Midnight had fallen by the time Hubert finished giving his report. Were it any other project, he’d have left Edelgard to her rest and dragged his own aching bones to his quarters unremarked. Not for this. Not for another batch of war orphans snatched up from the borderlands by shadowy hands.
Experimenting on crest-blooded nobility had a pitiful success rate; on commoners it was all but worthless from a research perspective. A feint, Edelgard argued. A distraction from Their real goals or locations. A brutal and bloody affair, yes, but it must be taken as fuel for the funeral pyre – just as her siblings had been—and every innocent would have their justice in the end.
Hubert said nothing. It made for a prettier story when she told it. In his mouth it was nothing but ashes, no marrow left for nourishment. Psychological warfare, cold and tactical to the last – hang up the enemy’s head on the gates, string up the bodies in the forests, leave the young choking on their own blood, too far gone for the first man inside to save. He’d left out that part in the official report.
Because again, and again, and again, the first man through the door was Hubert.
Not a feint but a taunt, a chill laugh that kissed his neck and promised it was personal, that he’d fail again. That after everything, Edelgard would slip from his fingers, her heart cut open like all her siblings. That They had never stopped and never would.
Simple, really, to swallow it down when he knew the measure of the poison. He understood what to shape from arrogance, could turn every taunting brutality inside-out with ease. And he would, in the morning, once the damned tremor in his hands calmed down and his thoughts resumed their proper order.
The corridors between the imperial quarters and his own chambers were not particularly long, but the shadows danced tonight, and he let his own feet carry him by rote rather than think too steadily about the quickest path back. Mortifying, to be caught lost in the home he’d known since he could stumble in his cousin’s footsteps and shadow the elder princes. The strain of his work nipped at his heels—Edelgard had noted nothing, he had that solace at least, even if his body refused to keep pace with his needs. He only had to reach his door, and the day would be done.
He paused on the threshold of his quarters.
The candles were lit. He wasn’t alone.
Miasma flickered between his shaking fingers, shadows crawling them like a trellis; one, maybe two bursts were all he could manage in this state, but any imbecile lighting the room before an attack would surely—
No, just the one imbecile. On a hunch, Hubert slammed the door behind him and listened for the matching jolt from the parlor, the grunts of a man startled from his nap, and the scamper of boots a moment later.
“Finally!” Of course Ferdinand’s mouth outpaced his footsteps, loud enough to leave Hubert’s head throbbing. “It is unlike you—unbecoming of you!—to keep me waiting so long for tea. Do you know how much time I wasted, sitting around here? Honestly, any proper noble knows to send word—”
Absolutely not. Not now, not here. Ferdinand was an amusing distraction to be sure, a gilded knight to stand beside their Emperor in the daylight, but there was no place for him in the dead of night. For him to waltz through like he owned this, too, was beyond the pale. That was the only reason that anger tore through his chest like a stag outpacing the looming dogs.
“Get out,” Hubert snarled, just as Ferdinand came flouncing into the hall.
Too late. One look at Hubert, and the man’s face paled in concern.
Hubert forced past him and on into the parlor. “Your presence is not required.” Five more words imbued with acid. He hadn’t time for this. He needed to—the victims had not had names, so he’d recorded what details he could, for later, so the fire didn’t take everything. His notebook burned in his pocket, heavy as the hangman’s noose.
There was a structure to nights like this, when he’d twisted every last breath in his body into one more crack of magic, one more warp, and still needed to wake up and do it again the next morning. He couldn’t quite place what it was, but it did not involve—
A glass of water pressed into his hands. Amber eyes glowing with such tenderness that they’d burn every gasp of oxygen out of his lungs if he let them.
He watched, dully, as the glass shattered to the ground, his own hand raised where it had smacked Ferdinand’s offering away.
“The tantrum of a nursery brat, very frightening. Consider me chastened.” Ferdinand rolled his eyes.
Glass enough in his head without such yammering clutter. Hubert grit his teeth. “Out.”
Ferdinand gave him another searching look, from crown to toe, and frowned like he’d found the next partner on his dance ticket to be wanting indeed. But this time he said not a word, only crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. As though Hubert needed his consent to continue the work.
His surroundings did not oblige. The desk no longer sat in the parlor—had Ferdinand redecorated again?—and it took him two furious circles through the suite to find the correct desk with the correct register locked in the correct drawer. The quill wavered with a mind of its own on the page, each letter haggard and bleeding into its neighbors. Ferdinand lounged in the doorway and watched.
Hubert pointedly did not look up.
On the fourth page, the clink of a plate set down next to his logbook startled him enough to twist the pen halfway towards Ferdinand’s throat before he caught the movement. He glanced down at the plate of freshly quartered Morfis plum, then back up at Ferdinand, whose face was as perfectly blank as the man could manage, which wasn’t. At all. It lingered somewhere between guilty amusement and resignation (if I, Ferdinand von Aegir, Most Noble of Nobles, am to meet my fate at the end of a quill, then I shall meet it gladly).
