“This,” Ferdinand declares, “is going to be a disaster.”
At the moment, Ferdinand is fussing with a golden silk cravat, but he’s too wound up to accomplish much with it. He radiates nervous energy of a sort Hubert rarely sees from him, pacing the dressing room with a steady click of his boots. Hubert, who’s been dressed and ready for at least an hour, pushes himself off the chaise longue and squeezes Ferdinand’s shoulders to stall him.
“What’re you so anxious for, darling? Please.” He closes his hands around Ferdinand’s. “Let me help you.”
“I can do it—oh, fine.” With a dramatic flap of his fingers and a sigh, Ferdinand relinquishes control.
“It’s going to be perfectly all right.” Hubert tugs the silk through its loop and tucks the ends into Ferdinand’s gold brocade waistcoat. “As have all your appearances, governor.” He tips down the ends of Ferdinand’s shirt collars, then traces teasing fingertips along the lines of Ferdinand’s jaw.
“Mmph. You’re unusually optimistic.” But Ferdinand shivers at the touch, drawing a wry grin from Hubert.
“I don’t need optimism,” he says. “I only need my reputation.”
Ferdinand gasps. “Hubert!” He swats Hubert’s hands away. “You are not allowed to threaten my cabinet members.”
“Who said anything about threats? Honestly.” Hubert selects a jeweled tie pin from Ferdinand’s extensive collection, and holds it aloft, sharp end gleaming. “My mere presence does the job for me. And I don’t see what you’re worked up about, anyway. It’ll be an official function like any other, no better and no worse.”
Ferdinand whines, but manages to hold still as Hubert slides the pin into place, then steps back to look at Ferdinand in full.
“Oh,” Hubert says, his throat suddenly thick. “Darling. You look . . .”
Divine doesn’t begin to cover it; delicious is accurate, but hardly encompasses everything that is Ferdinand von Aegir. In a deep green velvet coat and gold brocade, with orange locks flowing around him, he’s like a vision of late summer come to warm Hubert’s bones at this dreary winter’s end. Mesmerizing, enchanting might be a start, but even these, Hubert can’t voice.
“Acceptable?” Ferdinand asks.
“Yes,” he breathes. “A thousand times yes.”
He steps forward; cups Ferdinand’s face in his bare hands. He burned most of the sensation from his fingertips long ago, but he imagines how that skin feels; he certainly recalls the way it tastes. Ferdinand sighs, bright eyes lidding, as Hubert leans in and brushes their lips together. Gentle, pliant, perfect.
The trouble with kissing Ferdinand once, though, is that it then becomes impossible to stop. Next thing he knows, he’s backed Ferdinand against the floor-length mirrored panel of his dressing room, and his fingers are tangled in silky hair, and his teeth are sinking into the delicate, plush flesh of Ferdinand’s lower lip, and he’s clutching at the back of a thigh as Ferdinand brushes long fingers at the small of his back—
“Damn it all,” Ferdinand exhales. He tilts his head back to break the kiss, which has the rather convenient side effect of exposing slender, creamy skin to Hubert’s mouth, and he takes advantage of it to the fullest. “—Wait. Wait. Damn it, Hubert. We’re going to be late.”
Hubert groans, but keeps his mouth firmly in place, sucking out a beautiful cry from Ferdinand. “I don’t care,” he mutters into his jaw.
“But I do. I have to.” Ferdinand’s arms drop down to his sides. “They already think I’m a dunce because I’d read the wrong draft of the agricultural relief bill before yesterday’s meeting, and then this whole ‘artistic endowment’ grant has been one colossal headache after the other . . .”
Hubert juts his lower lip out in a pout, but relents, backing up enough to let Ferdinand escape. Ferdinand turns to stand before him, facing the mirror to straighten his suit back into place. The still-unreal sight of them together like this, Ferdinand’s brilliant hues against his own suit of black and deep purple, is almost enough to make up for his considerable disappointment at not peeling that suit off of him right now.
“You’re not a dunce.” He smooths Ferdinand’s hair, by way of apologizing for his amorous dishevelment of same. “Either an aide gave you the wrong draft on accident, or they did it on purpose to humiliate you, in which case I’ll be having a very short conversation with them at the end of a long blade—”
Ferdinand sticks his tongue out at him in the mirror. “Later, darling. Come.” He laces his hand in Hubert’s. “I’m sure our carriage is waiting.”
With a devilish grin, Hubert kisses his knuckles. “Oh. Just one second. I forgot something.” He slides open a drawer, and selects a pair of gloves. Thin, butter-soft black leather, custom crafted for him; darting is stitched along the backs of the gloves, while a delicate row of jet buttons fasten them in place at his wrist. He makes a careful show of slipping each one on in turn, and is rewarded with a stuttering inhale from Ferdinand as he looks on.
“O-oh. You’re wearing those . . . ?”
Hubert slips the last button into place with agonizing slowness, relishing the flush quite visible on Ferdinand’s cheeks. “Should I not?”
“Well—It’s only that—That is, you usually wear those—” Ferdinand shakes his head, his whole face a deep scarlet. “Never mind. Let’s be on our way.”
Hubert takes care to run the back of one gloved finger against his cheek as they make their way from the room, and doesn’t miss Ferdinand’s quick inhale of breath. “As my governor commands.”
