The silence in the air was oppressive.
Ignis sat across from Gladio in the dining carriage of the train, on its way to Tenebrae after their brief sojourn at the royal tomb at the Fodina Caestino. Gladio had fetched them each a meal, or what passed for them aboard this thing; Ignis couldn’t even tell what was on his tray, but it smelled ghastly. Canned corn, by the scent of it, perhaps some soggy scraps of breaded meat. Even the least of his own efforts could produce something a hundred times more palatable—at least when he’d had his vision.
It was a difficult thought to bear. Almost as much as the silence.
“Hey. Are you gonna eat that?” said Gladio at last, breaking it. “’S gonna get cold.”
He might as well have not spoken at all, for all the good it did them; ever since Altissia, Gladio avoided speaking to him directly, and even when he did it was like he was speaking through him. Ignis had hoped that addressing the rift between Gladio and Noct would ease the tension that had arisen between himself and Gladio, but it seemed that he would have to take further action.
He didn’t want to.
Ignis hated needing help. It was his job, his role, to provide support. He took pride in his self-sufficiency. If he was causing somebody worry, he always took care to quickly remedy the problem, or give assurance. But in this state, he could do neither. And neither could he step aside; he had made a promise. To the former king, to Noctis, and to himself. He would stand by Noctis always, to the last. As long as he drew breath.
What he hadn’t realized, during all this time, was how much he’d depended on Gladio. It was as natural as breathing, h ow they’d conspired together to guide their wayward prince, to keep him safe, to make sure things were running smoothly. How they’d each embraced their roles, adapting them to complement each other. How they’d trusted each other’s capabilities, to allow themselves to pick up each other’s slack.
But now, Ignis was nothing but a burden to him. To them all, but especially Gladio. It hurt more than he could have anticipated, and worse, h e didn’t know how to fix it. He didn’t want to have to. He’d been hoping...he’d wanted...
Well. There was no use carrying on about it.
“No,” Ignis said aloud.
There was a slight pause, and then a clack—perhaps Gladio putting his fork down. “...What?” he said, confused.
Ignis took a breath. “We need to talk.”
“We’re talking,” said Gladio, and Ignis could imagine the expression on his face: guarded, tense, mouth pulled down in a slight frown.
“I hadn’t noticed,” said Ignis, unable to keep the slight bitterness from his voice.
“This about...back there?” said Gladio. He sighed. “Look...you know where I stand.”
“You think I’ll be a burden.”
He inhaled sharply . “Iggy—that’s not...”
“Then what?” demanded Ignis.
“We’re in enemy territory. We’re at war. You’re in no condition to be getting dragged around the front lines like this. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s always been dangerous,” said Ignis.
“That’s not the problem,” growled Gladio.
Ignis’ throat felt tight. “Then what is?”
He flinched as there was a loud sound across from him—Gladio pounding the table. “You’re hurt , Ignis! I’m not gonna—we can’t afford to be always looking out for you!”
“I don’t expect you to,” said Ignis. “I never asked—“
“To hell with you asking! You think we’re just gonna watch you stumble around like that? You think we like that? You shouldn’t be here,” seethed Gladio, then Ignis felt the table dip under his weight, and when he spoke again, he sounded weary. “What do you think I’m gonna do, Iggy? If I had to choose between you and Noct?”
“I’d expect you would choose Noct,” Ignis said, slowly, carefully.
Gladio laughed to himself once. An unhappy sound. “...Yeah? What makes you so sure?”
“He’s the king,” said Ignis.
“He sure is,” said Gladio.
Ignis shook his head . “ What about Prompto?”
“Prompto can see,” said Gladio. “He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself that much.”
“So can Noctis,” Ignis fired back, knowing it was foolish even as it slipped from his mouth, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Are you listening to yourself? I’m the king’s Shield. It’s my job to protect Noct. It was hard enough when I had to babysit two of you, and now—” he cut himself off, hissing a breath through his teeth. “...Shit.”
“It’s not your job to protect me,” replied Ignis, several beats too late. It felt like his insides had been hollowed out.
“Yeah,” said Gladio, reluctance dragged over the apology in his voice, “but I still have to.”
T he pause this time was t aut , like a drawn bow. “It would seem we’re at an impasse,” Ignis said.
Gladio said nothing.
“You must understand,” said Ignis, fighting to keep the tremor from his voice, “I can’t leave Noct’s side. I failed him once already.”
“You think so?” said Gladio, and he sounded angry again. “That’s really what you think? That you failed him?”
“I couldn’t stop him,” said Ignis. “The chancellor.”
“You went blind trying to,” hissed Gladio. “You gave that up.”
“I don’t see how that changes—“
“It should have been me, Iggy!” Gladio roared suddenly, slamming the table again.
