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on the way to a smile

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Thereʼs been something kind of funny about Ignis Scientia this late.

Which wasnʼt to say it was a bad thing per se…and in fact, there might even be something kinda nice about it. Even pleasant.

It started as randomly as many things did—one day, Ignis just started getting curious about all the stuff Gladio started picking up along the way. Some potions here and there, platinum ingots for extra cash, fossil stuff for Noctisʼ magical experimentations, rare coins…

“Look here,” and Ignis loved to comment on them, sometimes leaning close until he was practically arm to arm with Gladio, “it says M.E. 355. Why, thatʼs even before Niflheim waged war on Lucian territories.” When Gladio breathed in, he caught a whiff of the forest trail and the clean Duscaen breeze, which seemed to only buoy the citrus notes of Ignisʼ convenience store shampoo. He dared another sniff, just because he liked it. Maybe he ought to get this same brand next time. “Now this is quite the rare coin! Who was the ruler back then again…” And Gladio always enjoyed this talkative side of him, too. He didnʼt see it often, most especially not after Insomnia fell.

But here it was again, a little reminder of that spectacled boy he met in his fatherʼs office from what felt like a lifetime ago. And Gladio beamed in equal boyishness at its reappearance, his mood coming up with the corners of his lips. “You wanna keep it?”

Ignis seemed surprised that he should offer, looking to him with sage green eyes resembling the shape of the very gift he held. “Well,” he said after a moment, “I suppose—”

“Gladio, Ignis!” That was Promptoʼs voice, hailing them from up ahead. Heʼd gone first to scout for a shortcut (put his eagle eyes to good use, as Gladio said) and now he was waving at them. Noctis appeared beside him, looking around with the local map they had purchased off a hunter. “We found something,” he announced.

“Got it!” Gladio replied, waving an arm for extra visibility. Quickly before he followed, he pressed the coin to Ignisʼ gloved hand and folded his long fingers around it. “Here, take it.”

Then for good measure, he added a little wink for his friend. “Sell it last, okay?” Why he did, and say that, even Gladio couldnʼt tell. Later that night, Ignis would join him in Crowʼs Nest while Noctis and Prompto played Justice Monsters 5 to tell him which ruler it was who had ordered the coin for circulation.

It would take several more nights until Gladio became aware that this was a new thing between them—Ignis seeking him out just to talk about their day. What happened, what they saw, what he found out.

“Here. This is it.” Ignis passed Gladio his phone so he could look closely at the bulbous fruit on his screen, its rind dimply and a pinker shade of red than what he remembered seeing when Ignis pointed it out to him under the tree. “Itʼs a breed of orange endemic to the region, and presently quite in season.”

“Ooh, probably should have picked it when we had the chance, then.” Gladio scrolled briefly down the lengthy information under the picture before he handed it back to Ignis. It wasnʼt that he was disinterested with his friendʼs discovery but simply put, his interest in it was largely hinged on the man who made it. So he would much rather devote his attention to the same guy than to some text. “Wouldʼve given you some kinda inspiration for your next masterpiece.”

Ignis laughed, facing out to the River Wennath painted white by the moonʼs reflection. They sat with their backs to the campfire, their feet and shadows dangling off the haven. A chilly wind whispered softly to them, blowing as gently as the water flowing downstream. “Oh, I have plenty inspiration these days.”

“Oh yeah?” Gladio let a grin free at his confession, but when it was clear that Ignis was going to stop there, he brought himself closer to his friend to nudge him with an elbow. “Sounds like storytime.” Which was ultimately what made this part of the night quite special for him. He could hardly expect Ignis to indulge him with a random anecdote or factoid while they were working, but after hours, that was a time that was devoted to the two of them.

“You’re serious?” Ignis couldnʼt hide his bemusement. Gladio didnʼt know if it was just him but he thought there was something in his eyes that caught the moon, too.

“That a bad thing?” Gladio shrugged. “Cʼmon, share the wealth.” He nudged him playfully again, making a deliberate effort to lay his weight onto him, but without force. Just enough for them to look like two swaying plants, leaning to one side and then springing back up straight. Ignis tutted at him amicably. At any other point of the day, there was no way Gladio would have been able to do this, and the fact that he could do it now made him a little…bit too cheerful, maybe. “Could use it,” he added.

