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Dear Sorrel,
I hope this finds you well. Miss Iris has admitted to me that she quite enjoys your food now, though knowing the young miss she'll have neglected to say as much to you. I'm glad to hear that your skills are being better appreciated.
Would that you could come to Insomnia and visit. My master has grown into the habit of taking me to restaurants every Sunday now, and there is nothing quite as enjoyable as a meal someone else has prepared. I'm enclosing a recipe I took from one we visited called Twilight. It's an intimate little nook of a building, but the chef is truly talented and the Altissian seafood risotto was divine. I expect you could improve upon it, with your skills; if you do, be sure to send me the modified recipe so I can attempt your take on it.
I tried the recipe you sent for herbed venison cutlets. They were delightful as always, although when I make it for myself and the master, I will have to use a little less jalapeno in the relish. My master enjoyed it, of course, but I found the burn overwhelmed the flavour for my own palate. It seems I'm a little more sensitive to spice than him. Still, the recipe has gone with my collection, minor adjustments and all.
I don't believe I've told you how much I enjoy writing to you. My life revolves around my master, but when he's not here the hours can sometimes drag. I educate myself, and keep abreast of current affairs as a good companion should, but there is only so much waffle on social affairs that I can endure. Aside from Cor, you're the only fellow Collar I have much contact with. I write to Jared, but I understand he struggles to write back now.
Thank you for being such a welcome distraction in these lonesome hours of the day. It can be quite isolating, so far from the estate I know, and I'll admit that I grow a little homesick for the busyness of the kitchens I once knew. I know they're in good hands, however, and I'm fortunate to be able to consider you a friend.
With warmest regards,
Ignis.


Dear Ignis,
If it were possible for me to abandon the kitchens here, I would jump at the chance to visit you in Insomnia. I was trained on a small estate, at the edge of the city, but I've never seen the city itself. I envy you that opportunity, but I don't envy your loneliness. At least my letters do something to lift it for you.
Personally, I find the burn of spice to be enjoyable, but I shall make a note for myself that you struggle with it. I presume you removed the seeds from the peppers? In which case try only half the amount and see how that feels for you as the jalapeno is necessary for balanced flavour profile. The next time you visit, we should take some time to experiment a little and see if we can find a happy medium between flavour and kick. I'd be able to attach amendments to your personal tastes to recipes I send to you in future, and of course, adjust any recipes I make for you here.
Do you know when you may visit again? Writing to you isn't the same as seeing you, and sending recipes to you isn't the same as cooking for you. I hear good reviews from the master's table these days, but I find their feedback less valuable than the look on your face when you taste something I've made. Perhaps sometimes it takes another chef to truly appreciate the work we do.
I look forward to your letters, and I intend to try this recipe on the masters later this week. I will let you know how the risotto goes down, and any amendments to the recipe I make.
With greatest affection,
Sorrel.


Ignis lay on the sofa, his feet up on the cushions and Gladio's head pillowed on his chest. Gladio's hair was damp from a shower, but that didn't stop Ignis carding his fingers through the ends gently, a relaxed smile on his face.

They spent many an evening this way. Gladio had become a more recognisable presence since his injury, for better or worse, and he'd helmed a handful of auctions since returning to work. They'd gone well, but Saturday night auctions were almost as much a social event as a business transaction, and there was some demand for Gladio to be a visible presence at them. It would look strange if he left his own Collar at home for social events, which had meant that Ignis had been required to attend too.

Ignis didn't like the auctionhouse. He hadn't been in one since he'd been sold on from the farm he'd been born to, and he barely remembered it, or had barely remembered it, until he'd set foot inside the Insomnian Auctionhouse. The smell had hit him first, that scent of polished wood and new leather, and velvet that was older than it looked. It had made his heart race as the memory of being made to strip and change came back. He'd ridden to the auction in the back of a truck, crouched down with a couple of dozen other children, and then they'd been made to strip, and wash, and change their clothes, and don the auctionhouse's collars. They'd had photographs taken, and then they'd waited.

The wait had seemed to take forever. When someone had finally come, when Ignis had been hungry, and thirsty, and so tired, he'd been clipped to another four children. They were led out as one, onto a dais to stand obediently, stock still, hands behind their backs as they'd been taught while people had raised hands, and someone had shouted numbers.

When the hammer had come down they'd been led away again, to a different room, and finally given food and water. Ignis had remembered the uncertainty his life had held then. The auctionhouse had been overwhelming, and Ignis had barely known the other children he'd been sold with. It was the first time he'd ever been off the farm, where he'd never been sure which of the grown up collars was his mother. The women all seemed to be perpetually pregnant or nursing, sequestered away, the men fewer in number but more obviously there. Ignis and the other children had worked taking care of babies and cleaning the estate from as early as Ignis could remember. He remembered bottle feeding infants that were being weaned when he was four, and scrubbing floors and cleaning kitchens until the sun came up.

