“How long now?” Iris asked.
Noct would have loved to check his phone. Unfortunately, it had gone the way of his video games and his freedom after the Chimney Incident that afternoon before Lucis’ 198’th Bicentennial Gala. Thanks to Noct, his father had informed him (at what he felt was a totally unnecessary length and sarcasm level, as his phone was already confiscated for the foreseeable future), their arrival marked the first occasion since before his birth where the official start of a ball was delayed due to tardiness on the part of the royal family. Gladio had been hogging the bathroom on their hall for most of the afternoon and talking up what a ‘hot date’ he had that night and had been sent back into the house by their dads twice to wash off a near-toxic combination of Axe body spray and some of Clarus’ expired cologne before he was allowed in the Regalia; after making their way down the grand staircase and into the hall as everyone stared at them - usually Noct’s worst nightmare - Gladio had immediately, to his siblings’ unbridled glee, fallen in beside Ignis with the enthusiasm of a large puppy one week into leash-training.
Noct’s hated black-tie balls, and his stupid necktie was still trying to strangle him, but he had to admit, the party definitely had potential.
He checked the expensive watch his great-great-Aunt Isuelt had given him for his last birthday. “He’s been at it about an hour.”
“This is amazing,” Iris whispered. “I tied my phone into the bow on my dress and I keep moving so my waist probably has a good lock on them.”
They fist-bumped. Across the room, sixteen-year-old Gladiolus Amicitia shuffled back and forth over Ignis’ left shoulder as the young advisor spoke with his uncle. He seemed to be unsure of whether he was standing too close to Ignis, or not close enough. He looked back over his shoulder self-consciously, took a step backwards, and nearly bumped into a group of young socialites. An elderly couple passed between him and Ignis, and he examined the ground and took a half-step forward. Ignis’ uncle laughed suddenly and Gladio startled, spilling the two cups of sparkling punch in his hands all over the floor.
Noct and Iris winced. “That sucks,” Noct said.
“That one isn’t his fault,” Iris said with all precocious wisdom of an eight-year-old at a major government function. “He couldn’t have known they laugh. The Scientias are an inside-voice people.”
“Damn. I wonder if Cor would give me his phone,” Noct said sadly as Gladio fled for the closest refreshment table. Ignis showed no sign of noticing his absence. “Why is there nobody here taking pictures of this? Can I just have a guy that like, follows me around with a camera?”
They watched Gladio’s frantic attempts to towel his hands off with the dainty paper towels at the bar as the thin paper stuck to him in fragments. He tried to shake them off, and gave the overall impression of attempting to fend off a horde of small, determined white butterflies attempting to alight on his fingers.
“I can’t believe this is the best ball ever,” Noct said.
Iris sighed. “I hope my first date is exactly like this.”
Gladio was in hell.
He was also having the time of his life. He wasn’t totally sure. It had been a really confusing night. Confusingly awesome….and terrible. And great.
The only thing he knew for sure was that Ignis’ hair smelled really nice.
But what he definitely had no idea about was if Ignis actually knew they were supposed to be hanging out at the Gala in a...non-work capacity. Or maybe Ignis didn’t have a non-work setting? Or maybe this was him being casual, and he was light-years too mature for Gladio and he was just wasting his time and he was never actually going to get to see if Ignis’ lips felt as smooth as they looked and he might as well just jump off the Skywalk now and save Lucis the embarrassment of having him in its royal family.
Moisture dripped from his hands. The one good thing about Ignis’ obliviousness was that the condensation on the chilled punch glasses were washing off his sweating palms. He was on the third glass of punch he’d gotten for Ignis that night and he hadn’t touched any of them. Glass #03 was now almost room-temperature.
Ignis had been speaking about coastal zoning laws with an elderly aunt of Noct’s, and when someone called her name and she glanced their way, Ignis looked back at him, and smiled.
And turned away again.
Gladio felt like flying off of the Skywalk.
“Good evening,” his father said directly into his ear.