“You’re funny,” Ignis chuckled, his own voice smiling in the blue shadows of the late night. Gladio listened to him breathe in and sigh out. “Itʼs a terrible thing, why we are out here,” he finally began after a quiet pause. Gladio watched his profile—back straight, chin tilted up just so. He would not even kick his feet. He reminded him almost of an adult forced to behave like a kid and trying his best at it. “But…weʼve seen so many things that I would not have dreamed about while we were caught in the pace of the Citadel. Looking after Noct…almost raising him if we must.”

“Donʼt see much difference.” Gladio smiled at his observation.

It made Ignis laugh—a surprise kind of laughter that erupted in a premature cough. “No, I donʼt suppose there is but…” He shrugged shyly. “But this time, thereʼs all these wonderful insects and creatures and sights. All these fish Noct catches, these flavors…and these cooking methods, I suppose, that I would not have dreamed of trying in a life caught between my apartment and the Citadel. They make me miss home.” He nodded…

Ignis smiled at Gladio. “But I am grateful for them all the same. A, and…” He dipped his head a little, nudging his glasses closer to his face. “I am umm…” He cleared his throat, throwing his attention back to the pearlescent glow of the River Wennath. “I am, too, thankful…for you.” Him?

Gladio straightened up, heat creeping up to the back of his head which only seemed to etch that half-drunk smile wider onto his face. “Me?”

Ignis nodded, glancing at him on his way to inspecting the shadows between his knees. “You should have noted by now that you are the most adventurous among the four of us. Itʼs funny—back in the Crown City, I only take note of it as a guide for buying presents…” He giggled again. “I would never have expected for this…trait of yours to one day become my pillar.” His pillar? “Th, that is to say—” Ignis cast his gaze outwards again, which brought Gladioʼs attention to how tightly he was squeezing the bones of his fingers. “O, our, our pillar. You are always sure-footed, always the bravest one to explore the terrain. It, it…”

Ignis shrugged. “Itʼs inspiring, I suppose!” He sounded like heʼd suppressed a hiccup there, his voice scraping at the back of his throat. “I…” He scratched his brow. “Yes, Iʼm…I do suppose I ought to feel less embarrassed about this but…well, thanks to you, I…all these things Iʼve noted, Iʼve experienced…because…” He glanced at him for one hot second. “Y, you, your presence…quite encourages me to do so…”

The normal thing to do, of course was to not let that shy confession affect him. At least that was what all the books he read told him to do. But a huge part of Gladio hadnʼt allowed himself to forget that part where Ignis said his presence encourages him.

So then there he was, thinking: if his presence was a good thing, then why deny it? He quite enjoyed keeping Ignisʼ presence close to him, too. Gladio loved conversations, loved being friendly. And he loved the feeling that he wasnʼt the only one who was interested in all the sorts of things he was picking up these days on the road. All these beautiful bottles, these funny looking feathers, those colorful scales…anything that caught his eyes, really, he loved to show them to his friend.

“Ignis!” That was his valiant attempt at whispering. In any case, it did the trick; Ignis whipped at him from where he was picking up eggs from the ground nests. Gladio combed the air to draw him closer.

Ignis glanced furtively to each of his sides, creeping towards Gladio who brought himself to the ground on his knees. MT? he signed with one hand. Since their road trip got extended, the four of them had naturally developed some shorthands between themselves.

Gladio crossed his arms to the shape of an X before he brought his finger to his lips. So Ignis moved more quietly across the dry undergrowth, his feet landing shyly with the softest crunches and rustles. He came to crouch next to him soon enough.

Now Gladio could beam, teeth brighter than the setting sun that washed the day in orange light. “Look at what I found.” He pointed to the ground just as Ignis laid his bowl full of eggs on it.

And there stood a bird, striped brown with a pure white belly, chunky enough to resemble an egg with feathers and wings and legs. It was unlike any breed theyʼd seen in Insomnia.

“How adorable,” Ignis commented, bringing his knees up to his chin and covering them with his hands. The bird pecked curiously along its feet, neck snapping forward and right.

And then it hopped forward, its body moving in stuttering motions while its head…

Gladio had been watching Ignis when his charmed expression stretched out into wide wonder as he watched the bird dance without seemingly moving a muscle of its head, as though that was what anchored its tiny form to the air. And that look was all Gladio was hoping for, really. “What a peculiar thing!”

“Funny, huh?” Gladio chuckled. Unfazed by its spectators, the bird hopped onwards like a true-to-life stop motion animation.

“What do you call it?”

Gladio shrugged. “Dunno. I just knew you had to see it.” Heʼd been excited for him to see it.

