The sun glinted off the water as the ship departed from Enbarr with only Brigid in its sights. The wind was steady, not blustery, the clouds in the sky as fluffy as finely-spun sugar. Truly a wonderful day for a voyage.
Ferdinand walked the deck, hands clasped firmly behind his back, breathing in the sweet sea air. He was in fine spirits, and why shouldn’t he be? The day was glorious, and he was tasked as the Empire’s ambassador to Brigid, finally freeing the archipelago from its vassalage, a job bestowed upon him by Edelgard at Petra’s behest. He would get to see Petra and Dorothea for the first time in over a year, and he even had company for the trip.
Now, not everyone would consider Ferdinand’s traveling companion the best man for the job and, had this journey taken place a few years earlier, Ferdinand certainly would have agreed with them. But Hubert had grown on him, just as poisonous mushrooms sometimes grew at the base of sturdy trees, and when Edelgard asked them if they could get along for the duration, both had readily agreed.
“Hubert!” Ferdinand said, coming up from behind to clap the Minister of the Imperial Household on the shoulder. Hubert did not react to Ferdinand’s arrival, which wasn’t unusual for him, nor was the way he remained a lanky, dour blot on the landscape. Ferdinand ignored that. “What beautiful weather! If it continues to cooperate, there will be nothing but smooth sailing for the whole trip. Steam ships are certainly a magnificent method of travel! Modern marvels, really. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” Hubert said, then stumbled forward to lean over the rail, proceeding to expel the contents of his breakfast into the sea.
Ferdinand helped Hubert back to his cabin, shooing the eager deckhands who offered their assistance. Once there, Ferdinand made himself useful, filling a basin with water and finding clean washcloths, trying to ignore the warmth that still remained at his side from Hubert’s weight leaning heavily on him as they went below deck together.
Had he ever seen Hubert so helpless? Perhaps during the war, but they both avoided mentioning specifics about that when speaking to each other nowadays.
Ferdinand helped Hubert out of his boots and heavy jacket, steering him toward the bed before turning to fold the jacket over a chair back.
“Don’t crease that,” Hubert said.
Ferdinand rolled his eyes. “Of course not. What kind of noble do you take me for?”
“The kind who would crease my jacket.”
“‘Thank you, Ferdinand,’” Ferdinand said, pitching his voice a bit lower. “‘I am ever so glad you were there to assist me in my time of need, Ferdinand. What a good friend you are, Ferdinand.’” He turned around, happy to see Hubert lying back against his pillows and having the good sense to look apologetic. He also looked, Ferdinand noted, distinctly green. “Are you always this bad on the water?”
“Unfortunately,” Hubert said, allowing it when Ferdinand hastened to his side in order to dip a cloth into the basin of water and place it upon his brow. “I know that shadows lurk everywhere, but I have always done my best lurking on solid ground.”
Ferdinand laughed at that and tucked an errant strand of hair behind his ear. “Why on earth did you agree to this trip then?” he asked, considering propriety for a moment before tossing it aside to perch at the edge of Hubert’s bed.
“Because Lady Edelgard asked me,” Hubert said, looking at Ferdinand like he was stupid.
Ferdinand was undeterred. “Well, yes, but Caspar could have accompanied me, too. Or the professor. Even Linhardt or Bernadetta might have done in a pinch.”
“But she didn’t ask any of them,” Hubert said, exasperated. Then he sucked in a sharp breath and covered his mouth with his hand; Ferdinand searched frantically for a bucket, but the moment seemed to pass again quickly. Ferdinand relaxed and Hubert went on, “Lady Edelgard asked me to accompany you.”
“You could have said no to her,” Ferdinand said, and Hubert continued to look at him like he was an idiot. “For goodness sake, Hubert, the world would not end if you said no to Edelgard! I promise you she knows all that you do for her. She would be the first to say you need a break.”
Hubert’s face went pink at that, the same way it occasionally did when the subject of Her Majesty came up. Ferdinand tried not to sigh; he was no longer a jealous schoolboy at Garreg Mach, after all.
“She thinks this is a break for me,” Hubert said after a moment. “She — of course you could have handled this mission alone. It’s a simple goodwill trip between friendly nations who have come to an amicable agreement. We both know you’re a very capable man, Ferdinand.”
A wave of heat washed over Ferdinand’s face, the way it always did whenever Hubert surprised him with rare praise. He ducked his head so his expression remained hidden. “What did I tell you about restricting your compliments to writing?”
“An egregious error on my part, I assure you,” Hubert said, so softly that Ferdinand strained to hear each syllable. “But the point is Lady Edelgard believes she’s sent me on an all-expenses paid holiday, compliments of the Adrestian Empire. She does not know about my unfortunate seasickness. And,” he continued, mustering up some threat to lace through his voice, “she will not find out about it, either.”
Ferdinand was not impressed. “Strong words from someone whose last meal is floating back toward shore as we speak,” he said. “Listen, Hubert, obviously your lot has been cast and there’s no turning back now.” He tugged off his gloves one at a time, strangely aware of Hubert’s eyes following him as he did so, and the way they tracked him still as he lay them on Hubert’s bedside table. “Luckily for you, the voyage is a short one, but that does not mean you must be ill and stoic the entire time.”
“What does it mean then?” Hubert asked, more curious than defensive.
“As it so happens, I did not get my sea legs right away,” Ferdinand said. “In fact, on my very first boat trip, I lost my breakfast in very much the same manner you did.”
Hubert let out a sound that suspiciously sounded like a laugh. “So we’re the same, is what you’re saying.”
