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Denial & Deception

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The first day of Great Tree Moon begins so perfectly that Ferdinand can hardly understand, later, how it goes so horribly wrong.

It is the first true day of spring, and the gardens of the former monastery are rejoicing with blooms of white and violet and red and pink. The air is just crisp enough to keep him from breaking a sweat as he sips his tea, and birdsong and floral fragrance fill the courtyards with a mythical air. Even the glowering Minister of the Imperial Household seated across from him is donning an expression that, given enough time and coffee, just might be deemed a smile. With an anxious flutter in his chest, Ferdinand rather hopes it might.

“You’re humming,” Hubert says, raising one eyebrow. “What has you in such a joyous mood?”

“Am I? Well. How could I not?” Ferdinand picks up his teacup, pinkie extended elegantly. “Look around us. Her Majesty is turning the tide of victory, the lands are blooming, the professor is returned to us, and you did not even overboil the tea.” Ferdinand takes a sip, as if to prove his point. “Also, I dare say that someone has a birthday coming up.”

Hubert sets his coffee cup down with a clatter. The hint of a smile is gone, but fortunately, his angular face is just as striking with a scowl. “If that is your way of subtly reminding me that you have a birthday coming up as well, then I refuse to be taken in by your schemes.”

Ferdinand presses a gloved hand to his chest. “How right you are! I’d nearly forgotten. A happy birth month to us both, von Vestra.”

“Don’t dissemble. You do not forget your birthday, Ferdinand.” He rolls his eyes. “I’m fairly certain you begin counting down to the next one on the day immediately following the last.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong—at least, in the days before the war—but Ferdinand doesn’t need to concede the point just yet. “I think that I should like a new saddle for Marcus for my birthday. He serves me so well, and he deserves the finest.”

“Sounds like a wasteful expense in wartime,” Hubert says.

“Well, I would gladly give the old one to another cavalryman in need! It should still be perfectly functional. But what about you, Hubert? Any particular gift you’re hoping to receive?”

Ferdinand brings the teacup to his lips to conceal his own anxious smile. Perhaps he’s being too obvious—an eternal weakness of his. Unlike Hubert, subterfuge is not amongst Ferdinand’s considerable talents. But this easy camaraderie they’ve settled into over the past few years is . . . well. It is a comfort, given where they started, and to imagine anything more is the sort of silly indulgence Ferdinand has done his best to leave behind.

Left smoldering in the ruins of the old order, with the echoes of the foolish boy he was before. The sort of boy who has no place in Emperor Edelgard’s new dawn. Certainly not the sort to impress that cold, exacting stare Hubert is currently fixing him with.

Only then does Ferdinand realize his teacup is empty and he’s sipping at air, and he hurriedly sets it back down.

“The only gift I need is to see Her Majesty victorious,” Hubert says. “That should be enough for all of us, don’t you agree?”

Ferdinand’s hand shakes as he tries to pour another cup. Useless nerves. “And so she shall be! But that was never in doubt. Surely there is something you must want for yourself—”

“Ferdinand.” Hubert’s hand closes on top of his on the teapot, and Ferdinand stifles a yelp. “You’re making a mess.”

“I—Oh.” A splash of tea is currently spreading across the wooden garden table. “My apologies—”

“Honestly, Ferdinand. What’s come over you? I haven’t seen you so rattled since the day of the Ethereal Moon ball.”

With a squeak, Ferdinand relinquishes control of the teapot and what’s left of its contents to Hubert, who pours him out a fresh cup before tossing his own napkin on the table to sop up the tea Ferdinand spilled.  Ferdinand considers helping, then decides he’s most useful sitting on his hands just now. “The ball? What an—absurd thing to bring up!”

“Mm. The White Heron Cup, then. They all blur together in my mind.”

Ferdinand rather hopes that’s true, as it’s better than the alternative. “Well, I suppose it’s the, uh . . . the overpowering fragrance of the flowers in bloom. It must be going to my head.”

Hubert merely hmms in response and moves the damp napkin onto the tea service.

