The first thing Gladio registers is the pounding, but it's muffled, distant. Consciousness is a fickle friend at times like this, strong enough to hear it in the daze of half-waking and no more.
The second thing Gladio registers is the swish-crash of his front door slamming open, and that's enough to pop his eyes open, force the rest of his brain to wake up, or try to. His head feels like there's a layer of cotton in it, and he's—pathetically—gotten as far as sitting upright, thinking intruder, weapon, and nothing else, when they're a spearhead filling his bedroom doorway: Noctis in front, Ignis behind his right shoulder, Prompto at the left. Where Gladio should be. He looks down at the floor, at his own bare feet and hairy thighs.
"Indeed," Ignis says. "Over a dozen phone calls weren't enough to rouse you, and when His Highness insisted on checking on you in person, we find the door to your apartment unlocked? What is the—"
Gladio's been yelled at by enough pissed off training masters to register the tone more than the words while Ignis continues, and it means fix this. He doesn't have nearly as much at experience at wanting shrink so hard away from it, and fights through the urge to pull on the jeans he had on last night and stumble out to the main room.
Ignis suddenly says, "Ah," and there's something off about the tone of his voice that Gladio can't place. He can't place anything, he can't think. "I think you should sit. Your Highness, the door, if you please. Gladio, assume that was a suggestion only out of politeness."
"The fuck?" Gladio says again. "I'm fine."
"The amount of bruising you're displaying says otherwise. Sit down before you fall down."
Gladio drops to the sofa where he stands, because that finally drags it all together, the bruising. The whole reason he doesn't go trawling for that kind of fun unless he knows he doesn't have any obligations the next day. He's not supposed to have any, anyway.
"Have you eaten?" Prompto says, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "We were planning to hit the diner."
"Is he okay?" Noctis says.
It doesn't matter that he's talking about him instead of to him, Gladio swallows hard against the sandpaper roughness of his throat. "Nothing you need to worry about, Your Highness." He has to force a laugh. His voice sounds like it's been dragged over three miles of bad road. "You drink hard, you get a hangover. You fuck hard, you get pretty much the same thing."
"And like a hangover, it can frequently be avoided if you've taken reasonable precautions. Though I suspect this was more like your designated driver getting you drunk and then leaving you in the lurch." Ignis sounds like he'd like to be doing the dragging. "Who were you with?"
Gladio grits his teeth. "No one you need to worry about," he says with a baleful glance up at Ignis. It makes the room swim. He leans his elbows on his knees, head hanging down between his shoulders. "Sorry about the phone, Noct. Wasn't expecting it. You guys can go. You don't need to stick around."
"You sure that's a good idea?" The prince should never have that kind of worry in his voice over him, that's the last thing Gladio ever wanted. That's the other reason he's always so careful about scratching this particular itch. And now the prince is standing in his living room seeing all the worst parts of his Shield like they're lit in Astrals-damned neon lights.
"No," Ignis says, "I don't believe it is."
"Don't think he asked you." What else can you do when you feel like the skin's been scraped off all the most tender parts of you—nothing you can see, but all the weakness, all the shortcomings, in front of someone who most needs you to be strong. You give in or get ready to fight. He's no different than any other animal, so he's been told. "I've always handled it on my own before, I just need to sleep it off. On my day off," he reminds Ignis.
Ignis' voice goes unexpectedly icy. "Defending neglect with precedent is not the reassurance you probably intend."
"It ain't neglect because I fucked someone who didn't stick around for breakfast."
"With a bootprint on your shoulder? I beg to differ."
"If you're that into begging, Iggy, I know some folks you can call."
He can hear Ignis puffing up to argue when Noct touches his arm with a quiet, "Specs," and everything's a dull, indistinguishable hum until Prompto hands him a glass of water.
"You're being a real asshole."
"He oughta mind his own business."
"They're worried about you."
"I don't need anyone to help me."
"You kind of do, dude," Prompto says as he climbs up to perch on the back of the couch. "You had to be stupid out of it when they left. You were so zonked that Noct calling a million times didn't wake you up. Your door wasn't even locked. Wow, it was hard to see from a distance through the tats but some of these are beauts. This is probably gonna sound weird—do you mind if I touch them?"
"Nah. You got some kind of thing for them?"
"A little," Prompto admits. "Only when they're for fun."
The cool slide of Prompto's hand on his skin feels better than Gladio's willing to admit. He can tell where the worst of the bruising is by how many times Prompto touches the same places, hotspots he's drawn to again and again. He probes at Gladio's shoulder for the fourth or fifth time. Being driven into the floor by a lead-lined fist is hazy: the punches blend together, the lesson in staying where he was put hits him more as a quiver in his stomach than a clear memory.