“How flattering,” Ignis giggled, touching his glasses. “And how vastly entertaining.” And there, finally, Gladio understood what it was about Ignis that left him feeling chipper and pleasant these past few days. It was these hidden sides of him—the one where his soft emerald eyes sparkled like the gemstone, the one that had forgotten to mind the shape and the size of his smile. The one that Gladio couldnʼt seem to detect whenever they were all together, as if it only ever made its appearance when—

When there was nobody watching…but himself.

He felt a little hiccup of a gasp deep in his chest, and then the heat of the day touching his ears and his cheeks. This was something he was allowed to see…and perhaps he was the only one with the license to admire it.

Strange—was it okay for him to feel this way about his friend? Was it natural and normal for him to hear his heart beating like some cliché?

“I shall have to look for it online, then,” Ignis concluded easily as he faced him finally, his rosy expression lighting up the oncoming dusk. There was nothing particularly new about him, of course. He was the same man Gladio had mostly grown up with.

But those bright eyes, intelligent and curious, seemed to affect him differently now, and the elated curve of his lips and the softness that rode his brows. More than the funny bird, this was the one Gladio had come out here looking for—the Ignis who was not Ignis…but a stranger who could only be Ignis.

Gladio drew a smirk up his face, the kind he would normally wear when his heart wasnʼt being replaced by butterflies—like it was now. “Save ya a seat in camp, then.”

“Mmm…should I use this or this…”

For all that Prompto loved his best friend, he couldnʼt bite back a snarl when he whirled at the brunet sitting on his haunches, looking intensely at the two plastic toys in his hands. With a huff, he exhaled to him, “Just pick whatever! Itʼs not like the fish have a favorite color, anyway.”

A dismissive note which Noctis retorted to with a sharp tut and an offended hiss. “Iʼm not talking to anyone who doesnʼt appreciate the science of fishing.”

Prompto laughed with an, “O-ho!” when he finally spun himself towards the open tent flap which Noctis was facing, bringing his camera with him. “Thatʼs right, ‘cause Iʼm an artiste. And in my expert opinion…” He stroked his chin, lips jutted out just slightly as he let out a long hum over the lures Noctis held. “I think you should use the chocobo.” Which wasnʼt a part of the choices but whatever, he had a point. Noctis eyed him under furrowed brows. Prompto shrugged. “What—everyone loves chocobos!”

“Weʼre back,” Ignis announced their return before Noctis could bite back.

With a little start, Prompto scampered up to his feet until he was stumbling out of the tent. “Welcome back! I was about to bring out the marinade but—” He stopped, like a man whoʼd run into an invisible wall and had to bounce back from the impact. There was something kind of weird about Ignis that evening that seemed to stutter all of Promptoʼs thought processes to a careful stop. Something about the way his eyes were shaped into crescents because his cheeks were pushing up to them—

He started again when he could finally put his finger on it, literally pointing to the man who carried a bowl of eggs. Gladio beside him looked on with high, curious brows. “You’re smiling!”

Which was a surefire way of convincing the guy not to smile. Ignis pulled his eyes wide open in a snap. “Mustnʼt I?” he questioned them in his usual Ignis way—eloquent, composed, with a tone of voice that was calculated to hover between somewhere flat and somewhere friendlier.

“No, no, no, itʼs not that!” Prompto continued his approach, waving his hand to wipe the air of any misunderstandings. Noctis had stumbled next to him by now. “Itʼs just that you donʼt always smile.”

Ignis chuckled quietly. It sounded like it was coming from deep within his throat, mingling with his sigh as he dipped his head to reach for his glasses. “Of course one only smiles when the occasion calls for it—”

“What are you talking about?” Gladioʼs voice boomed just then to overpower everything else in the haven. They talked about this but whatever, Gladio will always be Gladio. A meaty arm nudged their serious friend, enough just to draw his attention without overbalancing him. “Ignis always smiles!”

Noctis cracked up just then. “You sure you and I are talking about the same Ignis?” Having been his charge since he was barely just a kid, the former Lucian prince would know.

“Sure am.” Gladio was grinning and wagging his thick brow at Ignis who turned to him one second, frowned and shook his head, and looked elsewhere the next. Gladio jutted his chin towards Promptoʼs direction. “You two just ainʼt fast enough to catch it.”

“Oho!” Prompto straightened up, the pitch of his voice shooting up to the pinkish skies. His camera came up just then. “Is that a challenge?”

“Come now, you shouldnʼt turn this into a contest,” Ignis cut them off, sharp and quiet. “Prompto, whereʼs the marinade?” He started for his loaded working table by the grill.

