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A faint and faraway sound

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PART I 


 

The den of the Minister of the Imperial Household is dim, despite the summer light against the back of the curtains. Hubert sits at his father’s desk, feet not quite touching the floor, back bent over a sheaf of pages dense with the Marquis’ precise script. In his small hand is a quill pen, and on his brow is a deep crease as he coaxes meaning from the code his father has set him to cracking. 

 

Despite the scowl, Hubert does find the task satisfying. He has been here most of the afternoon, willingly. His lunch, which a servant brought in some two hours ago, has long since grown cold, but he knows he’s close to a solution, and he enjoys ciphering. He likes the efficiency of it, how every letter and word has a purpose. He likes seeing pages crammed with his own painstaking lettering, safely inscrutable to nearly any reader. He likes knowing he can’t be known. 

 


 

By the time he is ten years old, he’s developed several personal codes that even his father can’t decipher. Some of them barely read like codes at all, such that only a trained eye would know to look for the patterns beneath. Certainly when it comes to transmitting messages, they’re of limited use. But for Hubert’s personal journals, cataloguing every observation of the imperial court and capital until he has crates of journals overflowing with domestic secrets and scandals, they are an ideal tool.

 


 

It has been a week since Lord Arundel took Lady Edelgard and her mother away to the country (“what country, ” Hubert had demanded, a dark little stormcloud at his father’s breakfast table, ignored and unanswered). 

 

Marquis Vestra is busier than ever, taking long meetings with Count Hevring and Duke Gerth and others, returning from court late at night and in no mood to answer any of his son’s many questions. He does not explain why Duke Aegir looks even more pleased with himself than usual. He does not explain why there are extra guards outside the Emperor’s wing every day. He does not explain how Hubert is supposed to fulfill his charge to protect Lady Edelgard with his life if he’s not even informed of her whereabouts. 

 

Hubert, frustrated by his inability to carry out his duty (and if he’s honest, missing Lady Edelgard’s bright laugh and clear directives), sets himself to improving his utility for her eventual return. He memorizes the grid of Enbarr; he studies spellcraft and concocting in his father’s laboratory; he attempts unsuccessfully to master his fear of heights by journeying every day to the tops of the watchtowers that line the palace walls. If the guards find it odd to see this gaunt, gangly, breathless child of the Imperial Minister join them on the parapets, they mind their place and say nothing.

 

He also writes letters to Lady Edelgard in his personal code. He does not send them, of course; they’re more to track his thoughts and progress than anything else. Every so often, he entertains the idea of teaching her to read them when she returns, but he dismisses it each time. It is his duty to understand and serve her, not the other way around. 

 


 

“Well?” Marquis Vestra says. He practically glows as he watches his son read the ordinance, though it’s unclear if he’s basking in a victory over the Emperor or over his son.

 

Hubert can feel every accelerating breath as he takes in the news; his ribs are still bruised and his lip still split from the altercation that took place when his father’s men finally subdued him three days north of Enbarr. He failed to reach Lady Edelgard, failed to protect her and he failed to see the Insurrection coming, though now the signs read to him as the crudest of codes, sickeningly obvious in hindsight.

 

He lowers the paper, lifts his head to meet his father’s sunken, citrine gaze.

 

“Cleverly done,” says Hubert, his voice cracking, as it often does these days.

 

“You don’t understand now,” says his father, “but you’ll thank me later. The authority you’ll inherit when the time comes…”

 

Hubert understands perfectly well. He stares up at the man’s smug, pale face, and lets his own lips curl in contempt. His father, Duke Aegir, Count Varley and all the rest – they’re so eager to have power, with no imagination for using it. Nine years old and Lady Edelgard already has more interesting thoughts on how the world ought to work than any of these scheming old men.

 

Before the Marquis can gloat more, or deduce that Hubert is calculating the ideal angle at which to insert a dagger between his ribs, Hubert turns on his heel and leaves the den, crushing the ordinance in one gloved hand. 

 


 

It’s not his last failure.

 

Three years later, Lady Edelgard sobs in his stiff arms, her hair snowy white and her voice breaking as she calls him her last living brother. He is too stunned by his own powerlessness to reject the improper closeness of her person or her words. Swallowed up by her agony, he holds her shoulders and swears he’ll forge himself into the blade that cuts her path, that excises the world of the disease of caste and corruption for her. He means his words with all the trifling power he has.

 

Little by little, her arms stop shaking, her breath growing more and more even. At last she untangles herself from him, steps away, tilts her chin up to look at him directly. Her lilac eyes grow steely and her soft voice hardens as she makes her own promise: they’ll raze and rebuild the world, together. 

 

He doesn’t see her cry again after that for many, many years.

 


 

They enroll in the Officers Academy at Garreg Mach, making a home in the den of the beast they design to destroy. Before long, Hubert has shelves of coded journals on the goings-on of the monastery like the ones he used to keep in Enbarr. 

 

In so many pages, he catalogues the darkness that lurks beneath Dimitri’s gallantry, the half-truths and subtle flirtations Claude employs to keep even his allies at a distance. He notes the hints of monstrosity beneath Rhea’s serene oversight and the fractures in the faith of some of her followers. He documents the rotation of the guard, the unofficial uses of the supposedly abandoned facilities of the monastery, the locations of its many secret passageways; he recruits spies among the kitchen staff and the groundskeepers and the stablehands and even the Knights themselves. 

 

And of course, he observes his classmates in the Black Eagle House, charting their motivations and aptitudes as he plans their roles in Lady Edelgard’s revolution.

 

Dorothea is a straightforward gift to their cause. More than a commoner – a pauper, crestless and penniless, risen to her current status by her virtues alone; she might as well be the living embodiment of the world they seek to build. She is beautiful, cunning, and endlessly charismatic. Hubert does little to dissuade her romantic notions of his devotion to Lady Edelgard. It will humanize their cause for her, help her stomach the bloodshed to come. 

 

Petra, too, is a clear asset. With her foreign gods and crestless strength, she will be another symbol of power to which the Church has no claim. She will lead Brigid’s fine warriors to join their path, and plant the seeds of their new world order on its shores. All there is to do is ensure she understands her place is in service of Lady Edelgard, a task made easy by the great chasm of power between their nations.

 

Bernadetta, Linhardt, and Caspar will all have their uses too. Two of them might be the children of traitors, but Hubert knows there’s little love lost (or ideology shared) between them and their fathers. They each have challenges to overcome – Bernadetta is traumatized, Linhardt bright but maddeningly lazy, Caspar rash and occasionally outright stupid – but they have potential, too. They will rise on their own merits when the time comes, with the right interventions.

 

And then there is Ferdinand. Vapid, nattering, blusterous Ferdinand, so enchanted by his own nobility he can scarcely get through a sentence without mentioning it. In a way, Hubert finds it rather pitiful, how Ferdinand attributes his own virtues to his caste instead of claiming them. But his ability is frankly irrelevant; when Lady Edelgard is crowned, Ferdinand will surely side with his father’s way of things, and die for it. 

 

It will be a useful death in its symbolism: the disgraced Prime Minister’s son brought to justice by the daughter of the emperor he betrayed, the noblest of nobles eliminated along with the concept of nobility. Elegant, really. 

 

Sometimes, on days when Ferdinand is especially insufferable, Hubert daydreams about it, envisioning the day Lady Edelgard’s axe will separate that pompous marigold head from its shoulders and that clamorous voice will finally fall silent.

 

He can hardly wait.

 


 

“Linhardt,” Hubert greets, falling in beside his classmate at the back of their ranks. The Black Eagles are gathered in the training grounds to witness a hand axe demonstration from Alois.

 

“Hubert,” says Linhardt, yawning.

 

“Good to see you’ve made it to class today,” Hubert remarks, keeping his voice low as some of their more attentive classmates crowd forward to get a better look. “Lady Edelgard’s doing, I assume?”

 

“Petra’s,” says Linhardt, and doesn’t elaborate.

 

“Well,” says Hubert. “I suppose I’ll have to thank her later. Pity it had to be on a day where the subject is of little use to you.” 

 

Linhardt doesn’t reply. If his eyes weren’t still half-open, lazily following the arc of Alois’ swing, Hubert might have thought he’d nodded off on his feet.

 

“Since you’re here,” Hubert tries again. “In the course of my own studies, I found something in the library I thought you might find interesting.”

 

Surreptitiously, he passes over a thin book, its cover embossed densely with crest symbols. Linhardt glances down at it, then looks again with more genuine curiosity, plucking it from Hubert’s hands and opening it to the title page.

 

“A Treatise on Nonsanguine Crestological Properties,” he reads, before his brow draws slightly. “I’ve been through the entire Crestology section several times. I don’t ever recall seeing this particular work.”

 

Hubert shrugs.

 

“Perhaps it was misshelved,” he says, turning his attention back to the demonstration, where Alois is rushing to correct Caspar’s grip before he can fling the axe wildly off-course.

 

The treatise, of course, is not from the library; Hubert had it sent over from his father’s private collection in Enbarr. He’s found that Linhardt will actually work quite hard if his topic of study is one that he finds worth exploring, and Lady Edelgard will need a mind as keen as his to push the bounds of Crestology before long.

 

As Linhardt disappears into the text, apparently too engrossed to question Hubert’s motives, Hubert turns his attention back to their lesson. 

 

It’s a productive afternoon, really. He requests (with his best, least-threatening countenance) that Bernadetta help him with his bow stance; she is so flustered and flattered at the idea that she is fit to help anyone that he doesn’t actually get much instruction out of it, but the instruction wasn’t the point. His prize is the immeasurable lift in her confidence, the way her voice will shake a tiny bit less when she next addresses him.

 

After he has finished goading Ferdinand into a sparring match with Petra – one Petra wins easily, because Ferdinand can’t conceive that the ancestral Aegir axe technique could possibly be inferior to one from Brigid – Hubert collects Lady Edelgard’s correspondence and retires to his room to review it before dinner.

 

Later that evening, he stops by her room to deliver his summary of news from the capitol. Nothing new, really. Duke Aegir continues to push for the military to expand its cavalry (a move that would doubtlessly fill Aegir’s coffers as the seat of the finest and most expansive stables in the Empire); Counts Bergliez and Hevring still oppose him, and Ionius remains powerless to influence any of them, and so nothing changes. 

 

Edelgard thanks Hubert for his report, and stops him as he turns to leave.

 

“Yes, Your Highness?”

 

“I saw you today, at the training grounds,” she says, a curious look in her eyes. “I know we must stay focused on our... studies, but...it makes me glad that you have begun to make friends.”

 

Hubert thinks back on his afternoon. He certainly doesn’t remember making any friends. But perhaps drawing Linhardt’s curiosity to something useful or cultivating Bernadetta’s fragile trust reads a little like it, if you squint.

 

“Yes, well,” he says. “I suppose some closeness is inevitable, given all the time we spend among our classmates.”

 

“You’re probably right,” says Edelgard, smiling at him. “All the same, I’m glad. Good night, Hubert.”

 

“Good night, Your Highness.”

 

He bows and takes his leave, retreating next door to his own room for a night of study.

 

It’s better if she thinks he’s finding companionship with the other Black Eagles. No matter how many times he reminds her he is more than willing to be a blade in her hands, she still worries that his devotion to her cuts him off from other bonds, other channels of fulfillment.

 

(And of course it does, but Hubert doesn’t need those things. A cause, a use, is more than enough.)

 


 

Every other weekend, Hubert rides from Garreg Mach to the Airmid Woods to meet with Lord Arundel. Sometimes Lady Edelgard accompanies him, but more often than not he travels alone. They discuss ways to deepen the cracks between the different factions of the Church, trade intelligence about Fódlan’s ever-shifting regional powers, make plans to disempower or eliminate those who pose a threat to their machinations. 

 

The partnership makes Hubert seethe, though he is careful never to show it. Like most people, Arundel believes Hubert to be a cold and dispassionate man, and that perception makes negotiations between them simpler – certainly much simpler than they’d be if it were Lady Edelgard herself coordinating with her family’s executioner. 

 

As always, Hubert is a quick study, particularly of his enemies. He learns from each flash of approval in Arundel’s eyes: don’t react too much to the suggestion of civilian casualties, but let a glint of eagerness show at the prospect of assassinating someone worthy of the crime. The pretense is apparently quite successful; it reaches the point where Arundel seems to see him as a sort of scion, or at least an apprentice. He brings his best mages to teach Hubert powerful black magic, contributes spies to his network, personally tutors him how to proportion pain and true harm in an interrogation.

 

On the ride back to Garreg Mach, Hubert often thinks about how he will apply everything he has learned, imagining the sounds he will draw out of Arundel when he eventually administers his own slow, just, excruciating end.

 

So the months roll on, and Hubert spends his weeks revealing just enough to his classmates for them to believe in his humanity, and his weekends revealing just enough to Arundel to make him believe in his monstrosity, all the while focused on a goal far beyond any of their sights.

 


 

The Great Tree Moon brings a surprise – a new professor, conjured from Goddess knows where, appointed by Archbishop Rhea to lead the Black Eagles. 

 

Hubert is immediately suspicious of them, from their father’s history as a Knight of Seiros to their vagueness about their past to the fact that they can beat him at chess, a feat no one has accomplished since he was fourteen.

