chlorhexidine: (Iggy)
[personal profile] chlorhexidine posting in [community profile] fic_ception
It was hard to sleep at night. Gladio went through his days in a busy daze, moving from listening to his father to his father's advisors, reading books on law of sale, and going through accounts and receipts, and it all blurred into one giant hazy mess in his memory. Then he saw Ignis, and it all stopped, and his mind went quiet, and there was just Ignis's little smile, and the warmth of his hand in Gladio's, and the steady timbre of his voice as he explained the tales of ancient heroes mapped out in the stars.

Ignis was the best remedy for a trying day, but Gladio hated saying goodnight to him. He never wanted to say goodnight, to part ways, what he wanted was to gather Ignis up into his arms and kiss him until his legs gave way. He wanted to lead Ignis to his room, to bring him inside it and do every little thing the gossips in the household could think of with him.

He couldn't do any of that, because Ignis belonged to his dad, and it sucked. Gladio had daydreams sometimes, when the drone of some accounting report for an auctionhouse was particularly dull, of going and finding Ignis, and running away with him. Stealing him, for lack of a better phrase, and carting him away to touch, and kiss, and make him cling to Gladio's shoulders as he arched with pleasure the way Gladio imagined him doing when he was alone in bed with just his thoughts of Ignis for company.

In his daydreams, Ignis was always excited by it, always wanted him in return with the same intensity, and had just been waiting for Gladio to make his move. It spoiled the fantasy a little if he thought about how Ignis would probably react in reality if Gladio tried to steal him. Ignis was a good, and loyal collar, and he wouldn't so much as set foot inside Gladio's bedroom when he was there for fear of the consequences for them both. He'd never actually agree to run away with Gladio, and that was where the daydream started to fall apart.

Or it had been, until just after Ignis's birthday, and then wheels had started to turn in Gladio's life, and now he had a new daydream. His twenty first birthday was approaching, time seeming to move faster with each passing week, and it was time now, his father had said, for Gladio to get hands on with the business. Gladio would inherit one day, and be head of the estate, and he'd be no good as head of the estate if he didn't understand how they made their money.

It would mean moving to Insomnia. Their biggest auctionhouse was there, and Gladio would be able to work with the staff that managed it now to learn how it worked, how they all should work. He'd be able to observe sales, instead of just reading the dockets, and learn how to appraise goods – his jaw had twitched at the mention of 'goods', knowing it meant 'Collars'.

He'd started saving, when the idea had first been brought up. He'd spent more on the coat for Ignis than he really should have, he knew, but the clothes he wore were always such thin things, worn and washed so many times over. Ignis wasn't an above stairs collar, so he wasn't dressed like one, and finding out that he didn't even own a coat, had never been outside for more time than it took to collect something from another part of the estate had left Gladio reeling. This was supposed to be a good place for a collar; Ignis insisted that it was, but the things Ignis didn't have, or wasn't allowed were distressing.

He'd treat him differently, he'd decided. And he'd do it totally above board. If he was moving out, to an apartment in Insomnia, he was going to take Ignis with him.

It had been Iris's idea, really. When the subject of Gladio moving off the estate had first been brought up she'd screwed her nose up at him. “You couldn't live on your own,” she'd said, as if he'd suggested growing wings and taking flying lessons.

“Why not?” he'd asked, more than half way to indignant.

“You'd live on cup noodles and die of a heart attack before you were twenty five,” Iris had replied, smoothly. Gladio had been pained by how difficult it was for him to come up with a retort. Cup Noodles were the extent of his culinary expertise; he burned toast when left to his own devices, and for all he'd helped Ignis of an evening, stripping down carcasses to make stocks, or mixing dough for cookies, or any of the other hundreds of things Ignis found to do the night before, he'd never actually helped with the cooking. He could make a bouquet garni, but he couldn't explain what it was for, and he could tie up a ham for smoking, but how you'd actually smoke it was beyond him.

“I'm not that bad,” he'd managed, going to cuff his little sister around the head.

Iris had ducked, and grinned at him, and said, in lilting, playful tones, “Shame you can't buy Ignis off dad.”

