The stables had become a familiar sight to him, much to Hubert's complete and utter disdain. The professor had recently helped him come to terms with the fact that, though his study of magic had advanced at an unprecedented rate in his pursuit of becoming a fully realized dark mage, the demands of his chosen class were taking a toll of his mobility on the actual battlefield. Even Lady Edelgard, for all her heavy and bulky armor along with her not so insignificantly sized battalion, was increasingly a few paces ahead of him. This was unacceptable.
In the interest of achieving a wider reach, the professor suggested that since he was already moderately skilled with a lance, he might try focusing on his riding to compensate for his current lack of speed. With luck and practice, he would be able to master casting even the strongest of spells while on horseback, a feat that very few dared to attempt. Hubert could not bring himself to disagree when the professor mentioned offhand that he would have no trouble accomplishing such.
... But Hubert did so detest spending so much time with the horses. It was tiring work, the stables were often too warm or too cold or too dusty for his taste, and don't even get him started on the smell. But more than all of that (and not that he would ever even admit it aloud) he took to riding less quickly than he did most other skills.
He hated calling it a weakness. But it was what it was, and he did indeed need more time to acquaint himself with the skill than others typically did. Perhaps that was why he was so determined to better himself at it.
Still, he was loathe to practice or do much of anything with the horses when there was anyone else around to watch.
Almost anyone else, he amended to himself, as he made his way further into the area that the monastery's stablehands had assigned to him and his partner for the day. In the shadows by the stall furthest from the entrance, hiding from most other passers-by, was a slight, hooded figure, already dutifully preparing the feedbags for the horses. Bernadetta had become his usual partner when it came to his weekly stable duty and she was, perhaps, the only other student who hated doing this sort of activity in front others even more than he did. (Probably another reason why their professor always had them do this together.)
Learning from previous experience, Hubert found himself clearing his throat meaningfully in the interest of alerting her to his presence... and she still jumped a couple of inches with a tiny yelp of surprise. She glanced his way nervously only to sigh in relief.
"O-oh, Hubert! Thank goodness it's you!"
"Yes, it is me. Again." He smiled dryly as he made his way over, noting her relief with dry amusement. It wasn't so long ago that she'd passed out at the mere sight of him. "How does it still surprise you that we have the stables at the same time, when we have been paired for this detestable chore so often as of late?"
"I never know for sure," Bernadetta replied, avoiding his sharp gaze and shrugging meekly. "Th-there were a few weeks when Sylvain'd suddenly come to work with me instead." She suppressed a shiver at the memory, turning back to her task. "A-and he's really nice and all, I guess, but..." She trailed off uncertainly.
Accustomed to her conversational habits by now, Hubert went on about methodically bringing the horses the bags that Bernadetta had already filled. Sometimes she needed a moment without him making direct eye-contact before she could finish a sentence.
Sure enough, Bernadetta continued after a few heartbeats. "... Sylvain's nice! But I guess I'm not usually expecting him to show up, when it's, I mean, it's usually you!" If her hands weren't full, or dusty from grooming the horses, she'd have buried her face in them by now. She settled for squeezing the bag in her arms fretfully, getting bits of hay into the ends of her hair.
"Ohhh, please don't tell Sylvain I said that! He'll think I hate him! Or that I think he's a terrible work partner! I mean, it is scarier, 'cause when he's not talking to me, he somehow gets other ladies in here to talk to instead, and that's- that's terrifying!" She froze, blanching at how that must have sounded. "N-not that I want him talking to me all the time instead! He's really not the problem, I'm probably just the worst partner ever, I barely get anything done, let alone done right--"
"-- Quite the contrary," Hubert interrupted smoothly, finally, as she took a moment to gasp. "When left to your own devices, I believe you get the most done in the least time. You are a natural and have a gift with the horses, or so the professor says." They'd somehow gotten all the animals fed in the time that she'd rambled on, so Hubert quickly set about looking for the grooming brushes, speaking as he moved along. "In fact, she hopes some of your... affection for them would rub off on me, which is why we are at our current, weekly arrangement."
Bernadetta blinked owlishly back at him, this being the first she'd heard of this. She thought she'd drawn the short straw when she was first paired with Hubert, or was likely being punished for one of her many offenses, and had just slowly come to accept her fate. But that didn't seem to be the case. In fact, it sounded suspiciously like their professor wanted Bernie to help Hubert...?
The tall mage handed her one of two brushes he was holding, then turned to the nearest mare and began the regrettably arduous task of brushing her down. Bernadetta was quick to follow, afraid she'd get a scolding.
"Um. D-did the professor really say that?"
He hummed in reply. To anyone else, he sounded disinterested. But that he was responding to her at all was giving her confidence. "Indeed. I did agree with her that my horse handling could use some... work. And her solution was to have me work with someone who excelled at it."
"I... I don't know if I excel at this, exactly..." She murmured, so softly that Hubert almost didn't hear her over the whinny of the horse between them. She rubbed the mare's nose tenderly and apologetically. She must have rattled her ith her earlier outburst... "... I mean, I just sort of like the horses when it's just me and them, y'know? But I don't have any special tricks or talent with them like... like Ingrid, or Sylvain, or Ferdinand..."
At the last name, Hubert frowned darkly. Bernadetta noticed and eep'ed quietly, already thinking the worst with her brush freezing mid-air, but Hubert was too absorbed in his own task to notice. "Yes, our teacher tried to pair me with Ferdinand for a week. The very same week you had Sylvain, if I remember correctly. She said it was to build better bonds with the other members of the class. For all the good that did." He scoffed. "Cavalry skills may be Ferdinand's strength, but we just barely accomplished our tasks that day due to his incessant prattling."
Bernadetta stared at him with wide, unbelieving eyes.
When it became apparent that she had nothing to say, he continued. "Surely you don't think we accomplish less? When you are a far more efficient worker than he could be?" He arched an eyebrow at her, and she stared right back, mouth agape.
He sighed and gestured vaguely around him. "While I'm not proud of admitting so, he and I did less that day than what the two of us have finished now." And today was a slowish day for them. Usually they finished things quite quickly, as he wanted to leave the stables as soon as possible, and Bernadetta just wanted to retreat to her own room. But as Hubert never did things sloppily, and Bernadetta cared for the horses too much to give them less than they deserved, the two of them tended to do a pretty good job, regardless. Together, their work ethic was something that he was truly proud of.
"... For all the fretting I have to put up with from you, we still somehow manage to get much more done in a short amount of time. It makes you, by far, the ideal partner." He peered over the horse, leaning down to grin at her. This had the unfortunate, and predictable, effect of making her squeak in terror, finally hiding her face in her hands. He very nearly chuckled out loud at the picture she made. But, not wanting to terrify her into actually running away and leaving him to work alone, he settled for just leaving it be for now. She was fun to tease.
For a long time, there was no response from the archer as she seemed to shrink into herself further, unaccustomed to the praise. Hubert took the time to check that she was still breathing, that she was still conscious, before carrying on with their next tasks knowing she would soon follow after him when she'd had a moment to collect herself.
When she finally caught up to him, her cheeks were tinted a faint and rosy pink, and was in more disarray than usual with more bits of hay speckled at the tips of her hair. She had her lips pursed in a slight pout, and her gray eyes were looking anywhere but at him as she murmured something about her returning the sentiment. She'd stuttered her way through it, so he couldn't be sure, and they said precious little else after that... but somehow... for reasons he had yet to determine... his chest felt strangely warm throughout the rest of the day.