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How to Prepare for a Faerghus Winter

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Winters in Enbarr tend toward the mild side, with only a few days of snow a year, if any. It's still early in the Red Wolf Moon, and temperatures are nowhere near what it would take to cause even the faintest film of ice on the river.

The breezes off the sea get cooler this time of year, but even then, a good jacket is enough to ward it off.

Such gentle winters are exactly why Ferdinand is at the market now searching for winter gear for himself and Hubert. By Ethereal Moon they're going to be deep in Faerghus on a diplomatic mission, and Ferdinand is absolutely certain that Hubert does not have suitable gear for the trip. He has not seen inside Hubert's wardrobe, to be fair, but he has asked sidelong questions to Edelgard, who likely has, and she has answered with bemusement and indicated that his idea of buying Hubert winter clothes is a good one. He trusts her judgment on this - they may disagree on politics semi-regularly, but she is admittedly an expert when it comes to von Vestra.

If he were a wiser man, he could simply let Hubert equip himself. The salary Ferdinand now draws is more than enough to live comfortably on, but since House Aegir was stripped of its land and wealth and his family their titles, he's not as capable of lavish spending as he once was. Still: it's for a good cause, and he will simply have to be careful with his budget the next few months.

He and Hubert have worked more and more closely together since the close of the war - since before then, really, but especially now that they are deep in the work of trying to reform the whole of unified Fodlan to better suit its people. Buying things for Hubert just seems like a reasonable way to show his appreciation. He hopes he shows it in other ways, but the direct approach hopefully won't hurt. Besides, Hubert just the other day gave him a brand new book on political theory by one of his favorite authors from the former Alliance, and thus Ferdinand has no choice but to return the favor.

This is also why he's dragged Sylvain along; Sylvain is far more familiar with what level of warmth is appropriate for the depths of a Faerghus winter. Sylvain is also skilled at picking out gifts that will flatter and impress their recipients, a secondary point that Ferdinand is staunchly refusing to mention, though it's a definite factor. A larger factor than any expertise Sylvain could have on winter cold, really, not that Ferdinand would admit that to anyone but his own mind.

"So you're going to want a cape," Sylvain says, eyeing a teal one before shaking his had dismissively. "He likes capes, they're dramatic, they keep you warm. And you might as well get a scarf, too. But you can't go wrong with a good cape."

"He already has a cape," Ferdinand says, but he touches the cape Sylvain had been looking at, noting how much heavier the fabric is and the fur lining, and has to admit it would probably be wise to get something similar. He admits as much: "Though certainly not this warm."

"Listen, if you end up having to camp out on the road? If you get snowed in some place? You'll want a good cape. It doubles as a blanket, so it's a good buy." Sylvain keeps looking at the capes already on offer, then, shrugging, says, "Wow, shopping for him's boring. Here's a black one. Easy."

"Easy," Ferdinand agrees with a heavy sigh. He looks over the cape - while nice, the fur it's lined with is black, which is entirely too boring for his tastes. "I think he'd die if he were forced to wear colors besides black and gold."

"And he ditched the gold as soon as we left school, so." Sylvain laughs. "Maybe you can sneak some color in with the accessories. He wears gloves all the time anyway, right? Get him some fun ones."

"I would not want to buy gloves that were not fit for him," Ferdinand admits. "He has exacting tastes, and to disappoint him - well. That would not do."

Sylvain narrows his eyes at Ferdinand, then the corners of his eyes scrunch up as he grins. "Oh, you've got it bad, actually, huh?"

"I cannot imagine what you mean." Ferdinand very explicitly did not mention any ulterior motives he may have to Sylvain. He was as subtle as could be, he'd thought, and yet Sylvain is letting such accusations fly so readily. "I respect my colleague and want to ensure he has what he needs."

"Uh-huh," Sylvain says, laughing. "So gloves are out. He's got to get those on his own. So we're back to a scarf. Hat, too, honestly."