Ferdinand returned to his doorway, the very picture of leisure, and did not betray the slightest thankfulness for his life. The plum disappeared somewhere between pages eight and nine. By page ten, Hubert had had enough. The man simply had to go.
Every time he glanced up—rarely, to be sure, as his mind never drifted from the severity of his work—but every time, he found Ferdinand watching him so openly, so unapologetically, that it lashed like fire against his skin. As if Ferdinand now fed off the knowledge his admiration was known, rather than flushing from cheek to chest and making a hasty retreat. As if Ferdinand thought he knew exactly what he was looking at, exactly who Hubert was, bought at the cost of a few nights talking by the fireplace with watered down spy stories. As great a fool as ever, and that foolishness painted the room in its sweet poison.
Hubert lay down his pen. “Take your nauseating simpering elsewhere.”
“You’re not subtle,” Hubert all but laughed, a despairing chuckle at his, their, expense. He’d enabled this. Enough. “The doe eyes, the—frippery and honeyed words. I’ve no time for it.”
A frigid silence for one, two heartbeats too long.
“Is that so?”
The tone jarred Hubert back to attention. He’d expected a red-faced pout, a hasty withdrawal that Hubert could make amends for once he’d regathered his wits. Not the edge of steel that cleaved through the room with perfect clarity. A smirk, all confident challenge, twisting the corner of Ferdinand’s mouth as he strolled towards the desk.
“Very well,” Ferdinand said with his perfect diplomacy smile, the one that brooked no complaint or contradiction. “Stand up.”
Hubert sat frozen, the tip of his pen carelessly bleeding ink into the page below.
Ferdinand took hold of the arms of the chair and jerked it away from the desk as though the polished wood and dour occupant weighed nothing at all, and a moment later he repeated it with the occupant himself, sliding his hands under Hubert’s armpits and hauling him to his feet in one smooth gesture. He held on while Hubert found his balance, which was worse, and Hubert pulled away so quickly he had to brace himself on the chair for support.
By the time Ferdinand reached for his arm a second time, Hubert had breath enough to snarl and slap the hand away. Enough. He reached for Ferdinand’s shoulder, ready to slam him against the bookshelf with a proper threat—muscle memory would carry it through—but the world spun instead. So easy to forget he no longer had the advantage of force or fear against this particular man, who caught his wrist and twisted it into a grappling bind in the blink of an eye.
Ferdinand hissed his name, and it meant stop fighting, and let me help, and Hubert couldn’t begin to claw any of that apart, both implications so laughably unacceptable, when Ferdinand’s mouth was right there at the nape of his neck, his breath hot against the strip of skin above his collar, his grip unyielding on Hubert’s wrist. Perhaps he hadn’t realized the arm bind would pin them together, Hubert pulled back flush against Ferdinand’s deceivingly firm chest – or perhaps he had.
“Bed,” Ferdinand commanded, firm even through the shiver that passed from his bruising fingers and on into Hubert’s bones.
Despite himself, he walked. Intent meant nothing to the low ache of arousal that burned through Hubert now, mortifying and heady, like Ferdinand had wrung this ghastly fancy from the very pit of him. Not to yield but to be forced to it, to have Ferdinand demand, no, to have Ferdinand simply take what he wanted, instead of waiting and waiting for what Hubert would never have to give—
His knees hit the edge of the bed, and he sat when Ferdinand pressed at his shoulders.
“Stay there or I’ll tie you down,” Ferdinand hummed, too severe to hit the flirty chord he’d played far too often of late, but spot on for the drill sergeant that still had Hubert’s chest in a vice grip.
And then Ferdinand’s hands went for the buckles of Hubert’s uniform, and it turned out he was never very good at submission after all. He wrenched away from that scalding touch, though not enough to break contact entirely. Ferdinand paused, glanced at his own hands, and yanked them away in sudden realization. Red blossomed on his cheeks, painting the faint freckles, all carnations and stars. “I—”
“Ferdinand,” he rasped, the name torn out of him.
Ferdinand pursed his lips and nodded to some unspoken question of his own. “You need rest. Let me?”
A moment later he resumed the work, accepting Hubert’s silence as consent. The belt first, which he neatly folded around the knife he plucked from Hubert’s lower back, then the bandolier with all its interior pockets of well-corked poisons. As if he made a habit of this, serving as a valet to another man, had made such a careful study of Hubert’s person that he could trace the buttons by memory alone. It should have been a mockery. How many times had Hubert been written off as the glorified valet, reveled in it even, for all that it let him get away with behind the scenes, and now the Prime Minister busied himself with Hubert’s buttonholes with as much tenderness as—
Ferdinand slipped the jacket sleeves from Hubert’s arms, then turned away to fold it. That was his moment. He could warp, Hubert assured himself with wild desperation. He could make it five rooms away, maybe six. Somewhere locked. Somewhere he could sleep without this popinjay screeching in his ears, without bleeding tenderness shoved down his throat when he was too compromised to spit it back.
