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Salty

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Prompto was the observant type, he really was.

Honest.

So when Ignis pushed a plate into his hands with particular force, he knew something was up.

They'd only been on the road a day and a half, and Prompto guessed that the car breaking down, and having to strike out into the desert on hunts to earn the gil to pay for it (gil, not proper Insomnian crowns) had done a number on Ignis's nerves.

At least Gladio was excited to camp.

And Ignis had seemed happy enough to take up the cooking. He'd been cooking for Noctis now and then for years, anyway… so it's not like it was something new. The recipe last night had even been pretty good. Enough ketchup, and even Noctis wouldn't taste the greens Ignis had slipped into the dish. Prompto had tried to convince Noct to load up on it and he thought Ignis would appreciate his efforts to get Noct eating his veggies, but Ignis had mostly just looked low-key pissed.

Prompto had assumed it was a product of their unfortunate day.

Tonight's meal looked just as tasty, a stew with chunks of roast garula and potatoes and other things Prompto was sure Noctis would be picking out of his own bowl. Out of habit, he reached for a salt shaker and bottle of ketchup and spiced it up a little before his first bite -- and he was about to swallow and give Ignis a well-deserved compliment, but when he turned, Ignis was already giving him a Look. The one that said he was lucky Ignis hadn't yet set fire to any of his belongings just to prove a point.

Prompto swallowed, and cleared his throat. "Um. Thanks, Iggy. It tastes good."

“Does it now," Ignis said in the driest of dry tones.

Prompto felt his smile drain away.

Prompto thought he could see Gladio gesturing at him from the corner of his eye. But he wasn't as accustomed to Gladio's weird hand signals as Noctis was, so he had no clue what it was supposed to mean.

Dinner was weirdly tense after that but Prompto couldn't figure out for the life of him what was wrong. He did what came naturally when he felt the mood needed lifting, but his jokes and strained laughter seemed to fall flat and he finally just let it all trail off.

He knew things were BAD bad when Ignis finished his dinner before everyone else and excused himself "to retrieve something from the car."

Prompto popped out of his seat. "I'll help you!" He said. Maybe he could make himself useful and get back on Ignis’s good side. (Even if he didn’t know how he’d managed to get off it.)

“No, thank you, Prompto,” Ignis said, walking away without looking at him. His voice was sharper than Prompto had ever heard it. “I’d prefer to take care of this on my own.”

“Uh… okay,” Prompto said, and sat again.

Ignis jumped down from the haven and strode off down the path, his gait brisk and stiff.

Prompto was aware of Gladio and Noctis sharing a look, but they didn’t say anything and he wouldn’t have any idea how to interpret what they were communicating to each other, so he pretended to ignore it. Instead, he finished eating as quickly as he could and plopped his plate onto the cooking station. Then he said "Gotta take a whizz," and hopped off the edge of the haven.

He started off in a random direction, and made good on his excuse (might as well, anyway). Then, hoping to keep the others from guessing what he was up to, he veered in the direction Ignis had taken. He didn't exactly want to apologize, but maybe -- just maybe -- Ignis would tell him what was wrong.

It was a long shot, but.

He didn't count on running into Ignis before he made it to the car.

Prompto heard him before he saw him. The sound of his knives striking against wood reached him first, and then Ignis’s voice, irritated and ranting. Prompto wasn't close enough to make out any words yet, but he slowed down. The way things sounded, he didn't want to catch Ignis by surprise.

Then he rounded a large stone and Ignis was right there, a stone’s throw away. He seemed to be taking out his frustration on one of the poor desert trees. Some of what Ignis was actually saying became more clear.

“Can’t even taste it first…”

whack whack

“Why do I even stock a pantry on this cursed trip…”

whack whack thock

“Might as well serve freezer food…

thock thwock whack

"It's none of my business that he won't even taste a thing before he slathers it with ketchup or drowns it with salt!"

whack thock Thock CRACK

One of the tree’s limbs fell with a crash. At that, Prompto decided it was the better part of valor to back away without saying anything. So he did.

He walked slowly, picking his way back to the haven.

He pondered their last couple nights, and the dinners Ignis had prepared. Prompto only got Ignis food when he spent time at Noctis’s place -- and while that was frequent enough, Ignis would usually go the pizza route when Prompto was over -- because it was a natural favorite, and Noctis usually wouldn’t complain about it. Noct had explained it once; Ignis didn’t want to browbeat him about his picky eating in front of company.