And here they were, at the crux of the thing.
Perhaps Ignis should have realized sooner; he knew Gladio too well, should have recognized the signs, his silent anger, his pointed outbursts. It wasn’t resentment towards him, as Ignis had dreaded, but anger towards himself.
Ignis hadn’t been the only one who felt he had failed. He straightened his back.
“Gladio,” he said quietly. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“Like hell,” said Gladio roughly. “I should’ve been there.”
“What would you have done if you had been?” said Ignis.
“I—“ started Gladio, then stopped. There was a long silence. It was frustrating, not being able to read the faces of those he was conversing with. Ignis tried to imagine: Gladio gritting his teeth, looking away; Gladio staring down at his hands, expression pensive.
At last, Ignis couldn’t take the silence anymore, so he spoke again. “You would have perished,” he said, understanding even as he said it that it must be true. Gladio would not have worn the ring; he trusted in his own strength. But he could not have stood against the chancellor alone, Ignis was sure.
“You don’t know that,” snapped Gladio. Ah. He was angry again. This was difficult.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “Even with the power of the ring, I was no match.”
“What the hell is he?” said Gladio.
“...I don’t know.”
S ilence again . Ignis was becoming truly sick and tired of it. Thankfully, Gladio broke it this time. “ It shoul d’ ve been me,” he said again, but this time there w ere no teeth in it. He sounded tired. He sounded...hurt.
Ignis reached out across the table, tentatively—he encountered Gladio’s arm, and slid his hand down it until it was covering Gladio’s, loosely clenched in a fist on the table . “Imagine that it had been,” he sai d . “That our positions were reversed. What would the king be, with a Shield that could no longer protect?”
“Not much worse off than this,” said Gladio. He didn’t move his hand away.
“I was never meant to fight for Noct,” said Ignis, clearly, deliberately. To get his point across. To make sure his voice didn’t shake. “Merely to advise him. I didn’t sacrifice my eyes out of a sense of duty. I simply...could not allow Noctis to die in front of me. Do you understand?”
He wished he could see Gladio’s face. To look him in the eye, make sure he understood. As it was, he lifted his chin and tried to look like he was at least doing that.
Gladio let out a long sigh. Under Ignis’ hand, his own loosened, and then turned over so that Ignis’ hand rested against his palm, warm and large and calloused. It felt...familiar. Like for the first time since he lost his eyesight, floating in a void of dark n ess, something was anchoring him.
“Yeah,” said Gladio. “I know. I just...don’t want to lose you, Iggy.”
“Rest assured,” said Ignis. “I have no intention of going anywhere.”
Gladio laughed then, just a small sound, affected by wonderment , and Ignis realized that for the first time in recent memory, he could feel a smile on his face . “ Yeah...you’re too hard-headed for that.”
“Pot calling the kettle black, don’t you think?”
“Hey, takes one to know one.”
A nd here they were. Talking to each other. Joking back and forth. Neither of them had moved their hands.
“Gladio?” said Ignis.
“Don’t thank me,” said Gladio, tone laced with regret. Ignis could picture his expressions more clearly now, the way one side of his mouth pulled down when he wasn’t happy about something, eyebrows pulled low. “I know how it looks. I was just...”
“I know,” said Ignis. “It’s as difficult for things to get out of that thick skull of yours as it is for them to go in.”
Gladio laughed again, softly. “Yeah, alright. You got my number. Sorry, Iggy.”
“Water under the bridge,” said Ignis. “...But I would appreciate if you extended your apology to Noct. Or at the very least, Prompto.”
“Yeah, yeah...” said Gladio, only a little reluctantly. “I hear you.”
“You could go a little easier on Noct, you know.”
“You could go a little harder on him,” Gladio countered.
“There exists such an animal as compromise,” said Ignis.
“Or we could just agree to disagree.”
“And who was the hard-headed one again?”
“Alright, alright, you win.” Gladio sat back, finally retrieving his hand, and there was a sound that Ignis assumed meant he’d picked up his fork again. “...Ugh. Don’t think this food’s any good to eat anymore. Was awful anyway.”
Ignis smiled. “I seem to recall quite a large stash of cup noodles in our possession, if that strikes your fancy more.”
“Iggy,” said Gladio. “You are a genius.”
“And wherever would you be without me?” he said.
“Don’t know,” said Gladio. “But I don’t really want to find out.”
“Then let’s not,” said Ignis.
“...Yeah,” said Gladio. “Yeah. All right. Hey, Iggy...”
Gladio cleared his throat a little. “It’s alright if you need a little help. No one’s gonna...it’s fine. You know that, right?”
“...Yes,” said Ignis thickly, and he was grateful for his dark glasses then, for even though his eyes were blind, they could still betray him, in this small way. “I know.”