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Prompto’s mind moved across the scene like the scrape of a glacier.

Three MTs moved with lethal purpose toward the cottage. They were all armed. They worked as a unit. (Prompto heard the ghost of deafening comms crackle in his ear.) The two with close range weapons advanced past the stump Gladio used as a chopping block, leaving the axe upright in it, untouched.

The MT with the rifle had it trained on the front window. A red glare centered.

“Noct!” Prompto must have cried, but most of the singing alert-attention in his body was focused on dragging Noct to the floor, which he did literally fractions of a second before the glass shattered.

It rained down, peppering them. Noct’s eyes were blue and wide. Sounds were everywhere. Interwoven footfalls: Gladio and Ignis running out the door. The metallic rap of armor: the MTs approaching. A reverberating gunshot: the MT with the rifle.

Prompto thought of his old self with his old rifle, and he thought of Ignis and Gladio out there, and Noct in here, and if you were trying to kill me, I wouldn’t want to be standing there, and he felt more afraid and protective and ferocious than he ever had in his life.

The gun was out of the Armiger and in his hands. It was like Noct said, just like thinking now that he was used to it. Prompto popped up to aim through the window, targeted the marksman, and fired fired fired. He had a handgun, not a rifle, and it would take more than one bullet to pierce the MT’s armor. He fired until his gun was empty, let the Armiger reload, and fired twice more. He stopped because the MT was falling.

Status of the other two targets: Both neutralized. (Gladio had cleaved one nearly in half; Ignis was yanking his dagger from the still form of the other.)

He stayed vigilant for additional threats. After a second, after two seconds, he realized he needed to see if anyone was hurt. Thinking about his allies was a difference he hadn’t predicted between fighting as an MT and fighting as a person.

Ignis looked okay. He was standing, surveying the scene. He looked uninjured. Gladio had blood dripping down one side of his face, but he was standing also, looking down at one of the fallen MTs. They had potions in the Armiger, Prompto was remembering. Gladio could use one if he needed to, and he hadn’t yet, so he was probably fine.

Noct was beside him, slowly unfolding from the position Prompto had pulled him into. Glass clattered as it fell to the floor. Noct wasn’t shot. Startled, shocked, but fine. The glass didn’t pose a serious threat.

Noct’s hand closed around Prompto’s arm. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Are you?” he asked, even though he’d already assessed him.

“Yeah.” Noct’s gaze traveled out the broken window. “Six, Prompto. Let’s …”

“Yeah.” They had to get out there. Regroup with the rest of their unit, their friends. Debrief and form a tactical plan, figure out what to do next.

Prompto made it a step or two out the door. His legs stopped supporting him after that.

He was even less used to thinking about himself after a combat. He didn’t seem to be physically injured anywhere. His heart was just beating awfully fast.

“Prompto?” Noct asked, alarmed.

“Are you hurt?” Ignis followed, turning.

“Don’t let him come out here!” Gladio roared.

“What?” Noct said, blinking. “What are you …”

“He shouldn’t have to see,” Gladio said. “They’re …”

“It’s okay,” Prompto said, even though his breath was trying to come in short gasps. MTs were clones. He knew that better than they did. “I’ve seen us dead before. They would have killed you guys. It probably won’t be the last time.”

Gladio was frowning severely. It was funny, how things could change. How Prompto wasn’t even worried by that a little. “Okay,” he rumbled.

“Your head’s bleeding,” Prompto told him, between gasps.

“Prompto,” Ignis said very gently from beside him. “Please try to breathe along with me. Listen carefully. I’m going to inhale.” He did.

Vaguely Prompto recognized this as a technique he had been taught to help Ignis. More concretely, the task was difficult, and required most of his attention. He focused on it, slowly slowing his own breathing to find rest with Ignis’.

It was a good technique. After a little bit, Prompto felt more like himself. More back with the rest of the world. Ignis smiled at him, and shifted the hand that had been holding Prompto’s hand – interesting that Prompto hadn’t even noticed – to his elbow, and helped him up.

It probably wasn’t very useful, to freak out after a fight. If there had been another fight, he would have been a liability. “Sorry.”

Noct was staring down at one of the MTs. The one Prompto had shot. “Don’t be sorry.”

