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Fides looked at the clock in the corner of her computer screen.  One more call and she’d go on break, and hopefully it would be five or ten minutes and not an hour.  She clicked into one of the two calls in the queue and smiled gently. “Thank you for calling the Insomnia Eating Disorder Chat Line, what can I help you with today?”

“Hi.”  Masculine voice.  That was good; there’d been a lot of outreach recently about how men could have eating disorders, too.  “I’m-- My name’s not important, I guess. I’m… I’m kind of scared?”

“Are you safe?” Fides asked.  If this was a talking-someone-down-from-a-ledge call, she was taking at least 20 minutes on her break and she wasn’t going to feel remotely bad about it.

“Yeah.  Yeah, I’m just in my car.  Parked. I’m not messing with my phone while I’m driving.”  Good. Good, he was safe. “I just… I, uh. I’m not even sure I have an eating disorder?  But I thought someone who works with them might be able to tell me.”

...Yeah, so this was going to be a long call.  She re-settled herself in her seat and hunkered down for a long session of Helping Someone Figure Out Their Feelings.  “Have you talked to a doctor about this? Maybe a therapist?”

“I’m kind of scared to?”  His voice wavered a little.  Probably young. “I don’t look like-- I mean, I know there isn’t any way an eating disorder looks, but…  I mean, I look healthy. People say so. I’m a bodyguard, and it isn’t… I don’t even think I’m not eating enough, per se, but when I get stressed out, it’s like I can’t make myself eat anything that doesn’t help build muscle?  Which is dumb, and I know it’s dumb, and I can usually make myself eat vegetables, since they’re mostly fiber and vitamins, but fats and carbs are just… I can’t.  And I, um. I work at the Citadel, and I don’t know if you know what’s going on right now, with His Majesty’s health, but everyone’s stressed, and I can’t-- I’m worried.”

“It sounds like you’ve done a lot of research,” Fides told him.  “A lot of times, eating disorders aren’t about food at all; they’re about control.  Do you feel like controlling your eating helps you feel in control of your life?”

There was a pause where she heard him let out a slightly shaky breath.  “Yes.” He sounded so upset. Poor kid. “I have a lot of pressure on me to help keep things running smoothly.  There are so many different factors in play. It… Eating like that, it makes everything simpler. Like, if I eat food that supports my muscles, and I do enough strength training and weapons drills, my charge will be safe.”  Fides nodded along, but didn’t say anything. Yeah, that was pretty normal. It was an eating disorder, a fact which she couldn’t legally say. “I just want to keep him safe.”

“It sounds like a lot of pressure,” Fides told him.  How to get this kid to go to a doctor? “I want you to know that it’s totally normal, when you’re feeling pressured or out of control in one area of your life, to try to take control in another area, and it’s not uncommon at all to take out those feelings on your body.  I’m not a doctor, and even if I was, I wouldn’t be able to diagnose you over the phone, but your experiences do sound similar to a lot of the people I talk to.”

“What’s… What are some things that help?” Maybe this would be a decently short call, after all, if he was this ready to move forward.  “I know it’s dumb.  I know it isn’t connected to reality at all.  I do some physical training on the side, trying to get my charge up to snuff so he isn’t defenseless if something happens, and I’m always telling him to eat more.  I know all the macronutrients are important, I know nobody reasonable’s ever suggested ignoring major food groups, and that still doesn’t help.  What can I do that does?”

The poor kid sounded like he was crying, or close to crying.  Fides rubbed her thumb back and forth over the corner of her desk.  “One way can be to remind yourself that falling back onto those behavioral patterns hasn’t given you more control over yourself,” she pointed out.  “You started doing it so you could feel you had control over your body, so you could provide safety for your charge. But, instead, you can’t even have some nice pasta, or whatever it is that you’ve been trying to convince yourself to eat.  Doing these things hasn’t actually given you control over yourself or anyone else, has it?”

“No.”

“So it isn’t helping you.  It’s very hard to start fighting your instincts on something like that on your own.  Is there a doctor or therapist you trust, who you could talk about this with?”

There was a pause.  Often, the answer was no, but she had plenty of advice for someone to help speed along the referral process if he needed a therapist.  “I guess… I just don’t want him to dismiss me? I’m over six feet, and I’m really strong, and everyone knows I’m really strong, so I can’t just go and say I haven’t been eating enough.”

“It can be really scary to tell people, especially when they control the help you get,” Fides told him.  Thank the Six this kid was more or less textbook for young men with eating disorders. “You might want to ask for a referral to a therapist who specializes in them.  I’ve heard the military has excellent therapists.” Were Citadel guards technically military? She thought probably they were.

“For eating disorders, though?  Is that… I don’t think that’s what people in the Crownsguard are usually looking for.”

“You might be surprised,” Fides pointed out.  “Most of the people I talk to feel like they’re the only one, or like there’s something special about their situation that will make it harder to treat.  But I think it’s mostly just normal, human differences and a lot of shame. There are probably a lot of other Crownsguards who have anxiety about danger that isn’t under their control, and probably some of them handle it similarly to the way you do.  Does that make sense?”

“...Yeah.  Yeah, it does.  I’ll ask about it.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad.”  Why did he sound so defeated? “I think it’s really impressive to take the first step and seek help, and I want you to feel like it isn’t going to be hard to find someone you can talk this through with every week or two.”

“The talk line is still open even if I do get a therapist, though, right?”

Fides smiled.  She was going on break so. Fucking. Soon.  “Yeah. The talk line is always open to you.  No matter what happens. We’re here every day if you’re feeling uncertain, or if you need extra support seeking help, or if you need extra support with this in general.”

“Thank you so much.”  Poor kid sounded embarrassed, but still really grateful.

“No problem, sir.  You have a good day, okay?  Asking these kinds of questions and being honest with yourself is a huge first step, and you should feel proud of yourself.”

“Thank you.  I will. And I’ll… Try to ask about therapy.”

“Is that everything you need help with today?”  It was, clearly, but the calls were recorded and QC testers didn’t generally have common sense.

“Yeah.  Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

Fides turned off the call, took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders, took off her headset, and went out to walk around the block and check her social media.  That last call was a good kid. She hoped he got some good help.

.-._.-._.-._

Monday mornings meant weight and combat training.  Most mornings did, honestly, but for Mondays in particular, he didn't let his schedule get jostled around so he'd end up training in the afternoon instead.  Getting back into the week, he just wanted to keep things simple and consistent.

He felt pretty justified in that decision since people were being rude as hell today.  He was training with the Glaives, who usually liked him -- liked his mom because she was Galahdian like them, and liked Gladio as her kid, but he'd thought they liked him as a person, as well.  Maybe they'd had a crappy mission recently, or something beyond their control, because they usually weren't so impatient.

"Hey, uh… You planning to finish up any time soon?" Altius asked when he was doing lat pull-downs.  "I'm pretty sure that's more sets than Lib does, and he's a beast."

"Yeah, well.  I'm not him," Gladio reminded her.  "One more set after this."

"Cool.  I'll wait, then," she told him, smiling like her question wasn't rude in the first place.  "How was your weekend?"

Gladio grunted under the weight he'd put on the machine and hoped she understood he couldn't chat.

It happened again when he was bench pressing, trying to beat his rep record with 200lbs.  Ostium said, "Hey, kid, I'm happy to spot you, but the weight might be a little high if you're already done." Sure, it wasn't Gladio's highest rep count, but wasn't that the whole point of lifting until exhaustion once a week?  Sometimes, you surprised yourself.

"Pretty sure I know what I can bench," Gladio reminded him as he sat up and shook out his arms.

"Just saying, it fluctuates sometimes," the Glaive added.  "Wouldn't want you getting hurt just 'cause 200 worked for you last week."

"Doesn't really seem like any of your business to me," Gladio pointed out, because really, what the fuck?  Like any of the Glaives knew anything about Gladio's fitness regimen.

"Alright," Ostium said, finally backing down.  "You cool to spot me?"

Gladio nodded and stood up.  "Yeah, go for it." He stretched his arms while the Glaive started his own reps, still at 200.

It was true that his stamina was down and he didn't know why, but it felt like every damn Glaive was commenting on it.  He did some light sparring with Ulric and got made fun of for his trouble.

"Having a rough day?" the Glaive asked as he warped behind Gladio and scored a touch.

"What's it to ya?" Gladio asked as he shifted into a better defensive posture.

"Not a big deal; just wanted to check in."

They exchanged a few strikes and parries.  "Could you not, then? Feels like everyone's on my case today."

Ulric almost got another touch.  Once he'd backed off, he said, "Nothing wrong with people worrying a little.  You're pretty young; everyone's probably just making sure you take care of yourself."

Gladio did his best to ignore the insult there: the suggestion that he was less competent, less careful, less able just because he was eighteen.  He didn't exactly succeed. "Yeah, well. Be real nice if they'd cut it out."

"Hey, nothing personal, kid," Ulric said, and got a second touch.  "Not my fault if you're off your game today, but it's probably not your fault, either.  Just keep doing your best and, at some point, you'll get through this slump."