Their ultimate destination is the Mittelfrank Opera House, but first, they must plod through an uncomfortable dinner with Ferdinand’s cabinet members, their spouses, and the newly-selected ‘cultural ambassadors’ who are the subject of the evening’s celebration. In the interest of promoting Adrestian-Faerghan harmony, read the official purpose of Governor von Aegir’s decree establishing this artistic grant. The grant’s recipients, a composer from Faerghus and a librettist from Adrestia, have been awarded a generous stipend along with tonight’s production of their first joint opera, Kingdom in Bloom.
It isn’t Hubert’s first time attending state functions as Ferdinand’s plus-one, but the awkwardness of the arrangement has yet to subside. They’ve taken great care not to define their relationship publicly, but in Hubert’s semi-official role as the governor’s personal secretary, his presence shouldn’t raise eyebrows. The reality, however, is considerably trickier.
A sizable portion of Ferdinand’s current administration is carried over from the Imperial civil service, albeit sufficiently removed from Emperor Edelgard’s work to have avoided close scrutiny from their new Faerghan overlords. But even if they weren’t, there’s no disguising who von Vestra is, or more specifically, was. It’s one thing to have processed paperwork to keep the imperial troops marching during the war. The late emperor’s personal assassin and spymaster is something else entirely, particularly when the reasons behind his royal pardon are shrouded in great secrecy.
Only Ferdinand’s continued insistence he has nothing to apologize for keeps him attending at all. That, and the intelligence-gathering possibilities it always affords him. And there is something to be said in the delight he will occasionally take in tormenting Governor von Aegir the whole time. Particularly after he was denied a perfect opportunity tonight to make the governor watch himself get fucked against his own dressing room mirror.
So when the Secretary of Trade launches into a dreary recounting of her wife’s latest regatta race, Hubert hooks his leg around Ferdinand’s beside him and uses it to tug Ferdinand’s thighs apart.
When the opera’s composer bloviates on his creative process, Hubert rests his palm, light as can be, on the inside of Ferdinand’s thigh and permits his fingers to make a slow sweep upward.
And when the Secretary of Construction sloshes his wine glass and asks, “Remind me what exactly it is you’re doing here, von Vestra?” he forces himself to ignore the embarrassed gasps around the table, and digs his fingertips into Ferdinand’s thigh instead.
“My primary occupation is remaining five hundred and one miles away from Fhirdiad,” Hubert says smoothly, earning at least a few nervous laughs. “But I provide many services to Governor von Aegir.” With one hand, he props his chin on his fist, while the other concludes its arduous journey up Ferdinand’s muscular thigh. His efforts are rewarded with the hint of a rapidly hardening cock outlined against the front of Ferdinand’s breeches, and the faintest gasp that only he can hear. As he curls his fingers around it, he only barely manages to suppress the sudden huskiness in his voice—“Whatever the governor might require, then I aim to achieve it to the fullest.”
“Well!” the Secretary of the Judiciary barks, and tosses back her . . . fifth glass of champagne, if Hubert’s tracking correctly. “We had a bet, you see. We thought you two were—well.”
“We’ve all heard the rumors,” the Secretary of Trade adds.
Very slowly, Hubert turns his head Ferdinand’s way. Because isn’t this just the scenario he’d been hoping to avoid? Now that one of the vultures has gotten it in their mind, it’s summoned all of them, and they’re all too eager to pick over what will soon be the corpse of Ferdinand’s political career.
“Well,” Hubert starts, and stares pointedly at Ferdinand, who looks as though he’s been holding his breath for several minutes. “So sorry to disappoint, but we aren’t—”
“We’re courting!” Ferdinand blurts, scarlet-faced. “Yes. Courting. I, uh . . . we . . . we go back many years . . .”
“Courting,” the Secretary of Trade echoes.
Hubert raises his eyebrows. “Courting.”
And more than anything, he hates the rush of warmth the very word sends through him, so unexpected and archaic and so terribly Ferdinand, and it isn’t even a word he knew he wanted but it’s suddenly the dearest and most precious word he could imagine—
Which is why he has to crush it now, before it has a chance to burrow inside him and make this even worse.
Hubert releases his grasp on Ferdinand, who whimpers faintly. “I’m afraid the governor is only teasing you all,” he says, and tries to keep the sourness in his tone from burning a hole through his heart. “He is far too upstanding a citizen to be associated with such a dangerous relic of the, ah, previous regime, shall we say.” And here, he narrows his eyes at Ferdinand with grievous intent. “After all, the political implications alone would be devastating.”
Ferdinand bites his lower lip as a pained expression settles on his face, not at all unlike a puppy who’s just been kicked. “Uh—yes. Only a jest.”
Hubert forces himself to look away and fists his hand in his own lap. He’s no fool, of course. The servants at the governor’s mansion are perfectly aware that his private quarters see little use outside of secretarial work. But he has personally vetted each of them, and guaranteed their silence through whatever blend of increased compensation and implied threat is necessary.
He can’t stop rumors and speculation. But outright confirmation would, he fears, be catastrophic to everything Ferdinand is trying to rebuild. And Hubert will absolutely, definitively not be the cause of any plot against the governor, regardless of his ability to dispatch said scheming with alarming swiftness and violence. Ferdinand deserves better than that.
And the old whispers that have trailed him for the better part of six years come roaring forth: Ferdinand deserves better than me.
All eyes are on Ferdinand as he forces a hysterical laugh. “Yes. Only a joke, gentlefolk,” he says, sparking even more nervous laughter from the assemblage. “C-could you imagine? It’d be like courting a—a spider,” he adds, and this time, the laughter is more genuine.