At six years old, he'd been told he was six years old, or at least his papers said he was, he'd been put together with everyone else that was six to be sold. After the auction they'd been bundled into another vehicle, still clipped together, and driven some way, and taken to a small estate in a city he never saw. He'd stayed there for another six years, learning how to nod and bow and walk to a leash and follow instructions silently before he was sold on again, without the pomp and ceremony of an auction, to the Amicitia estate as a domestic collar.

Ignis had kept the memories, and the feelings they brought forth, buried under the weight of his training. He'd smiled and nodded and conversed and stayed close to Gladio's side, and it was when they had got home that night that Gladio had asked, “What's wrong?”

He hadn't been able to hide it from Gladio, and Gladio had pressed until Ignis had admitted to the memories that had surfaced. How the plain collars of the auctionhouse were the same now as they'd been then, and how the looks in the eyes of some of the Collars there to be sold spoke of the same uncertain future Ignis had once faced.

Gladio had kissed him, slowly and firmly, and stripped him carefully before laying him out on the sofa and devouring him. Ignis had come with his fingers tight in Gladio's hair, his leg thrown up over Gladio's shoulder, and the Insomnian moonlight bathing them both in silver. “I love you,” Gladio had said, and he said it like an apology and a promise and a reminder.

“I love you too,” Ignis had said.

On Sunday morning Ignis had woken first, and he'd kissed and stroked Gladio awake before turning Gladio onto his back and riding him slowly. There had been a thrill, and a pleasure in seeing Gladio's expression, his surprise and joy, and then his pleasure as Ignis had taken him in and rocked himself slowly into Gladio's body. Gladio had become incoherent with praise and declarations of love before he'd spilled himself inside Ignis, and he'd stroked Ignis to completion while still buried inside him.

It had started a tradition. When they arrived home from the auctionhouse they would curl up together, indulging in touches and confessions of love, and pure, innocent affection. The auctionhouse bothered Ignis less the more he saw of it, the discomfort of disturbed memories easing with exposure, but Gladio still worked to make him feel loved, and safe. He'd never have to stand on that dais again, Gladio promised him, and he affirmed his promise with his lips on Ignis's skin and arms around him. Then they'd retire to bed, and make slow love when they awoke in the morning before showering together and making breakfast together.

On Sunday evening Gladio would clip the wrist leash to Ignis and take him out to a restaurant, a new one if he could, or an old favourite if he couldn't, and they'd dine, and talk, and laugh, and then take a walk through the park before returning home.

Once home, giddy with wine and each other's company they'd tumble against some flat surface, flat not necessarily meaning horizontal, and Gladio would endeavour to make Ignis scream his name. He succeeded every time, and then they'd tumble into bed together and kiss until they fell asleep. The last words Ignis would hear before he lapsed into comfortable unconsciousness was Gladio telling him he loved him.

“Do you have the time off for miss Iris's birthday?” Ignis asked, his voice soft as he stroked Gladio's hair. Gladio was warm against him, the weight of his body comforting after having been at the auctionhouse.

“Yep,” Gladio answered. He had his arms locked around Ignis's waist, but he squirmed, freeing one. He didn't lift his head, his eyes closing at the persistent attention to his hair, but he reached down to find Ignis's free hand and draw it up so he could press his lips to the palm.

Ignis swallowed, his fingers slowing in Gladio's hair for a moment before he sighed, and continued. “I'll pack the bags on Thursday, then,” he said, softly. “I should make sure Sorrel is amenable to me baking the cake, too.”

Gladio murmured his assent, his lips buried against Ignis's hand, brushing warm kisses over the skin. Ignis did his best to ignore the sensation, even as Gladio moved along and brushed slow kisses over his fingers, all the way to his fingertips.

“Gladio,” Ignis murmured, feeling his throat go a little dry, “don't start something you don't intend to finish.”

Gladio chuckled, and shifted. Ignis felt the arm move from under him, the weight lift off him, the sofa shift as Gladio's weight was redistributed as Gladio moved to lean up over Ignis. “Who said I don't intend to finish?”

Ignis looked up into amber eyes. “Do you?” he asked.

Gladio smirked down at him, keeping his eyes fixed on Ignis's as he brought Ignis's palm back to his lips and kissed it again, his tongue brushing ever so slightly against Ignis's skin. “After you,” he murmured, into Ignis's palm.

