“Mmm,” Gladio says over his shoulder. “That smells good.”
Ignis sets the pan on the counter, removes his oven mitts, and looks down at their work. The pieces of the gingerbread house are a rich cinnamon colour, the edges lightly browned. Once they’re trimmed and cooled, they’ll come together to create a quaint little cottage, bejewelled with gumdrops and jelly beans and assorted other tooth-rotting confections.
“They did turn out nicely,” Ignis agrees.
“How long ’til we can assemble ‘em?”
“When they’ve finished cooling.” Ignis nervously pushes his glasses up his nose, all too aware of how close Gladio is standing. He’s a solid wall of heat against Ignis’s back. “We’ll move them to a rack in a few minutes to expedite the process.”
“And in the meantime?”
Ignis clears his throat and reaches for the mixing bowl on the other end of the counter. “We need to make the royal icing. Can you please get me the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract?”
Gladio moves away, and some of the tension leaves Ignis’s muscles. Not that he’s opposed to having Gladio near. Far from it. It’s just that they’ve only been seeing each other for two weeks, and Ignis still can’t quite gauge how much physical contact would be appropriate. They’ve only been on a few dates. They’ve hardly touched beyond holding hands and exchanging brief kisses before parting at the end of the evening.
And besides that, Gladio asked Ignis to help him make this gingerbread house as a solstice surprise for Iris. Canoodling is likely the last thing on his mind.
“Here you go.” Gladio slaps the bag of confectioners’ sugar down on the counter, followed by the bottle of vanilla extract. “Anything else?”
“The egg whites.”
Gladio snaps his fingers and goes to the refrigerator to retrieve the final ingredient, while Ignis plugs in the stand mixer he brought with him. When Gladio brings him the egg whites, he carefully measures out one cup and pours it into the mixing bowl along with the vanilla.
“You can transfer the gingerbread pieces to the cooling rack now,” Ignis says as he turns the mixer on and begins to add the confectioners’ sugar in small increments. “Be careful. They’ll be fragile.”
“You got it.”
Ignis watches out of the corner of his eye as Gladio slips a spatula under one of the walls of the gingerbread house and deftly transfers it to the cooling rack. He can’t help smiling fondly; despite his hot temper, Gladio can be so gentle and considerate. That’s one of the qualities Ignis admires most about him. It’s what makes him feel safe when Gladio holds his hand.
Once all the confectioners’ sugar has been added, Ignis turns the mixer to the highest setting and lets it run. By now, Gladio has already finished moving the gingerbread pieces off the pan. He’s leaning against the counter on one elbow and watching Ignis with a lazy grin.
“I ever told you how good you look when you’re cooking?” he asks.
The compliment startles a smile out of Ignis. He shakes his head, warm pleasure blooming within him. “I’m afraid not. You usually just tell me how good the food looks.”
“Right. The food.” Gladio smirks and paws through the bags of candy they picked up at the market earlier. “So how are we decorating this thing?”
“Well, I thought we might use the gumdrops to make shingles,” Ignis says, thinking back to the plans he sketched out last night, “and the peppermints as wreaths for the siding.”
“And the licorice?” Gladio extracts a string of red candy from the bag and dangles one end of it into his mouth.
“We’ll use it to line the eaves.”
Gladio nods thoughtfully, chewing. “Nice. I think Iris’ll like it.”
“I think so too.” Ignis stops the mixer and gives the icing a stir. It drips thickly off the wooden spoon—perfect for gluing the pieces of gingerbread together. “Let’s cover this and get it into the fridge until we’re ready to decorate. Where’s the plastic wrap?”
“In the drawer behind you.”
Before Ignis can turn to retrieve it, Gladio reaches around him to dip his finger into the icing. Then he puts it in his mouth, and Ignis is momentarily distracted by the way his lips form a perfect, enticing O around the digit as he savours its sweetness. Is Gladio aware of how provocative he looks? He must be. If there is one thing Gladio has never been oblivious about, it is his own magnetism.