Hubert smiles. Summons up a laugh, too. This was his choice, after all. Because he’d do anything to protect Ferdinand from this pit of vipers—even if what he’s protecting him from is Hubert himself.
After a seemingly eternal procession of duck confit and spaetzle and three kinds of tortes that neither of them really touch, they at last make their way to the opera house, and the governor’s private box therein. Ferdinand had invited a few of his cabinet members to join them in the box, but none seemed inclined to take him up on the offer after the stilted supper; Hubert can hardly feel disappointment over that. As governor, Ferdinand’s arrival has to be celebrated with a spotlight sweeping over him and an ovation from the crowd, and Hubert retreats into the box’s shadows to grant him his moment while he arranges for the delivery of an iced bottle of champagne.
Not that the promise of champagne seems to do any good as Ferdinand drops into his seat with a forceful sigh.
“Something the matter, love?” Hubert asks, though he’s certain he already knows.
Ferdinand peers at him sideways, face partially veiled by his beautiful locks. “Well. I suppose it isn’t the worst opera date I’ve ever had.” He snorts. “Although I guess you’re going to tell me this isn’t a date, either.”
Hubert absorbs the words like a physical blow. “Darling,” he says.
Ferdinand sticks his nose in the air, being deliberately petulant now—but Hubert doesn’t miss the slight sheen to his eyes, and wants to curse himself all over again.
“Ferdinand,” he coos. “Radiant creature whom I adore with my whole heart and soul.”
Ferdinand huffs, but finally glances his way.
“You . . . deserve to be courted,” Hubert manages, and now he fears his own eyes might dampen. I’m not certain I can say the same for myself.
“But you don’t wish to court me,” Ferdinand says. “I—I thought that’s what were doing. Courting.” He lowers his gaze. “I don’t know what else to call it. No, we weren’t being particularly public about it, but I thought we—But if you don’t wish to—”
Hubert turns toward him; gently rests a hand on his knee. “I wouldn’t be living with you, spending my days and nights at your side, if I didn’t wish it. There’s nothing in this world I wish more.” And he hates how exposed he feels now, disarmed and defenseless. “I love you. With a fierceness. And were it not out of concern for you, I would shout from the rooftops.”
Ferdinand closes his hand on top of Hubert’s; when he looks up, his cheeks are the most glorious shade of pink. “Then what is it you’re so afraid of?”
A von Vestra must always be ready for the harsh sweep of light, his father’s voice reminds him. “I suspect the despicable array of politicians who comprise your cabinet and parliament might use my—ah, my past—to cast aspersions on you and your ability to lead.”
“Oh,” Ferdinand says, arching one eyebrow, “so it’s not that you’re embarrassed to be linked to me. It’s that you think I’m too incompetent to manage my own political affairs.”
Hubert cringes. “You are a gifted politician. Only it’s that—I see no need to place you at a disadvantage—”
“The person most likely to try to leverage you against me is the Secretary of Trade,” Ferdinand says. “She reeks with her disgust at being passed over by His Majesty. Which is precisely why I switched my allegiance from the von Trauer relief bill that she supported—even though it was more all-encompassing—to the von Ramheim proposal, effectively robbing her of the vast majority of her allies. She can move against me all she likes.” He smirks. “It won’t do her a damned bit of good on her own.”
“Flames, Ferdie.” Hubert lets out a shaky breath. “I . . . admit I was wondering about that—”
“And now you know why. I promise, love.” Ferdinand laces their fingers together. “While I certainly appreciate all your shadowy maneuvers, I’m quite capable of watching out for myself, as well.”
Hubert didn’t know it was possible to fall further in love with Ferdinand, but here he is, gazing at this being of pure sunshine but also unobtrusive cleverness, this bright warmth he wants to wrap himself in. “I’m sorry. I should have simply . . . spoken to you about my concerns—”
“It does work, sometimes.” Ferdinand smiles softly.
“It’s only that—I do not wish to be an impediment to you. In any way.”
“Don’t you?” Ferdinand leans closer, conspiratorial. “Because that doesn’t stop you from—from vexing me at the most inopportune times.”
And Ferdinand is clearly pouting, now, but the jut of his lower lip is so bloody precious, the reddish tinge to his cheeks and the tips of his ears so endearing, that it only makes Hubert want to vex him all the more.
“My apologies, governor,” Hubert says smoothly. “I was under the impression you enjoyed those particular vexations.”
Slowly, Ferdinand rounds on him; cups one hand around the back of Hubert’s head. Slender fingers fan against Hubert’s scalp, at once soothing and reassuring, but just enough this side of teasing to let him know Ferdinand’s true motive. Hubert stifles his first instinct, which is to pull back—the house lights are still up, and there are countless nosy patrons with opera glasses—but he suppresses it. Perhaps it wouldn’t kill him to try Ferdinand’s way for a change.
Courting. Flames. If his old self could only see how giddy this all makes him.
“I enjoy,” Ferdinand murmurs, bringing their foreheads together, “when you deliver on your promises.”
Hubert has plenty he wishes to say to that—and, more importantly, do—but they’re interrupted then by the usher arriving with their refreshments.
“You see, Ferdie? I might be six years late—but I did bring you your champagne.”
Ferdinand’s smile is devastatingly bright. “And will you be staying in your seat this time?”