To accept this from Ferdinand, unreturned—unable to be returned—filled him with more revulsion than all those gifts of coffee ever could have. He had nothing to give. Ferdinand turned table scraps into feasts by nature, but he deserved—
In another world Hubert could reach out and catch Ferdinand’s hands, quiet their flutter and draw him in, near, so they could simply be. Drop his head to Ferdinand’s shoulder and the hidden slope of that tan neck, try to remember how to breathe. Another world; not this one. Never this one.
Ferdinand turned back, and Hubert missed his moment.
“Your gloves,” Ferdinand began and fell silent, his thoughts stumbling midway. Black, tonight. He’d likely only ever seen the white, the ones Hubert wore at court, at battle, at leisure.
But one didn’t wear white gloves to a murder or a morgue.
Without another word, Ferdinand pulled both of Hubert’s hands into his lap. He brushed a thumb over the tacky surface of the ruined calfskin, dark burgundy smearing his own fingers when he hit a hastily cleaned seam in the leather. He didn’t flinch away, but he lingered, steeling himself to strip them off.
Oh. He knew.
Even so, Ferdinand sucked in a breath of horror as he slipped the gloves from Hubert’s bony fingers. His thumbs pressed deep into the mottled skin of Hubert’s wrist to check for the sluggish pulse. Lightning strikes of black bruises curled up Hubert’s arms like furled ferns, the afterimages of spells cast long after his body had anything more to give.
He shouldn’t have taken off the gloves. It always looked better the next morning, any mage could tell you.
Ferdinand’s voice shook with something that tasted like fury, but wasn’t quite. “It was an exam question, was it not? The symptoms of magic toxicity: confusion, tremors, irregular bruising, heart palpitations.”
“Confusion?” Hubert scoffed.
“You thought you were at Garreg Mach. You kept looking for your damned study, like I had hidden it from you, when we’ve been here for months and—" Ferdinand ducked his head, expression masked by the tousled mess of his hair for a long moment, and then he set back to work.
Hubert jerked his hands away, and Ferdinand grabbed them fiercely enough that more than the bruises ached.
“I don’t know what you think I did during the war, that my hands are so clean,” Ferdinand all but spit at him. He couldn’t tell whose hands were shaking. “That yours have to look like this, so I can sit around at your leisure with tea cakes and doilies. Like a piece of ceremonial porcelain.”
Yours weren’t made for this, Hubert didn’t say, because the next moment Ferdinand swept up one battered hand to his lips. He couldn’t make up his mind, Hubert observed distantly, not sure at all that it was his own hand that Ferdinand clutched to his heart, to his lips, to his brow.
It was no courtly thing, no prim press of noble lips to a lover’s knuckles under the watchful gaze of the public. When Ferdinand’s mouth dragged to his palm, his wrist, it had all the searing force of the spells that had carved the bruises in the first place, a sweet corrosion, desperation and devotion leeching into his flesh with every sweep of soft lips against his skin.
With his free hand, Hubert reached out to brush a thumb at the corner of Ferdinand’s closed eye, baffled and questioning. Ferdinand turned into the touch, nipping at the tip of Hubert’s thumb, and cracked open his eyes to stare back with a devastating longing.
“What are you doing,” Hubert croaked, brow furrowed as Ferdinand’s eyes shuttered that desire once more.
“Tell me to stop,” Ferdinand hummed right back as he swept up the second hand.
He didn’t. Couldn’t.
Only one point of reference in the fog—a six-year-old Edelgard frowning at him, knees bloody, when he cared more for cleaning her up than kissing it better. A kiss makes it heal faster, she’d told him so primly, the perfect copy of her older sister’s tone, and even at that age Hubert wondered what useless fluff filled the heads of everyone around him.
Surely Ferdinand shared the same belief, that this would help in some way, not just drive Hubert’s heart into his throat and leave him dizzy with the possibilities of where else Ferdinand could be kissing with such gentle ferocity. He’d unbuttoned one of Hubert’s sleeves and rolled the white cotton up to the elbow to give himself better access, thumbs now pressing gentle circles into the purpled lashes like it would help the pain ebb away. When he nipped a hair too playfully at the supple, pallid skin on the inside of Hubert’s elbow, Hubert finally jerked away.