“Well, I was five at the time,” Ferdinand teased. He finally drew up the courage to meet Hubert’s eyes again, and was gratified that some of the nausea in Hubert’s expression had been replaced by genuine delight. It had to be said that Hubert had lovely eyes, especially when they were like this, alight with amusement. Ferdinand cleared his throat. “My governess did something for me that helped immensely, and I had her work her magic for every trip until I outgrew it.” He shifted on the bed and then hesitated, his hands hovering over Hubert’s arms. “Will you allow me the indulgence?”
“By all means,” Hubert said, his voice a bit strained. He cleared his throat. “Go ahead and work your alleged magic.”
“Real magic,” Ferdinand corrected. “You’re a mage. You know the difference.”
Hubert huffed, dangerously close to sincere laughter once again, and that sound allowed Ferdinand to pluck up his courage. He reached down and took Hubert by both wrists, rubbing circles at the pulse points with his thumbs. Ferdinand knew from experience that this action gave noticeable, immediate relief when one was seasick, perhaps owing itself to a change in the blood flow. Ferdinand certainly did not know enough about the human body to say one way or another.
He also could not comment on the suddenly charged atmosphere in the small cabin, the way the only noises were from Hubert’s ragged breathing as Ferdinand’s fingertips pressed deeply against his wrists. Furthermore, he had no words for the way their eyes locked together as Ferdinand continued his service; there was no requirement or reason for it. But this vantage point allowed Ferdinand to notice when the tension in Hubert’s shoulders lessened and the way he seemed to melt into his pillows, all due to Ferdinand’s touch. A rush of pride overtook him at that, but he tamped it down. No need for Hubert to realize how much of the silly young man he once was still remained.
“Better?” Ferdinand asked after a time. His voice was rougher than he expected, perhaps subconsciously not wanting to disturb the relaxed atmosphere.
Hubert nodded. “Shockingly, yes,” he said. “It seems there was no excuse for your low magic scores back at school. You certainly don’t lack the aptitude.”
Ah, there was the backhanded praise Ferdinand knew and loved — no, not loved. But certainly knew. He squeezed Hubert’s wrists once, more gently than he intended, before finally letting them go.
“Good. You should get some rest,” Ferdinand said. “I’ll bring you some tea later. It’s easier on the stomach than coffee.” He held up a hand to stave off any of Hubert’s normal complaints, but none came.
“I look forward to it,” Hubert said. He shifted down on his pillows until he could properly snuggle underneath his blankets. If it were anyone else, Ferdinand would have called it downright cute. “Thank you.” Hubert’s eyelids drooped and he stared sleepily at Ferdinand. “For everything,” he added, and his eyes fluttered shut.
Ferdinand bit his lip. “Anytime,” he said softly, unsure if Hubert even heard. He quietly exited the room, putting his back up against the door once it was tightly shut behind him, thinking of Hubert’s eyes, his weary countenance, his genuine appreciation for Ferdinand’s actions.
Ferdinand took a moment to collect himself, letting out a shaky breath before once again becoming Duke Aegir, Prime Minister of the Adrestian Empire, and heading back up to the deck.
The ship docked in Brigid a few days later, and the voyage had been, as expected, uneventful. Ferdinand kept Hubert distracted with tea and conversation, but even given his best efforts, Hubert seemed far more grateful to be on dry land again than he ever did listening to Ferdinand expound on the finer points of Boramas bergamot.
“My friends,” Petra greeted them both, her face solemn as they disembarked. She looked every bit the ruler and a sight for sore eyes. Ferdinand’s face broke into a grin upon seeing her, an expression wiped from his face a moment later when Dorothea launched herself at him and hugged him fiercely.
“Ferdie!” she gushed and Ferdinand only hesitated for a moment before winding his own arms around her waist. She smelled wonderful, certainly closer to fine bergamot than the sailors he’d been surrounded by for the past few days. “You smell like boat,” she told him as she let him go, confirming his fears.
But any fretting he might have done over that jab was quickly put aside as Hubert received much the same treatment, accepting Dorothea’s hug stiffly but without complaint.
“It is good to see you, Dorothea,” Hubert said and — miracle of miracles — he seemed to be sincere in sentiment. He turned toward Petra and bent at the waist. “Your Majesty.”
Petra shook her head and stepped forward to clasp both of their hands in her own. “Too formal,” she told them. “We are still soldiers together.”
Ferdinand understood what she meant; no matter how much time or Hubert-hated bodies of water separated them, they still went through something profound and sad together, and that bound them together like family.
Besides his former comrades, a number of Petra’s royal guard hung behind her, eyeing Hubert and Ferdinand warily, as though they meant to abscond with their queen. Considering the fact that Petra had been the Empire’s hostage before, their fears weren’t unfounded. Trying to put everyone at ease, Ferdinand cleared his throat and addressed them all with the traditional greeting of Brigid. He practiced that in front of his mirror before embarking on this trip.
Hubert stared at him, and Petra coughed delicately. Dorothea laughed outright, never afraid to show Ferdinand exactly how she felt.
“That bad, eh?” Ferdinand said, sighing.
“We’ll need to work on your pronunciation,” said Dorothea.
“It was —” Petra paused, choosing her words carefully. “— Not too bad.”
“Yes, not too bad because it was awful,” Hubert said, in the same bland tone he might use when commenting on the weather.
A few years ago, that would have devastated Ferdinand, but no such luck now. Instead, all he could think was that he was relieved to see Hubert mostly back to his old self. He flourished again without the motion of the ocean.
“Well, I certainly look forward to you all becoming my language tutors in the name of diplomacy,” Ferdinand said, bowing, and starting up a fresh wave of laughter. Even Hubert cracked a smile at that. It was very possible that he had a dimple. Fascinating.
Petra began to walk, motioning for them to follow along, something that Hubert took to immediately, chatting amicably at her side. Ferdinand thought of his favorite horse back in Aegir, how he was her favorite in turn, but would also allow it when Ferdinand lent her out for Bernadetta or Lorenz to ride. He did not share that thought, knowing it could be misinterpreted as unkind, but he did not mean it that way. It made his heart sing to know that there was room in Hubert’s heart for more than one person — another thought he would not share due to easy misinterpretation.