 

Lady Edelgard does not share his concerns. She takes to Byleth faster than Hubert has ever seen her take to anyone, himself included. Not that he’s jealous – envy is a fairly useless emotion, unless you’re using it to manipulate someone – but it’s unusual for his liege to be so unguarded, and it’s his job to ensure her trust takes root in the right places. So he broods over it a bit, and uses every avenue of investigation and intimidation available to him, seeking to figure out why and from where the Professor came. 

 

Despite his snooping and testing, though, he can’t find sufficient justification to remove the mercenary from his lady’s side. So they stay.

 

Before long, Byleth is a regular feature at their study hours in the library, at their dinner table, even at their daily walks through the garden. It’s a serious hindrance to discussing their plans, and occasionally a personal irritant to Hubert, but he uses that frustration to drive him to sharpen himself, as always. He studies their battle tactics; he trains in sorcery and lancework; he suffers through stable duty with Dorothea and Bernadetta and on one very aggravating occasion, Ferdinand. 

 

For now, the Professor serves a purpose, strengthening them for the struggle ahead (and perhaps another, Hubert admits – bringing a glint of humanity back to Lady Edelgard’s eyes). 

 


 

The moon is nearly at its full height when he returns from his latest assignment, his hands raw and tingling with the new spells Arundel’s mages taught him. He has a report for Lady Edelgard in his breast pocket and an ache in his thighs from the long ride to and from Airmid, but if he can be swift in stabling his mount, he’ll be able to get a few hours of sleep before he must rise for the new week of classes. 

 

He's just loosened his horse’s girth and fetched a pail of water when he hears the creak of the outer gate. Retreating slightly into the shadows of the stall, he positions himself so he can continue his task but keep his eyes on the stable entrance, to see who else is returning so late. One of the knights, perhaps, back from patrol?

 

But no, it’s Ferdinand, his hair wind-tousled and an unusually subdued look on his face as he guides his bay mare into the stables. In the moonlight that slants through the barn windows, he looks almost pensive, a far cry from his usual boisterousness.

 

Realizing that an encounter is inevitable, Hubert steps out of the shadows. As expected, Ferdinand jumps a little, an alarmed expression crossing his face before it passes into wariness.

 

“Hubert,” he says, not so much a greeting as a dismayed observation.

 

“Ferdinand,” Hubert echoes. He lets his eyes flick up and down the other man’s person. Ferdinand’s boots are filthy, his riding gloves are streaked with dirt, and one button of his jacket is hanging on by a thread. “You’ve looked better.”

 

“I am aware,” says Ferdinand tersely, guiding his horse into an empty stall two away from the one Hubert has occupied. 

 

“Returning from Aegir?” Hubert asks when Ferdinand offers no explanation.

 

“No,” says Ferdinand. He reaches for the cross-ties and doesn’t elaborate, which is surprising. He’s usually all too eager to talk about himself and his goings-on, to convince anyone who will listen of his importance. 

 

“A midnight tryst, then?” Hubert provokes. “Surely there’s a woman somewhere in Fódlan who hasn’t grown tired of your gasconading.”

 

Even in the low light, the flush on Ferdinand’s face is obvious. He turns towards his horse, fingers fumbling with the nose band, lips pressed in a tense line. 

 

Hubert’s own mouth curls up in derision. 

 

“Oh?” he says with dark curiosity, as Ferdinand eases the bit from his mare’s teeth. “Have I struck a nerve?”

 

Ferdinand flings the bridle to the floor and turns on his heel to look Hubert head on.

 

“I know no one likes me,” he says, rather too loudly. And oh, are those tears glinting in those proud eyes? “I am not half as stupid or blind as you and Edelgard seem to think I am. I –”

 

Lady Edelgard,” Hubert corrects on instinct.

 

“– I –” Ferdinand attempts to continue, but he trails off as though Hubert’s interruption has made him forget what he meant to say. 

 

Hubert waits with cruel patience, watching the furrow of Ferdinand’s brows, the clench of his fists, the subtle elevation of his breathing. 

 

At length, Ferdinand speaks, his voice quiet, with none of its usual musicality. 

 

“I know Petra only trains with me because the Professor has instructed her to,” he says, “and that Marianne would rather clean the whole stables herself than have me share the task. I know Dorothea despises me for reasons she still will not divulge and Mercedes only tolerates me because she tolerates everyone.”

 

He pauses to let out a soft, bitter laugh. 

 

“In a way I suppose I should be grateful to you, that you say openly to my face what everyone else will only say behind my back.”

 

Moving past his initial surprise, Hubert calculates his retort. His first impulse is to point out that Ferdinand is wrong , naturally, but that would mean suggesting that Bernadetta bears him genuine affection, or that Lorenz obviously enjoys his company, or that Dorothea has warmed to him considerably since the start of the term. That might read too much like comfort, so he tries a different tactic.

 

“At least you’re more observant than your father,” he says, “if no less inadequate.”

 

Ferdinand quickly looks away, the defensive hunch of his shoulders slumping into resignation.

 

“Please just go, Hubert,” he says, bending to retrieve the bridle he’d thrown before. “It is far too late for...for this.” 

 

Hubert had been expecting an indignant swell of his chest, a heated reminder of the Prime Minister’s station and the respect due it. This midnight version of Ferdinand is truly a unique one.

 

He glances to his horse, to the half-removed tack and the bucket of brushes he’s yet to use.

 

“Are you offering to finish retiring this beast?” Hubert asks, raising an eyebrow. “Or suggesting I leave him like this, and catch an earful from the stablemaster tomorrow?”

 

“I can stable them both,” sighs Ferdinand as he hangs up the bridle with a sigh. “In all honesty, I would prefer the extra work to continuing to endure your presence.” 

 

“Very well,” says Hubert, who knows a good deal when he hears one. He could make a fight of it, goad Ferdinand further, but he’s tired, and Ferdinand is much more experienced with the task anyway. He gathers his personal effects from the saddlebags and tucks them under his arm. “Good night, Ferdinand.” 

 

Ferdinand is usually the last to retreat from the battlefield of propriety, but he doesn’t wish Hubert a good night in return. He just turns to rub his palm gently down his horse’s nose, murmuring quietly to her, as though the other man is already long gone.




 

Hubert despises gambling, but despite all their scheming it seems their plans must hinge on an unknown: when they make their move in the Holy Tomb, whose side will the Professor take?

 

“I cannot explain it,” Lady Edelgard is saying as she paces back and forth in his room. “But I have a feeling, Hubert, a strong feeling. They will choose us.”

 

Hubert is not so sure, not after their allies took it upon themselves to devastate Remire and assassinate Captain Jeralt. Lord Arundel does love to remind them who is in control.

 

“That is certainly my hope, Your Majesty,” he says. “But even so, we must plan for a scenario in which they do not.”

 

“Of course,” says Edelgard, sighing. “And we have. We’ve done so much, and prepared for so long. I cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve done, everything you’ve sacrificed, to bring us this far.”

 

“Your thanks is appreciated, but unnecessary. You know my faith in you and in our cause is absolute. Besides – your own sacrifices far outstrip mine, my lady.”

 

Edelgard waves a hand dismissively and continues pacing, though she doesn’t attempt to argue with him. Perhaps after more than a decade of Hubert’s service, she has realized the futility of it. 

 

Taking a deep breath, she straightens her back, comes to a stop before Hubert’s desk, lifts her eyes to meet his directly. 

 

“They will choose us,” she says again, that steely resolve creeping into her voice.

 

Hubert inclines his head deferentially.

 

“For all our sakes, Your Majesty, I hope you are right.” 

 




She is, of course.

 

When they’ve fought their way out of the Mausoleum, the deafening roars of the Immaculate One still ringing in their ears, they lead their classmates to the provisional camp.

 

The atmosphere is tense. Bernadetta clings to Petra’s side, a whimpering mess one moment and a blank-eyed doll the next. Caspar paces the perimeter of the compound feverishly until Linhardt trips him with a leg out and forces him to rest. Ferdinand stands pale-faced at the overlook, both hands on the railing, watching the horizon like the next sunrise will provide some kind of revelation. Dorothea alone is surprisingly composed. Hubert supposes that of all of them but Lady Edelgard, her life has seen the most upheaval up til now. 

 

When the Emperor has finished conferring with Byleth in the war room, she calls them all together. She stands tall, Hubert at her right and the Professor at her left, and faces the Black Eagles. Camly and matter-of-factly, she retraces the steps that brought them to this point: the church’s treachery, their fathers’ betrayal, her aim to dismantle Fódlan’s system of nobility and end the worship of crests. She tells them the current state of things: Bergliez and Hevring rallied behind their cause, Varley and Aegir opposed and on house arrest, Vestra killed and Hubert ascended to his late father’s position. 

 

(From the looks on their faces, quite a few of them suspect that Hubert himself saw to that last development, which is fine. He did.)

 

Then, she lays out the path before them with conviction and unflinching clarity.

 

“I want all of you to really ask yourselves if you’re certain you want to join us,” Lady Edelgard says, meeting the eyes of each of her classmates in turn. “Our goal will not be simple to achieve, and striving for it may put you on the opposite side of the battlefield from former friends, or even family.”

 

Hubert knows what she will say next – they had a fierce disagreement about it not a week ago – but with no other choice, he’s put his trust in his emperor.

 

“If you wish to leave, I will give you the opportunity now,” she says. “You will not be harmed or stopped. But know that after today, if you stand against us, we will not spare you. We will not stop until the Church is destroyed and Fódlan is united once more, no matter the cost.”

 

Rich silence takes the room. 

 

Hubert finds himself nearly holding his breath as he watches their faces. He has spent so much of the last year cultivating this moment, seeding the words they will each speak. Any one of them diverging from the path he’s laid out could throw the Empire’s plans in jeopardy – especially if any defectors are allowed to walk free, as Lady Edelgard has insisted (“trust begets truer loyalty than fear, Hubert” she’d said, her tone marking the matter final).

 

Finally, Caspar steps forward. With his usual crude aplomb, he promises his allegiance and kneels before Lady Edelgard, laying his axe at her feet. Petra is next, speaking to her hope for equality for all people, even between Fódlan and Brigid. Linhardt follows Caspar’s lead, and when Dorothea smiles grimly and swears her craft to their cause, Bernadetta hurries to cast her lot in with her friends.

 

Which leaves Ferdinand, looking a little like he did that night in the stables, distant and resigned. Hubert thinks briefly and spitefully that he ought to look grateful instead. After all, Lady Edelgard has given him a chance to run, when Hubert would much prefer they make a clean example of him before they march on Garreg Mach. Returned to Aegir, Ferdinand poses a unique threat to—

 

—Hubert’s thoughts are interrupted when Ferdinand kneels and swears fealty to the new Empire. When he rises again, the faraway look on his face is gone, replaced by something harder, more determined. It’s as though he’s aged several years in the one gesture.

 

Hubert is too shocked to realize he might also be a bit relieved. 

 


 

The month that follows brings tremendous gain, and tremendous loss. 

 

A few others from the Officers Academy defect to their cause: Ashe of the Blue Lions, mistrustful of the church that executed his father and brother, and Lysithea of the Golden Deer, knowing exactly what has put Lady Edelgard on this path. Soon after they arrive, Shamir turns up and names a very reasonable price for her allegiance, one that suggests she didn’t just come to them for the coin. There are others Hubert still hopes to coax into an alliance in due time, but none who are willing to negotiate before seeing the outcome of the Empire’s first strike against the Church. 

 

So the imperial army arrives, and they march. Through blood and grit and many, many casualties, they take the monastery and drive the Church back.

 

They drive the Church back, but they lose the Professor, somewhere. 

 

The Strike Force searches for weeks. Their body never turns up.

 

And so the war begins.

 



PART II

 


 

With Byleth gone, the role of chief tactician falls to Hubert. He deploys spies to understand their enemies’ might and sends scouts to take detailed note of the fields and fortresses where they might encounter them. He pores over maps and almanacs to predict where they might intercept supplies or establish new garrisons. He coordinates with Randolph and Ladislava to organize the broader imperial army, and he personally oversees the training and deployment of the Strike Force.

 

With nearly a year of direct observation under his belt, this is mostly a straightforward task. But he’s still not entirely sure what Ferdinand is doing here, or if he ought to expect he still will be from one day to the next. Disturbed by his initial misappraisal and unwilling to embed him too deeply with the rest of the Force, Hubert finds himself putting Ferdinand’s unit on the frontlines more often than not. He calculates that in the best scenario, his knights will break their enemies’ formations and defend their own more vulnerable units. In the worst, he will make a serviceable martyr for the cause. 

 

Ferdinand remarks on these tactics once, after their latest clash with the Kingdom, when Hubert stops by the infirmary to collect a report from him.

 

“I know you are the one who has set us at the fore,” he tells Hubert as the attendant healer patches up his half-crushed shoulder. 

 

Hubert eyes him. It doesn’t sound like an accusation, just an observation, but he’s clearly expecting a response.

 

“If you wanted to engage the enemy at a distance, von Aegir, perhaps you should have studied the bow and not the lance.”

 

“No,” says Ferdinand quickly, wincing as the next round of faith magic takes root. “That is not my meaning. I just mean to say that...I am touched that you have entrusted me with such an important role.”

 

Hubert blinks. He considers elucidating – your death is likely to be as useful as your life –  but decides against it, instead muttering his thanks for the report and sweeping out of the room.

 

He tells himself it’s because Ferdinand fights better when his confidence is high. Dense as the man is, he has become a capable commander, and Hubert is nothing if not practical.