Ferdinand carefully drags his teacup back toward him and takes a sip. “All that aside. You are still not exempt from the question.”

“Goodness. Relentless today, aren’t we.” And somehow the faint quirk of one side of Hubert’s lips tangles up Ferdinand worse than if he’d smiled in full. “My interrogators could learn from you. Very well.”

Hubert leans back in his seat, now, and brings one ankle across one knee as he laces gloved fingers over the other. That burning gaze sweeps over Ferdinand again, and he has to look away, heat rising on his cheeks.

“I suppose, were it possible, there is one thing I would have for myself.”

Ferdinand glances back, pulse fluttering. He feels pinned in place, not at all unlike one of Hubert’s interrogation subjects. It catches his breath far more than he’d ever care to admit. Slowly, Hubert smiles. It’s like a shard of ice, and it stings much the same.

“I think,” Hubert says, pitching his voice to a low shiver, “that I should very much like—”

Then there’s the shuffle of boots on pavement as a page appears at the garden alcove’s entrance.

“—Pardon the interruption. Minister von Vestra. General von Aegir.”

Stare broken, Ferdinand feels like he’s about to collapse, limbs sprawling everywhere as he forces himself to look away from Hubert. Well, what in the hells had he expected? What did he honestly think the snake would say? Ridiculous. He’s being utterly ridiculous. Spring is in the air, indeed, with all the attendant stupidity it brings.

“What is it?” Hubert snaps, foot dropping back down. “Today is our free day. Surely you—”

“I’m sorry, Minister! Truly!” The page drops into a frantic bow. “Only—Her Majesty has summoned you. Both of you. A matter of some urgency.”

They both stand, chairs screeching against stone, but Hubert makes it to the courtyard’s exit first. “Urgent? What was Her Majesty’s demeanor?”

“She seemed—displeased, sir—”

Ferdinand is trailing behind them, but he doesn’t miss the sudden tension that draws up Hubert’s shoulders. “Very well. Consider us summoned. Come, von Aegir—”

“Right behind you,” Ferdinand calls.

Hubert is anxious enough for the both of them, so Ferdinand does his best to walk with his chest proud and head raised as they head for the war council room. He takes a few lengthy strides to walk abreast to Hubert, who glances at him sideways; lets out a slow breath and nods, then slows his pace to match Ferdinand’s. There is nothing to fear, Ferdinand wants to reassure him—their defenses are sound, no alarm has been raised, and their scouts would have given them advance warning. The truth is, he’s just as concerned as Hubert, but unlike Hubert, he’s considerably less troubled by the slightest dip in Her Majesty’s moods.

As if Her Majesty has been anything short of rapturous since the professor returned to them. Ferdinand catches himself smiling at the thought. There’s no missing the looks the two exchange, reunited against all odds . . . He’d dare say it’s enough to give hope even for someone like himself.

They reach the war council room, and Hubert all but dives for the door, shoving both Ferdinand and the guards aside with a snarl. “Out of my way.”

Ferdinand sighs. Or perhaps not.

“Hubert. Ferdinand.” Her Majesty’s voice booms across the chambers as they enter. “You both have much to answer for.”

Ferdinand makes a sound like a goose being strangled as, beside him, Hubert’s already pale complexion turns the shade of rancid milk.

“Close the doors,” Edelgard commands.

She’s standing at the head of the table, leaning on both fists, her jaw clenched. Beside her, Byleth is covering her mouth as if fighting . . . a smile?

“Y-Your Majesty,” Hubert stammers.

And then the doors slam shut, and Edelgard eases into a broad grin.

“Please. Come here. Forgive the . . . necessary ruse, ministers.” She waves them toward the far end of the table.

Yes, Byleth was definitely hiding a grin, though she tries to wipe it away. Ferdinand tilts his head as he draws closer, apprehensive.

Hubert all but races to Edelgard’s side and drops into a kneel. “Your Majesty.”

“Oh, relax, Hubert. Sit. I told you, I’m not angry. But we do have important matters to discuss.”

