Bernadetta spent the better part of the month begging her professor to let her sit out of attending the ball. Professor Eisner was loathe to show favoritism, but, as Bernadetta had learned, the best way to win the teacher over was with having a reasonable answer to every concern.
Dinner? She could have an early one, in her room! Everyone would be too busy preparing for the ball, she'd have no problem sneaking some food out from the kitchen. The kitchen staff were nice enough, they'd probably let her have a little bit before the actual event.
Dancing? She wasn't going to dance! No one was going to ask her to dance, she didn't even want anyone to ask her. It'd be nice to see Dorothea's performance, probably, maybe... but Petra could fill her in on what she'd miss!
The professor had been all set to let her have her way, too, if it weren't for Professor Manuela overhearing them and having none of it. This year's ball had so many of the Fódlan's most eligible young nobles in attendance. For even one of them to be missing would make the monastery look bad. Bernadetta herself was from such a prominent family in the Empire, one of the last connections the church had to the country. It wouldn't do for her to be absent. "Besides, it's tradition darling Bernadetta!" That damnable word. Traditions were honestly the bane of her existence, Bernie thought despairingly, thinking of how tradition and her family name had dictated so much of her life. The Professor could only shrug helplessly when Bernadetta looked to them in desparation. The ins and outs of politics and social etiquette were something far, far out of their expertise.
At least Professor Manuela had taken the time to reassure her that she didn't need to dance, and she only had to stay until the house leaders' cotillion was over. After that, no one would mind if she grabbed food from the buffet and slipped off to go hide in her room. It wouldn't be the first time students slipped away from the main festivities after all. she'd said slyly.
So that had been the plan. Get in, stick to the walls invisibly, grab dinner, get out. It'll be easy, she'd repeated to herself, holding a covered plate of sweet buns, pilfered very hastily from the dinner spread, Easy like a reconnaissance assignment, and finally began edging her way to the exit. She'd had to make several detours to avoid her classmates. She was getting better at talking to them (she thought of some as actual friends now!) but tonight she just wanted to get out of the too-crowded reception hall. She hoped they didn't take it the wrong way.
She finally made it to the exit. Bernadetta had barely stepped outside when she made a tiny squeak of despair. It was dark, but she could tell that the grounds weren't as deserted as they normally were. Here and there across the grounds were groups of students chatting or strolling around. But away from the torches and in the shadows, couples were stealing away from the grand affair, probably hoping for some private time on their own.
"Oh no, oh no..." She fretted. What if she ran into something private? Something... intimate that she shouldn't have seen? She didn't want that! The students would hate her! Then they'd spread awful rumors about her, and her reputation would be in tatters, and no one would want to be her friend! What if she lost the few friends she'd made?
She turned back to the hall, but the sound of chatter and festivities made her heart leap into her throat. No, there were too many people in there. And they'd see her sneaking back in, like a thief! What would they think of her!
"Ohhh..." She whined, stepping back into the shadow of the corridor connecting the hall to the courtyard as she narrowly avoided another couple giggling their way past her. This was why she didn't want to go to this affair. Similar memories of balls and feasts her parents had her attend were starting to come back...
"Sneaking around in the shadows, Bernadetta?"
Bernadetta jumped out of her skin with a shriek, her plate of buns slipping through her fingers. Instead of shattering against the ground, a pair of quick, gloved hands caught the plate, buns mercifully intact.
Bernadetta raised nervous grey eyes to meet Hubert's gaze, eyes narrowed in dry amusement.
"H-H-Hubert!" She straightened a little from the crouch she'd folded herself into at some point. "I-it's just you! What a relief..."
Hubert arched a brow at her, one corner of his mouth angling up in what might be a smirk. Maybe. "Hmm. I believe you dropped these." He held the plate out for Bernadetta to take.
"Yeah, s-sorry, I was just, well..." She fidgeted with her skirt for a second before bowing low to avoid his gaze. "Thank you so much! It's a good thing you caught 'em... For a second there I thought I'd have to skip dinner after all."
"Had these fallen, nothing would have stopped you from retrieving more." He pointed out, glancing back towards the hall. "The church has spared little expense for this feast. We may as well take advantage of the extravagance they are willing to spend for us."
"Y-yeah, but then I'd have to get back in there," she murmured. "There's no way you'd get Bernie back in there, nuh-uh! Too many people!"
"Ah," Hubert chuckled, and Bernie managed to wince only a little bit at the sound. "I can hardly fault you there. I, too, find it tiring to engage with so many people at once. The essence of courtesy is the sociable lie, and having to constantly put up that facade at gatherings like this can be rather... troublesome."
"I-is that why you're out here too, then?" Bernadetta peered up at him curiously. "I mean, not that I don't want you around. That's not what I'm saying at all! It's just, you're usually hanging around Lady Edelgard, right?" And Edelgard must be in there, with the rest of the other, proper nobles.