Still, Ignis has the presence of mind to slap Gladio’s hand away when he goes back to the bowl for more.
“If you keep that up, we won’t have any left for the gingerbread house,” he chastises.
“Okay, party pooper.” Gladio takes him by the hips and turns him until they’re facing each other, pinning Ignis between his broad body and the counter. “That ain’t the sugar I really want, anyway.”
Ignis stares at him, his heart fluttering. Up close, Gladio is terribly handsome and utterly irresistible, and the way he looks at Ignis is entirely too provocative. Ignis swallows and places a hand on Gladio’s chest to keep him at bay, earning himself a smirk in response.
“If you think you’ll win me over with such saccharine propositions, you’re mistaken,” he says.
“Saccharine? Was that a pun?” Gladio’s smirk widens. “I’m pretty sure that means you have to pay the pun tax.”
Ignis sniffs. “There’s no such thing. And besides, we’re in your family’s kitchen.”
“So?” Gladio asks. “We’ve got some time to kill before the gingerbread’s done cooling. Besides…” He lifts Ignis’s chin with the knuckle of his index finger, tilting his face up until their eyes meet. “I’ve been thinkin’ about kissing you since the minute you got here.”
The idea of Gladio desiring him these past few hours—while doing something so mundane as mixing the batter for a gingerbread house, no less—puts a hot flush up the back of Ignis’s neck. His own longing must be evident on his face; before he can speak another word, Gladio leans in to kiss him.
His soft, warm mouth tastes like candy. Although Ignis has never cared much for sweet flavours, he finds he doesn’t mind them on Gladio’s lips. He curls his fingers in the fabric of Gladio’s shirt and cautiously dips his tongue into his mouth, tasting red licorice and vanilla. It’s the deepest kiss they’ve ever shared—and likely to grow deeper yet, as Gladio puts his arms around Ignis’s waist to pull him closer.
But then someone clears their throat. Ignis shoves Gladio away, his ears going hot, and glances over to find Jared standing in the doorway.
“Apologies for disturbing you, gentlemen,” he says, his eyes averted and his face a mask of diplomacy. “I just need to get the shopping list off the fridge.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ll grab it.” Gladio slips a sheet of paper out from under a magnet on the refrigerator and brings it over to Jared with an easy demeanour, as though being caught necking by the family’s butler is an everyday occurrence. “Here you go.”
Jared tucks the list into the inner pocket of his jacket. “Thank you. I’ll let you gentlemen get back to your…” He clears his throat and makes a vague gesture at the kitchen island, where the gingerbread pieces are still cooling beside the bags of candy. “…Activities.”
Ignis’s cheeks burn, but Gladio just laughs and turns back to Ignis like nothing happened. As though Jared’s interruption hasn’t extinguished the mood as surely as baking soda thrown on a grease fire.
“So,” Gladio says, leaning against the counter and fixing Ignis with a roguish look, “should we pick up where we left off?”
“Yes, I believe we should,” Ignis says crisply, his face still warm as he turns to get the plastic wrap out of the drawer behind him. “The icing still needs to be put in the refrigerator. If you’d be so kind?”
“Aw, c’mon, Iggy, that ain’t what I meant.”
“I’m aware. However, Iris will be home in—” He checks his watch. “—An hour and fifteen minutes, which leaves us precious little time to assemble and decorate the house. Unless you plan on disappointing your sister?”
Gladio stands up a little straighter. “Never.”
“Well, then, hop to it.”
“All right, all right, you don’t gotta tell me twice.” Gladio nicks a gumdrop from the bag in front of him and tosses it into his mouth. As he chews, he gives Ignis a hopeful look. “But after?”
“After?” Smiling, Ignis slides the plastic wrap and bowl of icing across the counter toward him. It’s difficult to deny Gladio anything he asks for, especially when he’s looking at Ignis like that. Difficult, too, to resist those lips. “I think a kiss under the mistletoe would be just the thing,” he says softly.