Disclaimer: Not mine
Noctis moved away from the others as he dialled the Marshal's number, fighting to keep his hands from shaking. He'd chosen to make the call because Prompto was his best friend, because even as a kid he'd clung to him, and because he knew Cor would answer a call from him no matter what.
"Highness?" Cor asked after three rings and Noctis took a shaky breath. "Noctis?" the question was full of concern and he realised he'd heard that breath.
"I'm okay," he assured him even though his back was screaming. "We hit that base today, Empire's investigating some kind of machine from Solheim…it activated while we were down there. Prompto pushed me out of the way but he got hit…"
"Is he alive?" Cor asked, voice tight, and Noctis sat down, legs dangling over the edge of the Haven. Cor had handled a lot of Prom's training, so it wasn't surprising he'd take news of his death personally, right?
"He's alive but he's not our Prompto anymore. Best guess is older than five but under ten. So how come he doesn't understand Lucian and held me at gunpoint?" he asked to shocked silence.
"Are you saying that Prompto has been turned into a child?" he asked in disbelief.
"De-aged," Noctis clarified. "He…he doesn't recognise us, is speaking Gralean, and…his body…" he took in another shaky breath, feeling his magic surge in reaction to his emotions. "So what the hell is going on cause there is no way the Argentum's have had him since he was a baby," he demanded. He heard movement, Cor muttering something to someone, before a door closed.
"You're right, Prompto has not been with the Argentum's since he was a baby," Cor admitted. "It should be his choice to share this with you but under the circumstances… eleven years ago a team was sent to investigate a facility in Niflheim, they returned with a child and information."
"Prompto was the kid," Noctis whispered in shock. "Did they find him being hurt and decide to kidnap him or something?"
"He was in the facility Noctis, he was born there and spent his whole life within it."
That didn't make any sense. "Did his parents work there?"
"As far as we could find, he doesn't have parents, none of the children there did. The name of the facility was The First Magitek Production Facility."
Noctis froze as everything Cor had said, hinted at, came together. "No…" he whispered in horror. Please no…not Prompto…
"Breath Highness!" Cor called and Noctis gasped in a breath.
"Prom…was," he couldn't say it.
"Prompto is a clone, one of many, created for the MT program," Cor said it for him. "I was the one to name him on the journey back to Insomnia, so he won't recognise his name if you use it, not if he thinks he's still meant to be at the facility. You have to be careful, the Prompto you know would never hurt you, but this Prompto believes in the Empire, it's literally all he knows. Don't let him near any weapons."
"He gave me the gun," he told him. "I told him that we're hunters, that we were at the base dealing with a daemon infestation, and that we didn't know there were any survivors. He seemed to accept that well enough. He was terrified of the daemons and wouldn't let go of me. He's asleep in the tent now. I used an elixir on him, but he's still hurt."
Cor sighed. "Don't take one meeting to mean he trusts you, no matter how much it hurts. He is not a civilian child and you can't forget that Highness. He will try to escape, especially once he realises that you aren't taking him to the nearest Imperial facility. He knows nothing about life outside of the facility, how to care for himself, even to read and write. All they are taught is to fight and obey."
"How can anyone do that? They're just kids…" he glanced over at the silent tent. "Why him? Out of all of the kids there, what made you pick Prompto to grab?"
"Because he was in the lab we broke into, strapped down, and drugged out of his mind."
He would never forget his first sight of Prompto. He'd been so skinny, naked, head shorn, body battered and bruised. When they'd seen the sign on the door, finding a child had not been what they had expected at all, they had expected machinery or damaged MT's, waiting to be taken apart and recycled. And they had been right, except it turned out that MT's started out human.
Prompto had been secured by metal straps to the table but he hadn't even been trying to struggle, open eyes glazed over due to the drugs. They gotten him free of the restraints and he'd been so still and limp in Cor's arms that he'd thought he was dead except for the fact he'd been able to feel his heart racing and hear the short, raspy, breaths. Getting out with him had been hard but they hadn't hesitated, none of them had been willing to leave him there.