Prompto took one step towards him. “Ah, like I said, I was about to get it but we brought down the wrong cooler and I need the car keys—”

“Know what?” He turned back in time to see Noctis crossing his arms over his chest, those stupid lures still dangling from his fingers. His chin was tilted upwards just so, and his brow was peaked so that his body language matched his haughty tone. “All Iʼm hearing is that Big olʼ Gladioʼs the only one who can put a smile on Mean olʼ Ignis.”

Prompto started to laugh as Ignis hissed at him, “I resent that!”

Gladio snorted, waving the challenge off the air as he approached them steadily. “Cʼmon, it ainʼt that hard. Itʼs much harder to get you to eat your vegetables.”

“Hey.” Noctis tutted. “I bet you just canʼt do it.”

“Noct, werenʼt you going fishing just now?” Ignis interjected, keeping his focus trained onto the myriad of ingredients Prompto had already laid out for him. Which admittedly wasnʼt much so there was no reason for him to be arranging and rearranging them—

Prompto let out a sudden wail as he stumbled back and jutted out a finger towards the wide-eyed subject of their discussion. “Heʼs blushing! Ignis, youʼre blushing!”

Ignis glared at him, those green daggers threatening him into silence. “I most certainly am not!” he insisted despite his tomato cheeks.

“Well?” Noctis didnʼt care, of course. Seemed like he had bigger things at stake here.

Gladio took one glance at Ignis before he asked him, “Hey Ignis, wanna hear a joke?”

“I hardly think now is the time for jokes, Gladio.” As if they were in the middle of some abandoned ruin, searching for one of Noctʼs ancestors. Or not—Prompto swore Ignis didnʼt sound as cold as his usual retorts back there.

“Cʼmooon, itʼll be a good one!” Bless Gladio for pressing the matter, too.

Finally, with a long sigh, Ignis straightened up and put his back to Prompto so he could stand facing Gladio, his hand on his hips jutted just so. Prompto hurried to the side with his best friend where he could better capture Ignisʼ expression with his camera. “Very well, what is it?” Ignis huffed.

“What did the tonberry tell the chef when they were introduced?”

“What?” Ignis replied snappily.

And now the punchline: “Knife to meet you.” There was one second where the whole world seemed to have just stopped spinning, as if the wind had been too stunned to hear such a stupid joke out loud.

And then there was a bang of a sound, louder than any Prompto had ever produced from his own guns, that made him jump with a panicked yelp. It took him some time to recognize it as a burst of laughter.

And longer still to realize—it was coming from Ignis.

The poor guy was doubled over the full table, all 6-feet of him. He tried to muffle his riotous guffaw by moving a hand to that big smile of his but Prompto had every doubt that anything short of…maybe chocobo-grade tranquilizers would work on him. Gladio himself seemed completely surprised by the effect he had on him.

Eyes as round as his muscles were big, those dark brows nearly kissing his scalp line, Gladio pointed to the messy heap that was Ignis giggling like a drunk—lifting his glasses to wipe his tears on his glove—and beamed toothily. As if he won something at all.

“D,” Noctis jabbed his best friend with his elbow, “dude, did you catch that?” He didnʼt.

Prompto had been too surprised to budge a finger and now, he was worried it would be too rude to capture the moment in his camera. “I didnʼt think the joke would work!”

“Seriously, you couldnʼt even do a worse joke than that.”

“S, shouldnʼt…” Prompto turned to Noctis who stood completely dumbstruck by this surprising side of his advisor. “Shouldnʼt—should—shouldnʼt—shouldnʼt w, we help him?” He thought they should. They needed to eat.

Noctis scratched his head. Finally, he started for Ignis, who was still gasping desperately for breath so he could laugh on.

Dinner ended up being Ignisʼ meat-and-beet bouillon—a Prompto favorite and sadly not one Noctis cared to finish. In the first place, who died and decided that beetroot went well with meat, anyway? It was totally down there with chocolate and beef, or pineapples in pizza, dammit!

Which would be why Noctis would be crawling out of their tent in the middle of daemons oʼ clock because he was hungry and couldnʼt very well sleep with an empty stomach. It was too bad they werenʼt anywhere near an outpost right now, he was jonesing for a double-patty cheeseburger and extra large fries on the side.

He would have to make do with their most prized stash of Cup Noodles, coming away with the last chicken flavor and whatever was left of their hot water in the vacuum flask. Noctis sat himself by the fire, slurping the air in anticipation as he gave the noodles and the broth a quick stir.

