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Ignis says, from where he's managing Noct's finances, "You've been spending more than usual, Noct." He marks another sum down, frowning at the papers. He folds the old receipt into half. Puts it into the pile that he's recorded.

Noct chews on the tip of his pen. "Hey- you know the chemical formula of hydrogen peroxide?"

"H2O2," Ignis says. "Do not change the subject, Noct. What are these extra expenses?"

"Uh," Noct says. He scribbles something down. His handwriting is this utterly dreadful scrawl. How his teachers put up with this, Ignis will never know. "Y'know that one lens Prompto was saving up for? Yeah, I bought it for him."

"Noct," Ignis says. "You bought him a new lens just last month."

"Yeah, but this one's different. He says its got a smaller aperture. Uh, something about sharper images? I dunno, there were a lot of complicated terms."

"Noct," Ignis says, patiently. "Why are you spending so much on a person who you've known for less than three months?"

"Cuz he's my friend," Noct says. He scowls at his homework. "Hey, what's water glass?"

"Sodium silicate, chemical formula SiO2," Ignis says. "Used as coagulant or deflocculant agent in wastewater treatment plants. It binds to colloidal-"

"Okay, okay," Noct says. "No need for the lecture. I just needed to know what it's called, thanks."

"Noct," Ignis reminds. "Friends do not spend this much money on each other."

"Yeah, but normally in a pair of friends one of 'em isn't the crown prince. It's fine. I like seeing him happy."

Ignis says, "I don't think-"

"C'mon, Iggy! It's fine. He likes me. And he's happy when I buy him things he likes. And I like him. So- just drop it. Okay?"

Ignis exhales. Rubs his temples minutely to compose himself. Then, he says, "It's a rare sight to see you doing your homework."

Noct says, "Yeah. Normally I copy off Prompto, but he's hopeless at Chem. So I'm doing my part and letting him copy off me for once." He taps his sad, chewed pen cap against the table rhythmically. It is extremely annoying.

Ignis breathes in very deeply. He says, with extreme calm, "I think we should discuss your choice in friends."

 

*

The worst part is: Prompto, on first glance, does not look like a bad person. He is stick thin, wrings his wrists like he's uncertain about many things most of the time, and his smiles are soft and timid around Ignis. Prompto calls him Iggy, with Noct's approval, much to Ignis's chagrin, and has the terrible habit of eating all of Noct's vegetables for him. Prompto does not seem like a bad person. Or, at the very least, not where Ignis is free to observe his behavior.

Maybe Ignis is being paranoid. He tells Gladio this.

Gladio says, "That twiggy little kid? Looks like he'll snap in half if I try it. Don't think he could take Noct on in a one-on-one."

"That is not the point," Ignis says. Gladio tosses him a beer. He catches it, hesitates. Rolls it between his palms.

Gladio raises an eyebrow at him, popping open the tab of his own beer. Ignis sighs in defeat, opens the damned thing, and downs half of it in one go.

"Calm down, Iggy," Gladio says. He sits down on the couch, right next to Ignis. "What's the point, then?"

"The point is," Ignis says. "The point is that Noct has been spending, pardon my language, a shit ton of money on this friend of his. It makes me wonder."

"You think..." Gladio says, thoughtfully.

"Yes," Ignis says. He gulps down the rest of his beer. "I do think. More than our charge does, it would seem."

"Damn, Iggy, that's cold," Gladio whistles. "Have another drink, man."

Ignis sighs. "Very well. Pass me another."

"Maybe you're overthinking this," Gladio says. He gets up and saunters back to the fridge. "Or maybe you're not. Y'know, with the kid's luck, the chances that he'd get saddled with a gold digger parading as his friend is probably- more than fifty."

"Not only money," Ignis says. He catches the second can Gladio tosses him. "Perhaps he's trying for prestige. Recognition. Perhaps he's going to leech off of Noct until he lands in a better crock of gold."

Gladio snorts. "I doubt there's a bigger crock of gold than the funds of an entire country," he says. Which is a good point and makes terrible, terrible sense.

Ignis can feel a migraine coming along. He opts to take a long drink from his second beer.

"Let's see how this plays out," Ignis says. Gladio knocks their cans together, and hides his grin in his beer.

*

Five months into Noct's friendship with Prompto, and his finances are still mostly the same. There's the groceries, the leisure activities, the rent and utility bills. And then, at the very end, there will be a not-small amount taken out. He asks, but Noct always minces around his answer, which means it's probably related to his friend. Ignis labels it, in neat cursive, Prompto. Noct's still spending an ungodly amount on him. Ignis disapproves of it greatly.

But Noct's been happier. He's been laughing more. And he doesn't protest when Ignis brings official documents over for him to study, either, even though it is only at the granted request that he is allowed to spend his weekends with Prompto that he does anything seriously.

So Ignis doesn't say anything. Think what you will, but he's not entirely heartless. This is the boy he's been raised to care for, after all. Noct's happiness- of course, is still very much crucial to Ignis's job.

That is- until Ignis unlocks the apartment door to find Noct tangled up with Prompto on the couch. They fly apart when Ignis clears his throat. Noct's shirt has been ripped open, buttons scattered all over the floor, hair messy and face flushed and looking like he wants nothing more than to dig a hole and stay there forever. He looks like a walking PR disaster. Ignis is getting a migraine just by looking at him.

Ignis assesses Prompto instead. He looks worse than Noct does, which makes sense, because Noct is awfully bratty. Prompto has bite marks all down his throat and his shirt is still racked up over his ribs.

Ignis says, "Excuse us, Prompto."

"What?" Noct says. "No, no- Prom, stay here."

"Noctis," Ignis says.

"Uh," Prompto says. "I'll- I'll let myself out. See ya, Noct. Ig- Ignis."

Noct says, "Prom, wait," and pulls Prompto's shirt down gently. He smears his thumb across the freckles on Prompto's cheek in a too intimate gesture. "See you tomorrow?"

The way Prompto smiles is soft and too sweet. Ignis doesn't know what to think. Instead, he rubs the bridge of his nose and says, "Very lovely. Please allow me to have a chat with Noctis now, Prompto."