Ferdinand sits diagonal to Byleth, as Hubert takes a seat opposite him, diagonal to Edelgard. At this point, he isn’t sure what to think. It’s already been an emotional tempest of a day, with no signs of relenting anytime soon. He’s anticipating he’ll need a lengthy ride with Marcus to clear his head afterward.

“Thank you for coming, both of you. Professor?” Edelgard asks. “Would you like to explain?”

Byleth simply shakes her head, wide eyes fixed on Edelgard, whose cheeks redden in turn. Goddess, so Ferdinand hadn’t been imagining things between those two. A funny hollow opens up within him.

“Very well. What I’m about to tell you both is not to leave this room. It is a matter of utmost secrecy and urgency. Do you understand?”

“Always, my lady,” Hubert says smoothly, as Ferdinand nods.

“Our spies within the Leicester Alliance are reporting a significant buildup of forces there.” Edelgard looks down at the papers spread before her. “It’s likely in anticipation of what they see as our imminent incursion into Alliance lands. But more so, it would seem they’re brokering alliances with nations further afield—Morfis, Almyra, and more.” Edelgard sighs. “However, our highest-placed spy within Claude’s administration was caught trying to deliver a message, and most of our other contacts have gone dark as they await the fallout.”

Ferdinand worries his lower lip with his teeth. As he risks a glance at Hubert, he finds him staring down at the table with a frown. He already knew this much, then—they were his spies, after all.

“Let me be clear, gentlemen. We need more intelligence. Better intelligence. Claude is planning to counter us, possibly very soon. It has been our hope that we could confront the Alliance’s forces before he had time to finish his preparations, but I cannot send our army blindly into battle.”

“Anything you require, Your Majesty,” Hubert says. “I shall put all our intelligence efforts on the matter—”

“I will ride out for advanced reconnaissance myself, if I must!” Ferdinand adds. “I am sure I can track their troop movements and infer Claude’s scheme—”

“Please.” Edelgard holds up one hand. “You’re both very capable. This isn’t intended as a criticism of your work. But the truth is, these are dangerous times, and as such, they require dangerous, daring methods to succeed.”

Byleth offers a nod of support; slides a paper over to Edelgard. Edelgard scans it and takes a deep breath.

“Which is why we’ve devised a mission for the both of you.”

“I—Oh.” Ferdinand blinks, then permits himself another glance at Hubert. “The two of us?” But Hubert isn’t looking at him; he’s now fixated on the sliver of space between the emperor and the professor.

Well. So Ferdinand isn’t the only one feeling envious of their closeness. Only he suspects Hubert’s envy has considerably more to do with feeling as though he’s been replaced. There was a time Ferdinand would have gloated endlessly at that, but all he feels now is a guilty twinge.

“What we need,” Edelgard says, “is to put on a performance for Claude and his spies. Hence my little outburst earlier,” she adds with a wry smile. “He needs to believe our leadership is fractured and broken. And ultimately, he needs to believe that those who were once my most loyal advisers are his for the taking. His pride and love of irony, I think, will take over then; he won’t realize the vipers he’s brought into his den.”

“I—I’m sorry.” Ferdinand wrinkles his brow. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. His for the taking?”

“That’s right. I wish for you to pretend to defect.”

Ferdinand snorts. “Of all the outrageous—”

“Outrageous? No. It’s crafty. The kind of deception we need to beat the likes of Claude.” Edelgard smiles. “And actually, it will be both of you, in order to fully sell the ruse.”

Hubert barks a hysterical laugh. “Forgive me, my lady—while I admire the cunning in this plan, I must admit . . . I can’t see anyone truly believing that I would abandon you. And if you’ll forgive my saying so, von Aegir—” and the smarmy grin he gives Ferdinand bears no trace of regret—“I’m not certain Ferdinand’s equipped for this kind of subterfuge. I could handle any number of espionage missions for you on my own, as I have no doubt amply demonstrated—”

“Which is precisely why I want you for this mission, Hubert. Your skills at manipulation, denial, and deception are unmatched, and it is that level of skill that we will need. But you’re right, giving a convincing reason for you to leave my service will take an extraordinary effort. Which is why Ferdinand must be involved, as well.”