Heʼd just started to slurp his first bite when the tent flap opened again and revealed the master of Cup Noodles himself, catching him red-handed with a full waterfall of noodles leading from his mouth.

Fortunately for him, it was easy to make amends for depleting the stocks by making him his own cup of noodles from freshly boiled water. Gladio appeared supremely appeased by the service.

“Ignis is gonna find out, yʼknow?” That was a warning, though it also wasnʼt much of one.

Noctis shrugged, busy with his late dinner. “Not much gets past him, anyway. At least I wonʼt be hungry during the sermon.” Gladio snorted at his rare display of positivity. “Or yʼknow, you could just tell ‘im another joke, thatʼd keep him distracted.”

“What do I look like to you?” Gladio couldnʼt very well laugh out loud but Noctis could read it in his smile that he would have if he could. “Jester of the King? Thought I was some big shot Shield.”

“Bet it comes easily to you.”

“Hey,” Gladio wagged his fork at him, “corny jokes donʼt just grow on trees, okay? And Iʼm out of it.”

Noctis laughed suddenly at his perceptive remark, though he stopped when Gladio pressed a thick finger against his lips and he muffled himself with his own right hand. “Sorry,” he hissed.

He waited to hear anything from the tent before he started with his meal again. “But it really was corny, right? Seriously, though, you should tell him more jokes.”

“Whatʼs this all about, King?” Gladio snapped, frowning like a jilted ex.

“Itʼs not what you think,” Noctis grunted back, clicking his tongue at him and his discontent. “Donʼt you realize he hasnʼt laughed that hard in ages? I donʼt even remember the last time he looked like he was having a good time like that.” Which was true. All the ones he could think of was just Ignis smirking triumphantly or chuckling in that villainous way, light on his glasses and all, over some perfect balance sheet or recipe or whatever. This, in fact, might be the first time he allowed himself to act like his age.

“All Iʼm saying is,” he went on when those thick, dark brows refused to spring back up, “I donʼt think heʼs been this happy in a while and I think itʼd be great, literally for everyone involved, if you didnʼt stop now. He was in such a great mood tonight, he didnʼt even snip at me for my leftovers.”

“Donʼt you mean ‘literally for you involvedʼ?”

Noctis retorted with an obnoxious, “Pfft!” The one that came out partially through his nose. “You’re seriously gonna pretend you donʼt like it when he smiles?”

Gladio copied his noise. “Sure I do.”

“Then thatʼs what Iʼve been trying to tell you!”

Gladio started to laugh from deep within his chest, putting down his late night snack on the ground so he could park both his hands on his thighs. “You think I make ‘im smile,” was his amused comment.

His mood did a complete 180 (as opposed to a 360) in less than a heartbeat as he practically surged forward to gape closely at Noctis, nearly upsetting his Cup Noodles with his sudden movements. “You think I make him smile?!” His apparent shock came out in a gurgled growl of sorts in a desperate attempt to keep his volume down.

“You seriously donʼt know?” Noctis laughed again. “Dude, heʼs been all over you since that time you showed us how to feed bees!”

“No way.” Disbelief was still painted all over him. The picture definition of gaping like a fish.

“Yeah, and remember that coin you gave him? M.E. 355?” He had a captive audience in Gladio who nodded with eyes resembling the moon. “I know he keeps it in his wallet. Like the other coins are in our to-sell junk but this oneʼs his.”

“How did you find out it was me?”

Noctis shrugged. “Who else has a knack of finding those things? He showed it to me one night and gave me a little history lesson.” It was getting more and more difficult to keep his good mood to himself. “One day I teased him about it, I told him we should sell it for cash and he totally just told me to sell my fishing rod first.”

“I told him to sell it last.”

“Nahhh, heʼs never gonna sell it at this rate,” Noctis laughed, finally finishing his dinner. “Iʼm serious, you make him feel good. And that corny joke you made earlier just proved it to me.” He wasnʼt without his ulterior motives at that time, for sure.

He pulled a little at his fringes out of habit. “So…you know, aside from the fact that it keeps him off my back, I think he deserves to be happy, too. It canʼt be easy for him to look after all of us, yʼknow? So…” So he was hoping Gladio would catch the hint and keep Ignis smiling. He put down his elbows on his knees, passing the cue to Gladio.

The guy was smiling, and he was obviously thinking about what heʼd just said. Noctis thought there was something almost kind of wistful about his expression…or whatever it was, it was obvious that he liked what he heard. “Yeah,” Gladio chuckled, his head bouncing to the sound of his own thoughts. “Yeah, I hear you loud and clear.”