Prompto dips his head. He scuttles out of the apartment, leaving Ignis and Noct in dappled sunset colors.

He says, "This is a bad idea."

Noct says, "I don't care."

Ignis says, "What of Lady Lunafreya?"

"Iggy, c'mon. I've met her a whole total of once."

"Prompto has been your friend for a whole total of five months," Ignis reminds him. "That doesn't seem like a good basis for a relationship."

"Not much of a basis for any relationships in my book," Noct mutters, a little bitterly. "The most time I spend with is with you and Gladio, and you're both paid to take care of me."

It stings, just a little. "Gladio and I both care for you very much," Ignis says. "Besides. You've known Lady Lunafreya all your life. You write her all the time."

"And she's miserable," Noct says. He's angry, now, from the way he clences his fists. A wet, helpless sort of anger. "Because of me. Gods, Iggy, she's a war prisoner. And half of it is my fault- c'mon, be real. I don't make her happy."

"It is not your fault," Ignis says, not unkindly. "Noct. You know this. What happened in Tenebrae- it was beyond your control. And Lady Lunafreya would never blame you."

"I know," Noct says, quietly. "She would never. But I wish she'd hate me more. At least- I wouldn't be stuck here. Feeling like this. I'm just so- so fucking useless. Y'know?"

Ignis puts his hand on Noct's shoulder. "Which is why you have to take things seriously," he says. "One day, you will be king. And from that day onwards, the lives of millions will be in your hands. Think, Noct. This... thing you have with Prompto. Is it truly wise?"

"I make him happy," Noct says. "He makes me feel... less useless. I'm the one who makes him smile. And that- that means a lot. To me."

It just sounds like he's using you, Ignis does not say. He says, "I do not approve of this."

"I don't need you to," Noct says, coldly. "It's none of your business-"

"Everything you do is my business, Noctis," Ignis snaps. "It is my job-"

"To hell with your job!" Noctis shouts. He kicks the coffee table viciously, makes a stack of reports flutter to the floor, and immediately reigns himself in the way a person constantly surrounded by paparazzi would. Icy calm, emotions locked behind the still of his face. Ignis would be proud, if he weren't the one on the receiving end.

Noct says, slowly, enunciating every word clearly, "I'm going to bed."

Ignis says, with his own mustered calm, "Very well. Don't let me bother you."

Noctis stalks into his bedroom. Slams the door closed behind him. Ignis starts picking up the reports off the floor. Clearly Noctis will not listen to reason. Infatuated? Possibly. Being used? Almost certainly.

Ignis exhales loudly. He'll have to find the person responsible for a talk, then.

 

*

Ignis corners him when he's walking home from his part-time job. He's whistling a jaunty tune, camera in his hands, almost skipping down the streets.

"Prompto," Ignis says. Prompto startles, badly. Some part of Ignis wonders: why? The boy is twitchy at best, jumpy at worst. He looks like he is constantly on guard, fiercely secretive, which does not make a compelling case, on his end.

"Oh," Prompto says. "Uh. Hi, Iggy."

"A word?" Ignis beckons him over. Prompto comes, albeit hesitantly.

"Where are we going?"

"Somewhere we can sit and talk without anyone interrupting us," Ignis says. "How do you feel about coffee?"

"It's okay, I guess," Prompto says. He follows Ignis obediently to a nearby coffee shop, sits down when Ignis motions for him to sit, and doesn't order anything when Ignis asks for a black coffee.

"Prompto," Ignis says. "I'd like for us to talk about Noctis."

"Is this about the- um. Me and Noct. Uh-"

"Some of it, yes," Ignis says. "But let's start from the beginning of your friendship, shall we? What made you decide to be friends with Noct in the first place?"

Prompto blinks like he wasn't expecting the question. He probably wasn't. "Um. It's because... he's nice?"

Ignis forces a smile. "I'm sure Noct can be better described than that."

Prompto grins, almost sheepishly. "Yeah, hah. I mean. When we were kids, I always saw him in the middle of a bunch of classmates, y'know? And he'd always look out the window like he wanted to jump out of it. And I figured- why not, right?"

"Noct says you've only started talking to him this year," Ignis points out. A waitress brings him his coffee. He nods his thanks.

"Hah," Prompto says. He looks uncomfortable, this skinny boy with his sunshine smile. "I- he's the prince, and all. I dunno. I guess it took a while for me to work up the nerve to talk to him."

"Reservations aren't bad," Ignis says mildly. He takes a sip out of his cup, watches Prompto fiddle with his camera.

"I guess," Prompto says, after a while. "He... always looks so lonely. Even with you and Gladio with him all the time. I just figured- he needed a friend. You know?"

A sudden spike of anger, hot and terrible. What does this boy know of their relationship with Noctis? How dare he assume- that Ignis does not regard Noctis as a friend?

"You know nothing-" Ignis hisses. "-of how much we've sacrificed for Noctis. He is our prince, yes, someday our king. But don't you dare assume that we do not care for him as a friend-"

Prompto looks appropriately stricken. "N-no, that's not what I meant-"

"What did you mean, then?" Ignis says. He inhales, exhales. Counts to ten. Counts backwards.

"I just- I just thought that, maybe sometimes. Noct needs a distraction from royal stuff? I dunno, I-"

"A distraction," Ignis says, as calmly as he can manage. It comes out hard and cold. Prompto flinches, burrows backwards into the hard plastic of his chair. "I see."

"I-" Prompto says. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"

"So you know that you are a distraction," Ignis cuts him off, meanly. "You know that you are distracting Noctis from his royal duties, as the crown prince. And yet, you do it. Hanging off him, making him buy you things- conducting an extremely illicit relationship with him."

Prompto curls in on himself. He looks like he's about to cry, but Ignis isn't finished just yet.

"Do you know what this looks like? A commoner trying to take advantage of the prince? What do you think would happen if this leaks out to the press? Did you even begin to consider- of how this would affect Noctis's credibility as next in line? Can you imagine how His Majesty must feel, having his only son monopolized by a person that is utterly useless to the monarchy?"

Prompto opens his mouth. Ignis raises his hand. He breathes hard, anger fading away into cold certainty. He is doing the right thing. Obviously. For the kingdom's sake. For Noctis's sake.

