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The Sweetest Blend

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Noctis is absolutely not supposed to have favourite customers. His father's told him over and over; treat every customer like they're your favourite, but don't actually favour them, because special treatment makes people not getting it feel bad. And besides, customers are fickle. They change their favourite shop, or change jobs, or move away unexpectedly. No point getting attached.

And yet Noctis definitely has a favourite customer.

Ignis is wearing a heavy coat, which means Noctis can't see which of his selection of pretty-patterned shirts is in the rotation today. But he smiles, the genuine eyes-included smile he always gives Noctis, as he asks for an americano and a double espresso on the side.

It's a surprise; in all the time he's been coming in, Ignis has only ever ordered cappuccinos and americanos.

"Rough day, huh," Noctis says, with a grin.

"I had rather a late night."

Ignis might have had a late night, but to Noctis's eyes he looks as fresh as he usually does. "Well, grab a seat, I'll bring them over."

"As always, you have my sincerest thanks."

Noctis watches, out of the corner of his eye, as Ignis shucks his coat -- today's shirt is a glorious peacock-hued paisley, it turns out -- and picks a seat close to the fire. Noctis smiles to himself. Ignis has been moving closer to the fire the colder it gets outside, but it's only November. By December, at this rate, Ignis will be in the fire.

He takes over the coffee and steels himself for the inevitable thrilling moment when Ignis's fingers touch his and his hormones flare up like a teenager. That over, he turns to the fire and inspects it critically to see if it needs fussing with. It's an excuse; if he's near Ignis, Ignis sometimes talks to him.

"It's quiet in here today," Ignis says, as Noctis sets another log on the fire. "Something going on I've missed?"

"No, not really, you're just earlier than usual. Lunchtime rush will start in ten minutes or so."

"Ah." Ignis picks up the double espresso. "Advise me: aperitif or chaser?"

Noctis pulls a faux-offended expression as he dusts his hands off. "It's good coffee, not a shot. Savour it."

"And should I do so--"

"Right now." Noctis plants his hands on his hips. "Go on."

Ignis smiles at him and then picks up the little espresso cup. "Cheers," he says, seriously, and then takes a generous sip of the coffee.

It is good coffee; Regis has made Ebony successful as a cafe largely because the coffee here is smooth, rich and never -- never -- burnt. As such, Noctis is really only half-joking; sinking back a triple espresso before work the way some businessmen do is a hell of a waste.

"That," Ignis declares, after a moment of contemplation, "is significantly less bitter than I expected. My compliments."

Noctis nods, regally, and gathers his courage. Flirt a little, see how it goes, go on. "Maybe sometime I should make you one of my special--"

"Noct--buddy, lend a hand here?"

Dammit.

"Be right there," Noctis calls, and gives Ignis another smile. "You enjoy the rest of that, okay?"

"Will do."

--

Ignis Scientia works at a library near Ebony, as an archivist. Noctis knows this because he snuck Ignis's business card out from the bowl when they had one of their promotions running. Noctis likes the sound of Ignis's full name, likes the fact that an archivist wears such flashy clothing and cutting-edge-of-fashion hairstyles, likes that Ignis says he permits himself no more than two pastries per week but always buys at least three. Ignis tips generous amounts, always waits his turn patiently, and is generally friendly and considerate with all the staff.

Noctis probably isn't the only person at Ebony who has Ignis as their favourite, considering.

Still, there's a lot about Ignis that Noctis wants to know more about. For instance: why does the library allow him such long coffee breaks? Why does he wear a little skull pendant all the time? And why does he always flinch strangely when his phone rings?

Not that Noctis is likely to find out much more about Ignis. He has no idea, despite fumbling attempts to ask, whether Ignis is single or available. Getting around to finding out if Ignis would be interested in a date seems a very, very distant prospect.