 


 

A few months become a few years. Despite Hubert’s tactics, Ferdinand keeps coming back alive, if not always intact. Linhardt remarks at some point that between Caspar and Ferdinand, he’ll never stop learning new Faith magics, and accuses Hubert of manufacturing the situation to force his continued study.

 

On and off the battlefield, the Black Eagles rise to meet their fates. They claim many victories against the Church and the Kingdom (but never quite enough). They learn to fight alongside one another, capitalizing on their strengths and accounting for one another’s weaknesses. And they rally behind Lady Edelgard, collectively honoring an unspoken pact not to let her bear the grief of the Professor’s absence alone.

 

On one occasion, Hubert discovers her gardening with Bernadetta, a quiet sort of peace between them in the lull between battles. On other, when Lady Edelgard is staring unseeingly through a training dummy, Linhardt whispers something into Caspar’s ear that prompts Caspar to challenge her to a sparring match; when they finish, her axe against his throat and the both of them well-bruised, her gaze is focused once again. And on yet another, she appears at dinner accompanied by Dorothea and Petra with her hair done up in elegant, intricate braids, appearing almost bashful at the way Ashe exclaims over the new style.

 

Hubert is grateful. He serves Lady Edelgard in as many ways as he is able, but he has only ever figured out how to prevent or enact retribution for his lady’s troubles, not ease them in the moment.

 


 

Today, apparently, he is the cause of those troubles. 

 

He has holed himself up in Seteth’s old office, prepared to spend the night catching up on the state work he has hitherto neglected in favor of more pressing war business. After all, if they emerge from the war victorious but with no idea of how to run the continent in peacetime, it will all have been for nothing. But apparently Lady Edelgard has taken issue with the way he is approaching the job.

 

She leans over the desk, both palms flat against it (well, against the stacks of reports and proposals; there is precious little wood showing at this point), staring intently across it at him. 

 

“Answer my question, Hubert,” she says. “When did you last sleep?”

 

“Last night, Your Majesty,” says Hubert, almost truthfully, not looking up. He dips his quill in the inkwell so he can sign off on a proposal that will alter the borders between Empire territories, improving the distribution of arable land.

 

“For more than a few hours,” Lady Edelgard presses. 

 

Hubert does not answer, just sets aside the proposal and reaches for another.

 

“Hubert,” she hisses. “Look at me.”

 

Reluctantly, he sets down the pen and obeys.

 

“The Empire cannot run on our wills alone,” she says. “I don’t doubt the importance of everything you’re doing. But help me understand where others might be able to ease the load. I won’t have my most trusted minister collapsing in a corridor due to overwork.”

 

Hubert’s jaw clenches.

 

“Linhardt spoke to you, then,” he mutters.

 

“He did,” says Edelgard. “But he shouldn’t have had to.” 

 

“I assure you it won’t happen again, Your Majesty.” 

 

Her gaze is piercing at this point.

 

“You know I trust you implicitly, Hubert, but on this issue I can’t help but feel you’re lying to my face.” 

 

Hubert sags in his chair, closes his eyes, sighs deeply. If there was anyone else he could trust – anyone who isn’t Lady Edelgard herself, who already works more than she ought to, given her condition – he would consider distributing the burden. But it is a matter of weighing his comfort against the Empire’s future, and the choice is obvious. He supposes he’ll simply have to get better at hiding the signs from her. 

 

“Hubert,” says Edelgard, rousing him from his thoughts. “I know there are some things only you can see to. But in these mountains of paper, surely there is some measure of work that we can delegate.”

 

And to his chagrin, she begins to pick up each sheaf, skimming through to get a sense of its contents.

 

“Your Majesty–” he tries to interject, but no one stops Edelgard when she doesn’t want to be stopped.

 

“Here,” she says, on the third packet.  “Restructuring agricultural tariffs to encourage increased food imports from Albinea and Morfis. Surely someone else can take a stab at that.”

 

Hubert wants to argue. Crafting a policy with the potential to change their relationship with their neighbors is inherently delicate, requiring a great deal of background on previous trade agreements and the relative economic power of each nation involved. But admittedly, he doesn’t have that background either. He’s just been reading up feverishly as each task lands on his desk. In any case, his protests would come too late, because Lady Edelgard is already on to the next item.

“Penal reform for Boramas and Rusalka,” she says. “I know you love a good dungeon, Hubert, but let’s hand that one off too.”

 

She hands him the two files, already picking up another. Resigned, Hubert clears enough space on his desk to begin a new pile of work to give away.

 

“This is unintelligible,” Edelgard says, brows furrowing as her eyes flick through another paper. “Or else entirely unrelated to Empire business.”

 

Hubert holds out his hand, and she passes it over.

 

“That’s because it’s written in code, Your Majesty,” he says, once he’s confirmed it. “From one of my agents in the Alliance.”  

 

“I see,” says Edelgard. “I suppose I should have guessed. Anything I should know about?”

 

Hubert reads the missive swiftly.

 

“Better if you don’t.” 

 

It’s an important distance they maintain. For them to win, he must act in the shadows, and she must know that he does. But for them to unite Fódlan, her intent and his execution must remain separate, the full culpability of the war balanced delicately between them. 

 

“You can keep that one, then,” she says, picking up the next pile of letters.

 

“Your graciousness is appreciated, as always, Your Majesty.” 

 

She rolls her eyes, a rare juvenile gesture.

 

Half an hour later, about a quarter of the papers of his desk have made it into the new pile. Tomorrow, someone will be by to pick them up, though Hubert has secured a guarantee that he'll get to review the work before any of it is put into action. As for the papers that remain, he has promised Edelgard that when his current candle burns out tonight, he will not light another. 

 

“And no fire spells,” Edelgard tells him sternly as she pauses in his doorway on her way out. “Don’t think you can outsmart me after fifteen years, Hubert. I am your Emperor, after all.”






The next day, Hubert returns to his desk, somewhat refreshed after a full five hours of rest. He brews a pot of coffee, settles in, and gets through nearly an hour of work before there is a crisp rap on his door.

 

“Come in,” he calls, lifting his head from the page of notes he’s been slowly filling. Perhaps the scouts he dispatched to Myrddin have returned. 

 

Instead, Ferdinand enters. His hair has gotten rather long, Hubert notes, marigold waves just brushing the midnight blue of the cape at his shoulders, and he seems to have recovered from the leg injury he sustained at Magdred Pass two weeks prior.

 

“Hubert,” Ferdinand greets. “You look well. Or at least, you look better.”

 

“Do I,” says Hubert dryly, reaching for his coffee cup.

 

“Yes,” says Ferdinand, as dreadfully earnest as ever. “For a while, you had Caspar and Petra placing wagers on when you would nod off into your lunch.”

 

Hubert arches an eyebrow.

 

“You’re quite certain they didn’t have me confused with Linhardt?”

 

Ferdinand grins.  

 

“A valid concern,” he says. “But no, Hubert, they – we – were merely concerned. It is no secret that you have been burning the midnight oil.” 

 

“I see,” says Hubert, unsettled by the thought of his colleagues observing him for a change. 

 

He waits for Ferdinand to get to the point, but the man just stands there, one hand on his hip, looking around Hubert’s office idly.

 

“Did you have business here, von Aegir?” Hubert prompts at last, sipping his coffee. “Or were you merely stopping by to inform me who will profit from my inevitable collapse?”

 

“Ah, yes,” says Ferdinand, attention snapping back. “Edelgard sent me. She says you have some matters of administration for me to take off your hands.”  

 

Hubert sets his cup back down a little too quickly.

 

“She sent you?” 

 

“Yes,” says Ferdinand. Hubert thinks he spots a flicker of hurt cross the other man’s face, but it’s gone before he can be sure.  “And she warned me you might put up some resistance, though to be honest, I had hoped she would be wrong on that matter.” 

 

Hubert swallows his objections. He knows when he is cornered. 

 

“One would think you’d know better by now,” he mutters, reaching for the stack they assembled the night prior. “Very well, then. Here.”

 

He hands over the pile, waiting to see if Ferdinand will blanch at its size, which he doesn’t.

 

“They are ordered by urgency, not by importance. See that you’ve returned at least the first four packets to my desk by tomorrow evening.”

 

“You will find them waiting for you first thing in the morning,” says Ferdinand brightly, tucking the stack under his arm. “On my word as a noble.” 

 

“Considering there are no longer nobles or commoners, just Adrestians, that hardly inspires confidence.”

 

“You know full well what I mean, Hubert.”

 

Hubert scowls at him.

 

“Don’t you have work to do?”

 

“I suppose I do,” says Ferdinand, chuckling. “Good day, then. Best of luck with...all this. ” 

 

He gestures to the still-impressive stack of files on Hubert’s desk and takes his leave, cape fluttering around the corner. 

 

Hubert looks at the desk, too. Somehow, the bare wood where the files used to rest feels like a portent.

 


 

He doesn’t actually find out if Ferdinand is as good as his word, because he receives news in the afternoon that takes him away from Garreg Mach for the next few nights. An orphanage in Gaspard, a territory the Empire narrowly holds, has gone abruptly vacant. There is reportedly no sign of the children, nor of the men and women who attended them, but Hubert travels to see it with his own eyes and head up the investigation. 

 

At least, this is what he and Lady Edelgard tell the others. In reality, Hubert knows that if Arundel has secured thirty-odd new subjects for his crest experiments without their foreknowledge, then their chief spy in Gaspard is either incompetent or a traitor. Either way, the situation requires his presence, so he rides out with Shamir and a small guard to deal with it.

 

Two days and one dead spy later, he returns to Garreg Mach, where the troops are preparing to respond to Kingdom aggression in Charon. He can hear Caspar shouting drill calls clear from the Reception Hall as he makes his way up the stairs and back to his office. 

 

When he unlocks the door, though, it is to find that someone has tampered with the room. After ensuring it’s safe to enter, Hubert determines that the only difference is his desk. Two small towers of sliding wooden trays have been set up on its surface, one for inbound work and one for completed. His papers have been placed into each level, with labels in a familiar, self-consciously elegant script. 

 

“Trade & Diplomacy,” one reads. “Security & Warfare.” “Governance & Interior Policy.” And, most helpfully, on the lowest trays, “???”

 

(These contain his coded correspondence and his personal notes, naturally.) 

 

He confronts Ferdinand at the mess hall that evening, sliding into the seat beside him and eliciting a surprised twitch from the other man.

 

“I don’t recall giving you a key to my office,” Hubert says with a threatening smile.

 

“Good evening to you as well, Hubert,” says Ferdinand. “I take it you had a safe journey back from Gaspard.”

 

“Which means you either wheedled the copy from Lady Edelgard,” Hubert continues, “or employed more creative means to gain entry.”

 

“I did ask Edelgard for the key,” says Ferdinand, sounding self-conscious as he pokes at his fish with his fork. “But naturally, she was rather busy. So I did...recruit some assistance to get access, yes.” 

 

“Ashe,” Hubert surmises, frowning. Damn those nimble thief’s fingers.

 

Ferdinand sighs.

 

“Please don’t terrorize him,” he says. “Edelgard tasked me with unearthing you from your mountain of paperwork, and I was only trying to ensure you would not come back to more of it than when you left. Your absence certainly didn’t stop anyone from slipping new reports beneath your door.” 

 

Hubert scowls. 

 

“You were lucky I didn’t set any traps for interlopers,” he says.

 

“Ah,” says Ferdinand with a rueful smile. “And here I had thought perhaps you had, and I had simply been clever enough to avoid them.” 

 

“Unlikely,” Hubert mutters. 

 

They sit in silence for a moment, Hubert tired from the ride back and Ferdinand seemingly content to attend his dinner.

 

“Were you going to eat?” Ferdinand asks finally, eyeing the empty tabletop in front of Hubert. “They’ve pickled the vegetables today, presumably to ensure only you will enjoy them.” 

 

Hubert huffs, masking a laugh.

 

“How thoughtful.”

 

By the time he’s made it back to the table, his seat has been claimed. Bernadetta, Dorothea, and Petra flank Ferdinand on three sides, the three women conducting a lively narration of the hunt Petra led today in the woods beyond the monastery. Hubert briefly considers taking dinner back to his office, as he usually does. But before he can slip away, Dorothea catches his eye and gestures to the empty seat across from her. So against his better judgment, he sits.

 

He can’t help but feel a strangeness to it, dining with them in the middle of war, with his own agent’s death rattle still fresh in his ears. At first, he thinks it’s because it feels too much like their Academy days, before he and Edelgard made soldiers and killers of them all. But as he watches Bernadetta crack a joke that makes Petra snort, sees the genuine care in Dorothea’s eyes as she inquires after Ferdinand’s injury, he realizes that any similarity to the Academy isn’t the root of his disquiet. 

 

No, it’s more that despite everything they’ve faced together, he’s never once thought of himself as one of them. Sitting beside Bernadetta, watching Dorothea’s face shine with admiration when she describes Petra’s clever traps and hunting snares – it all makes him feel like he is still playing a part, and making a poor job of it.

 

After dinner, he retreats once more to his office, intent on reviewing the files Ferdinand had returned to him before bed. At the very least, he’ll be able to size out his work for the coming day, and lay aside enough time to detangle whatever knots Ferdinand has tied in the delicate threads of diplomacy they weave.