His brain had screeched to a halt at the words. Iris had been teasing, but it was an idea. Could he, in fact, buy Ignis? He had no idea what Ignis might cost, although he had an admittedly pretty biased view of what he was worth. Gladio received an allowance every week; it was modest, but it was only to pay his clothes, and social outings. He'd saved it for a while to afford Ignis's coat, the ability to take him out without making him freeze half to death being infinitely more important than the new workout top Gladio had wanted. He could at least get enough for a down-payment, right? Then dad could skim from his wages to pay the rest, once he'd moved and was working at the auctionhouse.

There was just one problem. “I couldn't do that,” he said, gruffly, “Iggy's happy here.” He was always so quick to defend the place as being a good place to live, so adamant that he didn't need more than he had. Gladio had wanted to just wrap him up in his arms and tell him how unfair it was that he didn't go outside when he loved the stars when Ignis had tried to refuse the coat on his birthday. It made Gladio angry that Ignis didn't get birthday presents, or to go outside. He didn't even get to keep a book until he'd read it just in case somebody else wanted it.

That Ignis had defended it all, had explained that being taught to read was a privilege in itself, and that being allowed to use the same books as the family he served was practically an honour, had upset him. Ignis had deserved more, Gladio had said, and Ignis had told him that he didn't want anything more than to live out his life on this estate, in service of this family, because while it may seem unfair now, when Ignis was as old as Jared, he would like to be shown the same compassion and gratitude for his service.

If he took Ignis with him, he'd be taking that away from him. He'd be taking him away from his happy, comfortable life, on the estate he knew and loved, for all its flaws. That was why Ignis would never run away with him. It ached a little, to think about it, and the idea of moving off the estate and leaving Ignis behind made Gladio's stomach churn.

“You could ask Ignis what he thinks,” Iris had pointed out, her expression sharp. Gladio had remained silent, a scowl on his face, and Iris had huffed at him. “Maybe he's happy here because of you?”

Gladio had grumbled, turning away from Iris. Part of him hoped that Ignis was happy because of him. He loved the way Ignis's face lit up with a smile when he went to visit him in the evenings, and the way his eyes shone in the starlight when Gladio took his hands and asked him to tell the stories again. “I'll ask him,” he agreed.

He'd never got around to it, though. It had always become too difficult, and he'd always had that nagging worry in his head. What if Ignis didn't want to come? Worse, what if Ignis did, and then his dad wouldn't let him? Ignis pretty much ran the kitchens; Jared wasn't up to it any more, so what if his dad just couldn't spare him? His food was amazing. Even when Ignis was having an off day, which was rare, his food still looked and tasted like something you got in the fanciest restaurants in the biggest cities. He wouldn't be easy to replace.

The closest he'd got to actually asking Ignis had been last night. He'd made his trip to the kitchen as usual, never knowing if he'd be donning some lemon yellow gloves and scrubbing at something, or sitting across from Ignis at the kitchen's table trying some of his sweet treats – Ignis had a severe sweet tooth he'd realised, because whenever he could spare himself a slice of cake, or some cookies, he did – with a coffee.

This time it had been dinner preparations for the next day. He'd been working on a leg of lamb, and he'd shown Gladio how to tidy it up, and strip some meat from the bone so that the leg would look presentable on the table. He showed him how to make small cuts, so the herbs could infuse properly, and how to tie it so it could be left overnight. He'd made Gladio hold the knife, but holding the knife was all Gladio had done, and Ignis's happy chatter about why he was doing any of this sailed over Gladio's head when Ignis had been there, so close and inviting. It would have been so easy to just drop the knife and coil his arms around Ignis and breathe him in, smelling of olive oil and rosemary right now, and it didn't matter. Instead he'd stayed as close as he dared, so he could feel the warmth of Ignis's body against his, and kept his free hand at Ignis's hip, sorely wishing he could just hold him here like this forever.

The lamb hadn't taken long to prepare, and there had been coffee after they'd cleaned up. The question had burned, heavy and uncomfortable in Gladio's heart. When it had come time to say goodnight Gladio had wanted to reach out to Ignis, to pull him close and beg him to come with him, to tell him he knows he's happy here but please, he'll try so hard to make him happy with him, he promises, and Ignis can have his own books, and they'll go for walks every night, and he just wants to hold him and never let him go, please, please come with him.