Petra went over the itinerary for their trip: a tour of the grounds, an introduction to Petra’s staff, a guided excursion to Brigid’s beaches, meetings to officially establish Brigid’s independence, and a welcome ball late that night.
“Welcome ball?” Ferdinand asked. He wasn’t aware of any planned formal events.
“My idea. Very last minute,” Dorothea confessed. “You know how I love music and parties, after all. Of course I want to celebrate seeing my dear friends again!”
Petra smiled warmly at Dorothea and reached over to squeeze her hand. It was good Dorothea accompanied Petra back to Brigid; it seemed as though it had been beneficial for both of them. “Yes, a big party for my friends,” she said. “Also, Dorothea and I —”
Dorothea shook her head and put her finger to her lips. “Save it for later.” Another smile passed between them.
“Well!” Ferdinand exclaimed. “I must confess I wasn’t expecting dancing, but a noble is always prepared for any occasion. Right, Hubert?”
Hubert only rolled his eyes.
As expected, Petra’s hospitality was unmatched. The rooms prepared for Ferdinand were nothing short of breathtaking, right on the water with a veranda that jutted out so far onto the beach that he felt like he could walk straight into the water from his guest suite.
“Well done, Brigid,” he told the sunset.
A dark head peered around the adjoining divider. “There’s no escaping you, it seems,” Hubert said.
Ferdinand shot Hubert a grin. “Surely there are worse fates than having me as your neighbor.”
“Maybe,” said Hubert. “I’ll think about it.”
“Think of me all you’d like,” Ferdinand said with a wave of his hand before heading back inside. Once inside, he wasn’t sure where that came from. Perhaps all the fresh air was going to his head.
Ferdinand unpacked in his usual haphazard way, while making sure to carefully lay out his best clothes for the ball. He hadn’t been lying when he told Petra a noble was prepared for anything, but in this one particular case, that was probably due to him normally being a flashier dresser than his average counterpart. At any rate, he was determined to make a better impression on Petra’s people than the one he had on the docks.
He decided to see about the possibilities of a bath, resolved to banishing any lingering evidence of ‘boat,’ as Dorothea had put it earlier. And there was a lovely bath already waiting for him in the washroom; the only problem was Hubert was also already in the washroom, just as surprised to see Ferdinand as Ferdinand was to see him. Luckily, he was only peering into the mirror, but who knows what Ferdinand could have witnessed if he’d entered only a few moments later?
“There really is no escaping you!” Ferdinand exclaimed, embarrassment creeping up his neck and displaying plainly on his face. “It seems we’re sharing this room; I promise to knock before entering going forward. Anyway, I was only coming in here for a bath, but I’ll leave you to it. I can just follow you in.” His face heated up. “That is to say I will take my bath after you’re done with yours. Of course!”
Hubert’s lips twisted at Ferdinand’s babbling. “You didn’t know I was here,” he said reasonably. “And you are welcome to the bath. The water is warm now, and I’m in the habit of bathing for utility only. Tepid water doesn’t bother me.”
Ferdinand put his hands on his hips. “Does that mean you think I’m too soft to put up with less than ideal temperatures?”
“Ferdinand.” Hubert sighed. “Of course not. I’d like to get some rest before we need to leave, that’s all. But if you’d rather us both waste the perfectly serviceable bath that Petra’s staff has provided for us because you’re so stubborn, please be my guest.”
“This is terrifically unfair, Hubert. You know I could never do that.”
Hubert examined his reflection again, combing his hair off his forehead with his fingers. He glanced at Ferdinand once before letting it fall over his eye again. “I do know that,” Hubert said. “Because I know you very well. Enjoy your bath,” he added before sweeping out of the room like a giant bat.
Knew him very well? Pah. Ferdinand didn’t know about that and he tried not to think too hard on that comment as he undressed. But any lingering annoyance he felt with Hubert dissipated the moment he sunk underneath the water, hesitating only a moment before getting his hair wet as well. The evening was warm and he had enough time that he could sit out and let his hair dry before dressing for the party. Besides, even damp hair was better than smelling like a hundred sailors.
He resurfaced and relaxed against the bathtub’s edge, letting out a low, satisfied sound as he recognized the scents of hibiscus and plumeria. Petra’s people had really outdone themselves. Ferdinand stayed in the bath long enough to emerge fully human again, scrubbing and splashing and singing because he was in such good spirits. When he climbed out, the water couldn’t yet be described as tepid. He wrapped a fluffy towel around his waist and rapped on the door separating the washroom from Hubert’s suite.
“I left you a bit of warmth, Hubert, should you wish to partake now,” he called through the door.
“You are a ridiculous man,” Hubert called back without opening the door, which wasn’t a no. Ferdinand smiled and returned to his own rooms.
They set out together in the single carriage that Petra sent for them. Ferdinand wondered if he wasn’t fully recovered from the long boat trip because he kept stealing glances at Hubert, even when there was a lull in their conversation. It wasn’t that Hubert was dressed outlandishly — it was hard to picture him in anything other than black — but his jacket featured complementary dark purple accents and the embroidery on his jacket was so fine that Ferdinand suspected Hubert had commissioned Bernadetta for the task.
It also had to be said that it was cut to his figure perfectly, allowing him to look relaxed and authoritative at once, and Ferdinand found himself desperately needing to focus on the scenery of Brigid, even though night had fallen.
“Hmm?” Ferdinand said, turning away from the inky scenery streaking by.
“I just wanted to say— rather, I feel I would be remiss in not mentioning— green is a good color on—” Hubert stopped himself. It was dark inside the carriage, but Ferdinand thought his cheeks were dusted pink. He wondered what Hubert could be trying to say to elicit that reaction. “You look very nice tonight,” Hubert finally concluded in a rush.