 

But to his immense surprise, there’s very little to rewrite. Ferdinand’s grasp of Fódlan’s geopolitical workings is clearly more mature than he’d thought. The few times Hubert consults his books to check a figure or refute an argument, he finds evidence that Ferdinand has already availed himself of the same resource. His reports are clear and concise, his arguments are well-crafted (if occasionally simplistic), and his proposals are on the whole quite sensible. Hubert vaguely wonders if he consulted Lady Edelgard on much of the work, but he knows Ferdinand’s competitive spirit would never allow such a thing.

 

It’s only a few hours past sundown when he sets aside the final file and lays aside his quill. Taking stock of his notes, he spends a moment scribbling a summary of Ferdinand’s particular strengths (international relations, trade, and financial systems). Then he sifts through the untouched work in the left trays to assemble a new pile consisting chiefly of those matters, locks his desk drawers and the office door, and heads back towards the dormitories.

 

Ferdinand is clearly not expecting Hubert to stop by his room at this late hour – he’s dressed in a loose nightshirt, one finger marking his place in a book about the military history of Daphnel – but he doesn’t look particularly displeased to see him.

 

“Here,” says Hubert in lieu of a greeting, shoving the stack of papers against Ferdinand's chest. “Since you seem so insistent on inserting yourself.”

 

He turns on his heel and makes to leave.

 

“Good night, Hubert,” he hears Ferdinand call to his retreating back. And oh, Hubert can practically hear the pleased grin in his voice. 

 

“Good night, Ferdinand,” Hubert echoes through gritted teeth, and allows himself an early night.

 


 

For the first week of this strange new partnership, Ferdinand makes the occasional stop by Hubert’s office to ask him questions or consult the reference materials Hubert has amassed there. This prompts Hubert to return all the books to the library, figuring the inconvenience of having to walk down the hall to retrieve them is a fair price to pay for fewer of these visits. But Ferdinand keeps showing up anyway, seeking Hubert’s counsel, either unaware of or impervious to Hubert’s irritation.

 

“Honestly, Hubert,” Edelgard says when he complains to her, “I’d expect you to be grateful he’s asking your advice at all, considering how loath you were to let him take on the work in the first place.”

 

Halfway through the second week, Ferdinand hauls over an overstuffed burgundy armchair from the Cardinal’s Room, maneuvering it through the door with some effort. As Hubert looks on in incredulous silence, Ferdinand parks it in the corner of Hubert’s office and settles in without a word, pulling his latest assignments into his lap. 

 

Hubert lets this go on for a few minutes before he finally clears his throat.

 

“Should I infer from this development that your own desk has been seized by Kingdom forces, von Aegir?” 

 

Ferdinand chuckles, folding one long leg over the other. 

 

“Hardly,” he says. “But surely you agree it is a more efficient arrangement than my crossing half of Garreg Mach every time we need to consult one another.” 

 

Hubert glares.

 

“I don’t recall requesting your counsel.”

 

“You will, eventually,” says Ferdinand.

 

He’s proven right, though not for nearly two weeks, during which Shamir’s scouts thwart an ambush in the Oghma mountains and Petra passes her Wyvern Lord certification.

 

“The first name of the chief port overseer in Nuvelle,” Hubert prompts unthinkingly one afternoon, looking up from a minor lord’s petition for aid.

 

“Emeline,” says Ferdinand without hesitation. “Second cousin of the late Leofrich von Ochs. Reputation for straight talk, fair dealings, and a proclivity for micromanagement.” 

 

Hubert nods, remembering his one encounter with the woman back in Enbarr some years ago, and returns to crafting Lady Edelgard’s official response. It’s a solid minute before he realizes to kick himself. Thankfully, Ferdinand doesn’t seem to have assigned any importance to the exchange, engrossed in the map of Gloucester he’s spread across the tea table.

 

The tea table, naturally, is another of Ferdinand’s contributions to the office decor, along with a conspicuously handsome tea seat and a more utilitarian lightstand. He’d claimed the habit of working late with a single candle for illumination was straining Hubert’s eyes.

 

(“At least then my eyes and my patience would share a fate,” Hubert had grumbled, but used the lightstand anyway.)

 

Against all odds, they learn to work together. The more of the labor of governance Ferdinand takes on, the more Hubert is able to focus on the work for which he’s uniquely suited, the gnarled back of the tapestry of their war. He strengthens his spy network, heads off an insurrection of ex-nobles from the former Varley territory with a few well-placed threats, and takes on training of the newest mage recruits. 

 

As it turns out, it makes a great difference to his mind and his mood to spend even an hour striding around the training grounds barking orders, rather than hunched over his desk. He doesn’t sleep more, ultimately. But he does sleep better. 






At some point, Ferdinand convinces Hubert to join him for afternoon tea. At another, he manages to convince him not to work through it. And after a few months, there is even an occasion when he convinces him to take it outside, in the gardens, where they spend a little too long enjoying the fall air and fiercely debating the merits of state-sponsored arts in wartime. 

 

“You seem more like yourself again, Hubert,” Lady Edelgard tells him afterwards, when he appears in her office for their evening meeting with the scent of chrysanthemums still lingering in the air. “The arrangement with Ferdinand seems to be working to your betterment.”

 

“And the Empire’s,” Hubert hears himself say. 

 

Edelgard looks about half as surprised as he feels, which is still quite a lot.

 

“I only mean to say that he is...an adequate statesman,” Hubert says quickly. “And perhaps two alert minds craft better policies than one overtired one.” 

 

He doesn’t like the way Edelgard is looking at him. 

 

“I suppose we should be glad he thwarted your efforts to get him killed in battle, then,” she says wryly.

 

“I –” Hubert flushes. “He is a cavalier. It is the practical thing to place his unit–”

 

“–relax, Hubert,” says Edelgard, silencing him with a raise of her hand. There is a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. “I am certain you’ve only ever thought of the good of the Empire as you chose your tactics.”

 

She adjusts her skirts and accepts the sheaf of reports he passes across her desk, eyes flickering over the summary he’s fastened to the top. 

 

“And besides,” she continues after a moment. “He was terrifically irritating, back then.” 

 

Hubert lets out a dark laugh.

 

“He is still terrifically irritating, I assure you,” he says. “But perhaps we – I – did underestimate his usefulness. Now, Your Majesty, about the rumors we’ve been hearing about Almyran involvement in Goneril…”

 


 

Five years into the war, the Ethereal Moon has brought strong winds and deep snows, piles of white accumulating on the pews in the ruined cathedral. Caspar catches a cold leading one too many wood-chopping expeditions; Ashe somehow procures hot chocolate for sweet-toothed Lysithea. Petra traps foxes and ermines in her spare time, tanning the skins and enlisting Bernadetta’s help to turn them into a warm fur cloak for Dorothea, who finally stops shivering. With all the armies of Fódlan mired in winter’s thrall, the war grinds slower than ever. 

 

Hubert lowers Lady Edelgard’s crown gently upon her brow, their eyes meeting in the mirror of her vanity. He’s rarely called upon to do this sort of thing now – she has personal attendants for that – but today is a rare day. Today marks five years since the Millenium Festival. 

 

“Hubert,” Lady Edelgard says, as he tenderly gathers the fine strands of her hair and begins to braid them. “You must know I intend to go to the Goddess Tower tonight.” 

 

“I assumed as much, Your Majesty,” he replies. 

 

There’s a silence between them, not quite comfortable, but familiar. She closes her eyes, and he pretends not to see the way she must swallow before she can speak again.

 

“Do you think it is foolish?”

 

Her voice is so small. He feels a familiar burn in his chest, a fierce desire to keep that flickering vulnerability alive. 

 

“No,” he murmurs. “I don’t.”

 

She hesitates.

 

“But you do not think they will come.”

 

It’s his turn to swallow.

 

“No, Your Majesty.” 

 

Edelgard nods, a melancholy smile twisting her mouth.

 

He finishes the braids, pinning them along the contours of her crown, leaving two delicate white strands to frame her face. On impulse, he rests his gloved hands on her shoulders, leaving them there until her eyes open again to meet his.

 

“Thank you, Hubert,” she says. Her voice is level again, soft but steady.

 

“Of course, Your Majesty.”


Hubert doesn’t want to be thanked. He just wants the power to fix this.




 

It takes him weeks to accept that Byleth is truly back. He’s seen too many of Lord Arundel’s replications to feel anything but alarm when Edelgard returns from the tower with their old professor at her side, starry-eyed and dizzy with new hope.

 

Byleth submits to his questioning, proves their blood in Hanneman’s crest analyzer twice, beats him at chess for good measure. Their answers about their whereabouts the last five years are less than satisfactory, but Hubert has watched students turn into beasts and a ravenous dragon masquerade as a woman. He is willing to accept that there will always be things in this world that defy his comprehension.

 

As before, no one but him thinks to question Byleth’s presence anyway. Their return brings about a seismic shift in morale, in Lady Edelgard most of all, and they grant an immediate lift to the Empire’s strategic positioning. When news of it reaches the Alliance, Gloucester drops its attempts at negotiation and declares unequivocal support for the Empire. And so the Imperial Army heads to Myrrdin, to take their first real forward step in nearly five years.

 


 

With Ferdinand guiding Edelgard on matters of state and Byleth once more taking the lead on military strategy, Hubert refocuses again, this time on the war beneath the war. 

 

He takes on a few more assignments from Lord Arundel, hoping to gain better intelligence than his agents have been able to carry back thus far. At this point, they have each purged a number of one another’s spies from their respective camps, a game that grows less amicable with each passing turn. There is no pretending that they are not simply using one another towards an end, anymore. It is simply a matter of who will achieve that end first.

 

The assignments Hubert takes are mostly trivial. He routs Demonic Beasts from the Sealed Forest, breaks a pair of Agarthans from a prison encampment in Gideon, frames a bothersome public official for embezzlement to make way for a more pliable successor. But they do give him a few occasions to witness Arundel’s methods of passing messages between his agents, and eventually, one fortuitous night under the Guardian Moon, Hubert manages to secure a letter written by the man himself.

 

He rides early and hard to reach Garreg Mach by noon, climbing the stairs to the faculty offices two at a time in his riding boots and cloak. The note feels as though it’s burning in his breast pocket. He nods a curt greeting to Linhardt and Manuela as they pass on the upper landing, then lets himself into his office so he can get to work. As he lays the paper out on his desk, he feels a sense of anticipation that is almost childlike in its purity.

 

It takes him well into the evening to break Arundel’s code. As he expected, it’s complex, well beyond a simple substitution. But Hubert is persistent, and he has kept himself sharp over the years by employing different methods with each of his different agents. When at last he deduces that it’s an interrupted key with a codeword of seven letters, he can practically taste victory on his lips. And when the word Nemesis renders the whole page of clustered letters into a directive to dispose of a political prisoner in Gautier, Hubert nearly laughs. So Arundel is a sentimental man, too.

 

The contents of the letter are decidedly secondary. Hubert mostly feels the thrill of having bested the most dangerous spymaster in all of Fódlan. Suddenly, it feels possible that they might win this war and the one after it.

 

Realizing it’s nearly midnight and he hasn’t eaten since breakfast, Hubert destroys the letter, summarizing it in his own code, and makes his way down to the kitchens. He helps himself to some spiced jerky and a stale barley roll, observed but unquestioned by the one worker sweeping out the floors in the low light.

 

When he steps into the dining hall, there is a familiar figure seated at the end of one long table. The little jerks of Bernadetta’s fingers indicate she’s brought her needlework, and the quiet tune she’s humming suggests she’s distracting herself from something.

 

He does his best not to loom out of the shadows, moving carefully into her field of vision before issuing a greeting.

 

“Hubert!” she exclaims anyway, eyes widening up at him. “Wh-what are you doing here so late?”

 

Her voice echoes off the walls of the empty hall.

 

“I could ask you the same,” he says more quietly, keeping his voice just low and warm enough not to carry.

 

“I couldn’t sleep,” says Bernadetta, automatically matching his softer tone. “I thought I was hungry. But then I got here and I realized I was more thirsty than hungry, and with the cooks stretching all the rations until we get the next shipments from Gronder I thought I probably shouldn’t be stopping by for a late-night snack anyway, so I got some water instead and – oh no, I’m rambling. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to–”

 

He lowers himself onto the bench opposite her and she falls silent, her eyes uneasily flicking between him and the nearest door.

 

“...If you don’t mind if I join you,” he says after a pause, realizing he may have been presumptuous in taking the seat.

 

She gives him a timid smile.

 

“N-no, it’s fine.”

 

They fall into silence for a moment, Bernadetta resuming her needlework to avoid meeting his eyes.

 

“To answer your question,” he says eventually, “It seems I worked through dinner.”

 

He takes a bite of the barley roll as she works a crimson thread into the taut linen.

 

“You do that a lot, huh?” she says.

 

“It’s often necessary, yes,” he says. “But today, it was more that I was...engrossed.”

 

Bernadetta hums in recognition, nodding.

 

“I do that too, sometimes,” she says. “I get really focused on something, and I forget to eat or sleep or leave my room until someone comes to remind me.”

 

“I recall,” says Hubert with a faint smile. During their school days, he and Edelgard used to keep a schedule to ensure someone did just that, checking in every so often to ensure she wasn’t sick or otherwise unwell. These days, they don’t need to arrange it. Someone always looks out for Bernie.

 

“What were you working on?” Bernadetta asks, hesitating before unpicking her latest stitch. “If it’s something you can tell me about.”

