With a frown, Hubert bent toward the oven’s hearth, sticking his face as close as he dared to the blazing heat.
The trio of sweet buns within seemed to mock him in hues of golden brown - you have no idea if we’re done, do you? - and his frown only deepened. Meat and fish were his area of expertise, not pastries… and, rather regrettably, pastries didn't even have the courtesy to bleed, leaving him with no indication of how thoroughly they were cooked.
… Yet, Ferdinand rather enjoyed this particular dessert, and since Hubert had been tasked with providing the sustenance for their upcoming tea break, it merely seemed appropriate to make such an effort - especially since Ferdinand had been boasting all week of the specialty coffee he’d acquired from Brigid.
An orange-covered head abruptly materialized next to his, juxtaposing seamlessly like a jigsaw piece fitting right into place, and Hubert nearly flinched at the unexpected intimacy. Ferdinand, though, appeared oblivious to his reaction, instead sticking his face even closer to the hearth, and Hubert watched with rapt fascination as the reflection of the flames danced in Ferdinand’s already fiery eyes.
“Ah - baked to perfection!”
Ferdinand turned his head, perhaps not realizing how close the two of them were, or that Hubert had already shifted in his direction - and now, their faces were only centimeters apart. Almost instinctively, Hubert’s ever observant eyes drifted to pert, pink lips, before then flitting upward so that green harmonized rhapsodically with orange.
There was a sudden flush on Ferdinand’s cheeks… was the heat of the scorching hearth responsible for such an enticing sight?
But it was Hubert who jerked away first, clearing his throat as he stood to his full height, watching intently as Ferdinand immediately followed suit.
“H-here, you will need this.” Ferdinand handed him the bread paddle, and Hubert nodded to express his thanks. “Would you mind giving me the-”
Before he even finished his sentence, the tea strainer was in Hubert’s hand, and he held it out to Ferdinand.
How disgustingly in sync they were… perhaps they really were spending too much time together. Although, well, it did often prove useful on the battlefield, so Hubert supposed there was no real harm in it.
Once the preparations were complete, they each brought a tray to their private, outdoor table - Ferdinand carrying the coffee and tea pots, while Hubert had the pastries and cups.
“Oh, heavens,” Ferdinand exhaled after they sat, frowning as he fiddled with his cravat.
“What is it?”
“My tie clip must have come undone on the walk over here…”
His disappointed sigh bothered Hubert far too much for something so trivial, as if the dulling of his persistent jubilation was just too out of place, too wrong. But, scouting the nearby area, Hubert spotted a piece of metal glinting in the grass, not all that far behind where Ferdinand was sitting.
“I think I see it. I’ll get it for you.”
“Why, thank you!”
Deftly ignoring the beaming face before him - must Ferdinand really be so enthusiastic over such a simple thing? - Hubert headed to where he saw the tie clip. And as he bent over-
“Oh, Hubert… your buns are absolutely divine!”
Ferdinand's amorous tone was just as sensual as his words, and Hubert felt the color drain completely from his face.
“What?” Yet once he snapped his head back to Ferdinand, it suddenly all made sense.
The pastries. He was talking about the damn pastries.
Ferdinand's brows were drawn together as he turned, and the open concern is his eyes was almost as searing as the innocuous comment he’d made only moments ago, only serving to fray Hubert's nerves even further.
"Are you all right?"
“I’m completely fine,” Hubert muttered, grabbing the tie clip and placing it none too gently on the table by Ferdinand.
He then sat, clearly sulking - and annoyed, because he didn’t even fully understand why he was sulking.
… Surely, he wasn't jealous of a pastry?
Ferdinand only observed him in silence - his dessert now half-eaten and abandoned on his plate.
“You seem… stressed,” he eventually noted. “Perhaps some coffee would help?”
Pulling himself together, Hubert sat up straighter, forcing himself to smirk.