It had taken nearly a week for the kid to be fully aware and then things had become complicated. Noctis would not have that time to subconsciously earn even a little trust, although Prompto had surrendered his weapon to him and allowed him to carry him so maybe some part of him recognised Noctis?
"He won't be able to handle solid food or anything too seasoned," he warned. "You'll want to give him everything he's never had before, but you can't, he won't understand. He's been taught all his life that he isn't human, that he's worthless except to fight for the Empire. I'll send you what I kept, I've been waiting for the day Prompto might want to know more about what they did to him," he admitted. Unfortunately, he didn't have everything, much of what he'd kept was on his computers in the Citadel or locked in Regis' office.
"Why the lie with the Argentum's?" Noctis asked, sounding less shocked, and starting to think things through which was good. A lot of people dismissed Noctis, looking no deeper than the surface, and so they never realised just how smart he was.
"For his safety, so that he could live a proper life. We kept his existence from the Council, they only ever saw the data we brought back. He was hardly the first refugee child to be adopted and home schooled. The Argentum's were the best choice due to their medical backgrounds and how much they travel. It took a lot of work to help Prompto adapt to life outside of the facility."
"And then I go and drag him back into the war," Noctis blamed himself.
"You are his first friend and he would follow you anywhere, not because you are the Prince but because you never even hesitated over his heritage. For you, he picked up a weapon again and he did so of his own free will. And if he wasn't with you, he would have been in the city during the invasion." And would likely be dead but he didn't say it.
"Right…okay," he heard his Prince, no his King, take a shaky breath. "We'll look after him, might be best to keep camping, don't want to overwhelm him with hotels and too many people…or risk him seeing an Imperial and running off. Thanks Cor."
"Call me if you need me and I'll send you those files."
Ignis busied himself with ensuring Prompto's soup would be ready when the child woke, then cleaning, mind racing over possibilities. He nearly jumped when Gladio was suddenly there, hands gripping his to stop him.
"Breath Iggy," he murmured and Ignis took in a shaking breath, hating showing any sign of his distress. "We'll figure this out and when Prompto's back to normal we can talk about it. sit down and rest," he urged Ignis over to his chair and got him sitting, handing over a bottle of water. Ignis would prefer Ebony but knew it was far too late at night, not if he wanted to get any sleep anyway.
He could hear the murmur of Noctis' voice and was relieved as that meant the Marshal had answered his call. Hopefully they would have answers soon. Then they could make sure those who had harmed their friend paid if they were still alive. Prompto having come from Niflheim older than they'd believed was one thing, they could accept that and even understand why Prompto never spoke of it, especially now. the state he was in though was not something he could understand, and he knew Gladio was even angrier at having seen the injuries, big brother instincts? He was just relieved that for now Gladio was holding his temper, with Prompto not able to understand him, he wouldn't understand the anger and may think it was aimed at him, wrecking any chance of Prompto trusting Gladio.
Noctis walked over, hunching over, and Ignis went to get up but Gladio beat him to it, getting out the back support pillow and slipping it between Noctis and the back of his chair. It was a good thing Ignis had packed Noctis' specialised bedroll rather than letting Noctis just chuck in a standard one since they hadn't actually planned on having to camp. It had been very welcome several times and tonight would be another.
"Was the Marshal able to shed any light on our situation?" Ignis asked once Noctis was settled with a mug of hot chocolate.
Noctis stared down at the mug before nodding.
"Noct?" Gladio asked and Noctis looked up at them, revealing tear reddened eyes, shocking them both.
"He…" he took a deep breath. "His file's a lie."
Ignis was surprised, obviously there had been some falsification to it, but to say the file was a lie? He reached out and placed a hand over Noctis', squeezing gently. "How much?" he asked.
"Prom…he…" Noctis tried and then noise from the tent had him pushing himself up, staggering over, before they could move.
He woke suddenly, entangled in something soft, lying down? He struggled to get free, unable to really see anything, but then larger hands were there, pulling him free but without hurting.
