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They’re in the depths of a ruin in the wilderness south of Lestallum, having just recovered the meteorshards Monica sent them there for, when Prompto announces, “Guys, daemons incoming!”

Gladio doesn’t even get the chance to react before Prompto follows up on this declaration with a gunshot. It sounds too loud in the underground cavern, piercing Gladio’s ears and making him wince, but he still has the presence of mind to summon his sword. He swings at a goblin that leaps at Ignis, swatting it out of the air. It explodes into black goo on the ground. Some of it splatters on Gladio’s boots.

“Gross,” he mutters, scraping at it with the dull edge of his blade.

“Gladdy, behind you!” Iris shouts.

Gladio twists, raising his sword just in time to deflect one that comes sailing at him. It snarls, its claws scrabbling at the steel, trying to get to the flesh beyond. Gladio punches it with his free hand, sending it skittering to the ground. Before it can recover and launch another attack, he drives his sword through it.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Iris slice up one of the creatures before gracefully eviscerating another that gallops toward her. Under different circumstances, he’d give her a high-five for moves like those, but this ain’t the time. If they aren’t careful—focused—they risk getting overwhelmed.

As it is, Gladio’s having a hard time making heads or tails of what’s going on around him. There’s no natural light down here. All they’ve got are their pocket lights, and in the chaos of battle, the beams cut through the darkness like strobes, illuminating flashes of the daemons and each other. It’s like they’re back in an Insomnia nightclub, only now they’re dancing with death instead of drunk strangers.

To his left, Ignis is going at it with two goblins. He’s holding one at bay with his daggers, but then the other jumps onto his back, its claws coming dangerously close to Ignis’s throat. It squeals when Gladio grabs it by the scruff of the neck and rips it away.

“You good, Iggy?” he asks.

Ignis puts the business end of his dagger through the other goblin. “Yes, thank you.”

Gladio nods, dispatches the flailing daemon he’s holding, and turns his attention to Prompto, who’s being backed into a corner by four of the little bastards as he reloads his gun.

“Some help here, big guy?” he says nervously when he sees Gladio looking.

“You got it,” Gladio says.

He whistles, and the cluster of daemons turns toward him. Two of them pounce at once. Gladio smacks one down with his sword while blocking the other with his shield, his ears ringing as its claws squeal on the metal. Then Iris is at his side, and Prompto blasts another out of the air, and they carry on like that, fighting together like a well-oiled machine.

When all the daemons are dead, Gladio takes stock of their injuries. Prompto looks fine, though sweaty. Iris has a scrape on her forehead and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Ignis is holding his side, but in the near darkness, it’s hard to tell how much blood he’s got on his shirt.

“You okay?” he asks, lightly touching his arm.

Ignis nods. “Yes. Nothing a potion can’t fix.”

“Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Gladio doesn’t have one, either; he cracked open his last one after they were ambushed by a lich on the trek in. All he’s got in his pockets now are the meteorshards they came here to collect. He turns to the others. “You guys got any potions?”

Prompto scratches his head and says, “I used mine,” while Iris shakes her head sombrely.

Okay. It ain’t ideal, but it doesn’t seem like Ignis is hurt too badly. They can trade with another hunter for some curatives when they make it back to camp.

They continue on their way, Ignis in the lead, Gladio guiding him with a hand on his back. Iris follows, with Prompto taking up the rear. They walk in tense silence for a while, all of them alert to incoming danger, until Ignis stops abruptly, reaching out for the wall with one hand. When he finds it, he leans on it, his shoulders curling up toward his ears as he hunches over in pain.

“Iggy?” Gladio comes around to to get a better look at Ignis’s face. It’s white as a sheet, and he’s grimacing, his teeth gleaming in the glow of Gladio’s flashlight. “What’s wrong?”

Wordlessly, Ignis shows him the palm that’s been holding his side. It’s slick and red with blood.