Gladio scored a touch, finally, and said, "Not my fault if you're being an asshole, either, but somehow, it's still my problem.  And one day doesn't make a slump."

"Wow, okay."  Ulric warped away from Gladio to avoid a hit.  "I usually just call this my personality, but call it what you want, I guess.  Sorry for worrying about you."

"Worrying about me?" Gladio asked.  "What are you, my parents? I'm not here at Glaive training so you can hover."  He went for another touch, but he could feel himself telegraphing his movement, and Ulric dodged easily.  He was just slow today, that was all.

Ulric laughed at that.  Openly laughed. "Pretty sure fighting you hand-to-hand isn't hovering," he argued.  "Not like anyone's stopping you from doing your workout. Pretty sure I saw some people helping you with it, even."

Gladio rolled his eyes.  That didn't deserve an answer.

Ulric won much more easily that Gladio would've liked, and Gladio was weirdly exhausted by the end of their first round.

"Hey, you look wiped," Ulric told him as they both had some water.  "Go hit the showers, kid; maybe you're coming down with something."

He was about to protest when he started feeling dizzy.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd been dizzy, but he was glad he was sitting down.  It was so disorienting, he almost forgot what they'd been talking about.

"Yeah," he said instead of any kind of decent comeback.  "You're right; I'm really not feeling my best." He'd done some weight training and some sparring; maybe today was a day for lighter exercise.  He could always do some push-ups later, once he sorted this out. Maybe he'd fucked up his electrolytes somehow?

"Take care of yourself, kid," Nyx said, and he sounded like he was smiling.  Gladio was still a little overwhelmed. "One day won't make or break shit."

Gladio nodded, and the dizziness eased a little.  "Yeah. ...Yeah. Sorry, what?"

Ulric smirked.  "Go shower, kid.  And go home if you need it."

Gladio had thought the Glaive was finally being friendly like a regular person, but apparently it was condescension time again.  "Yeah, 'cause that's totally how real life works," Gladio shot back. "You just go home when you feel like it, even when you're not sick."

"Bet you forty crownspieces you'll be sick tomorrow," Ulric said.  "Just go easy on yourself, kid; life isn't some kind of contest."

Everyone Gladio knew would probably agree with the sentiment and then live as if life was a whole series of interconnected contests, so Gladio just rolled his eyes and went to the locker room to clean up.

.-._.-._.-._

It had been a week since Gladio called the ED talk line, and he was still too chicken to do anything.  Well, part of it was that he was chicken, and the other part was that there was a war on and things got busy sometimes.  He felt like he’d barely had time alone, except to sleep, for a week and a half.  He kept turning down the delicious-smelling products of Iggy’s stress-baking, and feeling like an asshole for it.  He developed these weird, mild lower-back aches in the afternoon that went away with sleep, but he wasn't sleeping too well, either.  He felt like he was yelling at himself endlessly to just kick back during lunch and have some Cup Noodle, but the thought made him feel nauseous in a way that he didn’t have the leisure time to figure out.

When he wasn’t scarfing down a (definitely not balanced) meal or training either himself or Noct, he was bogged down in bureaucratic bullshit.  For example, he’d cut into his sleep time preparing for the Council meeting he and Iggy were attending right now, and he’d realized early on that, with his headache, he could either look alert or pay attention, but not both.  He was barely following the speech the Duke of Galdin was giving, and it was about materials he’d studied the previous night.

They finally took a recess in preparation for a vote.  He thought maybe he should go tell his dad he wasn’t feeling well.  He didn't want to admit that Nyx had been right, but he wasn’t any use to anyone if he was sleep-deprived, headachey, and unable to focus.

That was dumb.  There was no point telling his dad in person.  They were all the way across the room from each other; better to send someone.  He touched Iggy on the back of the arm. “Hey, you’re technically a page, right?”

Iggy looked at him, but his body stayed facing the table.  “I am,” he said. “Do you need a message sent?”

Gladio nodded.  “Tell my dad I’m sick?” he requested.  “I’m gonna go lie down for a bit in Noct’s room, sleep it off.  I’ve just got this killer headache.” He could feel his heartbeat throbbing in his head.

Iggy glanced to the side, at all the assembled lords of Lucis, then back at Gladio.  “You’ve seemed a bit… unsettled for a couple weeks now,” he said. “Are you alright?”

Gladio smiled in a way he hoped was reassuring.  Iggy was sweet, but he was anxious enough for five people; no way was Gladio piling his own BS on top.  “Fine. We’re probably both a little overworked. If you ever need some extra time to get your head together, I’ve got your back.”

Iggy smiled back at him.  “Well, I don’t usually carry messages for observers, but I think I can make an exception this time,” he teased, and stood up.

Gladio put his notebook and pen away in his bag and got up.  The fucking headache was killing him.  He’d had it in some form, milder or worse, all week, and it was really getting to him.

Passing out didn’t go the way he expected.

He felt himself stumble a little, but no biggie; he could just reach out and support himself on the empty chairs he passed, and it was fine.  Then he felt his legs give out under him. Like the last bench lift you do, where your arms suddenly stop obeying you and the bar slowly sinks down until your spotter grabs it, but real life doesn’t have a spotter.  His brain kept telling his legs to walk, and his legs stopped holding him up properly before his brain got the message, and he was on the floor, embarrassed and fully conscious, with a throbbing headache.

“Gladio!”

Iggy, that was Iggy next to him.  Pulling him upright to lean him against the wall behind him.  His eyes wouldn’t focus, so he kept blinking. Iggy’s hands were all over him, like they were looking for something.  “Are you alright? Are you hurt? Did something happen during training?”

All he could think about was the throbbing in his head.  “It’s alright, Iggy,” he said, but his words sounded slurred.  “I’m just gonna-- I just gotta sleep it off. Just some dumb headache.  I’ll be fine.” He knew most of the room couldn’t see him, but he still felt like everyone must be looking at him.  What was he doing? He was supposed to be leaving. “Just wanna… Get to Noct’s room, see if I can’t just kick back for a couple hours.”

"You expect me to just let you--"

"Gladiolus!"

Gladio felt himself cringe. When had his dad had time to cross the whole room? It had only been moments, right? The Council chamber wasn't exactly huge, but…

"Gladiolus, are you alright? What happened? Are you hurt?"

Iggy's voice said, "I'm calling Citadel medical staff." It was like his voice was in the background, almost outside Gladio's awareness.

Back in the center of things, his dad was holding his hand. He was kneeling in front of Gladio, saying, "Tell me what's wrong, dearest. We're getting you help, but we need to know what's wrong."

He pulled himself together. He had to be coherent for this. It wasn't like he got his dad's attention much at all, especially recently; he couldn't screw this up.  "I'm not sure," he said with his best enunciation. "I've just-- had this headache all week, and I didn't sleep enough last night, and-- I've probably just been driving myself too hard. Gotta figure out a better balance."

"Your hands are so cold, dearest," his dad told him, frowning.  "Something's very wrong. This isn't a little overwork. We'll make sure this gets figured out."

Gladio hunched down into himself. This was so bad. It was worse than the worst-case scenarios he'd thought through. If anyone was busier than him or Iggy, with the King's health failing and Niflheim getting aggressive, it was his dad.  He just wanted to handle everything himself, and not make anyone he knew get involved.

Medics arrived, and helped him into a wheelchair, and Council members were saying things in his general direction that he couldn't focus on. It was probably the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened in his life, including his first encounter with shock, which had been… less than glorious.

He was wheeled by someone else to the elevator, which he couldn't have done for himself, anyway, if he couldn't even stand up, but it still made him feel pathetic. He just hoped no one else would see him. His eyes wouldn't focus. Maybe they hadn't focused properly since the Council meeting started, he wasn't sure.

Someone was addressing him by his last name. He honestly didn't give a crap when he'd had concussions friendlier than this headache (when did it get so bad?) but then his dad leaned down next to him and said, "Gladiolus, they're asking when you last had something to drink."

Gladio frowned. "Lunch, I guess? I think. 'm I dehydrated?" Dehydration didn't feel like this. Unless he'd never had it so bad before? Once, in the summer, he'd gone out for a run and come home to find he wasn't sweating. That wasn't as bad as this.

"And what did you have for lunch, darling?"

It felt like a week ago, now.  So much had happened in the hour and a half between lunch and now.  "Uhhhhh. Leftovers from last night, I think? That chicken stir-fry." Not as much as someone his size should be eating. He knew that. But his afternoon was all Council meetings and Noct-sitting and sedentary things, and that… didn't justify it, not really. He knew it still wasn't as much as he'd recommend for someone his size to eat on a lighter exercise day. But it justified it to the scared part of his brain, the part that knew he wasn't good enough, that was certain he'd drop the ball if anything threatened Noct again, and he just didn't have the energy to try to fight that.

They'd reached the elevator. Someone put a bottle of something neon yellow into his hand, almost certainly a sports drink.  His dad touched his shoulder and said, "Drink that, Gladiolus. They want to ensure you aren't dehydrated."

Gladio rolled his eyes, but he was a person who followed medical advice. He sipped it slowly. He wasn't dehydrated, but if he was, and he drank it too quickly, it would just make him sick.