"Shh, it's okay. I'll have you free in a moment." A soft, accented, voice called and then he remembered it, Noct, the hunter.
Then he was sitting against the hunter, a firm arm around him but there was no pain. Then there was a hand gently running over his head and it felt strange but…nice? He tried to settle his breathing, but it was working and then his hand was taken and pressed to the hunters chest.
"Try and breath with me kiddo. Nice deep breaths," the hunter coached and slowly his breathing began to match his.
He was so tired, he wanted things to make sense. He needed to re-join his unit, unless they had all been destroyed at the base? Was he the only one left? What would be done to him if he was? Would he be decommissioned? If he was then he was, he existed to serve the Empire, he belonged to it. His treacherous stomach gurgled, and he tensed but nothing happened.
"Hungry?" the hunter asked softly. "You fell asleep before dinner, but we saved you some."
He risked a look up at the hunter but didn't understand his expression. Asking for food or eating without permission was not allowed.
"Hey Gladio, pass the bowl in," the hunter called out in Lucian and he tensed, wondering what he had said that he didn't want him to understand.
The tent flap was pulled back and the big one crouched in the entry, making him tense further but all the Lucian did was pass in a…bowl to Noct.
The big man nodded and then slowly reached out for him and he forced himself to remain still but there was no pain, just a hand briefly patting his head before the man was gone.
"Gladio won't hurt you," the hunter told him. "It's not hot anymore but that's probably for the best." The bowl was held up and he was confused, was he meant to do something with it? "Take it," the hunter urged so he obeyed and carefully wrapped his hands around it, looking in to see human food. "It's for you. I know it may not be what you're used to, but you need to eat something. Take it slow so you don't get sick."
He tensed slightly again, what did he mean not what he was used to? Did…did he suspect? No, he couldn't, he would be dead or worse if they knew what he was. He felt warm fingers rub over his barcode and he froze completely.
"It's okay, no one is going to hurt you. It doesn't matter where you come from, you're just a kid."
Maybe touching the barcode hadn't been the right thing to do, but he hated the idea of Prompto being scared they'd work it out. He still needed to tell the others, but he wanted to try and explain things to Prompto. He'd always been smart, and he seemed to understand things just fine so maybe he could understand what had happened to him?
He shifted his grip, holding Prompto to his chest, a position that would also be easy to restrain him with if needed. "I want to try and explain something to you. It's going to sound impossible, but it's true."
He carefully tipped the bowl up and Prompto hesitantly took a sip, eyes going wide in shock at the flavour. Seeing that hurt, it was a very simple soup, and he wished they could give him something better, but they couldn't risk making him sick. Prompto warily drank the soup he gave them, in small sips with time between each sip. He watched carefully for any sign of discomfort, stopping once he showed it. "You can have more later," he promised.
"You remember how I found you and there was clothing but too big for you around you?" he asked carefully.
Prompto stared at him before dropping his gaze. "Yes Sir," he whispered.
"The clothing is yours. Did you see the big machine in the middle of the room?" that question got a hesitant nod. "It did something to you. It turned you into a little kid again, that's why your clothing was too big. Before it activated, you were the same age as me. Your name is Prompto Argentum and we've been friends for five years. We've been travelling as hunters together for the last few months. You…you pushed me out of the way, the machine should have hit me, not you. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
"You believe this units' aging was reversed by a machine and that it was your…friend," Prompto answered, sounding unsure on the word friend. It hurt, to hear him refer to himself as a unit for the first time.
Noctis glanced around and saw Prompto's bag, digging through it with one hand until he found the small book. He'd wondered why the pictures in it didn't go back to when he was a baby and now he knew why. He opened it to the beginning and showed Prompto, slowly moving through the photos. "These are all of you, see?" the first one thankfully must have been taken no more than a year from his current age and then showed right up until a few months before they left Insomnia.
He stared at the images and they did look like him. They were all clones, they all looked the same, except the one in the images had the small scar on the left temple that he had received in a training accident, one of the few times he had been given pain relief in medical because he had done something correctly.