Ferdinand feels the dread looming over him like a shadow. Like a—lurking—Hubert. He can’t say what it is he dreads, only that whatever it is that’s coming, he is certain he wants no part of it, and he is also certain he has absolutely, utterly no choice in the matter.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Hubert says. “Why both?”

Edelgard takes a careful breath, and Byleth looks down, once again suppressing a grin.

“The most plausible solution we could come up with is for the two of you to pretend to be conducting a clandestine relationship,” Edelgard finally says.

Ferdinand briefly forgets words, their meanings, and the function of language itself. “I . . . What?”

Hubert makes some kind of hairball-retching noise. “Conducting a—”

“You can determine the details between yourselves. But the rough plot we’ve designed is this. You’ve been carrying on a secret relationship, because you believe that were I to learn of it, I would call into question your judgment, discretion, and commitment to the war effort—”

“Your Majesty.” Hubert’s face is long, bone-bleached now. “If—If I’ve done something to displease you, or—”

“Please, Hubert. This should be child’s play for you.” Edelgard smiles, looking, Ferdinand thinks, a little too pleased with herself. “—But I learn of the relationship and accuse you both of disloyalty. That sense of betrayal, compounded with Ferdinand’s constant desire to outdo me, and Hubert’s resentment that the professor here has undermined his position, builds a plausible scenario for the two of you to flee the monastery in a rage.”

“F-flee—” Ferdinand stammers.

“Yes. After a very public argument, of course.” Edelgard smiles. “And once you’ve defected, I am quite certain you will serve as suitable bait for the Alliance. They should be highly interested in whatever intelligence you’re able to provide. Only, as they think they’re gaining insight from the two of you, you’ll be collecting everything we need to claim victory in Derdriu.”

Ferdinand’s entire body feels like coals being stoked. It’s very possible he will melt right through his chair—which would be a welcome relief, at this point. “You want us to c-c-c-court each—”

“Only in the interest of a suitable denial and deception campaign.” At this, she gives Hubert a pointed look. “Which you should be well-versed in.”

“It’s—too unbelievable.” Hubert laughs, the very sound itself unraveling. “That I would ever abandon you—that I would court Ferdinand—”

“You should be so lucky!” Ferdinand snaps, face flushing. The nerve of him, making it sound like such a terrible thing! “The idea that I would stoop to sneaking about with—with a ridiculous lizard like yourself—”

“Oh? Well, I think it’s rather bold of the professor to assume neither of us are previously engaged. Or did you consider that in your scheming, Byleth?” Hubert asks.

Byleth merely arches a doubting eyebrow at him, but Ferdinand clamps his mouth shut. He’s going to be sick. And if Hubert’s implying that he’s—that all this time, he’s been—

“Is there something you need to tell me, Hubert?” Edelgard asks, a curious edge to her tone.

“I . . . No.” Hubert glowers down at the table. “But,” and now he offers one of his crueler smiles, “I’m not sure I can say the same for Ferdinand.”

“I beg your pardon—”

“Ferdinand?” Edelgard folds her arms, turning toward him.

“Absolutely not! If I were to court someone, I would do it properly. In the open. With flowers and—and strolls, and—”

Hubert scoffs. “No. You would never stoop to amorous trysts in the stables, or in the cloister bushes—”

Ferdinand’s collar quite suddenly feels like it’s choking him. “What in the hells are you talking about—

Gentlemen, enough,” Edelgard says, with considerable force. “I—really don’t need to know the details of Ferdinand’s romantic disasters.”

Ferdinand drags a hand down one side of his face. “There are no romantic disasters!” No, there would have to be romance

“The point is to offer a plausible scenario, and this does just that. Furthermore, it plays into Claude’s preconceived notions of all of us. He thinks me a stern authoritarian demanding total subservience; he thinks you’re in constant competition with me, Ferdinand, and would be all too happy to see me suffer in your absence. And Hubert, he sees you as vengeful and bitter, and given what he knows about your—”

“Enough.” The color has returned to Hubert’s face with a vengeance, painting his cheeks a deep scarlet. “You’ve made your point.”