Gladio was pretty cool under fire normally. He must have blacked out or something, he had no idea how to explain it. One second he was standing to the side of the ballroom by the stairs and some giant ferns that freakishly resembled Noct’s hair, and the next, Ignis was touching his arm - shaking him, actually - and there was light pink punch soaking into the white of Gladio’s dress shirt and leaking into his cummerbund.
“It’s quite alright, I’ve dealt with far worse. Back in a moment.” Ignis stole both glasses and disappeared into the crowd. One of the catering staff materialized from behind the fern to mop the spilled punch off the floor with a skeptical look directed towards Gladio, and Clarus slid a crisp, folded bill from his jacket cuff and tipped her. “Going well?”
Gladio snapped his mouth shut. “I...um.” Clarus raised an eyebrow at him. “I sort of...yeah. It’s.”
“Are you having a good time?” Clarus asked, enunciating slowly. Gladio nodded. “Does he seem irritated with you at all?” Gladio shook his head. “Has he flung any of your personal belongings off of the Skywalk in front of any military leadership or civilian heads of state?”
Gladio frowned. “What….? No, why would…”
“You’d be surprised.” Clarus glanced at Regis, about two-hundred feet away surrounded by a gaggle of senior politicians. Regis smiled back at them serenely. Knowingly. Unsettingly. Clarus beamed at his husband in respectful acknowledgement, turned aside and took a long drink. “Just checking in on you, and making sure you remember to breathe.”
“I feel like I’m losing my mind, Dad. Sir.”
“I keep trying to remember if I actually remembered to ask him out? I got no idea, sir. I can’t...his face is confusing. He’s hot and confusing, he’s so confusing and he’s hot, what do I do?!”
“Breathe,” Clarus repeated. “Stay in the moment. And possibly remember that the boy is allergic to red food coloring.”
Gladio’s eyes bulged, and he stared down at the pink stains splashed over his shirt. “I could have killed him,” he whispered. “Oh, Astrals.”
“It’s really not so bad,” Ignis said, materializing at his elbow with a bottle of seltzer water and a few cloth napkins draped over his elbow. He tugged at the damp fabric, his fingertips brushing lightly over Gladio’s abs. Gladio sucked in a quick breath, his heart pounding. “Yeah. I…”
“Let’s take this to the washroom.” Ignis seized his condensation-damp hand and led him off. When Gladio looked back, his father was at Regis’ side, and his stepfather raised a champagne flute and toasted him as he was dragged to his increasingly uncertain fate.
"The Amicitia kid is toast."
"You're gonna have to be more specific than that, man." Libertus chuckled. "I hear Prince Noctis got busted by the King today, but nobody has the details."
Nyx Ulric shook his head. "I mean Gladiolus. You know, from the gym. He's been chasing the prince's advisor around all night and they just went into the head together."
"No shit? Give it fifteen minutes before somebody finds them and we have to go 'secure the scene'." Libertus made finger-quotations in the air.
"More like ten. They're kids, they could be in and out in that time."
Crowe groaned. "I hate doing special duty with you guys. Like the dress uniforms aren't bad enough, you gossip like a couple of old fishwives. It's just rich people."
Nyx squared his shoulders, smartening up. "Dress blacks aren't so bad."
"Yeah, Crowe. And mages have it easy, you get to wear the robes. You could have fuzzy bunny slippers under there for all we know. I actually had to work to get into these!" Libertus sighed.
Crowe wrinkled her nose. "And whose fault is that? You choose how much cardio you do, son!"
"I'm older than you, you don't get to 'son' me!"
"It's twenty-three days 'til the Fit Test: do you know where *your* waistline is?" Crowe quipped.
Libertus and Crowe hadn't noticed Marshall Cor Leonis slide - alone - into the small table behind their watch point about half an hour prior, but PTSD and sleep deprivation had decided to hone Nyx into an increasingly paranoid bastard, and nobody really got the drop on him these days. "Marshall," he acknowledged, looking pretty damn good as his friends tried to pull themselves together.
"Don't get smug, Ulric. Part of not wanting to be noticed involves sneaking around," Leonis said. "You three look riveted. The citizens' dollars hard at work, I assume?"
