Noct was still pretending to engage. He spoke less and less all the time. Gladio wanted to shake him and tell him to snap out of it. But Noct would just say ‘What’s the point,’ and he’d be right. They’d been stuck in cold storage, in case the Crownsguard ever recovered the Crystal or the Ring. Their job was to sit there and exist as inconspicuously as possible and not die.

It might’ve been driving Gladio a little crazy.

So that morning, when Noct called “Gladio!” from the front window (one of his favorite places to mope), Gladio was by his side in a heartbeat.

Noct was already leaping up from the window seat. The cat dropped to the floor and scurried away. “Look,” Noct said. “There’s something out there.”

A figure moved in the shadowy forest on the other side of their clearing. A person, maybe, which was bad. They were supposed to be far enough out that hikers wouldn’t stumble across them by accident.

Then the figure stumbled into the sunlight, and Gladio felt the hairs on his neck rise. It wasn’t a person. It was an MT.

Gladio glanced up to find empty sky above the trees. He couldn’t hear the hum of Magitek engines. It wasn’t a whole squadron, the full force of the Empire crashing down on them. Just a single MT. Still a threat to Noct, yeah, but one within reach. An enemy he could actually kill. “Ignis?” Gladio called.

Noct was pressing his face to the glass. “What’s wrong with it?”

The MT stumbled toward the house. It lurched and jerked, like it was barely on its feet.

“Not gonna matter in a second,” Gladio said, summoning his sword from the armiger.

“No weapons in the house, Gladio,” Ignis complained, ducking around it to peer out the window. “It’s alone?”

“Looks like.”

“They generally strike in larger groups,” Ignis said.

“Maybe it’s a scout. Makes it all the more important to take care of it fast.” He wanted Iggy’s buy-in before he charged outside and revealed them to the enemy, but Ignis just kept squinting out the window.

“No weapon,” Noct said. He was right. Gladio had to admit that was weird.

The MT fell to its knees beside the woodpile and fumbled at the axe embedded in the chopping block.

“Guess it’s here to reload,” Gladio said. He made for the door. He wasn’t going to wait all day. “Stay inside, Noct.”

Noct didn’t, of course, but he did stay back with Ignis. Gladio strode across the sunny clearing toward the MT.

The MT got its gauntlets around the axe and – with some difficulty – yanked it free of the stump. It spun the tool in its grip and drove the blade into its own helmet.

Gladio stopped in his tracks. What the hell was it doing?

It wrestled with the axe, widening the fissure. Sparks arced from exposed electronics to the metal wedge. Gladio could see the domed surface of its helmet and the collar of its chest plate were covered in scrapes and gouges and marks.

Clearly the thing was malfunctioning. Well, Gladio would be happy to put it out of its misery. He stepped forward, readied a mighty swing.

The MT toppled over onto its side. It gave the axe a violent twist, and with a metallic crack the helmet split completely in two.

Underneath was a person.

Or at least, something person-ish. Some kind of sick blackness in its veins shone through its pale skin. Its lips were cracked and bleeding. Gladio only caught a glimpse of its eyes before they slid shut in exhaustion and relief, but he was pretty damn sure they were red. The axe fell out of the MT’s now-limp fingers. It didn’t move at all.

Actually, Gladio could see its breath in its neck, the hammering of its pulse. The armor hid any movement of its chest.

“What the hell?” Noct said behind him. Gladio was wondering the same damn thing. Weren’t they supposed to be machines?

The MT’s eyes flicked open – and yeah, they were very red – and it looked at them in shock. Like it … like he was noticing them for the first time.

Hell, he’d been so focused on the axe, maybe he really was.

He opened his mouth with a tacky sound and tried to speak. No sound came out. His lips moved again, and this time he managed a whisper. Gladio couldn’t make it out, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to lean down closer to listen. Then … “Please.” The MT scraped at the neck of his armor. “Get it off me.”

