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just a little stuck on you (you’ll be on me too)

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So this wasn’t Ferdinand’s idea.

True, Ferdinand has had his share of—well, questionable ideas. Putting foil in the microwave a grand total of three times across his degree—in his defence, for the last two, he was drunk. Titling his coursework on the Russian industrial revolution Russia’s greatest love machine—this time, he was actually sober. Forgetting to get a haircut for months in his second year at university until people had generally started to roll with it as a fashion choice.

But auditioning for The X Factor, remarkably enough, was not his idea. In fact, Ferdinand doesn’t think he would have ever landed on the idea on his own, because The X Factor is a plague on modern society and the music industry.

And yet.

And yet.

Here he is. In Majorca. At Seteth Cichol’s actual house. (Or, actually, Ferdinand doesn’t think Seteth Cichol actually lives here. He’s pretty sure the network just rent out the houses when they’re needed for the show.)

It’s demeaning. It’s embarrassing. It’s—a ridiculous idea, and Ferdinand should have laughed in his dad’s face when he suggested it. But now he’s here, and he can’t just quit, and the old familiar von Aegir competitive instinct is flaring up like nothing else because now that he’s here, well—

Well, he might as well win.


June 2019 — London

That’s not to say Ferdinand’s goal hadn’t been to win. Or rather, it hadn’t been to win in as much as it had been to succeed. Ferdinand’s aim is to get to the top three, get eliminated before the final, and find widespread success, with the added benefit that maybe, just maybe, his father would talk to him regularly again.

In the run-up to his audition, Ferdinand had paced his apartment and watched all fifteen seasons of the show so far, taking careful notes on what he needed to do and what he needed to avoid. He’d also watched a bit of the American versions, and had come to the same conclusions.

In order to do well, Ferdinand must:

a) Connect with the judges as much as possible.

b) Be very, very careful with his song choices, to show off as much skill as possible.

c) Be versatile, but not too versatile. Make sure he has a distinctive personality.

d) Avoid gimmicks.

e) Avoid melodrama.

f) Try not to seem too much like you know what you’re doing.

It’s the last one that’s given Ferdinand the most trouble in the run-up to the competition. Over the years, The X Factor has had acts who are objectively skilled, who deliver consistently high level performances, who have experience in the past. They never seem to do well. The people of Great Britain and Ireland want people they can connect to, people they can watch grow, people who improve and aren’t totally polished.

Ferdinand went to boarding school, has been learning to play piano since he was three, and is a ridiculous perfectionist, so he thinks he might fail on all three counts. At first, he tries to be a bit more of an everyman, tries to work on his accent a bit more, tries to work out the most relatable part of his backstory. (Also, he cuts off about eight inches of his hair, and only mourns it for a few days.)

It’s Linhardt who has to tell him that he’s being ridiculous. “The only thing people hate more than a rich boy,” he says, “is a rich boy playing like he isn’t a rich boy.”

He’s right, of course. Ferdinand hates it, and generally tends to hate when Linhardt is right, which is often. He’d hated it more when they were back at university together, when Linhardt would sleep for half the semester and still end up with a better result on in his modules than Ferdinand got in his, but even now, several weeks after their graduation, he hates it.

Of course, Linhardt zones out of the conversation before Ferdinand can ask for any more advice, which means he ends up seeking out Bernadetta over two cups of coffee.

To her credit, Bernadetta only laughs a little bit when Ferdinand tells her what he’s doing. Ferdinand can’t begrudge her a little laugh—he’d laugh, too, if he was her. “Just be yourself,” she says.

“Be myself?” Ferdinand repeats, indignant. “Bernadetta, the first time we met I terrified you into thinking we were mortal enemies.” Bernadetta laughs at the memory. “That’s terrible advice.”

“Maybe not the—well, that whole thing,” says Bernadetta. “The whole—ah, how do I put it?”

Ferdinand sighs. “Trying too hard to be liked?” he says.

“Well,” says Bernadetta. “Yes. That. Because you are likable, Ferdinand, when you don’t try quite so hard to be. Just—pick songs that you know you can sing well, and perform them the best way you can.” Ferdinand glares at her, unimpressed. “Look, okay, from what you say—the one people can relate to always tends to win. But every competition also needs a heartthrob, and you’re—charming, I guess.”

“You think I’m charming?” Ferdinand asks.

“Don’t get a big head,” says Bernadetta, much to her chagrin. “The people of Britain and Ireland won’t vote for a guy with a big head.”

So that’s that then. Playing the heartthrob is probably easier than playing the everyman, but it’s also in the sense that getting into Oxford is probably easier than getting into Cambridge—so marginal that it doesn’t even count.

 

In the week leading up to his audition, Ferdinand is pretty sure he considers about four hundred songs. Bernadetta says he should play it safe for his audition to get across who he is. Caspar says he should do something elaborate to stand out from the crowd. Linhardt takes one look at Ferdinand’s fifty song shortlist and tells him he’s the most boring man in England.

In the end, he goes with Somewhere Only We Know, but he spends every minute that he spends waiting in line for all three rounds of auditions fretting about whether it was the right choice. It’s not particularly provocative, not particularly interesting, but the bridge shows off his range and he thinks he might be able to pick up points for picking something familiar. Plus, he’d sung it for two school events and ends up singing it every time he’s near a karaoke machine, so he knows the song.

He breezes through the first two auditions, and tries not to seem too self-assured about it. They could be saving the footage.

It’s only when he’s about to go on stage to perform for the judges—at an arena, that houses twelve thousand people—that he really starts to realise what kind of a mess he’s in. There’s a person performing right now, then two others, then it’s Ferdinand’s go, and he would never admit it out loud but he’s terrified. And he can’t be terrified. He’d spent the last week testing lines on Bernadetta, in the hope that he might be able to establish a rapport with one of the judges.

The girl in front of him exhales deeply, startling Ferdinand out of his thoughts. “I’ve auditioned for so many things over my life,” she says, “but I’ve never been more scared.”

Ferdinand doesn’t know if she expects him to reply or if she’s just hoping that can be caught as a soundbite, but he latches on. “I have a feeling my voice is going to crack. And I’ve sung it hundreds of times.”

The girl laughs. She’s pretty, Ferdinand notices, and if her singing voice is any good on top of that he doesn’t doubt she’ll at least make it into the second stage. “Oh, me too,” she says. “I’ve known how to sing my song since I was about sixteen, and I still think I’m going to mess up.”

“What are you singing?” he asks.

She eyes him suspiciously, then apparently seems to decide he isn’t a threat, because she responds, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. My old drama teacher is going to kill me next time I see her. She insisted this was one of the songs you never sing at an audition, but—well, none of the judges are in theatre.”

Ferdinand laughs. “Well, musical theatre songs do tend to stand out more than your typical pop songs or ballads,” he says. The girl nods in agreement. “But it is sacrilege, yes. I had to really convince myself not to do Bring Him Home.” The girl’s smile is brighter, now. “I’m doing Somewhere Only We Know. First time I sung that, I was—sixteen as well. Sang it at a singing competition.”

“Did you win?” the girl asks.

“I did,” says Ferdinand. He’d been very proud of that win, especially when his choir teacher told him he could easily perform professionally, if he wanted to. After that win, he’d thrown himself into every musical opportunity he could get, from concerts to musicals to picking up more and more instrument lessons, carefully balancing it with schoolwork so his dad didn’t find out.

“Well, good for you,” the girl says. She gets beckoned to prepare to go onto the stage, but before she goes, she sticks out her hand and says, “I’m Dorothea, by the way. Hopefully, we’ll meet again at the live shows.”

“Ferdinand,” Ferdinand says, shaking it. She smiles and turns around to prepare for her own audition, and Ferdinand can’t help but listen. Her voice soars, and he secretly thanks god that they aren’t in the same category, because he doesn’t think he could ever compete.

And then it’s Ferdinand’s turn. His heart feels like it’s in his stomach, but he steels himself and steps onto the stage.

The current judging panel of The X Factor consists of Rhea Seiros and Seteth Cichol, two talent managers considered by many the greatest scourges to twenty-first century society, Gilbert Pronislav, an American country singer, and Byleth Eisner, an actress and singer-songwriter who’s been in the public eye since she was born—literally, since her dad was also a musician. Each of them have their own stage personalities, and Ferdinand runs through them in his head—Rhea is cool and sophisticated, Gilbert appreciates skill and doesn’t respond to banter, Seteth also isn’t very responsive to banter but generally gives the most constructive comments, and Byleth is probably the one Ferdinand has the best luck winning over, even if she’s a little blank sometimes. Secretly, he hopes for his category to be assigned Byleth as a mentor if he makes it past the deliberation stage.

That’s not even talking about the crowd. It’s the biggest crowd he’s ever performed in front of—he’d performed at school events, and at open mic nights, but never in front of what had to be over ten thousand people.

“Hello,” he says, and mentally cheers himself on for his voice not cracking. “My name’s Ferdinand, I’m twenty-one, and I’m from Oxfordshire.”

“Hello, Ferdinand,” says Seteth. “And what do you do?”

“Well, I was a student up until about a week ago,” Ferdinand says. Byleth laughs a little—not much, but it’s something.

“And where did you study?” Seteth asks.

“I was at LSE,” says Ferdinand. “Studied history.”

“Not music?”

“I figured I should expand my horizons,” Ferdinand says. Byleth smiles, and Seteth doesn’t look quite so grim, but Rhea and Gilbert don’t seem moved.

“And what are you singing for us today, Ferdinand?”

“I’m singing Somewhere Only We Know,” Ferdinand answers, and is barely conscious of Seteth wishing him luck. It hadn’t gone perfectly, but at least they don’t seem to hate him. Now—now, he had to sing.

Singing is perhaps the thing that comes easiest to Ferdinand. It always has been—since before his mum died, when she used to teach him hymns and carols at Christmas. Sometimes, he knows—he can lose himself too much in it, can sacrifice skill for the simple pleasure of feeling the music. Sometimes he doesn’t fully connect with the song.

But he gets past the bridge, and sings this could be the end of everything, and he knows that he’s done well, knows that he’s gotten the audience’s attention, and when he finishes the song and finally clocks back into existence he’s aware that the audience is applauding him.

He gets a yes from Seteth, a yes from Byleth, and a yes from Rhea, though she does make sure to tell him that he’ll need to stand out a bit more from every other boy who looks like you. (Which causes a pang in Ferdinand’s chest, because maybe he could have done without cutting off all of that hair.) Gilbert gives him a no, calling him boring, but Ferdinand takes great satisfaction in the booing he gets from the crowd.

It’s only when he gets off stage that he registers that three yes votes means he’s moving onto the next stage. He celebrates, of course, for the camera’s sake more than his own, but there’s a pang in his chest as well.

 

This year, there’s no bootcamp stage, so Ferdinand finds himself essentially twiddling his thumbs in his apartment while he waits to hear if he’s passed the judges’s deliberation.

“You need to leave this apartment,” says Linhardt to him, but doesn’t make any offer or suggestion, so Ferdinand stays where he is on the sofa. Linhardt’s got about a hundred pieces of paper littered around the apartment—preliminary reading for his master’s degree in biochemistry—and Ferdinand is certain that if he gets any more on edge he’d tidy them up for him. The thought of leaving the house to get a loaf of bread already feels like it would be too much for him.

“Whatever,” Linhardt concludes, even though Ferdinand hadn’t actually said anything. “When you win The X Factor, you’d better move the hell out.”

“I’m not going to win,” says Ferdinand.

“When you come third according to your dastardly plan to manipulate the voters,” Linhardt amends. But he already sounds bored with the conversation, and within two minutes he’s disappeared behind a book titled Carbonic Anhydrases: Biochemistry and Pharmacology of an Evergreen Pharmaceutical Target, so Ferdinand knows he won’t be able to ask Linhardt if he really thinks Ferdinand can make it.

 

The next day, Ferdinand gets a call from one of the producers, a woman with a clear, commanding voice, telling him that he’s made it through the deliberation stage and to prepare for the Six Chair Challenge.

His relief at passing the deliberation is only eclipsed by his horror at the fact that he now needs to be part of the top six of hundreds of people.

 

Once again, his friends are utterly unhelpful in picking a song. At least this time they’re in agreement that Ferdinand needs to do something out of the box, but that doesn’t particularly help much, and Ferdinand can tell Caspar clocks out of it when he says, “You should sing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?

“Absolutely not,” says Ferdinand, affronted at the very thought.

“Sing something originally sung by a woman,” Bernadetta suggests. “That tends to get people’s attention.”

“Sing Mambo No. 5,” Caspar suggests.

“I’m kicking you out,” says Ferdinand. “This is my apartment, and you’re no longer welcome.”

“It’s too heterosexual,” says Linhardt dryly, and Ferdinand hasn’t even noticed that Linhardt was listening but now he has a pang in his chest at the observation. Ferdinand doesn’t particularly want to think of what he’s doing as going back in the closet—because it’s not like he’s going to claim to be straight, either—but he knows, realistically, that unless he gets up on the stage and states outright that he isn’t, he’ll just be assumed to be a straight man.

But. He supposes there’ll be time for furthering gay representation in the music industry once he actually gets through the show. He just can't help the brief pang of guilt.

In the end, he settles on Love Is A Battlefield. It’s not particularly complicated, but it’s unique enough to stand out, and Ferdinand barely needs to change the key for it to be semi-comfortably in his range. Mentally, he decides to sacrifice total comfort for the possibility of showing off what he can do, but he also makes Linhardt invest in earplugs as he rehearses it over and over again.

 

He gets through to the judges’s houses, and his mentor, unfortunately, is not Byleth Eisner. It’s Seteth Cichol, though, so Ferdinand at least counts himself lucky that he didn’t end up with Gilbert, who has the emotional expression of a rock.

He takes notes of the other people who made it to this stage. Dorothea, he notes, made it to this stage in the girls’s category, and she waves excitedly at him. He waves back, hoping that she’ll make it to the live shows. It can’t hurt to have a familiar face, and even though Ferdinand only heard about a minute of her Don’t Cry For Me Argentina rendition, he thinks he wouldn’t mind it if she won the whole thing.

Provided, of course, that Ferdinand comes third. Because that’s the real goal here.


July 2019 - Majorca

There’s five other people in the boys’s category, but Ferdinand only vaguely manages to catch onto their names as they introduce themselves. There’s Claude, who also got in through the London audition, Lorenz, who also went to boarding school, Cyril, who’s sixteen and looks even younger, and Dedue, who’s about seven foot eight and sings like an angel. (Ferdinand doesn’t catch the fifth guy’s name, and by the time he realises it's far too late to ask without sounding rude.)

They take their phones off them before they get to the airport. Each of them have to write up a form naming the one person they’re allowed to call, and they’re allowed one thirty minute call a week to check in and keep on top of news—albeit a call with a production assistant listening in to make sure nothing gets leaked and no cheating gets arranged. Ferdinand’s sure the other guys write down family members, but he decides to write down Bernadetta’s number. If he’s going to get one call a week to the outside world, he figures she’s the best option—an option who won’t zone out (Linhardt), encourage him to throw the competition for fun (Caspar), or not pick up at all (his father).

One of the topics he’s forbidden to talk about on the phone is song selection. Luckily, he knows exactly what song he’s performing this time—no help needed. It’s the most intimate audience he’ll get on the show—only Seteth and whoever he drags in as guest judges there to watch him—and so Ferdinand decides he’ll do something sweet, something close to his heart, and a little smaller scale. It might end up the only opportunity he gets to sing alone with just his guitar to accompany him.

He’s singing Always On My Mind, and he has the speech ready when a production assistant asks him why for the talking segment. It was one of his mum’s favourite songs, back when she was alive, and he associates it with her, and so he has a deep emotional connection to it.

It’s a great cover, he thinks, when he’s done. He hasn’t felt quite so satisfied with a cover, quite so in tune with the music, for a while—at least since his school performances, when he’d been a wide eyed teenager still growing into his limbs.

He gets dismissed without comment, of course, but can’t help straining his ears once he’s a comfortable distance away to try and catch some commentary.

“Get a move on,” says one of the producers.

Ferdinand jumps—he hadn’t even noticed the man was there. He only recognises him from the clipboard he’s holding, because otherwise he would have thought the man’s occupation was cashier at an independent metal record store, or perhaps vampire bat turned into a human being by an evil bat witch.

“Well?” the man asks, and it’s not quite a barked out order as much as it’s simply a snarl. “I’ve not got all day.”

Ferdinand instantly dislikes him, and tries his best not to show it, because—yeah, he’s had stupid ideas, but making one of the producers hate him would probably be at the top of the list. So he stalks up the path, bristling slightly, and forces himself not to look back until he’s at the door of the house.

Well, he thinks. If I looked back he’d probably turn into smoke anyway.


August 2019 - London

Ferdinand makes it through to the live shows.

So do Claude, Lorenz, and Dedue. Cyril and the guy whose name Ferdinand can’t remember get eliminated. Cyril is a mess, and Ferdinand feels ridiculously bad for him, giving him a hopefully helpful pat on the shoulder and a few words of his encouragement before he gets dragged away by the production crew to prepare him to be asked how he feels about the decision. (Obviously, he goes for humble, makes sure to mention that all the contestants were brilliant, and says that with all the talent in the show, the people of Great Britain and Ireland won’t know what to do when the live shows air.)

They get flown back to London, but don’t speak to each other much on the journey. Ferdinand isn’t allowed to tell Bernadetta who else made it into the top sixteen until the episode airs in September, only that he’s made it through and now has to twiddle his thumbs in the spacious London mansion that they’re staying in and wait for the live shows to start.

Once they’re in London, of course, they have nothing to do but mingle. The first live show isn’t until the end of September, so they have almost two months of time to kill, and are barely allowed to leave the property—undoubtedly, many of them would end up friends by the end.

To his delight, Dorothea made it through to the live shows too—she hugs him when she sees him, and says, “See, I knew we would meet again here.”

“I’m glad you made it,” he tells her sincerely. “I loved your audition. I mean, I didn’t hear all of it, but what I heard was fantastic.”

She smiles, pleased, and follows him out the patio doors. “I didn’t hear yours, but I’m sure it was amazing.”

There’s twenty of them staying in the house—twelve of them in the solo categories, and the other eight making up various groups—and it seems like everywhere Ferdinand looks there’s camera crews. “Don’t worry,” one of the girls tells him when she catches him staring—she’s soft-spoken, and what he assumes is her natural hair colour is blended with a light blue ombré. “They’ll just keep them up for a couple of days. Then we’ll get some privacy.”

Ferdinand nods in relief, because—sure, he’s on a reality show, but he sort of hadn’t realized what that meant until now. “I’m Ferdinand,” he says.

“Marianne,” says the girl. “I’m in one of the groups—my friend Hilda convinced me to audition with her. We don’t have a name yet, though, so Byleth is trying to work on finding one that fits.”

Just as Ferdinand plans to make himself acquaintanced with everyone possible—including the people manning the camera crews—the judges step out from the patio doors. “Hello,” Byleth says cheerily. “Welcome to the mansion where you’ll be staying while the live shows are ongoing. You’ll be allowed out and about the areas, but we recommend you don’t go too far, especially as the sixteen of you will now be under intense media scrutiny as people try to figure out who you are.” Ferdinand shudders at the thought, and hopes nobody contacts his father for an interview. “There’s a chart near the ground floor staircase outlining who you’ll all be sharing rooms with. Now, as much as we’re glad to see you mixing, all of you will need to speak to the producers first to sign some paperwork, so we’ll go in alphabetical order.”

Ferdinand already knows his name is going to be called first. You can’t really get much earlier in the alphabet than Aegir. He follows a production assistant with silvery hair to some kind of study, and shuts the door behind him.

“Hi,” says one of the producers. “Take a seat.”

Ferdinand nods and does, taking in the three people in front of him. They all seem startlingly young, to be producing a show like this—even the vampiric one. Beside him is a woman with silvery blonde hair, and beside her is another woman—the one who has spoken—with cropped red hair. “Hi,” he says.

“I’m Edelgard,” says the blonde woman. “This is Leonie,” she adds, pointing to the ginger woman, “and this is Hubert. We’re the main production assistants—we’re the go-between between the actual producers, off in the ITV offices, and those of you who are here.” Well, that explains how young they are, Ferdinand thinks. “Generally, you’ll probably have a lot of interaction with us, and also our intern, Ashe, who showed you here. We’re the ones who make sure everything is running on a ground level.”