“Yes, you did well, and there’s no harm done,” Ignis said. “We can discuss it further later, but right now we must attend to more urgent matters.”

“Like the fact that we’re compromised,” Gladio growled. His sword was still in his hand. Prompto was glad. He felt safer seeing it.

“Compromised, but not discovered. As you said before, on … a previous occasion. If the Empire knew we were here – or more precisely, if they knew who and what was here – they would send much more than a handful of MTs. They would deploy a dozen dropships, use overwhelming force to secure or suppress Noctis.”

Gladio took his time on that one. “All right. So what do they think is here, if they don’t know about Noct?”

Prompto felt his sense of reality slide for the second time that day. This time under a familiar powerlessness, one he’d believed he was actually free from. “It’s me.”

His first thought was don’t compromise this location, he’d broken the rules, termination. His logical brain quickly remembered that wasn’t true. He hadn’t sabotaged them on purpose, and they wouldn’t think this counted. It was funny, how strong old truths could be.

Gladio was frowning again. “Why would they only come looking for you now? Why would they even think you’re alive?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t come back to look for survivors.” He tried to think. “Maybe when the refuse collectors went back later to recycle the armor, they noticed my control unit wasn’t there. Maybe they only just found out, or maybe no one cared until someone who mattered noticed. Or … or maybe they were always going to come after me eventually. Maybe it just took them a long time to search this far. I don’t … I don’t know. I don’t really know what they care about or what they know about us. Just what I saw.” Prompto felt useless. He didn’t even know how he was a danger to Noct and the others. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Noct said.

It was, though.

He looked at the three on the ground. Their mission had been to find him. He’d broken the rules. Termination.

He didn’t know why he’d ever thought he was really away.

“I can go back,” Prompto said. His voice sounded far away from his ears, but the words were his. “I can get captured, and confess to disobeying orders and hiding and killing the party they sent after me. They won’t have any reason to keep looking.”

The looks they were giving him were … he didn’t know, actually. They weren’t good.

“I’ll be able to keep from revealing you,” he said. “I’m conditioned for counter-torture.”

Gladio released a string of so many swear words Prompto didn’t even know half of them. Then he pointed his giant sword at Prompto from across the clearing. “That’s not fucking happening.”

“No,” Noctis agreed, though he spoke quiet and tight. “Royal decree.”

Ignis didn’t say anything. He just looked at him, taut and penetrating. He didn’t try to argue against them, which Prompto understood was a gesture of overwhelming affection. Because Prompto also understood Ignis might be the one who would help him, or at least not stop him, if it came to that.

It was kind of a surprise, but it made sense when he thought about it. Glaido was Noct’s guardian, and his role was to protect against threats – and Prompto had been a threat at the beginning, but he was an ally now. Ignis was Noct’s strategist. He knew what everything was worth, and that Noct was priceless.

“Royal decree,” Gladio echoed, gesturing with his sword for emphasis. “Now, come on – what’s the actual plan?”

“We can leave,” Noctis said.

“There’s a reason we haven’t left already,” Ignis said. “A reason we’re here in the first place. For us to be extracted and relocated is a hugely risky undertaking – the moment the Empire knows where you are, Noctis, the entire opposition to their domination of the world is in danger. At the moment, all they are suspicious of is a missing MT. If we can deal with that situation, it may be better than creating another one.”

“Except now it’s not one MT,” Gladio said. “It’s four. Those three aren’t gonna get back, and next time it’ll be a whole dropship, or more, and we might not be so lucky. This problem isn’t going away.”

It could, though. It could go away. Prompto could make it go away. He could keep Noct safe, and the world safe, and all it would cost was his one life.

Prompto had gotten kind of attached to that, his life, recently. The guys had taught him that. They’d let him experience it, and so many other things, for weeks and weeks. The three on the ground had never had that luxury.

And that’s what it was, Prompto could now see. It had been a beautiful, miraculous thing, the chance to experience a real person’s happy life. And because that he had that experience, that understanding, he had another luxury – the chance to die protecting that for others, unlike all the other MTs, who could only die at someone else’s hands to stop trying to destroy it.

MTs were born to kill and then die. Prompto wasn’t lucky enough to escape that after all. Maybe some other MTs would be. If Noct survived and saved the world. If Prompto did this.

