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he ain't no friend of mine

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Insomnia’s signature drink is called the “Mocha Cubed,” because Insomnia is cheeky and infuriating. It’s iced coffee with hints of coconut milk and about an eyedropper’s worth of chocolate syrup, and in lieu of ice cubes, it’s kept cold with frozen blocks of more coffee.

Ignis hands it back to Noctis with a scowl pulling at the corner of his mouth. “That’s wretched,” he says, mustering all the petty energy that only years of being a connoisseur and a pedant could generate. “Do they think that's clever? It's disgusting, is what it is.”

Noctis doesn’t seem bothered, though, and he takes the drink back to draw a long sip from Ignis’s forsaken straw. “I dunno, I think it’s pretty good.” It’s not so much an argument as it is a lazy excuse to drink the rest of it. “It’s kind of sweet, you know? It’s fun. We make sweet coffee.”

“If you draw any more comparisons like that, I’ll have you on dish duty for the rest of the month.”

Noctis doesn’t as much as flinch, and takes another sip. “You sure you don’t want anymore? You know, for intel gathering or whatever.”

He loves watching the way it makes Ignis’s eyebrow twitch, because it only confirms his suspicion that the coffee is tasty and Ignis is just bitter about it. He remembers watching Ignis go through one barista gig after another at little hole-in-the-wall cafés and coffee bars, never able to hold onto a job for more than six months once the owners learned how much more Ignis knew about coffee than any of them.

Natural progression seems to have to lent itself to Ignis opening up his own business, and Noct just considers himself lucky, because his wallet was starting to get pretty thin from all the Not Having A Job he was doing.

He blinks at the cup in his hand. “You know, the ice cubes are a cool idea. They melt and the flavor profile changes.”

Ignis grabs it from his hand without looking and takes another sip, and his eyes narrow as he stares through the window to Insomnia’s black and gold plated front door across the street. They’ve got a sandwich board out front with cute, swirling chalk patterns, announcing the Special of the Day. Pistachio-Rose Latte, reads the sign, little doodles of roses decorating the sides, like velvet in a cup!

Ignis lifts up the cap of the coffee to glare at the little mocha cubes inside. “It’s still wretched.” Noctis hums at the lie, wondering if he’ll ever get it back for long enough to finish it.


 

To be fair, Ebony Café & Pastries is the new kid in town and muscling in on Insomnia’s turf. For Ignis to have adopted such an immediate and fiery distaste for his established competitors only speaks to his perfectionism and his inability to chill the hell out. But still, he makes the best macarons and Noctis gets to take them home for free, so he doesn’t complain.

Insomnia Coffee Bar’s about as recognizable around town as the local university is, which seems to be the town’s only legitimate claim to functionality. In exchange for free desserts, it’s become Noct’s solemn mission to perform very inconspicuous reconnaissance on Insomnia for purposes that elude him completely.

He sometimes even goes as far as wearing a baseball cap.

To the best of his and Ignis’s understanding, Insomnia was built from the ground up more than fifty years ago by Sylvian Amicitia, passed down to his son Clarus and finally to its current proprietor.

Apparently, his name is Gladiolus, but all the regulars just call him Gladio.

Noctis half expects him to pull out some Ignis-brand bullshit, like enemy, thy name is Gladiolus, because his hobbies include knowing stuff about coffee and reading weird old books and being Ignis, but Noctis brings him this information and all he does is turn his head to look out of Ebony’s front window.

“Good to finally put a name to the face,” he mumbles. Across the street, Insomnia is opening for business, a full two hours after Ebony. The man in the front terrace cranks open the sun umbrellas and carefully arranges the outdoor seating before setting up his surprisingly dainty sandwich board, given that he’s a veritable mountain of a man. Caramel Ecstasy, the cursive reads, wake yourself up slowly!

He must be Gladiolus.

“I could go on mole duty again today, if you want.” Noctis tells him. He doesn’t know what a Caramel Ecstasy is, but boy, is he eager to learn. “Best to, you know, get as much info as we can. For subterfuge purposes.”