“Shit.” Gladio tugs the hem of Ignis’s shirt out of his pants and lifts it to get a better look. There’s a deep, ragged tear in his abdomen, oozing dark blood. It’s hard to tell in this light, but Gladio thinks he can see a bit of yellowy fat, too. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Ignis leans his head against the hand that’s on the wall. “I didn’t think it was so deep.”

“We need to get you back to camp.”

“Is everything okay?” Iris asks from behind them, her voice tinged with concern.

“It will be.” There’s no time to explain, and he doesn’t want anyone to panic. He strips off his shirt, balls it up, and presses it to the wound to stanch the blood. He slips his other arm around Ignis’s waist. “Lean on me, Iggy. It’s just a little bit further.”

They pick up the pace, Gladio all but dragging Ignis along. The beams of their flashlights bounce off the rock walls of the tunnel, but the darkness beyond seems to go on and on and on, forever. Gladio doesn’t remember walking this far on the way in. But they must’ve. It was a straight line down from the surface.

It ain’t long before Ignis starts stumbling over the loose stones underfoot, his breaths coming quick and shallow. His face is nearly grey now, and he looks like he’s ready to puke. Gladio hoists him closer, half carrying him, and moves a little faster. Sweat beads on his forehead and upper lip, runs in rivulets down his back. He can feel his pulse thumping in his throat. He ain’t gonna say it to the others, but Ignis is in serious trouble. If they don’t get their hands on a potion soon…

Fresh air greets them a few minutes later as they emerge from the ruin. There’s a haven about a half mile away, glowing like a beacon in the darkness. They camped there before entering the ruin. Ignis cooked a meal of seared alstrooms, and Gladio kept watch while the others caught a few hours of sleep. With any luck, other hunters will be camping there now. Hunters with potions.

“Just a little bit further,” he says. “You still with me, Iggy?”

Ignis nods weakly, his head lolling on Gladio’s shoulder. He feels like a bag of potatoes, limp and heavy. Gladio’s arm is on fire with the effort of holding him upright, and he’s sweating so much he barely feels the cold air on his bare skin. With a glance back at Iris and Prompto to make sure they’re still following, he starts to walk again, his boots crunching in the dead grass underfoot.

It takes them ten minutes to get to the haven, and it’s empty. His last hope for easy access to curatives evaporates and real fear starts to creep in. By now, Ignis is barely moving under his own power, trembling violently against Gladio’s side. Prompto has to sling an around him to help Gladio haul him up to safety.

Gladio cradles his head as they lower him to the haven floor, gently placing it on the folded-up jacket Prompto lays under it. He unfastens the bottom three buttons of Ignis’s shirt and parts the fabric to get a look at the wound underneath. It’s even deeper than he thought.

“Iris,” Gladio says, beckoning to her. When she comes, he hands off his blood-soaked shirt to her. “I need you to keep pressure on the wound. Press as hard as you can and don’t let go.”

Iris nods, pale and shaking, but she does as he asks, kneeling next to Ignis’s prone form. Gladio tries not to dwell on how quickly Ignis’s blood slicks her hands, or how it’s starting to pool on the haven floor beneath him.

“Iggy?” Gladio says, crouching over him. Ignis’s good eye is half open, but it doesn’t track his voice the way it normally does. Gladio lightly places a hand on his cheek. “Can you hear me?”

Ignis doesn’t respond. Gladio sits back on his heels and rakes a hand through his sweaty hair, looking up at Prompto. He hopes the desperation ain’t obvious on his face, but the alarm on Prompto’s is impossible to ignore.

“We need to get him a potion,” Gladio says urgently. “How far back was that hunter outpost?”

Prompto chews his lip. “Maybe ten miles?”

“Okay.” Gladio gets the car keys out of his back pocket and tosses them to Prompto. “Take the truck and go. Do whatever you have to do to get potions. Elixirs are better.” He frowns, studying Ignis’s ashen face. “Might be a good idea to get a phoenix down, too.”

“Shouldn’t we just bring him to the outpost?”

Gladio hesitates, then shakes his head. “We have to stop the bleeding. The back of the truck ain’t the place for that. If you hurry, it shouldn’t take you long.”