"A suggestion, Prompto," Ignis says. "Leave Noctis alone."

For a moment, Prompto looks like he's going to argue. Some irrational part of Ignis thinks, yes, good, show me how much you care, show me how far you're willing to go-

But Prompto chooses, wisely, to back off. He twists his fingers against each other, fiddles with his wristband. He says, quietly, wetly, "I understand. I- I won't hang around Noct- I mean, Prince Noctis- anymore."

It leaves Ignis feeling awfully numb and empty. But- it's still a good thing. Now nobody will take advantage of Noctis and his stature.

"...good," Ignis says, eventually, unkindly. Prompto stares at the table's smooth surface and does not look up at him. Ignis stands. Puts the money for the coffee on the table. Pretends he doesn't hear the way Prompto sniffles, doesn't see him swiping roughly at his tears.

"Thank you for your time," Ignis says, politely. When he leaves, he doesn't look back.

 

*

Ignis is not cruel. Not by choice. He tells Gladio this. Gladio puts a hand on his shoulder. A point of contact, warmth seeping through.

He feels like the worst person ever. He feels that heart-stopping chill in his bones.

"There are a lot of what-if's," Gladio says, carefully. "I get where you're coming from, Iggy, I do-"

"This is the part where you tell me I'm an asshole, isn't it," Ignis says.

Gladio gives a weak chuckle. "Hah," he says. "Funny. That was exactly what I was gonna say."

Ignis sighs. Regulates his breathing, like how his parents taught him. Keep calm: your mind is your best asset, in our family we learn to wield it and wield it well- a never ending buzz at the back of his skull. He can almost see his mother, all her sharp edges and stern eyes, counting their breaths together in exercise.

"I do not enjoy being the villain," Ignis says.

Gladio says, "No one does."

"Why are you so unconcerned?" Ignis says. His head aches. He is tired and disappointed and loaths the day Noctis finds out his involvement. "How do you just step back without any action? You're his Shield, how do you not have overprotective tendencies pounded into your brain?"

Gladio shrugs. "My job's different from yours. I'm just here to stop him from dying. You can die from a stab wound but not from a broken heart, yeah? It's not really my business. And I don't have the brainpower to evaluate every single person the kid comes in contact with. You read their minds I read their actions- things like that. He didn't seem all that bad. The kid looked happy. I left it at that."

Ignis says, quietly, miserably, "Did I do the wrong thing?"

Gladio runs his hand down Ignis's back. His touch is gentle- almost apologetic. He says, softly, "That's the thing, Iggy. We won't know until it all plays out."

Ignis scrubs his face with his hands. If there are tears, neither of them mention it, and Gladio lets him sit there until dawn breaks.

*

Noct comes home from training to Ignis slicing open a tomato. He places it- devoid of its slimy guts and seeds- onto a pile of equally gutted tomatoes.

Noct stands at the door for a very long time. Ignis, with a sort of sinking feeling in his stomach, cleans his knives and goes to him.

"Noct?" Ignis says, very carefully.

"...I think I did something wrong," Noct says, after a long buzzing silence. He says, all in a furious rush, syllables dropping short and clipped and quick, "Prompto's been avoiding me. I don't know why but he isn't talking to me. I tried to ask but he made an excuse every single time and I don't know why and he won't tell me- gods, why won't he just tell me? Maybe I said something wrong? Maybe I forgot an important date? I don't know- shit, I'm being a bad friend, aren't I? He-"

"Friend?" Ignis says. "I was under the impression that you were... more than that."

Noct says, "Yeah, but Prompto hates attention. He doesn't like people staring- so we keep it on the down low. I can't even call him my boyfriend if we're not alone."

Ignis says, "...oh."

Noct says, "Wait. No. It must've been the pressure. It's my fault isn't it? I pressured him into this. I made him feel like- he's obliged to, to be with me. That's- that must be it. I-"

"Noct," Ignis says.

"Hah," Noct says. His voice is pitched high and cracking at the edges. Ignis watches him run his hands through his hair in frustration, clutching hard enough to turn his knuckles white, before his expression smooths out. Picture perfect prince. "What am I saying. Sorry, Iggy. I think I'm a little sleep deprived. I'm gonna- take a nap. Yeah."

He doesn't wait for Ignis to reply. Just as well, because Ignis doesn't think he has anything to say. His gut twists a little more at the sight of Noct, tired and stumbling, making his way to his bedroom. Noct is doing it again- the stress napping.

Ignis feels the guilt building up behind his eyes. He's the one behind all this. Technically. The awful feeling stabs a little harder. Ah. It's just a migraine, now.

Some advisor he is, Ignis thinks, a little bitterly. He stands there, head pounding something awful, and finally says, to an empty room, "I'll get started on the food, then."

When he makes his way back to the kitchen, he's already forgotten what he was going to do with the tomatoes. No matter. It was probably some last ditch effort to make Noct eat some vegetables, anyways. He'll just give them to Pr- to Gladio. Gladio. Yes. Gladio doesn't mind tomatoes.

He'll whip up something meat-based, then. Something Noct will like. It's not quite an apology- it's not an apology when the person he's apologizing to doesn't even know he's apologizing, and besides, it's not Noct he has to apologize to, not really- but when he seasons the meat and heats up oil in a pan, it takes his mind off things, somewhat.

Just as well. His head aches something tender and terrible. He'll have to think about it later.

 

*

Gladio says, "He's not looking good, Iggy." He is all tense energy, wound up with nowhere to go. Ignis puts the tomato salad on a table.

"Have some salad," Ignis says.

Gladio says, "Iggy."

"Have some salad," Ignis insists.

Gladio eats the salad. "Iggy," he says. "I nearly cracked his skull open today. He warped towards me and I thought he was going to feint, but he crashed straight into the wall and I nearly bashed my shield right into his head." Gladio bounces his knee, agitation written in every line of his body. "You know the soft part at the base of the skull? Right there. It's where a killer would aim- and I nearly killed him."

Ignis rubs his nose. Adjusts his spectacles. Says nothing.

"Ignis," Gladio says, looking very much like he wants to grab Ignis by the shoulders and shake him until he cracks. "This is serious. It's affecting me. Fix it."