So he contents himself with smiling and admiring and sighing to himself, and letting their hands touch briefly as he hands over the coffee, and occasionally managing to say a few things to the man. And then, to his disappointment, Ignis isn't there one day, or the next, or for the whole of a week. Noctis can hear his Dad, in the back of his head, snort you got attached, but customers are fickle, son, every time his head snaps up at the sound of the door opening and it isn't Ignis.

It's a full eighteen days until Ignis comes into the shop again. Disappointment becomes concern, then resignation.

Noctis is hanging up Christmas decorations over the fire, and doesn't even register Ignis entering. He only notices when Ignis is led to the fireside table by his companion.

And then Noctis sees him, and nearly falls off the ladder in shock. Ignis is wearing black sunglasses, has a white cane held loosely in one hand. His face has red-and-black scarring, as if he's been injured in some horrible accident. It's… no, he can't be. Ignis is… blind?

Ignis's companion, a burly man in a grey hooded sweatshirt, has to help Ignis right to his chair, tells him when to sit down, and then he goes back to the counter to queue for an order. Ignis sits, primly, quietly, in his seat.

Well. While he's alone...

Noctis descends back to the lowest rung of the ladder, coughs. "Ignis?"

Ignis's head turns, and from this angle Noctis can see over the top of his sunglasses. One of those scars covers most of his right eyes, and the left eye looks cloudy. "Yes?"

"Sorry, it's me -- Noctis, I work here? If it's not rude to ask--"

Ignis's face creases up into that lovely smile of his, and the scars pull and shift in what looks like a painful way. "Of course, Noctis, I remember you. I'm afraid there was an incident."

"In the library?"

"Not precisely -- ah, well, the long and short of it is that I took some damage, and I'm afraid my eyesight is temporarily affected. I'm assured it won't last more than another couple of weeks. I should be well-recovered by Christmas."

Noctis steps off the ladder and leans forward; the scarring looks pretty deep. "And the rest of it? The scars?"

"Likely permanent," Ignis says. His voice sounds steady, as if he's not bothered about it. "A pity, but I was never going to win any beauty contests anyway."

"I… wow, okay." Noctis swallows down his immediate reaction; Ignis had definitely been the kind of guy who'd win awards for his face before. And it's not like he's not still attractive; the scars are more interesting than offputting. "Um. Well, if there's anything I can do to help, while you're here, let me know."

"That's very kind of you."

"I mean we have a thing about accessibility in the shop, really, let me help you if I can." Noctis rubs at the back of his neck. "I know your friend went to get your drink, but, well, if you come in alone, someone will help you to your seat and take your order. It's fine, really."

"I'll bear that in mind. I'm afraid right now I'm just getting used to this thing." Ignis pats the top of his cane. "I'm a quick learner, but it might be a while before I can venture this far on my own."

Shit, of course. "Well, just remember for future, okay."

"Thank you."

Ignis's companion is back, and gives Noctis a curious look. He's got facial scars too, Noctis thinks, and wonders if it's related to Ignis's. "Ordered you the espresso, Iggy. Who's your friend?"

"I'm Noctis, I work here." That's a white lie, really; Noctis is the owner's son and de facto manager, but Noctis has never been very keen on sounding like he's pulling rank. "Just being nosy, sorry."

"Noctis here was offering his kind assistance should I forsake your company on future visits."

"Yeah? Good, I ain't gonna shepherd your ass in here every day even if the coffee is as good as you say." The man slumps into his own seat. "He tell you how it happened, kid?"

"Uh--"

"An incident," Ignis says, and he says it in an odd way, insistent and quick. "At the library. Where we both work."

The man actually laughs. "Right. The library."

Noctis is totally off-balance; Ignis maybe doesn't work in a library after all, then, but--and then Prompto is edging past him, tray balanced in both hands. "Double espresso?"

"Here." Ignis holds up a finger, and Prompto sets the cup down on the table in front of him.

"Hot chocolate with marshmallow and cream?"

"Mine." The tattooed man grins up at Prompto. "Thanks."