Ferdinand sighs heavily, feeling put-upon. Sylvain isn't pushing it, but it's all too clear that he _knows,_ and there is nothing Ferdinand can do about it but regret his decision to invite the former Faerghus noble-turned-sellsword to help. They barely spend any time together as is, so Ferdinand had supposed - well. He has hear that Sylvain is smarter than he lets on. This is punishment for his own excess pride. "Hmm. A scarf is a good idea. There's a shop down the road that sells them, I think."

"Then figure out the cape thing and let's go."

Ferdinand, feeling very put upon, does as he's told; he goes to the shop keeper, who's been patiently ignoring them, and goes through his list of requirements for a cape - warm, black, lined with a color besides black. (He gets one for himself, too, of course, but there's a ready-made cape in blue so he's able to purchase it on the spot instead of having to wait. A pity that he's being so much pickier over Hubert's accoutrements than his own. No wonder Sylvain saw through him immediately.)

-

"We should get tea," Ferdinand decides, as they finally finish their last stop of the day. They've gone to the market and to countless shops and he's ended up with a grand total of two things for Hubert, and still feels content despite the sheer amount of time spent. "If you would like, that is."

Sylvain shakes his head, chuckling. He has a good laugh, and Ferdinand can see why women like him so much, though Ferdinand himself has another laugh he'd far rather hear. "You're paying, y'know."

"But of course," Ferdinand says sardonically, giving him a sweeping bow. "I'm buying your silence, after all."

And because Enbarr is a wonderful, vibrant city, and they're in the heart of the mercantile district, there is a tea shop not forty yards away - one that serves delicate little pastries from a nearby bakery, no less.

Sylvain orders no less than a dozen savory scones, along with his tea and a cookie, and Ferdinand gives him a sidelong look. Sylvain just stares back at him, feigning innocence, which Ferdinand does not buy for a moment. "What?"

"Why do you need that many scones?"

"I was gone longer than I planned." Sylvain shrugs carelessly. "Felix'll be pissed I didn't spend all day training with him and he hates sweets, so - savory pastries it is."

"Hm," Ferdinand says. "And you taunted me all day."

"Oh, you can absolutely taunt me if you want, I'm not going to even pretend." Something softens in Sylvain's expression. "Unlike you, I won't even pretend not to be totally pathetic."

"I am not pathetic -"

"Hey, no, I didn't mean you were! Sorry. That was autobiographical, honestly." Sylvain holds his hands up, defensive. "Just saying I deserve it. You're not pathetic. It's sweet, honestly. Go on, mock me, it'll make you feel better."

"Any taunting I could come up with would feel like - like I was targeting myself, as well, or as if I were kicking an opponent who were already down." Ferdinand shakes his head. "No, you've deflected even the friendliest mockery quite elegantly."

"Ah, fuck," Sylvain says. "Look. It's fine. It's tea time. Hey, you could get him some tea leaves, too."

"No, that will not do. Ah, I meant to look for coffee while we were out." Ferdinand grimaces. "Well, nothing for it. Another day."

"Coffee, huh?" Sylvain strokes at his chin thoughtfully. "Dark, bitter - just like him. Makes sense."

"He's not so bitter," Ferdinand says, feeling somewhat defensive.

"Eh, I hardly know the guy. It was a joke, calm down." Sylvain, for whatever reason, winks at him, as if that improves matters in any way.

Ferdinand sighs heavily, and takes a sip of his tea. At least the tea is good. "Thank you for coming today; I would have ended up buying gear that was far too light without you."

Sylvain taps at the side of his head, grin widening. "See, I knew all that shit I learned living there would come in handy some day. Didn't figure it'd help me play matchmaker, but hey! Life's full of surprises. I didn't think I'd survive the war, and here we are."

"Here we are," Ferdinand agrees, nodding, ignoring the matchmaker comment entirely. It isn't wholly inaccurate, and he doesn't want to argue. "I feared the worst as well."

"I'd be worried if you didn't, honestly. Anyone who wasn't at least a little convinced they were going to end up dead before the end of it - I don't know, I can't trust someone like that."