Count Dracula—or, rather, Hubert pushes a document towards him, with a ballpoint pen on top of it. “It’s already been reviewed by a lawyer,” he says, “but we can call him in to explain it to you if you require more explanation.” Ferdinand picks it up and has a skim through.

“Essentially,” says Leonie, “you’re obligated to perform in every live show as instructed up until the moment of your elimination from the show. You’re not allowed to use social media or communicate via telephone or the Internet to anyone who isn’t pre-approved, and you obviously can’t discuss spoilers or song selection to anyone who isn’t also a contestant.”

“This page?” Ferdinand asks, and pushes it back to the producers.

“That basically means the show reserves the right to portray you in whatever manner they choose,” Edelgard says.

Right, Ferdinand thinks. This is a reality TV show, after all. There’s got to be some kind of narrative, and—undoubtedly—some kind of villain. He just hopes that villain isn’t him. He takes the contract back and scans the last few pages, which just states basic things like the profit margin he’ll get from sales of the single versions of his performances.

He picks up the pen and signs with a flourish where he needs to, and then pushes the contract back. “Thank you,” he says, a little stiffly, and leaves the room without being dismissed—then realises to his horror that might make the producers decide to edit him badly.

I’ll just have to be extra nice to everyone to make up for it, he resolves.

 

Within two hours, he can safely say he knows the name of everyone in the house, and at least two facts about them.

The over-25 category are a little set apart from the rest. Of the four, Ferdinand only really thinks two are genuine competition—Catherine, who is a music and PE teacher (a bizarre combination that Ferdinand doesn’t understand) at a secondary school in Lancaster, and Manuela, who trained classically at a music conservatory but nowadays only really sings in her night job at a pub. The other two are the type of comedic novelty acts that the show tolerates for a few rounds of the live shows—Hanneman, who is in his fifties and says (and presumably sings) everything in the Queen’s English, and Alois, who is sweet and talks about his kid like he’s devoted to them, but is also...a white rapper, and very clear that he’s only in this to make his kid laugh.

Out of the girls, he already knows Dorothea, and she readily introduces him to the other three—Petra, who comes from Spain, Shamir, who looks more like someone who would complain about how the show has ruined music than an actual contestant, and Lysithea, who at seventeen is the youngest contestant to make it this far, but who insists that she’s just as good as the rest of them.

As for the groups—he recognises Marianne, of course, and is introduced to her duo partner, Hilda, who is as different to her as chalk is to cheese. There’s two other duos, as well—Annette and Mercedes, who are best friends and scarily synchronised, and Raphael and Ignatz, who Ferdinand secretly thinks are another novelty act, because even if they can sing, the comedy of a broad giant of a man performing with a small, skinny wisp of a boy would eclipse any of that. The fourth group are, surprisingly, co-ed—he meets Dimitri, Sylvain, and Ingrid directly, but he doesn’t speak one word to Felix, who doesn’t seem particularly interested in the whole mingling thing.

All in all, it’s a successful night, even if Ferdinand is now triply worried about his own chances, and he goes to sleep hopeful, if apprehensive, for the weeks to come.

 

They get told the theme for the first live show relatively soon—Ferdinand supposes it’s to give them ample time to make sure the show starts with a bang. The theme is UK Number Ones, and Ferdinand finds himself staring at the list of approved songs, utterly stumped at what to choose. He almost wishes he could tell Bernadetta, but knows it’ll be impossible—when he calls, that week he can’t even tell her the theme, and she tells him that his audition hasn’t aired yet.

They don’t need to tell their mentor what they plan on singing just yet, though, so Ferdinand decides to leave it for a while. He’s quickly becoming friends with Dorothea—they both have some kind of musical theatre background, and quickly realize that they’re the only ones in the house who do. Ferdinand hasn’t sung a show tune in years, and doubts he will during the competition, but it’s nice to practice with Dorothea, trading parts in various numbers.

She tells him that she probably won’t do another ballad for a few weeks. “I don’t want to be the theatre girl,” she says. “I’m here to become a pop singer, and I know that’s something I can do, so I’ll save the vocal showing off to someone else while I try and perform.” Ferdinand likes her a lot more for that—both he and Dorothea know what they’re doing, and—even if they don’t say it aloud—he knows she’s aware of the unspoken rule of the show, that nobody succeeds if they’re too confident, too ambitious, too polished. Still, she also has no idea what she’s performing, though he knows it’ll be a lot more poppy than her audition.

His roommate is Lorenz, who Ferdinand gets along well enough with, but who he privately thinks is a bit of a snob. (Ferdinand would know—after all, he’s also a bit of a snob, though he’s pretty sure his time at university has ironed that out of him, in all things except his love for expensive tea.)

The cameras do disappear after a while, but the producers are still running around half the time. Ferdinand thinks he has a rapport with Leonie, and he definitely gets along with Ashe, but Hubert and Edelgard are still total mysteries. Quickly, he realises that Edelgard is mostly the one who does the meetings with the actual producers—Hubert, on the other hand, seems to spend his time standing in dark corners glaring at people.

 

“So,” he says to Hubert one night. They’re both in the kitchen—Hubert furiously typing out a message on his phone, and Ferdinand pouring himself a glass of water—but everyone else is either somewhere around the house or outside, enjoying the last few days of relative warmth. “Any spoilers about how you’re editing this thing?”

Hubert tuts, but Ferdinand doesn’t know if it’s an answer, an expression of how much he dislikes Ferdinand, or a response to whatever he’s typing on his phone. Logically, it’s probably one of the first two, but Ferdinand rolls ahead as if it’s the latter. (In his defence—he’d drunk a bit of champagne, and for someone who stands at 5’11 when he rounds up, he’s surprisingly lightweight.) “I think people are really going to love Annette and Mercedes. They’re really sweet.”

“Stop fishing,” says Hubert, not even looking up from his phone. “You want to know how you’re being spun, don’t you?”

“Can’t say I’d mind knowing,” says Ferdinand.

“Pretty boy with no substance,” says Hubert in a droll tone. Again, he doesn’t look up from his phone, but Ferdinand feels the sentence like a bucket of ice water has been drenched on his head. “The thing about your mother was cute, I guess, but so far? Nothing particularly stands out.”

“But I’m good,” says Ferdinand, and he doesn’t know why he’s so affronted by what Hubert is saying—he isn’t even that drunk, just comfortably tipsy—but he sort of wants to storm over and strangle him.

“So is every other person who gets this far,” says Hubert. Finally, he looks up from his phone, and Ferdinand is struck by how pale his eyes are, and by how cold the expression in them is. “Oh, sure, people will like you, because you can sing and you’re nice to everyone and good-looking, but you’re not going to be anyone’s favourite. Nobody is going to watch you sing the songs you’ve already sung and have them stick.”

Ferdinand feels like he’s been shoved into the patio door, like he’s lying there on the ground with a concussion surrounded by shattered glass, and he decides that he doesn’t just dislike Hubert—he hates him. “You’re not my mentor,” he responds coolly. “I don’t take advice from you.”

“He’d agree with me,” says Hubert. “So did Gilbert and Rhea, at auditions.” He shrugs, and his head drops down to his phone again, and Ferdinand feels burning, hysterical outrage rising in his chest. Look at me! he wants to scream. I’m more than what you said! “I’m not trying to advise you. You asked a question, and I’m giving you the answer. I’m sorry it wasn’t sunshine and rainbows.”

Ferdinand doesn’t respond. He pours himself another glass of water instead, and bites back a response of I think I’ll surprise you.

“Don’t worry,” Hubert continues. He puts his phone away in his pocket, and Ferdinand thinks he may be smiling just a little. “I won’t hold this conversation against you. Half the house has already asked me the same thing.” The fact should make Ferdinand feel relieved, but it doesn’t—mostly, he’s annoyed that even in his interrogation, he isn’t unique. “Maybe lay off the champagne next time, if you can’t handle it.”

Then he’s gone, disappeared with nothing but a sardonic smirk to leave Ferdinand with, gone so fast that Ferdinand thinks he might actually be a vampire.

He goes to bed angry, his heart beating hard in his chest, tossing and turning and unable to sleep. He can hear the other contestants outside still—it’s barely eleven, he doubts anybody else is retiring to bed this early except maybe Hanneman—and he’s hyper aware of the noise. From where he is, he can’t make out exactly what he’s being said—all he can hear are the voices, and he wonders with every fiber of his being what each of them thinks about him.

What was it he’d said to Bernadetta? About trying too hard to be liked? Ferdinand would laugh at the irony, if he wasn’t so annoyed at his own predictability, if he wasn’t so frustrated that he can’t just take criticism and let it bounce off him like so many other people can, if he wasn’t so angry that a production assistant he barely knows had the nerve to say something critical.

More than anything, he’s annoyed at himself. You really never change, do you, Ferdinand? his father says in his head.

No, he thinks in response, and drifts off eventually to a nightmare where he steps up on the arena stage to sing a Katy Perry song and collapses suddenly when he hears the first notes.

 

When he wakes up, he finds himself grabbing the nearest pencil and pen and scribbling down emotional depth.

Then he considers. He’d sung three songs so far in his time here—and he supposes all of them are love songs, but that’s not really saying much, because Ferdinand’s entire repertoire is love songs. All of the best songs on the planet are love songs. Hubert clearly doesn’t appreciate their emotional depth, if he thinks that Ferdinand is doing boring performances, because Ferdinand knows he’s getting across the right emotion.

Love songs, he writes down. And then lists the three songs—Somewhere Only We Know, Love Is A Battlefield, Always On My Mind—and stares at the list carefully.

It’s an interesting mix, but Ferdinand supposes that the first and third song share the theme of longing for a former love. He writes that down. The second song is about holding onto a crumbling love, he decides, and writes that down too, and it’s only then that he realises what Hubert clearly had earlier.

The songs are sad, sadder than Ferdinand had assumed. Even if they’re upbeat, he thinks, there’s a residual undercurrent of sadness, interwoven in the lyrics, and aside from the third song—which, really, wasn’t because of the lyrics but more because of the association—Ferdinand hadn’t tapped into any sadness.

The realisation doesn’t make him any less angry. He slams a hand on the desk in frustration. Behind him, Lorenz stirs, and mumbles, “What the fuck, dude?”

“Sorry,” says Ferdinand. He exhales. How could he possibly be so stupid? Because—yeah, he had been playing it safe, but he thought he was at least playing it safe and doing it well.

But he’s also angry at Hubert, is the thing. Because he was fine before Hubert had to slither in with his stupid sneer and ruin everything. Ferdinand’s confidence was a carefully placed house of cards, and Hubert had taken one shrivelled up vampiric hand and removed one from the bottom, and now it’s all collapsing and it’s his fault.

 

“Do you think I’m boring?” he asks Dorothea that afternoon.

“Well, I’ve never seen you perform,” she says logically. “Your audition song was boring, though. Cute, but boring.” She props herself up on her elbows and adds, “I don’t think being boring will affect you much, though. Because you’re inoffensive. It’s not like you’re boringly bad.”

Bernadetta says much the same thing when he asks her over the phone, though she also mentions that Linhardt thinks he’s boring.

Ferdinand doesn’t think he’s ever appreciated that infamy is better than obscurity more than he does now. He’s Ferdinand von Aegir. His whole life has been characterised by the desperate need to be liked. He’d thought that flying under the radar would be better than being disliked, but he almost wishes he could bring himself to be a bit more provocative with his song choice.

Of course, he is liked by the people in the house, but—that’s to be expected. He gets along best with Dorothea, of course, but also Marianne and Petra and Manuela and Mercedes and, in a strange gesture of ginger kinship, Sylvain. (“I’m so glad you’re in a group,” he tells Sylvain at one point, “so people don’t get us mixed up.”)

 

He has to meet with Seteth two weeks before the first live show, and when Seteth asks him what songs he’s thinking of choosing he comes up with a blank. He has no idea—the day before, he’d frantically looked through the approved song list and felt his head swimming as he tried to pick one.

“I don’t know,” he says finally, feeling very very stupid. “I guess I sort of want to do something outside the box, but I’m—nervous.” It’s a decent answer, he thinks. He has no idea if this meeting is being filmed, but if it is he might as well downplay himself. Maybe balancing out his talent with insecurity will work—it’s not like he’d have to reach very deep into himself to find it.

“How out of the box are you talking?” asks Seteth.

Ferdinand exhales. “I want something that I can really emotionally connect to,” he says. “Something with really strong emotions. I want people to see my performance and feel something.”

“It’s a good goal,” says Seteth. “When you perform, Ferdinand, I feel like you don’t connect so much with the audience as much as you connect with yourself. You need to be able to project your emotions so everyone can feel them.”

Ferdinand smiles politely, but secretly thinks well how on Earth am I supposed to do that? “Someone said to me that I’m boring when I sing,” he offers, and quietly hopes that this meeting isn’t filmed, because he doesn’t need Hubert knowing that what he said actually affected Ferdinand.

Seteth laughs at that. “Who said that?”

Ferdinand shrugs. “One of my friends from home.”

“I think you have a lot of potential,” Seteth says, which is about as helpful as saying I think you know how to sing. Ferdinand knows he has potential, he’s not stupid, he just wants to know what the hell he’s supposed to do to tap into it. “When you choose your song, try and find one that channels a certain emotion. And just put as much of that into it, so that the audience is forced to pay attention.”

 

He decides on his song pretty much the second he leaves.

It’s a good mix, he thinks, of sadness and anger and just the power he knows he can get across if he tries. He doesn’t know the song too well, but he has two weeks to refine it, so he’s not too worried.

He finds himself spending a lot of time practicing it, though. He avoids his actual room—out of fear of upsetting Lorenz, who sleeps till noon most days—and mostly just tries to find other rooms where he can sing without being interrupted, even though the acoustics are terrible and he’s pretty sure the mansion isn’t soundproofed. Technically, they can’t work on the performance with the backup singers or vocal coaches or properly prepare in designated studios until the start of next week, but Ferdinand knows he can’t possibly go in without at least knowing all the lyrics and having mastered the ability to smoothly transition between his chest voice and his head voice when he needs to.

Everyone else, he knows, will have selected their songs by now, and Ferdinand hears a few snaps of conversation. Annette and Mercedes, who have been officially renamed AM/PM on Byleth’s suggestion, are singing Tragedy. Dedue is signing Candle in the Wind. Lorenz is singing Love Yourself. He’s excited to see everyone’s performances, but honestly he’s mostly just a little exhilarated at the thought of pulling off his own with the intended effect.

Even if he’s never been more nervous in his whole life, and that includes his first solo on stage at the school Christmas concert in Year Nine.


Ferdinand is seventh in the performance order, following Catherine and followed by Lysithea. It’s not a very good place to be—people tend to the last few and the first few, so unless he really blows it out of the park he knows he’ll just fade into one of sixteen acts who, he knows, are just as good as him.

It’s a simple system—they do a full rehearsal and sound check with no judges or audience, get their hair and makeup touched up, do a little interview explaining their song choices, wait in the waiting room (which has a television showing exactly what the audience at home watching the live broadcast sees, but also has cameras ready to catch onto any provocative reactions), and watch the performances go by.

It means Ferdinand has to watch six acts go before him, and each time he sees one of them perform well his stomach churns deeper. At first, he means to just spend the time reviewing the lyrics in his head and running over exactly how he planned to perform, but he quickly realises that’s impossible. Ferdinand loves music, he loves watching people perform music, and, unfortunately for him, his colleagues vary from decent to fantastic. Dorothea goes third—she performs La Isla Bonita, and, to Ferdinand’s delight, the judges respond to it exactly how he had. (“I thought you were just another girl who can sing,” Rhea tells her, “but after that I think you’re someone who can perform as well.”)

Catherine had just begun her performance when he gets called to another room to get miked and get another touch-up. He doesn’t catch much of it, which he thinks is a bit of a relief, because he doesn’t know if he’s going to do better or worse than her. The interview video plays, and Ferdinand hears himself talk about how he wanted to show a more emotional side—he doesn’t even remember saying that, he’d been so clocked out—and then he’s being unceremoniously shoved onto stage in starting position.

Leonie is the producer nearest to him, and she gives him an encouraging smile.

And then the opening chords of Don’t Speak are playing, and Ferdinand can’t think about anything more than throwing himself headfirst into the lyrics. Even the instrumental break isn’t enough time to bring him down to earth, to try and catch the expressions on the judges’s face. He’s Ferdinand von Aegir—perfectionistic, focused, single-minded—and right now his mind is going am I still a pretty boy with no substance?

I don’t need your reasons, he sings. I know you’re good, I know you’re good, I know you’re real good, don’t tell me cause it hurts.

And then the song stops, and Ferdinand clocks back into reality—to the applause from the crowd, and—thankfully—from the judges.

“That was definitely different to what we’ve seen from you so far,” says Byleth. “I’m very impressed, Ferdinand.”

Seteth says similar, commenting about how he actually believed the emotion from him—finally, Ferdinand thinks—and Rhea praises him, but wonders if he might have done better sticking to something a bit more similar to his previous performances. “I just don’t really think the angry route is one you want to go on,” she says. “I think a lot of people are going to like you, Ferdinand, because you’re a nice guy and you’ve got a sweet voice, but I think you should pick an angle now and stick with it.”

“He’s got to be versatile, though,” says Seteth. “The people need to see that he can do more than just ballads and love songs.”

Gilbert says he doesn’t think it was the right song, but the crowd boos him, so Ferdinand tries not to let the criticism stick as he leaves the stage. He wishes he could wish Lysithea good luck before she goes on, but at the same time he doesn’t think she needs it.

He runs into Hubert on his way back to the waiting room, and he can’t help the rush that kicks into him. “How was that?” he says, half-yelling.

Hubert is distracted by something on his phone, carefully watching the stage from the wings. The opening chords of Bridge Over Troubled Water start to play. “I’m not your mentor,” he says. “If you want compliments, ask him.”

“But I’m asking you,” says Ferdinand. He doesn’t take his eyes off Hubert, and when Hubert finally looks up and makes eye contact with him he counts it as a victory.

“It’s the best one you’ve done yet,” he says finally. “But it’s still not particularly great.” And that’s all he says.

Ferdinand wishes he could somehow justify the boost that the comment gives him, the drive that sparks in him to perform something that is particularly great. To prove Hubert wrong. To prove everyone wrong, because he knows logically that Hubert can’t possibly be the only person who thinks that way.

 

@j4kedays: How is #XFactor still running? Doesn’t Rhea Seiros have enough money to build a house out of it now?

@katieieie: dorothea arnault….i’m gay #XFactor

@bernievarley: vote for ferdinand! #XFactor

@BylethEisnerUK: Byleth watching Lysithea Ordelia perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’! Is everyone watching #XFactor live now on ITV?

@jackie1986: Why on Earth is this man on #XFactor singing ‘Ice Ice Baby’?

@Molly12345: aye this is the most boring season of #XFactor yet none of these cunts can sing n av fallen asleep listening that fella singing love yourself

@kyliepetersx: why tf did Hilda and Marianne audition as a duo when Hilda is clearly 300% more confident than Marianne...should’ve just gone solo luv x #XFactor

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the first live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!

@stantwice: next week’s #XFactor theme is “musical icons”...if they don’t do twice they’re cancelled [jihyo fancy fancam.mp4]

 

Ferdinand comes fourth for the first episode result.

He supposes it could be better, but he’s not annoyed by it. Lysithea comes first, followed by Dorothea, followed by Dedue, so he’s among good company, and Dorothea cheers especially loud when his name is called as someone who’s safe.

The bottom three are Alois, Hanneman, and Shamir. Ferdinand barely pays attention to their sing-off, but it’s Shamir who’s safe by the end of the day. They’re down to fourteen acts, now, and, once again, Ferdinand actually feels like he has a shot. There’s no way he could’ve competed with a song like Bridge Over Troubled Water or Candle In The Wind—they’re surefire ways to get the British public to listen—and Dorothea is fated for success no matter where she places, so he can’t possibly be annoyed at his ranking.

There’s still the little competitive streak, of course, the little drive to force himself—his trademark trying too hard to be liked thing, except he thinks that maybe that might actually be a good thing, because he needs to convince everyone who could be convinced—even his harshest critic—to see him clearly. As a performer—no, as a winner. As someone who can succeed.

Most importantly, though, he has to win over Hubert. Because he doesn’t know if he could possibly find a harsher critic than Hubert, who has some kind of grudge against him, has probably seen even more performances from X Factor hopefuls than Ferdinand did in his preparation stage, who is probably the most miserable man in Britain, and who is quite possibly a vampire.