The guys didn’t even get immediately worried when Prompto pulled the gun out of the Armiger. Prompto would try to die thinking about how lucky he was to have gotten to have true friends.

#

Gladio loathed the MTs’ armor with every cell in his body, had ever since he had get a trapped dying person out of it with his bare hands, but he was still weirdly affronted at the words ‘refuse collectors’, at the Niffs treating it like trash. It was these MT’s whole lives. Then again, they treated them, and their remains, like even less.

They’d have to bury these three. Give them respect. Gladio would have to take the armor off them first – have to repeat three times a hollow mockery of managing to save Prompto’s life.

It was going to be hell seeing their faces.

He’d felt the earth tilt a little, looking down at the MT he’d cut apart – as easily as he almost cut Prompto apart the day they met – and realizing there was a Prompto in there too. He’d had to be careful not to think about it too hard, so he wouldn’t make himself sick. Then, a minute later, he’d looked at the one Prompto had killed. At the golf-ball-sized hole in the MT’s helmet, where Prompto had fired shot after shot with unflinching precision so he could punch through the armor protecting it and kill the MT inside. Then Gladio felt stupid for feeling queasy. He also felt queasy on Prompto’s behalf. He couldn’t work out which was the right response. Maybe both.

So maybe he thought that’s what Prompto was thinking about, when he drew his gun out of the Armiger. Maybe it seemed natural for him to be reflecting on what they’d just done, or what they were going to have to do.

It was the middle of a pretty important conversation, and in hindsight, Gladio could never get it to make much sense.

In the moment, it allowed Prompto, at a full breakout sprint, to get a little too far before Gladio realized he should be trying to stop him.

#

Ignis’ internal monologue felt more like a dialogue: the majority of his brain picking through the parameters of their situation with ruthless practicality while also unfortunately having to spend resources incapacitating the useless portion, which wanted to drag him toward paralysis, was obsessed with the logical certainty they were all going to die, his worst anxieties were in fact founded, and he was too late, had been too inadequate, to stop it.

This drag, this self-defeating struggle, was new in the last six months. Ignis had been learning how to manage it, how to disable that poisonous pattern and get on with what he was really trying to do. But he was not yet perfect at it (might never be perfect at it, and if he wasn’t, could he really be in Noct’s service?), and it was a distraction, if only momentarily.

Prompto was as quick as his name implied, and as single-minded as his dead brethren when he wished to be. That was enough to give him the advantage.

“Prompto, stop!” Gladio bellowed.

Ignis was, at the very least, fast on the draw. He applied the correct part of his mind to a new, even more immediate situation. Prompto had drawn his gun from the Armiger, so Noctis couldn’t deprive him of it unless he put it back. Prompto had not obeyed Gladio, had continued moving, so he was not willing to abide by the group’s consensus. Of the three of them, Noct was the nearest, and while Ignis did not think Prompto would shoot Noctis, he also had not thought Prompto would do this, so he had to consider Prompto unpredictable. Ignis caught Noct by the collar and threw him backward, and Noct, surprised, stumbled – so Ignis was the first pursuer in Prompto’s line of fire, with Gladio next, and Noctis appropriately last.

Prompto was running with only the occasional glance over his shoulder. He clearly meant to leave. But he whirled at the edge of the clearing. “Don’t follow me!”

“Prompto, return the gun to the Armiger.” Ignis made his voice was sharp with command.

Prompto’s brow furrowed, as if he were surprised. “No.”

“MT-05953234!” Ignis barked. “Comply immediately!”

The hurt look that crossed Prompto’s face made Ignis want to crumble. “That won’t work on me anymore,” Prompto replied quietly.

Ignis felt low. “Prompto. When I suggested we consider our options before abandoning the cottage, this is not one I meant.”

“That’s only because you’re still too nice to me,” Prompto said. “Either of you would die for Noct. To protect him, keep him safe. That’s what all this is about. I’m his too, now, and I’m allowed to do the same.”