"Very well," Ignis says. "Let me just take a hammer and fix the festering emotional wounds I've caused, yes? Absolutely wonderful. Great plan, Gladiolus!"

Gladio presses his mouth into a thin line. He says, sharply, "You're being an asshole."

"Oh yes," Ignis says, equally sharp. Gladio is sword sharp but Ignis is daggers- he cuts fast and quick and deeper than anything. "I'm always an asshole, Gladiolus, didn't you know?"

"Taking it out on me won't do anything," Gladio says, quietly. "You know that."

Ignis grits his teeth. He hates it when Gladio is right. The man is absolutely relentless. "Fine. Alright, you win, you're correct. I'm frustrated and agitated and I feel like I am choking with every breath I take and I'm sorry for being abominable."

Gladio's shoulders relax. Minutely. He claps Ignis's shoulder hard enough to send Ignis sprawling, and says, "I get it. You did something dumb. You messed up. But guess what? We all mess up, in the end, right?"

"I'm sure you've caused Noct your fair share of emotional trauma," Ignis says. "But I do appreciate the gesture. Thank you, Gladio."

"The kid'll probably be fine," Gladio says. "Blondie though-"

Ignis says, "I will talk to him."

Gladio says, "...I'll go with you."

"You look extremely intimidating," Ignis says.

"More intimidating than you?" Gladio says, rather meanly. "I'm not the one who yelled at him like some over controlling parent."

"...that was rather unnecessary," Ignis points out. "But I suppose I deserve it."

"You know me," Gladio says. "Pinch of salt in the wound to keep it from festering, right?"

Ignis sighs. "Still," he says, "I'd rather go alone, Gladio."

"You'll say something wrong," Gladio says.

"Oh the lack of faith," Ignis says, dryly. "I'm absolutely wounded, you fiend."

"Righteously so," Gladio says. "How about I hide in a corner and watch you talk to him? That way I can stop you when you fuck up."

"When I fuck up?"

"You're gonna fuck it up, Iggy," Gladio says. "I know it."

"....thanks."

Gladio laughs. "Admit it. I've seen you around blondie. He's got your head screwed backwards and you have no idea how to talk to him. Half the time you waver between being nice and being an asshole to him, Iggy, honestly."

"He is very strange," Ignis admits. "He makes me feel very strange. Perhaps it is envy. At his freedom. The ability to choose."

Gladio says, his mouth tilted into half a smirk, "You like him. But you don't wanna like him, because he's a distraction to Noct."

"You lied when you said you didn't have the brainpower to read into other people," Ignis says. "Gladio you filthy liar. How dare you."

Gladio snorts. "What can I say? A man has secrets."

They fall back into companionable silence. Ignis feels like something has been cleared from his mind- some switch flipped. No more fog, no thick cloying doubt.

Eventually, Gladio says, "They're just kids, Iggy. Hell, we're barely adults ourselves. It's okay to act our age. It's okay to fuck up. Don't be so hard on them. On yourself."

"The weight of the job is heavy," Ignis says.

"I know," Gladio says, quietly, comfortingly. "The weight of the crown is heavier. Let him have his fun before he's too tied down to have any."

Ignis sighs. Pokes at the half-eaten salad. It's soggy and disgusting and Ignis will have to throw it out. He hates when Gladio is right. The man is utterly relentless.

He says, "I hate it when you're more mature than me."

Gladio's resulting cackle is loud and hearty. If Ignis's mouth pulls up into a smile, neither of them mention it.

 

*

Ignis says, one humid night, "I have something to tell you."

Noct is curled up on the couch, half asleep. Ignis forgives him for that. It is past midnight already, after all. He is sallow and pale and looks like he hasn't slept in days. He's not playing with his phone, but only because it's sitting in a dark corner of one of the rooms, a crack running down the screen. It lit up when Ignis checked, but it was frozen on Noct's text messages. One particular text message. From Prompto.

We should break up, it read.

Ignis remembers coming back from the Citadel, all intent on checking up on Noct, only to find a trashed apartment. He remembers Noct, curled up in a corner, breathing hard and fast and pained. He remembers having to carry Noct to bed, remembers sweeping up glass and plastic and remembers picking up Noct's cracked phone, brightly lit, frozen text on the screen.

Ignis remembers the feeling. The sour taste left in his mouth. The twist of the proverbial knife, so to say.

"Hmm?" he says, only half paying attention to Ignis. He raises the worn edge of his thumbnail to his mouth. Ignis gently moves it away.

Noct has a scar on his face. A faint, silvery sliver, just by his left eyebrow. Courtesy of Gladio, a too fast strike, barely blocked in Noct's inattentive state. Gladio had called him, that day, stricken and panicked. He'd said, "You have to talk to the kid."

Ignis had cleaned the wound and dressed it, while Noct sat quiet and unresponsive, and he'd said, "I know."

And so. He talks. He says, "It's not your fault, Noct."

Noct laughs. It is not a very nice laugh. It is something low and derisive, and Noct says, "lol," meanly, and rolls over so he's facing Ignis instead of the back of the couch. "You wanna clarify that? 'cuz you seem to think, that a lot of things aren't my fault, when they are."

Ignis can feel the sweat beading on his back. It is uncomfortable. This whole conversation is uncomfortable. The edges of his mother flickers in his vision, and she says, steely and stiff, a scientia never runs from their actions- here comes the weight of consequence, and here we must bear it, and Ignis says, "Prompto."

The reaction is instantaneous. Noct stiffens, sits up, and he says, low and urgent, "What do you mean. What do you mean, Ignis-"

"I mean," Ignis says. His tongue weighs heavy. "I mean. I requested that he stop hanging around you."

"...what."

Ignis inclines his head. "I am sorry-"

"...you made my boyfriend break up with me," Noct says, and his voice is something dull and cold. Shiva herself couldn't thaw him over.

"...I did not know he would go so far," Ignis says, and immediately feels extremely stupid. Communication is key to any relationship, Ignis Scientia. Idiot, idiot-

Noct laughs again. It sounds worse than the first one, and Noct says, quietly, in his jagged tone, "Of course. Of course- why'd I expect anything else."