Hubert pours them each a glass with a wry smirk. “Well, I’ll be staying in our box, at least.” He returns the bottle to its bucket of ice and hoists his glass in a toast. “To Governor von Aegir, and whatever Faerghan excuse for an opera we’re about to suffer through.”
“To his indefatigable secretary von Vestra, may he one day allow me to sully my good reputation as much as I damned well please.”
Something dark and exhilarating laces Hubert’s blood at that. “Oh, darling,” he purrs, “you really should be careful what you wish for.”
“Should I?” With a smile, Ferdinand turns back toward the opera hall, and the house lights lower and the strings section churns to life to begin the overture to Kingdom in Bloom.
And thus begins the most horrific aural assault Hubert has ever experienced in his life.
The worst of Adrestian symphonic blaring brass has twined with Faerghans’ love of needlessly wordy lyrics into an outright deadly monstrosity, thorny with clunky consonants and flatulent chord progressions. And that’s to say nothing of the plot itself: a maudlin pastiche of the Faerghan king Loog and the early Adrestian emperor Wilhelm, painting them as though they were dear friends and not mortal enemies. All at a volume that makes it impossible to hear himself think, much less attempt any sort of conversation with his delectable opera companion.
Finally, during one of the more saccharine ballads, there’s a lull in the onslaught. “Oh, dear,” Ferdinand utters, staring straight ahead as if watching a carriage crash. “This is . . . this is abominable.”
“Emblematic of your reunification efforts, love?”
“Saints, I hope not. But I fear we—” His throat bobs with a swallow. “Some gross errors in judgment have been made.”
“Well, at least with your blessing, I can stop pretending to enjoy this atrocity.” He turns toward Ferdinand; rubs his cheek against his velvet-clad shoulder. “Are you still cross with me?”
“Cross? No. Only . . . I wish things could be simpler.” Ferdinand turns in kind, and kisses Hubert’s forehead. And even that slight touch is enough to send a rush through Hubert, warming him and soothing him all at once. “Not that I suppose we’ve ever chosen the simple path, have we?”
“But you’re my favorite challenge to dismantle.” The music is building again; Hubert rights himself to speak the words directly into Ferdinand’s ear as he teases a lock of bright hair and tucks it back. “I don’t suppose you know how much more of this terror we must endure?”
He senses the slight catch in Ferdinand’s chest as he considers those words. “An hour, at the least.” He shivers as Hubert reaches up to trace a gloved thumb against his lower lip, tugging at it. “And a booth shrouded in shadows . . . no chance of being heard over this nightmare . . . mm.” He closes his mouth around Hubert’s thumb. “And you’re wearing those damned gloves and you owe me from supper—”
“For the teasing, or for the whole—courting business?”
A slight pressure as Ferdinand bites down on his thumb. “Yes.”
Hubert chuckles, dark and low, in his ear.
“And our last opera date besides. You’re racking up quite a tally, von Vestra.”
“Mm. Then I suppose it’s for the best.” Hubert closes his mouth around his delicate ear lobe in a sucking swirl, and drags his teeth against it.
Hubert’s mouth pops wetly off his ear. “That I came prepared to utterly take you apart.”
With his lips pressed to Ferdinand’s neck, he feels the moan that leaves him, and it strikes a flint deep inside Hubert. He wants a great many things—as the unsettling way those two words from Ferdinand took his breath away earlier, We’re courting—but right now, his fiercest and most immediate wants are rather more carnal. Ferdinand and his skin that always smells of lavender. The sweet sighs Hubert can pluck out of him, ever striving to discover new and delicious chords to play. The way Hubert loses himself when Ferdinand is inside of him, becomes his whole world—and the relentless focus he gives Ferdinand when he’s the one leading. The slightly bitter taste of Ferdinand’s come, just enough to remind Hubert he’s real, that he isn’t only some dreamlike confection locked inside Hubert’s own mind.
“I want you positively wrecked when they drag you onto that stage at the end,” Hubert growls. “You want everyone to know just what we are? Then let them see you marked. Sweaty. Destroyed. Fucked.”
Ferdinand seizes him by his tie at that, and pulls him into a frantic kiss, teeth at Hubert’s lower lip, free hand to Hubert’s chest. And for once it’s Hubert caught off-guard, but he recovers quickly, shoving Ferdinand’s chair deeper into the shadowy recesses of their private box as he climbs onto Ferdinand’s lap. He licks into Ferdinand’s mouth, none too gently, and hums with an insatiable hunger.
“Would you do that?” Ferdinand whispers. “Let the world know?”
Hubert hesitates, head dizzy as blood rushes away from it. “It’s clearly quite important to you.”
Ferdinand tightens his grip on Hubert’s tie. “That isn’t the same as you wishing it, though.”
“You seem to have me at an unfair advantage. But—yes.” He laughs, as nervous as if they were still teenagers. “It would be an honor for you to claim me.”
Ferdinand kisses him again with a greedy sweep of his tongue, then eases his hold on Hubert’s tie with a grin. “Then I think we can come to some amenable terms.”
In response, Hubert drops a hand between them, and picks up right where he’d left off from supper: thumb and forefinger just brushing against the edges of Ferdinand’s cock where it’s trapped against his trousers. And the thing about Ferdinand is that he has absolutely no capacity to suppress his cries and moans—and for the first time all evening, Hubert has to admit the orchestral abomination sawing away behind them is genius, actually, as Ferdinand’s hips rock forward with undiminished want.