Gladio was, meanwhile, had circled around and was advancing slowly from the side. Prompto noticed, of course. Under his firm amethyst gaze, Gladio paused, shoulders a little slouched. “Prompto, this is a terrible plan. You going back might not solve anything. Sure, maybe the Niffs’ll think they know what happened – if you can convince them, if no small detail gives it away. But even then, they might just come collect all this armor and find us out anyway.”

“I don’t think so. It’s a long way to fly, a lot of forest to search, for only four suits.” Ignis didn’t know whether Prompto’s assessment was correct or not. “Still, you should probably move the armor away from the clearing. Mine too. If they can track it somehow, that will draw them away from you. With all that, I think there’s a pretty good chance this’ll work.”

“That’s stupid,” Gladio said. “This is not happening, Prompto. Come back inside with us while we figure out what to do.” He advanced again.

Prompto said, “Stop.” He turned the gun toward him, reminding them he held it. It stayed pointing toward the grass, never at Gladio, but his meaning was clear.

“Prompto, you’re not going to shoot me,” Gladio growled.

Prompto’s shoulders were rigid. He shook his head, resigned. “You’re right. I’m not. But … but you’re not going to kill me either, are you? I know you said you’d have to, if I tried to leave, but can this be an exception? Will you let me do this? For Noct? If I’m going to die either way, you can let me make it mean something, instead of just wasting it.”

Prompto.” Noct’s voice was terrible, one of the worst things Ignis had heard.

Prompto’s posture collapsed. “Noct …”

“When Insomnia fell, I lost everything that mattered. The future, the country. I figured that was it. Nothing would ever be good again. Then you came along, and you were you, and … It’s not that all that bad stuff was worth it. It doesn’t work like that. But I figured … I could survive. The other stuff is bad, but you’re good. So please stay. Don’t, don’t …”

“Noct,” Prompto said. “You’ve made me so happy. I mean, all of you have, but you … And I’d hoped.” He coughed, or perhaps choked. “I’d hoped you’d keep happening to me forever. I mean, I guess that’s what happened. I just figured forever would be longer. I want to stay with you, Noct, of course, I want … But you’re the king. They’ll kill you. And I’m not going to let you die. Not if I can stop it.”

“Prompto,” Noct said. He clenched his fists desperately, as if he could grasp the air and Prompto along with it. “I love you. All right? Please. Don’t … do this to me.”

“Me too, Noct. I know you think I can’t really know it yet, and mean it. Or, understand it. But I think you’re wrong, and even if you’re not … I’m never going to understand it any better. So, uh, I really hope you believe me.”

And with that, Prompto turned around and sprinted off into the forest, as fast as his former-MT legs would carry him – which, without his armor and with his health and his stubbornness, was fast indeed.

#

Noctis tried to think of what to do. How to fix this.

In the end, he just ran after him.

Or he tried too, but strong hands closed around his upper arms. Gladio bodily held him in place, practically lifting him off the ground to keep him from finding enough purchase.

“Deep breath,” he rumbled. “Okay? One deep breath. We’re gonna figure this out, but you can’t run helter-skelter into the woods. It’s not safe.”

“Prompto isn’t safe! Not if he gets captured by them.” Noctis warped out of Gladio’s grip, emerging in the shade beyond the tree line.

“Prompto can move fast enough to evade us,” Ignis shouted after him. “He has physical conditioning, ingrained tactical training, and miles of forest in which to hide in every direction. We won’t be able to solve this problem with brute force.”

Noctis stared into the deep green forest. The leaves whispered like the the ocean. After several moments of churning thought, he was forced to accept Ignis was right. He turned around. They were both standing there, waiting for him.

“Then how are we going to solve it?” Noctis demanded.

To Ignis and Gladio’s credit, neither of them suggested just letting Prompto go.

“You’ve said before you can’t track us with the Armiger,” Ignis said. “Is that still true?”

“Yeah.” Noctis wondered if the Crystal would help him if he asked directly. Probably not. That would be a risky thing to try. Noctis hadn’t had much direct contact with it, but from his experience, it wasn’t kind.

“All right. You could, if you wished, rearrange the Armiger to put extra ammunition out of his reach, to prevent him from reloading.”

“Why would I want to do that? If he gets in a fight with more MTs, that’ll just help them kill him faster.”