Easy, Ferdinand thinks. He’s got at least ten more weeks here. He’ll win over Hubert, the rest of Britain, and his very own father in no time.

 

“How do you define musical icon?” Sylvain asks the next day.

Technically, they should be working on their songs for next week, but the performance isn’t until Saturday, and Ferdinand doesn’t think anyone’s competitive instinct has really kicked in yet. Hence, easy conversation about next week’s theme instead of actually preparing for the theme.

He’s running over a few songs in his head, careful about who he chooses. It’s fine to overshoot, but he’s careful to narrow his choices to people who aren’t too controversial, people who everyone can agree had an impact—choices that won’t make people question who Ferdinand is.

He’d called Bernadetta earlier, and she’d read out his portion of an article reviewing each of the first live show performances. It’s not critical, but it isn’t glowing either—he still thanks her, though, especially when she says herself that she loved his performance.

The thing is that Ferdinand doesn’t know how he’s being received by the rest of the world—Bernadetta is great, of course, but they only have half an hour to talk and he doesn’t want to waste it by making her hunt down every mention of him on every social media. For all he knows, he could get away with something a little more out there, but he desperately doesn’t want to risk it.

“Someone who’s sold a bunch of records,” Dorothea suggests.

“I was thinking someone who’s, like, a household name?” says Hilda.

“Guys, we need to dance more this week,” says Ingrid. Ferdinand assumes this is just a comment to the three boys she’s in a group with (a group which had unceremoniously been renamed “Blue Lions”). Their performance last week had been good, and Ferdinand had been impressed by the fact that Ingrid being the only girl didn’t even stand out, but the judges had called them out for just standing in front of a microphone and singing.

Ferdinand doesn’t think that’s very fair, because all he’d done was pace with a microphone and sing, but X Factor judges don’t tend to be the most rational people on the planet.

“What are you thinking?” Dorothea asks, passing him a water bottle. He gratefully accepts it. “I’m thinking I should have saved Madonna for this week, because I don’t think there’s anyone in pop music more iconic. At least out of the women.”

“Don’t worry,” says Ferdinand. “Someone will do a Madonna song.”

“You should,” says Dorothea. “If there’s a man in the world I’d trust to do it without fucking it up, it’d be you.”

He laughs. “Doubt it,” he says. “It’s a bit early in the show to be pushing boundaries.”

“You sang a song written by a woman in the six chair challenge,” Dorothea points out. “I heard from Claude.”

“You know it’s not the same thing,” Ferdinand says, and Dorothea nods, because she does know. If Ferdinand can hold onto his spot for a few weeks—then he thinks he can stop playing it safe.

“I think Dedue is doing Elvis,” she says. “And Annette and Mercedes said something about doing Whitney.” It’s not against the rules to sing the same artist, but it is pretty classless. “I hate musical icon week. It’s practically impossible to surprise the judges, there’s like five people to choose from, and there’s no Beatles songs on the approved song list.”

Ferdinand hadn’t noticed. “Guess that means we’re getting a Beatles week,” he says. Dorothea grimaces at the thought.

 

In the end, he decides on Heroes.

In some ways, he supposes, it’s a little bit perfect. David Bowie was outlandish, and had a unique public image, but he was still straight. Ferdinand isn’t necessarily trying to shove himself back in the closet, but he has to admit even to himself that it makes things a bit more convenient.

In some ways, though, it’s a ridiculous choice. Heroes isn’t an easy song to sing, as Ferdinand realises the more he finds himself going flat on I will be king. Still, he thinks, if he can think of a sincere sounding reason why he’d insisted on the song and hope that some of this Ferdinand-struggles-to-sing footage makes it into the episode to prop up his Ferdinand-grows-before-your-eyes narrative.

Hubert is watching when Ferdinand gets through his third (non-consecutive) successful run. The cameraperson has clearly taken a break, because the camera is still there but they’re no longer manning it, and Ferdinand can tell it’s not on.

“So?” Ferdinand asks before he can stop himself, because singing is exhausting and he’s exhausted and that sort of kills his brain to mouth filter. “Are you going for pretty boy learning how to have substance, or pretty boy in over his head?”

“I think if you need to ask then you’re doing something wrong,” says Hubert. “Don’t think Bowie ever asked his producers what direction they were going for. I think he just decided and they went along with it.”

“Kind of hard to do that when I’ve signed a contract saying you can do whatever you want,” says Ferdinand.

“Not me,” says Hubert. “The ITV producers.”

Ferdinand shrugs. “Do you think you could just leave?” he asks, and he doesn’t mean for it to sound so curt but, well, if the shoe fits.

“Can’t,” he says. “I’m watching the camera. Making sure you don’t smash it.”

“Do I look like someone who would smash a camera?” asks Ferdinand. He wants to practice, but he can’t—not with Hubert’s pale eyes watching his every move. “Seriously, can you just—wear earplugs or something?”

“You’re competing to become a celebrity,” Hubert points out.

“Look, I get the first time,” says Ferdinand. “But I truly did not ask for your advice this time.”

“I think you’re always asking for advice,” says Hubert, and Ferdinand has to look away because it’s true. “Advice and opinions.” It’s like those pale green eyes manage to look right through Ferdinand, to the blood and guts and the soul below, and Ferdinand hates him for it. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is about as easy to read as an open book, but that doesn’t mean Hubert—or anyone—has the right to make him feel bad for that.

“Fuck you,” he says finally, and only regrets it a little bit once it comes out. He doesn’t swear, not generally—it’s unbecoming and uncouth, and he’d never picked up the habit as a teenager because he was always worried that a teacher would overhear it—but he’s furious now, furious that Hubert thinks he has a right to say those things to him, that he thinks he knows Ferdinand at all.

Hubert only raises an eyebrow, and Ferdinand hates him with every fiber of his being. “You know I’m the producer, right?”

Ferdinand doesn’t think Hubert is going to follow up on that threat—actually, he knows that Hubert won’t, even though he has no concrete reason to trust him. “It’s not you controlling the narrative,” he says finally. “It’s the producers at ITV.”

Then he walks out, and decides to find somewhere else to practice, even if it means there’ll be no footage when he finally triumphantly masters the song.

 

It’s a mistake, though, and Ferdinand knows it. He’s third today, which is somehow even more nerve-wracking than going in the middle, because he knows it’ll be before the audience starts to get bored.

And he can sing the song. He’s got it mastered. But he knows he’s doing it wrong—the song is too raw, too strong. The emotions are somewhere between hope and sadness—there’s grief in it, too, and Ferdinand knows grief, but there’s also hope and love, and Ferdinand is finding it hard to muster any kind of positive emotion right now, even after he’d spent the last three days running through the song over and over and over again.

The fact that he’s done it before so many times energises him, though, and when he steps out on the stage he realises he isn’t nervous about messing it up or going flat. But he knows he isn’t fully lost in the song, because he’s hyper-aware of the audience and the judges and his co-competitors in the waiting room watching and people like Hubert watching and waiting for some criticism they can make.

Is it his imagination, or is the applause just slightly more muted this time? Somehow, he doesn’t think it’s that. He’d only performed to an audience which applauded him twice now, but it’s enough to get him addicted, fine-tuned to the sound in the way that only someone who had been applauded before would be. He knows before he’s even done that the performance isn’t good. It’s not bad, either—it just floats a miserable middle ground where it’s inoffensive, but uninteresting.

The judges say as much, as well. Ferdinand doesn’t think he did badly enough to end up in the bottom three, but he doesn’t think he’ll be in the top seven either, and that’s something he’s resigned to, so he doesn’t even seek out Hubert when he walks off the stage and back to the waiting room in time for Claude’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

“The judges weren’t fair to you,” Marianne whispers to him. “I thought you were good.”

“No, they were right,” Ferdinand says. “But it’s sweet of you to say otherwise.”

 

@MarthaKing75: The young man on #XFactor singing Bowie should have picked a better song...I’m disappointed

@katieparkerrrrr: Is Ferdinand on #XFactor trying to bore the hell out of me? Because it’s working #ferdinandyawnaegir

@bernievarley: vote for ferdinand! #XFactor
@linhardthevring:@bernievarley I’M not even voting for ferdinand and i live with him

@Mumjackie: The worst theme on #XFactor is the musical icon theme - you end up with a bunch of twentysomethings acting like they’ve just been the first people to discover Cher - disappointing!

@blaiddyde: i’m officially a blue lions stan...that uptown girl cover was *chef’s kiss* #XFactor

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the second live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!

 

Ferdinand comes eighth, and wanders over to the safe couch a little aimlessly to watch the bottom six be called out.

The bottom three are Catherine, Lorenz, and Shamir again. He actually pays attention to the sing-off this time, figuring that if he has another lousy performance that will probably be him next week, and he might as well take notes from whatever Lorenz did well with his Maroon 5 cover. (Personally, Ferdinand thinks Shamir did better, but what can he say. He’s not an internationally famous entertainment manager, nor is he a country singer as rich as he is irritating.)

“It’s fine,” Dorothea says to him the next day. “Everyone has their bad performances. You’ve just got to do better next week.”

“I don’t think I can,” Ferdinand says. Next week’s theme is guilty pleasures, and that’s a whole kettle of fish he doesn’t even want to go near.

“You’re not going home just yet,” says Dorothea. “You’re the only one of these assholes who really gets me, and if we’re so alike that must mean you’re doing something right.”

“Humble of you,” says Ferdinand. Dorothea hums in response. “Any idea what you’re going to sing?”

“Well, One Way or Another is my go-to karaoke song,” she says. “So it’s got to be that, even though I’m not sure it really counts as guilty.”

 

The problem with this theme, Ferdinand soon realises, is that in order for him to feel guilty enjoying a song, it has to be out there. Something he could feasibly feel bad for enjoying.

But all of the things that first come to his head—bubblegum pop, or cheesy one hit wonders, flamboyant synthpop numbers—just aren’t right, and he knows it. And he hates himself for it, because this should be easy—Ferdinand loves karaoke! Karaoke is just sing your guilty pleasure song when you get drunk enough!—but he just thinks about the possibility that he might lose, or that his father might decide to watch this episode, and he loses his nerve.

“I know you can’t talk about song choices,” Bernadetta says, “but Caspar is here and he says you should do I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt.”

“Absolutely not,” says Ferdinand. “My dignity is still intact.” He hears the sound of Bernadetta relating this, and a voice that he knows is Linhardt asking What dignity? “And tell Linhardt he’s not funny in the slightest.”

“Your performance last week wasn’t bad,” Bernadetta says, and Ferdinand exhales. “I know you’ll be beating yourself up over it, but—it wasn’t bad.”

“Thanks, Bernie,” says Ferdinand. “I—” He eyes Ashe, who’s standing there bored on standby in case Ferdinand decides to spoil anything. “I don’t really know how to talk when I’m not technically allowed to talk about the show. But things are hard, and I’m nervous.” Bernadetta sighs sympathetically. “Also, one of the producers definitely hates me.”

Bernadetta laughs. “God, Ferdinand, how did you get the producer to hate you?” she asks. “That’s like—the one person you don’t want to piss off.”

“He’s awful,” says Ferdinand, and he sees Ashe’s mouth whirl upwards. “He just has it out for me. Says I’m boring and repetitive and I try too hard to be liked.”

“Maybe you’re just offended because you think he’s right,” Bernadetta says.

“Oh, I know he’s right,” says Ferdinand. “I’m just angry he thinks he has a right to say it out loud.” Ashe definitely laughs this time—he masks it with a cough.

Ferdinand hears a scuffle when Caspar grabs the phone off Bernadetta. “I have three words for you, Ferdinand,” he says, over the sound of Bernadetta’s chastising in the background. “Mambo. Number. Five.”

“I’m hanging up the phone now,” says Ferdinand. “Thank you, Caspar, for your help.”

“Bye!” says Caspar brightly. “Good luck!”

Ferdinand hangs up, and exhales deeply. Ashe clears his throat. “Oh, sorry,” he says, and hands the phone back to him.

“I wasn’t listening to your conversation,” Ashe says in response. “But Hubert is just like that, and you shouldn’t let it bother you.”

Ferdinand blinks at him. “Thanks,” he says finally. “I suppose.”

 

When he gets back to the living room, he realises that pretty much everyone is trading ideas for guilty pleasure songs.

“If any of you sings Don’t Stop Believing I’ll snap your neck personally,” says Felix from somewhere in the back, holding what looks like two stacks worth of sheet music.

“Let’s do a country song,” Dimitri says. “Maybe that’ll finally get Gilbert to say something nice to us.”

“We should do Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Hilda says to Marianne.

No,” says Marianne. “There’s no way I could pull that off.”

“What are you doing?” Ferdinand asks Claude, who’s closest to him.

“Not sure yet,” says Claude. “But it’s gotta be something ridiculous, right? I mean, it’s guilty pleasures week. If there’s any opportunity we get to do something ridiculous, it’ll be this week.”

Ferdinand hums. “I guess I just don’t tend to veer towards wanting to do things that are ridiculous,” he says.

“You play piano?” asks Claude. Ferdinand nods, taken aback by the question. “Do A Thousand Miles. I can’t play piano, so I had to throw it out.”

“You were considering it?” Ferdinand asks blankly.

“Don’t think you have enough appreciation for the multitudes I encompass,” Claude says, waving his own stack of sheet music at him as he walks off. The first song is That Don’t Impress Me Much. Ferdinand would laugh if he wasn’t so intimidated.

Still, he finds himself heading off to practice the piano for it anyway once he finds the sheet music. It’s an idea, he thinks, in case he doesn’t think of anything else.

Of course, when he walks into the room with the piano—or, rather, the keyboard—he finds Hubert and Edelgard, heads close, in quiet conversation. Ferdinand eyes their closeness, their whispered voices, their mirroring body language, thinks huh, I didn’t realize Hubert was capable of love, and walks out to try and find another song.

 

“Are Depeche Mode a guilty pleasure?” he asks Dorothea.

“No,” she says. “But neither are Blondie.”

It’s Wednesday—they’re due to meet their mentors about Saturday’s performance tomorrow—and Ferdinand is stuck. He flicks through the list of approved songs again, and feels like his eyes are blurring them all together.

“I have no idea what I’m doing on Saturday,” he tells her, stopping and pausing on Grace Kelly. It’s a good song, he knows he could pull it off—but there’s something a little too close to home in an upbeat pop song about a man absolutely desperate to be liked, and Ferdinand isn’t sure he could really tap into that yet. There’s just far too much to unpack.

“Nobody else is doing ABBA,” says Dorothea. “Just do Does Your Mother Know or something. The middle-age demographic fucking love ABBA.”

So he prepares an ABBA song—not Does Your Mother Know, because that’s far too aggressively heterosexual, but Waterloo, which he supposes is relatively out there for a guy to sing but is also a good song—and silently mourns the Personal Jesus performance he knows he could have blown it out of the park with. But Claude was right—he needs to be doing something slightly outlandish for guilty pleasures week, and his fear of outing himself or embarrassing his estranged father needs to come second.

“I think it’s a good choice,” says Seteth on Thursday. “People haven’t really seen you do a pop song yet.” He caps his pen. “It needs polishing, of course, but I have no doubt that by Saturday it’ll be more than ready for people to see.”

“Why didn’t you tell me my performance last week was bad?” Ferdinand blurts out.

Seteth is quiet. “You were better in the rehearsal,” he says. Ferdinand compares that with his mental timeline, and realises that it had all gone downhill after he’d spoken to Hubert, because it had been practically impossible to feel hopeful after being read so perfectly by someone he barely knew and who was also most likely a vampire.

“You’re good, kid,” he adds, and Ferdinand snaps to attention. “But you’re too worried about looking stupid to do anything outside the box, and until you unlock that then you’re not going to reach your full potential. Nobody watching the show is going to think you look stupid for singing a song.”

My father would, he thinks, but instead says, “Maybe next week, Seteth.”

Here’s the thing—everyone knows that sad backstories sell on TV shows like this. But there’s a difference between my mum died when I was a kid and my father doesn’t talk to me anymore and I don’t remember anymore if it’s because I’m not straight or because I’m not midway through a training contract at a law firm.

One of them is a story people know, is sweet—it triggers the pang in people’s heart at the image of a little red headed boy who loves singing losing his mother. There’s no way to villainize an eight-year-old whose mother has just died.

The other—well, it’s a bit more complicated, because if half the people watching would feel sorry for him, the other half would first think oh, what did he do to make his father hate him so much?

It’s a bit more of a mixed bag, and Ferdinand’s goal is to be as inoffensive as possible, so he hasn’t even implied it to anyone else for fear of it getting out. The only person who might know is Ashe, who sits in the room with him when he makes his weekly phone calls to Bernadetta, and who probably has wondered why Ferdinand calls one of his friends and not a family member.

But—it’s not like Ferdinand is desperate to tell anyone who will listen about his home life, so it doesn’t really matter.

Really. It doesn’t.

 

He knows halfway through his performance that it’s a good one.

Seteth had been right—he hasn’t done enough pop songs on the show, and that’s a major oversight on his part. The show is about becoming a pop star, after all—or, he supposes he could go for that singer-songwriter angle, but that’s boring even for Ferdinand, who has calculated every step he made on this show to the point where he knows he’s boring the hell out of everyone.

But this performance is good. It’s upbeat, and fun, and he’s vaguely aware of the audience cheering even before the song ends. He’s not fully lost in it, hasn’t really managed to tap into the inherent sadness of the lyrics, but he’s more focused on trying to have fun. Not too much fun, of course—controlled fun. Polished fun.

But for once, none of the judges have anything negative to say. Well—Rhea makes a comment about how she doesn’t understand the direction he’s going in, but also says that she likes what he did today, so he doesn’t really count it as negative. Even Gilbert says that it was the performance with the most personality that he’s done so far, and so he’s practically buzzing when he walks off stage—

—and instantly runs into Hubert, because the universe apparently decided that he doesn’t have a right to have one nice day. Or even a nice hour.

“Hi,” he says curtly. The video preceding Petra’s performance plays in the background. “Are you going to tell me your thoughts?”

“Not if you don’t ask me for them,” Hubert says.

Ferdinand swallows. “Well,” he says, and then, before he can second-guess himself, says, “Well, I’m asking.”

“The emotional connection is still off,” Hubert says, and Ferdinand huffs to himself, because it was like the man was allergic to compliments— “But it was a good performance. I liked your energy. I felt like I was finally seeing something which was close to what you’re like off-stage.”

“Which is?” Ferdinand asks, though he’s not totally sure he wants to hear the answer.

“I think you’re a people-pleaser with far too much energy,” says Hubert, “who thinks he’s far funnier than he is, who wants nothing more than to be liked, and who thinks he can manufacture a rags to riches story even though he went to LSE.”

“I’m not going for rags to riches,” says Ferdinand. “Just some kind of improvement narrative.”

Hubert shakes slightly, and—Jesus Christ, was he laughing? Before Ferdinand can be offended, he stops, shakes his head, and says, “You interrupted me. I think you’re all of those things, and yet—strangely endearing. Charming.”

Ferdinand can’t help the blush that rushes to his cheek, and for a moment his legs feel rooted to the floor. Love me, love me, say that you love me, Petra sings on stage, and for a brief moment Ferdinand feels a pang if something he can’t quite place.

It’s vindication, he decides. Delight that he’d finally managed to get Hubert to say something to him that wasn’t cutting and cold. He smiles at Hubert, says “Thank you” in a tone he hopes doesn’t sound too sycophantic, and walks off to the waiting room with a newfound spring in his step.

 

@lisapaul2626: Ferdinand’s performances on #XFactor…[does anyone else get a little bit of a gay vibe?.gif]

@bernievarley: vote for ferdinand! #XFactor
@linhardthevring: @bernievarley you have like 17 followers WHO are you talking to #ferdinandyawnaegir
@bernievarley: i don’t think “making linhardt bored” should be something that counts against ferdinand considering you are literally. always. bored.

@taylorxcx: my #XFactor top 5: dorothea, petra, am/pm, hilda&marianne, blue lions (ingrid should go solo tho) all the guys are boring af

@JennyLocke ✓: Ferdinand on #XFactor is asking the groundbreaking question: what would a ginger Shawn Mendes be like? It’s like he’s forgotten that that already exists, and it’s called Ed Sheeran

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the third live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!
@BYLETHFANSFR: @RheaSeiros do you just copy and paste the same tweet every week?
@BYLETHFANSFR: @RheaSeiros also flop stan byleth

 

Ferdinand doesn’t end up quite as safe as he’d hoped—eighth, out of the twelve acts remaining, is a worry even for him. Today isn’t a double elimination week, so there’s only two people called out to sing against each other—Lorenz again, and Manuela.