“That’s it, love. Let me hear you,” he says, just as the mezzosoprano playing the Maiden (of ‘Loog and’ fame) skewers a high E. He curls his fingers, palming Ferdinand’s cock more insistently now. “Tell me just what you need.”
Ferdinand trembles beneath him, and fuck if it doesn’t tighten Hubert’s balls most excruciatingly. “Y-your mouth,” Ferdinand says. “I want your mouth.”
“Mm, like this?” Hubert teases, and works slow kisses up and down his jaw.
“No, you shit.” He slips his long fingers under Hubert’s vest. A quick swirl of his thumb, and he’s teasing at Hubert’s nipple through the fabric of his dress shirt.
Hubert exhales, ragged, against Ferdinand’s throat. “O-oh. I see.” He carefully eases a single button open on Ferdinand’s trousers. “You want my mouth on that glorious cock of yours, then.”
Ferdinand hisses through gritted teeth; in retaliation, he pinches Hubert’s nipple between two fingers. “Always. Yes. But . . .”
He kisses him again, sucking Ferdinand’s tongue into his mouth. Refusing to let go as Ferdinand squirms and whimpers against him. When he finally eases up, he’s working at the next button down Ferdinand’s trousers. “But . . . ?”
“Well.” And even in the dark shroud of the private booth, he can feel the heat radiating off Ferdinand’s face, and he kisses at Ferdinand’s patches of freckles by memory: cheekbone, bridge of nose, cheekbone. “Well. You did wear those gloves, and . . .”
Hubert laughs. Nips at his delicate throat. “Oh, beloved.” And at last, he eases the final button loose. “Are you implying some sort of special significance to these gloves?”
“Yes,” Ferdinand whines. “Damn it, yes.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you mean.” He slides both hands, now, into Ferdinand’s unfastened trousers and runs his palms against muscular hips. “You’ll have to enlighten me.”
“Damn it,” Ferdinand whispers, and Hubert slithers out of his lap, kissing down his fully clothed abdomen as he does so. “You always wear them when you want to—So when you use your—your tongue, your mouth . . . and then finally, finally, those fingers . . .”
With a firm grip on Ferdinand’s hips, Hubert scoots him forward, forcing him toward the edge of his plush armchair as he shoves Ferdinand’s trousers down his thighs. Hubert’s resting on his knees on the floor of the box, now, and there’s just enough light emanating off the stage to offer a delicious glimpse of Ferdinand’s cock, exposed and heavy, rising from a soft thatch of orange hair. With a hungry exhale, he lets his breath gust over the head, and is rewarded with another needy whine.
“When I use them to what?” Hubert asks, and bites at pale, muscular thigh. Fuck, he loves those powerful thighs. Whether they’re wrapped around his hips or his face, or thrusting Ferdinand into him, or just tensing under his lightest touch.
“To—loosen me up.” Then, making a frustrated grab at Hubert’s hair, he finally adds—“For your cock.”
Hubert laughs against the inside of his thigh. Though he knows Ferdinand’s perfectly capable of spewing some utterly, dizzyingly filthy things, it always takes some warming up for him to reach that point. “Ahh, I see. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Not quickly enough,” Ferdinand snaps, and his thigh muscles ripple. Beyond them, the opera reaches yet another noisy cavalcade of brass and timpani.
“Well, your clothing—lovely as it is—is a bit of an impediment. Here.” Hubert sets to work unfastening Ferdinand’s boots, then slips them off, one at a time, hands lingering over taut calf muscles. Then, just because Ferdinand’s getting so damned impatient, he feathers at the backs of his knees, right where he’s most ticklish.
“Damn it, Hubert!” Ferdinand whisper-hisses. “We don’t have an eternity—”
“Oh, but it certainly feels that way.” Hubert jerks his head toward the stage and the raucous ensemble number playing out there now. “Mm, and didn’t I say something about being careful what you wished for?”
“Yes, but I thought you were threatening to ravish me, not—whatever it is you’re doing down there.”
Hubert resumes his work easing Ferdinand’s trousers down the rest of the way. “I came here to appreciate the fine arts, and I’m appreciating them.” He trails one fingertip up the inside of Ferdinand’s sculpted calf, firm thighs—stops just at the base of his flushed, leaking cock. “I’m appreciating them very much.”
“Begging me already?” And Hubert can’t help it—that needy tone in Ferdinand’s voice is just as good as a tight grip on his own shaft. “Sweet Ferdie. We’ve so far to go for you to be resorting to begging.”
Ferdinand tangles his fingers in Hubert’s hair—not pressing him forward, but encouraging him nonetheless. “Would you rather I not beg?”
Hubert hoists both of Ferdinand’s legs up and hooks them over his shoulders, sending Ferdinand tipping back precariously in his chair. Thigh muscles well-honed on horseback clench hard around his face as Ferdinand struggles to regain his balance.
“Flames, no. Beg away.”
Ferdinand’s fingers tighten immediately in his hair as Hubert mouths at his balls; tips him even more awkwardly to work his lips further beneath Ferdinand. His skin is searing hot as Hubert bites at the underside of carved-granite cheeks; his smell is so utterly Ferdinand that even Hubert has to let out a sharp moan with sudden want. He rakes his tongue along the seam of Ferdinand’s ass and loses himself in that dizzying scent. The scent of moonlit nights and the first hint of dawn, of Ferdinand tear-streaked and undone, of promises and threats fulfilled after too many years of yearning, imagining, and yet not even his filthiest fantasies from then can compare to what they have now.