“That’s true,” Ignis allowed. “It’s merely something to consider, especially as Prompto seems more likely to surrender to the next MTs he sees than try to do battle with them. I mention it in case he seems willing to turn his weapon on himself.”

Noctis couldn’t believe Ignis had even suggested that. “Why would he? What good would that do?”

“Prompto has had very unique life experiences, and is now a fully willful person,” Ignis said. “Apparently. It may not be possible for us to predict exactly what he will or won’t do.”

Noctis didn’t like thinking about that, but, “Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.” That’s what a strategist was for, after all. Giving him strategies, in case he needed them.

“The Armiger also presents a way of communicating with him,” Ignis continued, oblivious to Noctis’ train of thought.

That was true. Noctis could pass items to Prompto. Whether he chose to look at them was another matter.

One outside their control.

What could him send him that would change his mind? Convince him to turn back before he found them? The Empire. The Niffs. Noctis couldn’t think about Prompto back in their cold metal hands. Letting them call him a number while they took him apart. He wouldn’t die like that.

Noctis wouldn’t let him.

#

Prompto knew that if he put the gun back in the Armiger, Noct could take it from him. Prompto didn’t know if he would, but Prompto also didn’t know if he would need the gun later. So he carried it, in case, as he ran through the dappled woods.

It reminded him of another run through the very same woods, another infinite expansive path he’d run with mortal urgency but no clear destination, just the need to continue until he found something, if he could. It was also really unlike that other journey, in that he was free – he felt the heat of the day on his body, his speed on his face and arms, the sun as he passed though dappled clearings, the grass and low plants against his ankles. He was in the world instead of outside it. The fresh air of the living forest flowed in and out his lungs. The sounds of his footsteps as well as his breath fell directly on his ears.

It was really beautiful.

It hadn’t been that long – fifteen minutes, maybe – when Prompto lurched to a halt in a small clearing. The Armiger was always right with him – not some far-away place, but an always-there one. He remembered the space in his chest he had imagined when he was worried about saving his name. The Armiger was actually a lot like that. Gladio said it was like a pocket in his soul, the part of his soul that, thanks to the line, was also Noct’s.

So when Noct put something into the Armiger, Prompto could feel him like he was close. It was gone fast, as fleeting as a breeze, but he took his time savoring it, just like he was savoring the wind and the sky.

He wondered if Noct could feel him, too, when he reached in and took the new thing out. For some reason that thought reminded of what Noct had said when he gave the Armiger to him. If anything ever happened to me, it might hurt you. He wondered if it worked both ways, if it would hurt Noct when something happened to him.

That was a weird thing to be a sobering thought. To make his feet feel heavy in the grass. Of course it would hurt Noct when something happened to him, even without the Armiger. Noct, who had been hurt enough, who liked napping on the window seat and who didn’t like to fight but had to. Noct, who had soft hair, and who had lost his whole home.

Noct, who was Prompto’s, just as much as Prompto was Noct’s.

What Noct had put in the Armiger was Ignis’ phone.

Ignis’ phone was important. He wasn’t sure why Noct would give it to him. Prompto could turn on the service. He could call their friends far away. He could … he didn’t know exactly what the phones did, since the service had always been off the whole time he was at the cottage. But he had the impression they were powerful. And Noct had given him one.

Prompto entered Ignis’ code and opened it. The most recent app was the camera, and that’s what Prompto was most familiar with anyway, so he started there. There were several photos, all taken just now. A picture of the cottage taken from the outside. A picture of Gladio and Ignis, where Gladio looked tense and distracted and Ignis looked tired and determined. A picture of Noct’s phone screen, showing that picture of his dad. A text overlay had been added: If I’m going to be the King, I need you.

That wasn’t fair. Noct couldn’t be the king if Niflheim killed him. That wasn’t fair.

Prompto put the phone back in the Armiger. His feet felt very heavy indeed.

#

“Did you see enough?” Noctis asked, craning his neck to see his own phone screen in Ignis’ grip.

“I saw enough for now, but he’s put it back in the Armiger. He’ll likely move from that point.”

“We can get him to take it out again,” Noctis said, snatching the phone from the Armiger. He was already puzzling over what photos to take, what messages to send.