It went down easily. He felt his chest tighten when he thought about all the sugar he was drinking, but his head did hurt a little less.  But it made no sense for him to be dehydrated; he drank plenty of water.

They were in the elevator, with the dumb muzak. Someone took his wrist, timing his heartbeat. They were frowning.  They wrote something down on a pink card and said, "Hey, kid, we'll get you all sorted out, okay?" in an encouraging way that completely contrasted with their concerned look a moment ago.

When they reached their floor, the Royal Physician was waiting outside the elevator, which was a mixed blessing if Gladio had ever seen one.  Dr. Ossius was round-ish and short-ish, and always wore a brown three-piece suit, and had been treating Gladio since he was a kid. He was definitely trustworthy and competent, but Gladio had kind of hoped he could just talk to some Citadel doctor he'd only ever have to see in passing.  

He said, "I've been given use of one of the offices here; follow me," then looked over his shoulder, smiling calmly, and added, "I'll get you all sorted out, Mr. Amicitia; there's nothing to worry about."

There was everything to worry about. Was he going to tell Gladio's parents?  If Gladio's health was vital to Noct's safety, would it become a Council issue if Gladio couldn't stop it on his own?

He was wheeled into an office and asked if he wanted his dad there. He couldn't even look at his dad as he shook his head no.

"Perfectly normal for teenagers, you understand," Dr. Ossius said cheerfully. "I'll call you when he's ready to see you again."

"No need; I'll be outside," Gladio's dad said. Gladio's existing nausea only increased from the guilt; his dad was supposed to be running the Council. They were coming out of recess any minute. His dumb eating problem was holding up an entire country's political system.

Dr. Ossius closed the door and turned back to Gladio. "Now, then," he said, smiling calmly. He looked at the pink card the medic had written on.  "Ah. Two very important questions: first, is there any way you could have been poisoned? Second, have you been eating enough?"

"I'm fine. I just have a headache. I was gonna sleep it off." Why was he lying? Didn't he want to be helped? Why was he sabotaging himself?

"Good to know. Any other symptoms? I'm very worried about this irregular heartbeat and cold hands; I think it's very likely you're anemic. I'm even more worried that you collapsed in the middle of the day and are trying to act unconcerned about it. Regardless, if you could answer my question: could you have been poisoned?"

Gladio shook his head.  "No. I had lunch… An hour ago? More, maybe? And nothing's really happened since then. Just been watching the Council."

"Excellent. Now, are there any symptoms aside from the headache and weakness? Dizziness, maybe? Difficulty staying focused?"

Gladio nodded. "Yeah. And… My eyes won't focus right? It's been getting better since they gave me something to drink, but I don't think it's dehydration. I've been dehydrated before."

Dr. Ossius was frowning at him. "Alright, I'm going to have you tested for diabetes, as well. If it was low blood-sugar, there are certainly ways to--"

"It's because I haven't been eating carbs."

Gladio could feel his heart rate skyrocket when he said it. He wasn't sure he'd ever felt so exposed. Dr. Ossius had been writing something down, but he paused. He turned back toward Gladio and looked very calm and even relieved.  "I'm so glad it isn't a mystery," he told Gladio. "How long has this been happening?"

What was he supposed to do in this situation? What was he supposed to say? Was he just supposed to… Be honest? He couldn't parse that response. "A while. Longer than I've been aware of it."

He wasn't looking at the doctor. He couldn't see his face. But his voice sounded warm when he said, "If you aren't feeling any chest pain or numbness, then I don't think you're in any immediate danger. Should I get you a warm blanket and some snacks, and we can talk this over?"

Gladio nodded.  "And tell my dad I'm okay, too," he added. "I don't want him worrying about me."

"I rather think he'll worry no matter what I tell him," the doctor said. "But I'll tell him it was an attack of nerves if you promise me right now you'll get this treated properly, at the root of it, and not just cover over it by eating enough to keep you going."

Gladio nodded. He just didn't want his dad to worry. If his dad was worried, he'd tell Gladio's mom, and she'd worry, and probably Iggy's uncle and the King, and everyone would worry over him or pity him, and he didn't think he could take that.

He heard the discussion in the hallway, but he couldn't hear the words. Then he heard nothing for a few minutes, and then Dr. Ossius came back carrying a blanket and some small packs of cookies, like you got at a blood drive.

He put the blanket around Gladio's shoulders. It was already warm. Gladio pulled it closer and kept his hands tangled up in the warm fabric. He'd barely realized how cold they were. Then the doctor put the cookies on the table next to him, sat down, and briefly fiddled with his phone. "Now. Tell me more about this not-eating-carbs business. You've studied nutrition fairly extensively, so I won't ask if you know what it does to a body. But I do want to know where it comes from, what it's a reaction to. So we're going to talk about that instead."

"I know it's dumb," Gladio admitted.  "I know better than to do that. But I can't make myself stop." His eyes burned. He didn't want to cry, especially over something so stupid, but he was definitely going to cry over this.

"I don't think it's dumb at all," Dr. Ossius told him. "I really don't. But I do think it's very dangerous, so I'd like to see it addressed as soon as possible.  Also, you aren't leaving here until you've eaten one of those packs of cookies; hypoglycemia is incredibly dangerous, a fact of which you are now intimately aware." Gladio glanced down at the colorful cookie packaging and swallowed against the twinge in his stomach.

"It, um. I think it started around last Midwinter?" And it was already summer and he hadn't done anything about it. "There was that-- I don't know if you heard about the people Security caught trying to get into the Citadel. For a couple weeks, I couldn't… I couldn't stop thinking about how I'm the last line of defense between Noct and death."  He was shaking again. He should eat the cookies. What did it even look like, falling over when you were already sitting down? Probably, it would make him look like an idiot who couldn't take reasonable nutrition advice.

He glanced down at the cookies again, but didn't do anything.

"I started doing some extra weight training. You need to eat different when you're putting on muscle. More protein, to build your body up. And then… Then it got out of control, I guess."

He risked a glance at Dr. Ossius. He was frowning. Gladio's heart leapt up into his throat. He felt dizzy.

"I imagine it only got harder after His Majesty began having heart trouble," the doctor said, and Gladio nodded.  "And could you remind me when you started out as an observer in the Council?"

"Uh. About four months ago." That was important, though. He was set to inherit his dad's title; if anything happened, and he wasn't adequately prepared to lead the Council--

"I'm prescribing a week off and regular therapy sessions," Dr. Ossius told him.  "Take longer if you need to. If you'd like a referral, I know some good therapists, but you're also welcome to find one yourself. When I contact you next Wednesday, you're going to have an appointment already set up, and then you're going to go to it. In the meantime, you're going to reflect on whether a diet that leads you to collapse during the course of a normal day can actually help you protect Noctis."

"I know it doesn't," Gladio snapped.  "Obviously. I know all the theory, I can feel it right now, and I still can't make myself eat the damn cookies. What do I do about that?" Okay. Yep. He was crying. Great.

Dr. Ossius smiled at him. He looked a little pained.  "Gladio," he said quietly, "You aren't afraid of some cookies.  You're six-and-a-half feet tall; they're barely a snack for you. You're afraid to die. We can discuss other ways those feelings are expressing themselves, but the fear, itself, isn't exactly my specialty. What I do know is that I have colleagues who are fully equipped to help you with this situation, and I'm happy to help you connect with them.  I'm not going to leave you alone with this problem, Gladio; it's very dangerous and I do take it seriously. But it's your care, so you need to plan it with me. Can you eat the cookies so your body will stop thinking there's a huge crisis and you can focus on our conversation?"

Gladio winced. He picked up one of the packages (less difficult than he would have expected with eyes that wouldn't focus), opened it, and paused.  "I also feel nauseous all the time," he said. He didn't know if he was stalling or just being careful. "Is that…? Will it get better if…?"

"That's the anxiety," Dr. Ossius told him. "There's a particular nerve that does that. It doesn't mean your stomach's actually upset."

Gladio bit into one of the cookies. It tasted like cardboard. He would've preferred to be anywhere else.

.-._.-._.-._

He left the commandeered doctor's office what felt like hours later, with an appointment with a therapist, an appointment to do a fasting test for diabetes (because "it never hurts to consider that one problem could have multiple causes"), a prescription for antidepressants, and strict instructions to go home and rest immediately. They'd discussed how he had an easier time eating carbs when he planned to do cardio, so he was going to go for a run the next day.  And then he was going to quit the run halfway through, or whenever he started to "feel uncomfortable."

It was a solid plan. A pretty good plan, even. Except that he was the one who was supposed to pick Noct up from school. The doctor had told him not to drive, so he called Jared and said he was sick and needed to be picked up, then texted Iggy that they needed a new plan for Noct and braced for the worst.

He almost couldn't make himself look at the reply -- he'd really let everyone down, hadn't he? Embarrassed his dad in front of the Council, shunted all his responsibilities onto Iggy, and it wasn't like he could protect Noct any better when he couldn't even walk on his own--

I rearranged both our calendars by the time the medics got you out of the room. I get to spend the afternoon Noct-sitting instead of deferring to the pricks in the Council~

...Oh.

