The first sensation that greets my waking consciousness is the smell of old parchment. It is swiftly followed by a numbness in the side of my face and a cramp in my neck. With a quiet groan, I lift my head up from where it rests on the pages of the giant textbook and rub my eyes that are still aching from the strain of hours of reading.
Did I fall asleep in the library again? Yes, I suppose I did. Damn it all.
I blink away the blurriness in my vision and get distracted by the sight of the dust motes caught in the shaft of golden light streaming in from the window. I am in danger of dozing off again when I sneeze sharply and the jolt wakes me all the way up.
“Bless you,” a deep voice says and I turn around to see Hubert perched on the window seat, a book in his hands.
“When did you get here?” I ask.
“Oh, a few hours ago,” he says indifferently, turning the page of his book and continuing to read.
“And you did not wake me?”
“You need rest. You should stop being so idiotically stubborn and get a proper night’s sleep sometime. Then maybe you wouldn’t be interrupting my reading by snoring in the library, a place that is supposed to be quiet.”
“I don’t- I do not snore!” I insist.
“No one has ever told me that I snore.”
“Then you have either never shared a bed with someone or never had a friend who valued honesty over pointless flattery,” he replies.
I sigh in annoyance and run my fingers through my hair, hoping it does not look too bedraggled after my unintended nap. “You could read somewhere else, you know.”
Hubert does not reply and I decide to ignore him, turning my attention back to the heavy text and trying to recall what I was reading before I fell asleep.
“You drooled on the pages a bit,” Hubert says.
“I- What the-?” I almost curse, but catch myself just in time. I will not let Hubert’s discourteous language rub off on me. Rubbing the tiny smudge on the page away, I say, “I doubt anyone will notice. I fear I am the only person to have read this book in fifty years.”
“Yes, most people don’t make it past the first miserable volume.”
“Miserable? Halfast’s Compendium of Provincial Weaponries is a fascinating and unrivaled work of research! The fact it is underrated is not the fault of the text.”
“Is it now?” he says. “Because the fact you started it six years ago and still have not finished it would suggest otherwise.”
“There are eighteen volumes!” I protest. “I am on volume seventeen! That is fair progress, given the fact we are at war and barely have time for our own hobbies.”
Hubert just gives a small scoff without looking up from his book.
Throwing Compendium of Provincial Weaponries, Vol. XVII down on the table with an inexcusable lack of respect, I march over to his window seat and sit down next to him, forcing him to scoot back and press himself up against the glass pane to make room for me.
“Do you not have better uses of your time than sitting here pretending to read while you mock me?” I ask. “Or is lurking around for hours at a time for no reason your hobby the same as studying is mine?”
A smile pricks at the corner of his mouth and he determinedly keeps his eyes fixed on the page of his book as he says, “Yes, lurking is a favorite pastime of mine. I think I have a natural talent for it.”
“And are you going to explain why you are lurking here?” I ask.
I take the book out of his hands and a bit of panic springs into his expression. He tries to snatch it out of my grasp but, intrigued by his alarm, I jump to my feet and run back a few steps, examining the book.
The dust cover says Guide to Hexcraft but when I open it the title on the inside page is different. I barely have time to read the words The Mystery of Frostwind Cliff before Hubert warps practically on top of me, wrenches the book from my hand then returns to his window seat with a murderous glare.
“Hubert! Are you reading a marketplace novel?” I ask in delight.
“In order to be a useful advisor, one must have a well-rounded understanding of the human psyche and literature, no matter how common, is an excellent-” he begins but I interrupt him with a laugh.
“Do not defend yourself. If you were not ashamed of your reading taste, you would not have hidden it in the jacket of another book.”
The icy look on his face could wither the whole greenhouse in one glare and I hear him mutter something that sounds like a curse under his breath.
With a grin, I sit back down next to him and say, “I love a good mystery as well! Tell me of the story. Perhaps I shall read it too.”
Hubert hesitates then sets the book aside, raising his eyes to meet mine. “You shouldn’t waste time on foolish stories like this. What you should be doing is sleeping. You asked why I am lurking here. I was making sure that you get some rest for once. You are pushing yourself too hard and it will only do Lady Edelgard a disservice in the end when you collapse and fail her.”
His concern touches me despite the way it is phrased.
“I… I know I am being foolish, but-” I struggle for the right words for a moment, looking out the window even though I am too distracted to even see the view. “I cannot afford to give anything less than my all, to see to every responsibility in front of me to the utmost of my ability. But doing so is… exhausting. When I have time to myself I want to spend it doing something that brings me joy. Otherwise it is not my body that I fear failing me but my spirits. I should rest, and obviously my mind is intent on forcing me to whether I like it or not, but sleeping does nothing to lift the sorrow and weariness from me.”
Hubert nods. “I understand what you mean. But it is foolishness nonetheless to push yourself too hard.”
I force a smile back on my face and return my gaze to his. “You have no right to chide me, you know. You are just as bad.”
“And yet here I am, both resting and doing something that brings me joy,” he replies, but something strange in his tone makes me think he is not referring to his reading.
It hits me rather suddenly how very near to him I am as we sit cramped on the narrow window seat. This inconveniently breathtaking feeling seizes me from time to time and, despite all my best attempts to brush it off, it grows more and more difficult to look away each time I get lost in the details of him – the sunlight illuminating the soft willow gray of his eyes and casting a gentle glow of warmth across his smooth skin, the untamable strands of dark curly hair falling across his forehead, the faint smell of his spiced cologne… After I noticed that aroma once, I have never been able to ignore it again whenever I find myself in close proximity to him as I am now. It is so subtle and yet full of a smoky depth reminiscent of dark-roast coffee or a strong cup of Almyran pine needles.