They look at each other, and whatever Prompto sees in Gladio’s eyes makes him nod grimly. “You got it.”

He jumps down from the haven and starts to sprint in the direction they left their truck, on the road about five hundred yards from the haven, his shock of blond hair disappearing into the dark night.

“And be careful!” Gladio calls after him.

He turns back to Ignis and gently touches the backs of his fingers to his cheek. The skin is cool and clammy, his lips a pale blue. Gladio moves his fingers to the soft skin under Ignis’s jaw to check for his pulse. It’s there, but it’s weak, fluttering like the wings of a moth.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Iris asks.

There’s no point in lyin’ to her. Gladio’s tried to protect her from the worst of the world, but after losing Dad and Jared, and fighting for survival in this daemon-infested hellscape, she’s seen enough death to know when it’s knocking at the door.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It ain’t lookin’ good. He’s going into shock.”

Iris bites her lip, her eyes huge and scared in the beam of Gladio’s flashlight. “What should we do?”

Gladio rubs his forehead, breathing hard. The Crownsguard’s mandatory first aid training seems like a million years ago. He remembers how to do CPR, treat burns, and stabilize a neck injury, but what did the instructor say about shock?

“Raise his feet,” Gladio tells her.

“But the wound—”

“I’ve got it.”

Gladio takes his bloody shirt back from her and jams it against Ignis’s side, holding it firm with his palm. He ain’t even sure it’s doing any good. It’s soaked through, and he can still feel Ignis’s blood dribbling between his fingers, thick and sticky. But it’s better than doing nothing. It’ll slow the flood enough to buy Prompto some time.

Next to him, Iris grabs Ignis’s ankles, her hands fumbling as she lifts his feet into her lap.

“Higher than that,” Gladio says. “You’re gonna have to hold them up. Take off his boots if they’re too heavy.”

She works Ignis’s boots off one after the other and lifts his feet onto her shoulders, holding them there awkwardly. Gladio reaches out with his free hand to grab his rucksack. He pulls out his leather jacket and lays it over Ignis, alternately rubbing his arms and hands to try to warm him up. If they can just keep him going until Prompto gets back, it’ll all be fine. They’ll get through this.

“How long do you think Prompto’s going to be?” Iris asks.

“Depends how fast he drives.” Gladio hopes he’s flooring it. Besides the occasional hunter convoy, the only traffic on the roads these days is the daemons. He can afford to be reckless. “And how much he has to barter. Maybe fifteen minutes? Twenty?”

Iris squeezes Ignis’s ankles. Gladio ain’t sure if it’s to soothe him or reassure herself. “I should’ve brought more potions,” she says.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Gladio says, even as he rubs Ignis’s cold hand with his own and mentally kicks himself for not doing the same. “It’s not your fault.”

“But you always say we shouldn’t go on a hunt without—”

“We were prepared,” Gladio says firmly. Throwing blame around ain’t gonna help Ignis. “The hunt was tougher than we expected. Let’s just focus on getting through this, okay?”

Iris nods, but she doesn’t look appeased. That’s fine. They can talk about this later, after the danger is over.

The quiet stretches out, and slowly, Gladio realizes that Ignis has gone still. Too still. Like deathly still. He brings his fingertips to Ignis’s throat again, searching for his pulse. It ain’t there. Alarmed, he places a hand on his chest, waiting for the tell-tale rise and fall of his lungs working, but there’s no movement.

“He’s not breathing,” Gladio says. “Fuck.”

“What?”

Gladio throws the jacket aside and drops the bloody t-shirt he’s been using to stanch the wound. This situation’s just gotten a hell of a lot more urgent. No matter what, he’s gotta keep Ignis’s blood circulating, feeding his brain and his organs, until Prompto gets back. He positions himself over Ignis and laces his fingers together, pressing the heel of one palm to the centre of Ignis’s chest.

“Just keep his legs elevated,” Gladio says, and starts to do compressions.