Ignis feels a flare of- something. Something like indignance, something like hurt. He says, a tad stiffly, a lot meanly, "I apologize for doing my job."

It is a good few moments of silence. Noct wheezes his breaths, too loud, laughing, his hands clenched in his hair. "Fuck," Noct says. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, damn it, damn it, damn you, damn you!"

"You and your job," Noctis spits, all hot, terrible anger, all jagged edges and splinters, he says, "You and your fucking job! I never asked for you to regulate every single aspect of my life! I never asked for you to stick your fucking nose into everything I do! Fuck you, Ignis, fuck you-"

Ignis says, "It is required of the prince to have an advisor and his Shield. Every minute of my life is dedicated to you, Noctis. Blame me for doing something stupid, yes, but do not blame me for doing my job."

Noct shrieks in his outrage, his screaming anger, and he says, "I don't want your fucking life! Not you, not Gladio, not anyone! Every single time, it's for the kingdom, for the crystal, to the Hexatheon! I never asked to be the prince! I never fucking wanted- any of this! Fuck the kingdom, fuck the crystal! To hell with the Hexatheon- just let me be normal."

Noctis's voice cracks. Breaks at the edges. He says, terrible and cruel, "Sometimes I think you hate me. You don't see me as anything else other than your next paycheck, right? You and your fucking job. I'm just some damned brat you got saddled with. Some dumb asshole you get to dedicate your life to. Your luck, huh?"

Ignis barely registers his movements. But his numbness fades in a hot minute, and then his knuckles are aching, and Noctis is gasping in pain, recoiled against the back of the couch. The heat of his glare is like hellfire.

Ignis says, shakily, "Shut up, Noctis."

Noctis does not shut up. On the contrary. He spits, "Thanks for making Prompto break up with me," all spite, all righteous fury. There is a bruise forming on his cheek. Ignis's knuckles hurt. He wants to scream.

Instead, he drops into a bow, says, "I'm sorry. I did something unexcusable. I focused on how things would look, with you as the prince- and I was afraid Prompto would take advantage of you. I apologize."

There is a beat of tense silence. Then Noctis bursts out into unholy screaming, and his fist connects with the bridge of Ignis's nose, and it's Ignis's turn to shrink back in pain. His glasses give a loud, resoundingly ugly crack, breaks cleanly into two halves and clatters onto the polished hardwood floor.

"Take advantage!" Noct is shouting. "Take advantage- you don't even know him! I found him, he likes me, why did you- how fucking dare you ruin my OWN FUCKING RELATIONSHIP-"

"BECAUSE YOU ARE THE PRINCE!" Ignis thunders. Finally losing any shred of calm, any semblance of control. His mother would be disappointed, but he's too angry to care, too caught up in this loud screeching argument. "You are expected to rule! Everything you do is surveyed thrice over, by the media, by the cabinet, by the people! There have been talks of an engagement to Lady Lunafreya and you- you gallivant around, breaking every single rule ever made for you-"

Ignis can pinpoint the exact second Noctis loses his temper completely. He dodges the fist swung his way, but Noct is fast and good at feinting and his other fist connects. The burst of pain is sharp and white hot, and Ignis finds himself fighting back like a treasonous fool, finds himself tussling with Noctis, both of them shouting and kicking and punching and biting, until one of them puts their foot through the glass of the coffee table and it shatters, startling them out of their fury.

They fall to the ground, limp and breathless and bleeding. Ignis watches Noct lick the blood from his lips, squashes down the instinct to hover and fuss.

Ignis says, "I don't hate you."

Noctis snorts, derisive. "Yeah?"

"You are the worst royal brat to ever be born," Ignis says. "You never obey any rules. You make me run around picking up after you like some doddering old nanny. You cannot take care of yourself without my intervention. You give the media heart attacks and you are the source of most of my migraines."

"...gee, thanks," Noct says dully.

"I'm not finished," Ignis says. "You are an idiot of a prince. Sometimes you make me hate my job. But I could never hate you. You are like the most high-maintenance little brother I've never had. An annoyance, yes, but I love you deeply and I will eat my glasses before I let anyone hurt you."

Noct bursts out into dry cackling. "Ow," he says, poking at all his tender parts. "You're such an asshole. You could've just said."

"They say life is a labyrinth," Ignis says. "Drama is the a-maze-ing part of it."

Noct groans. "Stop."

"I guess we'll just have to puzzle our emotions out," Ignis says.

"I hate you," Noct declares.

"I, on the other hand, love you very much," Ignis says. "The title of Best Annoyance goes to you, without a doubt."

"I just wanna say that if I had to choose between a thousand doddering old nannies chasing after me to eat my vegetables with a spatula, my choice would always be you, Iggy."

Ignis chokes out a reluctant laugh. The corners of his mouth are tender. They flare with pain when he smiles.

They lie there with broken glass digging into their backs in companionable silence. Then Noct says, quietly, "He told me not to."

"Hmm?" Ignis says.

"He told me to stop buying him things," Noct says. "He'd say it every time I bought him something he wanted. He wouldn't even let me treat him to food, you know?"

Ignis sighs. "I'm sorry," he offers. "I thought I was doing the right thing. Hurting you, hurting Prompto- I've no idea why I thought it was a good idea. I fucked up and I'm sorry."

"When he first stopped talking to me," Noct says. "I thought- I thought he was mad at me for not listening to him. I tried to ask, but then he called me Prince Noctis and I just- I couldn't think. I- I got so mad, I said some really awful things."

Silence. Ignis finds himself without his words, for once in his life.

Noct says, wet and quiet and sad, "I miss him."

Ignis says, "We'll go talk to him. Together. I suppose we have some apologizing to do, yes?"

"We'll bake him an apology cake," Noct says.

"Chiffon?" Ignis says.

"Yeah," Noct says. They grin at each other. Noct offers his fist. Ignis executes a perfect fist bump.

"Now about this mess..."

Noct groans, loud and dramatic. Through the windows, shimmering with the bright flair of a new day, dawn breaks.

 

*

Ignis knocks on Gladio's door at five in the morning, leaving Noct to clean up the mess they both made.