“Oh!” Ferdinand said. Well, squeaked, in reality. It was fairly embarrassing. He cleared his throat. “You, too,” he continued, with blessed relief that he sounded like himself again. “I had just been thinking that a moment ago, in fact —” Ferdinand clamped his mouth shut, realizing how that must sound.
Hubert looked down. “Thank you,” he mumbled, and they both spent the rest of the ride in silence, though the warmth blooming in Ferdinand’s chest made the quiet bearable.
The rumors were true: Dorothea certainly knew how to throw a party.
The ball started with a grand feast, one that could even rival the ones in Almyra. As honored guests, Ferdinand and Hubert were seated at the head table alongside the Brigid royal family and Dorothea. Course after course of marvels were presented for them, so much food and drink that Ferdinand feared he might have to roll back to the carriage, but even so, he still accepted it when Hubert passed his dessert over to him.
“I don’t know how you can stomach all that sweetness,” Hubert said, propping his chin up on one hand as he watched Ferdinand dig in.
“I don’t know how you can’t! You’re the odd one here, Hubert, I assure you.”
“It’s a possibility I’ve entertained before,” Hubert said, which sounded suspiciously like agreement, but even that made Ferdinand wish to rebut. Was he that addicted to their debate, or did he seriously want Hubert to believe he wasn’t the odd one?
Well. Perhaps they were both odd.
Petra stood up then and interrupted whatever thoughts Ferdinand was about to have, introducing Hubert and Ferdinand in two languages to the assembled guests. Both stood and bowed, though Hubert refused to look at the large crowd directly as he did so.
Ferdinand shook his head and sat down again. He’d only had one cup of wine, there was no call for such a mutinous thought.
Then, Petra announced the people of the capital had prepared a traditional dance exhibition, which made Ferdinand lean forward eagerly. Song and dance were both great loves of his. The arts had helped him through some of the roughest moments of his childhood, and he looked forward to being an eager patron now that he was the head of House Aegir.
The dance was fascinating. Couples moved together in complicated formations, separating and acquiring new partners at such a dizzying rate that Ferdinand had trouble keeping up. Whether the new partner was a male or female didn’t seem to matter the way it did in Fódlan’s ballroom dance. It was then that Ferdinand realized that the makeup of the couples in the crowd divided in much the same way. Of course Ferdinand knew that not every man’s proclivities leaned only toward the fairer sex and some were rather open about it. He’d known Linhardt for years, after all. But the easy acceptance here — the expectation of acceptance — drove Ferdinand to eager breathlessness. The quartet of strings providing the music played something at once catchy and lonely; a yearning feeling stirred in Ferdinand’s chest, as powerful as any aria Manuela had sung when he was a boy.
Ferdinand leaned over to Petra. “This dance is beautiful,” he told her. “What is it called?”
Petra smiled widely, her eyes twinkling. “It is the traditional marriage dance of Brigid,” she said. “It is being performed whenever a marriage is announced.”
“Oh, how fascinating,” Ferdinand said. “Is someone here announcing their marriage tonight?”
“Of course,” Petra said. “It is me!”
“Congratulations, Your Majesty,” Hubert said, leaning over Ferdinand.
“Yes, congratulations,Petra,” Ferdinand mumbled, utterly confused. He shook his head, gathering his wits about him again. “If you don’t mind me asking, to whom?”
Petra, if possible, grinned harder. “Ah, an excellent question. I am making announcement today because my friends from Fódlan are here with me, and I wish to unite our two lands in a gesture of — um.” She glanced over at Dorothea.
“Goodwill,” Dorothea supplied.
Ah, of course, a political marriage. A rather shrewd move by Petra, but Ferdinand would expect nothing else. But which marriageable lord was worthy of the Queen of Brigid? There was Caspar, perhaps, but last Ferdinand heard he was too busy adventuring to settle down. Linhardt might be a better choice of the two of them, as Ferdinand could easily see Linhardt napping his days away on the beach, but Linhardt liked to be home when Caspar completed his quests. Maybe Holst of House Goneril, as the former Alliance still wielded a good deal of power in the new empire. There was also —
Ferdinand’s eyes slid to Hubert, sliding away again as quickly as possible.
And Ferdinand himself certainly counted. Perhaps that was why Edelgard had suggested him for this diplomatic mission. Just the thought made him desperately unhappy. Why was that? He’d never been overly committed to his bachelorhood and he certainly liked Petra very much. But when presented with the idea of marrying her, his skin suddenly felt too tight.
Then, a glittering something caught Ferdinand’s eye. He followed it past Petra to Dorothea, who was holding her hand up. It was a testament to her immense strength that she could even manage to do so because the jewel shining from her ring finger looked very heavy indeed.
Ferdinand gasped, putting everything together.
Hubert leaned over. “Thank you for finally catching up with the rest of us,” he murmured into Ferdinand’s ear.
“Did you know about this already?” Ferdinand asked, ignoring the way the hair at the back of his neck stood up at that.
“No, but I’m good at putting together context clues.”
“Well, next time clue me in as well!”
Hubert chuckled. “But I like giving you just enough rope to hang yourself.”
Ferdinand groaned and turned his attention back to Petra and Dorothea. “It seems congratulations are in order.” He took Petra’s hands in his first, then reached over and squeezed Dorothea’s as well. “I am truly happy for you both. And what a genius idea — royalty and a commoner marrying, joining together our countries. It really instills how much Edelgard’s new world order means to us all.”
“Also, we’re in love,” Dorothea added, grinning at her wife-to-be.
“That is no surprise,” Ferdinand said. “Because who could not love the two of you?”
“Ferdie!” Dorothea exclaimed.