Lorenz ends up being eliminated. Ferdinand feels a little bad for him, but despite sharing a room they’ve barely managed to bond over more than a shared enjoyment of various flavours of tea. Also, it means he now has his own room, so he can wake up at six in the morning and fume about not being taken seriously as an artist without worrying about waking Lorenz, so he thinks it sort of cancels out.

Besides, there’s a bigger issue than Lorenz being eliminated. The theme for week four is disco, and Ferdinand thinks, if possible, this might be worse than guilty pleasures. At least the definition of guilty pleasure is broad enough that you could edge just enough out of your comfort zone before it got too much. Disco was inherently loud, inherently opulent, inherently in your face in a way that Ferdinand doesn’t want to be.

Or, no. He thinks he’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t that he doesn’t want to be, but that he doesn’t know how. He can’t possibly pull it off. He wants to be so many things at once that he’s realised that he’s actually absolutely nothing, and that realisation might be the worst thing he’s ever realized in his entire life.

At least some of the others seem to be struggling, as well. Manuela tells him about how her father had put a ban on disco in the house back in the seventies, and how she now finds she has absolutely no connection to the genre. Dedue, whose powerful baritone is certainly his greatest weapon, confesses that he’s worried about singing in a genre where the music itself overtakes anything he could possibly do with his voice.

Plus, there’s dissent growing behind the scenes, too. Claude walks in on Monday morning and announces that he’s doing Billie Jean—Felix at the back of the room responds, “Well, that’s awkward, because we just decided on Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” And neither of them had even made any move to stop standing their ground, even when Ferdinand overheard Dimitri quietly saying Felix, maybe we should pick something else.

So disco week has everyone on edge—even Dorothea, who never seems nervous, because she’s chosen Heart of Glass but is now worrying that she’s not doing herself any favours doing the same artist twice.

Ferdinand has settled on How Deep Is Your Love—it was close enough to his usual fare that he isn’t totally worried about it, but he knows it’s boring. He knows it. No amount of successful Barry Gibb-style falsettos will stop it from being a boring song choice—and the fact that he knows he’s the only male singer in the competition who can properly pull them off isn’t going to do him any favours. It doesn’t feel fair, but then again it is a competition.

And, he supposes, he can’t think of any other song to sing. He sings a few bars of Night Fever with Dorothea—night fever, night fever, we know how it—but he doesn’t think he’s going to go on and sing it either.

To make matters worse, he’s second-to-last, which would be fine—fine! Except he’s also singing a ballad, and he’s almost at the end of the show, and he knows—knows that he’s going to fly under the radar, especially when he watches Annette and Mercedes bring the house down with their cheery, impossibly fun It’s Raining Men.

“You okay?” Dedue asks Ferdinand in his strong, firm tone. Ferdinand shrugs—he’s fine, he supposes, but he doesn’t think he’s going to do well, either. And then—and then everything is going to come crashing down, and it’s all the damn ITV executives’s fault.

“What are you singing?” he asks instead of answering, because if he can just get some conversation running he could probably calm down. In the background, Petra performs Upside Down on the television.

September,” says Dedue. Ferdinand nods—it’s a good choice, actually, and he doesn’t doubt that Dedue will pull it off.

Nothing crazy happens backstage, aside from a lot of pacing up and down by pretty much anybody who isn’t Lysithea (who does I Will Survive, and predictably knocks it out of the park), and Claude’s delight at the fact that the Blue Lions draw going last.

And then Ferdinand is up. And he knows deep inside him that today is not going to work out for him, but he steels himself and walks on and gets into position while his introductory video plays.

He has to do well. Regardless of how he’s going to perform in the ranking, he has to do well, and he knows he can do well. It’s a love song—it’s Ferdinand’s trademark, it’s what he used to waltz into the top sixteen in the first place.

I’m going to lose before I can prove Hubert wrong, he thinks mockingly to himself, and then the opening chords start playing and the lights go up and he starts to sing.

 

Predictably, the judges all say that he’s doing the same thing he’s done every week, and that he hasn’t done enough with the theme, and that they had hoped he would take the opportunity to be more creative and show a new side of him.

Ferdinand barely hears it. He knows that, if he had done that in his audition, if he had done that in an earlier round, he would have blown everyone away—hell, even if he had done it earlier in the night. It was a good performance, he thinks, and for the first time he’s stung by what the judges are saying because he doesn’t think they’re being fair.

But he accepts the criticism mutely and walks off, lets the sound team fuss around with his microphone and takes a few moments to steel himself before he knows he’ll have to face Hubert. And Hubert couldn’t possibly know that he’d been hurt by the criticism.

“Thoughts?” he asks when he finally emerges what feels like an eternity later, but that must have only been a few seconds, because the Blue Lions hadn’t even started performing yet. Hubert is silent for a moment, and Ferdinand feels whatever he’s been feeling rise up and threaten to spill. “Let me guess, you thought it was boring and awful and mediocre and you can’t stand me?” It’s bitter and cutting in a way Ferdinand hadn’t necessarily intended for, but he supposes the dam has broken. “That’s what you were going to say, right?”

Hubert clears his throat. “Actually,” he says quietly, “I thought you were good. I thought it was—moving.”

Ferdinand blinks. “Moving?”

“Yes,” says Hubert. He distinctly isn’t looking at Ferdinand, and that’s how Ferdinand knows Hubert is telling the truth. “It was your usual fare, of course, but for once I felt like I could connect to you.”

Ferdinand laughs hollowly. Hubert frowns at him. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” he says. “Just—” He thinks about telling Hubert how much he’d been driven by desperate longing to prove him wrong at any cost, but decides against it. “I’m going to go home tomorrow.”

“No,” says Hubert. “At worst, you’ll be in the bottom two. That means there needs to be a sing-off, and it’ll all be down to that.”

And Ferdinand hears what Hubert is saying—go home and prepare a second song that’s so good people have to stop and listen. “Thank you,” he says quietly, and then he walks away.

 

@kathypirece: if i wanted to watch white people do bad covers of disco songs, all of glee is on netflix #XFactor

@lovermp3: dorothea is Main Pop Girl Material! vote for dorothea to keep the mutual #XFactor

@casparbergliez: bernadetta has a meeting with her publisher but she wanted me to pass on the message to vote for ferdinand yawn aegir #XFactor

@Jesssssssss_: Okay maybe it’s just because I think he’s fit but I don’t even think Ferdinand’s performance was bad tbvh

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the fourth live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!
@BYLETHFANSFR: @RheaSeiros i stg this bitch is just copy pasting the same tweet

@reveIuvcafe: #XFactor [seulgi bad boy fancam.mp4]

 

Ferdinand is in the bottom two.

He’d been expecting it, of course, had been up all night preparing on his performance for the sing-off, but it still stings for him to take his place next to Manuela and be told that he has a few minutes to decide what he’s going to perform.

He already knows, of course. He’s doing River Deep, Mountain High, another song he remembers hearing from his mother, and it’s such an unexpected choice for him that even he didn’t expect it, and he’s the singer. But he thinks he has it—even with the key change, it’s given him room for lots of vocal showing-off, plus it’s an unexpected genre and hopefully not something the judges have heard a thousand times before.

Mostly, though, he just feels confident. Not confident in that he thinks he’s going to win, but confident in that he’s happy with what he’s going to perform, and even if he goes home he’ll be satisfied with what he’s done.

Manuela sings Because of You, and Ferdinand applauds her at the end because it was a damn good performance, and then it’s his turn and he steps up on the stage as the first chords start to play.

He’d deliberated, over the last twelve hours, whether he should change the pronouns. He’d decided five minutes ago that he wasn’t going to.

When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll,” he begins, and lets himself get lost in the music, and—for what feels like the first time in forever—simply lets himself enjoy what he’s doing, and hopes that’s enough.

If I lost you, would I cry,” he sings in the final chorus, and makes eye contact with Dorothea over on the winner’s side of the stage. She grins at him, and claps, and he grins, too. “Oh, how I love you baby, baby baby baby.”

He makes it through to next week. He tries to feel bad for Manuela, of course, but he’s also ecstatic—and, at the same time, struck by exactly what this success means. He’d gone outside the box, he’d done something wild and uncalculated, and it had worked.

 

He doesn’t think he’s done anything crazy when it comes to his public performances since he was still in school, but he takes a look at the week five theme—fright night, because it’s the last Saturday of October—and thinks what’s the perfect thing for me to do?

He’s up at six in the morning on Monday morning, rendered unable to sleep from the adrenaline that still feels like it’s coursing through his veins. He assumes that nobody else will be awake, but he’s wrong, because he comes across Hubert sitting at the kitchen table furiously typing something up on his laptop.

He smiles warily, but Hubert doesn’t even seem aware he’s there, so he steps in front of him to grab an apple and turn the kettle on. There’s a silence, broken only by the sound of the water bubbling in the kettle, and Ferdinand shifts awkwardly on his feet, unwilling to disturb Hubert’s work but uncomfortable with long stretches of silence.

Finally, once the kettle is boiled, he clears his throat and says, “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

Hubert looks up, startled, as if he’d just noticed Ferdinand was there. “No,” he says, sounding weary, “but if you could get me some coffee that would be good.”

Ferdinand quietly takes two mugs out of the cupboard, and reaches up to grab a teabag and the tub of instant coffee. He notices a mug next to Hubert, and asks, “How much coffee have you already had?”

Hubert smiles wryly. “Not enough for it to start working,” he says.

Ferdinand pours the boiling water into two mugs, slightly concerned he may be furthering a caffeine addiction, and asks, “Any milk?” Hubert shakes his head, and Ferdinand pulls a face. He assumes Hubert wouldn’t see it, but Hubert lets out what certainly has to be a little laugh. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” says Hubert, and perhaps it’s that Ferdinand is too tired to tell or perhaps it’s because Hubert is too tired to be a bastard, but he sounds almost fond. Or—maybe not fond, but certainly a lot softer around the edges than Ferdinand has associated with him. He settles the mug of black coffee next to his laptop, replacing the old mug out of habit. “I could say the same about your tea.”

“Well, this isn’t necessarily a good brand of tea,” says Ferdinand, letting the tea bag brew in the water before he takes it out.

“All tea is awful,” says Hubert. “It’s just water that has had leaves soaked in it.”

Ferdinand mock-gasps. “Sacrilege,” he says.

Hubert shrugs, the ghost of a smile on his mouth, and Ferdinand is suddenly struck by the desire to make him smile more, to see his proper smile. It has to exist, he thinks. Even someone like Hubert must have a smile. He wonders what would be enough to make it appear—if he ever smiles at well-timed jokes, or watching a particularly good performance, or when whatever he spends the early hours of the morning typing away at comes to fruition. He wonders if Hubert smiles more around Edelgard.

Suddenly, Hubert shuts his laptop, and Ferdinand realises he must have downed the whole mug of coffee already without Ferdinand even noticing. “I’m not going to get much more done until later,” he says, sounding guilty and a little irritated by his own limits. “Thanks for the coffee, Ferdinand.”

Then he disappears, and Ferdinand is left to wonder if this Hubert—this softer, quieter Hubert—is real or just an illusion.

(Not that Hubert is generally a loud person, but Ferdinand’s emotions when he sees him tend to be—inescapable anger or irritation, or sadness at not being taken seriously. But now—Ferdinand doesn’t know what changed.)

 

There’s a buzz in the house that there hasn’t been since musical icons week, and it’s only slightly spurned by the fact that the theme is far less restrictive. There was no real expectations as such—all they had to do was wear a Halloween costume and maybe sing something a little creepy. The discord between Claude and the Blue Lions seemed to have calmed down a little, too, but Ferdinand has a feeling Claude is just biding his time until the competition gets a little smaller to strike.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Dorothea asks in the kitchen. She’s picking strawberries out of a plastic tub, sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar, and she beckons for Ferdinand to sit next to her.

“Honestly,” says Ferdinand, “I might just shake it up and do something from Phantom.”

Dorothea snorts. “Really?”

“No,” says Ferdinand. “I couldn’t.” He picks a strawberry out of the tub. “I was in Phantom at uni,” he adds. “I played Raoul.”

“Oh, of course you did, Ferdie,” says Dorothea. The nickname makes him pause, and she notices, because she adds, “Was that okay? I normally give people nicknames—”

“It’s fine,” says Ferdinand, because it is. Even though they’re competitors, he and Dorothea are becoming friends, he thinks, and he wants Dorothea to go ahead and win the whole thing. He almost says that the only other person to call him that was his mum, when she was alive, but decides against it.

She smiles. “I was going to be Christine,” she admits. “At school. But the musical got cancelled like, two weeks before we went on? because the girl who was playing Carlotta was dating the guy playing the Phantom, and then they broke up, and she refused to go on stage with him, and we couldn’t find anyone on short notice.”

Theatre kids,” says Ferdinand.

“I’ll drink to that,” says Dorothea. She holds up a strawberry, and Ferdinand knocks one against it like they’re champagne flutes instead of fruit. “Soon enough, we will actually be drinking champagne out of those fancy little glasses together. I’m speaking it into existence. People would have to be stupid not to vote you into the top three after Sunday.”

“What are you thinking?” he asks her, instead of acknowledging what she’d said. It still feels a little overwhelming, and terrifying, and Ferdinand still sort of wishes he’d decided to laugh in his father’s face and carry on with what he’d been doing.

Rhiannon,” says Dorothea. Ferdinand nods. “I think I can pull off witch chic, don’t you?”

“It’s a great choice,” he says honestly, and then, before his judgment can stop him, blurts out, “I hope you win.”

“The challenge?” she asks.

“No,” says Ferdinand. “The whole thing.”

She frowns at him. “Shouldn’t you be rooting for yourself?”

Ferdinand hesitates, and, before he can make a fool of himself, decides not to relate the whole miserable story of how he ended up on the show which is the very tumor growing on the British music industry. “If I don’t win,” he says finally, and flashes a charming smile, and if anything it seems to convince Dorothea.

 

Here is the thing—any kind of semi-ironic appreciation for reality television fades away when someone suggests you should sign up.

For Ferdinand, at least, who has definitely worked on his snobbish tendencies ever since leaving school but who still can’t quite shake the idea of dignity as something he should have and entertainment that isn’t mindless as something he should provide.

“This is what people your age like to do, isn’t it?” his father had asked, practically shoving the audition information into his hands, barely even stepping into Ferdinand’s apartment. “More people applied to that Romance Isle show last year than Oxbridge.”

Love Island,” Ferdinand had mumbled, because there really was no chance at stopping a von Aegir train when it was already full speed ahead. He thinks his own single-mindedness might at least be endearing—when his father does it, it’s much less charming, generally has some kind of mocking undertone, and is practically impossible to say no to.

Linhardt had laughed when Ferdinand had told him about his decision, and made some remark about how it was karma for the two seasons of I’m A Celebrity that had gone by in the two years that they’d been flatmates. Ferdinand had laughed, and said something about how he needed to prepare for his auditions, and they hadn’t spoken anything more about it. As far as anyone was concerned, this was all Ferdinand’s decision, and Ferdinand was in it to win it.

He just wishes it were that simple.

His conversation with Bernadetta that week is very thin—she compliments him on his sing-off performance, he asks her if she has any plans for Halloween, she says a few sentences about the struggle of trying to get a publishing firm to pick up your book, he suggests self-publishing via Amazon, she laughs and wishes him luck for Saturday.

Mercedes gives him a concerned look when he emerges from his phone call no more than ten minutes later, but he shrugs it off. “Was that your mum?” she asks in her soft, careful tone, the type of tone that will have Ferdinand spilling his guts within five minutes faster than you can say over-compensating for a lack of a mother figure.

“Dad,” he lies. “It’s kind of hard to talk when you can’t really discuss the show.”

She nods. “I understand. I call my little brother every week, and it feels like the longer I stay here the more I get disconnected from whatever he’s doing. There’s only so much you can say over the phone.” He nods, relieved to be understood, and she gives him a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Ferdinand. I’m sure we’re all feeling the same way.”

He smiles at her, but it doesn’t quite meet his eyes, and he’s sure Mercedes can tell but is just too polite to say anything.

 

“How are we all doing for costumes?” Hilda asks the room on Wednesday.

It’s spooky week, after all—the stage costumes are bound to, at the very least, be fun. It’s raining, as well, so most of them are in the same room, because whoever designed this mansion was a big fan of open plan living. Hubert and Edelgard are lurking around as well, already looking like the spirits of Halloween, quietly whispering to each other about God knows what.

“Creepy dolls,” says Annette. The room murmurs its approval. “We’re too nice looking to pull off scary, but we can probably do creepy.”

“Think we might be doing the vampire thing,” says Dimitri, instantly triggering heated whispers from the other three.

“I’m dressing up as Hubert,” Ferdinand offers, allowing himself only a second to take in Hubert’s black hair, pale skin, and penchant for wearing white shirts under long black coats.

Hubert glares at him, but Edelgard laughs a little, covering her mouth with her hand. It’s funny, he sees her mouth. Hubert rolls his eyes in response, but it’s in a strangely fond way, and Ferdinand finds himself unconsciously committing the expression to memory.

He clears his throat without thinking, interrupting Lysithea, who gives him a dirty look. “Sorry,” he says. “Just realized I haven’t decided on a song yet.”

 

In the end, he settles on Tainted Love. It’s hardly a particularly bold choice, because Ferdinand isn’t particularly prepared to go full sexy on it, but it’s definitely a lot more fun than some of the other songs he’s chosen to do.

And he does end up looking remarkably Hubertesque, even if he’s marked out by his bright orange hair. He even manages to convince wardrobe to give him a cape and, as he waits to perform after Claude’s passionate Hungry Like the Wolf performance, he’s practically buzzing. There’s no real reason—he knows he won’t be breaking any new ground with this performance—but he thinks, for once, he might be able to recall how it felt to be five and performing in front of his family for the first time, back when singing had been fun rather than stressful.

So he finds himself singing along to the doo doo doo doos to try and get out some of the nervous energy, and only startles a little when Hubert clears his throat.

Ferdinand blinks. “Aren’t you usually on the other side?” he asks, only a little upset that he won’t be able to accost Hubert and ask for a critique after he performs.

“Leonie ended up going to Salford this week,” says Hubert. “So Edelgard is over there, and I’m here.” Ferdinand shrugs like this makes total sense. “Do you sing along to everything?”

“Do I?” Ferdinand asks, genuinely surprised. He doesn’t think of himself as the type who generally sings along much to things, but he knows he ends up catching himself singing along more often than not.

“You’re always singing along to whatever’s playing,” says Hubert. “Or—tapping your foot, or drumming your hand, or doing some kind of unconscious dance.”

Ferdinand clears his throat. “How much time do you spend watching me, Hubert?” he asks, desperate to make it into a joke, to find some kind of humour in the way his cheeks flare up. Hubert doesn’t answer. “I guess I just like music. When I was a kid—”

The alarm beeps. Hubert gives him a short, tense smile, and Ferdinand can’t help but worry that he’s fucked up whatever understanding they had started to believe. (And to think—just when they’d started becoming friends.) “You’re on,” he says. “You can tell me about your childhood love for music next week.”

Their eyes meet. For the briefest of seconds, so brief that he could have imagined it, so brief that he would spend the next two weeks wondering if he had imagined it, Ferdinand’s breath catches.

And then the moment passes, and Ferdinand steps out onto the stage. He gets out there and kills it.

If he puts a bit more emphasis on I love you though you hurt me so—well, nobody needs to know the reasons why. If anybody asks, he’s simply learning how to be a good performer.

 

@hopejesssmith: I just want to say that I fancy the hell out of Claude from #XFactor

@2003lauraaa: Tbh every episode I like Ferdinand more but I can’t vote for him because I’m pretty sure he’s a tory #XFactor

@taylorxcx: dorothea channelling stevie nicks and singing rhiannon...i’m so gay #XFactor

@MaryParker85: Okay, who told Ignatz and Raphael that ‘Monster Mash’ was a good idea #XFactor

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the fourth live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!
@BYLETHFANSFR: @RheaSeiros I KNEW SHE WAS JUST COPY PASTING THE TWEET

 

Ignatz and Raphael end up going home.

Ferdinand’s genuinely sad—they’ve reached the part in the competition where he really doesn’t want to see anyone going home. He’s less sad about the theme for the week—it’s rock music week, and though Ferdinand doesn’t think he listens to as much rock as most twenty one year old men, he thinks he can easily pull something together.