"Gladio here doesn't appreciate good coffee," Ignis says, with a wry smile, and reaches out towards the cup on the table. Noctis is about to reach out, to move his hand closer, but Gladio beats him to it and shoots him an amused look. "Ah, my thanks."

"Well, um. Enjoy your drinks. I'm gonna go… help behind the counter."

Safely back behind the coffee machine, Noctis tries to not obsess over the new mystery about Ignis Scientia -- oh god, if that's even the man's real name, maybe it's not -- and gets on with serving one of the many other customers instead.

--

The mystery hasn't pieced itself together in Noctis's mind at all by the next day, when Ignis comes in again. Gladio helps Ignis to his chair, and queues up at the counter. "What'll it be?" Noctis asks, politely, already trying to work out ways to have an excuse to go say hello to Ignis again. They're not short-staffed today, nobody will mind if he goes and clears the tables and gets distracted for a minute or two.

"A double espresso and a favour."

"Pardon?"

"I gotta head back to work. Can I leave Iggy with you while he drinks his coffee?"

Noctis doesn't know where to start with that, so he goes with, "work?"

"At the museum."

"You mean library."

"Right, right." Gladio gives him an insincerely apologetic grin. "Oops. Anyway, I don't wanna just leave him here alone, and he said you're the owner's kid, so if you don't mind bunking off and hanging with him for like half an hour then I'd really appreciate it."

"...wait, why does he need--"

"Kid, he's blind. He can't sit there and read the newspaper or fiddle with his phone like a normal person would. I ain't leaving him there to stew in his own thoughts. Either you sit with him, or we get that espresso to go and I hear him complaining about how good coffee should be savoured, not 'drunk while walking like a heathen'. So, for me, sit with him? Or, at least, check in on him like every few minutes?"

"Um. Alright."

"You're a lifesaver. Here's my number; text me when he needs someone to come get him. It might not be me who comes."

Noctis blinks down at the business card, which just has 'Gladiolus Amicitia' and a phone number on it. "Okay, but--"

But 'Gladiolus' is already halfway out of the door, leaving a 200-gil note on the counter-top. Noctis sighs, rings up the espresso and dumps the generous change into the tip jar. It's not as if he didn't want a reason to talk to Ignis anyway, but this… this feels like babysitting, and Noctis suspects that Ignis isn't going to be too happy about that.

He tells Prompto he's taking his break early and takes the espresso over to where Ignis is sitting.

"Your coffee. Gladio--"

"Has gone, I assume? It's been rather a busy time at work, what with everything. Don't concern yourself with me too much." Ignis's smile looks rather tight and false. "I'm quite alright on my own."

Noctis clears his throat. "...well, I was going to just come sit by the fire with my own coffee."

"Oh."

"Would you mind if I shared your table? It's my break."

"No, of course," Ignis's smile looks relieved. "What did you get for yourself?"

"House blend. With both sugar and milk, don't tell my father."

Ignis chuckles. "And there I thought you'd be drinking espressos like the ones you have me hooked on."

"Oh, espresso has its place. Just… not when I wanna kick back, enjoy the warmth, relax for a bit."

Ignis reaches out, finds the coffee cup. It takes him a few feints. Noctis is on the brink of leaning forward and helping when Ignis's finger brushes against the handle.

"So, Gladio said he had to run off," Noctis says, and then when Ignis's expression shifts into wariness he adds, "back to the 'museum'."

Ignis lifts his free hand to cover his glasses, the most elegant facepalm Noctis thinks he's ever seen. "Ah."

"It's okay, I figure you're a secret agent. It suits you, you know, the sharp clothes, the accent."

"Yes, you've figured me out." Ignis's tone is wry, deadpan. "I'm a spy for her Royal Highness's secret service."

Noctis grins and takes a swig of his coffee.

"Of course, now you know that, I do have to kill you."

Noctis sputters, and half-chokes on his coffee. "Ha."

"A pity," Ignis says, and now he sounds musing. "I rather liked you."