He caught himself with his hand raised, and turned it into an awkward, hurried wave, and a smile, and cursed himself as he walked away. Ignis had looked so soft and understanding, and all Gladio wanted was to hold him tight and love him forever.

That was the problem, though. He loved Ignis, and Ignis had never given him any indication that would be welcome. Friendship was something he let Gladio get away with; gifts, and time, a bit of help in the evening so he got more time to read, and some time to indulge his hobbies. He'd tried to reject the coat, he'd rejected Gladio's offer to come into his room just in case anyone thought there was something else going on. There was a limit on how much Ignis was comfortable accepting from him. Gladio had the horrible, sinking feeling that how much he damn well loved Ignis would be way beyond the pale of what Ignis would be willing to allow.

He barely slept that night. His birthday was approaching fast, which meant moving out day was approaching even faster, and if he left it too long, it would be too late for him to take Ignis with him regardless. They hadn't announced he'd be moving out, yet. Gladio wanted to be the one to break that news to Ignis, because he wanted to do it while asking him to come with him. He didn't want to confuse things by having Ignis set his mind to staying if he might come.

He rose early the next morning, leaving his breakfast, Ignis's handiwork and the thought that he was already up and about in the kitchen made Gladio want to run down there to see him, and going to see his father. There was no point even asking Ignis if he couldn't have him anyway, so he had to bite this bullet first.

His father was at work with Cor. Cor was a bodyguard, Gladio knew, and he ran things below stairs where the collars lived. Ignis spoke of Cor as though Cor was his boss, but also some semi-ethereal figure he rarely actually saw. As if Cor appeared out of the mists on the occasional day, and then sank back into them.

Cor straightened up, hands tucked behind his back as Gladio entered. He hovered by his father's shoulder, and met Gladio's eyes as he looked at him. Collars didn't do that as a rule, Gladio knew, but Cor did, because Cor was a bodyguard. Meeting his master's eyes would be against the rules, but he was expected to meet everyone else's because bodyguards weren't supposed to show submission to freemen. Jared had explained it once, when Gladio was little, and he'd always noticed it ever since.

Ignis met his eyes though. He often looked away again, but sometimes he forgot, and Gladio got to look into pretty pale green and see life and joy sparkling in them for a few minutes.

“Gladiolus,” his father said, “what is it?”

Gladio felt like he was being punched in the gut by nerves. His stomach twisted, and he desperately wished he had something in his hands that he could wring. He looked at Cor, and then at his father, and bowed his head, “Sir,” he began, “I have a favour to ask.”

He saw Clarus glance at Cor, and then sit back in his chair. He looked patient, and expectant. “What might this favour be?”

Gladio found he didn't know what to do with his hands, and fidgeting wasn't a good look on anyone. He clasped them behind his back instead, and then wondered if this was why collars adopted this pose. “It's about the new apartment,” he said, straightening up, and trying to keep his nervous energy to a minimum, “I,” he began, and faltered, and cursed himself for it, “I want a collar, to help. I've never lived on my own before, and Insomnia's a long way from here.”

Gladio's father made a low, agreeable noise. “We'd been discussing that,” he said. Gladio felt a weight lift off his shoulders. “I agree with you, it's going to be a lot to take on at once. You'd definitely benefit from the support of a collar.” He looked at Cor, saying, “I'm sure we can obtain a companion in short order.”

Gladio felt his throat tighten up again and he swallowed. “I already have someone in mind,” he said, his chest feeling tight and awkward. He saw Cor's eyebrows rise ever so slightly, and his dad's rise a lot more. “If that's okay?” Gladio added.

“Who is it?” Cor asked, his expression stony and impossible to read.

Gladio clasped his hands behind his back, pushing down his nerves as he answered, “Ignis.”

“The chef,” Cor said, flashing a look towards Clarus.

Clarus shook his head. “A companion will be much more useful to you, Gladiolus.”

“I know,” Gladio answered, “but I want Ignis.”

Clarus looked to Cor, and Cor looked to Gladio. “Do you know how difficult it would be to replace a chef of his calibre? Training to that standard takes time, and does not come cheaply.”

Gladio gave a sharp nod, his mouth tight. “I don't,” he admitted, “but I've been saving, and I can put a deposit on him, and we can work out a payment schedule.”