“Do you think I should go for vulnerable or something to get the crowd?” he asks Dorothea.

She shoves him in response. “No discussing next week’s performance until Monday.”

So he finds Hubert, armed with his clipboard, glaring characteristically, and asks, “Do you think I should go for vulnerable or something to get the crowd going?”

He doesn’t mention their conversation from earlier. Hubert doesn't either—simply responds, “Can you pull off vulnerable?”

And, well. That’s made his decision for him as easy as anything. He says as much to Hubert, and watches him shake his head in disbelief, his expression impossible to read.

 

Rock week has the house in the same deadlock that disco week had, except that this time, to his relief, Ferdinand isn’t on the side that is struggling. He’s narrowed it down to a few songs, and is currently trying to deliberate which one will show more vulnerability and versatility and have the most impact.

“You’ll want to go with something that’s familiar, right?” he tells a panicking Marianne, who has spent the last ten minutes fixed on one page of the approved songs list.

“But not too familiar,” says Sylvain. The Blue Lions were currently embroiled in a three-way bidding war over which Fleetwood Mac song to perform. “Hence why we should do Go Your Own Way, Ingrid.”

“I don’t know anything about rock music,” Marianne tells him, her eyes wide. “Neither does Hilda. We’ve gotten through every other week because if I don’t know something Hilda probably will, but—”

Ferdinand almost says something about the fact that surely Marianne knows some rock songs, surely she must know some from her dad, before he remembers that a) she’s not just looking for a song she’s vaguely familiar with, she’s looking for a song that she and Hilda can sing well and b) there’s no guarantee Marianne has a relationship good enough with her father that a comment like that would certainly be fine.

(Ferdinand doesn’t know what his father’s favourite song is, either. He doesn’t even think he’s ever seen his father hum along to something on the radio. The only songs he associates with his father are the ones he’s seen him pull faces of disgust at. Rolled eyes and muttered comments about the death of society hearing music in a TV documentary, warning glares at bright bubblegum pop music coming from Ferdinand’s bedroom whenever he forgot to put headphones in, constantly checking his phone with a scowl the day he’d dragged Ferdinand along to the opera with some family friends.)

Still, he prides himself on catching himself before he could blurt out something insensitive. He’s gotten better at that—controlling his tongue, not being quite so presumptuous, not expecting appreciation and understanding from everyone he talks to and not expecting forgiveness from everyone he offends. Back in their first year at university, Ferdinand and Bernadetta had been housemates—he doesn’t remember his first conversation with her, but he remembers his first real conversation was practically heckling her into leaving her room every now and again.

“Rock is a very varied genre,” he says instead. “It’s almost impossible to define, because it’s gone through so many transitions.” For a brief period, Ferdinand had made a point of playing various rock songs out of his bedroom of the rough, masculine variety—Springsteen, Guns n Roses, the Rolling Stones. It hadn’t done anything to endear him to his father, but it had given Ferdinand an appreciation of the genre that he’d never had before. “I can help you find a song, if you like, once I decide on mine.”

Marianne shakes her head. “That’s sweet of you, Ferdie,” she says with a sweet, soft smile, “but I think we can manage.”

He rolls the nickname over in his head, his chest fluttering in a burst of affection. It seems to be catching on, he realises. He decides that he likes it. He’d dropped the nickname at nine, a few months afyer his mother died, in a convoluted attempt to seem far more grown-up, in the hopes that being perceived as an adult would make him enough of an adult to stop crying every other night.

But now he thinks he’s okay with it. And it’s different, anyway, with Dorothea or with Marianne or with anyone else in the house, because they’re equals. Competitors, yes, but friends, and on an equal footing. So the nickname gives him a little rush, in the same way that he had felt as a teenager with his school friends. More so, even, because he doesn’t remember ever feeling particularly close to any of his school friends—not even the boy he’d had a crush on for most of Year Eleven, the embarrassment of the crush only topped by the embarrassingly long time it had taken for him to realize that the way his breath caught every time they met eyes wasn’t a sign of deep set hatred or an underlying and potentially terminal lung disease.

He hadn’t even noticed Marianne leave, he’d been so caught up in his own thoughts.

 

It’s not until halfway through week six of the live show—God, he’s been in the competition for months—that Ferdinand has his first proper conversation with Edelgard.

He’d gotten up early in the morning, with a single-minded focus to get down in front of the keyboard and play through the sheet music for the three songs he’d narrowed down, and decide then and there which one he liked doing the most. He’d had the foresight to put on a pair of jeans just in case someone else was up at seven in the morning, but he knows his hair is a mess and he hadn’t even bothered to put his contacts in, instead digging through his bags to find the glasses case hidden at the bottom of it. Ferdinand hates his glasses, for reasons that are almost totally vanity—he doesn’t suit them, and they don’t even manage to make him look particularly intelligent.

But it was early, and he could probably manage fine without his contacts if he was just going ahout his day, but he certainly couldn’t read sheet music without them. So he grabs the stack of sheet music he’d left on the dresser, pours himself a glass of water and downs it in one gulp, and then heads to play.

Of course, Hubert is there—and Edelgard, talking quietly to him. Ferdinand gets an uncanny sense of deja vu, mixed with what he decides to label curiosity. He’d never seen Hubert look so at ease. Usually, his face is cold and emotionless; the most Ferdinand has ever gotten out of him is a ghost of a smile here and there, after a performance, or that one morning that he’d sat in the kitchen with Hubert, uncomfortably silent, listening to the tapping of laptop keys and the boiling of the kettle.

But of course Hubert looks at ease with Edelgard. Edelgard is his—girlfriend? Partner? Neither of them wear rings, so Ferdinand doesn’t think they’re married, or engaged to be.

“Oh,” he says. His voice surprises him by how hoarse it is—of course it’s hoarse, he’d just woken up, but he was somehow surprised by the roughness of it. “Sorry, I—I can come back later if I’m disturbing.”

Hubert’s face is impossible to read. Ferdinand hopes he hadn’t ruined anything, but finds himself certain that he had. Perhaps not a rendezvous in the strictest sense of the word, but at the very least conversation. There’s no other reason that Hubert would be so silent, blinking more frequently than he’d ever seen him blink (seriously, Ferdinand had sort of assumed Hubert was like some kind of eyelidless snake), and staring at Ferdinand like he’d suddenly grown a second head, or like he was just seeing him for the first time. “You’re not,” he says finally. “It’s. It’s fine. I have to work, anyway.”

He shoots Edelgard a look—equally impossible to read, but if Ferdinand had to hazard a guess he’d say despairing. Great, he thinks, feeling terrible. Now I’ve gone and messed it up. And, for once, he doesn’t have the faintest idea what he’s messed up.

He expects Edelgard to follow him, but she doesn’t—just studies Ferdinand carefully, like she’s going to go home after this and reconstruct his face from memory. He smiles at her, hoping to convey an apology, and sits down at the keyboard.

They’d had a bunch of these at school, he remembered. They’d had a couple of grand pianos as well, for the kids whose parents shelled out for one-on-one lessons, but even private school tuition couldn’t populate the music classrooms with nothing but grand pianos. He has faint memories of people in his class messing around with the settings, finding the most hilarious and/or pornographic sound settings, because no amount of money could kill a teenage boy’s innate need to fuck around. He sets up the sheet music, and then waits, seeing if Edelgard says anything.

Finally, he does instead, conscious of her eyes boring into him—pale violet where Hubert’s are pale green, inquisitive instead of critical. “I haven’t seen much of you.”

She smiles politely. “It’s because I’m the most likely one to get the ITV producers to agree with the three of us.”

“Do they generally disagree?” Ferdinand asks.

She studies him suspiciously, as if he’s digging for some kind of information, but Ferdinand is genuinely curious. “They’re great,” she says. “We have the same end goal, at least, which is to put together a great show that people enjoy.”

“But?” Ferdinand asks.

She shrugs. “We like to play it a bit more honest,” she says. “Obviously, there’s the narratives that you have to have, and the archetypes you need, but we want to keep everything as true to reality as it has to be. Reality TV is all about the story, but we’d prefer for the story not to be super—wild, and crazy, and unrealistic.”

“What’s my archetype?” Ferdinand asks before he can stop himself.

“You’re the nice, honest, family-friendly teen heartthrob,” says Edelgard. “It’s worked out remarkably well, actually. We compromised on having you there for the under sixteen
demographic, and having Claude played up as an edgier version of the teen heartthrob.”

Ferdinand considers this, and then decides that it’s probably a better than flaming homosexual. Besides—he knows he’s pretty, even if the glasses bring it down about four levels to borderline homely. Then something Edelgard says stands out to him, and he asks, “Compromised?”

“Initially, they were going to play you and Lorenz sort of against each other,” Edelgard said. “Didn’t help that your first few performances were definitely out of your league, and not in the oh he’s getting better way but in the wow, this bastard really thinks he can win by doing the bare minimum way.” Ferdinand winces. “Hubert was against that, though.”

“Hubert?” Ferdinand asks, astonished. “All Hubert does is call me a pretty boy with no substance and a boring repertoire.”

“Hubert hates reality TV archetypes,” says Edelgard. “Actually, he’s not a big fan of reality TV in general, but especially not in something like this. Has some crazy deluded idea that a show about singing should be about singing.”

Ferdinand tries to imagine Hubert being passionate about reality TV’s fixation with archetypes and false narratives, and falls short. But he can easily imagine Hubert’s voice, low and careful, articulating his thoughts to an audience of one, perhaps adding in the occasional sneer of dislike. The thought endears him significantly. He clears his throat and says, “You guys seem really happy together,” at the same time that Edelgard says “He told me you asked a lot of questions about these things, but I didn’t believe him.”

He frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I just found it hard to believe you didn’t have ulterior motives,” says Edelgard. “But now I think you genuinely just want to know these things, even if you can be a little overbearing about it.”

Ferdinand feels that familiar prickle of annoyance, frustration at being read like a book and perceived in a way that could be right and could be wrong but could never be justified—but more than that, he feels the sudden need to justify his preoccupation with Hubert’s opinion of him, to argue about how it was totally valid for him to care what a producer on the show and more importantly someone he thought could maybe be considered a friend thought about his performances—especially if Edelgard had made the decision herself to work on the same show as her boyfriend. Finally, he says, “I’m glad I made enough of an impression that Hubert talks about me to you. You guys seem close.” Edelgard frowns at him, and he quickly adds, “I mean, I’ve seen you together a few times.”

Edelgard stares at him more, and Ferdinand isn’t sure what she’s going to say—so he stands there, surprised as anything, when she starts to laugh. He feels distinctly like he’s the butt of some kind of joke, and is about to make an indignant comment when Edelgard says, “Ferdinand, Hubert and I aren’t dating, if that’s what you assumed.”

Ferdinand blinks at her. “You’re not?”

“Absolutely not,” says Edelgard. “I care about him a lot, and he’s my best friend, but I’m not attracted to him, and he isn’t to me either.” Ferdinand privately thinks she might be wrong, and perhaps Edelgard reads that on his face, because she says, “You’re about to think something really heteronormative about how men and women who are friends often end up dating, but it really isn’t like that. I’m not his type.”

“What is?” Ferdinand blurts. “Bats? Vipers? Corpses?”

A smile plays on her mouth, and for a moment he thinks she’s going to start laughing again, but instead she says, “Men.” She throws the fact out like it’s nothing, and maybe it is nothing. Maybe Hubert is one of those people who is utterly casual about his sexuality, who see it as just an afterthought of his existing life, who have never been affected enough by it for it to make up a major part of his identity. “Specifically, ones who aren’t quite as miserable as he is.”

Ferdinand blinks, trying to process that, trying to visualise the thought of Hubert quietly mesmerised by some bright paragon of optimism. It comes easier than he can expect. Ferdinand can almost imagine Hubert, inexplicably fond—can almost picture an uncharacteristically soft endeared look on his face. He decides to stop that train of thought before it goes any further.

For some reason, this fact is apparently the funniest thing in the world, because Edelgard giggles to herself after she says it. “Good talk, Ferdinand,” she adds, barely able to stifle another laugh, and then disappears after one more once-over.

There’s no time to unpack any of what had just happened, and Ferdinand doesn’t feel like even trying to understand his own psyche, so he doesn’t—just clears his throat and starts playing the opening chords to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

 

In the end, he decides on Dancing in the Dark. It’s a fine choice, he thinks—he can get some good crowd interaction with it, and crowd interaction is always important but especially in a genre as personal as rock; plus, he gets to use his lower register, and it’s a nice departure from him going full gay synthpop the week before.

The song reminds him pretty intensely of his last year at school—of the Christmas break he’d spent listening to the song, opening the window and broadcasting it across the estate. At first, it had been part spite, part giving into antiquated ideals of masculinity—then he’d listened to the lyrics, and it had become a lifeline. They say you gotta stay hungry, Bruce Springsteen had sung into his headphones a million times over, hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight!

Still, he decides not to chicken out of getting too personal this time. He’d made the mistake in the second week with Heroes, and wasn’t keen on repeating it again. The thought of being seen is a little frightening, but the thought of losing the competition is just about worse. His performance in rehearsal saddles the line between personal enough to make some kind of connection and so personal that there’s a risk of crying, so Ferdinand tones it down just a little.

The morning before the sixth live show, Ferdinand stands in a soundproofed studio, worried out of his mind that he could somehow be too much and too little simultaneously. He has half a mind to go searching for Hubert, but decides against it when he visualises the mental image of walking up and down the halls searching for six foot something of pale skin and dark hair and an almost permanently sullen twist of the mouth. He imagines walking up to someone and asking excuse me, have you seen a tall guy with creepily thin eyebrows who looks uncannily like a vampire?

No, Hubert is out. Asking another contestant is a possibility, but he isn’t sure anyone could give him the same unfeeling, cutting-edge critique except for maybe Felix—though Felix also doesn’t work, because he snarks through everything he says, and Ferdinand doesn’t think he’s ever seen Hubert make a joke. Besides, it’s nine-thirty.

He sighs, sits down, and uncaps a bottle of water, downing most of it at once and dumping the rest of it on his head in the hope that it would cool him down and freshen up his thoughts. It doesn’t, though—why had he thought it would?—so now Ferdinand has to step out of the room, vaguely resembling a wet dog and wondering what the odds are of getting back into the house and getting changed before someone in the house makes the same observation. Unlikely, he thinks, grabbing a hoodie to at least minimise the cold.

And because his luck is perfect, the first person he runs into is Hubert—alone, not carrying a phone or a clipboard, looking very irritated to have been run into. “Watch where you’re—” he begins, and then he sees that it’s Ferdinand and his expression changes to something a little more familiar. Unimpressed, maybe, but not necessarily annoyed. “Oh, hi, Ferdinand.”

“Hi,” says Ferdinand.

Then Hubert blinks at him again, and asks, “Ferdinand, why are you drenched in water?”

“Drenched is an overstatement,” says Ferdinand. He sighs. “I thought it might wake me up and stop me from worrying about my performance?”

“Why,” asks Hubert. It’s not really a question—more an expression of sheer disbelief. He sounds very much as if he thinks Ferdinand has absolutely lost the plot. Ferdinand shrugs. “It’s November.”

“I know,” says Ferdinand. “But I want to perform well, and I haven’t been sleeping so great.” He smiles charmingly. Hubert stares at him like he’s grown a second head. “I’m just going to go downstairs and ring for a taxi because I’m realising what a stupid idea this is.”

“I’ll drive you,” says Hubert quickly, as if he didn’t even intend to say it.

Ferdinand shrugs. “You’re probably busy, there’s more important things you probably want to do than chauffeur me—”

“What I want right now,” says Hubert, “is for you to not die of hypothermia before you have a chance to win the competition.”

Maybe it’s the water knocking some bizarre sleep-deprived awareness into him, or maybe it’s the way Hubert’s cold expression flickers from his hair to his throat to his face as if he doesn’t quite know what to make of him and doesn’t care to understand, but Ferdinand finds himself laughing. Hubert frowns at him, but he can’t stop. “Hubert,” he says, and then drawled in a wholly ridiculous mock-casual accent, “Dude.” He barks out another laugh, a deeply soulless one “I’m not going to win the competition.”

“You don’t know that,” says Hubert.

And Ferdinand really can’t stand Hubert being nice to him right now, because he’s stretched so thin and either Hubert can’t see it or he can and this is his weird awkward way of showing pity. “Yeah, I do. I know you definitely think I’m not good enough to win, and I know you’re probably right.”

“You don’t know shit,” says Hubert, and it’s so sudden and so unrehearsed that Ferdinand thinks shit, he really means it. And then, he thinks, means what? Means that Ferdinand can win? Or—means that Ferdinand is good enough? Somehow, the realisation that there’s a grain of truth in it is worse than the idea that Hubert is only saying these things to try and be nice. He stares at him, weakly, making eye contact, and all he thinks is what? Hubert sighs. “Come on,” he says, jingling his car keys. “I’ll give you a ride back.”

The ride back is quiet, and Ferdinand spends the whole time staring out of the window, wondering if he’s somehow managed to destroy whatever vague understanding he and Hubert have developed for each other.

“Ferdinand,” Hubert says suddenly when they’re about two minutes away from the house. For a moment, Ferdinand is struck by the fear that Hubert would say something in an attempt to cheer him up, as if he needed to be cheered up, as if he wasn’t fine which he was. “Good luck.”

“I don’t need luck,” says Ferdinand. “I just need to kill the performance, and then find you so I can gloat when you’re forced to compliment me.”

Normally, it’s so easy to throw up a Ferdinand who is self-assured on the verge of cockiness, who is somehow charming in his arrogance. He’s been playing the part for so long it’s easy to forget that it’s all a pretense. But perhaps it’s tiredness or perhaps it’s just Hubert infuriatingly throwing him off his game, but it comes out far more earnest than he hopes, and he cringes to himself, but Hubert doesn’t seem fazed in the slightest.

 

The thing is that Ferdinand, above all, is a showman.

This is what he’s prepared for—going out onto a stage and performing. He’d outgrown the standing in one spot and swaying thing a long time ago. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be a rock star, but he knows how to work crowds—even if the crowds he’s used to are made up of four hundred members of the school community.

And he’s not had enough of a chance to just—break free while he’s been on the show. He’d forgotten just how gratifying it felt.

“Ferdinand, I feel like you’ve really surprised me these last few weeks,” Byleth tells him after he’s done performing. “I don’t know where this Ferdinand has been hidden for the first weeks or the competition, but I hope he’s here to stay.” There’s a cheer from the crowd at that.

“What made you pick that song?” Rhea asks him.

He almost shrugs on reflex, but then he pulls something together about how it was a shout-out to his teenage self, and doesn’t mention just how poignant you can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart had felt when he was rehearsing.

It takes him a couple of seconds to spot Hubert when he gets off stage, and he finds himself wondering how he’d ever thought Hubert was someone who slipped into the background.

An attendant fiddles around taking off his microphone, and as soon as it’s off he asks, “So how did I do?”

“If you’re looking for mindless compliments—” Hubert begins.

“I’m not,” Ferdinand says, so quickly he surprises even himself. “I just want to know how I did.”

Hubert nods. “You did fine,” he says. “Is it true what you said? That you just picked it because when you were a teenager it was your favourite song?”

“Yes,” says Ferdinand. “But it wasn’t my favourite song just because I liked the way it sounded.” He hesitates. “You think I should be more honest when I talk as well?”

“You’ve finally gotten the emotional expression of the song down,” says Hubert. “Could be better, of course, but I don’t feel like I’m watching a robot perform anymore.” Ferdinand huffs. The ghost of a smile appears on Hubert’s mouth. “But it feels disingenuous when you’re clearly lying about—or, well, watering down the reasons why you picked the song. People like honesty in singers, even if they aren’t conscious of it.”

Ferdinand considers this. “Thank you,” he says, and is surprised by how earnest he sounds.