He’s never had to do CPR for real, never had any reason to when he always had potions at hand, but as a senior member of the Crownsguard, he was required to take a first aid course every year since he was eighteen. The exercises are burned into his brain. Hell, he could probably do them in his sleep.

But there’s a difference between doing them on a dummy and doing them on a person—his friend—and the way Ignis’s bones crack under the force of Gladio’s hands nearly startles him into stopping. The dummy never did that. He falters, glancing at Iris, but she only looks at him with wide-eyed fear, as out of her element as he is.

Right. A bone can be fixed; death can’t. He’s gotta keep going, even if he has to break every rib in Ignis’s body. Gladio grits his teeth, locks his elbows, and puts his whole weight into the compressions. He drives the heel of his palm into Ignis's sternum again and again, in a quick, steady rhythm, breathlessly counting them aloud as sweat drips down his nose, down the back of his neck. It’s a better workout than anything he put himself through back at the Citadel gym.

Only difference is, he could stop for a breather back then.

Within a few minutes, the muscles in his arms are burning, starting to seize. He looks at Iris, wondering if she could take over for a bit, but then he dismisses the idea. Far as he’s aware, she’s never been trained in this, and she’s not strong enough to keep it up for any significant length of time.

“Is it working?” she asks.

“Dunno,” Gladio pants between compressions.

It’s like giving first aid to a sack of flour. Ignis’s body feels soft and yielding, as if his breastbone’s about to open up and swallow Gladio’s hands whole. The compressions jostle him, but Ignis just lies there limply, letting Gladio do this to him.

“Come on, Iggy.” Gladio tips Ignis’s head back, pinches his nose between his slippery fingers, and brings their mouths together, blowing air into his lungs. Ignis’s chest rises with it, but when Gladio pulls away, it doesn’t rise again. He leans in to give him another breath, dread prickling the back of his neck at the sensation of Ignis’s cold, slack lips under his own. “Breathe, goddammit!”

He goes back to compressions, counting them out just like his first aid instructor taught him and ignoring the way Ignis’s sternum creaks under the heel of his palm. Thirty compressions to two breaths. One hundred compressions per minute. The formula for keeping Ignis on this mortal plane. Gladio focuses on that instead of the voice whispering from the back of his head that this is all pointless, that Ignis ain’t gonna pull through, that he’s giving first aid to a corpse.

“Come on, Iggy,” he says again, panting the words between compressions. Sweat stings his eyes; he blinks it away. “Noct’ll be expecting to see you when he’s back. You gonna let him down?” He pauses to give Ignis two breaths, willing life into him along with the oxygen. “You gonna let us all down?”

“Gladdy…” Iris says in a small voice. “I don’t think it’s working.”

Doesn’t matter. Gladio can’t remember how long he’s supposed to keep doing this, but he’ll do it for hours if he has to. He’s not about to give up. He’s not about to let Ignis go without a fight. Noct still needs him. Gladio still needs him. They all need him, and Gladio’s gonna make sure Ignis is there when Noct comes back if it’s the last thing he does.

If Ignis doesn’t make it, Gladio doesn’t wanna be the one who has to tell Noct why.

He keeps going, pushing through the pain and ignoring the sweat dripping down his sides. He’s so focused that he doesn’t hear Prompto approaching until he’s vaulting up onto the haven floor.

“I got a phoenix down,” he says breathlessly as he drops to his knees and holds out his hands to Gladio. There are three curatives resting in his open palms. “Had to trade all the bullets and food I had left in my pack to get it, but I got it.”

Gladio sits back on his heels, breathing hard. “Then quit talking and use it!”

Prompto nods, shoves the phoenix down into Ignis’s limp hand, and forces him to crush it. A shimmering, red cascade of magic spills over Ignis, reigniting the spark in his lifeless body. He sucks in a gasping breath and arches off the haven floor, his limbs spasming as his nerves start taking signals from his brain again.

“Elixir!” Gladio barks.