"Citizens' taxes at work so that wealthy old battle-axes can carry around whatever swords they slung maybe once or twice in their youth at a fancy party to stroke their own egos," Crowe grumbled.
Nyx cleared his throat. "But also in case anyone steps out of line with those weapons, we'll be here to make sure nothing goes south...Marshall." Crowe just shrugged noncommittally.
Fortunately, Leonis didn't seem offended. "I remember the drill, kids."
"At least the overtime is good," Libertus said. "Care to weigh in on the Amicitia-Scientia situation, sir?"
Normally, the Kingsglaive and Crownsguard, even officers, did not simply 'strike up conversation'. The two specialized branches of Lucis' military had specific duties and regulations that often didn't mesh well together. It ran a little more bloodthirsty than typical inter-branch rivalry: the Crownsguard thought the Kingsglaive were a handful of jumped-up young lapdogs who exaggerated their front-line deployments for awards and accolades, and the Kingsglaive - rightly, in Nyx's opinion - called the Crownsguard out for being an obsolete association that hadn't seen real combat since the Kingsglaive had taken over their duties about a decade ago, and were only really relevant for admin paperwork, most of which they did wrong. In addition, the current majority Crownsguard ranks were staffed with talentless, bored, naturalized Insomnians who liked to pass their time bitching about the number of immigrants in the Kingsglaive 'these days'. But the Marshall - there was more than one, but everyone knew Cor Leonis was *the* Marshall - was one of the old guard, his skills forged in battle right next to King Regis and his storied companions, and he wasn't even a total asshole about it either. Plus he'd come from the slums. You could actually talk to Cor Leonis, no matter who you were.
"Libertus has them hiding in the bathroom for fifteen minutes, Nyx says they're caught in ten," Crowe was filling Leonis in. "I enjoy my paycheck and teenagers are annoyingly unpredictable, so I'm sitting out."
The Marshall was quiet for a second. He took a drink of his beer - Nyx couldn’t actually remember if the bar had beer in bottles, and if not had to wonder where Leonis had gotten it - and narrowed his eyes. “I’m in for twenty. Give them about two minutes.”
“Seriously? How d’you think?” Libertus asked.
The Marshall nodded at a point on their two o’clock, and the three Glaives scanned the room and noticed Prince Noctis and the young princess looking around in all directions. They started speaking quickly to each other, what Nyx couldn’t quite read from their lips, but it was a safe bet it had to do with the two missing youths, because Noctis turned and strode purposely toward the men’s room.
“Kid siblings,” Leonis said. “Never understimate bored kids at a social function. If you guys think you’re about to climb the walls…”
Libertus whistled and fished a crumpled twenty out of his wallet as Prince Noctis’ momentum almost caused him to slide face-first into the tile wall of the restroom entrance. Nyx shook his head. “Damn. They have gotta teach that kid how to really warp.”
“Take off your shirt,” Ignis told him. Only a lifetime of responding affirmatively to commanding tones of voice kicked Gladio into action as his brain shorted out in the middle of processing “off” plus “shirt” plus “you” in Ignis’ cool Tenebraean accent. The next thing he knew, he was down to his undershirt, which the punch hadn’t really gotten that damp, and handing Ignis his dress shirt. Ignis’ bangs fell in his eyes as he spread Gladio’s shirt out on the black marble countertop and ran his hands over the breadth of the pink stain. “I say. How much cologne did you wear this evening?”
Gladio looked away. It was now or never. “I dunno. I was trying to impress this guy.”
Ignis splashed a little seltzer water onto a napkin and blotted firmly at the stain. “You should probably consider not suffocating him for starters.”
“I-” Gladio froze. Ignis looked up and met his gaze in the long washroom mirror. He was smiling in the secret, self-deprecating way he tended to when he wasn’t sure a joke he made was going over someone’s head.
“Did Noct really make it onto the chimney?” Ignis asked, working over Gladio’s shirt.
“Um. Yeah. If dads are looking a little shaken up, it’s because Regis had to warp up and get him. He kept going on about not wanting to go to the party, but I seriously think he just forgot how to get down,” Gladio snorted. “Punk kid.”