 

@BYLETHFANSFR: time for #XFactor! if rhea posts the same tweet she posts every week i’m going to sh00t her

@katiekate02: Ferdinand finally learned how to stop being boring! Still not as good as Claude though #XFactor
@poppyemily: @katiekate02 You wish clod could do what Ferdinand does
@katiekate02: #FerdinandYawnAegir

@track10mp3: dorothea singing maria maria and she did rhiannon last week.....does dorothea arnault is gay? #XFactor

@taylorxcx: these performances are so bad rock music sucks i hate white men so much #XFactor
@deangrimes78: @taylorxcx Your favourite music wouldn’t exist without white men. Racist much
@taylorxcx: @deangrimes78 nobody cares stream lover

@RheaSeiros ✓: And that’s a wrap on the sixth live show of #XFactor series 16! Make sure to vote and tune in tomorrow for the first results!
@blythever: @BYLETHFANSFR
@byieth98: @BYLETHFANSFR
@voteforferdinand: YALL did bylethfansfr get suspended for saying she’d shoot rhea seiros

 

It’s heartbreaking to see Petra go—she almost cries, but doesn’t, instead giving them all hugs backstage and telling them she’ll miss them all so very much when she goes back to Barcelona, where she has a very clear plan for how to get a record label back at home.

Still, it’s heartbreaking to see her leave, because Ferdinand has really grown to like Petra. Until Monday morning, he doesn’t even think about next week’s theme—the cryptically named opposite day.

Then, of course, Monday morning comes, and he’s totally lost. The good thing, of course, is that he isn’t the only one—they’re down to the top eight, and pretty much all of them are absolutely lost at what to do. Some of them have a nice niche they’ve worked hard into developing—Lysithea, both the girl duos, Dedue. Some of them—Claude, the Blue Lions, Ferdinand himself—don’t actually know what their opposite is. Dorothea’s the only one who seems like she has a grip, wandering in and announcing, “I’m finally doing a ballad, y’all!”

“You did one for your audition, though,” Ferdinand points out. Dorothea rolls her eyes and settles down with the approved song list.

“Do you think doing a song from a boy group would count as our opposite?” Annette asks. She and Mercedes had been in the bottom two last week, until they’d blown it out of the water with their rendition of Stop! In The Name of Love and held onto their spot.

“You’d probably get away with it if you didn’t change the pronouns?” Sylvain says. Annette considers this. “What even is our opposite? We have four singers and all of us are totally different.”

“Feel that,” says Claude. “Might just pull a Ferdinand and do a boring guitar love song.”

“You wish you could pull a Ferdinand,” says Ferdinand, triggering brief smiles across the room. “I don’t know what my opposite is either.”

“Do something sexy,” says Hilda. He blinks at her. “Really just go for it.”

“She has a point,” says Dorothea. “Your whole thing is being all sweet and pretty and family-friendly.”

“That’s not a thing,” Ferdinand protests. “That’s just who I am.”

“Even better,” says Hilda. Dorothea waves the approved song list at him, and he sighs, kneeling down to look over her shoulder at it.

“I don’t know what my opposite is,” says Lysithea. “Or, I do, but I’m not very good at singing pop songs.”

“It’s because you’re a baby,” says Claude.

“Die,” says Lysithea. She shrugs. “I’m definitely not going to win, but I didn’t really want to. I don’t want a record label, I was just hoping to get my name out there so I can get cast on the West End without having to waste three years at drama school. That way I can get an Olivier by twenty-five and not twenty-eight.”

“Nice,” says Claude. “You ever actually been in a play before, Lysithea?”

“School stuff. And local theatre,” says Lysithea. “I was Young Cosette for five years.” Ferdinand blinks at her. “Well, I got it when I was seven, and then they just kept not replacing me even though I was twelve and looked it. I can't be the only one here who’s been in some kind of play.”

“Most of us will have,” says Dorothea reasonably, and then, “Almost all of mine got cancelled. My drama teacher was a witch and nobody ever wanted to learn their lines.” She says this like it’s something that deeply weighs upon her, even four years after finishing school. “The only one that didn’t was Grease, except that sucked because I specifically auditioned for Rizzo and they gave me Sandy and said I should stop underestimating myself for auditioning for small roles.”

“That’s fucked up,” says Ferdinand. “Nobody in their right mind wants to play Sandy over Rizzo.”

“Right?” says Dorothea. “Bet you did a ton of theatre, Ferdinand.”

He smiles bashfully. “I’ve been exposed,” he says. “Was in the musical from Year Nine till my last year at school. Also I was in an amateur production of Phantom at university. Also a really low budget performance of An Inspector Calls, though I don’t think I was very good in that. I’m a much better singer than I am an actor.”

“Which ones did you do?” Lysithea asks.

Ferdinand exhales, because this is sort of embarrassing, and he is aware of the long standing perception that the only people who review their secondary school theatre roles as adults are the ones who peaked in secondary school theatre. Lysithea looks enthralled, though, so he humours her. “Honestly, it was a weird mix. Blood Brothers, West Side Story—”

“Please says you were Tony,” says another voice suddenly, and Ferdinand jumps. It’s Edelgard—he hadn’t even known she was there, but there she was, Hubert along with her. “Sorry. I may have been eavesdropping.”

“It’s okay,” says Sylvain. “We’re talking about Ferdinand’s embarrassing theatre career, not, like, Felix’s.”

“I was in one musical,” Felix grumbles.

“It was Oliver,” says Sylvain.

“I was Tony, yeah,” says Ferdinand, mostly just to save Felix from embarrassment. “It was kind of a weird choice, though, given a good ninety-five percent of the student body was just rich white kids. I’m not sure any of us were qualified to be in West Side Story.”

“You absolutely weren’t,” says Edelgard. “Hut, then again, neither was half the cast of West Side Story. And I’m sure you were great.” Her smile a little sharper now, she adds, “What do you think, Hubert?”

“Hubert won’t have seen West Side Story,” says Ferdinand quickly. And even if he had, he wouldn’t tell me it would’ve been great unless I break out into a few bars of ‘Maria’ right this second.

“I have,” says Hubert. Ferdinand stares at him. Somehow, the image of Hubert sitting down to watch a sixties musical based on Romeo and Juliet, of Hubert watching Natalie Wood perform her way through I Feel Pretty for any reason other than bizarre true-crime sleuthing into her drowning, is absolutely ridiculous. “It’s Edelgard’s favourite.”

“I think we should talk about Felix in Oliver,” says Edelgard, before anybody could laugh at her favourite movie. “Who did you even play, Felix, the Artful Dodger?”

“Oliver,” says Dimitri.

“Fuck you,” says Felix. “My voice hadn’t broken yet and I was pretty short—” Sylvain coughs something that sounds like still short. Ingrid swats at him. “—so they thought it was a good idea.”

“I don’t know anything about musicals because I’m not white,” says Claude, and that puts a stop to the conversation.

Time goes on, though, and Edelgard pulls up a chair to join the conversation, and Leonie shows up out of nowhere, and Ashe stands on the sidelines like a ghost until Annette drags him into the conversation. It’s like them being down to eight acts has suddenly shattered any kind of barrier between them, any level of competition temporarily forgotten in the urgency of the moment.

Hubert stands up, unnoticed by everyone but Ferdinand, and goes to the kitchen. Ferdinand distantly hears the whir of the coffee machine. “Excuse me,” he says, and follows him in, and for a moment is struck by him silently pouring black coffee into a mug. It might be the first time he’s seen him properly, in full light, without a phone or a laptop or a clipboard in hand. He looks impossibly younger—not because he doesn’t look at all tired or stressed, but because for once he does. “You’ve really seen West Side Story?” he finally asks quietly, unsure why this fact is sticking out just so much to him.

Hubert looks up. He doesn’t smile, but Ferdinand thinks he might have been on the verge of one. “Yeah,” he says. “Why? You’re not going to break into song, are you?”

Ferdinand sings the opening lines of Something’s Coming quietly—there’s something due any day, I will know right away, soon as it shows—just to be contrary. He’s rusty and out of practice, and his voice has the soft, gravelly quality of someone used to singing loud trying to keep quiet, and when he looks at Hubert his face is impossible to gage a reaction out of. “I was just wondering,” he says finally.

(It’s typical, Ferdinand thinks. Even with their strange understanding, there’s moments when he can’t figure out what Hubert is thinking.)

“I’m sure you were good,” Hubert says. “Did you ever consider becoming an actor?”

“I’m really not a good actor,” Ferdinand admits. His director had suggested he go on the West End, once, but Ferdinand had just laughed him off. Back then, the thought of doing anything related to music had felt like an impossible pipe dream. It still felt like a pipe dream now, but it was one Ferdinand couldn’t live without. “But I’m sure I did. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine there was ever a moment where I wasn’t obsessed with the idea of standing on a stage and singing to thousands of adoring fans.”

“Show business does that to people, I’m told,” Hubert says.

“Showbiz didn’t have to do anything,” says Ferdinand. “I’m a natural attention whore. When I was about four I spent half an hour singing every Christmas song I knew at a family reunion.” He laughs. “God, I would have been so annoyed if some kid jumped up and demanded that we all listen to him warble through Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“I’m sure it was cute,” says Hubert. He looks like he’s trying his best not to laugh.

“Sure,” says Ferdinand. “Precocious, more like. Never change, never grow up.”

“I didn’t know you could be so self-deprecating,” says Hubert, and Ferdinand hears an echo of Hubert of the other day, the tone that he’d thought was pity. He doesn’t think so anymore, but it’s strangely gentle, like a snake trying its very best to be tender.

“I’m full of surprises,” says Ferdinand, and winks for good measure. “You’re right, though. Everyone seemed to think it was sweet, but they also thought I’d grow out of it soon enough. But—clearly that didn’t happen.”

“What would you have done otherwise?”

“Other than living off a trust fund?” Ferdinand asks. Hubert offers a vague expression, sitting somewhere between smile and utter blankness, but not quite a smile. “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. But I read history—that was the compromise, I read history if I do a conversion course and then the LPC.”

“I would’ve been a lawyer, too,” says Hubert. “Followed in my dad’s footsteps, become a partner in his firm. That’s how I met Edelgard.” Ferdinand frowns at him. “My dad was her family lawyer. He used to drag me to his office a lot, after school, and occasionally Mr. Hresvelg would bring along his daughter with him. The two of us were never allowed in the room while they had their conversations, so we occupied many a waiting room together.”

He smiles finally, something triggered by the memory, and Ferdinand can visualise this—a younger Hubert, thirteen or fourteen perhaps, tall already but without the grace of one who had long since learned how to use all his limbs, the same characteristic scowl on his face, sitting in an office across from a smaller, quieter Edelgard. Do you love her? he wants to ask, but holds his tongue. He can’t imagine a world where Hubert could look so fondly at the memory of someone and not have that person be the single most important thing in his life, the literal apple of his eye.

“Do you have a photo?” he asks instead, and Hubert’s eyes light up, and he grabs his wallet and flips it open and slides a photograph out from behind a credit card. Hubert looks pretty much the same—Edelgard looks infinitely younger, and—“Wait, she dyes her hair?”

“I think she was going through a phase,” says Hubert. “And then she liked it, so she just kept doing it.”

He smiles, and gives the photograph back. “Perhaps we would’ve met in a courtroom, then,” he offers. “Trying to figure out what level of tax two very rich bastards have swindled their way out of. I wouldn’t have liked that, though, because you would’ve beaten me without breaking a sweat. I wouldn’t have liked you much, either.”

“I was under the impression that you didn’t like me much now,” Hubert says.

“I didn’t,” says Ferdinand. “But—” He trails off, unsure what to say. “But we're friends now, I think. I hope.”

Hubert smiles. “I think, I hope too,” he says, and Ferdinand is definitely certain that he’s trying his hardest not to laugh, and on the one hand he appreciates the effort but on the other hand he can’t resist the opportunity to glare in his general direction.

 

“Do you think singing songs with girl’s names as the title has become my trademark?” Dorothea asks. “I can’t think of any ballads with my trademark.”

Jolene?” Ferdinand suggests.

Dorothea considers this. “Nah. Because I’m saving Valerie for later, and that’s another song about a girl with red hair, and so people will probably think I’m in love with Annette.”

“Hm,” says Ferdinand. “Do you have any ideas for me?”

Don’t You Want Me,” Dorothea says.

Ferdinand considers it. “It’s a duet, though.”

“You’re Ferdinand von Aegir,” Dorothea says. “As if you’d let it being a duet stop you. If anyone could sing a duet by himself, it’d be you.”

“Anyone but you,” Ferdinand says.

“Truth,” says Dorothea.

 

In the end, he does end up going with Dorothea’s suggestion. He’d considered something else, had prepared it too and performed it in rehearsal with Seteth, and then said in response to his frown, “Wait. I have something else, as well. It might be better.”

It was better. So Ferdinand, pleased, had told Dorothea that she’d been a great help, and had told the band and backing singers that he’d made his decision. It’s an opportunity to have fun and be a little dramatic, to channel a little of that West End-bound charm that had made him so good at musical theatre, and Ferdinand thinks that he can easily be simultaneously his opposite and also right in his comfort zone.

Hilda does an exaggerated whistle when the costume department is done with him. “You clean up nice, Ferdie,” she says. It’s a little strained, because even Hilda isn’t up to maintaining her charming, extroverted self in an environment with stakes this high, but he appreciates it anyway, and shoots her a smile.

The nickname, he noticed, is starting to spread like wildfire. Ferdinand can’t say he minds.

There’s more urgency with less acts, Ferdinand finds—strange, because the judges’s comments are more drawn out and the little clips that play before every performance are far longer than they were in the first week of the live shows. Ferdinand finds he’s antsy, knee bouncing, nervous despite himself. Everyone who goes on gets at least one muttered good luck from at least someone.

Ferdinand’s performing fourth, sandwiched in between Annette and Mercedes, singing ABC, and Dedue, singing some classic rock ballad that was new, but not at all unwelcome. (Ferdinand thinks many people watching the show would pay good money to listen to Dedue read the phonebook.)

But his performance is good, and he knows it, and he hopes it’s enough to catch people’s attention. He’s got the familiar post-show buzz when he gets off stage, a buzz not just familiar from all the weeks before this but also all the times he had stood on a stage in a school auditorium or in a large room in the student’s union rented out for purpose, and taken his final bow. He doesn’t bow, but he sort of wants to.

“How was I?” he asks Hubert as soon as he spots him. The question falls off his tongue without even thinking of it.

But Hubert doesn’t look at him. “Where was the opposite?” he asks instead.

“It’s more theatrical?” Ferdinand offers. “It was meant to have a bit more. Um. Sex appeal?” He frowns. “Did it not work?”

“It was fine,” says Hubert.

“Just fine?”

“Stop fishing for compliments.”

Ferdinand falls quiet, humbled to silence by Hubert’s unimpressed tone and sharp words. Then—“Hubert, if you could vote, who would you vote for?”

“What did I say about fishing?” Hubert asks, and Ferdinand swallows. “Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to, Ferdinand.”

He blinks. Already know the answer? So that means he didn’t have an answer, then, because last time Hubert had said nothing, so this time—surely his answer was unchanged, that was what he was trying to say. Surely.

 

@katielee2412: #XFactor this year is so boring…I don’t even care who wins tbh

@98nina98: Blue Lions on #XFactor are so good theyre the next generation of boy band and girl band and they deserve to win...BTS shaking

@bobfrancis12: How is #XFactor still running? Have ITV not run out of ideas? Don’t they have another reality show starring Ant and Dec to make?

@bellejasmine: ferdinand on #XFactor gets more interesting every week but he also makes me more convinced that he’s gay every week
@jesscxllins: @bellejasmine shut up he’s too fit to be gay

@taylorxcx: dorothea covering mine...i told yall she was main pop girl material
@taylorxcx: also do you guys think she chooses super gay songs on purpose or….?

 

Ferdinand ends up in third place for the week—it’s his highest ranking for a while, and he’s incredibly pleased by it.

He’s less pleased when Lysithea goes home—in fact, he thinks he might tear up a little, even though she insists that this is what she’d hoped for and she isn’t upset at all by it.

The theme for next week is utterly trite—This is Me, a theme traditionally used in the first week, but, as the host reminds them all, it’s more interesting now that the people of Britain and Ireland have gotten to know them through their eyes. Now, you can see how they see themselves through their own eyes!

Ferdinand knows what he needs to do, knows what emotion he needs to channel—in fact, he even thinks he knows exactly what song. He just doesn’t know if he’s brave enough to sing it.

 

Ironically, the question of favourites comes up again, and this time not even because of Ferdinand.

Now that they’re down to seven, it’s become apparent to everyone that it’s only a matter of time before the final three face up against each other in the final. They’re the top seven. Each of them have a genuine shot—one in seven, over point-one-four percent—of making it to the end and winning the final prize. It means that, more often than not, the atmosphere in the house is sharp, cordial at best, instead of being as light as Ferdinand is used to. He still has his friends, of course, but the only time the atmosphere is really light is when Edelgard and Leonie are around.

“There’s no rules that say we can’t talk to you guys,” Leonie tells them. “But we just don’t, not until it gets to this point. Otherwise you end up getting attached, and being attached just ends in heartbreak.”

“Did anyone ever get attached?” Dorothea asks. “Anything saucy?”

Edelgard smiles knowingly, but doesn’t say anything other than, “Perhaps.”

“You can’t leave us hanging like that,” says Dorothea. Her eyes are bright with a challenge, and Edelgard meets the challenge with the same steeled smile.

“Edelgard,” says Hubert. “Surely there’s more important things to do than gossip?”

Ferdinand almost breaks a mug. Of course, he’d thought, listening to Hubert chastise Edelgard, all fondness and familiarity. It isn’t that he hadn’t believed Edelgard when she said that there was nothing between her and Hubert—only that he’d quietly wondered if Hubert had ever received the memo. But now he sees it clear as day, as if a curtain has just been pulled from over his eyes and he can finally see without it, as if he’d just put his contacts in first thing in the morning.

For some reason, he’s pleased at the realisation. Because I didn’t want Hubert to be heartbroken, he thinks. Because he’s my friend, and holding a candle out for someone for ages and ages is an awful feeling that he doesn’t deserve to feel. It only feels slightly off in terms of reasoning.

“Leonie’s been here the longest,” says Edelgard. “There’s ridiculously high turnover here. She’s been here five year, Hubert two, and I just started.”

“How old are you?” Ingrid asks.

“Twenty-one,” says Edelgard. “But I finished university two years ago. Homeschooling.”

That said, Ferdinand thinks, Edelgard is already ahead of him in so many ways. They’re the same age, but she’s got a stable salary, and he’s a few months out of university with no idea where he’s going from here. He’s a little jealous. Maybe. He’d thought that he’d gotten his awful jealous competitive streak under control, but apparently not.

Instead, he checks through the approved songs list—to artists with the first initial F, and then slowly down the list—unsure if he can really follow through on what he wants to sing but certain that it can’t hurt to at least check if it’s been approved. And if it’s not approved then that’s it, and really it’s better for Ferdinand, because—

He spots it, though, and he knows he should be relieved but all he can feel is dread. He should find another song. People won’t even want to see another sad guitar ballad, there’s going to be enough sad guitar ballads this week—

He stands up before he even knows he’s doing it, heads for the kitchen without even thinking, and leans with his back against the counter, hands placed firmly on the marble countertop. He just needed to breathe. He just needed—

“Ferdinand?” Hubert asks. “Are you alright?”

He clears his throat. “Fine,” he says. “It’s just—” He’s silent for about a minute, but Hubert says nothing—just stands there in quiet understanding. “This theme sucks. I mean, what if people don’t want to reach deep into their brain and pick out one song from the thousands of songs that have ever been released that best describes them? What the hell is up with that?”

“To be fair,” Hubert says, “I don’t think they meant for you to take it quite so seriously.” He walks a few steps until he’s opposite Ferdinand, and once again Ferdinand is struck by how young he looks. “Do you not know what you’re singing?”

“I know exactly what I should sing,” Ferdinand says. “I just don’t want to.” Hubert nods. “Hubert, can I say something?”

“I think you’re going to say whatever it is whether I say yes or not,” says Hubert.

Ferdinand laughs. “It’s just that, for some inexplicable reason, I trust you.”

Hubert is quiet. “Is that the thing you were going to say?” he asks.

“No,” Ferdinand says quickly, and he runs through it again—he’d assumed that Hubert would certainly already know, though he supposed Hubert wasn’t even sure if they were friends until last week. “No, it’s not that. It’s just.” He sighs. “I think I want people to like me a bit too much.”

“Most people want other people to like them.”

“Not like I do,” says Ferdinand. “It’s an obsession for me. It’s—it’s not very good. I feel like who I am is just built up by the minute, made up of what people think I should be—or, well, what people want me to be.” He laughs. “I’ve got an awful competitive streak. And I hate it—hate it—when people underestimate me, when people—just write me off without any consideration.”

