Although he would adamantly refuse to admit it to Claude, today was a rather nice afternoon for a horseback ride. Flayn had recently been rescued, although she was never in any grave danger herself. Only he and Lady Edelgard knew as much, and it was far from certain. Her involvement was strategic. She was of no use to anyone if she was dead—at least not at this stage. Regardless, with her return, tensions at the monastery dissipated. Claude, among others, was in a state of mind to smile at the full clouds drifting overhead. The light, crisp fragrance signifying the approach of autumn carried in the air. Now out in droves, hunters would arrive at the monastery with more game soon. Another cause for celebration and a suitable diversion from the war yet to begin.
“What did I tell you, Hubert?” His companion began his teasing boast. Hubert didn’t even need to look to know he was smirking. “I knew you’d be glad I convinced you to take a quick break with me.”
The speckled grey mare that Ferdinand chose for his training seemed to scoff on Hubert’s behalf. She was well-selected. Experienced, reliable, and with a stern disposition, the two of them did cooperate quite well together. If only thanking Ferdinand for his attentiveness was so simple.
“I didn’t say I was.”
“With a friendship this close? You don’t have to say a word,” Claude continued his playful jabs. Obviously, he didn’t know Hubert even half as well as he assumed. A glance at the Golden Deer House leader revealed that he was, in fact, grinning. He may as well enjoy his carefree days while he still could. “Besides, if Lorenz heard that I neglected to invite such a treasured friend to join me for a horseback ride, he’d have my hide!”
“How odd,” Hubert feigned ignorance with a smirk of his own. They led their horses down the familiar path further from the monastery to a quiet field where they could speak freely on various subjects the Church disapproved of. They would make their way back shortly before the hardy variety of bugs emerged to claim the night as their own. “Since when did you become so invested in his opinion?”
“Oh, since he mysteriously ended up running into me in random circumstances with unknown origins. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
“Not at all. As you recall, I’ve been trying to study despite your best efforts.”
“Sure, sure,” Claude dismissed that shameless evasion somewhat too readily. Surely, there would be something he wished to pursue right behind it. Hubert peered at him, but he could be difficult to read when he chose to be. That would undoubtedly prove useful in leading the Alliance. Claude leaned over with the reins loose in his hand, so casual that he appeared to have forgotten he was on a horse altogether. “So, are you going to show off all the stately, cavalier form that Ferdinand’s shown you?”
“No.” Hubert urged his horse ahead, but his travel companion was not easily dissuaded.
“Oh, come on!” Even his horse appeared to have a merry little jaunt to its trot as he caught up with Hubert, that grin immovable from his face. “You can say I paid you to, if it’s your sinister aura you’re worried about.”
Hubert grimaced in return, exhaling heavily. Would that he could convince Claude to discuss alternative governing structures, compelling strategies with battalions, or even guessing the ages of different monastery staff if he felt so inclined. Any topic but his determination to act the matchmaker, however well-founded his judgment turned out to be.
Hubert straightened in his saddle, turning to look after Claude had already done so. The vibrant warmth of that voice was enough to identify Ferdinand, but he was obligated to at least look at him. Regardless of whether his timing was exceptionally poor or not, he supposed.
“Well, look who’s here, Hubert!” Claude stopped his horse, waving Hubert down like he wasn’t beside him as it was.
“I can see them,” Hubert answered, glancing to Lorenz meaningfully as they approached. If nothing else, he wouldn’t be ensnared in this trap on his own. By Claude’s account, it was only expected of Hubert to reciprocate his ‘favor’.
“Imagine seeing you both out here!”
“Yes, quite the coincidence,” Lorenz agreed with Ferdinand, however skeptical he was through those manners. His proud steed drew up beside his friend’s with impeccable grace. One had to wonder if the horse was well-trained or Lorenz simply had that effect. After all, his presence alone was enough to get Claude to eat with some extent of decorum. Or perhaps that was simply Claude’s response now that he’d been on the receiving end of his own romantically inspired scheming.
“I see what you’re hinting at, Lorenz, say no more.” Claude seemed perfectly at ease, twisting in his saddle to face the two noblemen’s sons. Hubert would rather turn his horse, but they unfortunately lacked the space in that area of the path. “You followed us out here to seek out our company, didn’t you?”