“You are both invited, of course,” said Petra. “It can be your next visit to Brigid.”
“Oh goody,” said Hubert dryly. “Another boat.”
Ferdinand stifled a snort. “Of course I would be thrilled to attend.”
“Edelgard must also be honored as our guest,” Petra went on. She wagged her finger. “No escape.”
“On my word as a noble, I will challenge her to another duel if she claims she cannot be pulled away from her work to attend the wedding of two of her closest friends and allies.”
“You’ll do what?” asked Hubert.
Ferdinand waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing, nothing.”
“Well!” Ferdinand said, leaning back in his chair a bit later on. “This has already been an eventful trip, and we haven’t even gotten to the diplomacy part yet.”
Hubert crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. They both watched for a while as the happy couple swept their way across the ballroom, Dorothea with her head thrown back in laughter.
“And,” Ferdinand continued, “it is wonderful to see Dorothea seem so relaxed. Toward the end of the war…” He trailed off, unsure if elaborating would be uncouth. He never worried about Dorothea’s abilities to lead, of course; he simply worried.
“It’s good to see her laugh again,” Hubert said.
“Yes!” Ferdinand exclaimed, glad to be understood. “That is exactly what I meant.”
There was a flurry of movement as everyone’s cups were filled to the brim again, and Ferdinand — still watching the happy couple — thankfully drank most of it down. Ferdinand wasn’t sure if it was the atmosphere or the drink, but he was suffused with warmth almost immediately.
“You know, I thought maybe Petra was asking us to arrange a marriage for her,” Ferdinand said as his tongue loosened in his relaxed surroundings. He looked over at Hubert, unable to resist gauging his reaction.
Hubert’s eyebrows were raised slightly, but aside from that, he revealed no emotion on his face. It was frustrating for Ferdinand that Hubert could be such a hard read. He was a particularly difficult puzzle to unlock, but Ferdinand couldn’t help himself from trying — over and over, at times. Hence, the frustration.
“Would you want that? For yourself, I mean?” Hubert asked after a while, at the very same moment that Ferdinand realized he’d been staring. “An arranged marriage, trying to bring forth a new generation of crest-bearers or land-owning von Aegirs or what have you?” Hubert fumbled for his own cup and took a long drink as though trying to fortify himself for whatever answer Ferdinand was about to give.
“From a young age, I was prepared to take a wife and propagate the family line.” Ferdinand took a look around the room again, at the dancers, the other guests, at Petra and Dorothea still beaming at one another. “As far as things go, it does not seem like a terrible fate. I have always enjoyed the fresh wisdom children bring to a conversation.”
Hubert nodded, as if expecting precisely that answer.
Hubert stopped nodding. “However?”
“Well,” Ferdinand said, “Edelgard is working against the idea that blood surpasses talent. I am very busy with my work —which I love — and I have three younger siblings. The odds that I will be favorite Uncle Ferdinand within the decade are good. Also, I do not think it is necessary for a parent and child to share blood to share a bond.” He paused thoughtfully. “There are options, is all I mean.”
“Progressive of you,” Hubert said quietly.
“Of course! Progress leads to innovation and growth! Any good noble can tell you that,” Ferdinand said. He paused for a moment. “And what of the illustrious Hubert von Vestra? Will you do whatever it takes to carry on the family name? Will the Hresvelg dynasty be blessed with future generations of their loyal retainers?”
“The bloodline ends with me.”
Ferdinand burst into laughter at that, swiveling his head in Hubert’s direction; Hubert met his eyes with an intense sort of look, one that made Ferdinand feel as though he were the only person in the room. The laughter died on his lips and, under that scrutiny, Ferdinand found it difficult to breathe.
He licked his lips nervously. “What in the name of the goddess is that supposed to mean?”
“It is as you say,” Hubert said. “Her Majesty values talent above blood, so it’s less important to me that my successor share my blood than my ideals.”
“So you plan to take an apprentice?” Ferdinand smiled, imagining it. “A smaller shadow to shadow you?”
Hubert smiled back at him, and Ferdinand’s breath caught. “You understand me. My name does not matter as much to me as my position.”
“Yes, that is true. It never has,” Ferdinand said.
The first time Ferdinand met Hubert, he was nine and already dedicated to his lady. Edelgard, regal and elegant even as a small girl, was properly appreciative of it because she had always worn her royalty like a glove, but Ferdinand seethed with jealousy at the very idea of anyone his age having someone fully devoted to them. He covered it up with smiles and boasting and firmly denying his jealousy for the next, oh, decade, but today he could recognize it for what it was.
Ironically, that same loyalty was what made Ferdinand admire Hubert now. So it made sense that Hubert didn’t care about carrying on the Vestra name, only that the Imperial Household was always held in caring hands. Hubert von Vestra was focused and intense and dedicated and loyal. He also had been staring at Ferdinand exclusively for the past few minutes, and Ferdinand was staring right back.
“Do you want to dance?” Ferdinand blurted suddenly.
Hubert was too poised to let his posture relax, but Ferdinand felt it somehow, like he had the ability to sense Hubert’s mind relaxing.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“Oh good,” Ferdinand said, before he fully comprehended. Then: “Oh! Good!” He stood and offered his outstretched hand. Hubert took it lightly, the touch nothing more than glove against glove, but Ferdinand bit his lip as he led Hubert to the dance floor, the warmth of Hubert’s hand easily felt even through two layers of cloth.
The people of Brigid were still dancing their complicated dances, ones that Ferdinand couldn’t even hope to follow. Hubert must have caught on to Ferdinand’s distress because he tilted his head in Ferdinand’s direction and said, “We don’t have to dance as they do. We can dance like us.”
“Well, it’s good I had all those waltzing lessons before the White Heron Cup, isn’t it?”