Gladio’s sword was heavy in his hand. He didn’t kill people, not defenseless ones, and suddenly this felt a lot like that. But he had to keep Noct safe, keep the location safe. The thing on the ground was an MT. An enemy combatant. Maybe not even a person at all. He braced himself to do what he’d come out here to do.

“Wait, Gladio.” Ignis was at his shoulder.

Gladio waited, flooded with something like relief.

Ignis stood over the MT. “How have you come to be here?” he demanded.

The MT ignored them. He was trying to crane his neck so he could look around on the ground beside him. He seemed way less worried about Gladio’s sword than he should’ve been.

“Hey!” Gladio barked. “Answer him. What’s your deal?”

The MT’s eyes wandered up to his. They were creepy. “I failed my third compliance test in a row.” His voice was raspy and thin. “I was marked for termination so they assigned me to a forward assault unit. When they dropped us off, I hid. When I was sure they wouldn’t be coming back to look for survivors, I ran into the woods.”

Half the stuff he was saying didn’t make any sense. Compliance tests? Termination? “So you’re a deserter,” Gladio summarized.

The MT’s attention was already gone. He started feeling around beside him for the axe.

“Don’t move,” Gladio warned.

“I have to get it off,” the MT begged.

“How long ago was that?” Ignis asked.

“Ninety-six hours,” the MT said. “I didn’t think about how I wouldn’t be able to get out of the armor. Not until later. Please …” His voice cut off into a choked rasp. He raked his hand through the grass again.

“Uh-uh.” Gladio stepped over to him, sword raised in case he tried anything, and kicked the axe away.

The MT let out something like a sob.

“Try to calm down,” Ignis said.

“You don’t understand. I have to get it off me.”

“You keep saying that,” Gladio said. “Is that why you did that with the axe, with your helmet?”

The MT nodded. “They have a machine that can unbolt it. Without it …”

“They lock you in every morning and unlock you every night? What, to keep people from running away, like you?”

The MT stared. “I was last out for maintenance and upgrades four months ago.”

Four months? Was he serious? Gladio looked at him hard. Translucent skin that had never seen the sun. That black stuff threaded through him. Four months. Could a human survive that?

“Please,” the MT whispered again. “I have to get it off.”

Gladio scanned the tree line for the lie, the proverbial cavalry, the tightening trap, the rest of the MT strike squadron sent to kill them. There was nothing out there. The only sound was the rustling of the leaves and the MT’s ragged breathing. “Look … you’re a Niff, aren’t you? Why’d you run away?”

The MT stared blankly up at the sky. His brow wrinkled in thought. When he finally answered, it was in a small voice. “I didn’t want to die.”

That answer bolted Gladio to the ground. Because even though this MT, this guy, this thing was half-nuts and looked like a horror movie monster … that was the most human impulse Gladio knew.

Noct was staring at the MT with his hands balled into fists. He rounded on Gladio, fierce with determination.

That’s when Gladio knew there was no stopping whatever was about to happen. Even though he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to do his job and try.

---------

There were three people standing over him. A big one, a sharp one, and a soft one. They seemed to be trying to have a conversation with each other without talking. The big one had a weapon, but he hadn’t struck yet and MT couldn’t stop him if he did, so he ignored it. MT twisted his head to look for the axe.

It was so far away now. He’d have to try to drag himself. If they’d let him. He’d avoided lying down as he got weaker, because he knew it would be impossible to get back up. The armor was so heavy. As he’d run, and walked, and stumbled, he’d realized it was terrible. Smothering him, crushing him. Trapping him to die.

He didn’t know when he’d decided he wanted to be out, just one more time, before that happened. Somewhere in the endless woods.

If this was as far as he got … the thought curled hollow in his chest. But it was better than nothing. The air felt so good on his face. Yesterday when the temperature regulator went offline it had started to get pretty hot inside the armor. He’d sweat bullets for a while. Then he’d stopped sweating at all.

The soft one gestured furiously, and the big one relented. His weapon disappeared in a sparkle of light. “Okay, okay! Tell me what to do.”