He’s not looking at Hubert, but he hears him quietly say, “I’m sorry,” and his head snaps up to attention.

“I’m not talking about you,” he says quickly. “You were different. I didn’t want you to like me, because I didn’t think we could ever be friends—I just wanted you to admit you were wrong about me.” He sighs. “My father would love Edelgard.” Hubert looks confused. “Ferdinand, look, she’s in a field which isn’t economically lucrative and yet here she is, financially stable, while you were swanning around London without a care in the world.” He sighs again, only it comes out more like a laugh without any humour to it. “It was his idea for me to come on the show. Everyone assumes it was my idea, but it wasn’t. He said to me that if I made it to the top three, then he’d accept this—ridiculous dalliance of mine.” He laughs again. “I had to accept. This is what I want more than anything. And—it hasn’t been torture. Not really. But I don’t think he was telling the truth, either.”

Hubert is very still. Ferdinand thinks stop while you’re still slightly ahead, but he continues on anyway. He’d been wholly unprepared for how good it would feel to finally say all of this. “I don’t think he ever expected me to make it to the top three. I think he just wanted me to have the illusion that he’d given me an option.” He exhales. “Every kid wants to be like their dad, right? Everyone but me, apparently, because my dad is a dick.” He’s not in the habit of swearing, but it just slips out. “He loves me, because I’m his son and he has to, but he hates everything that I am. Not a lawyer. A musician. Gay.” He hesitates before the last one, but Hubert barely blinks.

The last part is almost whispered, because it’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud—no, the first time he’s ever even allowed himself to think it. “I don’t think he’ll change his mind even if I do make the top three.”

Hubert finally speaks. “Ferdinand,” he says, “I know I wrote you off when we first met. To tell you the truth, I can’t say I don’t understand where I was coming from.” He smiles slightly. “This is the second year I’m doing this, and between all the auditions, and all the performances, and everything I’ve had to watch and edit, I feel like I’ve seen every type of musician hopeful there is. But I can say I was wrong.”

Ferdinand’s breath hitches. Hubert’s speech was quiet and firm, and he continued on as if he wasn’t thinking, without even blinking, not looking right at Ferdinand. “You surprise me every day, Ferdinand. Every time you go up and perform, every time you talk to me and I feel like I learn a little bit more about you—I feel like I have to write and rewrite and amend my perception of you every day.”

“So beyond pretty boy with no substance?” Ferdinand asks. His breath is almost still, and he can’t bring himself to even see what Hubert looks like right now. There’s a design on the marble floor, and Ferdinand thinks he can almost make out shapes—his very own personal Rorschach test.

“Ferdinand,” says Hubert. “You haven’t been a pretty boy with no substance to me since at least week three.”

Ferdinand looks up and stares at Hubert—the line of his jaw, the strength of his pale-eyed gaze (currently concentrated on the breakfast bar, firmly not meeting Ferdinand’s eyes), his nose and his throat and his mouth. How had he never considered just how handsome Hubert was before?

“My father didn’t want me to do this, either,” says Hubert. “Actually, neither did I.” He smiles a little bit, clearly aware of the parallel drawn between him and Ferdinand. “This is good money and good experience, I just—have other things on my mind. Bigger and better.”

“Ah,” says Ferdinand knowingly. “Bake Off.”

It’s the first time he’s properly seen Hubert laugh—at least, in a room with good lighting where he can see Hubert’s face. It’s fascinating to watch. Ferdinand can tell Hubert doesn’t do it much, because the sound is so much more awkward than people who have had many years worth of experience making their laughs sound like laughs. But that makes it all the more like a sound Ferdinand wants to cradle in his heart for the rest of time—it’s precious and hard-won, and he intends to keep hold of it, and he longs to hear more of it—

Fuck, Ferdinand thinks. He doesn’t normally curse, not even in his head, but it’s the only word that really suffices.

Hubert smiles. “I don’t know what song you’re going to sing,” he says, “and don’t tell me, either. I want to know, but I shouldn’t. But you have to sing it, Ferdie.”

And then he walks away, and Ferdinand lets the sound of Hubert saying Ferdie roll around his head, and tries to understand a single thing that had just happened.

He’d wanted to kiss Hubert. He’d almost done it. Well—not almost, really, because they hadn’t even been close, but it was only a matter of time before Ferdinand reached over and kissed the hell out of him. He’d wanted to kiss Hubert, he’d wanted to kiss Hubert, he’d wanted to kiss Hubert

 

Bernadetta asks him what had ended up happening with that producer you said was giving you a hard time on the phone that week. Ferdinand had laughed uncontrollably until he’d thought he was about to have a heart attack, and then he’d said oh, everything’s fine now trying desperately to not sound too dreamy.

 

They’re at the point in the show where some people have already started to invite their families.

Some are easier to recognize than others, when Ferdinand sees them backstage. If it weren’t for the same blonde hair and the way Mercedes wraps her arms around him when she sees him, he’d have never recognised Mercedes’s brother. On the other hand, he instantly spots the resemblance between Felix and his older brother and their father, who looks stern and who betrays as little emotion as his younger son, but who Ferdinand is sure has some kind of pride deep within. He only has a slight pang watching their firm, solemn greeting.

Seteth’s thirteen-year-old daughter Flayn is also there—apparently, she’s at all the later live shows, a compromise she’d made with her father when she’d decided that she wanted to go with him on Saturday evenings every week to watch the performances. She’s very taken with Ferdinand, and it makes him feel flattered, but also incredibly awkward.

Dorothea mutters something to him about his very first fangirl, and he laughs, a little too nervous and high-pitched to be natural. “She’s not the first thirteen-year-old girl who’s decided she’s in love with you,” she tells him wryly. “Nor is she going to be the last.”

He laughs. “What are you singing?”

“You’ll see,” she says. “What are you singing?”

“You’ll see,” he echoes. She smiles at him. She’s performing directly after him—the first time since the competition started that they won’t be able to see the entirety of each other’s performances on the TV screen in the waiting room.

He’s performing Landslide, but he’d debated it literally every moment of rehearsal. He was still debating it now.

Only—

You have to sing it, Ferdie, Hubert had said, and somehow those six words had somehow given him the strength to say that this is what he was doing, and this is what he was singing, and this is his decision that he made.

But it’s terrifying. He feels like he’s about to go on stage and bare his soul like he never has before—in the climbed a mountain and I turned around, in the can the child within my heart rise above, in the and I’m getting older too. He doesn’t think he’s ever been more scared in his life.

“Ferdinand?” Ashe asks. “You’re about to go on.”

His heart pounds in his chest. Well, he thinks, here goes. And he steps onto the stage with his guitar strapped to his chest to the final seconds of the introductory video playing on the big screens, sits on a stool in front of the judges, and plays the first chord.

 

Ferdinand doesn’t remember a thing about his performance.

Frankly, he’d been too busy worrying about a million different things—remembering the lyrics, not crying, trying not to disconnect from it too hard. He barely remembers what the judges tell him. None of them are really the most emotional people in the world, so he wasn’t expecting tears from anyone, but he’d kind of been hoping for it. Maybe from someone unexpected, like Rhea.

But it went well, he thinks. It went really well. He thinks he may have peaked too early in the season, because he doesn’t know how he could possibly top that—maybe not in everyone else’s eyes, but in his own.

Hubert isn’t around backstage—it’s hard not to feel a little pang at that, at not being able to hear what Hubert thinks about what Ferdinand is pretty sure is the best performance he’d ever done—but when he gets into the waiting room he’s accosted by Marianne.

“You were amazing, Ferdinand,” she says. “I teared up. You were really good.”

He smiles at her. “Thanks, Marianne.” He’d been so out of it that he doesn’t even remember what she and Hilda had performed, but he says, “You were great as well.”

He settles into a chair to enjoy the last few performances, but it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that one of the acts is going home tomorrow, and it very well could be Ferdinand.

 

@andywrightt: How is #XFactor trending above anything election-related...this is why Britain is the laughing stock of Europe

@jessxphillips: #XFactor is really making me cry tonight…

@isobelparker70: As a long time Fleetwood Mac fan, I never thought I could see a good cover of one of their songs...Ferdinand on #XFactor just changed my mind

@taylorxcx: i’m bored! here’s how dorothea can still win #XFactor

 

His name is called second that Sunday, just after Dedue, who gives him a pat on the shoulder in encouragement.

The other names go by—Dorothea is safe, as are Claude and the Blue Lions, but Hilda and Marianne face up against Annette and Mercedes in the sing-off. They both do well—and Ferdinand couldn’t possibly root for one of them over the other—but Annette and Mercedes do slightly better.

It’s sad to see Hilda and Marianne go. Marianne hugs him on her way out and tells him she hopes he wins, and Ferdinand isn’t sure if she means it specifically or if she just told everyone that but he hugs her back, pleased.

Next week is Beatles week, which Ferdinand knows he has a head start on just by the grace of being a white boy who grew up in part on a Beatles greatest hits CD. He’ll do something recognisable and iconic, but not as well known as Hey Jude or Yesterday. Blackbird, maybe, or Across The Universe.

“Do the Beatles have any songs about how much the Beatles suck?” Dorothea asks at one point, a headphone in her left ear, listening to a playlist titled This Is The Beatles on a phone Ferdinand thinks might be Edelgard’s.

“You can’t have possibly gone through life without hearing a single Beatles song,” says Felix.

“I’m too pretty,” says Dorothea. Ferdinand stifles a laugh and heads out with a few songs on sheet music, en route for the keyboard.

The room is blissfully empty, so he decides to warm up with a round of Hey Jude. It’s a song he has quite fond memories of—slightly depressing backstory aside—and it’s almost crazy how easily the lyrics practically fall out of his mouth when he sings.

He only plays it for about a minute, then stops to flick through the sheet music he’d selected—all Beatles songs that he doesn’t know from memory the way he does with Hey Jude. But he can’t help but smile slightly—playing for a purpose is great, practicing songs to perform is gratifying, and performing in front of a crowd is the greatest feeling Ferdinand could possibly feel, but there’s something incredible about just sitting in front of a keyboard and playing just for himself.

Someone clears their throat from the doorway, and his head snaps up, mentally rectifying to himself and anyone else who may be watching creepily from the doorway. “I hope you’re not genuinely considering playing that,” says Hubert. “I’m not allowed to give you advice on song selection, but I can hint clearly that it would be a bad idea.”

“I’m not,” says Ferdinand. “I was just warming up.” He clears his throat. “How long were you there?”

Hubert shrugs. “You’ve got a great voice,” he says, as if he’d only just noticed, or perhaps as if he’d only just been reminded. “When you release an album, you’d better record a few acoustic versions as well.”

Ferdinand smiles. “I know you said you can’t give me advice on songs,” he says, “but would you like to sit here while I decide which one to perform?”

“But with no advice.”

“Of course not,” says Ferdinand. This is risky—this is so, so risky, it’s enough that Ferdinand hears Hubert’s thoughts about every stage performance, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to perform to his regular standard if he’s got one eye out for Hubert’s reactions, controlled as they may be. But he plays the first few chords of Across the Universe, and somehow manages to lose himself in the song even with his awareness of Hubert watching him shrewdly.

“It’s too close to last week, I think,” he says when he’s done, clearing his throat. Hubert says nothing. “I think people need to remember that I can do things other than be emotional.” He laughs. “I think you told me once that I didn’t know how to connect to songs emotionally—”

Hubert shakes his head before Ferdinand can finish. “That was bullshit,” he says.

“It was true,” says Ferdinand. “Or, well. I knew how to do it, I just didn’t do it. So you were fine to give me a bit of a kick.”

“Ferdinand—”

“Hey,” says Ferdinand. “You don’t need to apologize for being a bit of a dick. It worked, anyway, right?”

“You were really good last week,” Hubert says quietly.

Ferdinand’s heart does a swoop in his chest, and he wants nothing more than to stride across the room and kiss the breath out of Hubert. But that’s ridiculous—Hubert won’t feel the same way, and besides, they’re still working together, and more importantly—even after this finishes, Ferdinand wants to have Hubert in his life. He wants to still have everyone from the show in his life. And he doesn’t want to mess up their weird, precarious friendship.

He’d made so many friends through the show, including one he thought he might be in love with. It’s hard to regret agreeing to go on it right now. It’s hard to justify anything that could affect those friendships.

So he turns back to the keyboard, and quietly decides not to play I Want to Hold Your Hand, instead launching into From Me to You, and then Blackbird, and then Help.

Hubert’s still there. He’s got his phone out, so he’s not watching Ferdinand (a traitorous part of Ferdinand’s brain tells him this is a good opportunity to stare), but he’s vaguely smiling, and Ferdinand feels his heart pounding in his chest. That was me, he thinks.

Hubert looks up then, before Ferdinand can properly memorise his face from this angle. “Was that everything you had?” he asks.

“Yeah,” he says, quietly shuffling the papers so I Want to Hold Your Hand is at the back. “I still don’t know which one to do, though. And you can’t help at all.”

“No,” Hubert agrees.

Ferdinand’s hands find the keys instinctively, but he’s playing a Beach Boys song—Wouldn’t It Be Nice—instead, and then a little of Waterloo Sunset, and then The Boxer.

“You know all these from memory?” Hubert asks.

“I learned a lot of them by ear,” Ferdinand admits. “This was the stuff my mum liked, so I learned a lot of them just from listening.” He smiles. “I really love music.”

Hubert nods. “I could tell,” he says, but it’s not mocking—simply a statement. Ferdinand thinks he might be glowing, if that was possible.

“I wish I had some big lofty explanation as to why I love music,” he says, “like—I realized how much it touches people emotionally, or whatever. And I guess that is a part of it, but it’s not why. I just like it. I like the way it sounds and I like the way singing makes me feel.” He laughs. “I’m an awfully selfish person, I think.”

He starts to play without thinking about it—don’t talk, take my hand and let me hear your heartbeat—and then stops, embarrassed. “This album,” he says, because he doesn’t know how to be silent, “Brian Wilson wrote it because he liked Rubber Soul so much. He called it the greatest record ever. And then Paul McCartney listened to Pet Sounds, and played it for John Lennon, and then they wrote Sgt. Pepper.” He swallows. “Kind of like me and you, I suppose, in a way.”

And Ferdinand knows he’s doomed every song on Pet Sounds for life now, because he won’t be able to hear Don’t Talk without thinking of Hubert’s hands and Hubert’s eyes and Hubert’s smile and Hubert’s laugh. He wants to tell Hubert everything, every detail about the creation of Pet Sounds, and every detail about the day in Year Nine when he’d spent an hour reading its Wikipedia page when he should have been writing an essay on Hamlet, and every moment where he’d listened to a song playing with his mother or where he’d heard one of the household staff playing something on the radio while Mr. von Aegir wasn’t available.

He doesn’t, though.

Hubert clears his throat. “I’ll let you get on with this,” he says. “Thanks for playing for me.” And then he smiles, that elusive smile that Ferdinand thinks he could spend the rest of his life chasing.

When Hubert leaves, Ferdinand finally plays I Want to Hold Your Hand, but he knows halfway through it that he couldn’t possibly perform it on stage on Saturday night.

 

He’d kind of imagined that if he ever fell in love it would be something big and loud and show-stopping, something he would have to scream from the rooftops and practically end up wearing as a neon sign on top of his head. He’d had teenage crushes where his heart seized and skipped beats and performed rhythmic gymnastic routines whenever the object of his affection so much as smiled at him.

And it’s sort of like that with Hubert, but it’s also like this—their eyes meet across the room, and Hubert doesn’t quite smile but his eyes go a little brighter, and Ferdinand thinks clearly if I could make you feel like that every day, I would.

It’s Ferdinand pouring Hubert a mug of black coffee at seven in the morning—Hubert awake for work, Ferdinand for practice—and drinking his own tea in comfortable silence. It’s the comfortable silence itself, the idea that Ferdinand von Aegir, whose every movement is noise and light and colour, could possibly find comfort in those brief, easy silences. Hubert in his head is a whirlwind of thoughts and sounds and sights—the lines of his profile, the instant coffee in the coffee machine, a thousand songs from his teenage years that he’d been so foolish as to think he understood.

He thinks he might be falling in love, and he thinks this is definitely a problem, but he doesn’t know how to stop it. The brakes are broken and he’s speeding to the bottom of the hill, utterly incapable of preventing the inevitable crash at the bottom.

 

In the end, he settles on Help. Blackbird was tempting, but he goes for the opportunity to show off a bit more versatility over how pretty he personally finds the song—he’d done the acoustic thing last week, and the last thing he wants to do is get out of the show having accidentally pigeonholed himself into a box he doesn’t want to be in.

It goes well, he thinks. They’ve reached a point in the show where, no matter how hard any of them try, none of them are really capable of surprising anyone. Dorothea performs her way through Drive My Car, and Dedue sings Let It Be in a way that makes Ferdinand re-examine his opinion on covers of that song. He can see Dedue winning the whole thing, and he knows he’d be delighted for him if he did. To tell the truth, he’d be delighted for any of them.

And I’m so close now, he thinks to himself, because for all he’d said to Hubert about how he didn’t really care much anymore, he thinks he cares far more than he would admit he did. There’s always the maybe after all.

“I’m glad you went with that one,” Hubert tells him, and Ferdinand thanks whatever god is out there for the bad lighting backstage so Hubert can’t see the way his cheeks flare up in delight.

@softjjks: oomfs @ me when they stop singing beatles songs #XFactor

@taejincIub: @softjjks you know it’s beatles week right?

@softjjks: @taejincIub FUCK

@ninainaina: Watching #XFactor with my little sister, who’s the tall blonde guy in the lion band he’s well fit

@paul5402tay: None of these kids on #XFactor have any idea how to sing Beatles songs! Disappointed!

@senoritamendes: ferdinand on #XFactor gives me shawn vibes omggg

@twigslp: @senoritamendes ferdinand sweetie i’m so sorry a dumb bitch like this would even say that oh my god

@twiceIghts: the funniest thing about #XFactor stan twitter is the fanwar between ferdinand and claude stans

@nayeonluv: @twiceIghts THERES X FACTOR STAN TWITTER???

This week is a double elimination. In his frantic preparation and attempt to figure out exactly what he feels for Hubert, he’d totally forgotten about the fact that two, not one, act would be going home tonight.

They call out the theme for next week—songs from the movies, another X Factor classic—and then it’s time for the eliminations.

It’s terrifying. The more names that get called out, he gets worried—but he gets called third, after Dedue and Dorothea. The Blue Lions and Claude (Ferdinand briefly flashes back to disco week) and Annette and Mercedes are all up against each other in the sing-off, and it’s the former who emerges victorious.

There might be a few tears. Ferdinand’s going to miss them—Mercedes above all, who promises that she’ll ask Ashe to give her his number “so we can meet up next time we’re in London, Ferdie, because I really will miss you”.

It’s not until he gets back to the house that he’s hit by the fact that he’s in the top four. He has one more performance to do before he’s in the top three, and that knowledge is downright terrifying. He’s so close to the goal he’d had when he first went to the London audition—so close he can almost touch it.

So he’s awake at six in the morning, going through the approved songs list, looking for not only the best songs but the best two songs. They’re down to the top four now, which means they will each perform twice—all of them will perform their first songs, and then, in the same order, their second songs.

And then the bottom two will perform a third on Sunday night, he thinks, but shoves it out of his mind. He’s not going to think about Sunday night. He’s not even going to think about how this is a competition. He’s just going to perform first, and do the best he can possibly do, but he’s not going to look at Ingrid or Dimitri or Sylvain or Felix or Dedue or, God forbid, Dorothea and look at them as a competitor.

Still, there’s no camaraderie to be found anywhere in the house, and Ferdinand must have gone through a million different songs, none of them quite fitting. There’s two things he’s not doing to—he’s not going to think of his fellow contestants as competitors, and he is sure as hell not going to sing a song to Hubert.

(He’s pretty sure there’s no movie song about falling in love with a guy on the set of a reality singing competition, either.)

But he finds himself playing love songs anyway, each one more dramatic than the last—Iris, It Must Have Been Love, Take My Breath Away. Christian in Moulin Rouge singing that I will love you until my dying day, Sandy in Grease singing about being hopelessly devoted.

Grease is iconic, right? He flashes back to a conversation he had a few weeks back with Dorothea about Grease, and decides that he’s embracing the fact that he might emulate a little bit of Sandy Olsson, in that he’s also finding himself more and more hopelessly devoted by the day.