“What? No!” Indignant, Lorenz insisted somewhat too intensely, sparing a glance to Ferdinand for support and earning a quick nod. The two were childhood friends, and that simple act likely signified something to Lorenz that neither of the other two present would have any chance of guessing accurately. It served as encouragement of some sort, clearly, as Lorenz continued more calmly. “We often go for a stroll at this time. I was suggesting quite the opposite.”
“Ah, so we followed you out here before you left,” Hubert proposed, following his suggested reasoning with a cold smile. Lorenz had much in common with Ferdinand, including the simplicity of stirring him to ire. “Yes, that sounds sensible.”
Before Lorenz could get too far into his tirade, elegantly shaped eyebrows raised in offense, Ferdinand rested a gentle touch on his forearm. To think, Lorenz would emerge his mocking encounter with Hubert as the fortunate one.
“Come now,” Ferdinand smoothed over the tension, an effortless smile at the ready. Lorenz huffed, but let it fall with a final sneer. Even that was poised for appearances. Ferdinand accepted it even so, holding his reins in both hands again and turning that expression to Hubert. “Perhaps this was simply serendipitous! I, for one, would be delighted to have your company.”
“Be that as it may,” Hubert stalled in his answer, feeling a nameless sensation course through him at having Ferdinand’s direct attention, and with such a remark! In a weak attempt to distract him, Hubert nodded to the road stretching out towards the fields and town ahead. “The path only accommodates two horses side by side.”
“I’ve got an idea!” Claude’s ideas were, in a word, horrendous. Artfully thought out and clever, yes, but often resulted in landing in some plot of his. True to form, he was undeterred by Hubert’s eye roll. “Let’s shake things up a little! Hubert here can go with Ferdinand, and I’ll ride with our noble Lorenz. What do you say?”
Lorenz flushed pink, complementing his lilac hair in a way—a fact Claude seemed intent on noticing with a lingering gaze like the one he bore. That victory of Hubert’s own schemes to draw Claude’s amorous feelings into the light was difficult to celebrate, what with Ferdinand’s blush framing a hopeful, fragile smile.
“A fine idea, Claude!”
“Ah.” Hubert caught Lorenz’s eye, however fleetingly. They seemed to be the only two who were aware of the emotions charging this discussion. Despite that, the brief glance proved neither of them could place or settle those sentiments. With a short nod to Ferdinand, he surrendered. “I see no issue with it.”
“Then it’s settled,” Lorenz rushed out, guiding his horse to move closer to Claude, who had already started ahead at a lackadaisical pace. “We shall see you upon our return.”
“Y-yes, indeed!” Ferdinand winced so slightly, it could easily be overlooked. By someone less keenly aware of his every move, perhaps.
Hubert ushered his horse to go ahead at a pace to put distance between them and the pair up ahead. If Claude insisted on his romantic machinations, it was only fair that he would be caught up in them as well.
He suspected the socially adroit House Leader of Golden Deer would fare far better than Hubert himself, whose gloves were already gathering a light layer of sweat in the palms as Ferdinand’s horse sauntered up in pursuit.
The silence is stretched taut between them, but not with anger. Such a far cry from where they began their connection. No, this was something Hubert was much less capable of recognizing. Ferdinand and Hubert had gone on countless horse rides, spent hours in the kitchen together, and worked on assorted weekly tasks numerous times. What could possibly have changed?
Hubert must have offended him in some way.
“I enjoy all horse rides,” Ferdinand started, kind enough to fill the quiet hovering between them like smothering fog. “But today’s is especially lovely.”
“Oh?” Glancing to Ferdinand from the edge of his vision, Hubert truly could not think of anything further to say. He looked much less like the prime minister’s son and more the son of some well-off merchant, at least in physical appearance alone. His outfit suited horseback riding more than noble presentation, although it managed to appear stately. That may have more to do with his bearing than any concrete attribute of button-down shirts and equestrian pants.
His hair was curled into the style he commonly preferred, whether natural or requiring attention and care. Both, as the case may be. Hubert had idly wondered what it might call for, and if perhaps he might know how to do so for Ferdinand. He saw to certain aspects of hair care for Lady Edelgard for years. How different could it be? What would he speak of in the morning, still yawning with having just woken?
“The weather, that is!” Ferdinand broke through his revelry, and Hubert turned away with the return of that damnable feeling under his skin. Almost like an anxiousness. That response was beneath him, trained out of him by his wretched father. And yet, it persisted. Just as it did with Ferdinand, laughing tightly. “It’s perfect, is it not?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Again, the silence returned. Of course, that was what occurred when one did nothing to further a conversation. Hubert exhaled through his nose. He was entirely fed up with his own uselessness already, and they had only reached the first fork towards a small forested area outside Garreg Mach. If the simplest, most vapid noble of Enbarr could manage small talk, so could Hubert von Vestra. Clearing his throat and, with more effort and to a lesser extent, his mind, he offered his best attempt. “Lorenz said you routinely go on horseback rides together?”