His face was dark and angry against the bright blue sky, and MT had to strain to look up at him. “Huh?”

“How do I get you out of this thing?”

He was going to do it himself? MT didn’t waste energy trying to understand. He wrapped his hands around the collar, tugging weakly. “Pull?”

The big one sighed. “Bring me the axe,” he said.

The soft one went and got it for him while he leaned down and squinted at MT’s armor. He didn’t look like anyone MT had ever seen. His voice was low and rough, he had scruffy hair on his face, and for a second MT thought he could feel the warmth of his breath. “What order do they put the pieces on in?”

“Hands and feet,” MT said. He licked his lips, trying to wet them. That stopped working hours ago, but it was a reflex. “Arms and legs. Back. Front.”

“All right.” He took the axe. MT braced for him to swing it at him, but he leaned down and worked the blade into the seam between the front and back plates. He wrenched the handle, and there was a loud CRACK. “Peachy.”

MT felt the armor tug at him, but he didn’t do anything more than breathe too sharply in response.

The big one repeated the action on the other side. CRACK again. Tug again. MT was ready for it that time. Then the big one dropped the axe and wrapped the fingers of one hand around the front of MT’s collar and used the other to hold the back plate against the ground. He pulled.

The bolts holding the armor to MT’s chest tore out of him, and it hurt so much he cried out a little. He couldn’t help it. But it was over fast, leaving nothing but a sharp stinging and a few trickles of wetness and the wonderful touch of the outside world against his skin. MT rattled out all the air in his lungs in relief.

The big one knelt frozen over him, holding the chest plate and its dangling wires in a white-knuckled grip. “Six, fucking Six, fuck …”

“There’s metal things in his skin,” the soft one said, dazed. “Ignis, Gladio …”

“We see,” the sharp one said.

“It was stuck to him, he’s bleeding, he …” There was a sparkle of blue light, and he was holding a weird bottle thing in his hand.

“No.” The sharp one grabbed his hand. “I think we should avoid using curatives on him if at all possible. He appears to be … contaminated with some substance derived from the Scourge. Clearly it’s been weaponized, refined, or he’d be slavering at our throats … but exposing him to healing magic could do more harm than good.”

“Well then what do we do?”

“Just keep going, please keep going,” MT said. “Please help me.”

Strangely, miraculously, they listened.

---------

Since the fall of Insomnia, Ignis often felt as though he had somehow slipped out of reality. In that moment, knelt as he was beside a human MT, the sensation was particularly strong.

Gladio pried yet another piece of metal off the MT, and though it must have been excruciating he let out nothing more than a weak whine. His breath was alarmingly shallow, his lips slightly parted, staring up at nothing.

Lips that were chapped, no matter how often he tried to wet them. “Are you thirsty?” Ignis asked, leaning over him to catch his answer. “Do you need water?”

“My hydration packs ran out fifty-two hours ago.”

Astrals, it was a miracle he was alive. Ignis looked up at Noctis.

“On it.” He scrambled up and darted toward the cottage.

By that point Gladio had gotten the MT free from the waist up – except for a black box on his left forearm that was welded tight to his skin – and had moved down to work on his legs. The MT simply lay there. He was completely spent. He’d exhausted himself just getting his helmet off – a labor of four days.

Fortunately, since they were here, that had been enough.

Noctis was back quickly, skidding to his knees in the grass. He held a canteen. “Here.”

Ignis took it from him. Noct’s entire body was vibrating with tension and he only had eyes for the MT, as he had since the moment they’d realized the extent of his trouble. His compassion showed him a person in need, not an enemy – one he felt driven to help.

Noctis would make such an excellent king.

The thought tore through Ignis’ chest like wildfire. He buried it. There was no time for that now. He lowered the canteen so the MT could drink.

The MT struggled to raise himself, and Ignis put a hand under his head to assist him before he had a chance to remember that touching the MT could be dangerous. He was infected with an unknown substance.

