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The Merits of Tea and Coffee

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There had always been something ethereal about the setting of the sun outside the walls of Garreg Mach, like watching a dwindling fire be swallowed up by the aged stone. Of all of the many hundreds of people who had called the old bones of the monastery home, Edelgard was sure that many of them believed the setting sun was something of a glimpse into the goddess's power. That She was alive in the fire and twilight that covered the western sky at the end of every day.

Edelgard did not see anything of the goddess in the sun, nor in any other part of the sky or sea. She saw it for what it was: another day coming to an end with her and her friends still breathing. With each one that passed, she found herself feeling inexorably lucky.

War raged, death loomed, blood flowed, and yet the world still turned without paying it any mind. It was comforting in one way, and yet unsettling in another. She supposed she could do nothing but let both feelings coexist within her and enjoy her tea while the steam was still rising from the cup. It was a strong, bright blend that should be drunk hot.

"Come sit down, will you?" she called when her lips were just inches from the rim, without looking up from the tea swirling in the delicate porcelain. A moment later he stepped into the corner of her field of vision, orange and pink getting caught up in the sharp angles of his face and staining his pale skin the color of the sky.

She smiled as the hot tea touched her tongue. "I know you don't like bergamot. You don't have to drink it. Just sit with me for a moment, Hubert. These walls have stood for many years yet. They won't come crumbling down if you sit down and take in the last of the sunset for a few minutes."

"Is that an order, Lady Edelgard?"

As an answer, she pushed the opposite chair toward him, over the stone beneath their feet.

Surprisingly, he didn't argue. He tucked his cloak beneath his legs and sat on the other side of the table from her, statue still, staring out at the quickly darkening horizon. Edelgard drank deep from her cup once more before carefully placing it back on the saucer and folding her hands over her knees.

"Have you ever noticed," she said, "that even in such trying times, with war raging and bloodshed so sickeningly common, love still shows its face?"

"Sentimentality is unlike you, Lady Edelgard."

"Is it?" she asked, finally facing him with a quiet laugh. "Perhaps you're right, but I don't think of it as sentimentality at all. Merely observation. Surely you've noticed it too. Caspar was picking sunflowers from the greenhouse the other day. Brigid sunflowers."

"You think that a wise use of his time?"

She hid her smile behind her cup once more. "And I heard that Dorothea all but proposed to you."

That made him choke a bit, a reaction so rare for him that it very nearly made her laugh. She certainly would not have been able to hide that behind her teacup, but luckily enough she was able to rein it in.

"She seemed to think you would command such a thing," he finally said, and she wondered if the pink on his cheeks was from the sun or not.

"I had no plans to, no. But I certainly wouldn't forbid it. I do have one condition, though."

He rose a brow. "And what might that be?"

"That if you ever do marry, you do so with a proper ceremony that I am able to attend, so that I can toss flower petals on you and your beloved as you come down the aisle."

Perhaps he was right. Maybe this tea really was making her sentimental. Though sentimentality wasn't what made her stifle another laugh when Hubert let out a long and drawn out sigh. No, that was thanks to her imagining him in a set of wedding robes. Wouldn't that be a sight to behold?

"To what do I owe all this talk of love and weddings?" he asked with what looked like a half-baked sneer. "Surely there are much better uses of everyone's time than such pomp and circumstance."

"Sometimes people need a bit of pomp and circumstance, don't you agree?" She turned toward the horizon again, watching the sun dip ever lower. "Just like people need love, in one form or another. War and death and bloodshed demand attention with such fervor that we can't afford to look away for more than a moment, nor should we. And yet…if we allow it to consume us…"

She let her words fade into silence for a moment, and Hubert let out the tiniest of laughs. "Consume us," he repeated. "A fitting way to describe it."

"I'm happy that Caspar was picking those sunflowers," Edelgard said. "As I would be for you, if you did decide to marry."

"Do you think having a lover would make me unpalatable to the ravenous beast that is this war?"

"I would be happy for you," she said again. "As your friend. Is it sentimental of me to want to see you happy?"

Arms crossed, face unreadable, Hubert let his thoughts turn over and over in his head before he spoke again. After all these years she could almost see him thinking, though about what, she couldn’t say. Finally, he said, "Marrying Dorothea would be a logical decision. She made a sound argument for it, I must admit. The more loyal followers we have to this cause the better, and I suppose that marriage is one of the ultimate shows of loyalty and devotion."

"Logical," Edelgard scoffed. "There you go again, conflating logic with emotion. Do you want to marry her?"

"If it would benefit-"

"That's not what I asked, Hubert. I asked if you wanted to." When he didn't answer immediately, she softened her tone. "Do you want to marry at all?"

"As I said, I believe there are better uses of our time." A moment passed. "But…if the opportunity arose…I cannot say that I would completely turn up my nose at the thought."

Perhaps the image of him in those wedding robes wasn't so far-fetched after all. Astounding.

But his expression shifted a moment later, and he turned his face from the glowing horizon until his dark hair cast a shadow over his eyes. "Although…Lady Edelgard, I must confess…I have lied to you."