Why was he not at the facility? Why did he remain human? Weak? Nothing looked familiar until the hunter showed up in some of the images, younger but obviously him. "Images can be falsified." He didn't understand the purpose of this, but he would not believe it. Either he would transition to a full MT or he would be decommissioned.
"Why would I lie?" the hunter asked, and he didn't sound angry which was strange.
"To extract classified information." That was an easy answer. They were trained to resist interrogation.
"That would only work if I asked you questions about the facility and Empire," the hunter told him. "The only concern we would have with any of that, is if it's something that could impact your health. The person who brought you to Lucis is sending us what files he still has though so that should be covered."
The hand was back to stroking his head and despite how hard he tried to remain ready to act, his body betrayed him. His stomach was full for the first time he could ever remember, he was warm, and the hunters heartbeat in his ear was…soothing.
"We're all hoping this will wear off soon and you'll be back to normal. When that happens, you might remember this or you might not, there's no way to know. I know this sounds impossible but it's the truth. We just want you to be safe and healthy Prompto."
It did sound impossible. So what did they really want with him? Information on the MT program? Were they going to take him to a Lucian facility to be studied?
"In case this lasts a while, we can teach you Lucian so you can understand Gladio too. We'll look after you Prompto. You can ask for what you need."
"I need to return to my unit," he stated and the hunter grimaced.
"That one isn't possible, you're in Lucis and we can't give you back to the people who hurt you."
Gladio sat back in his chair, listening to the quiet murmur of voices from the tent, Ignis quietly translating what they could hear. His hands were balled into fists and Ignis looked decidedly flustered as well. They couldn't hear everything, but they could put the clues together. Prompto had been raised by the military, the Imperial army had been the ones to hurt the kid, and he wanted to go back!
"Think he'll come to accept Noct's telling the truth?" he asked, trying not to focus on being pissed off.
"Perhaps if this lasts long enough for him to begin to trust us. If we only have a day or so with him as a child, then no."
Their phones dinged, as did Noctis', and they looked at them to find files from the Marshal. "Not tonight Iggy. Today's been stressful enough, better to face it fresh," Gladio told him sternly and Ignis sighed, pushing his glasses up, but then he nodded.
"We'll need to set a watch," Ignis told him. "While Prompto is likely exhausted, if he truly believes we may be the enemy then he will take whatever opportunities come up to escape. He may not even consider how dangerous the night is, he might not know about the danger."
"Yeah. Noct's out, I'm surprised those pills haven't knocked him out already," Gladio admitted. Concern for his best friend was all that was likely keeping him awake.
"We will need to remain here until either the process reverses or we have gained some kind of trust with Prompto. If he were to learn that Lucis is occupied…"
"He'd bolt at the first sign of civilisation to find a way back into Imperial hands."
If that happened it would be a disaster and if the process reversed while they had him, who knew what they would do to him. How did someone so loyal to the Empire change so much in the short time between whenever he left to when he met Noctis? Or had it been meeting Noctis that had truly cemented his loyalty to the Crown? Gladio knew his own first interactions with the kid wouldn't have endeared any loyalty, he'd been suspicious of his intentions, wary… and he wondered if Prompto had believed he deserved it because of his past.
"What do we do…if it doesn't reverse?" he asked quietly and Ignis grimaced.
"As much as we all wish to keep him with us…it simply wouldn't be safe. Should he remain a child then he will need a stable environment, one we cannot provide. Perhaps your sister? Although Lestallum may not remain the safest of places."
"Iris loves kids and she likes Prompto, with Jared to help and Talcott to be a friend. Having a kid of similar age around would probably help," Gladio agreed. He prayed it wasn't necessary because he didn't think Noctis would be able to deal with the blow of losing his best friend on top of everything else.
In none of the ones I've read have they ever tried to explain what happened to Prompto so I thought Noctis would give it a go and even try to give proof. Whether or not the kid will come to believe them remains to be seen.