Ferdinand wonders, for a fraction of a second, if Hubert ever worried about dying - but of course he would have, and he would have had contingency plan on contingency plan to deal with it. Part of Ferdinand wants to ask him about it, but they try not to talk about the war anymore. Better to look forward than back.

In any case, he's ordered Hubert a cape and bought him a hat and a scarf, and he won't think about dying for a while longer. "Well, grim thoughts of death and war aside! Today was a success, and if there is any good in this world, then the mission Hubert and I are going on will be a success as well. And thanks to you, at least, we will not freeze to death."
"Just don't start another war and you're good, I think," Sylvain says. "Seriously, though, good luck. I'm grateful the Professor didn't ask me to go on this one; I never want to go back. The Hubert thing's going to be easier than trying to make anyone from the old Kingdom listen to sense, I bet."

"I hope not. Initial correspondence has been promising. If there is anything I should know about - the situation in the region, though," Ferdinand says, leaning forward, honing in on this realization. "I know you have not returned for some time, but still. Any insight could help in assuaging the former Kingdom's concerns."

They spend another two hours at the tea shop, deep in political conversation. Sylvain, it turns out, knows far more than he's ever let on.

-

Ferdinand's plan to buy Hubert a cape has only one flaw: he did not think to tell Hubert he was buying him a cape, and so, when it is delivered, Hubert is flummoxed.

"Do you think Lady Edelgard ordered it made...?" Hubert asks him, rising from the dinner table and holding the cape out at arms length. He unfolds it, peering at it critically. "Only a few people know about our upcoming departure. Unless there are spies -"

"Maybe you have a secret admirer," Ferdinand offers helpfully, rather entertained by Hubert's consternation. He could come clean, but watching Hubert puzzle over it is more entertaining, and surely the spymaster will figure it out eventually.

Hubert eyes him coolly. "Ah, yes, a secret admirer willing to spend at a few thousand gold on a cape with no message. One who has privileged information about the inner workings of our political project."

"You never know. Though if we're bringing price into it, I doubt a spy would spend that much, either."

Hubert shakes his head. "No, it must have been Lady Edelgard herself. I'll have to thank her."

"Right," Ferdinand says, and, taking a tool from Sylvain's playbook, smiles widely. "That must be it. How thoughtful."

-

Ferdinand presents Hubert with the scarf the day they are to set out on their journey. "Here! To keep warm as we get further north."

"Oh, thank you," Hubert says, turning it over in his gloved hands. They're a new pair, black leather, with fur trim. The material looks soft, and Ferdinand imagines for one horrifying moment how nice it might feel if Hubert were to touch his face with his gloved hands, how easily Ferdinand would tilt toward him and - now is not the time for such thoughts. There is, in fact, never any time for such thoughts outside of the darkest corners of the night when Ferdinand is entirely sure he's alone.

Feeling affronted by his own imagination, Ferdinand decides to keep the hat for himself. The pieces are a matched set, but no matter. He and Hubert are a matched set as well, in their own way. The Jewels of the Empire, he's heard whispered recently, a title he's admittedly fond of not least because it is a title shared, and one earned entirely by his and Hubert's own work rather than that of their families.

His family's good name has long since been ruined, so the least Ferdinand can do is make sure his own name stands alone even without that legacy.

-

"You are bringing a guitar," Hubert says, entirely too incredulous for words. "On a diplomatic mission."

"Music can touch the heart of even the hardest of men," Ferdinand declares proudly, then ducks his head. "Well, and it will be quite a long journey, and I thought we could use some entertainment on our way."

"Are you going to play on horseback?"

"No," Ferdinand says, not admitting to having considered it. His horse is laden with supplies rather than armor, and he wears the guitar in a case across his back. A lance, of course, crosses the other direction. This is a peaceful mission but he's not so foolish as to go wholly unarmed.