It's probably just an extension of the joke, but hearing that makes Noctis feel suddenly a bit warm. "Keep me around," he says. "I make great coffee, remember."

"That's true. I suppose I'll let you live for now." Ignis sips at his espresso, curls one hand beneath the cup supportively. "Did Gladio tell you I needed company, by any chance?"

"...well, yeah, but, honestly, I don't mind."

"Still. Thank you. I'm rather in the way at my workplace as things stand, but I can hardly expect Gladio to sit around with me every time I fancy a coffee."

Noctis stares at Ignis's elegant fingers, and decides to just ask. "Is Gladio your, um, boyfriend?"

"Heavens, no." Ignis is smiling, a beautiful, encouraging smile that makes Noctis feel even warmer. "I'm distinctly single at the moment."

Okay. That's definitely an invitation. Noctis heaves in a breath. "Would it be okay if I asked--"

"Yes." Ignis laughs, a little, almost self-consciously. "Please. I know we aren't well-acquainted, but you've always seemed lovely, and I would very much like a date, if my disfigurement doesn't put you off."

Oh, my god. Noctis sets down his cup, because his hand is shaking. "It really doesn't," he says -- blurts, really, it comes out so fast and awkward. "I mean, you tell me when and where. I'll be there."

"Would tonight be too forward of me? When do you close up?"

"Seven." Noctis glances over at the counter. "I can maybe sneak out at six, I'll get Prompto to do the closedown for me."

"Then I will come by before six, and wait for you in here." Ignis lifts the cup to his lips, and drains the last of his espresso. "And, so I can return here at that time, I really should figure out how I'm going to get back to work."

Noctis pulls the card out of his pocket. "Gladio left me his number, so I could text for you."

"Wonderful."

--

Noctis can barely concentrate for the rest of the day. Somehow, miraculously, he's scored a date with Ignis. And Ignis might think he's disfigured, but -- even with the scars as freshly-healed and obvious as they are now -- Noctis still thinks he's hot.

It gets to six, finally, though the clock seems to be running at half-speed. Noctis takes off his apron, grabs his warm coat, sniffs at himself -- well, at least Ignis likes coffee, and that's largely what Noctis always smells of these days -- and tries frantically to make his hair look a bit less of a mess in the little mirror in the bathroom even though he knows Ignis won't actually see it.

At ten past six, with his heart sinking in certainty that he's been stood up, and at work so everyone can see, Noctis starts fidgeting with the christmas decorations near the door in a feeble attempt to look busy.

Ugh. The tinsel's a bit lopsided, actually. He'll need a stool or something, to move the--

"Noctis?"

Ignis is standing there, in the door, face turned towards the counter, and all at once Noctis forgives him whatever has made him late.

"I'm here," he says, quickly. "To your left."

Ignis speaks over his shoulder at someone outside that Noctis can't quite see. "I'm fine, now, thank you. I'm sure my friend can get me home safely."

"Yup, absolutely," Noctis says, trying not to think about Ignis taking him home.

"Well then," Ignis says, turning his face back towards Noctis and taking a step properly inside, out of the doorway. "I'm all yours."

Noctis has been thinking about this all afternoon. "I wasn't sure what was cool for you to eat, since you… can you see at all?"

"Very poorly."

"Hm."

"At the risk of being unromantic, Noctis, I'd be best served by us going somewhere like a fast food place. Bright lights, easy-to-manage food. It's a pity, but perhaps if things go well then you'll let me take you somewhere else when my sight recovers."

Oh god. Please let things go well. "You know what? I love fast food. C'mon, there's a great pizza place around the corner."

"Lead the way, then."

The pizza place is only a few minutes away. Noctis almost wishes it was further despite the coldness of the evening; Ignis keeps one hand gently on Noctis's arm as they walk, for guidance, and the contact is so thrilling that it keeps him feeling warm and cosy all the way there. The place isn't very busy yet, so they snag a table in the warmest corner and order a selection of single slices from the menu to share.