"You know this isn't how it's supposed to be, right? You don't kick the shit out of someone the way you're getting it and just roll out." Prompto's fingertips trail low over his back—lower than it ought to be for the sake of his kidney—and he says, "Being in charge. . .it means being responsible. Designated driver, like Ignis said. They're supposed to get you back home safe, not leave you walking down the street with no pants and one shoe."
How it's "supposed" to be sits at right angles with how he's supposed to be, all of this does. The King's Shield isn't supposed to get dragged home by a designated driver either. Even if the rest didn't matter, getting trashed doesn't touch the clarity of having the world fall away, that place where everything becomes this moment, this breath, this hurt. The problem's getting that pinpoint focus to widen again.
"So it wasn't all boots, right?"
"Sap gloves." Gladio's throat's gone sandpaper again, and he takes a drink. He wouldn't have answered if it was Ignis asking. He couldn't say why he did.
"Nice!" says Prompto, the weirdo. "And teeth it looks like, yeah? Hey, if you finish your water I'll go get you some more."
Prompto slips off the couch with the empty glass, and the moment of sudden solitude is like the world's tilted. There's nothing solid to anchor himself to even with his ass on the couch and his feet flat on the ground. Gladio's barely got time to think it before the glass is pressed back into his dangling hand, fingers being carefully closed around it. He can't explain the relief of Prompto planting a foot beside his hip to leap back up to the back of the couch, settling with his knees pressed on either side of Gladio's shoulders, bracketing him. Prompto's hand brushes the nape of his neck under his hair, higher than it had been before.
"This okay?" Prompto says, Gladio nods. "You take a shower yet?" and Gladio snorts.
"'s not that dirty."
Prompto laughs as he closes his hand in a slow, careful fist, and in the quicksilver moment it passes from tension into pain, just as Gladio sharply inhales, he lets go. "You really like it rough, huh?" He does it again, and stops just shy of that same threshold.
His voice goes quieter than before, telling secrets, "I'm pretty sure Ignis likes it from the other side and feels guilty about it." He keeps on with that same careful clench and release, over and over, never quite hurting, not quite massaging either. "Noct doesn't get it at all. Way more of a pillow princess though—well, pillow prince, I guess, ha. Always wants to lay back and let someone else make him feel good." Clench and release, twice, three times. "He'd let you, if you wanted."
For once, lulled by the rhythmic tug of Prompto's hand, it's easy to forget the wall between the duty he's sworn to perform and everything he'd do if Noctis only asked. About what would make Noct feel best. About Ignis' icy detachment staring down at him, the pointed toe of his dress shoes digging in instead of heavy lug boots. Gladio can't get a read on Prompto, can't really see him laying into someone the way he could Ignis, or ordering him around the way Noctis might. But it's Iggy and Noct who are off being prickly shits somewhere and Prompto who found him down in that place and gave him a steady, clenching heartbeart to follow on his way back to normal, even if he couldn't speed up the ride. Somehow it's goofy, perky Prompto who's—fucking a, who's sitting with Gladio at his feet, pulling his hair right on the knife's edge of hard and harsh.
He's happy to take a flying leap off that edge most of the time, but that kind of finesse? That takes skill. Precision's never an accident, and it doesn't happen the first time. Not for a new weapon, not a new kind of touch.
Gladio swallows hard and looks down. The water in his glass is rippling from the tremble in his hand, hopefully nothing Prompto can feel. Of all the things he shouldn't do he sure as shit shouldn't crave so much when he just got his usual fix. Water won't help this kind of thirst.
The tug in his hair gets harder for a moment and suddenly releases. The loss makes his stomach lurch, neediness so intense it's nauseating.
"You okay?" Prompto sounds worried. It takes a long, shameful second for Gladio to realize it's because he's folding in on himself; the tug was him pulling away, and Prompto let him go.
"Yeah," he says, and bites his lip to keep his mouth shut. Prompto's hand's still on the back of his neck at least.
"Having someone with you's not magic, especially if you're getting into some heavy headspaces. Shit happens. I can drop pretty hard from some stuff no matter how careful I am. Someone to give you aspirin and feed you crappy greasy food when you've got a hangover makes it better even if can't make it go away, you know?"
Gladio huffs. "Yeah."
"Is it seriously like this every time you bottom?"
"That's got to suck."
"It's completely unnecessary," Ignis says.
The intrusion of realizing he's back in the room stabs at Gladio all over again, makes his skin go tight. Prompto grips hard on his neck like a yoke, cutting the legs out from any instinct to panic or fight. Then Prompto turns his wrist to tilt Gladio's head back and pull him upright slowly, like he's bringing him up back up into the room from his place at Prompto's feet. He can pick out Ignis' impassive face and car horns out the window and Noctis standing by the kitchen and Prompto's leg pressed to his side all at the same time now.