“All right - out with it," he demanded. "You haven’t been able to talk about anything else all week. What’s so special about this coffee you've gotten for me?”
Ferdinand lit up, and Hubert had to begrudgingly admit that Ferdinand’s unabashed joy when giving him a gift was almost always just as fascinating as the gift itself.
“Well, Caspar and I went to the market this week, and you will never guess what the merchant was selling!”
“Presumably whatever is in this pot?”
“Oh… I mean, yes. But, Hubert - it is kopi luwak! Imported all the way from Brigid!”
Hubert merely blinked. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
Ferdinand’s smile faltered. “Of… of course! Any coffee connoisseur should know of kopi luwak. It is the rarest of blends, after all! I mean, I have only recently started to drink and study coffee, and even I have heard of it.”
The non-reaction was clearly not what Ferdinand had been expecting. Yet, seeming to find the silver lining in the situation - which Ferdinand had quite the talent for - his frustration soon turned to pride.
“Unless, that is, the student has finally surpassed the master? I am a quick study, you know.”
“… So, are you going to pour me a cup of this 'unparalleled' brew, or is your never-ending prattle just part of the whole experience?”
“Naturally - to the first question, I mean.” He then flashed a smile. "And, maybe also to the second."
With all the grace befitting a high-born noble, Ferdinand poured Hubert some coffee, before fixing himself some tea… but his eyes promptly flashed to Hubert’s cup, heavy with envy.
“I admit… I do wish I could try it.”
Despite his preference for tea, Ferdinand had recently taken to indulging coffee on occasion - Hubert couldn’t even begin to fathom why. However, even on his best behavoir Ferdinand could be a handful, let alone a Ferdinand that was hyperexcitable from the effects of such a strong drink.
… Well, suffice it to say that no one at Garreg Mach would ever forget those traumatic weeks, and Her Majesty had been forced to graciously ban Ferdinand from ever partaking in the beverage ever again.
The side of Hubert’s mouth curled. “Careful, Ferdinand. Her Majesty was very explicit in her order. Your words are coming dangerously close to treason.”
“Is that humor? From you?” Ferdinand wondered, his eyes positively sparkling. “Well, now I truly have seen everything.”
“You know that I never joke about matters of state.” … Although, this time, of course, he most certainly was.
Yet Ferdinand only produced an awkward laugh, suddenly seeming uneasy. “The fact that I cannot tell whether or not you are jesting is rather unsettling.”
Hubert steadied his urge to grin.
“But… please!” Ferdinand requested, gesturing at the cup. “I am rather curious to know what you think of it.”
“So eager,” Hubert tsked. “If I didn’t know any better, I might think you were trying to poison me.”
Ferdinand snorted. “Poison? That is your style, not mine. I would never use a method so cowar-”
Hubert raised an eyebrow in warning, and Ferdinand cleared his throat as if to erase the word.
“… Indirect. After all, if I am to fell someone, then I must look them in the eye and let them know the reason for their fate!”
“How very noble of you,” Hubert drawled. “I’ll be sure to write it on your gravestone when you finally pick the wrong fight… ‘noblest of nobles.’”
“Why, thank you!”
Hubert pressed his lips together to bite back his annoyance. This was truly the most tiring part of verbally sparring with Ferdinand - he far too often took insults as compliments.
“In any case, your coffee is growing cold! Will you not try it? I did go through a lot of trouble to barter for this, you know. It was certainly not cheap, let us just say.”
Ferdinand’s ensuing pout made Hubert crave something far different than coffee - a rather jolting thought, as it were - but with a resigned sigh, he lifted the cup to take a careful sip.
It was impossible for the sides of Hubert’s mouth to resist twitching up ever so slightly as he remained purposefully silent afterward, but at times like this, Ferdinand was far too easy to tease. The way he was watching Hubert expectantly, his hands gripping at his toned thighs as he leaned forward in anticipation of Hubert’s reaction.