Clarus folded his arms, looking thoughtful, and, Gladio hoped, a little bit impressed. “You've really thought about this, haven't you?”

Gladio nodded, a little more fervently than he intended. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I don't want any collar but him.”

Clarus looked to Cor, looking thoughtful. “It seems my son's heart is set. I suppose he'll make for a suitable house-warming present?”

Cor gave a nod. “It will be difficult to obtain a replacement as highly trained. I'll have the traders keep an ear out.”

Gladio felt as if the world had shifted sideways. He'd been preparing an argument, getting ready to explain why he didn't want a companion, why he didn't want just any collar, not even one with a pretty face and training in the bedroom. They wouldn't be Ignis. They wouldn't look at him with those green eyes, and tell him the tales of the heroes in the stars from memory. They wouldn't smell of coffee, and books, and dinner, and they wouldn't be the comfortable warm weight in his arms while they showed him how to make a cats paw with his hand so that there was less risk of slicing a finger off while he chopped. They certainly wouldn't have the spark of sarcastic wit he got from Ignis sometimes, when he was most comfortable.

Instead he was being given Ignis. A house-warming present of the only person Gladio would never be able to leave behind. His hands dropped from behind his back and he looked at his father, almost scared to let his elation show even though he wanted to jump for joy and punch the air and hug his dad. Hell, he'd even hug Cor right now. “You mean it?”

Clarus looked at him, and smiled. “I know you're close to him, Gladio, if he's who you really want, then I'm not about to deny you.”

Gladio's face split into a massive grin. “Thanks dad,” he said, relief clear in his tone.

“But,” Clarus, and his tone became serious, and Gladio straightened up and listened, “you have to remember that he's a servant, not a pet. Taking him on means you have a responsibility to him, to care for him, and ensure he has what he needs. He has his own mind, and his own feelings, and it is your responsibility to do what is best for him, regardless of what you may want. A collar that is looked after properly will be with you for the rest of your life, so taking care of him properly has to start now.”

Gladio nodded, the warning ringing in his ears.

“It can be as important to know when not to indulge him,” Cor said, his voice heavy and commanding, “as to refrain from only indulging yourself. I know how fond you are of him, and he speaks extremely highly of you, but you must be careful not to smother him in your affections.”

Gladio swallowed. There was a barb in the words, a warning that went deeper than his father's. Cor knew about the trips outside, and the visits to the kitchen, he was making that much clear. How much did he know? Did he know the extent of Gladio's feelings for Ignis? It sounded like he either knew, or suspected.

What did it matter if he did? Gladio was allowed to be fond of Ignis. “What's that mean?” he asked, challenging, but trying not to sound it.

Cor glanced at Gladio's father, and said, “Ignis would benefit from companion training, sir.”

“No,” Gladio said. “I want him as he is, I don't want him retrained. I'm not taking him for that.” The thought of putting Ignis through companion training made Gladio's gut twist. Companions got trained for sex, and used for sex. Gladio loved Ignis, and if sex happened, then sure, that'd be great, but it wasn't why he wanted Ignis. He wanted Ignis because he wanted Ignis, and green eyes, and a shy smile, and that adorable flush on his cheeks every time Gladio led him somewhere by the hand.

Cor looked up at him. “He will be company. You're taking him for companionship, that is the definition of the role of a companion.”

Clarus waved a hand, silencing the disagreement between Cor and Gladio with the movement. “There are aspects of companion training he might benefit from,” he looked sharply at Gladio, “for his own sake, and if he wants them he will be offered them.” He looked back at Cor. “Household management would benefit him, too.”

“What aspects?” Gladio asked, a frown crossing his face.

“How to address his problems to you,” Clarus answered, his voice firm, “relaxation techniques, stress management. A companion is intended to be a friend, and support for their master. He will gain a little confidence, and he won't be overwhelmed trying to support you, would you consent to that, at least?”

Gladio thought about it. Ignis did all right for confidence now, he thought, but then he thought back to times when Ignis had been jittery, and nervous. New situations did that to him. Like the time he'd dragged him up onto the roof, or when he'd first took him out with his coat, or when he'd made him take a book. Going to a new place, with just Gladio, was going to be about as new as it got. He frowned, because his dad might have a point, and he nodded, “If he wants it, yeah.”