He drank like he was dying, and Ignis didn’t pull away until he was through.

A creak of metal, and his whole body tensed. An “ahhh ahh aaaaaah” dragged itself from his throat. When it was over, his head dropped back into the grass. He looked dazed, eyes glassy. He made a small sound with each exhale. One of distress.

“Stay with me now.” Ignis touched a hand to his cheek. The damage had already been done, after all.

His red eyes snapped to Ignis’ own. “Please,” he rasped again.

“Yes, don’t worry, we’re getting you out.”

“Please,” he insisted. “If I die … before you recycle me, or whatever you’re going to do. Please take it off me first.”

“Ignis,” Noct whispered. “What the hell.

Ignis didn’t know, but the possible explanations that were condensing in his mind were uniformly horrific. “We shall,” Ignis said. “I promise you. It will come off, one way or another.” He didn’t try to assure the MT he would live. Ignis had no way of knowing that.

Noct was gripping his other arm tightly, and Ignis wanted to reassure him as well. To tell him everything would be all right. But Ignis hadn’t been able to say that with any shred of truth in six months. The MT’s presence here was worrying. The Empire wanted Noctis dead, and if they were discovered Ignis could do little to prevent it. Their brief was to hide as well as they were able, to remain at Noct’s side while they waited to be found and murdered.

That thought invaded his dreams regularly. Noctis overwhelmed by MTs, crying out as he was dragged down and slaughtered, Noctis bleeding and choking in his arms, Noctis dead on the floor of their cottage while Ignis himself lay dying, unable to even reach him.

Gladio must have started on the next piece, because the MT keened softly and his eyes rolled back.

Ignis ruthlessly shoved those images and their whisper of panic to the back of his mind. Nightmares that disturbed his sleep were one thing. He could not afford to lose his composure now. He twisted to check Gladio’s progress. Only one boot still remained, along with the troublesome arm. “We’re close,” he told the boy.

Boy? He was a soldier, an enemy combatant, a deserter.

And a boy, really. A young man. He couldn’t have been older than Noct.

The boot came off with little more than a choked whimper from the MT, and then they were all crowding around the malicious-looking device on his forearm. The raised rectangular box was embedded in his skin, surrounded by surgical scars. It had a display – currently black – and several ports where perhaps liquids or materials could be introduced. It was the last piece of Imperial technology attached to the MT.

“Maybe we should leave it for now,” Noct said, eyeing the MT’s strained face.

“No.” He reached across himself with shaking fingers to scrape at the device. “Please.”

“Look, kid,” Gladio said. “You’re in pretty bad shape. I don’t know what this is gonna do to you. You want to survive this, don’t you?”

The MT issued a mumbled litany of “Please get it off please get it off please get it off.”

Gladio sighed. “All right, okay. Try to take it easy.” He traced the edge of the device with his fingers, prodding and testing. “It’s really in there, I don’t even know how to go at this. Maybe …”

The display lit up red, and a mechanical voice pierced the tension. TAMPERING DETECTED - TERMINATION SEQUENCE ACTIVATED

Through a haze of alarm, Ignis saw the MT’s face slide from shock to devastated betrayal.

LETHAL INJECTION IN FIFTEEN SECONDS

Ignis wracked his mind for a solution, smothering an intrusive vision of the MT, lifeless, pink foam on his lips.

“Cut it off!” the MT was shouting, referring to his very own arm.

Gladio looked to Ignis. His sword appeared in his hand in a flash of blue.

“No, wait a second,” Noct was saying.

TEN SECONDS

“Ignis?” Gladio asked.

“He’ll bleed to death,” Ignis said. Without the use of potions, they’d have no way to stop it.

“He’ll definitely die if …”

“Just rip it off him!” Noct shouted.

FIVE SECONDS

“Cut it off, cut if off!”

Gladio banished the sword and pried the control unit away from the MT’s arm in one fluid red motion. This was accompanied by the most wretched scream Ignis had heard in his entire life. Then it was free. Gladio tossed it away from them, and it bounced to a rest in the grass.