“… Well?” he finally asked, his normally impassioned eyes teeming with worry, as if his entire existence depended on Hubert’s approval.
“It’s… rather good. Smooth, but rich. Nutty, with a hint of caramel. I suppose I have no choice but to thank you…”
Ferdinand was nearly glowing now - purely from his triumph, in all likelihood, but Hubert hated how he yearned for a deeper meaning - and their gazes locked for a second too long to be cordially justifiable before they both looked away.
“You… you look very different when you smile, you know.” Ferdinand’s voice was soft - too soft - so that Hubert had to lean closer to hear him.
Was that why he leaned closer? Or was it to watch with rapt interest as Ferdinand tucked a stray strand of hair behind his ear…
“I'm aware,” Hubert then conceded, taking another sip of coffee to try and swallow down his disappointment. “I'm frightening. I'm told so often.”
“What?” Ferdinand’s head hurriedly bobbed back toward him, his surprise unmistakable. “No, that is… that is not what I meant at all!”
“Yes, I…” Ferdinand paused, appearing to be struggling with something, until his eyes finally burned with determination, his cheeks turning slightly pink. “It is just, when you smile in that way, you almost look… carefree. It is quite nice to see you relax like this when we are together - as if I have finally succeeded in convincing you, even briefly, that the weight of the world does not rest entirely upon your shoulders.”
For a moment Hubert went completely still, until he snapped himself from the hypnosis brought on by Ferdinand’s amber gaze. After all, for all his flowery words, he was just being Ferdinand, really - simply patting himself on the back for yet another perceived victory.
“I laud you for your accomplishment,” Hubert told him, shifting away… but, undaunted, Ferdinand only shifted with him.
“Yes. I am rather pleased,” he admitted, and Hubert bit back a bitter scoff. “That is to say, I would hate to think you were feeling overwhelmed. You are… far too important to me.”
An instinct based in self-preservation - one that Hubert had honed long ago - caused him to recoil at the words, as if he’d spotted a trap and was preparing himself for the coup de grâce… a laugh, a taunt, or some other indication that Ferdinand only spoke in jest.
But this was Ferdinand - Ferdinand - and as such, his words were genuine, not poisoned with guile, nor some petty, cruel tactic. And at that realization, a calming warmth he'd never felt before rippled within him, until manifesting visibly on his now florid cheeks.
“I… you are…” Hubert sputtered in return.
Why could he not reciprocate the words? Why were they so obstinate on his tongue, refusing to be spoken?
“… I suppose those burdens do seem to vanish more easily when you are around,” he finally managed. Yet the response was clumsy and insufficient, so in order to compensate, he brought his gloved hand to where Ferdinand’s was resting on the table, laying palm atop closed fist as if it were a standard practice for them to touch in such a way.
What emotions were Ferdinand’s expressive eyes trying to speak? Shock, longing… hope? And when his hand opened, his soft noble skin lacing into white fabric, was it on his own accord, or because Hubert had coaxed such a reaction by brushing his fingers against strained knuckles?
Hubert leaned closer. Had he succumbed fully to hallucination by now, or did Ferdinand lean closer, too? And when Ferdinand’s eyes closed, Hubert’s soon followed.
He nearly opened them again, terrified that he had horribly misread things and would be mocked for his foolishness, until he could feel the light whisper of Ferdinand’s breath against his face.
Noses, then foreheads touching. Ferdinand tilting his head to nestle in closer still, the promise of lips nearly fulfilled, and then-
“Hey! You guys!”
Hubert’s back had never snapped so straight before, his hand jerking away from Ferdinand’s with the same speed of motion required to effectively throw a knife. Ferdinand - ever agile - perhaps separated from him even more quickly, his expression akin to that of a child who’d been caught doing something they shouldn’t.
Hubert’s thoughts shifted from Ferdinand’s supple lips to fantasies of disemboweling Caspar - the source of their disruption - but if Caspar had any indication of what he’d just walked in on, he didn’t seem to show it.