“I'll ask him,” Cor said.

“Can,” Gladio cut in, sharply, and trailed off a little when his dad and Cor both looked at him, “I be the one to tell him?”

Clarus's mouth twitched with a smile. “Of course,” he said, “just make sure you do it today.”

Gladio had nodded, and walked away with that persistent sense that the world was tilting around him as he walked on clouds.

He ran into Iris on his way to his room, and she commented, “You look happy.”

Gladio grinned at her. “I spoke to dad. I'm getting the best birthday present ever,” he said, brightly.

“A new haircut?” Iris asked, pointing at Gladio's hair with a grin.

Gladio batted at her finger with his hand, giving her a scowl that barely lasted a second. “No,” he said, “there's nothing wrong with my hair.” He grinned again, unable to contain himself. “He's giving me Ignis.”

Iris grinned for a brief moment, and then turned it to a sulk. “Wait, no fair, who's gonna cook now?”

Gladio shrugged, happily. “Don't care. You can come visit us in Insomnia though if you miss his cooking.”

Iris pointed at Gladio, her lips pursed. “You'd better send me a box of his cookies every week.” Gladio laughed, and Iris grinned again. “Well, at least I know you won't be living on cup noodles.”

Gladio shrugged his shoulders at her, and then had a thought. He rubbed at the back of his neck, “Don't say anything to him yet, all right? I wanna tell him myself.” He felt suddenly nervous of the prospect. In his happiness he'd forgotten the possibility that Ignis might not want to leave here. “I hope he wants to come.”

“Gladdy,” Iris said, patting him on the arm, ”Ignis is gonna be thrilled. Make sure you tell him soon, okay?”

Gladio nodded, but it was easier said than done. There was a large part of him that wanted to run down to the kitchens now and sweep Ignis into his arms and ask him if he'd come and live with him. He could picture it now, the way Ignis's cheeks would flush, and he'd make token protest at being gripped in a hug and spun around, and how elated he'd be at the offer to come with Gladio. Gladio could hold him tight, and bend him back, and kiss him until he clung to Gladio, and then cart him off to Gladio's room to kiss him some more and damn every one that might gossip about it, because Ignis was going to be his, and living alone with him, and the gossips were going to talk anyway.

It was a daydream, though, like all the others. Gladio knew full well that if he actually went down to the kitchens and grabbed Ignis and dragged him anywhere he'd get shouted at, by Ignis, for pulling him away from his work. He had dinner to prepare, after all. There'd be no kisses, and definitely no fervent and loving kisses in Gladio's bedroom for the rest of the afternoon.

It would be better if he went down after dinner, he decided. When Ignis could spare a few minutes. Gladio could get the scullery collars to clean up, and take Ignis somewhere private where they could talk. That was a better plan.

He avoided the kitchens after lunch. Knowing that Ignis was down there was like being drawn towards a maelstrom in the ocean. He was an irresistible draw, and yet, at the same time, frightening. What if he didn't want to leave? Everyone seemed so sure he would, but none of them were really considering what Ignis might actually want. They all just assumed he'd go along with whatever Gladio wanted, because he spoke highly of Gladio, whatever that meant.

Ignis talked about him was what that meant, and Gladio found the prospect thrilling and distressing at the same time because he didn't know what Ignis might talk about.

He went down to the kitchens after dinner, a little earlier than his usual time, skipping dessert so he could talk to Ignis before he was elbow deep in dishwater. He was surprised, then, and disappointed, to find Talcott and Lily cleaning up in the kitchen.

“Where's Iggy?” he asked, looking around just in case he'd missed him.

Talcott gave him a bow before he spoke. “Gone, sir,” he said.

“I can see that,” Gladio said, and then mentally kicked himself because there was no need to be short with Talcott over it, “where's he gone?”

“He didn't say,” Talcott answered, either not noticing or not caring that Gladio had been short in his reply. “Cor asked him to come up with the menu for your birthday, sir, so he asked us to clean up in here because he's going to be really busy.”

Gladio relaxed a little. Ignis was somewhere, then, and working like usual. He sighed. “You don't know where he's gone?”