For a terrifying moment, he’d envisioned Ferdinand marking him—a badge not of war, not of magic or steel, blood or poison, but of something else entirely, and he—
Ferdinand pulled away, forced a grim smile, and let his fingers drift over Hubert’s bare arms one last time. “I know it does not…concern me,” he muttered haltingly. It certainly concerned him, if the haze of misery in his eyes were any clue whatsoever. “You do not think of me because you need not. It is your war. The one you and Edelgard swore when I was…oh, crying over a pony that failed to adore me fast enough, or some other childish nonsense.”
“But I wish you would trust me. After everything. Because…because it is one thing to be a silly child with insipid dreams, and quite another to watch the two people dearest to me suffer so terribly. And to know they don’t find me worthy of…”
He shook his head, frustrated with himself instead of Hubert, which frankly made no sense. “And still I make it about myself! At least it is a flaw you find manageable.”
At an utter loss, Hubert reached back for Ferdinand’s hand, staring down at the rough lancer’s calluses. How to explain that for the past ten years, he and Edelgard had needed a code word to prove their identity to each other, that a slithering face-walker hadn’t stolen their partner’s skin. That Edelgard had urged him again and again to make one with Ferdinand, but for all his rationality and loathing for superstition, it felt like tempting fate. That if he fielded Ferdinand as another asset in this all too personal war, if he called attention to Ferdinand in any way, They might—
That Ferdinand would see the horrors of failure, and something in him would dim beyond repair.
“Well,” Ferdinand continued at last, rallying his own spirits when Hubert failed to manage a word. “As I hear it, the only cure for what ails you is rest.”
So Hubert endured it as Ferdinand sat on the floor to tug off his boots, as he brushed the hair back from his sweat-slick forehead, as he wet a washcloth to wipe a missed splatter of blood away from Hubert’s ear, as he flitted away to bring another pitcher of water and a second Morfis plum to carve. Action, perhaps, was acceptable.
The way Ferdinand looked at him was not. As though he couldn’t decide whose heart was the porcelain, dashed against the floorboards by careless, stubborn hands.
“It isn’t a game,” Hubert said, tossing the words into the dark. He couldn’t shape them into the proper order tonight, but something sat so horribly on his shoulders, jagged and burning, that the words forced their way out anyway. With a frown, he finally met Ferdinand’s eyes and tried to make him understand.
And for the first time all night, Ferdinand smiled true. “Forgive me the optimism, but if you are the one battling the monsters in the dark, then I have few doubts on the eventual outcome.”
Ferdinand pressed another glass of water into his hands, sorrow trickling back into that soft gaze. “Finish this and sleep, won’t you?”
“Done playing nursemaid?” Hubert said as he dutifully lifted the glass to his lips, hiding his own unplanned twitch of a smile. “As ever, you leave your work half-finished.”
“Do I?” Ferdinand asked tiredly, though his eyes flashed with renewed mischief. He leaned in close, tilting his face just so, and if Hubert only lowered the glass, or turned to meet him— “Shall I tuck you in? Kiss your forehead, insufferable imp that you are?”
A whisper of breath against his temple, but no pressure. “Or are you simply reminding me of the broken glass you left in the parlor.”
Within the blink of an eye, Ferdinand had swanned his way to the door, leaving Hubert’s heart skittering wildly in his chest. “Good night, Hubert. Call if you need anything. Or don’t, I suppose, and perish there alone.”
And then he was gone.
Hubert didn’t move, pinned to the bed like a cicada trapped in a shadowbox, but he strained his ears to listen for the quiet click of the door. The patter of careful footsteps instead, glass clinking as it was transferred to the bin, and then the creak of an armchair, the shuffle of pages as Ferdinand searched for his place. He stayed.
So it was. Fair. If Hubert dutifully finished the water and devoured every sliver of saccharine fruit before lying down to stare at the ceiling.
Forgive me the optimism. Hubert replayed the words in his mind, prying apart the strange layers of warmth and relief that Ferdinand’s naïve faith inspired, and cutting down to the quick of it. No face-walker could ever mimic Ferdinand’s blinding optimism, his disgustingly good heart. He was no Arundel, one criminal swapped for another, and no unknown lackey. They wouldn’t have use of him. No one was truly safe, Hubert wasn’t so besotted as to forget that, but perhaps Optimism would suffice as a code word, one Ferdinand was unlikely to forget. He would have to confirm with Her Majesty first, of course. Tomorrow.
If he listened closely enough, he could hear the pages turning in the parlor, the rasp of the paper’s edge against rough fingers that had so recently—
Unbearable. Too weary to smother himself with his own pillow in defiance, Hubert rolled to face the far wall instead. He would need to recapture these lost hours of work in the morning, clawing them out of a schedule already brimming with indispensable duties. He would manage.
And if the parlor was still occupied come morning, he could surely scrounge up minutes enough to brew a pot of tea.