“You’re a traitor and a scoundrel, Noct. And there are customers at the counter.”

He makes sure to slump all the way back to the register. “I’m going after we close!”


 

Still, Ignis makes a mean cup of coffee, and it’s really all that gets Noct through class most days. It’s free, it’s tasty, and most of the time Ignis slips him a tiny muffin or a brownie to go with it, because as much as he’s about as tightly wound as a box spring, he loves Noctis, in his own little ways.

Weirdly enough, people start calling him on it.

“Oh, is that coffee from that new Ebony place?” He never knows if it’s ever genuine curiosity or an excuse to start talking to him. “I’ve been going to Insomnia for so long, but if it’s good, it’d be fun to give it a try.” He shrugs noncommittally here, gives a tiny nod there. “Ebony? Aren’t they, like, trying to compete with Insomnia?” It’s about as interesting to Noctis as everything else about school is, but Ignis remarks to him a steady uptick in customer volume, and he doesn’t say anything, just realizes he knows why.

He’s nursing a gingerbread latte in the campus courtyard and dazing up into the clouds when someone plops down onto the bench next to him.

“Heya!” The guy’s immediately fifty percent bouncier than Noctis has the ability to comprehend at the moment, and wait, doesn’t he look familiar? Something about the blonde hair falling into his eyes, the smattering of freckles covering his nose, starts tugging at him like he’s forgetting something. “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m—”

“You’re Prompto,” he says, putting two and two together. “Argentum. Or is that wrong?”

Prompto seems stunned for about half a millisecond before busting into a blinding grin. “Whoa, really? You remember me?”

“Freshman marketing?”

“That’s the one!”

“I hated that class.”

Prompto grabs his arm. “Dude, me too.”

He figures this amount of touchiness from someone he only vaguely knows should bother him, but something about Prompto’s joviality and literal unawareness of personal space is weirdly endearing.

Prompto’s face is just the slightest tint of red from excitement, and it accentuates the freckles that dot under his eyes and down his throat. “I’ve heard from a couple of people that you’re the guy who works for the barista over at Ebony.”

Oh, not this again. It seems like all anybody ever wants to talk to him about is his job at Ebony or the whole “my dad’s sort of, kind of, a little bit rich” thing. In way of an answer, he gives the latte in his hand a little shake and takes another sip from it.

Prompto doesn’t seem deterred at all. “Cool! That’s awesome, see, I just got a job over at Insomnia.”

He has to stop himself from choking on his drink. “What, like, for Gladiolus?” He asks, and Prompto nods his head like an overexcited bobblehead. He’s suddenly wary of this conversation, and he wonders what Ignis would do, knowing that he’s communing with the apparent enemy. “Oh, uh. Sure, that’s cool. Why’d you need to talk to me about it?”

Prompto leans in close like the world’s biggest secret is trying its hardest to leap out of him. “Okay, so don’t tell your guy—what’s his name, anyway? The one with the glasses?”

“Ignis?” Noctis replies, feeling just a degree guilty.

“Ignis! Awesome, Ignis. Well, don’t tell him as much, but Gladio’s been, like, tripping all over himself since Ebony opened.” Prompto gesticulates with his hands a lot when he talks, Noctis notices, and from what he can see, those freckles reach all the way down to his wrists. “See, he’s pissed that all of a sudden he’s gotta deal with competition, and if you ask me, I think your dude’s making him nervous. Gladio sees him as an actual threat, you know?”

“What’s there to be threatened by?” The idea that anyone could be threatened by Ignis is… well, not completely out of the question, but the trademark Ignis Scientia intimidation techniques don’t mess with Noctis the way they did when they were kids.

Prompto blinks. “His coffee. And those little desserts he makes.” He shrugs one shoulder. “I’ve come in a couple times to bring back drinks and stuff for him to try. I mean, he swears up and down that your stuff is gross, but you should have seen how fast he downed the macchiato I got him last week.”

Noctis, mouth hanging slightly agape, suddenly feels like the scope of everything he’s so far understood has just grown immensely and without warning. “Do you wanna go for a walk?” He asks Prompto abruptly, and by the way the blonde nearly rockets out of his seat on the bench, he knows they’ve got a lot of ground to cover before Noctis’s shift starts.