Hubert had gotten the lance for him some weeks back - "for the trip," he'd said - and Ferdinand has been admiring it ever since and not thinking about just how much it must have cost or how it is exactly the right length and weight for Ferdinand's preferred combat style, or how it has a grip just where he likes to hold his lances, or the decorative woodwork that somehow matches Ferdinand's outfit. It is one of the finest weapons Ferdinand has ever owned, and he's had his share of frivolously pretty weaponry that broke far too soon. Only this, he thinks, will not likely break so readily. The wood and metal both are too well crafted for such a fate, and he'll end up being very careful with it anyway because it came from Hubert and therefore is a treasure on multiple levels.

In any case, he has his lance and his guitar and enough food for the first few days of their journey and enough gold to buy more for the rest. And he has Hubert, who will be his traveling companion for these next days and weeks - however long it takes to get there, and however long their visit requires them to stay.

-

To get to Faerghus, they have to pass through former Alliance territory, and perilously near to Garreg Mach. The old monastery has been mostly abandoned again since the war, though there are constant talks about restoring and repurposing the facility. No one can quite come to an agreement about what to do with it since the fall of the church. The arguments aren't worth relitigating today. They ride without comment, pushing their horses a little harder for the few hours it takes to clear the once-familiar territory.

Faerghus, as promised, is cold. Extremely so. The grass by the roadside goes from green to yellow to covered in snow. They manage to sleep in inns most nights along the way, but once, mid-day, a brief snowstorm catches them off guard and they shelter with the horses under an outcropping of rock too shallow to be called a cave, and then have to do their best to progress after the weather finally clears. They don't quite make it to another town.

Ferdinand is in low spirits that evening, building a fire in a sullen funk, until he remembers the guitar. Hubert's been moody too - neither of them likes the delay nor the prospect of sleeping in the cold. Even with a tent and blankets, the chill will be a difficult enemy.

So Ferdinand gets out his guitar, sitting on a downed log they've pulled over to use as a bench, and starts to sing old Adrestian folk songs, serenading Hubert with little ditties about flowers in summertime and overambitious cats.

Hubert, somehow, tolerates this, with only the occasional bit of color commentary making fun of a particularly absurd lyric. Fortunately, Ferdinand can appeal to authority - it's not as if he wrote any of the things he's singing.

"No?" Hubert asks, with a dangerous smirk. "Hm. Surely I've earned a song by now."

"If I wanted to sing about murder and dark deeds, there are more than enough songs on the subject already," Ferdinand says, teasing because he can. It's strange: just a few years ago the taunt would be far more pointed, rather than tinged with hapless fondness and admiration. But here he is, and here they are. "Though I suppose few would be able to quite capture you in all your multitudes of absurdity."

"Absurdity? Me?"

"Well." Ferdinand shrugs, strumming aimlessly through a chord sequence. "You do whatever it takes to serve the emperor. You've dedicated your life to Lady Edelgard. Yet I've also seen how kindly you treat Bernadetta, and you bought me that lance ... Despite your image, you really can be quite kind. During our academy days, I never could have imagined a man like you capable of such strong friendships. And yet! You are a spymaster, and one of the most loyal and true men I have ever known."

"And yet," Hubert agrees, looking away. "I understand now why you wanted compliments in writing."

"Ah, you see how it feels! I could continue. I could praise your ingenuity, as well, or your cleverness or how capable you are on the battlefield - even the color of your eyes, if I so chose."

Hubert stares at him, and Ferdinand lowers his head, suddenly very intent on the guitar again, picking out a chipper little melody.

"If you truly want me to, I will write you a song," Ferdinand says, eventually. "I cannot promise it will be any good; I do not consider myself a composer. But I can try."

"That ... that would." Hubert pauses, which startles Ferdinand. Hubert is rarely at a loss for words. "Well. Yes. That would be nice. I appreciate the sentiment. You are under no obligation, of course."

"Of course." It is very cold, and they are still sitting three feet apart. Ferdinand is not quite brave enough to mov closer, not yet, even with the very valid excuse there ready for the taking. Instead, he stands and goes to root through their packs for food, and they go back to sitting three feet apart as they eat a cold meal of cheese and dried nuts, and Ferdinand thinks about what Sylvain had said, about how the issue of Hubert will be easier than the situation in Faerghus; he wasn't so sure, then, but now he's hopeful.