“Oh, come now. If you had the ability, you’d be warping head-first everywhere you went, both you and Noct, and you know it. You’d both be extremely proficient at it from the practice that would come from constantly trying to outdo each other, and I’d be perpetually jogging to try to keep up with the two of you. At least Iris has some temperance when it comes to her powers.”
“You’re talking about the girl who tries to set a new world record for how many gummi frogs she can shove in her mouth every week or two.”
Ignis laughed softly, and Gladio counted the entire night as a massive win. “Do tell.”
“She’s up to forty-one. I tell people she has a tiny armiger in her mouth, but nobody wants to believe me.”
Ignis shook out the dress shirt and presented it to Gladio. Their fingers touched as he took it, and Gladio found himself smiling, too. “So...you having a good time tonight?” he croaked, cursing his constantly-shifting voice. Puberty was total balls.
“It’s certainly the most interesting event I’ve attended in some time. My shadow in particular seems to have become extremely jittery. It doesn’t normally fling drinks all over the Skywalk ballroom with wild abandon,” Ignis said. He was watching Gladio’s hands as he struggled with the tiny pearl buttons on his shirt. “Why? Are you enjoying yourself?”
“I...yeah.” Gladio said, trying to catch his breath as Ignis’ eyes met his. He fumbled with his tie. “Iggy, I...do you want to dance? Like...with me? When we go back out there?”
“I don’t think that would be quite prudent,” Ignis said. “If it’s alright with you. The general assembly tonight is hungry enough for entertainment without us throwing a log on the fire. Perhaps...next time?” There was something shifty and mysterious in his eyes as Ignis batted Gladio’s hands away from his neck and started reconstructing his tie with prompt, tidy little jerks.
Gladio swallowed. “Yeah, no, I get it. Totally. Take it slow, right?” His voice would not stop breaking, but fortunately Ignis wasn’t laughing at him...at least, not on the outside. He could live with that.
“Indeed. There, now you're quite smart.” Ignis’ hands didn’t go far when he dropped them from Gladio’s collar to rest lightly on his chest.
“The, ah. The cloth will dry much faster once you’re out there moving around a bit,” Ignis said, the tiniest spot of red in the tips of his ears. Gladio said a quick prayer, covered Ignis’ hands with his, and leaned in for a kiss.
Ignis turned to the mirror, and Gladio’s mouth landed on his cheek, which as it turned out was pretty damn soft after all. It wasn’t much consolation as he started spiraling again in his stupid brain. “Aw, crap. I’m sorry Iggy, I-”
“We’re in a public men’s room,” Ignis said quietly, looking up at him again. There was nothing cold in his eyes, and Gladio’s heart soared again. The entire night had seriously been a damn roller coaster, he felt like he’d run twenty miles for all he could feel his pulse crashing in his ears. “Anyone could walk in, you know.”
“Oh, yeah! Totally, sure, I...sorry.”
“Next time,” Ignis repeated, eyes locked on Gladio’s. Gladio grinned. He couldn’t even help it. “Sure thing. You got it. It’s a date.”
“Or is it?” a voice drawled from the entryway. Noct stood there, chin high, practically dripping with irony and head tilted like he was trying to do his best impression of the king. At twelve he couldn’t totally own it, but the effort was clearly there. “My brother and my friend….in the bathroom. First, ew. Second, you guys have got some serious explaining to do. In reverse alphabetical order. Gladio, take a hike, we’re definitely talking later.”
“You can talk to me any time, as well.” Ignis was suddenly a full two sinks away from Gladio and doing the scowl-pout thing he did when he was trying to hide frustration with Noct in particular. Totally cute.
Noct shrugged. “Not without my phone. Beat it Gladio, I have to talk to Ignis.”
Gladio folded his arms. “Hey, you can’t just dismiss me. You’re twelve. Like...seriously.”
“It’s quite alright, Gladio.” Ignis touched his arm again and smiled. Gladio couldn’t help but smile. It faded as Noct made gagging noises that echoed off the bathroom tiles. “This conversation is probably best to get out of the way sooner than later. We’ll see you presently.”