Okay. Awesome. Iggy was looking forward to it. The guy needed a break, anyway; Gladio was still gonna buy him some fancy pastries or ingredients or something once all this shook out, but at least he preferred to spend time with Noct.

He smiled a little and wrote back, lol have fun deferring to the prick who won't eat vegetables instead.

The response was almost immediate: Are you okay? Have you been released?

Gotta go home and rest, but yeah, Gladio reassured his friend.  Just tell Noct I'm sick; I don't want him worrying about me. He wanted to write: I don't want him to think I'm not strong enough to protect him. He was pretty sure that would only make Iggy worry more.

Would it make Noct worry more? He didn't know. He knew Noct had been thinking about his own mortality almost nonstop since the Marilith, but he didn't talk about it, even with Gladio. Gladio and Iggy talked about it, but only in terms of how his depression was doing. They never talked about the Wall, or the Ring of the Lucii, even when Noct wasn't around.

And Iggy was already a count. Had been since he was young. They were all three constantly thinking about death, and Gladio wasn't even nineteen yet.

Already done when I told him I was picking him up. You focus on resting and whatever else the Dr told you to do, Iggy texted him.

Good. That was good. But he… kind of owed Iggy an explanation, didn't he? Iggy had been right there.  The closest person, the one who'd leaned him against a wall and called for help. So he took a deep breath and wrote, Dr O said to get some rest and have a good dinner, and sent it, then added, Can we talk later? Maybe in the morning? I'm off-duty for the rest of the week. I guess Noct isn't the only one who can stress himself out of eating.

He hit Send before he could think better of it. He immediately regretted it, naturally, but he couldn't un-send it.

He got an incoming call from Iggy seconds after he sent the text.

"Heyyy, Iggs," Gladio said, trying to smile so he wouldn't sound like a person who could feel the world falling down around their ears.

"Does now work for you?" Iggy said. It didn't sound like he was on speaker, even though it was around the time he'd normally set out to pick Noct up from school.

"Yeah, sure. Just waiting for Jared to pick me up."

He heard a door shut over the phone, so that would be Iggy getting into his car.  "I want you to know that I'm mad at you," Iggy told him. His voice was even, but Gladio had been waiting for someone to say it.  "You didn't give me any warning. I just had to watch my best friend have a medical emergency, and you wouldn't even say what it was so I could help you. You know how many times I've whisked Noctis out of an event and into his chair or his bedroom with a vague excuse and a calendar adjustment, but you wouldn't let me do that for you, and I know I should be listening to you and supporting you, but I don't think I'll be able to be a good listener at all until I've told you that… That I felt like you didn't trust me when you tried to send me away and then fell down. And that I've been terrified for you and I need you to tell me if you have bad news so I won't start driving."

That was… a very different dressing-down than Gladio had been expecting.  "Stay parked anyway; you're sounding kinda shaky," Gladio told him. This was exactly why he hadn't wanted to bother Iggy with his drama.  "But the doc says I'm fine. Said it was low blood-sugar, and we came up with a plan to keep things more even, and I'm gonna sort myself out. I promise, I didn't know I was gonna fall over until I was already walking or I would've just sat through the whole meeting and no one would've had to know."

The was a short pause, and then Iggy said, "Well. I'm glad it meant you had to talk to a doctor. But I'm still mad at you for scaring me like that."

“That’s… That’s okay.”  It was a nicer kind of anger than Gladio deserved.  “But I promise, I did tell you what I knew at the time, which was that I had a killer headache and couldn’t focus on anything.”

“Because you haven’t been eating.”

“I’ve been eating.  Just not… I haven’t been eating right.”  He took a deep breath. “It’s been going on for a while.”

He hated that he couldn’t keep his voice steady.  Iggy was already mad at him; what did he have to lose?

There was a longer pause than they’d had so far.  Gladio was sure Iggy was going to yell at him, but instead, he just asked, “How can I help you with this?”

“Iggs.  You’re already doing most of Noct’s Council prep and all of his cooking and cleaning.  Let me handle my own bullshit.”

“It isn’t just yours anymore if you scare me like that!”  There. Alright. Iggy was yelling at him now. He deserved it, but it still hurt.

"Look, you're already my best friend," Gladio reminded him.  "All I need you to do is keep being my friend. Dr. Ossius set me up with a therapist, and between the three of us, we'll get it handled.  I don't want everything in the world to fall on your shoulders, Iggy."

"Gladio, I would throw something at you if I was there," Iggy told him, but he sounded calm again.  "You aren't listening to me. Your internal life isn't some kind of-- inconvenience I'd prefer to avoid. It is, in fact, the primary reason I'm friends with you. If you'd told me what was happening, maybe everything would still have happened the same way, but if nothing else, I would have been more prepared to deal with it."

"Iggy--"

"I can't talk any more right now; I need to get to Noct's school.  Text me when you're safely home. And let me back into your life or I'll stop letting you into mine."

The line cut.  Fuck. His own best friend was afraid to trust him anymore.  That was his own fault; he did that.

Iggy had been having panic attacks for a while now, usually multiple times a week. Gladio didn't even think twice about how he knew that; one day, Iggy had called him up, said he needed Gladio to cover some of his responsibilities for the day because he'd just had a panic attack, and after that, they'd come up with plans for when attacks happened during work hours and also discussed them when they talked on weekends and at night.

...Gladio should have told Iggy about his problems around the time he started getting scared.

It was an easy fix, though; Iggy had already told Gladio what to do.  So he started drafting a text Iggy could read once he parked. He started with all the things he'd just told the doctor, and also asked Iggy to pressure him a little (just a little) into eating more carbs, everything from rice and pasta to all his delicious stress-baking. Then he started on a follow-up text just praising Iggy's baking, and saying he was looking forward to eating more of it. And then Jared arrived.

"Thanks for coming to pick me up," Gladio said as he got in the car, hoping he looked appropriately sheepish.  "I can barely focus on anything right now."

Jared said something about how it was alright. Gladio buckled himself in and read over his text to Iggy. It took three times the usual amount of effort, but when he was sure it was acceptable quality, he sent it.  Then he stopped fighting to stay awake and slept until they reached his house. Jared woke him up when they parked, and he went right upstairs to his room, took off his clothes, and passed out again.

.-._.-._.-._

When Gladio woke up again, it was still day outside his window.  He checked his phone and it was just before six, so he checked his texts.  He felt like the shittiest friend in the world.

Iggy had written back, Apology accepted.  Are you required not to spend time with us as part of your relief of duty? Or can you come have dinner at Noct's a couple times this week as long as we don't ask much of you aside from your company and perhaps getting things down from high shelves?

Gladio smiled and wrote back that he'd love to come over, and tomorrow night would probably work.

Then he had a text from Noct saying hi, and he hoped Gladio was feeling better. Gladio wrote back that he'd mostly slept it off and it only took a few moments for Noct to respond that he was glad.

So Gladio got out of bed, stretched, put his clothes back on, and wandered back downstairs. He sat in the parlor, reading a book on his phone, enjoying the last of the daylight, waiting for dinner.  About ten minutes in, he realized his headache had been better since he'd seen Dr. Ossius. He thought he should probably feel relieved, but he mostly felt guilty that he hadn't figured it out, and then he had so much trouble acting once someone did figure it out.

He was lost in thought, just kind of letting his mind drift, when his mom walked in, wearing a floral blue sundress that swept behind her and carrying her tablet.   "Oh. Hi, Gladio," she said, and he said hi back. She'd paused when she saw him, but then she continued like normal and sat on the loveseat. "I didn't realize you were home for dinner. Would've said hi if I realized you were back.". It was so nice to see her relaxed, smiling face after the day he'd had. Her brown Galahdian skin looked gold in the waning sunlight.

"I wasn't feeling too great," Gladio told her.  "I had a headache all morning, so I talked to Dr. Ossius and came home to sleep it off. I'm feeling a lot better now."  How could he talk to either of his parents about this? He'd have to offer his dad a more substantial explanation than just 'I felt bad.' "I'm a little surprised Dad didn't tell you; I kind of skipped out on the Council meeting I was observing halfway through."

His mom frowned at him.  "Nothing too bad, I hope.  What did the doctor say?"

"Mostly stress," Gladio lied, because he was a terrible son who lied to his parents so they wouldn't worry.  "So I got some sleep, and he told me to take the rest of the week off. Take some time to sort myself out."

"Sounds like a whole lot of 'just stress,'" his mom said.  "I'm glad you're taking care of yourself; I know Noctis has been worrying about Reggie's health, and all three of you boys have more responsibilities that just a few months ago.  If you ever need to get anything off your chest, just tell me, okay? I'm always here for you kids."

Gladio said, "I will, thanks," but his stupid, traitorous asshole of a brain reminded him that she wasn't even home half the time. She was always away at fundraisers and charity events, raising money for civilian projects, veterans' projects, refugee relief, every important event that would help with the war effort.  And Gladio was also out late a lot of the time, hanging out with Noct or making him finish his homework. He was pretty sure he hadn't seen his mom at all in about two days.