LETHAL INJECTION INITIATED. There was a click, and clear liquid bubbled out of the device and soaked into the earth.

Gladio was already pressing a towel to the MT’s forearm when Ignis turned back around. The amount of blood seeping through it was concerning, but not overly so. If it wouldn’t stop … well, they would determine how to handle that if it became an issue.

The MT’s entire body twitched, as though he were trying to curl himself around the injured arm. His mouth worked, but he made no sound.

Noct reached for him, but Ignis batted his hand away. The black substance was still an unknown, and Ignis would not risk Noct’s health.

He instead combed his own fingers through the MT’s sweat-stiff hair. “Hush now, it’s over. It’s off.”

The MT let out a shuddering sigh. He turned searchingly into Ignis’ hand, and Ignis allowed it. He continued to stroke the MT’s forehead as he calmed.

Ignis met Gladio’s eyes over the prone MT. His brow was furrowed, and Ignis wondered if Gladio’s concerns mirrored his own. The MT was a human being in serious physical distress, true, but he was also an enemy. Black scourge stained his veins, and his armor – machinery of war – lay heaped in the grass beside them.

They were supposed to be hidden away from the militant Empire, but that disastrous conflict had stumbled right to their door.

---------

MT lay on his back. His body felt light and shaky. His arm hurt a lot where the control unit had been, but he was mostly just glad it was gone. The sky was beautiful blue, edged with the leaves of the trees surrounding the clearing.

Something draped over his lower half. The sharp one had covered him with a cloth. “Try to stay with us, now. You need additional attention, and we’ve some things to discuss.”

MT didn’t know if he’d be much good at discussing. The armor was off. He hadn’t really thought past that. His mind felt empty, like a blank slate. But he obeyed.

(His last order was to battle until he fell, and he hadn’t obeyed that. But that was an exception. He tried to be good, even if the failed compliance tests stacked up anyway.)

“Let’s put him on the sofa,” the sharp one was saying to the big one. “The sheet will serve as a buffer. Not ideal, but once he’s cleaned up ...”

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves, Ignis. Are we … are we really doing this?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Are we not already doing this?”

“Sure, we got him out of the armor, but … taking him in is something else.”

“The alternative is to leave him leave him lying here on the ground, injured and defenseless.”

“Is that such a wild idea?”

If they were going to leave him, he’d have to figure out how to hide himself from the daemons before it got dark. They might not ignore him anymore, now that the armor was off. He’d seen the floodlights attached to the little house. He wondered if they’d let him stay in the clearing, or if they’d chase him off. He wondered if he could stand.

“Gladio, would you please just carry him inside? We’ll discuss how to proceed later.”

“I feel bad for him too, okay? But this is a big damn risk. What if he’s actually here to kill us?”

“If so, this is a strange way to go about it. If he meant us harm, he’s had plenty of opportunities to attempt it.”

“So we should keep giving him more? There was only supposed to be one other person in all of Eos who knew where we were. Cor. Now that number’s doubled. What if he exposes us?”

They didn’t like that he knew they were here. So they probably weren’t just going to leave him. They’d either take him in or kill him. Somehow, that was a relief. It meant he wouldn’t have to try to drag himself off the ground.

“What precisely are you suggesting? We can’t just ...”

“Can’t we? Ignis, he’s a freaking MT. I’ll choke the life out of him with my own two hands if that’s what’s necessary to keep Noct safe.”

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to die. Better than being trapped inside the armor. Maybe, if they did decide to kill him, they’d let him pick that. Bare hands on his skin. These people were kind, and the big one – Gladio – was strong. He wouldn’t make it hurt, not more than it had to. His face would be the last thing MT would see.

“Dramatic much? We barely saved him from the armor, you can’t go threatening to kill him.” The soft one leaned over him. “What’s your name?”

MT would look at the soft one instead, if he could. Noct. His face would be a good last sight. “My designation is MT-05953234.”