 

He studies her face in the low light. Normally he’d deflect a question like that. But perhaps it’s the restless wind in the garden outside, or the afterglow of his success with Arundel’s cipher, or the way her tiny, efficient stitches remind him of his own careful handwriting – he wants to tell her. 

 

“Have you ever written in a secret language, Bernadetta?” Hubert asks.

 

She tilts her head curiously.

 

“Like a code?” 

 

“Like a code, yes.”

 

“No,” she says. “Though I’ve read lots of books where someone uses them, like to write secret love letters and things, especially ones where – n-never mind.”

 

He’s not sure what kind of books she’s reading, but he brushes past it.

 

“I intercepted a letter earlier,” he says. “Written in code. But I’ve managed to figure out what it says, which means I’ll be able to know what future letters say. This knowledge will help Lady Edelgard stay one step ahead of her enemies. And that is what kept me from dinner.”

 

“Wow,” Bernadetta breathes, looking very impressed (not that this is what Hubert was after). 

 

Impulsively, Hubert reaches into his pocket to withdraw a small journal.

 

“Since you can’t sleep, and you’re here,” he says, “would you like to learn a simple cipher, Bernadetta?”

 

Her eyes widen. Wordlessly, she nods and sets aside her cross-stitch.

 

She picks it up quickly enough, and the delight she radiates when she comprehends something is almost contagious. By the time they leave the dining hall, the moon lighting their way back to the dormitories, she knows enough to be able to scribble him a quick note:

 

cqjwt hxd oxa cnjlqrwp vn. yunjbn mxwc fxat bx qjam.

 

thank you for teaching me. please don’t work so hard.

 

Hubert laughs softly.

 

“I’ll try,” he says, pausing at the stairwell where their ways part. “Good night, Bernadetta.”

 


 

At the end of the month, they take Derdriu. 

 

On Byleth’s recommendation, Lady Edelgard spares Claude. This is not the counsel Hubert would have given, but he suspects he might have lost that one even if Byleth had said nothing. Everyone has a soft spot for Claude, it seems. Everyone but Hubert.

 

When the diplomatic dust has settled, he makes his way to the healers’ tents, seeking someone to patch up the wound he incurred during the fighting. It’s not too bad – the arrow only clipped his side – but it’s more damage than he usually takes, being in the habit of melting his enemies all at once from a safe distance rather than letting them poke holes in him. 

 

When the tent flap lifts, though, it’s not a healer who enters.

 

“I’d have thought you’d be several drinks deep with your battalion by now,” Hubert says, wincing as he sits up on the cot. “To what do I owe the displeasure?”

 

“A noble does not gloat in victory, Hubert,” says Ferdinand, but he’s grinning anyway. “Linhardt sent me to relay that his hands are full at the moment, but Dorothea will be by to see you as soon as she is finished tending to Petra.”

 

Hubert arches an eyebrow delicately, at which Ferdinand flushes redder than his jacket.

 

“Wh-when she’s finished tending to Petra’s wounds,” he says, aghast. “By the Goddess, I didn’t think you, of all people…”

 

Hubert scoffs.

 

“You’re a bit rough-cheeked to play the blushing schoolboy, von Aegir.”

 

Ferdinand coughs uncomfortably, still pink-faced.

 

“How is your injury?” he asks.

 

Hubert pokes at it, and his hand comes away bloody.

 

“I’ll live, presuming someone deigns to treat me before too long.”

 

Ferdinand looks worried.

 

“I can fetch one of Linhardt’s monks if you are–”

 

“–it’s fine, Ferdinand,” Hubert interrupts. “The wound is a pain, not a threat. I’m simply filling the air.”

 

“That is not like you.”

 

“Blame the loss of blood and the glow of Her Majesty’s victory, I suppose.”

 

Ferdinand moves Hubert’s jacket aside and takes a seat on the end of the cot, apparently set on supervising him until Dorothea arrives. Hubert studies him in profile, taking in his tangled hair, his dented pauldron, the flecks of dirt and blood that streak his gauntlets. His knights were in fine form today, swiftly cutting off their foes’ reinforcements at the north and west gates and keeping Lysithea’s mages well-defended. Hubert almost considers saying so. Almost.

 

“The Alliance has truly fallen,” Ferdinand muses after a moment. “It is hard to believe that this time last year, we were hoping merely to secure Gloucester’s cooperation and hold Ordelia through the winter.”

 

“Yes, well, having the right allies makes all the difference.”

 

“Are you speaking of the Professor, or of Lorenz?” asks Ferdinand.

 

Hubert fixes him with a look.

 

“If you had to carry out the rest of this war with only one of those two in our ranks, whom would you choose?” 

 

Ferdinand laughs, affronted.

 

“Both were invaluable in getting us to this point,” he says. “I will not have you insult my good friend Count Gloucester just when we’re reaping the fruits of his aid.” 

 

“Had he rendered that aid when I originally petitioned for it, we might be enjoying those fruits in much nicer weather,” counters Hubert. 

 

Ferdinand swats his leg.

 

“You are a miserable, ungrateful, dour excuse for a minister, Hubert.”  

 

“Someone must carry on my father’s legacy.”

 

Ferdinand is spared having to come up with a retort for that when the tent flap lifts and Dorothea admits herself, a healer’s smock tied over her Gremory’s uniform.

 

“Oh,” she says, taking in Ferdinand’s perch at Hubert’s feet. “Am I interrupting something?”

 

“Yes,” says Hubert, just as Ferdinand says no . “A bout of light torture. Please, come in.” 

 

“Ferdie, what have I told you about buzzing around the poisonous plants?” Dorothea winks as she maneuvers past him to reach Hubert. Without preamble, she lifts up Hubert’s shirt to get a look at the half-crusted gash in his side.

 

Ferdinand makes a noise of dismay and rises, holding up his hands before him.

 

“I will take my leave,” he says. “One of you at a time is quite enough.”

 

“Smart man,” says Hubert.

 

“Isn’t he?” says Dorothea brightly.

 

Ferdinand fairly flees, leaving the two mages alone in the tent.

 

Dorothea sets about assembling her kit, uncorking a small vial.

 

“How is Petra?” Hubert asks more seriously as she pours its contents carefully over a clean cloth.

 

“A little foggy, but she’ll be fine,” Dorothea replies. “She fell at the best angle she could have, considering the height.”

 

“Not many take a shot from Failnaught and stay breathing, much less airborne,” says Hubert. “She was lucky.”

 

“She was,” Dorothea agrees. “All the same, if you were planning to go behind Edelgard’s back and assassinate Claude later, I’d offer to join you.” 

 

Hubert disguises his hiss as a laugh as she swipes the alcohol-soaked cloth over his wound.

 

“I can’t say the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.”

 

“I knew I could count on you,” says Dorothea with a grim smile. “Though knowing that guy, he’s probably halfway to Almyra with a new entourage by now. Now, let’s get you patched up. Hold your shirt up for me, will you?” 

 

He obeys, letting her press both her hands around the torn skin beneath, and feels the familiar prickle of faith magic radiating from her palms. When she pulls away, the cut looks like it’s been there for weeks, not hours. It’s quick and efficient and elegantly done, everything he has always appreciated in Dorothea.

 

“There,” she says, setting aside her supplies. “I don’t believe that even merits a bandage, Minister. You’re free to run yourself ragged again. Now, shall I send Ferdie back?”

 

Hubert looks at her blankly.

 

“Why? Is the goal to ensure I remain in pain?” 

 

Even though Dorothea laughs, she gives him a strange, exasperated look as she packs up her kit and leaves the tent. He’s accustomed to reading his classmates easily, so it perplexes him for a minute or two, but he eventually gives up attempting to decipher it. The Alliance has fallen; the Kingdom is next. He has work to do.

 


 

The Empire rises at Arianrhod, but the fortress falls the moment they turn their backs. Lord Arundel pays them a visit so he can watch them receive the news in person: the Silver Maiden lies in ruins, along with a third of the soldiers who took her.

 

Hubert makes fuel of the deep dread that pools in his stomach when he hears of the javelins of light. While Lady Edelgard commands her troops and prepares for the march on Fhirdiad, he devotes himself singularly to finding the stronghold of Those Who Slither in the Dark. 

 

He intercepts more letters, reads deeper into the legends of the Agarthans, travels further and further afield to spy and threaten and bribe his way towards answers. For weeks, he hardly sees Lady Edelgard, much less anyone else. He spends his twenty-fifth birthday in a dank basement in Gaspard, drawing confessions from a Western Church defector with a saw-toothed, poison-tipped knife.

 

Still, Shambhala eludes him. And time is running out.

 


 

“What do you suppose you’ll do after the war?” Ferdinand asks, leaned rather further over the railing of the Star Terrace than Hubert would consider safe.

 

It’s late, and the two of them have come upstairs to take a break from a grueling session on the authority of town versus territorial versus continental government. As it turns out, eliminating the nobility as the de facto territorial rule introduces some complicated questions about how power should be earned and exercised. Tomorrow, they’ll present an initial proposal to Lady Edelgard; in three days, the Imperial army will ride for Fhirdiad. Between finishing a war, preparing a peace, and tracking down the secret lair of their ultimate enemy, Hubert is grateful for a moment of stillness.

 

“Return to Enbarr,” he says in response to Ferdinand’s question. “Assist Lady Edelgard in whatever she requires of me.”

 

This is half-true. Lady Edelgard will require that he eradicate Those Who Slither in the Dark. Hubert honestly hasn’t thought about what comes after.

 

“I suppose it was a foolish question,” Ferdinand says sheepishly.

 

“It wouldn’t be the first you’ve asked this evening.”

 

“It was perfectly reasonable to inquire about the Srengi clan system,” defends Ferdinand. “They have operated for hundreds of years choosing their own leaders, with no bloodlines to speak of.”

 

“Ah yes,” says Hubert, “a system which has worked so well, they celebrate with a bloody war once a generation.” 

 

“The lords of Faerghus incite such conflicts in order to keep the Srengis too weak to press south into Gautier,” Ferdinand objects. “You cannot claim the unrest is a direct product of their system of governance.”

 

“That may be so, but regardless, the squabbling tribes of frozen wasteland with a sixteenth the population density of Fódlan hardly provide a model with any relevance to our work.”

 

“Yes, our work,” says Ferdinand, groaning and letting his head fall into his hands. “Which we came up here to escape, didn’t we? I apologize, Hubert. I took the bait, as usual.” 

 

“I’ll consider forgiving you,” says Hubert with a smirk.

 

Ferdinand lifts his head back up after a beat, staring out over the gardens below. In the dim glow of the witchlight they brought up from the office, he looks more muted than he does during the day, the loudness of him allayed into something softer, subtler. Hubert feels something inside himself soften as if in response.

 

“And you, Ferdinand,” he says after a long moment. “What will you do?” 

 

Ferdinand looks down, twisting a lock of his hair in his fingers thoughtfully. 

 

“Return to Aegir, I suppose,” he says. “Face my father’s crimes and shortcomings, assist in the reconstruction, and try to make the territory a model of the new order, to the best of my ability.” 

 

Hubert doesn’t like the sound of that, but he keeps his expression neutral. 

 

“You would not consider staying in Enbarr, as Prime Minister?” 

 

Ferdinand starts. He looks sharply back at Hubert, apprehension in his eyes.

 

“I know you like to tease, Hubert, but that is hardly in good taste.”

 

“I’m not teasing,” says Hubert. “I’m quite serious.”

 

“But that is the very antithesis of everything you and Edelgard have fought for,” Ferdinand protests, brow furrowing. “If after everything we have done, every tradition we have uprooted, the next Prime Minister is the son of the disgraced previous one, what message does that send to the people of Fódlan?”

 

“It sends the message that the person most qualified for the job ought to have it,” says Hubert flatly. 

 

“I…” Ferdinand trails off, taken aback.

 

Too war-weary to be self-conscious, Hubert continues. 

 

“Lady Edelgard has not formally suggested it, but I suspect the reason she hasn’t is that we both find it obvious enough not to merit a discussion. You are a capable man, Ferdinand. An intelligent, hardworking, trustworthy man. I can think of no one in all of Fódlan more suited to the role.” 

 

“Hubert,” says Ferdinand weakly, face quite red, looking like he’s contemplating an exit over the balcony railing. “We discussed the matter of you putting such things in writing, did we not?”

 

“I am quite sick of writing these days, to be perfectly honest,” says Hubert. “But I will stop, if it makes you so uncomfortable to hear me speak plainly.” 

 

Ferdinand mutters something unintelligible and spends the next moment regathering his composure. Hubert gives him the moment and more, letting the silence stretch.

 

“Well,” Ferdinand says finally. “If...if Her Majesty does extend such an offer, when the war is won, I would certainly consider it. I imagine it would be rather lonely in Aegir, anyway, with you and Dorothea and everyone else back in the capital anyway.”

 

He smiles almost shyly at that. The expression makes Hubert’s gut clench.

 

“You’ll always have your horses,” he says without thinking. 

 

Ferdinand laughs, but even in the low light Hubert can see a flicker of disappointment in his honeyed eyes.

 


 

Dimitri falls; Fhirdiad burns. The Black Eagles fight their way through somehow, wielding sweat-slick weapons and gasping up lungfuls of smoke.