"If you have some time, would you like to come to the benefit gala in two nights? It's for a group that helps refugees relocate and gets them set up with all the things they'll need to run a household, that they had to leave behind.  It should be a lot of fun."

He'd been to a couple galas. It was all hanging around and talking with adults two or three times his age.  His mom not only enjoyed meeting lots of people; she was also good at making them feel great about writing a big check to the charity of the night.  Gladio just felt out-of-place when he had to go, like some kind of dog who'd been trained to talk about his schooling and Crownsguard work.

"I think I'll pass," he told his mom.  "Everyone's so much older than me at those things."

"I understand," his mom told him.  "I don't want you just sitting around with nothing to do, though. If my overly responsible, nearly-marrying-age son were to go out one evening, unsupervised, what would he do?"

Gladio laughed.  His mom was always trying to convince him to get into more trouble than he normally would.  She definitely had been the type to sneak out and go to clubs when she was young, and he knew his parents had met at a bar before they were ever formally introduced to each other, but that wasn't Gladio.

"If I were really getting into trouble?  Probably, I'd grab Iggy and hop the fence at the big botanical garden east of the Citadel.  See what all the plants look like at night. Or, I think the zoo has some evening events; I could go there, now that I'm old enough to drink."

"Is Iggy still up for some shenanigans?" Gladio's mom asked.  "Last I knew, he stopped when he was about ten years old."

"Well, he's better at not getting caught now," Gladio pointed out.  "Plus, he has more freedom. You don't have to sneak away from your nurse to get out onto the Citadel grounds when people just let you walk around wherever you want."

His mom was smiling warmly.  "I'm still glad to hear he's been doing one or two things behind our backs," she told him.  "All three of you boys are so good. I wouldn't want you to feel like you missed out on the impulsive, boundary-testing part of being teenagers." She glanced at the door of the parlor, then back to him, then leaned toward him and said, "I won't tell your father if you want to say you're going to the gala with me.  I think I can trust you to go to the botanical garden, if that's what you really think sounds fun." She winked at him.

Gladio laughed.  "Mom, please," he said, trying to sound casual.  "If I were really going to, I'd tell Dad I was meeting you at the gala, and tell you I was staying home. I'm not stupid."

"That's my boy," she told him, grinning.  "There's always the 'sleepover at Noct's apartment' excuse, too.  If the most heinous thing you can imagine is looking at some plants in the dark, I think you're doing just fine."

"What did you get up to when you were eighteen?"  Maybe it would help to know he wasn't the only person who'd felt pressured when he was young.

"Nothing too unusual," his mom told him.  "Sneaking around graveyards on Halloween, going to bars and parties with my friends…  We also liked to run all around the marshes, and we'd change the markings on the local trails going toward town.  The Niffs got so sick of taking wrong turns and getting bogged down, they stopped sending ground troops. Turns out, it's astoundingly easy to hit a target that can barely move because it's knee-deep in the sucking mud.  We didn't do any of the actual fighting, but we salvaged supplies from plenty of half-submerged trucks. I'm sure you three would get up to all sorts of productive trouble if you were outside the Wall, but I'm still glad you aren't."

"Me, too."   Noct's safety was the most important thing, anyway; at the very least, if anything did happen while he was on medical leave, it wouldn't be a daemon attack.  "Hey, uh. Mom?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you remember last Solstice? The Citadel intruders the Kingsglaive caught?"

"The ones Dad was scowling about for two weeks straight? Of course."

"I, um." Gladio swallowed. His throat felt tight.  "I kind of never stopped worrying about it?" His mom shifted a little, looking like she was only interested in what he had to say. Gladio looked at one of the flowers on her dress where it fell over the couch.  "It didn't really hit me, before that, how dangerous it is to be a Shield. I know we can't have that kind of problem again, but I still worry about what kinds of gaps we do have in security."

It was a few moments before she responded. Gladio couldn't see how she was looking at him because his eyes were focused on the couch leg.  "I think Dad still thinks about that a lot, too," she told him. "But I also think everyone's life is dangerous. That's part of what being alive means.  You can't put Noctis in a box like a hamster; he needs to live a real, full life just like anyone else. What is it about that scare that's still bothering you?"

He finally looked at her face again; it was finally scarier not to see her reaction than to see it.  "The idea that we might not have caught them," he told her. "And -- this is gonna sound selfish -- not that Noct would get hurt, but that something might happen to me when I was protecting him.  Because I know I'd keep him safe no matter what."

Her eyes were shining.  He didn't know if he felt horrible for upsetting his mom or relieved that even adults couldn't handle the problem he was dealing with.  She asked, "Can I sit with you?" and he nodded, so she came to sit next to him on the couch and put an arm around his shoulders. After several moments, she said, "Please don't worry about that yet.  I worry about Dad every day, and he's been a Shield for decades. You won't be sworn in for another year and a half, Gladio; give yourself time."

He wanted to say yes. He wanted to tell his mom that he was safe and she didn't need to worry. But he couldn't do that.  "I don't think I have a choice," he told her, but he turned to the side to snuggle against her. "I think it's part of who I am now, and I'm always gonna feel responsible for Noct's safety." His mom reached across with her other arm to hug him, so he put his arm across her and hugged her back.  "And I can't help being scared of it, but I'm not gonna stop feeling responsible." He was definitely crying now. He felt like a terrible kid, making his mom worry like that.

His mom kissed him on the forehead.  "Is that why you had to come home early?" she asked quietly.

Gladio nodded.  He didn't want to give more detail.  He didn't want her to know how much that fear had fucked him up.  He just wanted her to hold him and sympathize for a few minutes. "Yeah.  Yeah, that's most of it."

"Was it a panic attack, like Iggy gets?" Her voice was soft, but she was getting to a level of detail Gladio really didn't want to reach.

Gladio shook his head, knowing she could feel it against her shoulder.  "Do we have to talk about it?" he asked. "I kinda talked about it for an hour with Dr. Ossius.  I'm feeling better since this morning, but I'm still pretty tired."

His mom held him a little tighter and said, "Of course, sweetie.  We can just have a nice, quiet evening. Maybe watch a movie after dinner."  Gladio nodded again and let himself be held for the first time in… really, much too long.

It couldn't last forever, but by the time dinner was ready, Gladio was okay with that.

…He thought.

His dad can home early.  His dad can home early, and he still hadn't worked up the guts to tell his mom what really happened, and that was just how this whole day had been going so far, anyway, wasn't it?  His dad came home early, and his mom asked why he wasn't at War Council, and he immediately told her, "I could barely focus at all this afternoon, after Gladio fainted."

That was bad enough, but then he came over, still in his Council robes, and hugged Gladio.  Even when he pulled back, he held onto one of Gladio's hands. He said, "I'm glad to see you looking so much healthier than earlier.  And it seems you have your circulation back. You've been staying warm?"

"You fainted?" Gladio's mom asked, because she was in the room, too, because Shiva had no mercy for him.  "You told me you were sick from anxiety. Sweetie, you don't just 'sleep off' fainting; do you need to go to a hospital?"

"I can think of something that makes people faint, that you can sleep off," Gladio's dad said slowly as Gladio tried not to wince.  "Gladio, tell me you weren't drunk earlier."

Yep. This was the nightmare scenario: his parents were asking, in front of a room that anyone could be listening in on, if he was a drunkard at eighteen. Excellent.

"No, it's not-- do you really think Dr. Ossius would've told you it was fine if I was drunk in the middle of the day?  It's a stupid problem, and I'm embarrassed as hell about it, but I'm not turning up shitfaced to Council meetings." He didn't even like the taste of alcohol.  He'd heard people got used to it as they got older.

"Well, if you aren't ill, and you weren't drunk, what on Eos do you have to be embarrassed about?" his dad asked.  "I just want to know that you're alright, Gladio. My son fainted in the middle of the day, and I'm very concerned.  Just tell us what's going on."

He felt cornered.  There was no way not to answer the question, and there was no way to present this in a flattering light.

"I think this is something you need to discuss with your father," his mom said.  "If what you told me earlier is true, I think you two need to have a long talk. I'll be down for dinner." She stood, put a hand on Gladio's shoulder for a moment, and smiled at him gently before leaving.

Gladio took a deep breath.  It didn't really help him work up the courage to tell his dad how he was feeling.

"I don't want to bother you with my problems," Gladio said instead of anything productive.  He couldn't remember his voice ever being so small before.

"I'm bothered very deeply by not knowing," his dad told him, and sat down next to him.  "It was a terrible fright. I'm sure it was for you, too. What did you discuss with your mother earlier, Gladio?"

Gladio took another deep breath.  Yeah. They'd just go through this piece-by-piece.  And maybe he would make it make sense to his dad in a way it didn't make sense to him.  Maybe his dad would understand that Gladio wasn't choosing to do this, hadn't decided to scare all his loved ones today.  That he was working on getting back in control, and when he did, no one would have to worry about him like they were now.

"We talked about last December," he said.  His voice was still soft and hesitant. He didn't like sounding that way.  "The… security issues we had then. You and I were both upset about it."

"We were," his dad acknowledged.  He was still holding Gladio's hand, and now he covered it with one of his.  "It was very worrying, realizing how easily someone could get through. But you were involved in reworking the security schedules and systems; you know that isn't a threat anymore."