Edelgard raises an eyebrow at him. “Well, the best lies are always seeded with a grain of truth, don’t you think?”

And that’s the worst part of it. Everything she’s said thus far actually sounds reasonable, plausible. The only part of the whole mad idea that Ferdinand can truly object to is the part where he has to—where he must pretend he would ever

“Even if this were to work,” Hubert says, “it could take months to gain Claude’s trust. Are you certain we have that long, my lady? And are you certain that Adrestia’s forces will not be compromised from such a prolonged absence for myself and von Aegir?”

“Well, seeing as you are both so fond of working yourself half to death, I think we can make do for a while yet. You’ve drawn up plans months in advance, after all. And I do have the professor to assist me.” Byleth nods her agreement. “But after your alleged defection, I plan to place Bernadetta in the role of general, while Linhardt will handle your duties, Hubert.”

Linhardt—”

“You don’t think he can manage your networks with the requisite diligence and dispassion?” Edelgard asks. “You underestimate him. And Bernadetta has learned a great deal from working as Ferdinand’s assistant.”

As loathe as Ferdinand is to admit it, Bernadetta has been doing a masterful job learning with him. She’s really grown into a talented young woman, often completing his proposal drafts for him with only the scarcest of details and guidance, relieving his burdens immensely. Not that he thinks he could ever truly be replaced. But perhaps . . . if only for a short while . . .

“I’m sorry. But I cannot abide by this,” Hubert blurts. “I cannot see Claude falling for such an obvious ruse. And your strategizing is much appreciated, professor, but you have, after all, been gone for several years. You’ve no idea what sort of leader Claude is now, nor what kind of careful deception campaign is likely to work in the current geopolitical—”

“Hubert, please—” Edelgard tries—

“—and to expect me to enter into such a precarious subterfuge with von Aegir, of all people.” Here, his contemptuous sneer sweeps in Ferdinand’s direction with a scrape like a dull knife. “He has the subtlety of a Dagdan carnival, and the deceptive prowess of a cheese wheel. To think that I, of all people, could be enchanted by such a foppish windbag defies all belief.”

The room is icily silent. Edelgard, perhaps, for the sheer shock of Hubert interrupting her—a phenomenon Ferdinand has heretofore never witnessed. But what Ferdinand feels is a painful tightness around his throat, his cravat too tight, his skin too tight, at once as though he is far too much and not nearly enough and never will be. As though he simply . . . isn’t.

He knows Hubert detested him, once. Resented the way he was always competing with Edelgard, and with everyone, truth be told. The feeling had been entirely mutual. But he’d like to think they’ve grown past those early, anxious days. That they’ve come to respect one another, as much for their disagreements as for where they harmonize. That they see strengths in one another they could not possibly bring to bear themselves, and together, build into a powerful scaffolding to bolster the new empire in ways they couldn’t possibly achieve alone.

Ferdinand has grown—fond of him, in the way one becomes fond of a harmless spider that’s taken up residence in a nearby corner. Unsettling, true, but beautiful in its own way, fastidious, elegant. A reassuring presence.

And while that tendency toward fondness and reassurance might occasionally meander down less familiar paths—might occasionally conjure up dreams of sideways glances and bare fingers brushing against wrists and maybe, maybe, somewhat more than was really polite to put into words—well, he’d had years of practice locking those thoughts in the chest where they belonged.

We can’t always have what we desire, Ferdinand, the echoes remind him from his life before. Even if we can fool ourselves for a time . . .

So to hear Hubert disparage that progress so callously, to hear him express such an appalling and cruel opinion of the sort Ferdinand has fought so hard to shed—it’s more than he can bear.

It is a challenge. And Ferdinand von Aegir will be damned if he’s going to back down from a gauntlet so savagely tossed.

