“Iggy, look out!”
Ignis felt a powerful shove, then a blinding triangular flash illuminated the almost completely dark stone room, causing him to drop to his knees as he held his arm over his eyes. As he lowered his arm he beheld the psychomancer, moving away from a stone-solid Gladiolus as it searched for its next victim amongst the three remaining men.
“Gla… Gladio?!” He called out to the larger man who was now standing completely inert and ungiving. “Noct, Gladio’s hard as a rock!”
“…didn’t need to know that, Ignis!” the Prince responded sarcastically.
“Now’s not the time to be a smart-ass, highness! GAH!” Ignis gasped as the ghostly daemon wrapped its hands around his neck and yanked him off of the ground. The phantom’s eyes were lit a putrid blue as its gaze bored into the advisor’s psyche. He felt paralyzed, forced to gaze into the eyes of death as the oxygen ceased to reach his brain. As the stars and flashes in the edge of his vision grew ever brighter, the psychomancer released its hold on him as it was tossed back, causing him to limply descend towards the waiting brick below. But instead of colliding with bricks, he landed in the warmth of solid, muscular arms. Those arms wrapped tightly around his limp form and held him, the larger man crouching on the ground and cradling him in his lap while Noctis assaulted the daemon with his Armiger.
The psychomancer finally collapsed, dissolving into a cloud of black smoke with a shriek.
“So, umm… remind me why we decided to take orders from Ezma and fight monsters down into the deep dark depths of the earth again???” Prompto asked with a shiver.
“Because nobody else is gonna do it, so why not have it be us?” Noctis growled in annoyance as he cracked the bottle of the 3rd megalixer from that battle alone. Since their descent down from the beginning all the way to the now… 67th? Or was it 68th? Floor beneath Steyliff Grove, the Prince had already used well over half of their stock of the stuff, and nearly all of their Phoenix Down.
Calloused fingers tenderly caressed Ignis’ cheek while the elixir dissolved over his form, its light easing his aches and bruises as it enveloped him. He rested his cheek into the broad chest of the one who held him, listening to the other’s heartbeat and breath filling his lungs.
“You okay, Iggy?” the baritone voice of Gladiolus rumbled in his chest, its tone conveying much more sweetness and concern than usual.
“Yes I am. That was very kind of you, Gladio. Although I think I’m able to stand on my own now, thank you.”
“Shit, sorry. Here you go,” Gladio stammered and released his hold on Ignis, allowing him to rise back up to his feet. The larger man’s face flushed slightly as he stood facing the advisor. “I’m glad you’re feeling all right… oh no. Your neck is still pretty badly bruised.” The Shield reached his hand to pull back the collar on Ignis’ shirt, examining the bruises with a click of his tongue as his brows knit in worry. Ignis felt his breath hitch at the touch, a sudden warmth fluttering through his being. Strange.
Gladiolus Amicitia, Shield to the King, was Ignis’ coworker and best friend. The two had always been close due to the overlapping of their duties to Noctis, yet there had been some sort of a recent… shift in their relationship. Ever since Gladio had returned from his time with Marshall Leonis, facing off against the mighty Gilgamesh, it seemed like he regarded Ignis differently. He volunteered his time to help with the most menial of tasks, from washing the dishes after supper, to completing the shopping. In battle, Gladio was the first to rush to his companions’ aid if one of them was injured, but he seemed to find his way to Ignis’ side more often now. He also seemed far more open to touch than before. Ignis would feel a hand on his bicep or an arm around his shoulder, and the touches seemed to linger, as if the man resisted the concept of separation and personal space. Of course, Ignis did not exactly protest to the Shield’s increased attention, though he knew the other members of their group needed the comfort just as much as him. Though particularly in this dungeon, Gladio had perhaps been overprotective to a fault, often landing him in questionable circumstances—namely, his most recent petrification. Perhaps that old adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was not so farfetched as he believed.
“I-I’m sure that I will be fine, Gladio. Although elixirs do certainly speed up healing, their effects aren’t immediate,” Ignis hastily stated upon realizing he had locked his gaze on the Shield for entirely too long.