“Ah, that we do! I join Lorenz at least once a week.” Ferdinand was grateful in instant, brightening on the spot. Seeing him then, it was impossible to remember what it was that so inspired hatred in Hubert at the sight of the future prime minister—particularly when content, as he was now. The honeyed depths of his eyes took on an ever-more vibrant presence, incapable of being ignored or denied. Freckles scattered over the light pink enduring on his face, and something in his tenuously pleased grin endeared him.
“You must know the area well.” Shared observations were working thus far. Hubert saw no reason to change that particular strategy, not with his inner thoughts as they were.
“I could easily navigate this area blindfolded!” Ferdie beamed with familiar self-satisfied pride as their path sloped downward and closer to the clustered trees. Where once that would send Hubert into a cutting remark that earned him a scowl, he merely chuckled.
“Dramatic as always. I was only asking for a recommendation as to where we might stop for tea.” The seasoned scarlet oak tree Hubert favored would be developing its trademark blazing color, and it would be a fine place to rest with—company. Regrettably, they were nowhere near it. “My favorite coffee drinking spot happens to be on the other side of the monastery.”
“You have coffee and tea with you, Hubert? And a tea set?” Surprised, but not displeased, Ferdinand looked to him in wide-eyed curiosity. Much better than a scowl, as it so happened.
“It’s a metal set, and I have only tea. But yes. Why else would I mention it?”
“Right! Of course,” Ferdinand answered, that nervous laugh coming again. Hubert frowned and cursed whatever fickle whim of the universe that decided he would respond to social awkwardness with more of the same. “There is a clearing nearby that is both charming and secluded. Assuming you wish for privacy, that is. Because I know how much that means to you.”
The knowledge that Ferdinand had been observing him in turn, and even learned that his brusque demeanor served more than one purpose, materialized against all odds. Truthfully, Hubert had not the slightest as to how to proceed from there.
“Then I shall lead the way!” Inclined to mercy, Ferdinand did precisely that so Hubert could follow without having to speak to imagined feelings. There was no chance that they were anything but. Hubert prepared for the eventuality that such emotions did exist between them, yes. Lady Edelgard knew of the budding affections he held for Ferdinand. She was delighted by them, even. Yet he knew better than to hope.
And somehow… Still, his heart raced as he did nothing more taxing than kneeling at the center of the clearing Ferdinand brought them to.
Hubert had no ability to summon a fire spell worthy of being an attack, but he could warm the metal kettle using only the low flame in his hands. The water from his canteen had originally been for Claude and Hubert to share, so it was slightly less than he would have brought had he planned for Ferdinand. Another manner in which this trip did not go according to Claude’s impulsive idea. He would just have to drink less to compensate. All in all, it really should have been rather simple. But the unidentifiable sensation from when they first split off carried over even so long after.
When he glanced to Ferdinand tying off their horses, their gazes brushed and fled from one another insuppressibly. That atmosphere rendered both of them distracted and inefficient with their tasks. The water should have been ready by then, and Ferdinand took far longer than usual to secure the reins to a sturdy branch.
“There,” Ferdinand said with no particular need to do so. Noise for the sake of noise—a hallmark sign that his colleague was ill at ease. He took the time to pet one of the creatures on the nose, affectionate and gentle as he dallied. “Do behave now.”
“Damn,” Hubert hissed, dropping the kettle onto the flat stone he’d set beneath it earlier. Watching Ferdinand robbed him of his focus, causing the fire to flare higher than he intended. Not enough to burn through his gloves or anything drastic, but enough to convince him to let it go abruptly before he faced the consequences.
“Are you alright?” Ferdinand darted over, his hand positioned over Hubert’s shoulder as concern pierced every syllable.
“Yes. Of course.” Being the focus of his concern especially was foreign to Hubert. He managed not to withdraw from his touch, a success in itself. “I misjudged the heat required, so we’ll have to wait longer for it to cool.”