She blinked. "Lied to me?"

"You asked me not very long ago about the identity of the one I love. And I told you that it was you."

She didn't have an answer for that. She turned to glance down at her tea, where the last of what remained in the cup was growing cold. "And that was a lie, was it?"

"Do not misunderstand, Lady Edelgard – I pledged my life to you, wholly and without hesitation. And if I had to put that devotion into words, well…I suppose 'love' would be as decent a descriptor as any other. But if what you wanted to know was with whom I was in love, well…those two are very different things, are they not? And that is my sin, Lady Edelgard. A sin of omission. I care for you, yes, but I-"

"Hubert." He paused, and it seemed that her warm smile had taken him off-guard. "It's alright. I understand. My heart isn't so easily broken, I assure you." She reached for her cup again, before the steam faded completely from where it was sluggishly rising from the rim. "So…who is she, then? If not me, or Dorothea, is there one that you love in a way that wouldn't make it a lie?"

Something flashed across his eyes. Something that Edelgard had scarcely seen in nearly two decades of knowing Hubert von Vestra. Something almost like…longing. It made the smile that tugged on the corners of his mouth a moment later all that more bitter. "That is the rub, isn't it?" he sighed, that slight smile still lending an odd little slant to his voice. "For even if I wish to tell you the truth, that is a question that I cannot honestly answer."

"Why is that?"

"Because there simply is no answer at all, Lady Edelgard. There is no way for me to answer you when you ask me such things, I'm afraid. Although it pains me to admit it."

She watched the sun dip down beneath the horizon, leaving behind its last remnants of light giving way to the stars above. She felt the warmth of her tea fading against her palms. And as she looked at him in the fading light, suddenly it was clear – so clear that she felt like a fool for taking so long to realize it.

"I think I understand," she said as she placed her cup down once more and relented that the rest was doomed to cool. "Tell me...you've always preferred coffee to tea, yes? Even the strongest, most bitter blends don't quite appeal to your pallet the way coffee might."

For a moment he seemed confused, but he nodded. "Tea has its merits."

"It certainly does, and yet…not everyone enjoys it. There are so many different blends – bergamot, chamomile, angelica. Some are picky, and some enjoy them all, and others prefer coffee."

"Lady Edelgard-"

There was a befuddled and concerned pinch in his brow, and surely he had to be wondering if she had gone completely mad. But she smiled at him once again all the same. "What's his name, then?"

For the first time in recent memory, she saw Hubert von Vestra well and truly speechless. His mouth hung open, his eyes wide beneath his bangs, and she had to laugh.

"Come now, Hubert – you can't possibly think that I would be so closed-minded not to consider it. Just tell me…is that a question you could answer honestly?"

He swallowed, letting his shoulders drop in what looked like immense relief. Finally, a smile graced his own lips too. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I could indeed, Lady Edelgard."

"Would you ever answer it?" she asked gently, and then her gaze flicked to her teapot again, and she grinned. "Or no…don't answer it. I think I already know. Of course."

"Who it may be is of little consequence."

"Of little consequence? I hardly think so."

"I'm afraid I must insist that it is, Your Majesty. Things are of little consequence by their very nature when there is destined to be nothing that comes of them. Simple wants and desires are nothing more than mist, doing nothing but cloud one's judgment while never being within one's grasp."

There was something heavy in the way he spoke. Something that made Edelgard's heart ache for him. "Do you mean to say that…this person does not return your feelings?"

"As I said, they are not worth dwelling on."  

"Oh, Hubert…" She left the remains of her cup of tea untouched and abandoned on the table before her, shifting her gaze from the fading sunset to the stars instead. "I could fetch some coffee beans from the kitchen and see to getting you a cup if you felt so inclined."

A weight seemed to lift from him, if only slightly. "While I appreciate the gesture greatly, Lady Edelgard, at this late hour it is probably best not to partake. Though I hope you haven't let your tea go cold on my account."

"There will be plenty of hot cups of tea in my future, or at least I very much hope so. Tell me, did you come out here merely to confess that you had lied to your emperor?"

"I supposed that if you desired to take my head for the transgression, it might behoove me to take in one last sunset before facing the void."

"I'll spare you for now," she promised him.

"My life is in your hands then." He stood once more, bowing deep and lingering just a moment or two longer than usual. "As it always is, Your Majesty."

She watched him take his leave, and she almost let him go, but instead of staying silent, she stood to stretch her legs and added, "Ferdinand is not as oblivious as he may seem at first." At the edge of her periphery, Hubert froze. "Nor am I completely blind to what is in your heart. My oldest friend's feelings are precious things, Hubert, and I would appreciate it if you did not claim that they're of little consequence."

Squaring his shoulders, Hubert stood stone-still. His face was turned away, completely unreadable, but she could almost picture the flash in his eyes as he pushed down a wave of emotion that he deemed too painful to acknowledge. She had seen enough of that these past five years. "I shall…keep that in mind, Your Majesty."

She hoped he would.

She supposed it was all she could ask.