Gladio opens the door, fresh and awake, towel slung around his neck, ready for his morning run, and he says, "You look like hell."

Ignis says, "Hello, Gladio."

Gladio says, "What happened to your glasses?"

"Noct punched them into two halves," Ignis says mildly, adjusting his hastily taped together glasses. Noct's handiwork. "Make me some coffee."

Gladio snorts. Then he starts laughing, rather rudely, at Ignis's pained expression.

"Please tell me you didn't get into a fist fight with the kid," Gladio wheezes, a tad too gleeful.

"I did not get into a fist fight with Noctis," Ignis says dutifully. "There were more than fists involved."

Gladio dissolves into loud crying laughter. Ignis blinks at him. He says, "We're going to bake an apology cake."

Gladio says, laughing extremely hard, "F-fucking, I can't- breathe."

"Make me some coffee," Ignis insists, and he kicks at Gladio's legs when all he does is laugh at Ignis's plight.

Gladio does, eventually, make Ignis some coffee. It's good coffee, even though Gladio breaks a mug from laughing too hard when Ignis tells him about the hours long argument and subsequent fight.

Ignis kicks him in the shins this time. Gladio doesn't complain.

 

*

Noct says, "Why are you here?" He has a box balanced in his arms. Inside the box is a lopsided cake, with messy icing on top proclaiming I'm sorry! and an equally messy drawing of a chocobo-like shape.

A joint effort. Ignis had instructed with all his might, and Noct had lost his temper and his patience more than once, as did Ignis, but all in all it turned out- not as bad as it could have.

Gladio lifts the box's lid and bursts out into ugly cackling. Noct scowls, swats him away. "No, seriously, why are you here?"

"I'm the muscle of this operation," Gladio says, at the same time Ignis says, "He's the emotional support."

Noct scowls harder. Gladio says, "What the hell is that drawing, a rock?"

"It's a chocobo!" Noct snaps. "Do we really need him here? I don't think we need him here."

"I need him here," Ignis says, tucking two newspapers under his arm. "He's to keep me from embarrassing myself."

Gladio swings an arm around Ignis's shoulders. "Aww, Iggy," he coos. "What's with the newspapers?"

Ignis adjusts his glasses. "Merely preparations for a situation."

Gladio blinks at him. He points his thumb at Noct, hunched over and sulking, and says, "You think His Royal Brattiness will piss himself?"

"I heard that!" Noct says.

Ignis coughs. "We'll see."

"Hey!"

Gladio snickers. "So what's the plan?"

Noct says, "We go up to Prompto, ask for a second of his time- gently, because he's skittish, okay- and apologize."

"If he tries to run?" Ignis points out.

Noct opens his mouth. Starts to say something, but thinks better of it. Closes his mouth.

"Don't worry," Gladio says, a tad menacingly. "I got this."

"Do not," Noct says. "I said be gentle."

Gladio says, with as much dignity as he can muster, "I am always gentle."

Noct huffs. "Anyways, just- don't scare him away."

"Your face'll scare him away," Gladio retorts, rather childishly, and then Noct shoves at him, equally childishly, and they both dissolve into a half-hearted little fight, and Ignis has to rescue the cake from Noct's slippery hands.

"Cease your squabbling," Ignis says. "I'm sure all of us are equally menacing and would scare off any living thing with two brain cells to rub together in a five meter radius. Which is why this will be an ambush."

"Bringing out the guerilla warfare tactics huh?" Gladio says. "I can respect that."

"Is that really necessary?" Noct says in dismay.

"We must assume optimum positions," Ignis says. "Seal off any chance of escape. It is the most efficient way."

"He'll pass by this route anyways- I mean, uh, holy shit- um, Ignis, Prompto-"

"Oh my gods," Gladio says, entirely too gleeful.

Noct takes off running. He yells, unwisely, "Prompto!"

Ignis says, "Noctis-" and never gets to finish, because Prompto takes one look at them and starts sprinting away. Ignis doesn't blame him.

Ignis tries again, "Noct-"

He never gets to finish this time, either. Gladio jogs alongside him cheerfully, keeping pace, and Noct, the idiot- he flings whatever he's stuffed into his armiger last at Prompto and warps on over in a dazzling flash of blue.

It just so happens to be a bouquet of sunflowers. Noctis is such a helpless romantic, Ignis thinks in abyssal dismay. He would. He would.

The flowers smack into Prompto's back. He turns, surprised, and then Noct stumbles into him and they both go tumbling backwards onto the ground in a decidedly undignified manner.

"They ate shit!" Gladio hoots, sounding too amused. Ignis bites back his own laugh. This is serious business.

Ignis can hear Prompto groaning. Prompto says, appropriately, "What the fuck?"

Noct says, sounding extremely hopeful, "...Prom?"

Prompto blinks. His expression morphs from confusion into horror into devastating resignation. "Um," he says. "Yes? Prince Noctis?"

Ignis watches Noct's expression shatter into hurt as they pick themselves up from the ground. "Prompto," Noctis says, shakily.

Gladio says, quietly, "...Fuck."

Ignis steps up to them. "Prompto," he says. Prompto flinches, blinks up at him waveringly. He still wrings his wrists when he's nervous. "A word?"

"I-" Prompto says, his glance skittering nervously from Noct to Ignis to Gladio, looming behind them. He is very skittish, just as Noct said. "I shouldn't. I mean. I'll just waste your time?"

Noct says, softly, "Prompto. Please."

Prompto's jaw works furiously, like he wants to say something. He's blinking, fast and rapid, like he's holding back tears. He probably is, judging from the way Noct is looking at him, all tender and sad.

"Please," Noct says. He has his fingers wrapped around Prompto's wrists. "Please."

Prompto looks at Noct. Then he looks at Ignis, uncertain. Wavering.

Ignis inclines his head. "I would appreciate some of your time," he says. "If you don't mind."

Prompto blinks some more. He swallows, clearly nervous, transparently uncomfortable with the situation. Ignis's gut twists and aches. This boy will kill him with guilt and it will serve him right.

It is a long, debilitating silence. Then, Prompto says, quietly, nervously twisting his fingers together, "...okay."