Prompto places one of the remaining phials into Ignis’s hand and crushes it, too. Gladio watches as another wave of magic, this time blue, knits together Ignis’s torn flesh, leaving nothing but a shiny, pale pink scar in its place. Ignis groans, one hand coming up to splay feebly over the spot where the wound used to be.

It’s almost like it never happened. Like Ignis was never dying right in front of his eyes.

But Gladio will never be able to forget it.

He goes down on his elbows and knees on the haven floor, bowing his head. Ignis is gonna be fine, but Gladio’s pulse still thunders like he’s just run a marathon, his lungs struggling for air. Every muscle in his body feels weak—from sheer relief, maybe, or the exertion of keeping Ignis’s heart pumping blood through his body for the better part of twenty minutes.

A small hand touches him on the back, and Iris asks quietly, “Are you okay, Gladdy?”

“Yeah.” His voice is trembling. His face feels hot. He clears his throat and forces himself to sit up on his knees, running both hands through his sweaty hair. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, and it comes out stronger, more sure.

Next to them, Prompto is helping Ignis sit up. He still looks a bit shaky, a bit pale, and the entire front of his shirt is stiff and rusty with dried blood, but at least he ain’t dead. The curatives did their job.

“I apologize for all the trouble,” Ignis says.

It ain’t about the trouble. But Gladio doesn’t know how to tell him that, so instead he cups the back of Ignis’s neck and pulls his face against Gladio’s shoulder in something that’s almost but ain’t quite a hug. “Don’t you fucking do that to me again,” he says, voice rough with emotion. “You got that?”

Ignis nods against his shoulder, his breath hot on Gladio’s skin. He smells sour, like sweat and iron. Like life. Suddenly embarrassed, Gladio squeezes the back of his neck before releasing him.

“Thank you,” Ignis murmurs.

Gladio shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

“We should get you back to Lestallum,” Iris says, placing a hand on Ignis’s arm. “Some food would probably do you good.”

“Yes,” Ignis agrees, sounding more like himself. “A nice steak sounds like just the thing.”

Prompto laughs. “Good luck finding any meat that fresh in Lestallum, Igster.”

Ignis smiles wanly. “Let a man dream.”

They give Ignis a few more minutes to gather his strength, and then they pack up the rest of their things and leave the haven. Gladio shrugs into his leather jacket, but doesn’t take his ruined shirt with them. There ain’t a launderer in Lestallum who could get all of Ignis’s blood out of the fabric, and Gladio doesn’t want to wear it again, anyway. He doesn’t need that kind of reminder about what happened here. About how close Ignis came to slipping between their fingers.

Prompto stays close to Ignis, a hand on his shoulder, as they walk back to the truck together, but Gladio hangs back—partly to keep an eye out for danger, and partly ‘cause he’s still rattled. Iris seems to sense it. She slows her pace until they’re walking side by side. Her arm bumps against his.

“You sure you’re okay?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “It was just…too close, y’know?”

She nods. “I know. But he’s fine.”

“This time.” Gladio scratches at some of the dried blood on his glove, watching it flake away from the leather. “But what if…”

“Nuh-uh. You can’t think that way.” She loops her arm through his. "If you start going down that path, you won’t let any of us hunt ever again, and that’s just not an option, Gladdy. We all have to stick together. You protect us, we protect you.” Smiling, she gives his arm a little shake. “Right?”

He doesn’t feel like he protected anyone tonight, but he still manages a half-hearted smile. ‘Cause he gets what she’s trying to say. Saving Ignis’s life was a team effort. “Yeah,” he says. “Thanks for the pep talk, kiddo.”

“You bet.”

They catch up to the others at the truck, where Prompto is helping Ignis climb into the bench behind the driver’s seat. Iris hops into the passenger side, while Gladio takes the wheel. He waits until everyone is seated and buckled up before he starts the engine. Then he turns on the headlights, scans the road ahead for daemons, and adjusts the rearview.

As he does, the sight that greets him in the mirror finally puts his heart at ease: Ignis, safe and sound in the backseat.