 

It’s so, so close. Catherine nearly severs Ashe’s draw arm, but Dorothea strikes her down before she can deal him a death blow. Hubert himself almost falls to a pegasus knight’s lance on the castle steps, but is saved by a miraculous shot from Bernadetta’s bow. Lysithea and Caspar fell Gilbert together; Shamir dispatches Cyril single-handedly, with well-masked regret. 

 

Edelgard wrenches Amyr from the severed head of the Immaculate One in the end. As the Strike Force looks on, she stumbles to Byleth’s body, her face filthy with gore and soot and tears. When she presses her ear to their old professor’s chest, seeking a heartbeat, they all hold their breath along with her. And when Byleth’s eyes finally open, the Goddess’s claim relinquished, they all feel their emperor’s relief as their own.

 

For hours, Ferdinand’s knights and Petra’s wyvern corps comb Fhirdiad for survivors. Meanwhile, the others work to transform their army encampment into a refugee base, guided by the light of the burning city at their backs. They erect more tents, they reunite families (or what’s left of them); they distribute water and blankets and triage the needs of the wounded. 

 

It takes all night. But finally morning comes, misty and cold, and it seems the flames have eaten their fill.




 

Hubert steps out of the medical tent where he’s been attending the overworked healers for the last several hours. The camp is quiet, at least compared to the chaos that preceded it. Exhaustion hangs over the whole place like a thick snow. Nothing feels quite real.

 

Pulling his gloves back on, he makes for the officers’ encampment, hoping to catch a few hours of rest before he’s needed next. Soldiers and citizens alike sleep wherever there is space, wrapped tight in cloaks or banners or saddle blankets. Most are still soot-streaked and shivering. Many are wounded. Hubert thinks of the sheer spitefulness of Rhea’s order and wishes they could kill her twice.

 

Where the Black Eagle Strike Force set up the night prior, there are only three tents remaining, the rest presumably distributed to meet the needs of the many. Somehow, one of them is Hubert’s. He pulls back the flap and is greeted with an unexpected sight.

 

Dorothea and Petra lie curled together on the ground, the songstress’ fur cloak draped over them both. On the cot, Bernadetta and Lysithea sleep fitfully, one bundled in Hubert’s thin blanket and the other in Ferdinand’s cape. Ferdinand himself sits on the ground at the foot of the cot, gauntlets and greaves discarded in the corner but otherwise still in his scorched armor. His chin rests against the chestplate as he dozes. 

 

Hubert stoops inside carefully. Between the five of them already inside, there isn’t much space left. The sensible thing to do would be to just leave, find some other place to rest, but he’s so tired, and the tent is warmer for the bodies already inside it. So he lowers himself to the ground, figuring the delicate geometry of it as he goes.

 

To his chagrin, the movement rouses Ferdinand, who blinks slowly up at him with beautiful, exhausted eyes, then opens his mouth as if to speak.

 

Hubert raises a finger to his lips, eyes flicking to their sleeping friends, and Ferdinand nods. As quietly as is possible in cavalier’s armor, he shifts to the side, putting himself fully against the tent wall. Then he pats the floor beside him. 

 

It’s awkward, both the destination and the maneuvering it takes to get there. But Hubert eventually settles in beside the other man, their shoulders pressed together in the cramped space, close enough to feel the faint rhythm of each other’s breathing. 

 

After a moment, Ferdinand reaches out to squeeze Hubert’s arm, as if to thank him for surviving the night. Hubert returns the gesture with a distant, drained smile. Before long, they’re both asleep where they sit, sharing one another’s weight.

 

When Hubert awakens well into the next day, the others are gone, and he’s tucked into the cot without any memory of how he got there.

 


 

PART III

 


 

Aside from the watchtowers that line the palace walls, the balcony of the Office of the Treasury is the best vantage point from which to witness the last leg of the Liberation Parade. 

 

Hubert stands back from the railing, Shamir at his side, his eyes sifting through the crowds below. He would be up on the watchtowers, of course, but if anything were to happen on the ground, it would take him too long to reach the imperial entourage. It has absolutely nothing to do with the way his head still swims and his heart pounds when he’s up that high.

 

At the fore of the parade, preceded only by her royal guard, Lady Edelgard shines. Her crown and her hair gleam in the brilliant sunshine, her gown a dazzling spectacle of red, black, and silver against the pure white of her mount. For a moment, Hubert lets himself feel the same pride and admiration he can hear in the adoring clamor of the crowd, letting his chest swell warmly with it – this is the homecoming she deserves, that he’s sought to give her since she was first taken from Enbarr nearly twenty years ago.

 

“They’re almost there,” says Shamir, breaking his thoughts.  “We may get through this without an incident after all.”

 

She doesn’t loosen her hold on her bow, though. Across the way, Hubert sees the rooftop where Ashe is similarly stationed, and the window where Bernadetta keeps her own watch, and feels another twinge of displeasure that no one in the parade is wearing proper armor. 

 

It had been Ferdinand’s idea, damn him – leave the armaments on the battlefield to send a message that they’re arriving at the palace as governors, not conquerors. And while the optics are undeniably effective, Hubert would still rather there be more than a thin layer of mail between his lady and an assassin’s blade this soon after the fall of the Church. At least if anything goes wrong, he thinks, it will be easier than usual to murder the Prime Minister for his asinine suggestion.

 

But Edelgard reaches the palace steps unhindered, the parade rippling to a halt behind her. She dismounts and begins her ascent, regal and unhurried. At a respectful distance, her entourage follows suit – Byleth, Ferdinand, Petra, Dorothea, Caspar, Linhardt, and Lysithea, along with a few of the continuing ministers from the previous administration. They rise together, followed by the cheers of the crowd. Then finally, they’ve reached the top, and with a final wave to her subjects, Emperor Edelgard von Hresvelg enters the safety of the palace itself.

 

Hubert lets out a breath and steps back.

 

“Well, that’s one thing over with,” says Shamir. “I’ll rendezvous with the other snipers, see if anyone noticed anything unusual, establish a rotation for tonight.”

 

“Good,” says Hubert, producing a slip of paper from his sleeve. “Give this to Bernadetta, if you wouldn’t mind.”

 

Shamir looks down at it.

 

“This is meaningless.”

 

“It won’t be to her.”

 

With a shrug, Shamir tucks the paper into her belt pouch and leaves.

 

He didn’t need to encode this particular message; it’s just an instruction to leave security to the Guard tonight and join the festivities. But passing such notes has become something of a game between them, and her skill at ciphering grows with each one. Who knows? She might end up being a fine spymaster someday, if she chooses.

 

With several hours left before the Unification Ball begins, Hubert gets back to work. He triple-checks the security arrangements, makes sure Lady Edelgard and Byleth are well-attended, and unpacks more of his files from Garreg Mach into his new office, which is actually his father’s old office. Then, when he can’t put it off any longer, he changes into his formal attire, attempts (and fails) to tame his hair out of his face, and braces himself for an evening of celebration. 

 


 

It’s not as lavish as anything from the days before the war. Years of untended orchards and trampled grainfields have left Fódlan lean, and too much blood has been spilled to make extravagance enjoyable, or even appropriate. But all the chandeliers in the Imperial Hall are lit, and the cooks have outdone themselves with what is available. Besides, the palace cellar apparently still contains enough wine to float the Almyran navy, and Lady Edelgard has made efficient use of that asset. By the time Hubert arrives, Manuela is already soused enough to have dragged a hapless knight out for a dance, and the music hasn’t even begun yet.

 

Hubert sticks to the edges of the hall as the evening progresses. Caspar and Linhardt join him at one point, presumably to escape their fathers, who are understandably very frightened of Hubert. A former noblewoman from Merceus tries to engage him in a conversation about the marriage prospects of her eldest daughter. Hubert eventually gives up trying to explain that with no more noble titles, just functional ones, there is no longer much to be gained by bartering with one’s progeny. Later, Ashe stops by to make polite conversation, seeming to feel as out of place as Hubert does, until Annette arrives with Mercedes and he rushes off to greet them.

 

Hubert doesn’t follow suit. He is grateful they didn’t have to strike down all their former classmates, of course, and he knows that politically speaking, it was the right thing to do to invite those who survived here tonight. All the same, he can’t fault any of them the coldness in their eyes when they look at him or Lady Edelgard. The war may be over, but real unification will take time. 

 

At the raised dais in the center of the hall, Byleth stands behind the Emperor’s chair, exchanging the occasional word with one of the guests but largely just keeping watch. They seem to have recovered from the loss of the Goddess’ power, which had left them weakened for the few weeks after Fhirdiad. At her table, Edelgard herself is kept busy entertaining a seemingly endless line of well-wishers, devotees, and aspiring politicians. At one point, Hubert sends Lysithea over with a plate just to ensure she’ll have a chance to eat. 

 

Ferdinand, too, seems to spend most of the evening on one arm or another. To an outsider, it would seem everyone in the room is his old friend for all the warmth with which he greets each guest. But Hubert can spot the genuine spring in his step when Petra steals him away from a group of Albinean financiers, or the fondness in his smile as he coaxes Bernadetta at long last to join him for a dance.

 

Hubert can also spot the way Ferdinand occasionally glances his way, their eyes meeting across the cavernous room. Each time it happens, Ferdinand makes as though to come over, but he’s always intercepted before he gets far – by Lorenz, by one of his lieutenants, by the venerable director of the Mittelfrank Opera, who asks for a dance, and then another after it. 

 

In his corner, Hubert thinks of that first empty spot on his desk in Garreg Mach, and downs what’s left of his wine. 

 

“You don’t look like a man who’s won a war, Hubie,” says Dorothea, materializing at his side.

 

She is dressed in a magnificent gown of deep blues and greens, adorned at the neckline with onyx and peacock feathers. Her chestnut hair tumbles down her back in luxurious waves, and she holds a goblet in each hand. 

 

“Should I presume that is for Petra?” he asks, eyeing the second cup of wine. “Or is striking up a conversation with me so odious that it requires twice the libations?”

 

“Maybe I’ve been waiting all night for you to finish your cup so I could give you another,” says Dorothea, offering it up. She smiles when he takes it and raises her own. “To your health, Minister Vestra.” 

 

“And yours, Miss Arnault.” 

 

They drink.

 

“So,” she says, turning back to look out over the hall. “Edie and the Professor, huh?”

 

Hubert groans.

 

“On second thought, I will take both the cups.”

 

Dorothea laughs as she moves her drink out of his reach, as though he’d made any kind of move to swipe it.

 

“I think it’s sweet,” she says. “After all she’s been through, she deserves someone.”

 

“She does,” Hubert agrees.

 

Dorothea hums along to the music for a moment, watching Byleth and Edelgard on the dais.

 

“I can’t believe you let me think you were in love with her, all that time at Garreg Mach,” she says, without venom. 

 

Hubert shrugs.

 

“It was never far from the truth,” he says.

 

“Oh?” Dorothea says, glancing up at him. “What do you mean?”

 

“I do love her.” 

 

Her look turns curious.

 

“You do?”

 

“Of course I do,” Hubert scoffs, raising his glass to his lips. “Would I have lied and murdered and laid waste to half the continent for someone I didn’t?”

 

“I don’t know, Hubie,” says Dorothea. “It honestly seems like the kind of thing you might just enjoy.” 

 

He can’t tell if it’s a joke, or if he’d like it to be one.

 

“Regardless,” he says. “If you’re asking me if I envy Byleth, if I see them as taking a place I covet for myself, then no. My lady’s happiness is hard-won. I am glad for anyone who can bring her any measure of it.”

 

“I see,” says Dorothea. “I suppose that tracks.”

 

When she speaks again, her tone is playful.

 

“And what about your happiness?” 

 

He busies himself with a sip. 

 

“I find my own happiness makes for poor conversation.”

 

“Dance with me, Hubert.”

 

Before he can protest, he finds himself dragged out onto the floor, their cups left on a table at its edge. Once she’s prodded his limbs into an acceptable arrangement and laid her hand in his, she eases them into the dance with practiced grace. 

 

“So,” she says, looking up at him. “We were discussing your happiness.”

 

“What if we discussed yours instead?” he says, falling smoothly into the steps. “I imagine Petra will return to Brigid soon to take up her place as queen. Will you follow?”

 

“Know that I’m only allowing you to evade my question because I find yours interesting,” says Dorothea.

 

"Consider it noted."

 

“Now, to answer – I had intended to go with her, originally.”

 

“But you’re reconsidering?”

 

“Yes,” she says, guiding him through the next step with a subtle turn of her wrist. “The timing, not whether or not to do it. Goddess knows I intend to grow old and ugly with her, on whatever continent best allows for that – hopefully one with rich food and fabulous music. But Ferdie had us thinking about some of the political implications of my running off with her right away.”

 

Hubert raises an eyebrow. 

 

“Oh?”

 

“Well, even with all the aid Brigid gave us in the war, there are still people here who think of it as a sort of backwater place for Fódlan to colonize or conquer,” she explains. “A strategic marriage could help Petra be taken more seriously as its queen.”

 

“So you plan to marry her off to some dull-witted, influential politician until her position is secure in its own right, then assassinate the sap and take his place?”

 

“Hubie!” Dorothea laughs, smacking his shoulder with the hand that’s already resting there. “No, nothing like that, though that would make a fantastic opera.”

 

“I expect a librettist's credit when you write it,” he says, earning a smile from her. “What is your plan, then?”