It’s a little dramatic, but he finds he does a good cover of it, and it’s a nice contrast with the fact that he’s considering Pinball Wizard for his first song. And he doubts anybody will consider that maybe he’s singing from the heart in a way that’s perhaps a little too recent. As far as anyone needs to know, he’s just a big fan of the cinema of the seventies.

He also finds himself avoiding Hubert, even avoiding meeting his eyes when they run into each other. But that’s to be expected, really.

 

Actually, the week goes by ridiculously fast—to be expected, when he barely speaks to anyone and spends most of his time practicing—and by Saturday night Ferdinand’s brain has devolved into a whirlwind of devotion and pinball. He’s performing second, and then sixth. There’s going to be a costume change. He thinks he should be more excited to perform, but he’s not really.

He listens to Dedue singing Who Wants to Live Forever from backstage, trying to stop himself from fiddling with the microphone clipped onto his shirt.

And then he’s on, and he tries not to seem too nervous, and outright performs his way through Pinball Wizard. It’s from a rock opera, and a rock opera is just one step away from a musical, and a musical is a performance and Ferdinand knows how to perform.

It’s the second song he’s more worried about, because that’s less of a performance—even if it is actually from a musical. It’s one thing to bear his heart out, and quite another to do it for public consumption. He should really be used to it by now, but he isn’t, because singing about pain is different to singing about love, and Ferdinand knows how to sing about pain but not about love.

My heart is saying don’t let go, he sings on stage that night, and it’s ridiculous and dramatic (nothing new about that) and he doesn’t truly believe it applies to Ferdinand’s situation but he does understand the sentiment of being totally, utterly gone.

It’s a good performance. He knows he had a good night. Hubert is conspicuously absent from the backstage both times, but Ferdinand doesn’t think he could look Hubert in the eye right now without collapsing in his arms and declaring his undying love for him. But most of the show now is down to people who have already decided who they’re voting for, so Ferdinand knows there’s nothing more he can do but hope for the best.

 

@jennarxgers: Why are the blue lions on #XFactor even called the blue lions wtf they’re not even lions and they barely even wear blue

@emilyjohnson: Goddamn, Dedue is killing it on #XFactor #Deduesday

@taylorxcx: istg if we get a dedue vs ferdinand final i will genuinely kms WE WANT DOROTHEA #XFactor

@bernievarley: coming out of my writing induced hiatus to say: vote for ferdinand!!!!

 

The bottom two are Ferdinand and Dorothea.

His head is numb. There’s no way they can make him compete directly against Dorothea. There’s no way he can beat Dorothea. Both in that Ferdinand is simply not as good as she is, and in that he won’t take this away from her.

He’s not going to throw it—Dorothea would never forgive him if he threw it on purpose—but he knows even if he had weeks to prepare she would be able to beat him.

So he picks a song he’s happy going out with as well. He thinks about it, and thinks about his time here on the show—thinks about the friends he made and the conversations he had—and he settles on God Only Knows. Because God only knew what Ferdinand would be without the last few months—still a boy, stuck between what he wants and what his father wants, torn between doing what he loves most in the world and just doing what he thought he should do. Still unable to sing with emotion, still unable to perform without limiting himself, still unable to take criticism without it breaking his heart.

He almost laughs to himself after he tells the band that this is the song he’s going to perform in the sing-off—laughs at the very notion that a fifteen-year-old Ferdinand had thought he understood this song.

But he could also sing it in his sleep, so he does. I may not always love you, he sings, and thinks about how he thinks he might finally be getting it, how you can have doubts and be unsure and still love with every fiber of your being and every beat of your heart and every neuron in your brain.

 

Dorothea beats him. She wraps her arms around him on stage and angrily hisses “You threw it!”

“I didn’t,” he assures her. “I didn’t.” He hugs her back. “I wanted to sing that song. I promise.”

When he gets back to the house, he quietly goes upstairs to pack what he owns into the suitcase he’d brought. He lives in London, about half an hour away from the house, so there’s no real rush, but he sort of wants to get out of here before he gets accosted by people telling him they’ll miss him. He’ll miss them, too, but it’s okay. He’ll get their phone numbers from Ashe.

He’s not going to cry—he refuses to cry, not about this, not when he’s already gotten closer than he ever thought he could get. He was just so close.

There’s a knock on his door frame, and Ferdinand already knows it’s Hubert without even looking. “You can come in,” he says, looking up at him.

Hubert shrugs. “I just wanted to say,” he begins, and then stops, as if he isn’t quite sure what he wants to say. Ferdinand wonders what it’s going to be—I’ll miss you? I’ll call you sometime? Why did you sing a song from the album you said was like us?

I’ll miss you too. Please call me. Because it reminds me of you.

“Good luck,” Hubert says finally. “With everything that happens from now.”

“Don’t need luck,” Ferdinand mumbles, an echo of the other day. Hubert smiles, and crouches down to help Ferdinand with his packing, and they’re so close that Ferdinand could kiss him. He could.

And then Hubert edges closer, and wraps his arms around Ferdinand, and Ferdinand physically feels the tension leave his body, burying his head in the spot where Hubert’s neck meets his shoulder. He’s vaguely aware of Hubert’s hand hovering at the back of his own head, and then finally threading his hand through Ferdinand’s hair.

Ferdinand doesn’t think they’ve ever touched before. Their relationship has been one carried out wholly through lingering glances across rooms, conversation filling the space between them until it doesn’t feel quite so large. But now Hubert’s left arm is around his back, and his right hand is in his hair, and Ferdinand is not crying, but he thinks he could—thinks his heart could be bursting with disappointment and pride and love all at once.

“Ferdinand,” says Hubert quietly, his voice sounding a little raw. “Ferdie.” Ferdinand pulls back, looks at him in the face, and thinks even if I never kiss you, that would be enough. “You’ve got lovely hair,” he says, because there’s nothing else to say.

“It used to be long,” says Ferdinand, gesturing to his mid-back. “Then I got it cut before I came on the show.”

Hubert smiles. “I’ll—” he begins, and Ferdinand desperately wants him to say that he’ll miss him, or that he’ll stay in touch, or that he’ll at least listen to Ferdinand’s debut album if he ever gets around to releasing one. “I’ll let you pack.”

He’s not at all dejected.

Maybe a little bit—but it’s not like he’d expected anything else, is it?

 

He’s barely got his key in the lock of his apartment door when it opens, and he finds himself with an armful of Bernadetta Varley. He smiles instinctively, and hugs her back.

“Bernie,” he says. “Hey. Hi. How are you?”

“You were amazing,” she says. “You should’ve won.”

“Dorothea’s great,” says Ferdinand. “She deserves to win the show more than I do.” He lets her detach herself from him, and wheels his suitcase into the apartment.

“Ferdinand!” Caspar yells. “Dude, you were great!” Linhardt raises a hand in a gesture at once greeting and agreement, which Ferdinand supposes is the best he’s going to get, and which he also thinks is at the very least expected.

“Thanks, guys,” he says. “Can I unpack my suitcase, then?”

He’d asked Ashe before he left for Mercedes, Marianne, and Manuela’s phone numbers specifically, and he shoots each of them texts saying who he is, and then crashes to sleep without unpacking his suitcase out of sheer and utter tiredness.

 

When he wakes up in the morning, his email has blown up with people claiming to be talent agents fully willing to help his career, replies from the girls from the show saying, with varying wording, that they loved his performances and that they’ll get in touch next time they’re in London, and a text message from Bernadetta saying that she’ll help him sift through the offers from record labels that he’s bound to be getting sometime soon.

He sends her a text back saying that he’d love to talk, and then falls back to sleep, and wakes up to his phone ringing. It’s been months since he woke up to a phone ringtone, and he answers without thinking, a tired, “Hello?” into the phone.

“Hello, Ferdinand,” says his father. “Could you let me in? I’m outside your apartment.”

 

“I was ringing the doorbell for about ten minutes,” his father says.

Ferdinand averts his eyes. “I was asleep,” he says quietly.

“It’s midday.”

“And I’ve just got back from a singing competition show,” Ferdinand snaps, “so forgive me for being a little bit exhausted.”

His father doesn’t frown, but he doesn’t look pleased either. “I saw some of your performances,” he says, and this surprises Ferdinand—he tries his best not to show his surprise on his face, but he fails. “You were good. I was surprised.”

“You thought I was going to throw everything I had away on a whim?” Ferdinand asks.

“I don’t like it,” his father continues, as if Ferdinand had never spoken, “but I don’t think there’s anything I could do to stop you, is there?” Ferdinand shakes his head. “Thus, I’ll accept it. And if you ever want money…”

“I don’t want your money,” says Ferdinand, and there’s a whole wave of anger rushing over him—the same anger he’d felt that first time he’d spoken to Hubert, except now he understands how misplaced his anger was, because he’d directed it all at Hubert when he should have been directing it at this man here. “And I never asked for you to like it. I’m asking you to respect it, because I’m an adult and this is my decision to make and I’m going to go about it on my own.” His father looks a little taken aback, but Ferdinand powers ahead. “I’m going to be a musician, Father. And I would be happy if you could be there, in a few years, when I perform in London for the first time, but I also won’t lose any sleep over it either if you decide you don’t want to.”

His father is silent. “I’m sure whatever you release will be good, Ferdinand,” he says. “So I’ll try to make it.” He heads for the door, and then hesitates for a second. “I liked the Beach Boys song you sang last night. Your mother would have been pleased.”

And then he’s gone, and Ferdinand thinks it’s a start, and then goes to open up his laptop and go through the offers from talent agents and record labels on his own.

 

Saturday night rolls by far too soon—Ferdinand makes appointments with about five prospective managers and two prospective labels that he and Bernadetta had decided seemed up to scratch. And then suddenly, it’s Saturday again, and he’s shoved into the sofa in front of a bowl of popcorn to watch the second-to-last live show.

There’s no theme in the last two live shows, so Ferdinand just enjoys the performances. “What are the odds?” he asks Linhardt, who would know.

“Dedue has the middle-aged mother market on lock,” says Linhardt. “He’s getting to the final for definite, and I’d put good money on him winning. Then the teenagers and young adults seem pretty split between Dorothea and the lion gang.” He glances at Ferdinand. “Which one is nicer in real life, Ferdinand?”

“Dorothea’s my friend,” says Ferdinand. “The others are cool, but we weren’t quite friends. They’re nice though.” He knows though, at the end of the night, that Dorothea is going to have his vote.

It’s over faster than he expects it to be—when you’re actually performing it seems to inch by second by second, but the show is over with soon enough. Ferdinand meets with a manager in an office in West London on Sunday morning—she seems promising, but he won’t get his heart set on anyone until he’s been to see everyone on his list—and then it’s time to watch the elimination.

“I can’t watch,” he says, when Dedue is predictably called as the one safe act, and Dorothea is up against the Blue Lions. “This is giving me anxiety.”

But Dorothea loses. Ferdinand’s still happy for her—top three still means a record label contract, and that’s really all that matters, though he is a little bummed for her that she isn’t going to the final, and for his money she’s always been the best singer on the show.

 

She texts him the next morning—hey it’s dorothea text me back? And then, two minutes later, coffee later maybe?

He’s not meeting with anyone that day, so he texts back sure! anywhere in mind! with a smiling emoji. She sends him the name of a coffee shop he’s aware of, but has never been to, and midday? He responds sounds great! see you there! with a heart emoji.

“First of all,” she says when he steps up to the table she’s sitting at with an iced coffee in hand, “you use far too many emojis. I would not have become friends with you if I knew you used an emoji in every text.”

“You could at least pretend to be happy to see me,” he says.

She smiles at him. “I’m happy to see you, Ferdie.” She takes a sip of her coffee, and says, “How are things going? Career-wise?”

“I’ve met with a couple people,” he tells her, “but I haven’t made any decisions yet. Me and my friend Bernadetta eliminated anyone who was definitely a scam, and anyone who didn’t have enough—clout.” Dorothea snorts at his word choice. He smiles at her. “I want to find someone who has a decent amount of buzz in the industry, but who will mostly let me do whatever I want.”

Dorothea laughs. “According to Rhea, there’s people lining up to produce my album,” she tells him in a conspiratorial whisper. “Didn’t want to say this on the show, but I’m kind of pop darling material. I’m in it for the arts, not the charts, baby.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for the Dorothea Arnault diva rumours in a year,” Ferdinand tells her.

Dorothea laughs. “I’ll apparently get at least some choice in which songs to put on my album,” she says, “but I won’t get to produce many until I’m a bit more established. I’m currently enjoying what I’ve been told are my last days of being able to get coffee without majorly being recognised.” She takes another sip of coffee, and her smile goes devilish. “Speaking of things we didn’t want to talk about on the show—you and Hubert? What the fuck?”

Ferdinand, in one of his less dignified moments, blushes bright red, and takes a long sip of iced coffee. “There’s nothing between me and Hubert,” he says, a little sadly. “But I think I am in love with him.”

“Sucks,” says Dorothea. He nods in agreement. “You should write a song about it. About how you fell in love with him even though he’s kind of a dick and looks like Count Dracula.”

“Oh, how I’ve missed your sharp tongue,” says Ferdinand. “How did you know?”

“Because you take any opportunity to stare at him,” says Dorothea, “and it was either you have a thing for him or you want to kill him and use his skin as a skin suit, and I really didn’t want it to be the last one.” She takes a sip of coffee. “But really, if your type is dark hair and sharp around the edges—you could’ve at least found someone who wasn’t also a producer of the show you just spent months on.”

Ferdinand laughs sadly, and takes a sip of his own drink. “Do you want to come over to my apartment on Saturday?” he offers. “It might be a little lonely to watch the finale by yourself, and I’m watching it with some of my friends. Unless you have plans with your own friends—”

“I don’t,” Dorothea says. “My friends have not been nearly as proactive about contacting me since I got off the show. Are there going to be drinks?”

“And snacks,” Ferdinand says.

“Then I’m in,” says Dorothea. “Send me your address.”

 

By the time Saturday rolls around, Ferdinand has met with one record executive and three managers, and is still nowhere near closer to a decision. He drinks a bit on Saturday, totally forgetting how much of a lightweight he is, and ends up spilling the whole sad saga of Hubert Vestra to a rapt Bernadetta (who he was certain was going to write it into a book), a vaguely interested Caspar, a half-asleep Linhardt, and Dorothea, who spends the whole time hogging the popcorn and adding comments to scenes that she featured in.

They all like Dorothea, though—she bestows each of them with a new nickname, and calls a cab at the end of the night with an insane level of sobriety for someone who had made drinks a condition of visiting. “Come back tomorrow,” Bernadetta had told her, and she’d agreed, and Ferdinand had felt something in his chest swell at just how well she got along with all of them.

Ferdinand has a mild headache on Sunday, though he’s not sure how much of it is alcohol-induced and how much of it is just embarrassment at how he’d spilled out his insides to an audience—and not even in song!—after a single glass of wine. He goes about his day, buys more popcorn from the nearest Tesco Express, and uses the self checkout because he’s pretty sure the cashier is eyeing him in a where have I seen you before? kind of way.

But then Bernadetta has an emergency meeting with her editor, and Linhardt has a deadline for his thesis to meet, and they all agree that there’s really no need to watch it anyway if Ferdinand doesn’t have a shot at winning, so he goes around to Dorothea’s, and they order a pizza.

The show had barely started before the doorbell rang. “That’ll be the pizza,” Ferdinand says.

“They’re awfully fast,” says Dorothea.

“I’ll get it,” says Ferdinand, because it’s not like there’s anything else going on. He opens her front door, and says “Hi” rummaging in his pocket for his wallet, and looks up.

And then he freezes, because it isn’t a pizza delivery man, and it isn’t a crazy stalker and it isn’t any kind of door-to-door salesman or someone who works for a record label—it’s Hubert, standing there drenched in water—was it raining? Had Hubert walked all the way here?

“Hi,” says Ferdinand numbly, his hand stuck in his pocket. “Is it raining?”

“I went to your apartment,” Hubert says, “and then your roommate told me you might be with another friend, so I walked there, but your friend with the purple hair told me you were here, so I walked here.” He exhales. “They seemed to know who I was.”

“You’re my friend,” Ferdinand says. “I talked about you.” He steps out into the hallway and shuts the door behind him.

“I listened to Pet Sounds,” says Hubert. Ferdinand blinks at him. “And then I got obsessed with the background behind it, so I read the Wikipedia page.” He’s still breathing heavily, but there’s a soft, unreadable kind of smile on his face. “The album was revolutionary when it came out, you know? People wrote it off, at first, but then people realized just how many things they did on that album that nobody had ever done before, and realized that it was genius.” He exhales. “And then I thought about that, and then I thought about you, and how I think everyone did the same with you. I know I did. And I know you’re probably thinking that you don’t do anything different to what other people do, but you do—not in your music and your performances, but in just the way you connect with the music and with people and the way you just always want to be better.”

It’s the most Ferdinand has ever heard Hubert say at once. “Hubert,” he says softly.

“You were my favourite,” Hubert says softly, and Ferdinand finally places the shyness in his smile, the courage it took for him to say everything he was saying. “We weren’t supposed to have favourites, and I didn’t—not for ages, not till week three or four—but I did, and it was you. Edelgard thought it was so funny. I told her today, I couldn’t possibly just leave it, and she told me to just go for it, that she’d cover for me, and that she didn’t believe I’d managed to break the first rule of working on this show in the first place. But I had to break the rule, I had to get a favourite, and it had to be you, because—because you were just so earnest and bright and you just loved the music so much, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel to have just a fraction of that love set on a person.” He laughs to himself, sardonic, and says, “Fuck, you cared so much that you dumped half a bottle of water on yourself. That’s so fucking ridiculous. I don’t know anybody else who would do something like that.” Ferdinand can’t breathe all of a sudden. “It’s just you, Ferdinand. Only you.” He swallows, and sighs a little, and looks Ferdinand in the eye. “Ferdinand, I would’ve voted for you.”

And that’s what does it, what finally breaks the spell keeping the tension thick and heavy, because Ferdinand leans up just as Hubert leans down, and their lips meet in the middle of the three inches between them.

“I love you,” he blurts out when Hubert pulls away, one of his hands still cupping Ferdinand’s cheek. “I’m sorry if it’s too soon and you wanted to take this slow—”

He cuts himself off, because Hubert was looking at him like he was the most important thing in the whole world, like he never wanted to look at anything else now that he’s looked at Ferdinand, and Ferdinand doesn’t know how he’s survived twenty one years not knowing how it felt to be looked at like that.

“Fuck taking it slow,” Hubert says breathlessly, devoutly, and then he kisses Ferdinand again. Fireworks erupt in his head, exploding to the rhythm of finally, finally, finally.

Ferdinand breaks away from him suddenly, struck by a thought. “Edelgard knew?”

“Yeah,” Hubert says, looking slightly taken aback to be talking about Edelgard at a time like this, and despite himself Ferdinand gives himself a point for the victory.

“It’s just that I think she tried to set us up,” he offers, and Hubert smiles at that, and ducks his head a little to hide it. Instinctively, Ferdinand reaches out a hand to touch Hubert’s jaw, and watches as Hubert meets his eyes. “I wanted to see you smile for so long. It was like an obsession for me. I wanted to see you smile and know that was all me. Maybe I should have known then, but I didn’t. I think I fell in love with you so quickly that I didn’t even know until it was too late.”

“I love you too,” Hubert says. “I just realized I didn’t say it before.”

Ferdinand laughs, and takes Hubert’s hand, marvelling at how easily it fits into his own. “This is Dorothea’s apartment,” he says.

“Okay,” says Hubert.

“We’re watching the finale together.”

“Dedue’s going to win,” Hubert says dismissively.

“I always knew the show was rigged,” says Ferdinand with a tut.

“Not rigged,” Hubert says. “I just know these things.”

“You can come in,” Ferdinand says. He reaches over and takes his hand, and Hubert snaps back to full attention, staring at Ferdinand once again with all the intensity in the world in his eyes. Like he’s not quite sure Ferdinand is real. (Oh, how Ferdinand likes the sound of that.) “Unless you wanted to take things a little slower, in which case I’m free Tuesday afternoon.”

“I’ll think about it,” says Hubert mockingly, and Ferdinand laughs, and reaches up to kiss him again, so ridiculously happy, so ridiculously in love that it’s killing him.

 

Dedue wins the final.

Ferdinand barely pays attention, really. He’s pretty sure there was a musical guest, and some kind of winning performance, but he’d been unable to pay attention to the television at all with Hubert’s hand in his, still holding his hand like he’ll never let go.