 

Ignis had figured that knowing the name of Insomnia’s owner would have quelled the irrational side of him that wanted to see it run into the ground, like being able to put a name to the face would have humanized him. Why not peacefully coexist? Ignis wants to say. I specialize in baked goods, he has a monopoly on cocktails. There’s plenty of room for two coffee shops.

He’d been very, very wrong, and he feels very, very stupid.

The good news is that Noctis’s popularity at school, in spite of his complete obliviousness to it, has helped Ebony’s exposure grow exponentially. They still don’t have the same kind of customer flow as Insomnia, but at least now it’s comparable. College students hover in and out at regular two hour intervals between classes, ogling Ignis’s signature pastries through the display glass and taking pictures of their orders with the backdrop of the elegant, sophisticated décor.

Ignis’s firm grasp of coffee is really only outdone by his firmer grasp of poise.

But still, the elephant across the street is pulling at the edges of his mind, and that refers to the figure of speech and not Gladiolus, because he’s not rude. Even though Gladiolus might as well be a giant. Ignis is normally pretty confident in his six feet of height, but he’s sure standing next to Gladiolus Amicitia would put a crack in anybody’s self-esteem.

The more things he notices about Gladiolus, the more aggravated he becomes. He’s got long, detailed sleeves of tattoos on both sides of his body, teasingly visible when he wears short-sleeved shirts, and dark brown hair that he pulls away from his face while he serves customers. And they all seem to know him so well. He claps regulars on the back, laughs at jokes as he holds the door open, can be seen through Insomnia’s darkened windows doing elaborate drink-mixing tricks to a raptly attentive audience.

Ignis reminds himself that clenching his teeth is a bad habit, and that he should endeavor to do it less.

“Get this,” Noct starts, sliding in a new tray of cheesecake bites to replace the empty one, “Insomnia’s got a new assistant barista. I met him on campus a couple of days ago.”

Ignis arches an eyebrow at him. “Is that so?”

“Yeah. His name’s Prompto.” Ignis turns his attention back across the street, and lo and behold, there’s a blonde college student wiping down the outdoor seating tables, skinny and tapping his foot to whatever’s coming out of his earbuds. “You know, from what he’s told me, Gladio sounds like a really nice guy. He’s pretty strict about keeping hours and stuff, but Prompto said he has fun and the tips are good.”

“I’m sure,” Ignis says drily.

Noct waves a hand in front of his face, and it startles him. “You keep frowning like that and you’re gonna get wrinkles.” Ignis wants to remark that he’s only two years older than Noctis, but it feels childish and reactive, so he holds it in. “Why don’t you go over there sometime? Get a drink?”

“I have better things to do with my time than entertain the opposition,” he replies, and Noct snorts, unwrapping one of the less perfect cheesecake bites.

“Yeah, okay, like stare out the window and hope their building catches on fire?”

“When does your shift end?” His left eyelid begins to twitch. “How long have you been on the clock? You must be done soon.”

Noct just takes a bite out of the cheesecake. “Sorry, Specs, you’ve got two and a half hours of me to go.” He licks some of the sugar topping off his thumb and offers the other half to Ignis. “These are good, no wonder they keep selling out.”

Ignis sighs, but he takes the bait, because he’s only so strong. “Punishing you is impossible.”

“That’s the idea.”


 

Gladiolus Amicitia, for all his pride in his personal strength and sentiments of goodwill to other vendors of artisanal beverages, can’t help but want to murder Glasses Guy across the street.

“So,” Prompto starts, pretending to rearrange the garnish toothpicks while Gladio busies himself with actually serving customers, “turns out Mysterious Bakery Man actually has a name.”

Gladio grunts. “Cool, I can finally write something on the back of the voodoo doll I’ve been making.” It’s a dark joke, but Prompto laughs, and that Gladio can't help but feel a degree of pride. “Don’t leave me in suspense, kid, what’s his name?”