 

“Not all power is political,” says Dorothea, at which he nods. “I intend to return to Mittelfrank, now that we’ve finally seen Edie through. I think it’s fair to think that between my talent as a songstress and my reputation in the war, I’ll be able to make a name for myself before too long.”

 

“More than fair,” says Hubert. Dorothea smiles again, flattered by his rare praise, and executes a little turn in his arms.

 

“Ferdie’s idea was that if we hold off for now, accept a few years of visiting back and forth until I’m the brightest star in Enbarr’s sky...”

 

“...then when you and Petra eventually marry, it will raise Brigid’s standing in the eyes of those who doubt its sovereignty,” Hubert finishes.

 

“Exactly.”

 

“A surprisingly astute proposal,” says Hubert. “Though have you considered he’s simply trying to keep you in Enbarr so he can enjoy free tickets to your performances?”

 

Dorothea laughs.

 

“That’s our Ferdinand, either way,” she says, smiling.

 

Hubert scoffs.

 

“‘Our,” he says. “Do as you will for yourself, but I lay no claim to that incorrigible man.”

 

Dorothea tilts her head, green eyes glittering knowingly up at him.

 

“You could, you know.”

 

He stumbles.

 

“Miss Arnault,” he says when he’s made it back to the correct step. “I believe you may have had too much wine.”

 

Minister Vestra,” she mimics with a dangerous smile, her voice low. “I believe you haven’t had enough.” 

 

He attempts to pull back out of her arms, but she uses the momentum of the dance against him, forcing him into another turn.

 

“I have work to do,” he says, feeling something like fear rising in his throat.

 

It’s true. The most important mission is still ahead of him. They are not safe, not yet. 

 

Still, she doesn’t let go.

 

“Are you in love with him?” Dorothea asks. The humor is gone from her voice, though not the warmth. 

 

“Half of Enbarr is in love with him,” Hubert hisses, looking around for an escape. 

 

“But are you, Hubert?”

 

“Enough,” Hubert snaps, wrenching himself out of her grasp. There are a few quiet gasps from the couples dancing nearer to them, and people are definitely staring, but Hubert doesn’t care. Without another word, he storms off the dance floor and out of the hall, quickly enough that his cape billows behind him as he goes. 

 


 

Edelgard finds him later that night in his quarters, restocking the poisons and antitoxins in his travel kit. His riding clothes are laid out on the chaise next to his discarded waistcoat, saddlebags half-packed. 

 

“Your Majesty,” he says in surprise when she clears her throat in the doorway – he hadn’t noticed her open the door. He bows quickly and deeply, taking in that she’s still in her ballgown, and that Byleth is not with her. “Is something wrong?”

 

“Yes,” she says, and his heart lurches as she continues: “My oldest and dearest friend disappeared from the ball before I could enjoy his company.”

 

Hubert sighs, seeking his usual composure. 

 

“Apologies, my lady,” he says. “I–”

 

“–El,” says Edelgard before he can go on. He stares at her. “You used to call me El, when we were little. Before...well, before.”

 

“I remember, my lady.” 

 

“I wish you would do it again,” she says softly.

 

She steps into his foyer, turning to press the door shut. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing, watching her as she approaches him. She looks different in the low light of the room, less like the powerful emperor of all of Fódlan and more like the little girl to whom he once made a life-altering promise.

 

“What’s all this?” Edelgard asks him, gesturing to the saddlebags.

 

“The Church has fallen,” says Hubert. “We must assume Arundel will exert his influence soon. I have a few leads.”

 

“The candles aren’t out yet on the ball, Hubert,” says Edelgard. “Surely you can pack tomorrow.”

 

Shame creeps over him darkly, though he can’t be sure of its root. Is it that he’s failed to be the blade she deserves? Or that he’s failed to be anything more? 

 

“Until Shambhala falls, every moment wasted is a danger to all we’ve worked for,” he says, his voice hoarse.

 

After a moment, she nods. She understands. Of course she does. 

 

Without a word, she sits down on the end of the chaise and begins to help pack the things he’s laid out into the saddlebags. Unsettled to have her hands busy while his lie idle, Hubert returns to his vials, the little glasses clinking in the quiet of the room.

 

“Do you intend to travel alone?” she asks as she works.

 

“Yes,” he says. “For now.”

 

She nods again, but her expression seems sad.

 

“And when will you return?”

 

“As soon as I am able, Your Majesty. Never for more than a few weeks at a time.” 

 

“I see.”

 

Between the two of them, they make quick work, and soon the saddlebags are full except for provisions, which he’ll need to fetch from the kitchens before he goes.

 

Edelgard rises to stand before him.

 

“I could send Byleth with you,” she says. 

 

“No,” Hubert says, shaking his head. “If I am to leave your side, then they must stay by it. The peace is new and fragile, still.”

 

“We could both join you, then,” says Edelgard. “We could hunt down the Agarthans together, the three of us.”

 

Hubert is silent. He knows as well as she does that it’s an impossible proposition. They could share the shadows at Garreg Mach, and even during the war to some extent. But that time is over. The eyes of all of Fódlan are on her now.

 

Her own lilac eyes are sad and affectionate as she looks up at him. Hesitantly, she reaches up to lay her palm against his cheek. He tries not to flinch away.

 

“Hubert,” she whispers. “I fear I've failed you.”

 

His breath hitches in his throat.

 

“Never, Your Majesty.”

 

“I’ve asked so much,” she continues. “And you’ve given it, again and again.”

 

And I will, again and again, he thinks. Until you have no further use of me.

 

“Whatever you need to succeed in this mission,” she says. “Gold, allies, armies – give the word and it will be yours.”

 

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

 

“Just please – come home safely.”

 

He swallows.

 

“I will try.” 

 

With one more look back at him, Edelgard slips away to return to the festivities, or perhaps to her chambers and Byleth’s arms. 

 

In the silence she leaves behind, Hubert is left to his mission and the memory of Dorothea’s sharp eyes piercing right through him.

 


 

The next morning, he leaves before first light. A mysterious plague has apparently taken root in a township in Boramas. While the symptoms don’t match those reported in Remire six years ago, it’s the best lead Hubert has. And as Enbarr shrinks on the horizon behind him, he feels some of the uneasiness of the previous evening fall away.

 

It was different, he reasons to himself as he rides, to fraternize with the others during the war against the Church. Then, there was an object to earning their trust, even their closeness. There was also an inevitability – you can only look death in the face together so many times without developing some kind of understanding. And so he had let himself be known by his allies in small ways, without intent or purpose, perhaps even without realizing it.

 

But the Great War is over. The forces that bent their fates toward each other are gone, for the most part, and the Black Eagles are no longer a means to achieving an end. In fact, they’re freer than anyone in Fódlan has been in a very long time. All of them are – except Hubert.

 

And it’s better that way. However much Hubert bears his duty like a heavy weight, he still prefers that feeling to the dizzy acrophobia that sets in when he thinks about wanting something for himself.

 


 

Months pass. So do Hubert’s expeditions, without much to show.

 

Lord Arundel makes himself a member of the Emperor’s cabinet, because he can. When Hubert is present for council meetings, which is about half the time, he watches the man who razed Arianrhod and murdered Edelgard’s family shape their new Fódlan, and has to muster every ounce of his considerable self-control not to set the whole palace ablaze. The irony doesn’t escape him.

 

When he’s not chasing down rumors or imagining Arundel’s grisly end, Hubert does his best to help enact the world that he, Edelgard and Ferdinand sketched out over so many late nights back at Garreg Mach. He writes reports and drafts treaties, meets with visiting dignitaries, watches for signs of corruption in the members of Her Majesty’s new administration. He deploys battalions to quiet the occasional revolt from the Church’s lingering faithful, and oversees the publication and distribution of works revealing the true nature of the Nabateans to discourage further unrest.

 

He also takes coffee with Ferdinand every other day, even though he shouldn’t. They’re both busy men who could make better use of their time, and it certainly isn’t helping with the fond ache in Hubert’s chest that now reliably accompanies the Prime Minister’s appearance. But Ferdinand insists, and Hubert can’t bring himself to refuse. So they meet, in the gardens or one of their offices or any of the small meeting rooms off the Council Hall, and brew each other tea and coffee, and reliably talk for far longer than is practical.

 

To preclude any venture into treacherous waters, Hubert steers their conversations toward politics, history, and current events. The downside of this tactic is that he finds Ferdinand most captivating when he’s arguing knowledgeably about something that matters a great deal to them both, and these topics reliably produce that effect. But at least it means Hubert is never tempted to remark on the way the corners of Ferdinand’s eyes crease in genuine affection when they greet each other, or the way he always looks disappointed when Hubert sets off on another “surveyance trip.” 

 

“You could just ask Caspar and Linhardt to document how the unification is shaping up,” Ferdinand remarks on one occasion, looking particularly sulky. “Sothis knows they’ve visited half the continent by now.” 

 

“If I wanted to know what was happening on the underside of von Hevring’s eyelids, I’d request a full report,” says Hubert, and moves the conversation on to the reconstruction of Fhirdiad.

 

Dorothea doesn’t confront him again, for which he’s grateful. But whenever they run into each other, in the Council Hall or over a meal or at some ceremonial function, she regards him with a look in her eyes he can only interpret as disappointment. 

 


 

Finally, late in the Horsebow Moon, Hubert’s efforts to locate Shambhala bear fruit.

 

It starts when one of his agents turns up dead in Goneril, an inscrutable note hidden in a clever pocket on the interior of his glove. Hubert decodes it into a single word – ‘Gemma’ – and with a bit of book-scouring, learns that this is the name of a remote village in the foothills on the border of the former Alliance. The next morning, he gears up his horse and heads east.

 

Gemma is an unremarkable place, a few dozen thatched homes supporting a few dozen weathered shepherds and their families. Hubert spends a day assessing it for anything of interest and comes up empty, initially. Then that night, over a firepit out in the pastures, the herdsmen take turns telling stories from the folklore of the region, and he feels the hair at the back of his neck rise. There are tales of metal that can think for itself, lights that burn without flame, demons who can wear the faces of men. There are tales of monsters beneath the mountains and hidden tunnels into the endless dark below.

 

Hubert stays long enough to map out the positions of any other nearby settlements, but not long enough for his face to stick in anyone’s memory. When he returns the following week, he brings a few trusted agents, and they scour the surrounding area for days, tracking the motions and the legends of the locals from one hamlet to the next. 

 

The task takes them all the way across the border, into Hrym. There, concealed in the brush of the arid foothills, Hubert personally witnesses a half-dozen Agarthans disappear into a hole in the mountainside in broad daylight. He knows, then, that his war is finally coming to a head.

 


 

He returns to Enbarr, where his preparations take him the better part of the next week. 

 

Normally before an encounter with the enemy, Hubert would map out the battlefield, devise four or five different strategies to counter various tactics their opponents might employ. But scouting Shambhala directly is too risky; If Arundel knows they’re coming, Enbarr will be a pile of rubble before Hubert and his operatives arrive. So instead, he reviews every proxy at his disposal: interrogation notes, intercepted letters, machinery scrapped from Cornelia’s dolls, even old Agarthan legends. He prepares a hand-picked group of his best agents, sharing all he’s learned, and studies his tomes with a focus on spells that help avoid detection, or bend metal and earth.  

 

Then, he sets his affairs in order. There’s very little to this on the personal side. Hubert doesn’t own much, having put most of his family’s wealth in a trust for the Empire shortly after inheriting it. But the professional is another matter. It takes him a full morning just to write up a list of his responsibilities, and nearly two days to document even basic instructions for them. As he works, he thinks with grim amusement that Ferdinand and Shamir have no idea of the imminent threat to their free time.

 

Though Hubert doesn’t intend to die – he promised Edelgard he’d try not to, after all – there is a part of him that thinks it might actually be the most favorable outcome. If both he and Thales disappear, so will most of the knowledge of their new world’s bloody foundations, which would help to secure Her Majesty’s reign. And though Hubert knows Lady Edelgard would grieve him, he wonders if perhaps losing this last piece of her past would free her to live fully in the future they’ve built. 

 

Hubert is nothing if not practical.

 


 

The night before he’s to depart for Hrym, he’s putting a final few things in order when there’s a knock on his study door. He knows most of the council is hosting the delegation from Brigid tonight (conveniently scheduled to coincide with Dorothea’s birthday) so he’s not sure whom to expect.

 

When he opens the door, Ferdinand stands beyond it, dressed sharply in a tailored jacket of blue and cream-colored brocade, and there’s a faint flush to his face that Hubert takes to mean he’s been drinking. Hubert isn’t sure if the feeling that stirs in his chest is anticipation or apprehension.

 

“Hubert,” Ferdinand greets brightly. “Good evening.” 

 

“Prime Minister,” says Hubert. “I would have thought you’d be entertaining our friends from Brigid, still.” 

 

“They are well entertained, I assure you,” says Ferdinand, stepping into the room unbidden. Hubert watches him shut the door and against his better judgment, he doesn’t object.

 

“If you say so.”

 

“I mean it truly,” says Ferdinand, as though he’s self-conscious that Hubert might think he’s being negligent. “Between Caspar’s attempts to learn the dances of Brigid and the strength of the spirits Petra brought, I do not think anyone has lacked for a laugh tonight.”

 

“International diplomacy at its best,” remarks Hubert.

 

Ferdinand smiles. Hubert can’t help but think there’s something uneasy to it, but maybe he’s projecting.

 

“How are you, Hubert?” Ferdinand asks. “You haven’t had time for tea all week.”