“Fuck,” Ferdinand whispers. “Goddess. Fuck. Hubert—”
He pries Ferdinand wider with gloved hands and flicks his tongue deeper, resting now against Ferdinand’s tightly clenched opening. After lapping back and forth a few times, he taps on Ferdinand’s haunch with his gloved palm—an unspoken command for him to relax.
“S-sorry,” Ferdinand says. “You’re just . . .”
And Hubert knows damn well, because he relishes it every time, the slightest nudge of his tongue inside, as if he’s pushing that throaty gasp out of Ferdinand’s lips. He’s nearly hoisted Ferdinand fully off the chair, and he alternates between pressing in, licking, biting at the tender flesh around his hole; savoring the clutch and release of Ferdinand’s thighs, the earthy and hungry taste of him, the gasps as he pushes deeper, but never quite enough, never enough to satisfy his glorious lover.
“Please, Hubert, please.” And then, softer, barely audible over the bellowing chorus—“At least touch yourself for me?”
“Yes,” Hubert breathes, or tries to—settles for biting hard on delectable von Aegir ass instead. It’s embarrassing to him, but just the sheer amount of pleasure Ferdinand seems to derive from his every ministration pushes Hubert dangerously toward the edge; knowing he’s treating Ferdinand well is nearly all the pleasure he needs. But he’s not nearly done with him tonight, not by half. So after taking a moment to steady himself—and idle his tongue back and forth against Ferdinand’s hole—he allows himself to lower one hand to his own trousers and carefully unfastens them.
“Thank you,” Ferdinand says, kneading his fingers in Hubert’s hair. “Goddess, you’re so damned good, and I just want—I want you to feel good, too.”
As if that could ever be in doubt where Ferdinand is involved. But Ferdinand’s voice sounds thick, overwhelmed, as he often is during sex—such a lovely, blooming thing he is, who feels so much and so deeply that it makes Hubert want to weep in turn. How he ever persuaded this mythical being to so much as look his way, much less be cherished by him, day and night—
Flames, and he had the audacity to deny the gift Ferdinand had offered him earlier—the gift of telling the world what they are. And for what? Because he was afraid? Hubert von Vestra does not get afraid.
He protects—fiercely, viciously, by any means necessary. With poison, words, sigils, blades in the night. He is the thing to be feared.
When he isn’t being an obtuse idiot, that is.
“Hubert?” Ferdinand whispers. “You, ah—you can breathe, right?”
He jabs his tongue once more, to a startled cry from Ferdinand, then eases his face back out of those vise-like thighs. “I was only thinking what a shame it was to neglect your many other beautiful features.” And then he laps a slow stripe up the underside of Ferdinand’s cock. “You deserve to be worshiped, inch by inch. A litany for every sweet and splendid piece of you.”
Ferdinand whimpers; brings his hands to the underside of Hubert’s jaw now. “Or you could just fuck me already, damn it.”
Oh, and it’s a very good thing Hubert’s already unfastened his trousers to alleviate some of the pressure on his cock, because the added force of those words might have been just the thing to tip him over. “What, and miss out on you bossing me around like that? Not a chance, my love.”
“Then you could at least have the courtesy to wear a lot less!”
And Ferdinand’s fingers land on the knot of Hubert’s tie at the base of his throat—and it’s too damned much, every slightest touch from this man is too much, Hubert’s skin is too tight and too sensitive and too starved. He swallows the most unholy moan and grabs hold of Ferdinand’s thighs to steady himself as long fingers dip into the collar of his shirt, trail the edges of his collarbones, work open buttons.
“There. It’s a start, at least.” Ferdinand slides off the edge of his chair and lands on the tops of Hubert’s thighs. “Goddess, I love you.”
Hubert is fairly certain his brain ceases all function then, because all he can manage to do for a few moments is wrap his arms around this incredible man as Ferdinand drops the sweetest kisses along a path down his throat. “I love you,” he breathes, finally, into Ferdinand’s ear. “You are utterly perfect, Ferdinand. Gloriously so.”
Ferdinand grips his chin and kisses him, sweetness quickly eroding into a darker hunger, scouring into Hubert’s mouth, no doubt tasting himself there. Hubert shudders; kneads at the firm halves of Ferdinand’s ass as he gives in to being ravished. Trails one finger along the crease. Teases at his spit-slick hole.
“Dammit.” Ferdinand arches his back; tries admirably to smother a wail. “Where—where is it—”
“Waistcoat pocket,” Hubert growls. Ferdinand learned early on that digging aimlessly in Hubert’s clothing was a great way to accidentally stab himself on one of several concealed blades.
“Thank you.” Ferdinand paws at his waistcoat and finally unearths the vial of oil tucked inside. After uncorking it with his teeth, he prepares to pour it onto his fingers—
“Oh, wait.” Hubert tilts his head. “Or is that the arsenic?”
Ferdinand’s face morphs from horror to rage with impressive speed. “You think you’re hilarious. But I’m a lighter sleeper than you, and I know where you keep your knives—”
Hubert scoops him up and stands swiftly to carry him into the far back of the box. With a yelp, Ferdinand locks his ankles around Hubert’s waist. He seats them both in one of the unused chairs in the back, and once he’s sure Ferdinand is balanced, reaches for the bottle of champagne.