Gladio nodded.  He wanted to say: you're right, it's dumb, I know exactly how good Citadel security is now.  But he got the feeling that treating his problem as something stupid that didn't make sense was exactly what had gotten him into this mess in the first place.

"Yeah," he said.   "Yeah, that's… It isn't Citadel security I'm worried about.  Or security at Noct's apartment. It's more about the idea that, no matter how good we think our defenses are…  No matter how good it is, someone will figure out a way through. And, when they do, I'm the one that falls on. Just me." He swallowed through his swollen throat, but didn't lose his momentum.  He could do this. He'd already told his mom. "And you taught me well enough, and the Crownsguard taught me well enough, that I don't feel scared for Noct; I know that I'll keep him safe." His dad gripped his hand hand harder, like he knew what was coming.  Gladio's eyes felt sore, but he wasn't crying, not really. He'd been looking at the edge of the coffee table since he started speaking. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

He hoped the answer was yes.  He hoped, out of everyone in the world, his dad would understand that readiness to sacrifice himself for a Lucis Caelum.

He didn't expect his dad to just hug him.  He didn't expect to be wrapped up in those broad sleeves, his head pulled down against his dad's shoulder.  He didn't know that he could still feel so small that his dad's arms could surround him and make him feel protected.

"Of course I understand," his dad told him.  "That realization is always difficult, Gladiolus.  I didn't realize it would hit you so young, or I would have helped you prepare for it."

"It's my job, anyway," Gladio pointed out, and definitely didn't sniffle.  He wasn't even crying; how could that be a sniffle? "I just--"

"It isn't your job, it won't be for another year and a half, and you know that perfectly well," his dad said, interrupting him.  "...But emotions don't always listen to reason. Does Noctis know you've had this realization?"

"What? No." That was absurd.  He hugged his dad tight, though.  "He's fifteen. He's scared his dad's gonna die.  What, am I just gonna tell him I'd die to keep him safe when I'm pretty sure he still has Marilith nightmares?  I can't do that to him."

"But you'd die for him without preparing him for it first?" his dad clarified.  "Gladio, the weight of this responsibility will always lie heaviest on you. You're the one putting your skin in this game.  You obviously understand that you could never give that dedication to someone who didn't deserve it. But that doesn't mean it won't have an impact on Noctis.  There's a mirror to the feelings you're having about Noctis and his safety, and it's going to be difficult for him to deal with the feelings that naturally come from realizing one of your best friends would die for you without hesitation.  I hope and expect that both of you will live long, full lives, but you both need plenty of time to deal with these feelings."

"Dr. Ossius gave me a week off," Gladio told him.  "And helped me set up a therapy appointment." Maybe his dad wouldn't worry too much if he knew a professional was handling it.

"That's a good start," his dad told him, and pulled out of the hug so they could look at each other.  "But it doesn't explain why you collapsed today. I've felt that fear, and I know the type of bad decisions a person makes trying to escape it, but my bad decisions never caused me to faint."

He just wanted to explain in a sympathetic way.  He wanted to tell this story without sounding like a complete and total dumbass, and then he could have dinner and lie to himself about how long of a run he was going on tomorrow.  "Well, I was feeling all this fear about… dying," he started. "And I know, to do my duty as a Shield, I can't be scared; I need to be brave." His dad's face shifted noticeably enough that Gladio could tell even though he wasn't looking at him, but he didn't interrupt.  "So I tried to be better. Better at combat, and just… Better." His voice was shaking. How could he sound like he knew what he was talking about when he sounded so pathetic? "So I trained harder. And I stopped eating so many carbs. And then I went overboard with that, and today I… went hypoglycemic and fell over." That tiny, scared voice was back.  He hated it. He wanted to sound like the oldest child of a powerful Lucian lord. He was great at sounding dignified in any other circumstance.

His dad put an arm around his shoulders and it was very different from when his mom had done it, mostly because his dad was shorter than him.  It was like he'd outgrown comfort. "I'm glad it's such a straightforward problem," he said, which was… weird. That was weird, right?

"How do you mean?" Gladio asked, feeling cautious that his dad seemed so relieved.

"Well, you've studied nutrition," his dad pointed out.  "You know all the science. As you shift from building into maintaining, of course you need to rework your calculations, but that isn't difficult at all." His dad was smiling, calm.  Gladio felt like the air in the room was getting thinner. "Oh, darling, I was worried all day that you had some sort of cancer or a new concussion, or something truly worrying like that.  I'm glad you only need to refigure your nutrition needs."

His dad looked so satisfied.  So happy, so relieved. Gladio didn't want to argue with him and upset him again, but it wasn't so simple and the non-simplicity of it was the scariest part.  "The problem isn't some math," he said. "I know how to-- to add and multiply. The problem is that I look at some rice or pasta and I feel sick. I try to eat it and I feel like I can never be good enough with it slowing me down." He was shaking.  When did he start shaking? Maybe it was his dad who was shaking?

His dad was still smiling gently, and had a hand on each of Gladio's shoulders.  When did they get so broad? How was he as big or bigger than his dad? He was only eighteen.  "Gladio, you know that's silly," his dad reminded him, like he didn't remind himself of that multiple times a day.  "Carbs are as essential as protein and fat; they keep your body running properly. How can you plan to expend energy if you refuse to take it in?"

He had two options, he was pretty sure: keep trying to tell his dad what was wrong and get bombarded with well-intentioned platitudes that sounded like the things he said to himself in a much angrier voice, or agree and end the conversation.  So he chose the second. "You're right," he said, because after all, wasn't his dad just saying out loud the things Gladio yelled at himself internally? It wasn't like he was wrong. "I bet, if I plan better, it'll make eating right a lot easier."

His dad hugged him again and said, "Bring your calculations to me and I can check them, and we won't have any more of this fainting business." Gladio wanted to yell, wanted to tell his dad he wasn't listening , but he stayed quiet and nodded, and hoped he could eat well enough at dinner that his parents wouldn't worry.

His dad went upstairs to change out of his Council robes, and both of Gladio's parents came down to dinner together. Gladio felt like there was a dam inside him, just waiting for the worst moment to break.

"Did you have a good talk with your father, Gladio?" his mom asked as they all sat down.  Iris, fortunately, was somewhere else, probably a friend's house.

"Yeah," Gladio told her.  He was trying to smile. He wanted to seem like everything was okay.  Maybe he could keep up the facade to his parents as long as he was getting therapy.  He didn't really know what therapy was like or what it would do, but it was the main course of treatment the doctor had prescribed, so he guessed he'd just have to brace himself to talk about feelings once a week for a while.  For now, though, he just hoped his smile looked real enough.

"So, what was that fainting business?" she asked, like it was no big deal, like he just couldn't wait to tell her.

Gladio looked down and tried not to think about how there were two servants in the room, no matter how well they were paid not to gossip.  "I've, uh. I got a little carried away with my building diet and haven't been eating enough carbs," he told her, because that was the version of the story his dad understood, so maybe his mom wouldn't ask too many questions if he phrased it that way.  "I'm gonna rework it and switch to a better maintenance diet, and that should fix it."

"Uh-huh," his mom said.  She sounded… really, the opposite of convinced.  "So, you 'miscalculated' to the point of fainting."

This was Hell.  This was what happened to you when you went to Hell.  He nodded and didn't look up. "Yeah. So I'm fixing it now."

After a pause, while Gladio scooped a definitely-too-small-but-better-than-before portion of rice into his bowl, his mom said, "You weren't so short with me before, love.  Are you alright?"

"Of course the boy isn't alright, Cea; he fainted just this morning," his dad pointed out before he'd gotten a chance to speak.  "It doesn't sound like anything that can't be fixed, though."

Gladio couldn't take it.  His head felt too full, like a balloon just on the verge of popping.  His chest ached with some kind of longing. He just wanted to tell his parents the same story and be believed.

His mom tried again, though, with, "This afternoon, we talked about stress.  We talked about the scare you had last Solstice. Was that… Not what you discussed with your father?"

"We talked about it," Gladio admitted.  "Then we also talked about the problems I've been having around eating."

He could hear his mom frowning at him.  She said, "Like a disorder?  Those are incredibly dangerous, Gladio; I don't think it's safe to be so dismissive of something like that."

"It isn't an eating disorder," his dad supplied helpfully.  "Look at him; he's eating. He just needs to rework his carb needs."

"Clare, people with eating disorders eat; they just--"

"I didn't miscalculate," Gladio said, way too loud.  It lessened the pressure in his head and chest by just the tiniest bit.  "Dad, I do have an eating disorder. That's what it's called. Mom, I have a therapy appointment set up and I discussed it with the doctor and it's fine.  I don't need to recalculate anything; my problem is that I look at carbs and feel sick, and I eat them and feel like I don't deserve them and I'll never be good enough to serve Noctis while they're slowing me down, and that's it, that's the whole thing, can we please talk about anything else?"

There was a pause where his parents just stared at him.  It gave him time to realize that he'd just yelled at his parents.  He pushed his chair back from the table and said, "Sorry. I'm sorry, that was uncalled for.  I'll just-- go to my room and cool down for a bit."