Much like Ebony, the restaurant is decked out in festive finery. Tinsel swags adorn the many mirrors, and there's even a tiny Christmas tree next to the till.

Ignis leans back in his chair, with obvious care. "Well. I had rather thought I'd be the one asking you out, someday."

"Really?"

"I'd been getting my nerve up to do so, yes, before the accident."

That's as good a chance to ask as any. "The, uh, library accident."

Ignis sighs. "I suppose I'd better explain. My work is rather sensitive, by nature. I work with victims of the Starscourge."

Holy shit. "Isn't that contagious?"

"Only by fluid transmission. Blood or semen or saliva," Ignis says, and then smiles a very tired-looking smile. "We take a great many precautions, and I'm unlikely to become infected. But the patients do get violent, sometimes, hence the injuries."

Noctis has been squinting at Ignis's scarring, but he has to admit that the marks don't look like any of the pictures he's seen of Starscourge infection. He's not sure what it does look like. "How did it happen, then?"

"A patient's mental state declined very rapidly; she set her curtains on fire and wrapped herself in them. I attempted to rescue her, on my own, and paid the price." Ignis reaches out. Noctis watches his fingers lightly brush the top of the table until they hit the plate, and then onto the plate, until Ignis has secured one of the slices for himself. "In future, I… well, actually, I might well do the same again, I suppose."

Noctis can't help but smile. "Somehow, I bet you would."

"It's a character flaw." Ignis bites into the pizza slice, and makes a delighted noise. He covers his mouth with one hand, as he says, "and this is very good pizza."

"I think it's rather heroic of you," Noctis says. "The most selfless thing I do at work is cutting people off before the caffeine jitters get too bad."

"Very noble of you."

Noctis samples a slice for himself; pepperoni and bacon, and it deserves the noise Ignis made. "Mm. So, alright, tell me what you actually do with the patients."

Ignis explains, as they work their way through the plate. End-of-life palliative care mixed with research, it turns out; keeping the notoriously pain-ridden patients as comfortable and calm as they can, trying to find ways of combatting the spread of the disease.

Noctis has questions: about the precautions, about the facilities, about the working hours. Ignis doesn't shy away from hard answers; he's effectively always on-call, it sounds like, and the facilities are hidden away in a nondescript building so as to avoid fanatics trying to break in or burn it down.

As for the actual work: Ignis is both doctor and nurse, to Noctis's way of thinking. It must be hard. None of the patients will ever be cured, not unless there's some major breakthrough, and their minds degrade as fast as their bodies.

But, as Ignis says, it's a job that someone has to do, or else these people would rot alone in their homes, or in hospitals where they might spread contagion to other patients.

"So," Ignis concludes, fastidiously wiping at his chin with a napkin, "if this puts you off another date with me, I entirely understand. It's… we're not quite untouchables, but people don't want too much contact with the Starscourge, and--"

Noctis shakes his head, as his mouth is full, and then remembers Ignis can't see that. "No, no no. I mean, I get why you fibbed about where you work. But I really do think it's heroic. Not something most people would do."

"So I can ask you for another date?"

"Definitely."

Ignis leans back in his chair. "Oh, thank heavens. Honestly, I was relying on my temporary blindness to spare me the disgust and horror I usually see when I tell people my work."

"Well, no horror here."

"In which case: since you're not fleeing my company, do they sell desserts here, and are they as good as their pizza?"

--

It's a great week; every day Ignis comes in, and Noctis slips out from behind the counter and spends at least a few minutes helping him to his seat, getting his coffee, making sure he's comfortable. The little hand-touches between them grow longer, more lingering.

"My vision is getting a little better," Ignis tells him, towards the end of the week. "I can make out blurry shapes with more definition than before."

Noctis's hand is on Ignis's waist, Ignis's hand lightly resting over his as Noctis steers him around the cafe. "That's good -- keep it up, and you won't need me to help you over to your favourite table."