Hubert chuckled. “Take care not to step on my toes.”
“A noble does not make promises he cannot keep.”
Ferdinand took a deep breath and faced Hubert, stretching out their joined hands and putting his other hand on Hubert’s hip. As if it belonged there, Hubert’s free hand came up to clutch Ferdinand’s shoulder, and with a silent one-two-three, they were on their way.
They stayed on the periphery, not wanting to interfere with the party that took priority at the floor’s center. For a moment, Ferdinand thought it odd that Hubert hadn’t even asked who would lead, but he supposed Hubert had spent his whole life following. Which was good because when Ferdinand had learned to waltz, he was horrible at following — he could manage it in his daily affairs, especially now when he wanted nothing more than to be Edelgard’s trusted advisor, but in dancing? The very idea of doing all the same steps only backwards and at another’s whims made for a recipe for disaster.
“You can hold me closer,” Hubert said, ducking down a bit to speak into Ferdinand’s ear. Just those few words made Ferdinand’s heart pound. “It will help you control the dance more, and we are not children who need to leave room for the Goddess in between.”
Ferdinand swallowed hard. “Right,” he said and squared his shoulders, standing up to his full height. He slid his hand around Hubert’s hip to the small of his back and pulled him close, the move bringing them chest-to-chest. He thought he heard Hubert gasp as he found their footing again, but he was focused on making sure he didn’t tread on Hubert’s toes, lest he bring the wrath of the Emperor's right hand down upon him. Their rooms were right next door to each other, after all.
Oh. Their rooms were right next door to each other. Ferdinand had nearly forgotten.
He blinked and looked up, meeting Hubert’s fierce gaze, their faces close enough to share breath. It was odd; though Ferdinand felt he couldn’t quite look away from Hubert’s eyes, now that they were staring at one another, the dance became second nature. He spun them around to the music, quickening their pace but keeping the count, his feet doing exactly what they wanted while Hubert bent to his will.
At this distance, he could see how the torchlight caught in Hubert’s eyes, and the way he saw himself reflected in them. It was remarkable seeing himself through Hubert’s eyes, and he thought he could get drunk on that more easily than on the wine filling their cups.
When the song finally ended, Ferdinand guided them to a stop. They were both breathing hard, and the other people in the room entered Ferdinand’s peripheral vision again. He realized that during the moments of their dance, he considered them the only people in the room, a romantic, heady notion that grabbed him so hard that he felt as though someone had lodged a fishhook in his stomach and reeled him in. He sucked in a sharp breath, his body so close to Hubert’s that he knew Hubert could feel the expansion of his ribs.
“Thank you for the dance,” Ferdinand said breathlessly, curling his fingers into the material of Hubert’s coat at his back. He swallowed and let go, stepping back to pull his collar away from his throat. “Now if you will excuse me, I think I need to grab a breath of fresh air.”
He ran off before he could see Hubert’s reaction. If Hubert looked disappointed, or worse, if Hubert offered to follow, Ferdinand was afraid he’d take hold of Hubert’s lapels and never let go again.
Later, the carriage ride back to their rooms was less awkward than Ferdinand expected, Hubert keeping the conversation light and focused on anything other than the two of them. Ferdinand appreciated that, Hubert not rushing him. If anything, it was sleepy Ferdinand who made things awkward, watching the shape of Hubert’s mouth and slumping down in his seat as tiredness overtook his whole body. His legs stretched out so far that the side of his ankle brushed against Hubert’s, neither of them moving away even as that simple gesture made Ferdinand’s head spin.
When they parted at Ferdinand’s door, only propriety and fear stopped him from inviting Hubert in for tea, even though it was well past midnight. He was afraid of what he might do if Hubert said no, but far more afraid of what he might do if Hubert said yes.
The next day Ferdinand attended diplomacy talks with Petra and the rest of her advisors, and he had never before been privy to such smooth ones. The contingent from Brigid agreed with every point Edelgard and Ferdinand had outlined, and Ferdinand readily agreed with their additions. Truthfully, he always found the brutal relationship between Brigid and Fódlan distasteful, a relic held over from old regimes. The way his father had clung to it meant that any distance Ferdinand himself could be responsible for was a good thing. When Petra and Ferdinand signed the decree together, it was with a flourish and smiles.
Talks concluded long before sunset and Ferdinand decided to spend his free time sightseeing. He loved Adrestia — Enbarr and his family’s ancestral lands and so much more — but surrounded by so much of Brigid’s tropical beauty made him admit he could get used to this. Ferdinand vowed to travel further inland to explore their famed forests before he headed back home. Perhaps Petra would lend him one of her horses.
“You look so far away.”
Ferdinand spun around. “Hubert!” he exclaimed, then swallowed as his traitorous eyes swept up and down. He could hardly be blamed for the indulgence, though; Hubert was dressed casually, only a billowy white shirt tucked into dark trousers. He wore no gloves. Until this very moment, Ferdinand had no proof that Hubert hadn’t been born wearing multiple dark layers. “I’m right here, I assure you.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Hubert. “How are the discussions going? You’re not embarrassing Her Majesty, are you?”
Ferdinand rolled his eyes. “Edelgard will be pleased by their conclusion and my expediency in carrying out her wishes,” he said. “I’m done for today and somehow managed to avoid an international incident. Are you proud of me?”
“Proud of you for doing your job, Prime Minister?” But the softness in Hubert’s eyes told Ferdinand everything he needed to know, especially when he added, “Does this mean you’re free to have tea with me?”
“I would like nothing more,” Ferdinand said, because it was the truth.
Tea and coffee and conversation flowed easily, as they always did between the two of them nowadays. Sometimes the Ferdinand von Aegir who would have chosen being trampled by his favorite horse rather than spend an hour sitting with Hubert seemed like part of a half-forgotten dream instead of the person he used to be.