Ignis felt his cheeks flush hot. He blushed less, so much less, than he had when all of this had been new to him, but Gladio still found ways to elicit that involuntary response. Ignis's heart thudded in his chest, and the bristles of Gladio's clipped beard rubbed against his hand as Gladio kissed the centre of his palm again.

Then Gladio rose, and pulled Ignis up by his hand and led him to the bed. There was something romantic in the gentleness of the action, and it stayed that way as Gladio slowly stripped him, and Ignis stripped Gladio in turn, and then Gladio pressed him down into the bed. Ignis's world became nothing but Gladio, and Gladio's mouth, and Gladio's skin against his. His fingers curled into Gladio's hair as Gladio took him, slowly and firmly. It seemed to last an age, the world beyond the bedroom door falling away. True to his word, Gladio ensured Ignis came first, arching under him, fingers digging into Gladio's back, and then Gladio came too, head tucked in against Ignis's shoulder.

Gladio rolled over as he withdrew, and then tugged Ignis to lie on top of him, head on Gladio's shoulder. Ignis did, finding a comfortable position curled up to Gladio, legs tangled together, with practised ease. “What brought that on?” he asked, once they were both comfortable and still.

“You complaining?” Gladio asked, one eye cracked to peer at the top of Ignis's head.

“No,” Ignis answered. He tilted his head back so he could look upwards, catching a brief glimpse of Gladio watching him, and then settled back. “I just want to know what you're thinking.”

Gladio sighed, a happy, relaxed sound, that ended in a murmur and Gladio's arms tightening around Ignis. “I was thinking about how amazing you are,” he said.

“Is that all?”

Gladio laughed, and bent his head to press a kiss to the top of Ignis's. “Yeah,” he answered. “And I realised something.”

Ignis curled his fingers against Gladio's chest. The movement was idle, relaxed. “What?” he asked.

“The only time you've called me sir today is when we were at work,” Gladio answered.

Ignis moved, shifting so he could look up at Gladio again. “I'm sorry,” he began, the weight of his own unconscious impropriety tugging at him.

“Don't be,” Gladio said, bringing his hand up to brush Ignis's cheek. He smiled at him. “You lying in my arms talking to me like this is all I've ever wanted.”

Ignis's cheeks darkened before he settled back down onto Gladio's chest. “Me too,” he admitted.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Dear Sorrel,
We may get the opportunity to do a little taste testing sooner rather than later. My master has some time off work for the Miss Iris's birthday, and we'll be visiting for a few days. I realise that such a birthday will make its demands of the kitchens; I've hardly been away so long as to forget. I'm more than willing to lend a helping hand if required, especially if it allows us to spend time on our own interests.
In fact, I have a request, if I may? While Miss Iris has in the past been less than flattering of your skills, I wouldn't wish you think that is why I make this request. The truth is that I'm very fond of the young miss, and while she is a master and I a collar, I do hold a fraternal affection for her. Unfortunately, my position as a collar leaves me with little to give in the form of a gift.
As such, I'd like to ask that you allow me to bake the birthday cake. I wouldn't wish to impose, or to take over your kitchens, of course, and if you would prefer to make the cake yourself I understand your position. Still, it is the only gift I can give her. She receives a parcel of cookies from me regularly enough that I hesitate to provide one now as a gift for a special occasion.
We'll be departing for the estate on Friday morning, so I will make sure to come and see you that evening.
Until then,
With affection,
Ignis


Gladio had barely stepped out of the car before Iris barrelled into him and held him tightly around the waist. Gladio stepped back with the force of the impact, and then hugged his little sister with a grin. “Did you shrink?” he asked.

“No!” came the petulant response. Iris looked up at her brother with a scowl as Ignis came around the side of the car and took up his position next to Gladio. “Iggy, tell him to quit being mean. It's my birthday.”

“Not until the day after tomorrow, miss,” Ignis replied.

“So,” came a female voice, “you're Ignis.”

“Oh,” Iris said, stepping back from Gladio. “This is Aranea,” she said, and then turned to Aranea and smiled. “This is Gladio, my brother, and Ignis.”

Aranea gave a small bow, and Ignis felt his throat go dry. She had silvery grey hair that suggested she came from a long line of companions, and a way of holding herself that reminded him of Gladio. She was shorter than him, not much taller than Iris, but she stood with confidence, hip jutting and shoulders back as she straightened and smiled at him. “The chef-turned-companion,” she said, looking at Ignis. “Your cookies are really bad for my waistline.”

Ignis could feel his cheeks growing warm and he cursed it. “You flatter me,” he said, and bowed in kind because at least that would hide his pink tinged cheeks.

“So you're the bodyguard?” Gladio asked, giving Aranea a lopsided grin that was more flirtatious than awkward.