“Well?” Hubert looks meaningfully at the vial in Ferdinand’s hands. “I’m waiting, love.”
“Oh, so you’re going to make me do the work?” Ferdinand shakes his head as he pours the oil over his fingers. “Typical.”
Hubert takes a swig of champagne; swishes it through his mouth; swallows and takes another before setting the bottle aside. “I’d hate to ruin these gloves you love so much.”
Steadying himself on Hubert’s thighs, Ferdinand reaches back; begins to work his fingers into his hole. As much as Hubert hates to miss the sight of those long digits pushing and stretching into such a lovely opening, he’s not sorry about the option he’s presented with: Ferdinand’s terribly neglected cock.
“O-oh,” Ferdinand breathes, as Hubert carefully wraps gloved fingers around his shaft. He presses his thumb against the base of his head and pumps his fist slowly, leisurely, in time with the rocking of Ferdinand’s hips as he eases himself open. “Hubert . . .”
Hubert tightens his grip. Bites his own lower lip as he locks eyes with Ferdinand. “Yes, my angel?”
Ferdinand shakes with a sharp cry; the sound is every bit as wonderful as the feeling of nails raking along Hubert’s back. “Please.” He slumps forward and kisses, frantic and artless, at Hubert’s face. “Saints, please.”
Hubert places his free hand on Ferdinand’s shoulder; skims his thumb along the base of his throat. “Please what, governor?”
“Fuck me, damn it!” He lurches forward and positions himself quite painfully, sitting atop Hubert’s shaft. “Please,” he adds.
The dark thing in Hubert’s blood is blazing now, poisonous and ravenous, and the sight of Ferdinand so wonderfully disheveled and desperate stokes it further. Hubert lets go of Ferdinand’s shaft, then nudges him to lift his hips so Hubert can adjust his own cock. “Since you asked so nicely . . .”
Ferdinand sighs softly, and works to align himself over Hubert’s erection. Hubert closes his eyes as he first pushes against him—lets out a shuddering breath. Ferdinand tosses his head back, and his gasps vibrate against Hubert’s palm as he works himself down onto his cock. And it’s so much, it’s too much—Ferdinand tight around him, clenching him, thighs clutching at him, lovely mouth rounding on a wordless cry. It’s too much, and Hubert can’t stop the moan Ferdinand wrings from him, too.
“Ferdie.” Hubert strokes his thumb up and down his throat as Ferdinand seats himself fully. “How are you so . . . How is it you keep astounding me . . .”
Ferdinand smiles, beatific, and uses those phenomenal thighs to work himself upward before sinking back down.
Hubert’s fingers dig into the back of Ferdinand’s neck as the glorious friction sears through him. “Fuck.”
“Mm,” Ferdinand agrees, and does so again—more forcefully this time.
“Oh, hells. Ferdinand.”
And this is why he wore these gloves—these impossibly soft gloves. His fingers curl up and over Ferdinand’s jaw as he grips tighter, keeping Ferdinand bound to him even as Ferdinand quickens his pace and as he returns his other hand to Ferdinand’s dripping cock. Riding Hubert, crying out as Hubert’s head brushes within him just so, breath stuttering as he keeps a firm hold on him, not quite choking him but not quite gentle either, as though Hubert is a blade whose sharpness he can’t help but test. And he doesn’t understand why, he doesn’t understand how Ferdinand hasn’t tired of him yet, but he will do everything in his power to cling to this for the rest of their lives—to serve and pleasure and worship this man the way he deserves.
“Goddess, Hubert.” Ferdinand is clenching around him, now, and it’s almost too much, he has to hang on—“How do you feel so incredible?”
“You deserve to be fucked like the divine thing you are.” Hubert is babbling now, anything to hold back—he wants Ferdinand sobbing, begging for release. He hastens his strokes on Ferdinand’s cock, and relishes the sharp rise in Ferdinand’s gasps. “I want to fuck you everywhere, every way, I want you to fuck me, until we’re both dripping and weary and filthy, and I never want you to want for anything, not for a second, my love.”
“Please, Hubert—shit.” Ferdinand’s hair swings splendidly as he arches his back. “I’m so damned close, love. Please—”
“Then you’d best let me hear you, let me feel you. Fuck, I love you.” Hubert clenches his jaw; presses his thumb right against Ferdinand’s pulse point as he feels himself reach the edge. “I love you, Ferdinand, you angel, and I—”
And then Ferdinand’s anguished cry is ringing in his ears and Hubert’s gritting his teeth and losing himself, hips bucking upward as he spends into him, exquisite release like an avalanche that’s crushing him, burying him. He’s dimly aware of Ferdinand coming as well, spilling all over his glove, and it’s all Hubert can do to hang on to him, desperate, urgent, determined never to let him slip away.
Slowly, deliriously, Hubert blinks away the stars from his vision and gazes up at the drowsy-faced Ferdinand who’s slumped over him. He drinks in the sight of him for a moment; ignores the vague awkwardness of his own softening cock to bring his hand up to his mouth as he locks eyes with Ferdinand. Carefully licks Ferdinand’s come off of his glove.
“Devilish to the last, aren’t you,” Ferdinand murmurs, and curls his head around Hubert’s neck.
“You make it worth it.” And suddenly he’s blinking back tears; swallowing back the rush of affection high in his throat. “You make everything worth it.”
“Such a sap.” Ferdinand kisses his neck.