After tea, unwilling to part, they went for a walk on the beach outside their lodging. Ferdinand abandoned his jacket and shoes on his veranda, and then got his second surprise of the day when he saw Hubert’s feet in the sand.
“You have toes,” Ferdinand said with wonder. He felt so stupid afterward that he actually slapped a hand over his mouth.
“Ten of them,” Hubert agreed. “What were you expecting?”
Ferdinand dropped his hand to his side again. “I don’t know!” he said. “It still sometimes comes as a shock to me that you are just a normal man.”
“Normal might be overstating the case,” Hubert said. “But I am certainly a man.”
“I know,” Ferdinand said softly. “Believe me, Hubert, I am aware.” Their eyes met and Ferdinand felt his face heat up, reminded of Hubert’s unflinching gaze during their dance. He had to look away, but the gentle Brigid wind and brilliant blue water did not allow him embarrassment for more than a moment.
They walked side-by-side along the shore, dodging the waves, Ferdinand breathless and eager for more every time a laugh pushed its way out of Hubert’s throat. Their pace slowed as they wound their way back to their rooms. Then the back of Hubert’s hand, perhaps accidentally, brushed against the back of Ferdinand’s. That small touch should not have affected Ferdinand so, but still it did; he felt as shaky as he used to whenever coffee touched his lips, back before he got used to having it sometimes. The second brush of their hands was deliberate; Ferdinand knew this because he initiated it, chasing that high again. The third was Hubert’s doing, and he committed, tangling their hands together until they could hold fast to one another.
“We should get dinner together,” Ferdinand said, not wanting the day to end yet. Or ever, quite possibly.
“Okay,” Hubert said, that one little word somehow managing to come out rough and unsure all at once.
Ferdinand understood completely. He squeezed Hubert’s hand.
Dinner was more of the same — conversation that flowed like water and time speeding up and slowing down somehow all at once. How long had Ferdinand felt like this in Hubert’s presence? His mind tried telling him all your life, even though he knew that was absolutely untrue. But it was hard to argue with endorphins, and harder still to argue with his own feelings. The sun disappeared as they ate and talked, the establishment’s staff leaning in to light candles at their table.
As they spoke, Ferdinand noticed that sometimes when he said something clever or leaned in to catch all of Hubert’s words, the glow of the candles could not quite mask the glow of Hubert’s cheeks. He understood the triumph of a good win, having experienced it in many battles throughout the war, and right now, he knew he was a winner.
Ferdinand offered his elbow to Hubert as they walked back to their lodgings, which Hubert took without hesitation, though his cheeks were suspiciously rosy again.
“Walking like this with you is rather scandalous, isn’t it?” Ferdinand said. “Like we’re courting without an escort.”
“We certainly can get up to more trouble this way,” Hubert agreed. After a moment, he added, “Ferdinand, if any of this is making you uncomfortable—”
“No!” Ferdinand interrupted. His fierce reply embarrassed him, but he soldiered on. “This is… nice.” It felt rather trite, describing it that way, but it was also true. Being with Hubert was nice. Being able to give voice to his feelings was nice. Knowing that whatever acrimony they shared in the past was long behind them, replaced by friendship and more, was nice. Very nice.
When they reached Hubert’s door, Ferdinand beamed up at him. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” he said, ducking his head. “A lovely trip, in fact. I am very glad Edelgard forced you to relax.”
He untangled their arms and turned to face Hubert, placing one careful hand against his cheek. When Hubert allowed that, breathing shallowly, Ferdinand pressed his other palm against the other side of Hubert’s face. He stepped in, bringing them as close as they were during their dance, and tilted his chin up.
The kiss they shared was nothing more than a brief press of lips, a mutual breath of air, but the way it made Ferdinand feel was nothing short of a miracle. If giving voice to his feelings was amazing, that was nothing compared to giving it action.
Ferdinand swallowed hard as they parted and he stepped back, but before he could wish Hubert good night, Hubert grabbed him around the waist and pulled him in tight again, tilting Ferdinand back as his mouth sought Ferdinand’s again.
This was nothing Ferdinand had ever experienced before, desperation clawing up inside his throat as Hubert drove him up against his door. He had his fingers wrapped around Ferdinand’s wrist, and when he dragged Ferdinand’s hand up to press flat near his hair, Ferdinand turned his head and let out a noise he didn’t even realize he could make.
“Stay,” Hubert said, his mouth hot against Ferdinand’s throat. “I will not be offended if you say no, but know that I want you to say yes.”
“I sh— shouldn’t,” Ferdinand said, tilting his head to allow Hubert greater access. “There is no rush. We have time.”
These were the right things to say, the expected things. Hubert captured his lips once more and then stepped away, letting go. “We do have time,” he said.
“I’m relieved you agree,” Ferdinand said.
“Of course,” said Hubert, shaking his head as if there were any other response. That alone made Ferdinand’s heart thump and his legs tremble. “Good night, Ferdinand. I will see you in the morning.”
“Tomorrow,” Ferdinand murmured.
Hubert disappeared into his rooms then and Ferdinand walked the few steps back to his own. Once inside, he sat down on the bed and removed his boots, his jacket, and loosened his cravat. He stared hard at the washroom door.
Only one room separated them. He wondered what Hubert was doing. Getting ready for bed? Thinking of him? Or both? Ferdinand exhaled in an unsteady gust at that thought, rubbing restlessly at his thighs.
“Oh, fuck it,” Ferdinand said to himself and stood, striding straight through the washroom and banging hard on the opposite door. “Hubert, I’ve changed my mind,” he called. “I would love to accept your offer.”
There was nothing but silence on the other side of the door. Had Hubert fallen asleep so quickly? Impossible! But perhaps he had changed his own—
Then the door was flung open, Hubert on the other side, wide-eyed and out of breath.