Ignis smiles. "I might have to pretend I'm more blind than I am, then."

"I could live with that pretense."

Ignis's hand tightens on his. "Are you free tomorrow evening?"

"Oh, I can be, for you. Want me to take you to the pizza place again?"

"Charming as it was, I was thinking, perhaps, the winter wonderland event in the park this time?"

Noctis pushes the chair back with his foot, maneouvres Ignis in front of it so he can sit. "That sounds pretty perfect. I'd love to."

"Dress warmly, then."

--

Ignis is bundled up in a heavy fur-trimmed coat and a snug-looking scarf when his coworker drops him off at the door of Ebony.

"Be there in just a moment," Noctis calls -- there's a stupid problem with the till, the receipt roll isn't working the way it should -- "just… wait a sec."

He has to take the whole roll out to find out the problem; it's gotten torn and creased underneath so it won't feed through, nothing that can't be fixed by tearing off a half-metre of ruined paper. That sorted, he grabs his coat and scarf and gloves, and makes his way over to Ignis.

"Okay, I'm all yours."

"Splendid."

The winter wonderland is beautiful. It's bigger than ever this year, with a host of fairground rides around the periphery and tons of food and trinket shops. Everywhere has lights and glitter, it's dazzling, and Noctis wonders what it looks like to Ignis.

Ignis has his hand hooked into Noctis's elbow, a lovely warm weight as they stroll along the main thoroughfare. "I've a destination in mind," he says. "But I would love a mulled cider, if we can obtain such a thing."

It's not hard to find a stall selling mulled drinks, even if the prices are astronomically high; they come away with their two little steaming paper cups and Ignis sighs contentedly.

"Nearly as good as Ebony, in its way. I was afraid," he says, "that I would miss this entirely this year."

"I'm just sorry you can't see it properly."

"Oh, I've a fair idea, and better company than on previous visits." Ignis sips at the cider. "Now then. I believe the place Gladio scouted for me is called the Leville -- a seating area, by the skating rink."

Scouted? Huh. Noctis pulls them over to a nearby map, and finds the rink marked after a few seconds of confusion about which direction is north from their spot. "Got it. Wanna go right there?"

"I rather think I do."

It takes them a while, all the same; Noctis just has to make Ignis try on the silly monster hats at a stall, promising to show him the photos when he can see again, and then they both get distracted by a stall selling winter-themed scented candles. The rink is noisy enough that they hear it before Noctis sees it; loud Christmas classics blaring out across the ice and a few people making unsteady circuits around the ice.

The Leville is in fact a covered seating area, themed around a winter woodland scene. There's a large sleigh in the centre, overflowing with gift boxes, and all through are statues of deer and rabbits surrounded by fake snow. Holly and ferny fronds are piled into the rafters, giving off a sweet lavender-ish scent that mingles with the smoke from the firepits and makes the place seem hazy and soft-focus.

"This way," Ignis says, to Noctis's confusion, as soon as they enter. "Towards the sleigh."

"O… kay?"

Ignis leads them to the sleigh, until his cane taps the edge of the nearest runner, and then he turns, and takes both of Noctis's hands in his. "Look up," he says.

Noctis does, and, oh.

"I hope I've got the location right," Ignis says. "But I believe that there should be--"

Scouted. He sent someone to look for this place, for this opportunity. Oh, Ignis is just the cutest. "There is."

"Then--"

Noctis leans in, and kisses Ignis, there beneath the mistletoe that dangles above them. He tries to put everything he feels into it; that Ignis is so lovely, that he wants to be allowed to kiss Ignis even when there's no mistletoe, that he's so very glad he got up the nerve finally to ask this wonderful man out.

"You," he says, very firmly, afterwards, "are amazing."

Ignis laughs, so close that his nose brushes into Noctis's cheek. "I'm glad you think so."

"You are. And you know what else?"

Their lips brush against one another again. "Enlighten me?" Ignis whispers.

"You're definitely my favourite customer."