Talcott shook his head, and then bowed, again. “Sorry, sir. He did look a bit pale though, so he's probably gone somewhere quiet.”

Gladio frowned. Ignis was always pale because he didn't get out enough, but the mention of him looking pale to Talcott had him concerned. He was eighteen and running the kitchen for a large estate. Maybe sorting his birthday out too was just too much for him? He wouldn't know how to manage stress, from what his dad had said, and Ignis worked himself to the brink of exhaustion every day. “Hope he's not overdoing it,” he said, quietly. “I'll find him,” he added, for Talcott's benefit, “thanks.”

When it came to quiet places Ignis might go to work, there weren't very many options. Gladio checked the library first, because Ignis did come in here, and they had a whole shelf of cookbooks. Gladio had only found them a few weeks ago, and he didn't know if Ignis knew about them or if he'd never had the time to look, but if he did know about them, then it would make sense as a place for him to sit to plan.

There was no sign of him in the library though, which only left one place. Gladio made his way to the collar's quarters, the intrusion of one of the house's masters into the enclave sending a ripple through the inhabitants. He'd been here before, but it was such a time ago that he couldn't quite remember which door it was he needed. They all looked the same.

He found it by asking one of the girls he recognised as an above stairs maid which room was the chef's. She given him directions that had felt right as he'd followed them, and then a door which looked familiar enough. He knocked on it. The room beyond wasn't large, he knew; he'd seen into it once. There was a bed, and a sink, and a rail for clothing, and a tiny window high up on the wall, and about enough space to move between the rail and sink and bed without having to crawl over things, and that was about it.

There was no answer, and Gladio knocked again. Maybe Ignis had fallen asleep? “You in there, Iggy?” he asked, hoping for a response. A yes, or a one moment. If Ignis had done something like unbutton his shirt to be comfortable, he'd probably do it up again before answering, right? Ignis was proper that way.

There still wasn't a response, and Gladio groaned. He'd run out of ideas for where Ignis could be. He sighed, letting his hand drop from the door frame as he turned to go, wondering where Ignis could have got to. He knew Gladio came to see him around this time. It wouldn't have been like Iggy to forget, right?

The door opened, and Gladio turned, startled, and then concerned because Ignis looked... rough. He didn't look like he'd been asleep; he looked like he could do with some sleep. He looked exhausted, eyes a bit red, skin pale, and somehow so, so tired. Maybe it wasn't just overwork, maybe he was coming down with something? “You okay?” he asked, looking Ignis over and half wanting to tell him to go to bed. He looked like he needed it. Ignis didn't answer, just scowled a little as if he was sick of being asked that question, and Gladio sighed, knowing the answer would be some variation on yes even if it was a lie. “I know you're busy,” he said, “but I need to talk to you. Can you,” he began, and then stopped, because can you come with me was almost an instruction, and Gladio didn't want this to be an instruction, “would you come with me? Please?”

When Ignis spoke he sounded every inch as tired as he looked. “Of course,” he answered, and Gladio felt a rush of relief. He didn't want to have to have this conversation here, where there were prying ears, and eyes already on them both.

“Bring your coat,” he said, “it's cold out.” Gladio knew just where to take Ignis for them to have a private talk, and maybe if he had a few more minutes he could push away his desperate desire right now to just hug Ignis and never let him go. He looked so spent. Gladio was going to have to have words with Cor about putting so much on him.

He felt bad dragging Ignis out into the chilly March weather when he could probably do with tucking up warm in bed with a hot chocolate and a book. He put his hand to Ignis's back as he left his room, coat buttoned up already against the chill, and then, aware of the potential for eyes on them both, balled his fist and shoved his hands into his pockets where he could keep them to himself. He didn't need Cor hearing stories right now. He led Ignis out, towards the gardens, saying, “Talcott said you looked a bit pale earlier. You sure you're okay?”

“I'm fine, sir,” Ignis replied, even though he didn't sound it. Gladio led him out into the gardens and steered them both towards the empty summerhouse. No one used it at this time of year; it wasn't insulated. It usually got opened up a couple of weeks after his birthday, as Spring rolled back around and the weather warmed. “Merely tired,” Ignis continued, his voice quiet. “Thank you for your concern.”