"If your companion had used a knife," Ignis says when Gladio's looking him in the eye, "would you think less of yourself for being cut? Would you have us watch you bleed and pretend it wasn't happening? If circumstances were reversed would you think less of one of us for dressing the wounds?"
"It's just some bruises," Gladio says.
"Physically speaking I would agree. Whoever led you to believe there's no other kind of injury did you a great disservice. There's no shame in helping things to scab over. Even for you, Amicitia."
The name's not accidental. Ignis probably hasn't done anything accidental since grade school.
"And for getting hurt in the first place?"
Ignis of all of them has got to understand. What an Amicitia is supposed to do isn't the same as it for everyone else. It's not Ignis who answers though. Noct sits down on the couch beside him, on the other side of Prompto's foot.
"Now's probably not a great time to talk about it, but Ignis explained stuff a little, and I. I never knew," Noct says. "You're so—"
"Not much to talk about anyway," Gladio says, gruffer than he should, but that's not a sentence he needs to hear the end of. He knows exactly what he is. "I'm sorry."
"Not as you should be," Ignis cuts in.
"And now's not a great time to talk about it, Ignis." Noct says it with one of his rare sparks of real authority, like a banked fire that throws out the occasional ember. When something big enough stokes that fire some day he's really going to be something. "Hey," he says as bumps Gladio's arm lightly. "I know enough to know you didn't do anything wrong." He adds with a sheepish laugh, "If anything I'm a little jealous of whoever you were with."
That finally makes Gladio look over. Noct seems as surprised as he is, and as soon as Gladio catches his eye he's the one to look down, just as Prompto gives him a little told-you-so squeeze with his knees.
"Look, this whole thing got started because we were going for food and I'd called to see if you wanted to come," Noct says quickly. "Offer's still open if you're feeling up to it."
Outside seems huge right now, a whole world Gladio's not quite ready for. But he's got Ignis standing in front of him, Prompto at his back, his prince beside him, asking for his presence as casually as he can. It's wrong to be the one with the phalanx between him and the world, makes his hands itch for a weapon, but if that's where Noctis wants him right now, that's where he'll be. "Let me grab a shower and I'll be good to go."
"You are pretty rank," Noct agrees, and Gladio shoves an elbow at his shoulder a lot harder. His hand settles between them, over the laces of Prompto's boot. He doesn't look down when he pushes up to stand.
"Water," Prompto reminds him. Gladio looks down at the glass still in his hand, forgotten. He drains it and hands it over.
"Thanks." It's not for the water. He hopes Prompto knows it.
Dragging himself into the shower is usually the first thing he does when he's awake after a night like that, turning it as cold as he can stand just to try to shock himself back to awareness. Sitting on the couch for so long he actually feels pretty normal stepping into the tub, clear-eyed. He remembers how to move now. He cranks the hot water instead, lets it beat down on the soreness in his back while he takes stock.
He aches in places that never get touched in combat training: the crease of his hip, his knees. There's another boot print on the inside of his thigh. The boots and gloves were hers; she was tiny, so she'd figured out how to make her gear work for her. Fingermarks curving his sides, not sure who those are from. The husband's preferred dildos were men, big ones, and they'd put Gladio through his paces filling the role, so it could've been either of them. They're only going to get worse after the heat of the shower.
He wonders if that's the real reason Prompto was asking about whether he had, wonders what sort of marks Prompto would leave, and he swallows hard against the scratchiness in his throat, leans his forehead against the cool tile of the shower wall. That roughness is new, too. He'd gotten tenderized for a while and then put to stud, so by the time the guy had buried his cock in Gladio's throat to get himself off he was in no state to argue. Couples are his favorite—makes it more real to be less-than when there's more than one above you, getting talked about instead of talked to—but they're risky. Makes it easier to get in over his head.
The warm water pours over his face when he tips his head back, wetting his hair down where Prompto'd held him. It's all just warm water, nothing else.
By the time he's made it out of the shower and gotten into a clean pair of jeans and one of his usual shirts in his bedroom, Ignis has appeared to lean in the doorway.
"Might I suggest a jacket if you don't want to scare the locals," he says, glancing at the smear of purple on the curve of Gladio's bicep that's bare of ink. Pointed teasing is a step up from self-righteous indignance, at least.
"That include you?" Gladio says.
"On the contrary. I wouldn't be opposed to it happening more deliberately."
Gladio concentrates on finding and putting on a work shirt instead of dealing with that. In the doorway, Ignis doesn't budge, doesn't even bother to look up.
"It's come to my attention I may have been unclear earlier," he says more gently. "Your only fault in this is your willful ignorance of the risks you're taking with your safety. It's taking up with someone so undeserving and ill-suited that's not necessary."
For Ignis it's an apology, and since when has Ignis ever had to be gentle with him. "I'm a big boy, Iggy, not a charity case. You don't need to fuck me to keep me out of trouble."