“I guess I am,” Aranea agreed.

“Come on,” Iris said, tugging on Gladio's arm and urging him forwards. “You can say hi to dad, and then I can show you what Aranea taught me. Noct's coming over this weekend, too.”

Ignis watched Iris begin to drag Gladio off, and he waited a moment before he followed, urging his blush to die away.

“Not bad,” Aranea said, next to him. Ignis turned to her, a question in his eyes but said nothing. “Your master,” she elaborated, gesturing to Gladio's back with a hand, “he's pretty cute.”

Ignis cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up his nose with one hand. “My opinion in that regard is of little consequence,” he said.

Aranea only grinned. “You're cute too,” she said, winking at him. “The blushing only adds to it.”

Ignis felt his cheeks heating up further and he endeavoured to scowl, straightening up as much as he could. Aranea laughed, and nudged him in the shoulder as they followed the siblings up into the house.

Aranea, it turned out, had been teaching Iris how to defend herself. Once their things were tidily unpacked, Ignis went to join them in the ballroom. It was a large, frequently unused room, and Ignis entered to find Gladio catching Iris's small fists in his own with a grin. “You're still broadcasting,” he told her, cheerfully.

Aranea stood back, leaning against a pillar as she watched the siblings spar. Her arms were folded, but she didn't take her eyes off Iris.

“I was under the impression,” Ignis said, as he approached, “that defending the young miss was your job.”

Aranea didn't look at him, but she jutted her chin out and then brought it back again. “It is,” she said, “but that doesn't mean she shouldn't know how to defend herself, just in case.” There was a squeal from Iris as Gladio sidestepped her and then caught her in a headlock. He dug his knuckles against her scalp for a split second, long enough to make her squirm, and then released her, laughing. “I heard what happened to your master,” Aranea said. “That's a nasty scar.”

Ignis frowned, glancing down at the floor. “I don't see how that's relevant,” he said.

Aranea turned then, and looked at him, as Iris chased Gladio around another pillar, swearing revenge. “You weren't with him,” she said. “If you had been, it'd be you wearing that scar, right? Even though you're not a bodyguard?” Ignis looked away with a frown. The thought made him uncomfortable because he would, he'd bear a thousand scars if it would save Gladio from another one, but he also knew how upset Gladio would be about it. “Well I am a bodyguard,” Aranea continued, “but I can't guarantee I'll be there every second. The least I can do is teach her to hold her own until I can reach her.”

“I see,” Ignis said.

“I could teach you?” she offered, throwing Ignis a sidelong look.

Ignis straightened up, and watched as Iris caught up to Gladio and clambered onto his back, wrapping her arm around his neck with a shout of victory. “That won't be necessary,” he said. “I've been attending self defence classes since the new year. As has my master.” It was Gladio that had spoken to him, offered them to him. Cor and his lordship had tried to push for Ignis to take bodyguard training, and Gladio had refused, but he'd assented to self defence training for them both.

Ignis had told him, in the quiet of the night, drawing his fingers over the scar on Gladio's face, that he wanted the bodyguard training. That he wanted to be able to keep Gladio safe from harm.

Gladio had refused, point blank refused, and told Ignis to forget it. As much as Ignis wished to keep Gladio safe, Gladio wanted to keep Ignis safe, and whole, and happy. So there'd be no bodyguard training, because Gladio would never sleep again if he thought for one moment that Ignis was going to risk his life trying to protect him. Gladio had responded to Ignis's protests with a simple, firm no. It was the only time he'd ever spoken to Ignis so bluntly, the only time he'd ever refused to entertain his thoughts.

Aranea smiled in a way that made Ignis's mouth go dry. She was very pretty, but it wasn't her looks that caught him. It was her easy confidence. She teased as if she'd known him for years, walked as if she owned the place, and stood as if, were there trouble, she'd handle it. “In that case,” she said, cheerily, “we can see how much you've learned later.”

Ignis smiled. “I promised Sorrel I'd meet him in the kitchens this evening,” he said. “We were going to try some recipes, while the masters get reacquainted.”

“Leave a girl at a loose end, why don't you?” Aranea quipped. “I suppose my entertainment for the evening is Cor, then.”

“You're welcome to join us?” Ignis offered, with a faint smile. “Cor too. I intended to pilfer a bottle of wine in any case.”

Aranea grinned at him. “Now you're talking.”

There was a squeal from the siblings, and Ignis and Aranea looked over to see Gladio holding Iris over his shoulder, her legs pinned against his chest while she hammered at his back with her fists. “Put me down!”

“Assuming they live until this evening,” Ignis said, mildly.

Aranea nodded, leaning up off the pillar. “Let's not bank on it,” she said.

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