“I’ll do it,” Ferdinand announces, and all heads turn his way. “I can be just as skillful an infiltrator as Hubert—possibly more so—and you are quite right, Your Majesty. The potential benefits to be gained are well worth the risks.”

“Ferdinand,” Hubert says, warning in his tone.

“I may not have your skill for espionage, but I am classically trained in dramaturgy,” Ferdinand says. “This should be quite simple, really. We need only establish a convincing feud with Her Majesty, make our dramatic exit, and then present a compelling case to the Alliance to give us refuge.”

A compelling case—by which he means pretending they are so enamored with one another they’d be willing to abandon the empire in the name of love. The room shifts and wavers around him. He’ll have to feign courting Hubert—secretly, and yet not so secretly it goes unremarked. Touches that linger a little too long. Staying at his side beyond what is required by their station. Possibly even an indiscreet encounter, somewhere they might be observed—

Now he really wishes he could melt through the floor.

“Thank you, Ferdinand. I appreciate your willingness to go along with such an unorthodox request,” Edelgard says. “It is unorthodox thinking, after all, that will see us to victory and a new age.”

At that, they all turn as one to Hubert, who is clenching and unclenching his fists on the table.

“I . . . would . . . never disobey a direct order from you, my lady.” His smile is so strained, it looks ready to snap. “I do fear it will take considerable effort on my part to educate von Aegir on even the most basics of surveillance and subterfuge, but I will . . . give it my all . . . in your name.”

Edelgard sits back down, her regal poise returning. “Thank you, friend. That is a relief to hear. Well. I suppose we begin now, then. Sowing the seeds of discord in my inner circle. Increasingly egregious behavior from the two of you as you defy my direct orders. We must make a very convincing case. Can you manage that?”

“As my lady commands.”

“With aplomb,” Ferdinand agrees. He risks a glance at Hubert only to find him staring daggers right back at him, and swallows.

Oh, Goddess. This is going to be a nightmare.

“Then you are dismissed.”

Byleth looks up from her papers as Ferdinand tries to compose himself. He’s not entirely sure his legs can support him just now. “You know,” Byleth says, in that eerily calm voice of hers, “you could always make use of your Dancer costume.”

And it’s far too close for Ferdinand’s comfort—the memories of their year at the academy with Byleth teaching them, his victory at the White Heron Cup, and then after, that accursed ball

“M-maybe I shall!” he squeaks, and lets adrenaline steady him enough to run toward the doors.

“Ferdie.”

The voice calling after him is at once familiar and so very, very foreign that it stops him completely. He’s never heard such—dare he say it—affection in it before. And to call him by a nickname? Oh. This is going to be far too much.

Ferdinand puts a hand against the doorframe to collect himself. Yes. They both have their roles to play.

“Ferdinand,” Hubert says, much more coldly this time. “Where is it you think you’re going?”

“Um.” Ferdinand swallows; turns to find Hubert standing entirely too close for comfort. “Away?”

“Not yet, you aren’t.”

Ferdinand looks up. Finds a single eye boring into him with venomous intent. Oh, dear. Hubert is livid. Ferdinand can already feel his insides withering up like he’s drunk poison.

“I think you and I,” Hubert grits out through clenched teeth, “have some work to do. Some matters to discuss.”

“Oh. Erm.” Ferdinand sincerely wishes his face was not currently on fire; he might look at least somewhat less intimidated. “I suppose we could speak in my office—”

Hubert exhales, pinching the bridge of his nose. “No, Ferdie. The entire point is to appear indiscreet.” Hubert’s shoulders rise and fall, and he composes himself. “Once we walk out these doors, we are, to all appearances, engaged in a tumultuous and ill-considered affair. I do hope you’re prepared to act like it.”

Ferdinand swallows down a hysterical laugh. “I—Yes.”

Eyes squeezed shut, Hubert asks, as if he were requesting his own execution, “Do I have your permission to . . . touch you? To—to demonstrate our indiscretion.”

Ferdinand clenches his clammy hands. “Oh. Of course. Y-yes. You may.”