They had two phones off airplane mode, a big violation of protocol. Ignis had some kind of tracker on Noctis’ phone, and it worked the other way too, so they’d given Ignis’ phone to Prompto and were using Noctis’ phone to track it in the infinite green forest. And maybe wearing Prompto down while they were at it.

It was smart. It was Ignis’ idea, made possible with Noctis’ help.

It was a good thing Prompto didn’t know how phones worked.

They tried to convince Noctis to stay at the cottage with Ignis and let Gladio go after Prompto alone. Noctis refused. It would mean a third phone off airplane mode, because they would have to relay Prompto’s location to Gladio, and Ignis couldn’t physically keep Noctis there against his will anyway.

Ignis was probably going to feed Noctis his least favorite vegetables for months for that threat. It was worth it. They all set off into the woods with no more argument.

#

Noct kept sending the phone back with new pictures.

Prompto kept telling himself he wasn’t going to look at the next set. They kept slowing him down. But Noct had taken them for him – it wasn’t like he was just going to not look.

#

It took an hour of playing connect-the-dots with Prompto’s location to find him.

What came next would be the risky part. Ignis hadn’t said it, but Noctis could figure that out himself. If they found Prompto like this but failed to stop him, he might stop taking the phone out of the Armiger. Actually disappear forever into the lush forest. Out of Noctis’ life and his own.

They had to get this right. Noctis did, really.

Noctis put the phone back into the Armiger, and Prompto took it out again – and this time, Prompto’s action was so close Noctis could almost feel it on his side as well as the other. He’d never noticed that before – never paid this close attention. (Never not known where Ignis or Gladio were.) He wondered if Prompto could feel the difference.

There was movement through the trees to one side – fleet, startled. Maybe so, then.

“Prompto! Wait a second,” Noctis called into the ubiquitous trees. Silence

“How did you find me?” Prompto asked, coming out of the undergrowth. He stayed far enough away they couldn’t grab him. Maybe close enough to warp – but Noctis had to get this right. Prompto had been varying his direction, intentionally trying to lose them, but apparently he was at least willing to talk.

Noctis wasn’t about to tell him about the phone, even if Prompto would probably figure it out for himself before long. “Did you think I would just let you go? Let them kill you? I’ll keep coming after you. I’ll find wherever they take you and tear the whole place apart to save you.”

“You can’t.”

“Why not? You’d do that for me.”

“Sure. But you’re the King. Being King means sometimes making hard choices.”

It was funny how making hard choices seemed mostly to mean making choices that weren’t choices at all. How few choices Noctis had really had in his life.

“Noctis is indeed the King,” Ignis said, “and His Majesty gave a command.”

“He said this wasn’t the play,” Gladio agreed. “We might try to talk him out of things, but when he puts his foot down, that’s that. And he drew a hard line on this. If you’re not going to obey, we’re obligated to stop you.”

“You really can’t, though,” Prompto said. “You can’t stop me from dying. Not if that’s my choice.”

His gun was pointed at the ground, nowhere scary, but Noctis still thought of what Ignis had said before. He thought of it, and for a second he was afraid, and then he got so angry. “You’re being really selfish, you know that?”

Prompto froze. “What?”

“I don’t want you to die for me, Prompto. You don’t get to decide this is what's best for me. For something like this, we both get a choice, and I don’t choose this!”

Prompto looked fully stricken now, but this was Noctis’ one chance, so he kept going.

“The past six months, I’ve been sitting in that dumb cottage wishing my dad had just let me die with him. It seemed so pointless for me to be here, and it hurt so much, but fine. For Lucis, for Eos, I’d wait around. I have a duty to something bigger than myself. Then you came along, and now … I don’t want this, okay? I don’t want to go through that again. Can’t it matter, just this once, what I want?”

Prompto’s face slowly melted from shock to comprehension. He glanced down at the gun in his hand, and up at Noctis. HIs weapon disappeared into the Armiger in a prismatic sparkle of light. “They’ll come after you,” he said quietly. “They’ll find out it’s you, and hunt you down and kill you.”

“We’ll run,” Noctis said. “We were never going to be able to stay here forever. If they do catch us, we’ll go down together. That would be better than this.”

“Not for everyone.”

“Royal decree. That means, this is what I’ve decided to do. The current situation isn’t good, so – it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice to maintain it. We can surrender the cottage and get away. You sacrifice to achieve hope.”