Gladio frowned, casting Ignis a sideways glance that Ignis, with his head down and hands in his pockets, didn't see. “You work too hard,” he said, looking him over. “You need to look after yourself.”

“Duly noted,” Ignis replied, his voice dull like the thud of lead. Gladio frowned at the way he was speaking. Ignis really did need to just curl up in bed, and the urge to wrap him in his arms and cuddle him until he was feeling better was overwhelming. At least there was still that faint spark of his sassy personality in his words.

He moved a little faster, not wanting to keep Ignis out in the chill longer than he had to, and opened the door to the summerhouse for him. He closed it behind them both, and felt his heart hammering in his chest. Now probably wasn't the best time for Ignis, he knew, and he felt guilty about that. He should have come to him earlier, after breakfast, or after lunch, before he'd started to feel a bit rotten. “Ignis, can I ask you something?” he asked, finally.

Ignis looked up at him, briefly, before he returned tired eyes to the floor. “Of course, sir.”

Gladio steeled himself. “Are you happy?” he asked. He bit his lip, and looked down, fidgeting because this was the bit he was most scared of. What was he going to do if Ignis was happy and didn't want to come with him? “I mean, are you happy here, as a housecollar?”

Ignis looked up at him, and a smile broke through his tiredness. He still looked exhausted, spent, as if he needed to curl up in bed and sleep for a week, and hell if that smile didn't make Gladio want to cuddle him even tighter. Ignis tried so hard for others. “This is a good place to be a collar, sir,” he said, an answer he'd given Gladio before when he'd been sceptical of how good a place it could be if Ignis hadn't been outside since he was twelve. “I'm as happy as I could be.”

That was, on reflection, not the answer Gladio had hoped for, but it also wasn't the answer he'd hoped not to get. He squirmed a little, forcing himself to speak, to get on with it, and get it over with so he could get Ignis back to a nice warm bed and bring him a hot chocolate, not coffee because he needed to sleep, and then Gladio could go off and lick his own wounded pride once Ignis was okay. “It's just,” he began, and then had to fight with himself to continue, “I know you've got a lot on,” he said, glancing away from Ignis. “Talcott said you've got to prepare the menu for my birthday, and I know you, and you don't do things by halves, and I'm sorry for the shitty timing,” he said, “and this probably isn't what you need right now, I mean, I'm probably distracting you, and you'll spend half the night awake to catch up and,” he stopped, realising he was babbling and getting off track. This wasn't about how shitty Gladio's timing was to take Ignis away from his work when he already had more on than he could deal with, this was about Ignis coming with him, and whether he wanted to or not. “Right,” he said, biting his lip, and mentally scrubbing the last minute from the conversation. Time to start again, and cut to the chase. He looked at Ignis, forcing himself to focus. “Here's the thing,” he said, making himself stay on track as Ignis held his gaze, “I'm moving to an apartment near the auctionhouse in central Insomnia, so I can work there and learn the family business.”

“I know.” Ignis's voice was so soft Gladio almost missed it, but the words cut into his train of thought like one of Ignis's carving knives.

“You do?” he asked, disappointment that he hadn't been the one to break the news after all settling in.

“Collars gossip,” Ignis said, his voice staying whisper quiet, “I'd heard you were leaving.”

Leaving, Gladio thought, but nothing else. Ignis might have known that Gladio was going, but no one had asked about the possibility of him joining him. He nodded, and looked upwards, trying to decide how to continue the conversation from here. “Well,” he started again, “I spoke to my dad today, and,” he paused, swallowed, continued, “I've been saving what I can, but I didn't think I had enough, but it was getting too late to ask and,” he stopped himself, biting his lip to prevent himself from babbling again, because he had to do this properly. He made himself look at Ignis again. “I know I'm gonna need help there, because I can't cook, and I can't clean, and I'm useless, so I want a collar.” He saw Ignis close his eyes, looking suddenly faint, and Gladio made himself spit it out. “I asked him for you,” he said. “If you'll come with me?”

Ignis opened his eyes again, and they seemed too wide as he stared at Gladio. He pulled one shaking hand from a pocket, reaching out to the back of the chair next to him as he took a small step backwards. He looked ill, he looked like he was going to faint, or cry, or something, and horror gripped Gladio's chest. “Hey,” he said, reaching forward and gripping Ignis's arm gently. He shook his head, swallowing over the tightness and disappointment in his own throat, “You don't have to if you don't want to,” he said, cursing himself for putting Ignis through this, “if you're happy here I wouldn't take you away from that.”