-

They did pack blankets, but not enough. They leave the fire going - it's not as if there's anything around to burn at this time of year, the ground blanketed in snow and the soil frozen beneath it - and set the tent as near as they can without risking burning to death in their sleep.

"We should probably sleep close," Hubert says, surveying the tent and the fire and the dark night sky above. "For the sake of warmth."

"Ah, wonderful idea," Ferdinand says, now fully prepared to face death. He is going to have to spend an entire night at Hubert's side, huddled for warmth, and must somehow retain his dignity throughout. He wants very badly to impress Hubert and doubts very much that anything he can do while trying to sleep will suit. "Of course."

There isn't much to be done to prepare for sleep - neither of them is going to undress, not with such cold weather. They have a few blankets. They have their capes. They pile these all together and then there is nothing left to do but lie down side by side.

After several minutes of quiet, neither of them asleep yet, Hubert says, "You know, Lady Edelgard did not know where my new cape came from either."

"Oh?"

"She was worried it was part of an assassination plot." Hubert laughs darkly. "Usually I am the suspicious one, between us, but I admit I hadn't considered it. Still, I had it analyzed for curses or dark magic, and there was no trace of poison, either. So I suppose the only way it could be use in an assassination plot is if whoever gave it to me were trying to drive me mad with the mystery."

"I told you, you might have a secret admirer."

"Hmm."

Ferdinand narrows his eyes. It's very dark in the tent. He cannot quite work out what Hubert's probably-thoughtful expression means. "Hmm, indeed."

"Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the trail and doubt I'll be able to figure it out without -"

"Oh, do shut up," Ferdinand says, laughing mostly at himself. "And no, I will not excuse myself for speaking harshly. In fact, I will intensify it: shut the fuck up."

Hubert, usually the master of the subdued chuckle or the ominous laugh, practically barks with laughter that then subsides to quiet shaking. "What has gotten into you?"

"You know exactly what has gotten into me, and I won't have you condescend to me any longer."

"What could you possibly - was it you?" Hubert asks, still shaking with laughter, but now sounding genuinely surprised as well.

"Of course it was me. Dastard. Scoundrel. You menace."

"I had no idea," Hubert says, seemingly honest. "Truly."

"Well, it was not the most personal of gifts," Ferdinand allows. "And I forgot to indicate it in any way. In any case. At least you can be reasonably sure no spies overheard our plans."

"I suppose there is that." Hubert seems thoughtful."You aren't usually one to be so secretive. Why hide it? It's not as if we haven't exchanged gifts before. Even if you forgot to include a note you could have mentioned it."

"That is true," Ferdinand allows.

"Instead you yammered on about a secret admirer."

"Well, I had to think of something, if I was going to continue - not telling you."

Hubert takes a deep breath, and even in the gloom, Ferdinand can see the moment of uncertainty on his face before he plows ahead, uncommonly reckless - "Ferdinand, maybe there was some truth in that answer after all?"

"Ah, well." Hubert shifts ever so slightly closer under the blankets. One of his knees bumps against Ferdinand's own and neither of them recoils. Ferdinand thanks the goddess who may or may not exist for darkness because surely it must hide how bright red his face has gotten.

"If that is - if I have misjudged," Hubert starts, seeming suddenly anxious.

"No!" Ferdinand says, before he can compose himself. "No, you have not misjudged. I do - admire you. In more ways than I have perhaps admitted to anyone besides myself. But here I am, admitting to it."

"I see," Hubert says, and for a split second - despite their knees brushing together, despite lying inches apart under a pile of blankets - Ferdinand's heart sinks with uncertainty because maybe even with all this it remains a one-sided thing, a useless hope, and maybe Hubert will come up with some witty retort to both push him away and soften the blow all at once because Hubert is surprisingly adept at sparing Ferdinand's feelings sometimes - but instead, Hubert's lengthy pause is just the time it takes for Hubert to push up on one elbow and lean in and kiss Ferdinand. Just briefly, the gentlest of brushes. "Then you should know I admire you as well, if that's how we're phrasing it."