Hubert nodded. "I do try to keep track of those who Her Majesty wishes to interact with, especially in social gatherings like this. She has asked me to keep a distance tonight, however." His eyes roved around the grounds, frowning a little. "... I did try to shadow her, and I believe she stepped outside for some fresh air.... but it seems I've lost track of her for now."
"Oh... Oh! You must've been looking for her, then!" Bernadetta's eyes widened. Oh, she knew it. She knew she must've disturbed him. "I'm sorry! I'll let you - I mean, you should get back to looking for her, then! I'm sorry!"
"It is of no consequence." Hubert interrupted her smoothly, before she could send herself into a slew of apologies. "I trust that Lady Edelgard can take care of herself and her own private matters easily. I am sure she will turn up soon." The if not... went unsaid, but Bernie could hear it hanging in the air anyway. She didn't want to think about it too hard. "... You, however, I'm not so certain. Where exactly were you sneaking off to, to have your dinner?"
"I was headed to my room! Where it's safe, and quiet, and..." She bit her lip, shrugging and giving the grounds a cursory look. "I would've made it fine, too, b-but, there's... a lot more people out here than I thought, and um..." She flushed uncertainly, voice dropping to a whisper. "I might walk in on something I shouldn't be seeing."
"Something you shouldn't be seeing?" Hubert's lips quirked up and Bernie eep'd at his smile. "Such as...?"
"Y-you know!" She hissed. "What else do couples do in the shadows when they slip away from a ball?"
"Well, we are a pair of students in the shadows, who have slipped away from the ball." Hubert's slight smile widened into a grin and Bernadetta felt a chill run down her spine. She pressed her lips together to keep herself from squeaking. "But we are only talking, aren't we?"
"Th-th-that's... that's not what I mean!" She cried out, a little louder than she'd meant to. A pair of students glanced their way briefly before they continued on their way. Bernadetta felt her cheeks flush with sudden realization. "... Oh no, they're gonna think that you - with me -- that we're...!!!"
Hubert laughed, and although Bernie had run screaming from his laughter before, this didn't sound quite as sinister. In fact, it was kind of... nice? Louder than his usual dark chuckle, but less than the dastardly laughter she sometimes heard from him on the battlefield. It was... soft, and warm. And made her stare at him in wonder.
"Should they associate you wih myself, perhaps they will give you a wide berth as a result," he said, finally, after a moment. His eyes seemed to gleam with the mischief of a shared secret between them. "That sounds like something you would appreciate, I think."
"... But in the meantime, I'm sure you would prefer to get back to your room. Please, allow me to walk you back."
Bernadetta blinked rapidly, her mind trying to catch up with what just happened. "But... I thought... W-weren't you going to look for Lady Edelgard?"
"I will, as soon as you make it back to your room without incident; this would be but a small detour. If I leave you here, I'm sure whatever rumours there might be about us on this night will take an unfortunate spin." He stepped aside and gestured to the path behind them, the shortest route that would lead to the dorms. "After you."
Bernadetta made no further argument, afraid of how else he might spin her words to mean something they didn't.
Still... it was easier to get back to her room this way. Hubert fell into step beside her, making her breathe a little easier as she didn't have to worry about his presence looming behind her. She glanced curiously up at him now and then, but it seemed that he only had eyes for the path ahead. With him next to her, the students milling about cleared the way when they saw them coming. Bernadetta didn't have to stick to the walls, or dart from one shadow to another, or worry about running into anyone she didn't have to.
Soon, much sooner than she'd expected, they were at the steps leading up to her door. She'd had a hand on the doorknob when she realized that Hubert hadn't followed, and instead stayed on the grounds.
She turned around, looking in every other way but his. "Um... sorry, again, for making you come all this way. You didn't really have to! But you did! Even if it was a detour, and you had better things to do, and I'm sure Lady Edelgard is looking for you too by now, so... um..." She fidgeted with the plate she'd held onto this whole time, nervously raising her eyes to meet his. "... Th-thanks, Hubert."
"It was hardly any trouble. It was refreshing to get you back to your room without having to carry you unconscious." He smirked as she flushed at that memory, lips pursing a little. There was an awkward pause, Bernie not knowing how to answer him, until he gave her a brief bow. "Have a good evening, Bernadetta." He turned to be on his way.
Bernie wrestled with her thoughts for a few more seconds before she finally managed to blurt one last thing out.
"Good... good night, Hubert!"
He paused, angling his face to her slightly with the barest hint of a smile playing at the corners of his lips. He raised one hand in a wave, then continued walking away.
She darted back into the safety her room, taking a few moments to lean back on her door and wait for her racing heart to calm down. That... was actually not so bad. She'd been nervous, but not scared. And his company had made it easier to get back to her room; she didn't have to worry about anyone else, because no one else came up to bother them. It was an odd feeling. She was used to being afraid of him; less often these days, sure, but scared of Hubert was her default, not... safe with Hubert.
She thought back to his warm laughter earlier, and the words that accompanied them. Maybe he was right. Maybe she would appreciate being associated with Hubert after all.