#

“Code black,” Ignis said into his phone. It was the second thing he’d done after Prompto had given it back, very repentantly. The first had been opening a map on the screen that showed where they were and what direction to go to get back to the cottage.

Prompto really needed to learn what phones did when the service was on. (Even if it was good in this case that he hadn’t, because it had saved him from hurting Noct and making a terrible mistake.)

Maybe he especially needed to learn now that they were going back to where the service would always be on? That was a weird thought, that they would be leaving the house where it was just the four of them and going around lots of other people too. His instincts wanted to tell him it was unsafe, because he probably wasn’t very good at being a person yet in the grand scheme of things (the almost-terrible-mistake being a clue) – but it also sounded exciting. There would be so many things that were new.

It wasn’t like he had a decision to make about it anyway, it was what was happening, so he just let the two feelings argue with each other without him and focused on packing anything he wanted to keep from the cottage.

Noct didn’t seem to want to let go of his hand, but Prompto only needed the other one to put things in the Armiger anyway, so that was all right with him.

“Sorry, Noct,” Prompto said, as he fwished his blanket. “I forgot to ask about your choice. And I wasn’t thinking about how you’re really the King.”

“It doesn’t mean you have to do everything I say,” Noct said glumly. “Just when it’s royal business. And when it’s something that’s for both of us to decide together. I don’t like giving you orders. That’s why I didn’t want you to fight for me.”

After everything Prompto knew of Noct, he could see that Noct wouldn’t like it, feeling like his friends had to obey him whether they liked it or not. It was so the opposite of his supervisors, when he was an MT. “I think I get it, what the difference is. And I really do want to fight for you, Noct – though if you really don’t want me to, I guess I won’t, or we can talk about it. I’ll be careful to check next time. I’ll get better at knowing which is which.”

“I know.” Noct was staring into the closet, picking shirts, but also not. “I’m not going to stop you fighting with me if you want to.” He squeezed Prompto’s hand. “It does make it easier.”

“Yeah, so it’ll be fine. I know more now.” Of course, Prompto always thought that, that he knew now, that he got it, and then it always turned out he didn’t quite, or there was some other thing that also mattered. Maybe it was something that would take forever, just like the amazing things. I’m not very good at it, parts of it, Noct had said, about being a regular person, and I’ve had my whole life to practice.

Prompto would just have to keep practicing, then. If Noct would help him with this too – and he had been, all this time – Prompto didn’t really mind.

Prompto decided to say, more quietly, something he’d been thinking for a little while. “You’re hope, Noct. That’s what your dad thought.”

Noct closed his eyes. “Maybe. But this time there’s another way forward.” He straightened himself and whisked a shirt into the Armiger. “And you’re hope too. For me and every MT out there. I’m going to need your help to save them.”

“I thought there was a reason you were hiding, though – and that reason hasn’t changed.”

“I was hiding because we didn’t have the Ring. I guess my dad was trying to get it out safely, but the Niffs captured it. We weren’t sure where they took it, so Cor wanted me to hide while they tried to get it back. But he hasn’t yet, and the world can’t wait forever, so … it’s about time we help try to find it instead.”

Prompto hadn’t quite heard the end of Noct’s explanation, because several things were coming together in his head.

“Prompto, you okay?”

“The Ring,” he said. “Is it …” He had to remove his good hand from Noct’s so he could form his forefinger and thumb into a circle the size of a small halo gasket. Or, now that he thought about it correctly, a human-finger-sized thing. “Black, sparkly. Very pretty.”

“As pretty as the princess here,” Gladio said from the hallway, Chocobo in one arm and Ignis’ mint plant in the other. He said it almost like it was a joke, but his tone was very serious. “Why do you ask?”

“I know where that is. It’s at the Tundra Facility, where I was. They were taking all these observations. I was tasked with guarding it on two occasions, that’s actually how I failed my last compliance test – by looking at it instead of facing forward. But I mean, I couldn’t resist. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”

#

Later, Cor would ask Gladio and Ignis why they never managed to interrogate, even very gently, the ex-Empire combatant living in their household for months.

Gladio was so irritated at himself he point-blank refused to talk about it.