“Oh. I see.” Settling down in the grass across from him, Ferdinand leaned back with a relieved breath. The first few buttons of his shirt were undone, so a portion of his skin was visible there. Tanned skin, indicating that Ferdinand was without his shirt in the sun often enough to maintain that. It was new intelligence on his habits, nothing more, but Hubert was even less in control of his mind than before. All of these effects had never happened to him before. Not with men or women in the capital, and certainly not with Ferdinand von Aegir. At least until Claude’s interference.
Or was the reverse true? It hardly seemed to matter in that private space within those woods.
“This is a—”
Just as they spoke at once, they both halted simultaneously. Ferdinand let out a small chuckle and bowed his head to Hubert, extending a hand in a hypothetical offer. “My apologies. You can speak first.”
“I was only admiring our surroundings. They are—” He looked away from Ferdinand at the final moment, unsure what had come over him. Taking courage in Lady Edelgard’s encouragement when they’d discussed this possibility, Hubert pushed himself to conclude as planned. He looked to Ferdinand once more and finished his sentence. “Truly lovely.”
After a short pause—neither reassuring nor disquieting, but plainly being—Ferdinand smiled anew. “I must confess, I sincerely hoped you would think so.”
“But you had something to say as well?” Rather than avoiding a momentary lapse in his typically stern mannerisms, Hubert circled back to Ferdinand out of honest interest. As he waited, he held his hand near the kettle’s side and deemed it the proper warmth to pour over the tea in their respective cups.
“Right! So I did.” As Hubert lifted the kettle, Ferdinand fussed with his cravat to no apparent end. “I have just been thinking as of late that I feel immensely grateful. For our evolution from bitter enemies to,” he hesitated yet again, clasping his hands in front of him. He assumed it was an endeavor to steady them that was mostly effective. “Well, I’m not sure what, exactly. All I can say for certain is that I am grateful for you.”
Hubert’s vital organs took that as a cue to collectively forget their purpose. Holding his breath as his stomach seemed unwilling to settle, his heart pounded while he searched that familiar face. How strange, to see his own uncertainties and hopes reflected back at him. It couldn’t be that he…? Hm.
He abandoned the thought of pouring his own water, setting the kettle down on the flat stone between their cups.
“Forgive me if I misheard you; did you say for me?”
“I did, yes.” Ferdinand beamed, holding his own hands tighter. These mixed signals would be the death of one or both of them, surely. “After all of our lengthy disputes and the utterly horrid manners I’ve shown you, I came to be disappointed that we may never be comfortable with one another. That even the barest civility would be an unexpected turn of events for us,” he clarified when Hubert remained still and stared in abject disbelief.
“As such,” he pushed ahead, moving at last to reach for his cup, seemingly oblivious to the gaze trained on him exclusively. “I was very much pleased to find we have become what I am sure is quite a bit more than colleagues finding it difficult to even be civil.”
There had to be a gesture or tell of some kind that would reveal this for what it was. Something fancifully misread on Hubert’s part, no doubt, soon to be exposed as a friendly expression and nothing further. He felt that his face must rival the kettle itself in warmth by then, but there was only the one method to know his meaning for certain. No significant information was ever gained without risk or sacrifice.
“It seems I still don’t understand. There is a generous range beyond forced civility.”
Ferdinand flushed pink, smiling shyly and confirming Hubert’s suspicions. The discovery made his heart soar on the one hand and snuck in a trembling in his chest on the other. Emotions were as ruthless a tool as any weapon, he decided, but… With the proper application, any tool could be turned to his favor.
“Please, Hubert! I know social matters are not to your liking, but I beg of you, please do not make me say it outright.”
“So that I might instead?” Hubert suggested with a smirk and willed that unsettled feeling within to stop. He met with some limited success.
Only to realize that Ferdinand looked deeply uncomfortable. The vibrant hope once shining from him noticeably was eclipsed by a darkness he knew far better than he ever should have, likely a cruel courtesy of Ludwig von Aegir: self-doubt. “Have I—Oh, I have misread your—Forgive me, Hubert. Please, forget everything I have just said.”
“I’m afraid I can’t.” Hubert rushed to answer before Ferdinand could bury his face into his hands. The anxiety of the moment was beyond Hubert’s reach. But shame? He would do anything to keep that from plaguing Ferdinand’s thoughts. Fortunately, in that case, it was quite simple—or so it seemed. “My sentiments on you go beyond what one would consider professional or even merely companionable.”
Reaching for the kettle again, Hubert poured the water over his own tea and kept to his misleading sense of calm. It was wasted on Ferdinand, perhaps, but it brought him some small comfort all the same.