“Hi,” Ferdinand said.
Hubert grabbed him by the front of his shirt and hauled him into his room.
The next morning was glorious. Sun spilled through the slats of the shuttered windows, tropical birds sang sweet songs that filtered through to Ferdinand’s sleepy memory, and he woke up tangled around Hubert, thoughts of the night before still vivid enough to make him blush as the day’s light opened his eyes.
The kissing, the touching, the more had all seemed to go on for hours. It was as though they were making up for lost time in learning each other, even with the future spreading out bright beyond them. At one point, Ferdinand was quite sure he forgot his own name.
He was still smiling to himself, remembering, when a hand brushed his hair off his bare shoulder with a kiss following shortly after.
“Nice of you to join me in the land of the living again,” Ferdinand teased, rolling over and propping himself up on one elbow.
“It’s funny,” Hubert said. “Usually I wake long before dawn, but this morning my body simply wouldn’t permit it. Have you been up long?”
Ferdinand shook his head. “Just a few minutes. I was rather worn out myself.”
“I wonder why,” Hubert said, and smiled. “Would you like to find some breakfast?”
Ferdinand pushed himself up, placing one hand on either side of Hubert’s head and looking down at him as his hair fell in a copper curtain all around them. “Maybe in a little while,” he said, and dropped down on top of Hubert again.
Like all good things, their trip to Brigid had to come to an end. All in all, Ferdinand considered it a great success, even though Hubert was currently staring up at the ship scheduled to take them back to Enbarr like it was a demonic beast. But Brigid was free to rule itself, and Ferdinand was now free to take Hubert’s hand whenever he wished. Not exactly on equal footing in terms of historical significance, perhaps, but both were significant to him.
“Did you get Edelgard a souvenir?” asked Ferdinand, squeezing Hubert’s fingers.
“Of course,” Hubert said, only the smallest quaver in his voice. “I am bringing my lady an invitation to Petra and Dorothea’s wedding.”
Ferdinand grinned. “She will like that very much, I think.” He stared up at the ship for a moment, too. “Hubert, do you think she’ll be happy about us?”
It was the question Ferdinand had been avoiding, knowing that even though she sent Hubert along with Ferdinand to Brigid so he could relax, there was such a thing as being too relaxed. And if the Emperor disapproved of Ferdinand and Hubert, then there would be no Ferdinand-and-Hubert. He would have to file these last few days away as a sweet first-time memory, something he wasn’t sure he had the ability to do right now. Possibly not ever.
“I believe —” Hubert paused, and Ferdinand thought that this was it. He was about to let him down easy. “I believe that this might have been her plan all along.”
“What?” Ferdinand said, astonished. “She knew?”
Hubert shrugged. “She may have guessed. It wasn’t just that an ambassador was going to Brigid,” Hubert said. “It was that the ambassador was you.” He sighed. “She knows me too well, and I will never hope to understand how her brilliant mind works.”
Ferdinand hung his head. “Bested again by Edelgard,” he muttered, not the least bit annoyed. “Does it ever end?”
“Hopefully not,” Hubert said and Ferdinand wished he could bottle the warmth that ran through him at those words.
“My friends,” Petra said, joining them on the dock, “it is feeling too soon to say good-bye to you two.”
“Likewise,” Ferdinand said, turning toward her. He clasped one of her hands in both of his. “But we will return soon. We already have our invitations!”
Dorothea walked up to him and threw her arms around his neck without pretense as Petra moved on to Hubert. “Don’t be a stranger,” she told him. “Write often. I’m always happy to get gossip from home.”
“Of course,” Ferdinand assured her. “The same goes for you. I will take any news about you and your queen, whenever you see fit to share it. “He pulled back and took Dorothea by the hands. “It is so wonderful to see you so happy. You deserve it more than anyone I know.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Dorothea said, her eyes drifting in Hubert’s direction; Ferdinand’s own eyes helplessly followed. “Make sure he treats you right, okay? It’s up to you to keep me updated about the Mittelfrank’s new season, and I expect Hubie to accompany you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Or else.”
Ferdinand let out a short laugh. “Are you going to give him a come to the Goddess speech?”
Hubert looked over at them then, and Dorothea pointed two fingers at her own eyes before turning them around and pointing them at Hubert, who looked more alarmed at that gesture than Ferdinand had ever seen him. “Maybe,” she said, and Ferdinand laughed again.
“I do not believe you have any cause for worry.”
“Good. Go get him, tiger,” Dorothea said, bouncing over to Hubert to wrap him up in a big hug, too.
A few moments later, it was just the two of them again, Hubert already looking a little green around the edges.
“Hubert,” Ferdinand began, “while we were in Brigid, I took the liberty of researching known cures for seasickness.” He looped his arm behind Hubert’s back, supporting him as they made their way on deck, reveling in the way Hubert immediately leaned into him.
“Have you?” Hubert said, somehow still managing his usual bored drawl. Well, they weren’t on the open seas yet. “And what did you find out?”
“That the key is distraction!” Ferdinand exclaimed. “Distraction, distraction, distraction.” He led them both past the crew and the handful of other passengers, leading Hubert below deck before they even left port. “Distraction by not looking at the water, distraction by keeping your mind occupied with other things.”
Hubert smiled at that. “And I suppose you’ve thought of ways to keep my mind occupied.”
“Oh, dozens,” Ferdinand said, opening the door to Hubert’s quarters. “Ones that will keep you busy for hours and hours, things that will not allow another thought alongside them.” He ran his gloved fingers down the center of Hubert’s lips, parting them a little, and smiled as he shut the door.
No one could ever doubt Ferdinand von Aegir’s dedication when he was committed to a task, after all. The fact of Ferdinand and Hubert, together, was proof enough of that.
But just in case, he also made sure they had a bucket.