“Oh, get a room, you two!” Noctis’ irritated grumble was heard from the newly opened entrance descending into the next floor of enemies.
The pair hurriedly separated and followed behind their younger companions, Ignis bringing up the rear. He kept his gaze focused on Gladio as they descended the stairs towards their next challenge. Why was the man so tender to him here? Admittedly, Ignis had not been the most careful in his fighting. They had spent close to twenty-four hours so far inside of this dungeon. The continual darkness was starting to wear on his psyche, making him more prone to stumbling and making mistakes than before. Perhaps Gladio picked up on that and was thus being more cautious towards him? Ignis sighed in resignation. Dwelling on the other man’s motives would do no good. Right now, he could not imagine spending any more time in this perpetual dark. The sooner they vanquished the menace, the sooner they would be able to see the light again.
The next floor was littered with half a dozen Tonberrys, innocently posed with lanterns and kitchen knives. Their docile appearance, however, had proved to be a poor ruse far too many times before, as they possessed unwavering stamina and far too much strength in their knife arms. The four men assumed their fighting stances as they prepared for yet another exhausting battle.
Ignis jabbed with his polearm, attempting to keep himself out of the reach of the tiny green menaces while Prompto fired his star shell to stun the Tonberrys into momentary docility. Gladio, meanwhile, drew the enemies in before unleashing an electrical shockwave with his Impulse technique. Noctis (after donning the Ring of Resistance) hurled elemental spells upon the daemons, implementing his armiger when he was able.
With enough concerted effort—and all but one Phoenix Down depleted thanks to Prompto’s numerous brushes with death—they had finally defeated all but one final Tonberry. The once harmless-looking creature had now taken a grotesque appearance as its health was waning. Its core started to glow a bright red as black muck dripped from its open wounds. In a last-ditch effort to defeat its opponents, the Scourge that had powered the creature pulsed, empowering it with a surge in strength and speed. Conversely, the four men had begun to slow down as their own stamina dwindled. The daemon hurled itself towards Gladio, driving its knife through his midsection multiple times before his mind could communicate to his limbs to defend himself, then bounced itself off of the Shield’s chest with a kick towards the other three men.
“G-GLADIO!” Ignis choked out his companion’s name as he watched the larger man gurgle before collapsing backward onto the ground, lifeless. He ran towards the Shield, his mind blank with trepidation. The advisor dropped to his knees next to his friend, tears welling in his eyes. Blood poured from Gladio’s wounds as his breathing shallowed to an almost undetectable rate. Gladio needed that Phoenix Down or he was not going to survive. Ignis felt the ache in his chest as he desperately tried to focus himself on retrieving the item out of the ether, but it felt almost impossible. Instead, images of Gladio’s absence flashed in front of his normally rational mind. He would never feel the Shield’s touch again, he would never see him smile proudly again, he would never hear his soothing voice, never experience that lighthearted companionship and overwhelming kindness again. He would never be able to tell him…
“Ignis! It’s coming towards you!” Prompto cried out, bringing Ignis back to reality. He summoned the Phoenix Down into his hands as he turned towards the voice, watching the Tonberry run straight towards him. Instinctively, Ignis leapt on top of Gladio as he pushed the Phoenix Down into his friend’s chest. As the fire began to radiate and engulf the Shield, his nerves sent shockwaves to his brain as he felt his flesh of his back and legs tear from the furious daemon’s stabs and slashes. Gladio’s cry filled his ears as all he knew faded to black, the pain soon becoming far too much for him to bear.
Ignis awoke on his stomach inside of the group’s tent, wearing bedclothes and wrapped in a fleecy blanket, his back slightly numb and tingling from a recently applied curative. He braced his arms underneath him and pushed himself up to a sitting position from his pillow. That’s right, he realized, trying to piece together how he ended up there, Gladio had been injured, and then I had been hurt… wait, Gladio! Ignis rose to his feet, ready to exit the tent to search for his friend. Instead, his whole body quaked and shivered, his vision blurred and blackened, and his head began to throb. Even his hearing became muffled as a wave of nausea struck him. The advisor could feel the world start to collapse underneath him as he fell, once again, into those strong arms.