Hubert nods, face still wrenched shut. “And I give you leave to . . . do as you see fit for your part, as well.”

There is a maelstrom of possibility that flashes through Ferdinand’s mind at those thoughts before he firmly shuts them down. “Thank you.”

“All right. Come.” Finally Hubert’s expression falls, something wistful twisting his lips. “Act as if you actually care for me.”

Ferdinand winces, but Hubert is already opening the council room doors.

As soon as they’re in the corridor, Hubert reaches for him, well in sight of the corridor guards. “Come, Ferdie. We do not need to listen to this slander a minute longer from that interloper.”

Ferdinand swallows, trying to find the right approach to his new role. “B-but Her Majesty—”

Her Majesty seems to have lost her head.” Hubert glances over his shoulder as he beckons Ferdinand nearer. “But I suppose there is one set of rules for the emperor, and one for the rest of us.”

Sure enough, one of the guards makes a startled sound. Well. That’s one seed planted, Ferdinand thinks. Even knowing it’s an act, the words sound positively blasphemous coming from Hubert of all people.

As Ferdinand reaches his side, Hubert extends his arm, and Ferdinand reaches his out to match—resulting in an awkward crumpling of fingers and limbs. “What are you doing,” Hubert hisses out of the side of his mouth, before swatting Ferdinand’s hand away and pressing his palm to the small of Ferdinand’s back.

“I thought we were—I thought you wished to hold hands—”

“What are we, children? Flames.” His fingers dig in, apparent even through the thick fabric of Ferdinand’s cloak and jacket. It feels surprisingly warm, given the padding; Ferdinand tries not to shiver.

“Should I be kissing you instead?” Though as soon as Ferdinand says it, he feels his face reach an entirely new level of molten.

“The point is to act like we believe we are being subtle. Tilt your head toward me. Smile, for saints’ sake. There. That’s better.” Hubert’s head turns toward his with a strained rictus. “You’re furious at the emperor, but resolute in your desire to stay by my side.”

“It’s that winning smile of yours,” Ferdinand says. “Like a funereal mask.”

At that, Hubert’s cheeks turn the most becoming shade of crimson, and the smile immediately returns to his default murderous scowl. Ah, Ferdinand thinks, so I do have something to teach you yet.

Hubert leads them to the gardens, and finds a remote bench, only partly shielded from the view of the busier thoroughfares. Soldiers, their former classmates, and townsfolk alike are bustling about in the pleasant weather, and there are sure to be countless prying eyes. They sit too close—Hubert’s thigh pressing into his own. Bow their heads too close. Hubert’s gloved hand rests on his own thigh, but for one pinkie, grazing the seam where their legs meet, and Ferdinand’s stomach flips at the sheer indecency of it all.

 “Now, then,” Hubert says, the bitter smile returning. “Allow me to make something very clear to you.”

He’s speaking low, low enough to keep from being overheard. To any passersby, it would appear they’re having a pleasant chat. Ferdinand’s heart sinks at the truth. “Whatever it is you need to say.”

“I am doing this purely out of respect for Her Majesty and her wishes, and even then, I have serious reservations. But I trust we can both be . . . professionals, yes? Not let our personal sentiments get in the way of our service to the empire?”

Ferdinand tries to keep smiling, and not look like he’s swallowed a bug. Goddess. Surely he does not mean—“I am offended. I am perfectly immune to your charms, von Vestra.”

Hubert flinches. “Well. That is gratifying to know. But I was referring to our sometimes antagonistic relationship—”

“I thought we were past all that,” Ferdinand whispers. “And then you insult me, right in front of Her Majesty. Am I truly so unbearable to you? Nothing but an insufferable fop?”

Hubert clenches his jaw and pulls his hand back into his own lap. “I’m sorry. I let my anger get the best of me.”

“Well. Understandable, given the circumstances.” Ferdinand tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his chest. It wasn't as if he was expecting some grand declaration. He's fairly certain Hubert only keeps his company for lack of other options. “I thank you for your honesty, I suppose.”