“Hey, have either of you seen Linhardt?" Caspar inquired as he bounded up to them. "I’ve been looking for him for hours. Oh, neat - pastries!” Without invitation, he then grabbed one of the sweet buns from the table, stuffing nearly the entire thing into his mouth while a bite-sized piece remained in his hand.
“No,” Hubert nearly growled, but Ferdinand only laughed nervously.
“We were supposed to train together,” Caspar revealed, propping half of his body on the elegantly decorated table due to a lack of a third chair. “But, I think he might be avoiding me…”
“I truly can’t fathom why.”
The words were dripping with sarcasm, but Caspar only nodded. “I know, right?!”
Hubert gave Ferdinand a look that he hoped said, You deal with this before I kill him. To try and calm himself, he then took a sip of his coffee while he waited for Ferdinand to handle the situation.
“Oh, hey - is that the cat poop you’re drinking?”
Hubert immediately spit out the beverage, coughing as some of it proceeded to trickle into his trachea.
“… What?” He inquired once he was able to speak, his voice hoarse.
“Honestly, Caspar,” Ferdinand scolded, his bearings apparently having returned to him by now. “I already explained this to you earlier. A civet is not a mere cat, even though they are both feliformia. And, besides, it is not ‘cat poop’ as you so crudely put it, but coffee brewed from the undigested beans found in the droppings of a civet. Quite an important distinction.”
“… … What?”
Caspar cocked his head. "Ferdinand… you didn't tell him you were serving him cat poop, did you?"
"Goodness, Caspar, if you would just please stop calling it that," Ferdinand begged, resting his head in his palm. "B-besides, I am quite certain that I mentioned-"
"You most certainly did not."
Hubert hurriedly stood, the table clattering and his chair nearly falling backward from his haste.
"Wow, I've never seen you this rattled before," Caspar noted, carelessly popping another bun into his mouth. "Hey, do you mind?"
His mouth was still full as he asked the question, and he didn't wait for Ferdinand's permission before grabbing the cup with his tea and downing the beverage with an unpleasant slurp.
"I must take my leave," Hubert mumbled… yet Caspar was right, he was rattled, and he gave an awkward half bow before starting his stride.
Ferdinand grabbed his hand - was this something they were simply doing now? - and when Hubert turned back, he was surprised to see the doubt seeping into Ferdinand's expression rather than his usual unflappable confidence.
Risking the embarrassment, Hubert squeezed Ferdinand's hand in reassurance before releasing it… although, considering how deeply Caspar's face was buried in his pastry, he probably could have shoved his tongue down the entirety of Ferdinand's throat for all he'd notice.
… Now, there was an enticing thought.
"I… I'll talk to you later, Ferdinand." Were his ears deceiving him, or was his tone all too piteously tender just then?
To fix the issue, he cleared his throat, looking at Caspar warily.
"After all, we have many pressing matters to discuss, such as the… supply chain."
"Bo-oring," Caspar remarked in a sing-song voice, rolling his eyes. "You guys are such stiffs, I swear. I mean, I’m pretty sure I've never seen two people so tense in my life. … Hey, I know! Rather than talk shop, maybe you should both just relax for a bit in the sauna instead!"
Hubert's eyes nearly bulged out of his head. The thought of Ferdinand clad in only a towel, his sweat visibly glistening on seraphically chiseled-
"I truly must go," he coughed, not even caring how hasty and unrefined his exit was. He had a million things to do, after all - the first of which was to wash the filth that Ferdinand had served him from his mouth.
The second of which was to carefully, ever so carefully try to not think of the tempting lips that were so very nearly on his mouth.
And the third of which was to conjure a punishment properly befitting Caspar - a laxative potion perhaps. Or, maybe some kind of asphyxiation spell - just a short one, of course.
In any case, he’d be sure to come up with something.
… And, well. Perhaps, he might just check to see the availability of the sauna, after all…