Noct frowned. “No, like your real name.”

“I’m just … MT.”

“Okay, but what were you called before you were an MT?”

“There was no before.”

That answer was met with a long, gaping silence. All three of them were staring at him.

“What does that mean?” the sharp one, Ignis, asked.

MT didn’t know how to say it differently.

“When did you first get in that armor?” Noct said.

“We get full armor at 18 years operation. Two years ago for me. Training armor starts at 13 years operation.”

“And before that?” Gladio growled.

“Conditioning.”

More silence.

“You’re telling me,” Gladio said, “you’ve been an MT your whole life.”

“Since you were a small child?” Ignis added.

MT looked back up at the sky. The conversation was going in circles, and he was very tired. “How could I have ever been anything else?”

They looked like they were having a hard time understanding, even though it seemed pretty simple to him. But then these people were Lucians – at least, he thought they were – and the Lucians didn’t have MTs.

Gladio cleared his throat. “Okay. Let’s get you inside and we’ll figure out what the fuck we’re gonna do with you from there.”

-------

Noctis dug a box out from under the kitchen sink, one of the caches of survival supplies Gladio had been organizing and reorganizing since they got there. Behind him, he could hear Gladio dumping the MT on the couch in the living half of the cottage’s main room.

“Look, just … lie still,” Gladio said.

Ignis sighed. “Would you like more water?”

Based on the shuffling and gulping, the answer was yes.

Noctis pulled the top off the emergency cache and grabbed an energy gel out. “Here.” He was across the main room in three strides.

Gladio intercepted the foil pouch and tore the corner off before passing it to the MT. “Try to suck on some of this. It’ll put a little juice back in your tank.”

The MT took it obediently and put it to his mouth. His vacant eyes looked bruised with exhaustion and he blinked slowly, like could barely keep them open. He clutched the sheet he’d been wrapped in with his bad arm.

“Do you know anything about the black substance under your skin?” Ignis asked.

He shook his head slowly. “They put more in the control box every four weeks. It’s to help us wear the armor. It’s … it …” He visibly ran out of steam.

“Never mind for now. Just get down what you can.”

“Okay.” The MT dropped off almost immediately, the half-empty gel slipping from his slack lips.

With a shared glance, the three of them retreated to the far corner of the kitchen. They could keep an eye on the MT across the room and hopefully talk without waking him.

“He has a number instead of a name.” Ignis had a look on his face. The same look he’d had the morning after Insomnia fell. Noctis had seen it on him a couple of times since. It was the look that meant he didn’t know what to do.

It made him seem younger. Like someone Noctis’ age instead of Noctis’ fearless strategist. Noctis didn’t like it.

“We need to call Cor,” Gladio said.

“Right, yes. Of course.” Ignis drew his phone out of his back pocket and tapped the screen. They waited while it reconnected to the network. They had to keep all their phones on airplane mode to make themselves as invisible as possible. Two more swipes and they were dialing Cor.

He picked up on the second ring. “Code?”

After a half-second hesitation Ignis answered, “Orange.”

They had a color system for when they called Cor outside of scheduled check-ins, so he’d know right away what level of response was needed. They weren’t supposed to call for anything you’d consider green. Yellow was for questions they really needed a second opinion on or updates too important to wait for the next call. Red was for actual emergencies, like if someone got sick and they needed urgent medical advice.

Black was for him. For Noctis. He’d felt a shiver go down his spine when he’d seen it on Ignis’ briefing sheet. The King’s life is in jeopardy - Require immediate aid/extraction. He hated it for a couple of reasons. He hated those words – The King. They were like a slap in the face. But beyond that, Noctis knew how to read between the lines. If Ignis’ or Gladio’s lives were in jeopardy, no one would come. Keeping the location secure for him was more important. Important enough for them to die for it, the way Cor and the Crownsguard were keeping score.

They must have picked that up from his dad.

“Orange?” Cor said, low voice warped over speaker-phone. “What’s happening? Is anyone hurt?”