Ignis can feel the muscles of his shoulders relax. That's a step forward, at least. A tiny, wobbling step. And now- Ignis thinks, now comes the difficult part.

*

They sandwich Prompto between them, almost shoulder to shoulder. Gladio saunters behind them, whistling quietly, carefully, a jazzy little number Ignis doesn't quite remember.

Prompto's holding the sunflowers. Noct had shoved them into his arms and said, "Theyremindmeofyou!" in one single breath, and then he'd turned embarrassingly red. But it had coaxed a small half-smile out of Prompto, and Noct had looked like the astrals themselves had descended upon him.

They stop at a familiar little coffee shop. The waitress there glances at them lazily and elects to ignore them, signalling for her coworker. This is why Ignis likes this place. Discreet, with decent coffee- at the very least. He's not very sure about the workplace ethic.

A waiter saunters over. "Can I take your order?"

Gladio says, cheerfully, "Sure thing. A black coffee, a cappucino, and two hot chocolates for the kids." The waiter nods, saunters away.

Ignis watches Prompto poke at his sunflowers. Then he turns his head to watch Noct watch Prompto, the expression of his face one of contemplation.

None of them say anything. The silence is awkward, terrible, terrifying. Gladio clears his throat and says, "So. Crazy weather, huh?"

Ignis turns to Gladio in abject horror. Weather? Really? It is a perfect day out.

Say something, Gladio mouths, expression full of awkward terror. Ignis tries, but his tongue refuses to cooperate with him. Instead of saying anything, his mouth makes a strangled sound like he is dying. He shuts his mouth in chagrin.

They both turn to Noct. Noct says, desperately, "That homework, huh?" and then slams his head onto the table in his humiliation. Gladio covers his face with his hands.

Ignis screams internally. He might have also screamed a little externally. They're all idiots. This was the worst idea any of them has ever had. And yet. He is a Scientia, and a Scientia is always prepared. He whips out his apology letter instead. Lovingly inscribed in delicate cursive on thick, scented paper- it'd taken him half a night to complete.

Ignis pushes it across the table. He hopes that Prompto understands that his mouth isn't working at the moment.

Prompto snorts. Then he starts snickering, and Noct goes, "Oh," breathlessly, looking embarrassingly smitten.

"You're all-" Prompto says, still laughing, "-so weird!"

"...apologies," Ignis says, eventually, when he finally gets his tongue and brain to cooperate enough to get words out of his mouth. Gladio uncovers his face long enough to say, "Well, at least someone's enjoying our humiliation."

Noct says, quietly, wonderingly, "I haven't heard your laugh in forever."

"You've no reason to," Prompto says. "We're not friends, Prince Noctis." He doesn't sound bitter about it. It would have been better if he sounded bitter about it.

"Prompto," Noct says. He sounds heartbroken. Gladio says, quietly, "Damn, that's cold."

"About our talk, Prompto," Ignis says. He's interrupted by the waiter, with their drinks. Gladio passes them around quickly. Ignis watches Noct spoon the whipped cream off Prompto's hot chocolate for him before handing it over. Ignis feels an intense kind of stabbing guilt, looking at Noct's carefully blank expression. He steels himself.

Ignis says, cautiously, "I'm sorry."

Prompto says, "Why? You didn't do anything wrong."

Ignis blinks. This boy is the exact opposite of Noctis, and Ignis is treading an extremely fine line. He says, "I- I said some terrible things to you. I hurt you, and I'm sorry."

"I don't mind," Prompto says. "You were just doing your job, I don't mind. You didn't do anything wrong, really. You were right, I'm just a nobody, I don't really matter, yeah?"

Gladio says, brows furrowed, "Is that what you think?"

"What?" Prompto says. "Yeah, I mean-"

"Kid," Gladio says. "Do you really think you don't matter?"

"I-" Prompto says. Noct looks stricken, and Ignis feels the same roiling horror in all of his organs. "I mean. I'm not exactly important-"

"The hell," Gladio says. "What in fresh hell, Iggy, what did you say to him?"

"It's not his fault!" Prompto protests. Ignis waves a hand in his direction. Adjusts his glasses.

"It is my fault. You matter, Prompto," Ignis says. "You are important to Noctis. To- to me. I'm sorry for making you think that you didn't."

"But-"

"I'm sorry," Noct says.

"What," Prompto says.

"For all the- all the dumb, horrible fucking things I said to you," Noct says. He is all quiet anger, all splintering sadness, angry at himself, upset at this whole situation. "I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry, Prompto."

"I don't- I'm not mad or anything."

"You should be," Gladio weighs in. "You should be mad. You should be damned fucking pissed, is what."

"I- I don't," Prompto says. "I don't mind. They're not wrong."

"But we are wrong," Ignis says. "We hurt you, we're in the wrong. Friends don't do that to each other."

"Don't say we're not friends," Noct says. "Please. Don't say we're not friends."

"We aren't," Prompto says, clearly frustrated. "You said. You said-"

"I was wrong," Ignis says. He chances a glance at Noct. "We were wrong. We're sorry."

Prompto says, his face screwed up like he's trying not to cry, "Okay! Okay! Apology accepted- can we stop pretending we're friends now? Can I go home?"

"Hey," Noct says. He grabs Prompto's shoulders, gently, says, "Hey, it's okay. It's okay. I'm sorry-"

"STOP APOLOGIZING!" Prompto howls, and then he breaks down into loud, ugly crying, sobs into his hands until Noct wraps his arms around him and crushes Prompto against his shoulder instead.

Ignis says, very carefully, navigating over to stand behind them, "You don't believe us." He puts a hand on Prompto's shoulder. The boy is trembling something awful, breathing in loud, wheezing gasps- it makes Ignis's hands shake, too.

Gladio makes a sort of go on gesture.

"Noct and I had a fight," Ignis says. He drags up a chair and sits beside Prompto, rubbing a hand down his shaking back. "He punched me in the face and broke my glasses."

Prompto starts breathing easier, after a while. His trembling eases, somewhat, and he peels away from Noct's shoulder to peer at Ignis. "Did it hurt?"

"It did," Ignis says. "But it's alright. I got a few of my own punches in as well. Never go down without getting a few hits in, or so they say."