He put his napkin on the table and left the room, trying to stand tall and not hunch in on himself.  He was too hot-headed. He always did this. Why couldn't he just have a nice conversation where he reassured both of his parents?

...Why couldn't his parents be reassured by the same things?

He threw himself down on his bed like a sack of potatoes and pulled out his phone.  He sent out a distress text to Iggy, to the tune of, Has anyone ever been as bad at talking to their parents as me?

Are you looking for classic novels or case studies? was the reply he got back.  Then, shortly after, Have you ever read Oedipus Rex?

Gladio smiled.  He wrote back, don't think I'll need to do anything quite that drastic, but it's kinda tempting.

Iggy texted back two eye emojis and a knife emoji.  Gladio laughed and almost didn't hear the knock on his door.

He turned off his phone and sat up.  "Yeah? Who is it?" he asked. Was it his mom?   It was probably his mom.

Why the fuck did he yell at his mom?

"Your parents asked me to bring your dinner up," said a woman's voice from the other side of the door.

So Gladio got up and opened his door, and the maid brought in a tray of dinner and put it down on his desk.

"I should make a scene more often, if it means I can spend the evening alone," Gladio joked.

"Not quite alone," the maid told him, and leaned against his wall next to the lightswitch.

Gladio was pretty sure that running a tray up the stairs constituted 'normal duties' for a maid, but he grabbed his wallet anyway and handed her a ten.  "Right. Well, I'm all set up here, so thanks." It was beef and vegetable stew over rice tonight, and it smelled amazing.

"Mm-hm," the maid agreed, and took the bill from him without looking at it.  He was pretty sure her name was Jenna. "And your parents are paying me to make sure you eat it.  Y'know, because that's how you build trust with a teenager, right? By all means, though, keep trying to tip me; they offered twice whatever you offer me." She crossed to his desk again and put the ten down, then returned to lean against the wall.

Gladio looked at the beautifully plated stew on his desk.  Of all the nasty things his parents could do to him, this was near the top of the list.

He opened his wallet again.  He'd been planning to go to the game store with Noct and Noct's friend Prompto, so he was actually pretty liquid at the moment.  With the ten, he handed ninety crownspieces in bills to the maid.

Her eyes went big as she counted the money.  "You keep a lot of cash on you, for a teenager," she said, and then handed it back.

Gladio shrugged.  "I was planning to buy some videogames this afternoon.  They cost. And I'm pretty pissed at my parents for sending a babysitter.  Enjoy their tip."

He went and sat at his desk.  He jostled the rice with a spoon so the broth would sink into it, and then he checked his phone.

Noct had texted him that he needed to get well soon because Iggy acted bored when they went to the videogame store.  Gladio asked him to pick up a copy of Hatoful Girlfriend while he was there, as well as the new Animal Crossing.

Why is your taste in games so boring? Noct asked, no doubt while he was grabbing a copy of Animal Crossing for himself.

Just bc it annoys you, Gladio told him, and had a bite of stew.  The rice felt wrong in his mouth, but there really was no way to get around eating all of it.  He also sent off a text to Iggy: My parents sent someone to watch me eat dinner…

The meal in front of him was delicious and balanced, and he was going to have to fight himself to be able to eat it.  He had another bite and tried to just swallow the rice so he wouldn't have to think about the texture. He couldn't remember when he'd stopped liking the texture of rice.

If it bothers you so much, just tip them to leave you alone, Iggy texted back.

Lol I tried that and she said they're doubling whatever I try to tip her, Gladio wrote, then added, so I emptied my wallet and now they have to give her 180c

Petty and effective. I love it, Iggy replied, then, We're checking out. I'll be afk while I'm driving, as usual.

Wouldn't expect anything else, Gladio told him, and had another bite of his dinner.

He was going for a run tomorrow.  That was what he'd promised the doctor: he was going to go for a run, and for planning purposes, he was going to assume it was a long one.  He planned a route on his fitness app that took him nearly to the Citadel and back, and didn't plan any shortcuts even though he left several places where he could skip ahead to a much farther section of the run, or double back through a park.  The tension in his chest eased and it wasn't so hard to eat his dinner. You had to go into cardio with some extra calories to burn, after all.

That was the maid dealt with.  He sent her back down with the dishes and didn't go downstairs, himself, because he knew he was still too hot-headed to face his parents.  They really sent a babysitter after him, like a child. He'd already planned out a way to eat properly with his doctor, which he would have remembered if his parents hadn't been grilling him about the fainting, and they didn't even ask about that; they just sent a watcher.

There was a soft knock on his door just when he'd found his page in the novel by his bed, and his dad's voice said, "Gladio? Can I come in?"

He wanted to say no, of course, but instead he sat up, smoothed his hair, and said, "Yeah, sure."

His dad came into his room and stood awkwardly in the middle of it, so Gladio stood, too.

"Dearest… You know that yelling at your mother is unacceptable."

Yelling at his dad was unacceptable, too, but instead of being a smartass, Gladio nodded and said, "I know." He didn't have an excuse or justification ready, so he didn't add anything.

"However, I think some small allowances can be made since you've been unwell."

What did that mean? Did his dad even understand the kind of 'unwell' that Gladio currently was?  But Gladio just said, "Thank you."

"Does anyone else know about your-- illness? The difficulty eating?"

Gladio understood what this was, finally: his dad was teaching him how to tell people what was happening without revealing anything too personal.  He was supposed to respond in kind to show that he understood. Making the mental shift to that sort of formal language made him feel ill. "Only Iggy and the doctor.  I think Noctis has enough on his mind, especially once I tell him about why all this happened."

"Good," his dad said, and nodded. "Good, we should be able to keep things quiet, then.  A week is a perfectly respectable recovery time for an illness that causes you to faint away."

Gladio nodded.  He didn't know why he felt shorter than his dad when he'd been taller than him for years.  He couldn't remember ever being such a huge disappointment. "I'm sorry for yelling at you, too," he said.  "I know that's also unacceptable."

"Gladio… Should we sit? I don't want to overtax you."

Gladio nodded and went to sit on his bed, but he said, "I did just have dinner.  I'm actually planning to go for a run tomorrow morning. I planned it with the doctor."

His dad sat next to him anyway.  He didn't seem as commanding in his collared shirt and slacks as he had in his Council robes.

"I don't think I know how to ask this delicately, so you'll have to forgive me for asking directly," his dad said, which definitely didn't bode well, but his voice was gentle.  "I… understand that you've been ill for quite some time, and it may take a while to recover completely. How do I-- how should your mother and I treat you during your recovery?"

Gladio couldn't remember a time in his life when his dad had sounded this uncertain.  That, alone, was disconcerting. It kind of felt like a betrayal, or at least an inversion of their roles.  "Not by sending a babysitter to watch me eat, for one," he said. But maybe his parents had done it because they were scared, so Gladio could be understanding about it.  Did parents get scared? "I'm almost an adult. What, I can plan my own fitness schedule and attend Council meetings, but I still need a dry nurse?"

The tension in his dad's jaw told him what the answer would be before his dad opened his mouth.  But, if it hadn't, he would still have heard his dad say, "Yes, if that's what it takes to keep you hale and healthy."

"It didn't help," Gladio told him.  "How would you like someone watching you eat? Analyzing you for how much you eat?". When had his dad put a hand between his shoulder blades?  Gladio didn't want that. He shrugged the hand off.

"Yes, you were very clear about how much you wanted to be rid of her," his dad griped.  So he knew how big of a tip he'd have to pay her. Good. "But let me turn that question the other way around: if it was someone precious to you -- say, Iris -- wouldn't you go to any length to ensure they were okay?"

"It isn't the same," Gladio protested.  He didn't want to be arguing this. It should have been an easy apology for his dad to give.  "It was demeaning. I'm not a child you can just follow around and force to do things!" He shifted his weight forward, to where his feet rested on the floor in front of his bed.

"Then don't give us any cause to watch you," his dad retorted.  "Keep yourself healthy and safe and we won't need that extra assurance.  This is an unknown danger to me, Gladio. I used extreme caution because we hadn't discussed reasonable measures yet."

"How can I expect anything I say to be taken seriously when you won't even trust me to eat one meal?"  He had just apologized for yelling at his dad. Why was he yelling at his dad again? Why was his dad being so frustrating?

"I REFUSE TO BE AFRAID FOR MY SON'S LIFE TWICE IN ONE DAY!"  The change was instantaneous: his dad was sitting next to him, then standing over him.  Annoyed, then enraged. Talking, then roaring. "I will not," he emphasized, and although his voice was lower, he kept the same energy.  "And I refuse to apologize if my efforts to keep you alive feel demeaning.  This isn't an argument you can win, Gladio.  There is nothing I wouldn't do in order to keep you safe."

His dad's words were… kind?  At the very least, the things his dad was saying were protective.  But his tone, and the battle-like tension in his body, were terrifying.  Gladio had never stood with his father during a real fight. He'd never seen what the older Shield could do.  As much as his dad's words told him he should feel loved and protected, the tone was more terrifying than anything Gladio had had to face down yet.