Those too wide green eyes looked up into his, and watered, and Gladio felt like an absolute heel for doing this to Ignis. “They said you were leaving us,” Ignis said, his voice a cracked whisper, on the verge of tears, and a new wave of feeling like an absolute shit hit Gladio. Ignis had thought he was being left behind, he realised. Tears fell from Ignis's eyes as he looked up at Gladio, and Gladio wrapped an arm around him and pulled him into a hug.

“Not you,” he said, wanting to go back in time and kick his own ass for not finding Ignis sooner. He'd left him to think that, he realised. He'd left Ignis to think he was just any other collar here, someone he could walk away from. He put his hand to Ignis's cheek and wiped at his tears with his thumb, hating himself for letting Ignis get to this point. “I should have spoken to you sooner,” he apologised, “I'm sorry.” He bent down and pressed a kiss to Ignis's forehead, and screwed his eyes shut when he felt Ignis sob against his chest and tightened his hold on him.

He held Ignis like that until he was sure his infrequent sobs had completely subsided. Ignis was warm in his arms, and Gladio didn't really want to let him go. He could happily hold Ignis like this forever. He only moved when he felt Ignis's arms tighten around him and his weight shift a little, settling against Gladio a little more. “So,” he began, with a bit of a grin, “I take it this means you'll come with me?”

He felt the laugh in Ignis's shoulders before he heard it, and Ignis turned and tucked his face into Gladio's shoulder. Ignis nodded into it, and Gladio felt his heart soar. “Yes,” Ignis said, pulling back far enough to speak, “please. I want to come with you, sir.”

Ignis's face was red when Gladio looked down at him, but Gladio smiled anyway and stroked his cheeks with his fingertips. “You have no idea how scared I was that you'd want to stay,” he admitted, awkwardly. The very idea of it had been nearly paralysing.

Ignis gave him one of those shy little smiles that melted Gladio's heart and made him want to hold Ignis forever. “I don't think I could bring myself to look at the stars without you,” he said.

Gladio stared at him. Cor wanted him to have companion training and this, this moment right here, that look, and those words, were why Gladio didn't want him to have that. Ignis didn't need that. He could come out with something so utterly perfect, match it with a look so sweetly earnest, and make Gladio head over heels for him without anyone trying to teach him. He didn't need teaching. Gladio wanted him to be just like this forever. “Ignis?” he asked, hesitating slightly, “can you close your eyes?”

“Sir?” Ignis asked, confusion clear in his expression.

“Just for a moment?” Gladio asked. Ignis looked at him for a second longer, and then he closed his eyes, and Gladio could have fallen for him all over again at the trust he showed. Slowly, Gladio put his hand to Ignis's neck, cradling it carefully, aware of the heat and the softness of the skin. He sank his other hand slowly into Ignis's hair, and then closed his own eyes and leaned in, pressing a gentle kiss to Ignis's mouth.

He felt Ignis's breath catch, but he didn't pull away, and Gladio dared to go a little further, easing his tongue slowly against Ignis's lips, and then pressing in to find Ignis's tongue. He didn't go far, and he didn't kiss with the desperate fervour of his daydreams, he kept it sweet, and nearly chaste, like a first kiss should be, his arm drifting down to circle around Ignis's back as he gently and carefully stole his breath. A thrill travelled down Gladio's spine as he held Ignis fractionally tighter, feeling him melt into his arms, and he pulled away and smiled at him. All the pain and tiredness of earlier was gone from his face. All Gladio could see was a dazed, happy expression, his skin a little flushed, his breath a little short. This was how he wanted Ignis to look at him in future, he decided. Just like this. “I promise I'll look after you,” he said, meaning every single word.

Ignis's weight shifted in his arms as he stood back up on his own two feet. “And I, you,” Ignis replied, his eyes still on Gladio's, “master.”

That word, Gladio thought, that word had so much depth of meaning now. He grinned at the thought, at hearing Ignis call him that, accept him as that, and then pulled him into a tight hug.
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September 2017


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