“Ignis, apparently.” Gladio clicks his tongue, rolls the name around in his mouth a bit. Ignis, he thinks, yeah, that’s a good nemesis name, Ignis. “He’s finishing a master’s in business and he’s worked pretty much the whole barista circuit around town. I mean, aside from here, of course.”

Gladio finishes up an intricate rose in the latte he’s putting together. “So he’s a drifter.”

“As free as a tumbleweed on the prairie.” Prompto gestures widely with his arm, nearly knocking over a stack of hot cups next to the register.

Gladio passes the drink to the girl waiting in line, and her eyes light up when she sees the rose. Kind of makes the whole sore feet and permanently smelling like coffee thing worthwhile, that. “Wait, how’d you find all this out? You didn’t just waltz in there and ask him, did you? ‘Cause I swear, I’ll kill you.” He should have known Prompto and subtlety were two mutually exclusive concepts.

Prompto puts his hands up. “No way, dude! He’s got an assistant, too, and he used to be a classmate of mine.” He puts his hands on his hips, his chest puffed out, proud of his expert sleuthing abilities. “I hit him up and got the dirt. Also, he’s super nice, his name is Noctis.”

Gladio grunts. He crosses his arms as he approaches Prompto, and it has the exact effect he’d been hoping for, because Prompto’s eyes widen and he makes himself just the slightest bit smaller. “Alright, then, detective,” he says, “I want you to find out what his deal is.”

“What whose deal is?” Prompto asks.

“Whatever his name is.” He jerks his head in the general direction of Ebony. He knows the name’s Ignis, but he’s gotta keep a casual profile, doesn’t want Prompto getting any of the wrong ideas. “He opens up a store right across the street from my granddad’s and suddenly my regulars are arguing about which one of us is better. I’m all for some friendly competition, but only if I know exactly what pieces are on the board.”

“Dude,” Prompto remarks, “I think he just likes coffee and baking stuff.”

“You think.” Gladio says pointedly. “You think, but you don’t know.”

Prompto shrugs. “Why not give him a shot? Go in there, introduce yourself. Maybe make a friend!”

Something deep inside of Gladio ticks at that, the unmistakable feeling of really not wanting to do something but realizing you probably have to do it. He covers it up with a scoff. “And what would I say? ‘Hey, I work across the street and came over here to size you up?’”

“I think that’d put the fear of death into anybody, Gladio, have you seen yourself?” Prompto’s eyes catch on piece of lint on Gladio’s shirt and he picks it off before Gladio can stop him. He’s not so sure he could instill fear into anybody if he can’t even dissuade Prompto for more than ten seconds. That could also just be Prompto, but he’s hedging his bets. “Or, you know, order a coffee. Or a macaron, he makes crazy good macarons, according to Noct.”

Gladio’s not sure to be more scandalized by the suggestion or that Prompto has elected to give one of their rivals a nickname. “I know enough about how Four Eyes makes coffee to know he can’t hold a candle to anything we make here.”

“Which is why you had me spend my money on it. Six times.”

Gladio sighs melodramatically. “Aren’t I such a magnanimous boss? I bet Ignis wouldn’t let you listen to music while you work, or flash your dumb camera around, or take drinks home for free—”

“Alright, alright, point made.” Prompto chuckles. He waves a hand to a small group of customers as they leave, and he makes his way toward their empty table with a spray bottle and a washrag. “Just give it some thought, big guy! It couldn’t hurt to meet some more people. The population of Pal Town is currently one, and it’s yours truly.”

“Untrue!” Gladio snaps. “Both parts of that sentence, completely wrong!” But Prompto just laughs and flaps the rag at him.

His eyes drift to Ebony across the street again, and he feels something disappointingly cave inside his body. The owner—or Ignis, apparently—is mingling with the outdoor tables and chatting up a pair of girls as he takes their order. His smile is serene and the way he cocks his hip is stylish and effortless, and the girls giggle to each other as goes back inside to start making their drinks. Gladio watches his back, broad shoulders and a trim waist, and he concludes, distantly, that he wants to snap the guy in half.