“Everyone’s all right,” Ignis said. “We … an MT approached the cottage.”

“An MT?” Cor’s voice sharpened with alarm. “Singular?”

“Correct. We’ve seen no signs of any other Imperial activity.”

“No Magitek engines humming,” Gladio added.

“If they knew where you were, they’d be down around your ears,” Cor said.

“We’re aware,” Ignis said, knuckles whitening on the phone.

There was noise in the background, like Cor was shuffling through some papers. “No strange infantry movements flagged by recent patrols in the region, but we’ll keep an eye out. You should check it for trackers or active tech before you bury it.”

Ignis closed his eyes. “Lord Marshall …”

“It’s dead, isn’t it? Tell me it didn’t escape.”

“It didn’t escape,” Gladio said.

“Then what am I missing?”

Ignis and Gladio shared an uneasy look. Noctis sighed. “It’s alive. It’s here. It’s actually …”

“Kill it,” Cor commanded.

“No,” Noctis said.

“Boys, if there is an active MT at your location, you need to kill it.”

“He’s not an it.”

There was a long pause. “I thought they were machines.”

Ignis rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Apparently not, or not all of them at any rate. This one was a suit of mechanical armor with a person inside.”

“A person?”

“A skinny-ass kid. He said he’s twenty. I don’t even know if I believe him.”

“He appears to have deserted from the Magitek infantry,” Ignis said. “Though … perhaps ‘escaped’ would be a better word.”

There was a very long pause. Noctis slumped against the cabinet, staring at the unconscious MT on the sofa. He looked so much smaller without the armor. It made his chest hurt.

“You there, Cor?” Gladio prompted. He was drumming his fingers on the counter. Weird, for him.

He didn’t know what to do either, Noctis realized. He was hanging on Cor’s advice.

Cor had the worst response. “Gladio, if I told you to kill him, would you carry out my order?”

“I’d order him not to,” Noctis said instantly.

“Noctis, I can’t …”

“You didn’t hear him, Cor, the way he was begging for help. You didn’t see him. He was stuck inside that armor with pins and wires. He looks like a mad science experiment. It sounds like it wasn’t voluntary. So. We’re not killing him! Royal decree.”

A whooshing sound. Maybe a sigh. “Then there’s your answer. But if he presents a threat to your life or the security of your location you’ll have no choice. He knows your position and you cannot allow him to leave there alive. Do you hear me, Gladio?”

“Yes, sir.” Gladio met Noctis’ eyes over the phone. He knew Gladio wouldn’t hesitate. Even a royal decree from Noctis wouldn’t stop him from doing his duty as the Shield.

It had been made pretty clear that what Noctis wanted was irrelevant.

“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Cor was saying. “And keep me updated. I want to hear from you every twenty four hours so I know he hasn’t murdered you in your sleep.”

“Yes, Marshall,” Ignis said. “While I have you, the MT is in poor shape physically and he has … some strange symptoms. Might I trouble someone on your team for a medical consultation?”

Another sigh. “Of course. Might take me a few minutes to round up the right personnel. Leave your phone on. I’ll call you back.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Cor disconnected.

A medical consultation. Strange symptoms. “Is he going to make it?” Noctis asked quietly.

Gladio shrugged. “Do I look like a doctor to you? Who knows. He’s exhausted and dehydrated and his arm’s pretty fucked up. That black stuff looks like bad news. If he was right and it came out of that murder box … who knows what’s going to happen now that he’s cut off.”

“We have basic medical supplies and Gladio’s and my knowledge of first aid, along with whatever the Marshall’s doctors can tell us,” Ignis said. “If he experiences any sort of serious complication … there will be nothing we can do.”

Noctis didn’t know why he cared. That thing on the couch was an MT. He’d probably killed Lucians. He’d only run away to save his own life.

He did know why, actually. It was because he’d said he‘d never been anything else. He was raised to live and fight and die in that armor. He never asked for it. He was never given a choice.

Noctis knew what that felt like.