“So you see, now that you have suggested your inclinations towards me may be likewise favorable, I couldn’t possibly put that from my mind.”
“Truly?!” The proper air for Ferdinand had been restored, it seemed. It was, admittedly, rather rewarding to see his smile return as relief washed over him in a breathless laugh. “Does that mean you have sensed this change between us as well?”
“I have,” Hubert confirmed, utterly neglecting his tea just as Ferdinand was. It did lend this space a pleasant aroma, the warm fragrances of steeped tea and autumn leaves blended into one. It had been said that scent was closely associated with memory. He hoped it proved true so he would always have that marker to remind himself of this moment. Even in it presently, he hardly believed it was true.
“Furthermore, I have told Lady Edelgard about it. Despite all her responsibilities as Emperor with all that is yet to come, she has encouraged me to go where my heart leads me.” His instinct was to reach for Ferdinand, and yet, he couldn’t quite bring himself to. Perhaps it was all an elaborate illusion, as realistic as his dreams often were. This was one to linger in. Hubert rested his hand against his chin, letting his expression relax into a smile. “I suspect that would be to you.”
Ferdinand, with impressive speed, threw himself at Hubert. Entirely unprepared, he fell back with Ferdinand over him. A handful of ways to disarm or imbalance him flashed through Hubert’s mind. And yet, nothing could outshine Ferdinand’s laughter in his ear—with his own layered beneath it.
This was not part of the plan with their time at Garreg Mach. He would need to discuss their secret plots with Lady Edelgard to determine if they should involve Ferdinand. And if so, to what extent. He had her blessing for the relationship, yes, but that didn’t cover Ferdinand’s knowledge of what must be done to dismantle the current nobility in Adrestia as well as the false Church of Seiros.
For that once, Hubert immersed himself in the moment. The smell of drying autumn grass and leaves, the fragrance of the steeping tea drifting over to where they laid together, the warmth and presence of Ferdinand smiling down at him—him. If the worst came to pass, as it so enjoyed doing, Hubert intended to capture this memory. A window into the carefree as well as a potential glimpse of the future.
“Ah, I cannot possibly contain my joy! All the world is full of song and wonder, as magical as any operatic performance!” Almost wild with delight, Ferdinand clearly meant it. When did he not?
His arms rested around Hubert’s neck, who placed a single hand on his back. It was tempting to surrender to the comfort of his closeness, after so long spent resisting, then longing. Hubert persisted, of course. He had his brief peace. As always, reality had to be let in.
“Before you get ahead of yourself, you must understand,” he began, knowing how near he would be to losing Ferdinand at any time in the coming moons. Perhaps whether he told him or not, but there was something to be said for a warning. However devoid of details. “I have a role in the Empire that requires a great deal of secrecy. Even from those closest to me, if not especially so.”
“How like you, to be so practical in an occasion so momentous,” Ferdinand teased, shifting to lay beside Hubert with a broad smile. “That is one of many upstanding attributes I have grown to love in you.”
The merciless march of his flush advanced down his neck, and still, he kept eye contact with him. His suitor now, he supposed. Witnessing the color to his skin was part of the experience, should unreasonably popular tales of romance be any guide on the topic.
“I’m serious, Ferdinand.”
“As am I! As the Minister to the Imperial Household and the heir to House Vestra, there are secrets you must keep. That is one of the several remarkable traits I respect in you, not tolerate in desolation.” Shuffling closer on the grass, running the risk of stubborn stains, Ferdinand placed a kiss to his lips before Hubert could react.
In truth, he very well could have. He should have. But he only froze, eyes widening just so. When it was done, he took in a sharp breath—and remained lost in the expanse of his eyes, the fondness of his tender smile.
That had been Hubert’s first kiss.
Ferdinand would be beside himself with joy for even longer if made aware of it. As though he couldn’t guess from his immobile awe.
“To be considered among your closest companions, one of those you hold dearest to your heart, is an honor beyond measure.” Seeking out his hand, Ferdinand intertwined their fingers among the grass. “And from now on, secrets or no, we will have each other.”
“Although I know you cannot comprehend the enormity of what you’ve promised,” Hubert began, bringing his other hand up to pull a leaf from Ferdinand’s hair. He could be so careless when swept up in sentiment like this. It was safe to assume Hubert looked much the same for his tumble back into the grass. “I find myself helpless not to believe you. Therefore, as futile as it may be, I will strive to be worthy of you.”