“I don’t hear you complaining.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
One more lazy kiss; their eyes are open, and for all Hubert’s sudden exhaustion, he wishes he had hours more to do nothing but kiss Ferdinand, stroke his hair, whisper everything he can’t bring himself to say. He settles for brushing back the hairs slicked to Ferdinand’s flushed face and kissing between his brows before Ferdinand reluctantly climbs off of his lap.
As Ferdinand stands, Hubert allows himself a moment to compose himself before even trying to find his feet. His thighs are a sticky mess; he snatches the hand towel off of the champagne tray, dips it into the melted ice, and hurriedly cleans himself off before passing the towel to Ferdinand and refastening his trousers.
“The height of romance,” Ferdinand teases.
Hubert stops; cups Ferdinand’s face in his hands. Ferdinand leans forward, head upturned, expectant and eager.
“I’d offer to lick you clean,” Hubert says, “but I’m afraid the opera’s finally coming to a close.” Beyond the confines of the box, the full chorus has returned to stage, complete with pyrotechnics and a smell that Hubert unfortunately recognizes as formaldehyde. He can only hope this is the grand finale on this particular tragedy.
Ferdinand closes his eyes with a contented sigh. “Another time, then.”
Hubert kisses the tip of his pert nose, then, unable to resist, his lips one last time before he crouches down to rescue Ferdinand’s trousers and boots from the front of the box. “Here you are, darling.” He snaps the trousers out, hoping to spare them from some wrinkles—and winces as something shakes loose from a pocket and strikes him on the thigh. “Oh—sorry about that—”
He bends down to retrieve it, but is bowled over by a blur of orange hair and bared asscheeks as Ferdinand dives for the object in question. “THANKYOUVERYMUCHIVEGOTIT,” Ferdinand snarls—snarls—and curls around his prize with a glare.
Hubert pushes himself back upright. “Ferdie? Darling?”
“It’s nothing!” Ferdinand cries.
But there’s an iron band clamped around Hubert’s chest, and he can’t seem to draw in air. “Is that . . . a ring?”
Hubert stares at him.
“. . . I mean—it’s not . . . not one but . . .” Ferdinand buries his face in his hands with a wretched cry. “This isn’t at all how I wanted this to go.”
Hubert finds himself sitting down, suddenly, and taking another lengthy pull from the champagne bottle.
“We were supposed to have an enchanting evening at a splendid performance and then I’d take you up to the rooftop to look out at Enbarr, our Enbarr, in the starlight and—And instead everything imaginable went wrong, and I’m not even wearing pants—”
“You don’t want this,” Hubert says, his mouth numb. “You don’t want . . .” He gestures to himself, and tries to encompass everything he is: murderer. Monster. Shadow. Spider, as Ferdinand himself said earlier this evening. “This.”
“Don’t tell me what I want as though you know it better than me.” Ferdinand lets out a weary breath, and Hubert flinches. “Anyway, it’s all gone wrong, from that—appalling dinner and this farcical opera and—and you don’t even want to court me, just—sleep with me in secret and—”
“Nothing could be further from the truth.” Hubert rubs at his jaw, trying to puzzle just how he went so terribly wrong with all of this. “Ferdie. I’m not sure what part of ‘I love you, I want to worship you’ is unclear, but—”
“But that’s just something you say. In the moment.” Ferdinand wads up his trousers and jams one leg in with a vengeance. “I’m sorry. It was the wrong time. And now I have to go stand on that stage and say some pretty words about that absolute abomination that I didn’t even watch.”
Ferdinand wrestles his other leg back into his pants and stands up, just as Hubert stands, too. Hubert catches him underneath his elbows; Ferdinand lets himself be crushed to Hubert’s chest with a soft sniff. “Ferdinand von Aegir. My beautiful Ferdie.” Hubert plants a kiss to the crown of his head. “I love you. And I want to worship you—for all the rest of our days.”
“I love you, too,” Ferdinand murmurs against his chest. “Even if you can be a spider sometimes.”
Hubert smiles; tips Ferdinand’s chin up. “I tell you what. You go bluster your way through a speech, and I’ll go up to the roof. You can meet me there and say whatever it is you care to say. Or—push me off, if that’s how you’re more inclined tonight.” Ferdinand laughs gently at that. “Or you don’t have to say anything at all. Is that fair?”
“I suppose.” Ferdinand’s smile is fleeting, but it’s enough to thaw even Hubert. “But—you do mean it? About wanting to court me?”
“Flames, yes. And everything else besides. Although—I suppose a surprise engagement would be just the thing to throw your political enemies for a loop, wouldn’t it?”
Ferdinand’s smile seems more stubborn this time, so he hides it against Hubert’s chest. “I suppose it just might.”
And so he waits under a cold, starry night, weary, happy, helpless, hopeless. The past year has stripped him of his armor, but he isn’t out of venom for those who need it just yet. Because the thing he forgot about serving, about loyalty, is that it only works when he trusts fully in those he’s loyal to.
They protect each other. And love each other in turn.
When his Ferdinand appears on the roof, wind toying with mussed hair, cheeks rosy and eyes bright, nothing else matters—but this.
Their city, their home, glittering around them.
Their life thus far, strange and not at all what either of them could predict.
And their love—so much more than he ever thought could be his.
So when Ferdinand falls to one knee before him, he lets himself be even more vulnerable still. Tears in his eyes, bare hands in bare hands, hearts offered up like precious jewels.
He says yes.