Ignis' mouth pinches tighter. Forget throatfucking, Iggy can make him less-than with a lift of his eyebrow and the sudden roughness in his cultured voice, a hint of Ignis as he would choose to be instead of what he has to be out in the world.
"Whatever flaw in your character you think your preferences indicate, you're mistaken. Whatever experiences you think punishing yourself like this is worth, I assure you they pale in comparison to what is possible with someone who has even a modicum of respect for you. And your view of my generosity, while flattering, is dead wrong." He pauses to pointedly look Gladio up and down with a hungry flash of blue. "You vastly underestimate the appeal of having someone of your. . .particular attributes with your metaphorical little underbelly exposed."
He cuts with words as well as he does a knife, leaving Gladio's objections and doubts in tatters. Gladio says a small thanks that he's less raw than he was earlier. He might've decked him for that last bit.
Might've kissed him.
Now, he takes a deep breath and makes a show of rolling his eyes. "Careful with the sweet nothings, Iggy, or you're gonna make me blush."
"Noted," Ignis says wryly. He pivots against the molding like a door opening to let Gladio pass. "Quaint that you think I'd find it a deterrent though."
Out in the living room Prompto's still perched on the back of the couch and Noct is stretched out along it with his hands folded behind his head, looking up at him. They herd by the entryway while Gladio gets his boots on, so he stands up to the semicircle of the three of them between him and the front door: Noct in the middle, Ignis at his right arm, Prompto at the left. It's not quite anticipation tingling up his spine looking at them, but an awareness of potential, that moment when you're standing on the mat but you haven't quite squared off to spar.
Maybe he's right where he should be after all.
"We leaving or are you all gonna stare at me all day?"
Prompto hangs back when Iggy and Noct start walk down the hallway. "I didn't forget how to lock it."
Prompto bumps their shoulders together, matching Gladio's pace as he starts down the hall. "Duh."
"So what's your deal? You gave me the rundown on other things," he says, nodding at Iggy and Noct's backs. "Pretty spare when it came to you. Or does little Prompto talk a big game with nothing to show for it?"
"I've got plenty to show for it," Prompto says with an affronted wrinkle of his nose. He's quiet for a few steps. "I guess I like making people happy."
"What's that got to do with how you were in there?"
Prompto shrugs. "Sometimes making people happy is doing what they tell you to, sometimes it's. . ."
"Leaving bruises?" Gladio offers, and Prompto nods, biting his lip.
"I like a lot. I do a lot. Both sides, all sides, whatever."
"Whatever," Gladio repeats, throwing as much dopiness into it as he can. He puts Prompto in an easy headlock. "You got a lot going on in that pretty little head, don't you?"
Prompto squawks and flails, which only succeeds in tangling him in Gladio's overshirt, then goes still with a muffled, "Wait, pretty?"
"You heard me," Gladio says, releasing him, red in the face—and hair mussed, judging by the way his hands fly to his head trying to get it to lay in a slightly different spiky mess.
Standing in the elevator where he's holding the door next to Noct, Ignis sighs theatrically. "If you're quite finished making a scene."
"Only for you, Iggy." Gladio couldn't bring himself to care even if it wasn't all for show. Everything's a little too bright, too sharp around the edges, and instead of feeling like layers of noise he can't filter through it's like he's seeing things as they always are and he's usually taking in too much at once to notice. He's surprised when the elevator glides to a halt at the first floor instead of the garage. As Ignis says, he prefers the protection from exposure, both weather and media. The water in the fountain sparkles. The buttons on the doorman's blue blazer and the chrome fenders on the convertible across the roundabout gleam in the midday sun.
Prompto whoops, "Shotgun!" and jogs across to hop over the passenger side door.
"Have some care," Ignis calls.
Gladio looks at Ignis. "Are you even allowed to park here?"
Somehow Ignis can get more impassive and expressive at the same time, if you know him: the harder the mask is the more of those pesky feelings he's shoving down. "At the prince's request, yes. We arrived in what might have been an emergency and the foyer is closer."
"It was your idea!" Noct says.
"It was by mutual agreement." You could cut someone on the crispness in Iggy's voice. The car's a two-door, so with Prompto already in his seat Ignis has to open the driver's side then wait for Gladio and Noct to climb into the backseat. "After you," he adds with a bow.
Ignis looks at him sharply. "Is that so?"
There's that eyebrow again. Feels a little different this time.
"Can't always let you have the last word." Gladio bumps the fist Prompto offers over the back of his seat, and even Noctis is laughing as he buckles in: getting one over on Ignis always means celebrating.
"We'll see about that," Ignis says, putting the car in gear.
Gladio leans back and closes his eyes to Noct smiling at him from across the backseat, sun on his face and the breeze kicking up through his hair as they take off, to Ignis behind the wheel. "Yeah. I think we will."