Prompto gives a watery laugh. Noct strokes at his hair, giving Ignis a grateful look.

Ignis says, "It must have been lonely."

Prompto shudders, twisting at his wristband. He looks as though Ignis is delving into some deep dark secret, even though it's scrawled plainly across his face. Prompto shrugs, says, "It's okay. I'm used to it."

"It's not okay," Noct says, terse and tense, drawn so tight he could cut. "That's a fucking terrible thing to be used to."

"You're used to it too," Prompto tells him.

"And I know how shitty it is," Noct says. "It's not okay. You don't have to pretend it is."

"He's right," Ignis says, gently. "Not everything has to be fine. You don't have to agree with everything."

Prompto's face twists up again. He's humiliated, Ignis realises, recognizes the look in his eyes, something familiar, embarrassed at being pulled apart so easily. At least Noct has them, has Ignis and Gladio and a plethora of worried guards. Prompto- from what Ignis has gathered, from what little Ignis knows, the boy's records are clean, almost empty, devoid of anything except the most basic information- has no one else, constantly absent parents aside.

Hell, Ignis thinks.

Noct says, "Can I hold your hand?" like they aren't already wrapped up in each other. Ignis watches these two lonely boys lean against each other like lifelines- Noct's fingers curling around Prompto's, something warm and precious. He is such an idiot, sometimes. So caught up in himself, he forgets to step back and assess the bigger picture.

Gladio is watching them too. He's got his face half-turned away in some semblance of privacy, but his eyes are sharp and vigilant.

Prompto says, slowly, "It's difficult." He fidgets, and the way he holds himself is so uncertain. "I- sometimes my brain, it just doesn't work, and it's really hard to think. Sometimes words just crawl in and stay there and I gotta work really hard to stop thinking dumb things. But I've got my job and my camera, so it's okay. It's just- stupid stuff. I know- I know I don't, I mean. I'm not exactly useful to have around. I guess."

"You're being silly," Noct says. "You dumbass, you don't realise how good you are for me. You're so stupid. And I'm so stupid- for, for saying all those dumb things and never telling you how much I- how much I, l-like you. I did my homework so you could copy it. I baked a cake for you, even!"

Prompto laughs again, wet and quiet. "You like me? Even though I'm- just me?"

Noct says, something soft and intimate, meant only for Prompto, "So much. I like you so much."

Ignis coughs, suddenly feeling very awkward. He slides the cake over to Prompto instead, busying himself and blatantly not looking at how tenderly Noct is looking at Prompto.

"You'll have to forgive any odd textures," Ignis says. "Noct insisted on baking it himself, and even though I try, I am no miracle worker. This was the best we could do, I'm afraid."

Prompto is smiling now, all sweet and warm. He peers into the box, wipes his nose on the back of his hand- which makes Ignis wrinkle his nose and pass him a tissue, honestly, this boy, this helpless, lonely boy, he's just like Noct.

Prompto says, "It's a chocobo."

Noctis says, triumphantly, "See, Gladio, I told you-"

Gladio has that gentle half-smile curving his mouth. He says, "It still looks like a rock. Right, Iggy?"

Ignis says, "It does look like a rather shapeless sort of rock."

"Hey!" Noct says. "I worked hard on it and I won't stand to be mocked! C'mon, back me up here, Prom, it's a chocobo, right?"

Prompto bursts out into breathless laughter. Noct smiles, then, suddenly and so brightly, the quiet kind of smile that only happens when he's truly happy. Ignis feels the tension leaving his body when he sees that smile.

Ignis says, like he's tiptoeing over the subject, still, "Do you forgive us? Forgive- me?"

Prompto says, "Maybe someday. I- I need time to work things out, in my head. Is that- is that okay?"

"Of course," Ignis says, haplessly relieved. "Thank you. For listening. For considering it."

Noct squeezes down on Prompto's fingers. He says, "You can take as long as you want. No pressure. I'll wait. We'll wait."

Prompto's face breaks out into a beaming smile. "Thanks... Noct."

Noct's eyes are so shiny that for a long moment, Ignis thinks he's going to cry. Instead, Noct blurts out, "Can I kiss you?" and Ignis thinks, ah.

"But-" Prompto is blushing faint pink. "We're in public?"

Ignis unfolds the newspapers he brought. He says, "A Scientia is always prepared," and gestures for Gladio to come on over.

"So that's why you brought the newspapers," Gladio says, as they make a big enough newspaper rectangle that hides both Noct and Prompto's faces. He sounds impressed.

"Never let it be said that I do not take the necessary precautions," Ignis says. He wants to adjust his glasses, but his hands are preoccupied.

"This is good, right?" Noct says. "This is okay? Can I kiss you? Please?"

"...okay," Prompto says, and then Noct lunges at him and kisses all over his face until he's giggling. Ignis tries to tune out the wet sounds of the boys kissing, and only partially succeeds.

Gladio catches his eye over the tops of the newspapers. "Kids," he says. "Hey. You didn't fuck up. I'm proud of you."

Ignis blinks. He suddenly feels- very tired, and extremely ridiculous, holding up these newspapers. "Thank you."

Gladio must catch the change in his expression, or the latent embarrassment must've caught up to him, because he announces, "O-kay, that's enough, I'm calling this smooch fest to an end," rolling his newspaper up and smacking Noct and Prompto's heads with it.

"Ow," Noct says, but he's grinning and happy and holding hands with Prompto underneath the table, which is sickeningly sweet and too romantic for Ignis to handle.

Ignis collapses into his chair. Downs his coffee in three gulps. "I want ten more coffees."

"How bout one more coffee and a sandwich?" Gladio offers.

Ignis considers. In the background, Gladio is asking if the kids want anything. Noct bends his head to discuss with Prompto, comes to a conclusion, and says, "Fries."

They all stare at Ignis expectantly. "If they get fries, I want two coffees."

"Fine," Gladio grumbles. "Deal."

The sunflowers lie crumpled at the corner of the table. Ignis watches Gladio raise his hand to order. Watches Noct whisper something to Prompto, watches as they snicker quietly together, argument and subsequent break up all but forgotten.

The sun shines bright. Things will be alright from now on, Ignis thinks. Content.