“Then I will not interrupt you,” I manage to say before I become too far gone to speak. “I am sorry to have kept you from your reading.”
I start to move away but a gloved hand catches my wrist and I look over at Hubert in surprise.
“If you leave, I will have no one to lurk around. Stay and if you don’t want to read, then sleep. I will do my best to ignore your snoring,” he says.
“It will be hard to sleep knowing you are here judging me,” I say.
“Then consider me here to look out for you. Maybe that will put your mind at ease.”
He shifts so his back is to the window, allowing me more room to sit beside him so I don’t have to perch only halfway on the seat. In this situation, Hubert’s long legs are not an advantage for him and while he crosses them and props his ankles up on the back of a chair, I curl up comfortably next to him with my knees tucked up to my chest.
“Wake me if I snore,” I say.
“I can just cast a silence spell on you. Maybe that would work,” he replies.
I smile, closing my eyes and leaning back against the window. Earlier, I had tried so desperately to stay awake and keep my mind occupied, dreading the thoughts that would crowd in if I tried to relax. But now, I find the thought of rest less concerning. For despite Hubert’s best efforts to be the most frightening person in all of Fódlan, I cannot help but feel safe next to him and far more comfortable than I perhaps should be. I have always hated sleeping alone. It is a blessedly peaceful thing to drift off in the security of another person’s presence.
Right as I am on the edge of unconsciousness, I feel my head slip down to rest against Hubert’s shoulder. And, although my mind is so hazy I have barely any awareness of the world around me, I do imagine I feel something gentle press against the top of my head, something like a kiss.
This time when I awaken it is not to the uncomfortable stiffness of a textbook. It is to an incredible feeling of warmth and the rich smell of coffee. As I return to reality, I become aware in an equally alarming and mesmerizing way of the fact that my face is resting against Hubert’s skin, my head tucked in the crook of his neck. One of his arms rests around my waist, holding me against him and as I open my eyes, I see that he is holding a cup of coffee in his other hand, sipping it periodically while reading the book resting in his lap.
For a moment, I do not dare to stir and break whatever spell or daydream I have woken to find myself in. Then my cheeks flush with embarrassment and I am about to pull away and think of some apology to make when Hubert murmurs, “You’re awake.”
He sets his cup of coffee down on the shelf of a nearby bookcase, but he does not withdraw the arm wrapped around me. “You should have slept longer. You will not get much more time to rest before the council meeting this evening.”
It is not often that I, Ferdinand von Aegir, am at a loss for the courteous and honorable thing to say. But right now is undoubtedly one of those times.
Sitting up, I brush the errant strands of hair from my eyes and look at Hubert with a startled, open-mouth stare that I know is awkward and ridiculous. But for the damned life of me, I do not know what I can say, especially whether I should dare ask him why he would be so comfortable with me as to let me get close to him like this.
It is not the first time I have shown him any kind of affection. There have been many moments I have touched him – a hand on the shoulder for comfort, a hug when the relief of seeing him alive after a battle had overtaken me – but there have been very few where Hubert was the one to close the usual distance between us. And each time he had it was hesitant and brief, a fleeting lapse in judgment that seemed to alarm him even more than it did me.
“I am sorry, I-” I stammer, although I do not know what I am apologizing for.
A disconcerted look creeps into Hubert’s expression and he stiffens slightly. “Did I overstep by-”
“No, no, it is… It is fine.” I give him a reassuring smile to hold at bay the discomfort and self-consciousness I see overtaking him. “I slept better than I have in months. Thank you. I hope I did not disrupt your reading.”
The tension eases from his manner and he picks his coffee back up. But I steal the cup away and take a sip, causing him to raise his eyebrows at me in surprise.
“I am acquiring a taste for it,” I say. “In fact, I think I have rather come to enjoy the flavor, despite how bitter and off-putting it seemed at first.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to learn to like tea,” he says wryly.
“I would never expect you to do something so out of character as rethink one of your opinions,” I reply.
“Perhaps you simply don’t have a thorough enough understanding of my character then. I do reconsider my opinions when necessary and I have rethought the ones concerning you for quite some time. I should think that would have been clear.”
The tone of his voice, heavy with implication, causes me to freeze with the cup an inch from my lips. I raise my eyes to meet his, my heart pounding.
He takes the coffee cup from me and sets it aside. “But one of your flaws is obliviousness, isn’t it?” he says.
“What is it that I have missed?” I ask, mortified by how breathless my voice sounds.
“That I am not here to mock you or even to watch over you out of concern. I am here because I too feel overwhelmed sometimes and your presence is what soothes me more than anything else,” he answers and the sincerity in his voice captivates me, as does the intent look in his eyes.
If obliviousness is truly one of my flaws, recklessness is certainly another. All the restraint of my noble upbringing vanishes and I do what a sensible, proper Ferdinand von Aegir would never do. I place my palm on the side of his face and brush my thumb across his lips, allowing the emotion I usually keep politely hidden to escape in the fond smile I give him. Then I lean my forehead against his and slip my hand to the back of his neck, listening as his breath catches. His lips part slightly in anticipation and I grow bolder with the assurance that I am not imagining the longing I saw in his expression a moment ago.
I close the rest of the distance between us and his lips catch mine eagerly. I feel his arms around me, tugging me closer as we kiss. When I move so I am kneeling on the window seat with my legs on either side of him, he pulls my body close until I am pressed against him.
I tell myself I should pull back, that a first kiss should be quick, should be chaste and unassuming. But when he tilts his head up and to the side to deepen the kiss and I feel his arms tighten around me, I lose track completely of any thoughts about what the appropriate thing to do would be and kiss him back with abandon.