“Shh… Shh… It’s okay, Iggy. You’re all right. I got you.” Gladio whispered his reassurances as he carefully sat Ignis back down on top of his bedspread. Ignis’ arms wrapped tightly around Gladio’s back as he rested his forehead on the Shield’s chest until his vision and hearing returned. He then sat back limply, not resisting when his companion lifted a canteen of cool water to his lips for him to drink.
Ignis weakly lifted his gaze, turquoise meeting the Shield’s amber eyes, alight with such… gentleness, while the man’s lips were upturned in a humble smile. “Gladio,” his voice cracked from disuse and exhaustion. “Thank the Six you’re still alive. I had… truly feared that we had lost you.”
Gladio responded with a quiet chuckle. Gods, has he always been this beautiful? “The feeling’s mutual, Iggy. We were all out of Phoenix Down when you had gotten attacked. Fortunately we were only one floor above a haven so I got you to the tent, tended to your wounds, and changed you. Noct and Prompto have been worried sick about you, but I was able to distract them with some pizza.”
“Wait, you cooked?” the advisor gasped with widening eyes.
“Hey, I didn’t poison either of them, I promise! Plus,” he added with a proud smile, “the kids even complimented my cooking!”
Ignis could no longer resist the warmth that radiated through his chest. He began to gasp as his laughter overtook him, bringing tears to his eyes and a familiar sting to his still-healing muscles. “Oh, Gladio,” he breathed, unable to keep those invasive thoughts to himself anymore. “you’ve done so much recently. Since fighting Gilgamesh, you’ve been far more supportive and caring than I could have ever asked you to be. You even went out of your comfort zone and cooked for everyone! Why?”
The larger man sat down cross-legged on the floor of the tent next to the advisor. “You see, Iggy,” Gladio locked eyes with him, “you remember when I told you guys about the fight? About how my one fear was being unable to adequately protect Noctis? Well, I may not have been the most truthful.” The Shield paused, turning his gaze down to his hands, which had been resting in his lap. “I realized a lot of things down in the Tempering Grounds as I stared into my fourteenth straight serving of Cup Noodles.”
Ignis snorted. “Wait a minute, are you actually telling me you grew tired of Cup Noodles?”
“Hey, I didn’t say that,” Gladio retorted. “But I must say, I did miss your cooking. In fact, I missed a lot of things…” the Shield took a deep breath as he met the advisor’s gaze, then continued on. “I missed your smile, your humor, your warmth, your continual service and dedication to your duty. I realized how much you sacrifice daily for all of us without complaint and how much I must have burdened you by leaving… and how much more I would have hurt you all if I hadn’t made it out.”
“Gladio…” Ignis tentatively rested his hand on top of his companions. Surprisingly, the other man did not flinch at the touch.
Gladio looked down at their hands and continued. “I remembered the way your face fell when Noctis looked to you for an answer when I said I was going to leave. I made him feel that fear and desperation, even if he didn’t outwardly express it. I forced you to make a choice because I was selfish in the moment and couldn’t get over my own insecurities. I put all four of us in danger, and I only made your burden that much greater by my absence. It was all I could think about… you were all I could think about. I mean, yeah, I worried about Noct and Prompto, and Iris too, but…”
Ignis ended Gladio’s monologue by pressing his lips to the Shield’s. “Dearest Gladio,” he cradled Gladio’s face in his hand as he separated their mouths. “I think I’ve come to understand what you’re trying to say. Correct me if I’m wrong, though,” he chuckled as a genuine smile landed on his lips.
Gladio reunited their mouths in an enthusiastic kiss as he wrapped his arms around the Advisor’s waist. “Nah, I think you hit the nail right on the head,” Gladio smiled, nuzzling their noses before kissing Ignis again. “Now, how about some of that pizza?”
“Pizza sounds absolutely perfect.”