Gladio wasn't used to backing down from a fight, but he shrank back from his dad.  He hadn't even wanted to argue, and now his dad was yelling. "I'm sorry," he said, and his voice sounded small and weak.  His eyes ached and he hoped he wouldn't cry in front of his dad just because he'd been rightfully yelled at. "I never meant to worry you." Since when was Gladio, who'd been trained in Shield work since he was little, afraid of a little fight?  Since when was he afraid of a little yelling? Why was everything he knew getting turned on its head today? “I never meant for anything that happened this afternoon to happen.”

"And I'm going to see that it never happens again," his dad told him with the same ferociousness, like he couldn't see that Gladio had started shaking, like he couldn't see the tears that had welled up in his eyes seemingly from surprise.

"I don't think I've seen you yell before," Gladio pointed out, and drew in a shaky breath.  "I'm really sorry I made you worry." He wished blinking would make the tears go away, but it didn't.

"What, so you can snap at your mother and me, but you can't take it in return?" his dad asked.  "What do you--"

"Dad," Gladio said, loud enough to make his dad shut up, "I fainted earlier.  I still feel five different kinds of horrible. Maybe you're having a hard time thinking about my mortality, but I'm also having a rough time thinking about my mortality, and on top of that, I slept and ate and my body still feels wrong, so maybe you could let me be miserable alone in my room instead of coming in here and yelling at me?"   He hated how his breathing shuddered. He hated how wet his voice sounded. He didn't have enough willpower to overcome the shock of his dad yelling at him.  "I don't even know my own body anymore. Today, I told it to walk and it fell down instead. Why do you think I need to feel even more inadequate than I already do?"

He couldn't see his dad's face through his tears.  He was in so much trouble for clapping back like that; who the fuck got away with talking to the Shield of the King like that?  But, regardless of what his dad did in the next few seconds, now that he'd started crying, it wasn't stopping.  His breathing stuttered so hard, it made him shake.

"Gladio…" He thought he had to be imagining the gentleness in his dad's voice.  'I'm dealing with my mortality, too'? That had to have crossed a line. But he heard, and vaguely saw, his dad move to kneel in front of him.  He felt, and sort of saw, his dad raise a hand to the side of his face. "Dearest, today was one day." His dad's thumb swiped at the side of his eye while he took a jagged breath in.  "You're the Shield of the Prince, Gladio. I'm training you to join the King's Council. If anything about you were inadequate, I would have stepped in long ago to help you."

Gladio leaned forward, and his dad got the message and hugged him.  Gladio buried his face against his dad's lightly starched shoulder. "You know what to do when you fall down, dearest: you get back up.  You had… a very frightening fall. But you've spent today picking yourself back up and moving forward, Gladio, and there's no shame or inadequacy in that."

"I'm so scared," Gladio admitted as quietly as his swollen throat would allow.  "I just wanted to make Noct safer, take control of one thing, and now it feels like I'm not in control of anything." His dad held him quietly, without any kind of retort or advice.  He just held him and let him cry.

His dad let him cry himself out, which was good because Gladio got the feeling he was making up for lost time, for all the times he'd refused to cry in the past several months.  He didn't even really blame his dad for shocking him into it, though he did kind of blame his dad for yelling.

"Does that feel better?" his dad asked quietly when he finally calmed down.  Gladio nodded, not trusting his voice yet. "Good. I-- apologize for letting my emotions get the better of me.  That was unfair to you. And… I apologize for my inattentiveness that allowed all of this to happen in the first place.  Can I sit with you again?"

Gladio nodded and said, "Yeah, of course.  Just a second, though," and grabbed a tissue from his nightstand to blow his nose.  He'd heard somewhere that, when you cried, some of your tears went down into your sinuses, and he figured that was probably right, because ew.

He threw the tissue away and went to sit on his bed next to his dad again.  He didn't shrink away from the arm around his shoulders.

"I know that wasn't like you," his dad told him.  “I shouldn’t have yelled. Of course you’ve had a difficult day.”

Gladio nodded.  Yeah. That was the olive branch: he could blame it on his deeply shitty day, and on the surprise of his dad yelling even though he usually didn’t, and lean against his dad's side, and everything would be fine.

"I am inadequate, though," he murmured.  "My one job is protecting Noct. How do I do that if I can't even stay standing?"  He kept his voice so low, it was hardly more than a rumble in his chest. He still trusted that his dad heard it.

"Dearest, you're ill," his dad said.  "That isn't your fault; how could it be?"

"I don't want you pitying me," Gladio growled.  "I don't have the flu; I just need to eat better." And he was going to. He just needed better willpower.

"Mmh," his dad said, not agreeing.  "And how long has it been since you've wanted to take action and eat more?". He sounded dispassionate, like he could follow this line of rhetoric in his sleep. (He probably could.)

"Since when do you even believe me about this?" Gladio asked instead of answering the question.  "Earlier, you thought I'd just miscalculated."

"Yes, well.  Funny how a chat with Mom over dinner can change my mind when she's more knowledgeable than me." His tone changed from bored to gentle as he asked, "How long, dearest?" His thumb rubbed Gladio's arm.

"...Couple weeks," Gladio admitted.  Sure, he'd been busy, but how hard was it to convince yourself to eat a decent meal?  It should never have spiraled out of control like that.

"Then, if you were well enough to eat properly, don't you think you would have?" his dad asked quietly.

"I don't know," Gladio told him.  "When I have a stomach virus, I'm just not interested in food.  This is… different. I just need to push through and do it, and stop dithering and second-guessing myself."

"Do you hear yourself?" his dad scolded.  "Gladio, you aren't meant to need willpower to eat a sandwich.  I know you aren't trying to tell me you're alright and also need to convince yourself to have a rice ball or two between meals." He hugged Gladio closer, and Gladio pulled his shoulders in instead of resisting.  "You know, I came up here to ask you how I should act while you recover. But you're my child, and you're only eighteen, so instead, I'm going to tell you: you're going to let Mom and me coddle you a bit, and you're going to put up with me asking after your workload when we see each other, and you're going to have to listen quietly as I wax poetic about how precious and irreplaceable you are.  You know, since you're my first child. My only son. Heir to everything I own--"

"Dad. I get it," Gladio told him, smiling.  He figured he could deal with his parents being a little more embarrassing than usual.

"Interrupting will only get you a few more titles.  The bravest of your friends, unless Ignis is also planning to get an elaborate tattoo.  You inherited the height and the nose of the most beautiful woman in the world, so you've certainly got that going for you." Gladio ducked his head, trying to stifle his shocked laughter.  "Loyal to a fault, a proud Crownsguard cadet, am I forgetting anything? I must be forgetting something."

"I think you've just about got it," Gladio said.  It was an overwhelming amount of praise already.

"Ah, yes, that's it: and humble," his dad added.  "Now, you have plenty of other good qualities, but you're just going to have to wait to hear them because I'll need to have something in reserve if I'm going to keep this up for weeks."

Gladio wanted to say that he really didn't have to do that, but that would probably just extend the amount of time his dad heaped praises on him.  Instead, he said, "I'll look forward to hearing the rest."

"You'd better," his dad said, and pulled his head down to the side and kissed him on the head.

"Hey, um. Thanks," Gladio said, hoping he could tie up the conversation and maybe do some reading for an hour or two before sleeping again.  "For coming up here and… fixing things."

"Dearest, I made you cry," his dad reminded him.  "Not only do you not need to thank me; you probably shouldn't."

"I mean, I was probably gonna cry whether it was in front of someone or not," Gladio told him.  "And over the next week if it didn't happen all at once like that. So it was probably good."

His dad squeezed him gently around the shoulders and said, "If you say so." He stood up and asked, "Would you like to come down for dessert? Or even to spend time? I don't want to pressure you; regardless of what you do, I'll be having some cookies."

"I'll pass," Gladio told him.  "I think I want to read for a bit.  I'm still pretty tired."

"Then, by all means, lie down for a bit," his dad said, and took a step toward him and stroked his hair gently and leaned down to kiss him on the head.  "I'll tell Mom you're taking care of yourself. Sleep well."

"You, too," Gladio said out of habit.  "And, um. Maybe send some cookies up?"

He didn't know if he'd be able to eat them.  He didn't know if maybe going running in the morning would help.  But this would probably be the easiest day to do it, since he'd been yelled at so many times to eat carbs.  No one was ever going to pay as much attention to what he ate as on The Day He Literally Fainted. So he'd yell at himself and maybe be able to eat dessert, and he'd be able to keep himself going until his therapy appointment in four days, and in the meantime, he could get his car back from the Citadel and quietly fill his prescription, and things would be okay.

Things would be okay.

And the relieved look his dad gave him, with all the warmth of a hug in it, didn't hurt, either.  He said, "Of course" like he didn't want to scare Gladio off by being too excited.

Gladio said thanks and settled down on top of his covers with his book as his dad left.  After a maid came up with some ginger snaps, he changed into sweat pants and sat back against his headboard.  With a good romance novel taking up most of his attention, he could focus on the ginger flavor instead of the flour and sugar and butter.

And sometime soon, things would be okay.