Prompto, meanwhile, had grown up on fast food, processed meals, and his own questionable cooking. He could usually make his cooking palatable with enough salt and ketchup to hide the taste, so he was used to adding them before eating; it was a reflex.

But why would Ignis be upset about it?

He climbed back up the haven to find Gladio and Noctis doing the meal clean-up that he was probably supposed to be helping with. They looked up at him when he approached.

“What took you so long?” Gladio said.

“Everything okay?” Noctis asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine, I’m…” Prompto rubbed the back of his head. “Ignis is… upset, I guess? And I get the feeling it’s… something I did?”

Gladio and Noctis looked at each other and something passed between them that Prompto didn’t quite recognize. He wasn’t in on all their nonverbal lingo.

“I’ll finish up here,” Gladio said. “Why don’t you guys go get some pictures of the sunset.” And he gave Noctis a pointed look.

Noctis sighed and stood. “C’mon, Prompto,” he said.

Prompto hesitated only a moment before he grabbed his camera from the tent and followed Noctis -- the opposite way from Ignis’s direction, he noticed. When they’d gotten far enough from the haven that he was pretty sure Gladio wouldn’t hear, Prompto climbed up on a rock that gave them a pretty good view and snapped a few pictures of the actually-beautiful sunset -- the excuse for them coming out here. While he scrolled through them to check them out, Prompto said, “So, ah… Ignis has a problem with ketchup, apparently?”

Noctis gave him a look that didn’t make him feel much better, and sighed. “Yeah, about that…”

In those three words, Prompto’s fears were confirmed. He’d broken some unspoken rule, some line he didn’t realize shouldn’t be crossed. “I knew it,” he wailed.

“Hold on, hold on…” Noctis said. “It’s… an etiquette thing.”

… Of course.

For all that Prompto was Noct’s friend, he hadn’t had all the fancy lessons on social things. He was sure he was doing things wrong, and this just confirmed it. Living with a bunch of highbrows twenty-four/seven was a privilege he wasn’t sure he was prepared for yet.

Prompto wouldn’t cry about this; he wouldn’t. He was a grown-ass man; he could handle it.

… He couldn’t handle it.

“Specs shouldn’t expect you to know all this stuff,” Noctis continued. “It’s… not fair of him, but old habits die hard, I guess.”

Prompto swallowed against the prickle of tears and sighed. “Okay, what am I doing wrong?” He didn’t like how his wavering voice betrayed him.

“Just… It’s insulting to the chef to put stuff on the food without tasting it first. It pretty much means you think his cooking stinks and you’re not even going to try it before you cover up the taste with something else.”

“What!” Prompto’s hands flew to his head. “So I was pretty much telling Ignis I…! Aaugh!” He dropped to his butt, leaned his elbows on his knees, and threaded his fingers through his hair.

He felt the brush of Noct’s jacket as he joined him on the ground.

“You know Ignis’s cooking is the best stuff I’ve ever eaten, right?” Prompto said into his knees.

Noctis chuckled.

“What do I doooooo?” Prompto wailed.

“Just… don’t do it again, I guess? I dunno. Maybe let him cool off a bit before you talk to him.”

“You’re a real help,” Prompto groaned. “Next time tell me when I’m doing something dumb, alright? I didn’t get any of those high-society comportment lessons you had growing up.”

Noct’s hand clamped down on his shoulder.

They walked back to the haven together before the light faded -- no need to get caught out in the Leidan desert after dark, after all -- and found Ignis and Gladio there, finishing the cleanup. Ignis didn’t spare Prompto a glance; just retired early to the tent. And if he was awake when everyone else climbed in, Prompto couldn’t tell.

The next day was full of hunts and hikes and sun and fatigue, with no time to talk about food or etiquette or mistakes made, and Prompto was… sort of okay with that. Ignis was distant, but when was that new? Prompto didn’t think talking it all out was going to help his case, anyway. He stank at talking.

He’d have to settle for doing.

And he did, at dinner that evening.

Ignis handed out their plates, as usual -- beautiful-looking breaded anak cutlets, from the beast they’d brought down that very afternoon, served with a tomato sauce and some kind of chopped slaw on the side. It looked… well, it looked amazing.

Prompto resisted his first urge to grab the ketchup and dug in without salting anything. And it tasted amazing, too. “Aw man,” he said around his second bitefull. “This is great, Ignis! I don’t know how you do it.”

Ignis looked at him with an expression of mild surprise that softened into something warm. “Thank you, Prompto,” he said.

“Welcome!” Prompto said, and promised himself never to get on Ignis's bad side again.