“Still,” Hubert says, “I do wish there had been another way.”

Ferdinand does his best not to let his smile falter at that. “Naturally. But this is what we have been given to work with, and I for one intend to achieve it to the fullest. If you are not up to the task—”

“Are you implying I would ever give anything less than my all for Her Majesty?” Hubert's voice stretches tight, like garrote wire.“Because I assure you, I shall work ceaselessly to succeed.” He shifts, then, body turning toward Ferdinand's, venomous gaze hot against Ferdinand's skin. “There is no other option now. So I do hope you are prepared.”

“Of course I am!” Ferdinand lets out a squeaky laugh.

“Are you certain?” Hubert asks. “Because the way you look right now is not encouraging. If we’re to sell this ruse so effectively that we can flee the monastery in a week’s time, and it seems perfectly reasonable . . .”

Ferdinand tries to brush a stray lock back from his face, but fails, his hands unsteady. “I am not certain what you mean. I am playing my role—”

Hubert raises an eyebrow. “You’re trembling, Ferdinand.”

Ferdinand tries, and fails, not to. “No?”

“I don't mean for you to be afraid of me.” His voice softens. “Not now, at least.”

“And other times?”

Hubert meets his gaze fully, for the first time since they left the meeting. It's like spiders crawling on Ferdinand's skin. Prickly and unsettling and impossible to brush away. “A healthy distance from me is always warranted,” Hubert says. “But I suppose we should worry about that once our task is done.”

Ferdinand nods, relief washing over him. “Right. Soon enough, the alliance shall be crushed, and I can return to my duties, and you can resume . . . whatever slithery things it is that you do.”

Hubert grits his teeth. “I do not slither.”

“I wouldn't be so sure,” Ferdinand says, sticking his nose up.

And then Hubert does the most horrifying thing yet.

A gloved hand brushes Ferdinand's cheek, sweeping his stray hair back and tucking it so delicately behind one ear. A hand which Ferdinand is quite certain has killed many a foe for Her Majesty, and yet is so gentle, barely touching him now. Ferdinand freezes, and doesn’t think he could breathe if he wanted to. Those cloth-softened fingertips linger at Ferdinand's temple before skimming down the line of his jaw to land at his chin. Pressing it between thumb and fingers, Hubert slowly turns Ferdinand’s face his way.

“Your features are far too lovely to shield so,” Hubert says, though each word sounds as though it were dragged out of him under considerable duress.

Ferdinand’s heart slams, frantic, against his ribs. “Y-you do not mean that.”

“Perhaps not.” The breathless smile on Hubert's face continues to sell their ruse. “But I needed you to don that expression you're currently wearing.”

Ferdinand curses himself and his own idiocy. But he manages not to let the smile fade, no matter how badly it stings.

Hubert's gaze tracks something over Ferdinand's shoulder, and sure enough, Dorothea soon comes into view, very deliberately not looking at them on the bench. As soon as she is out of sight, Hubert releases his chin and drops his hands to his lap once more.

Ferdinand stops himself just short of rubbing his jaw. The touch still lingers. But then, he supposes, who knows what sort of vile chemicals cling to Hubert's glove?

“I expect the flywheels of gossip shall be shuttling into full effect now,” Ferdinand says.

“As intended.”

Ferdinand lets himself stare just a moment longer. Wishes he could etch the expression on Hubert’s face into the back of his mind. It’s a dreadful mission, a dreadful convergence of circumstance—and yet it also feels like an answer to a question he long ago asked. But it is fleeting. Flimsy. Only a gauze bandage on the wound of his heart, sure to be discarded when its purpose is served.

Even if we can fool ourselves for a time . . .

“So.” Ferdinand forces his smile to widen. “What shall be our next step?”

And oh, there’s that dangerous glint in Hubert’s eyes. It always did know how to lead a soul astray. “Well, I do have an idea.”

Ferdinand swallows. “You’re the spymaster.”

“Meet me at the side of the cathedral at midnight tonight,” Hubert says. “Dressed in your usual fashion. And leave the rest to me.”