 

“That should answer your question,” says Hubert. “I have been busy. I remain busy.”

 

“I have missed you,” says Ferdinand. “That is I – I’ve missed seeing you.” 

 

The words trip out of his mouth like there’s some kind of script he’s supposed to be following, but he can’t quite remember his lines. Hubert moves to get them back on book.

 

“I apologize for depriving you of the tea,” he says. “But it couldn’t be helped. Now, if you’ll forgive me the efficiency – I am busy, as I said – what matter is so urgent that it’s brought you to my study at this hour?”

 

Ferdinand casts a glance back at the door, as though contemplating a retreat. Then he looks back at Hubert and takes a step towards him instead. 

 

“Hubert,” he says. “Do you remember our office, back at Garreg Mach?”

 

“It was my office,” Hubert corrects, moving to sit on the end of his desk so they aren’t standing quite so close.  “You just occupied it forcibly. And of course I remember it. We spent years of our lives making one another miserable there. What is your point?” 

 

“I don’t know,” says Ferdinand honestly, hesitating. “I suppose I was thinking, with the whole Strike Force together again tonight for Petra’s visit – all but you, of course – that for all I’m glad the war is over, there were things about it that weren’t so bad.” 

 

“Fódlan is littered with the graves of men who romanticize war,” says Hubert.  

 

“I do not mean the fighting,” says Ferdinand, as if Hubert needed to be told.

 

Ferdinand looks around the room, taking in the crammed bookshelves, the crates of rolled-up maps, the worn steel percolator, the little towers of wooden trays on the desk that Hubert still uses to organize his work. After a long moment, his gaze finally settles on Hubert himself. Though Ferdinand is the one who has lost his gloves and cravat somewhere the course of his night, Hubert feels exposed under those earnest, expressive eyes.

 

“Edelgard said you are headed to Hrym in the morning,” says Ferdinand. “Another surveyance trip?” 

 

“Yes,” says Hubert. He doesn’t dare to look away. “To see how your new tax code is being received, among other things.” 

 

“I see,” says Ferdinand. 

 

The fact that Ferdinand doesn’t leap at the chance to point out the tax code is Hubert’s as much as it is his – they debated every word in it for the entire length of the Blue Sea Moon – means his suspicion has surpassed his impulse to argue. And Hubert really does need to finish a few things, not to mention sleep well tonight. He should stop this, show Ferdinand the door. But the thought that this might actually be the last conversation they have makes him want to linger just a little longer. 

 

“Who would have guessed the Imperial Household stretched all the way across Fódlan, that its minister would have to travel so?” Ferdinand asks. 

 

Hubert has heard that careful tone from him before, usually in the Council Hall, in preparation for the skewering of an opposing argument. 

 

“As you well know, the title merely indicates I am at Her Majesty’s disposal.”

 

“You do not need the title for anyone to know that, Hubert,” says Ferdinand. “But what on earth has her sending you away for weeks on end, to the far ends of the continent, in peacetime?"   

 

Hubert keeps his expression neutral.

 

“I go where I am needed, to do what is needed.” 

 

“You are needed here ,” Ferdinand says, a little too forcefully.

 

“If this is about my decision to place Shamir in charge of palace security, I assure you that she–”

 

“–it is not,” Ferdinand interrupts. “You know it is not.” 

 

“Then if it’s about the Council, you and Lady Edelgard have my full trust.” 

 

Ferdinand lets out a noise of frustration, moving to pace before the desk. 

 

“I am sure you can understand why I have a hard time believing that.”

 

As Ferdinand paces, Hubert sees a hint of the boy from the stables at Garreg Mach, eyes aglint with frustrated tears, trapped and shut out all at the same time. 

 

“Ferdinand,” Hubert says softly, then repeats himself: “You have my full trust.” 

 

“Then tell me what it is you discussed with Lady Edelgard in the throne room this morning,” Ferdinand presses, turning to look at him.  “Tell me what has her so distant, even as she pretends to enjoy the company of her friends and guests in the Reception Hall tonight.”

 

“I can’t.” 

 

Ferdinand looks up at the ceiling for a moment, as if seeking the Goddess’ patience. When he speaks again, his voice is raw, the cracks in his composure splintering with each word.

 

“When you told me that I might be asked to come to Enbarr, to help lead Fódlan,” he begins, “I thought it was something we would do together, like our partnership during the war. I thought I had proven myself a worthy collaborator and earned your regard. But ever since Liberation Day it's back to you and Edelgard having secret meetings, keeping me at arm’s length, as though you think I am too simple to notice, much less valuable enough to be included.”

 

“Ferdinand –” Hubert tries to cut in.

 

“–and then I get so confused ,” Ferdinand continues, brows knitting together in earnest hurt, “because I know you don’t hate me the way you used to when we were at the Academy, and sometimes, the way you look at me, I think you might even...might even…feel something more for me. But then you disappear for these long stretches without a word, and even when you’re here you won’t speak freely, and I can’t tell if I’ve just imagined the whole thing, tricked myself into thinking you ever really thought of me with any warmth at all.”

 

“Ferdinand,” Hubert says more adamantly, rising from the desk, alarmed at the anxious shame breaking across the other man’s face. “You’ve proven yourself a hundred times over. You know that I think you more than worthy of your position.”

 

“I know,” Ferdinand says, and now there really are tears in his eyes. “But do you think me worthy of you ?”

 

Hubert doesn’t know what to say to that, because refusing Ferdinand could break his confidence, but failing to could break his heart. After all, it’s just as likely as not that Hubert will not come home. And even if it weren’t the case, the thought of all Ferdinand’s divine brightness, that warm, burning curiosity and intelligence, focused on Hubert, revealing him in all his shallowness and shortcoming ... the thought terrifies him almost as much as his mission. So Hubert searches carefully for the right words – enough to sever, but not to scar – and does the cowardly, merciful thing. 

 

“You are worthy,” he says quietly, apologetically.

 

The answer settles over Ferdinand slowly, the corners of his lovely mouth twisting in an attempt to hide his disappointment. He swallows thickly, avoiding Hubert’s eyes. After a long moment, he nods.

 

Hubert’s chest aches.

 

“I apologize,” Ferdinand says at last. “I...I suppose I have made some foolish assumptions. It was not my intent to overstep.”

 

And of course Ferdinand would be sorry for Hubert’s rejection. If possible, Hubert hates himself even more.

 

“It was not mine to mislead,” he replies softly, even though it was, and he did.

 

Ferdinand just stands there a moment, embarrassment and heartache radiating off him, ever on the frontlines. 

 

Finally he manages to school his face and straighten his shoulders.

 

“I should get back to the Reception Hall before they send someone after me,” he says, a forced ease to his tone. “I told Thea I wouldn’t be long.”

 

It’s as though they had just been discussing the harvest forecasts, or the seating arrangements for a state dinner.

 

 “I understand,” says Hubert. “Please, give my regrets to Petra for my absence.” 

 

“I will,” says Ferdinand, turning his face away. “Good night, Hubert.”

 

Hubert closes his eyes. He can’t watch him go.

 

“Good night, Ferdinand.” 

 

And the door clicks shut.

 


 

He leaves for Shambhala the next morning. 

 

Byleth and Edelgard see him off in private, the latter bidding him bend down so she can press a tender kiss to his forehead and remind him of his promise. It both warms and burns him to know that she will be just fine whether or not he’s able to keep it. She has Byleth now, and Ferdinand and Lysithea and everyone else. The world they’ve been working towards since childhood is almost at hand. Now, Hubert just needs to deliver it into her grasp.

 

As a final precaution, he’s written out a summary of all that he’s learned of the Agarthans, including Shambhala’s location and how he plans to destroy it. He leaves one copy with Byleth and one, encoded, to Bernadetta, with instructions to unseal it a week after he’s left so that if he fails, at least there will be someone to finish the job.

 

Along the road to Hrym, his thoughts drift to the events of his life, as is often the case with those who are about to face death. 

 

He thinks of the gift of purpose Lady Edelgard gave him so early on, the steel and the softness of her eyes through the years. He thinks of his father and all the decay of old Enbarr. He thinks of the lives he’s taken, in the shadows or on the battlefield, and all the times the Black Eagles came back alive somehow. He thinks of them at Garreg Mach, games of chess with Byleth and embroidered gifts from Bernadetta and all of Dorothea’s clever quips. And he thinks of Ferdinand, of the boy he first met and the man he’s since become.

 

Hubert has regarded his feelings for Ferdinand as a sort of optical illusion for so long now, something elusive in the corner of his vision, that examining them directly is both a relief and an agony. He finds that he can’t hold everything in his mind at once, particularly given the colorful palette of their mixed history. So on one of the evenings they make camp, he attempts to chart his thoughts in his journal, using one of his oldest personal codes. 

 

He writes of his initial assessment of Ferdinand’s motivations and his bafflement at its inaccuracy. He writes of the way he saw him as an example to be made, then a body to be sacrificed, then a resource to be used, and finally a person to be trusted and even cherished. He writes of the way Ferdinand has made a calling of proving him wrong, the way he is so predictable from moment to moment but the arc of him never ceases to surprise. He writes that after a lifetime of working to change the world, Ferdinand has instead made him consider how he would like to change himself , to become more than a tool in the Empire’s hands, though it’s probably far too late for such things. He writes of the way the smell of Almyran pine makes him feel at home.

 

Finally, he writes all his foolish hopes for the future, whether or not he’ll be in it. He writes himself a world where Linhardt finds a way to extend Lady Edelgard’s life and Lysithea’s with it, where Bernadetta thrives on her own terms, and Ferdinand learns to trust his remarkable talents, and Dorothea and Petra grow old while Brigid grows strong and prosperous alongside Fódlan.

 

Then, empty of the burden of his own sentimentality, Hubert goes to face Thales.

 


 

PART IV

 




Shambhala is breathtaking, a wonder of engineering hidden deep in the maw of the earth. He and his agents infiltrate the Underground City much as the Agarthans infiltrated Garreg Mach, using the faces of the dead to mask themselves. 

 

They locate the control device for the javelins of light where Hubert’s research suggested it might be. Once they’ve dispatched the guards, they melt the delicate machinery with acids and heat magic, thousands of years of Agarthan ingenuity reduced to a mess of corroded scrap.

 

As the alarm sounds across the city, they barricade themselves in the javelins’ tower. Hubert knows he should feel fear when Thales – Arundel, whatever the demon’s true name is – appears on the steps below, his very person crackling with power and rage. But mostly he feels smug that his intelligence on Thales’ movements was correct, and relieved he will be able to bring the man and his machines down with one last play of their game.

 

They trade spells. Three of his seven agents fall. One warps away, grievously injured. One of those remaining, a gifted mage Hubert trained himself, brings a meteor crashing through the cavern ceiling above, and the earth trembles around them. As she prepares another, Thales’ archers focus their barrage on her; Hubert dissolves most of their arrows with a burst of fire, taking one in the leg.

 

Thales breaches the doors of the tower. Hubert sends two blasts of miasma right into the Agarthan’s ivoried face. The man doesn’t blink, much less fall. 

 

Hubert’s mage manages to summon another meteor before an Agarthan spear ends her life. This time, boulders the size of buildings begin to tumble down from above, and the shaking of the ground intensifies. The shouts of the denizens of Shambhala lose their bloodlust and take on more fear. 

 

Thales buries a dagger in Hubert’s stomach, personal satisfaction blazing in his empty eyes. Poison crackles through Hubert’s blood like electricity. As Thales lifts his hands to summon death, Hubert grits his teeth, steels his mind, and casts the spell Arundel never deigned to teach him, doesn’t know he knows – Quake – and brings it all down around them. 

 

As the first beams of light pierce through the cracked earth above, Hubert’s vision blurs for the last time, and he imagines the shadow of wyvern wings. 

 




He’s told later that Lady Edelgard cries over him, which is about the most mortifying thing he can imagine (though he can imagine it, strangely). 

 

It takes him a while to realize he’s not dead, and even longer to recognize the beige walls and birch crown molding of the palace infirmary. The sight of it swims in his eyes for minutes or maybe hours before he can focus, and even then it’s a manual slog through his memory to match the patch of ceiling he can see to a location he’s visited. He’s just convinced himself that he’s somewhere on the north side of the upper ward when there’s a squeak from beside him, followed by the sound of something clattering to the floor.

 

“You’re awake,” says Bernadetta’s breathless voice.

 

Hubert opens his mouth to say it would seem that way but all that comes out is a dry rasp, followed by a series of coughs that make him immediately and regrettably aware of the state of the rest of his body. The parts of him that don’t ache, burn, and the parts of him that don’t burn, throb.

 

“Oh no no no, oh Bernie you’ve done it now,” Bernadetta mutters over the scrape of a chair, and Hubert hears the fluttering of her footsteps as she runs off. 

 

The coughing has mostly subsided by the time she returns, a second set of footsteps echoing hers.

 

“Welcome back, Hubert,” says Linhardt’s voice, as Hubert feels a cup pressed to his lips. “Drink up.” 

 

The draught is cool and bitter to the taste. Hubert manages to swallow it down, shuddering. His next attempt to speak is more successful.

 

“What happened?” he asks hoarsely. He half hopes they don’t know, after all his efforts to keep the blood of the second war off their hands.

 

“You caused an awful lot of destruction, both to yourself and that fascinating place,” Linhardt replies. “It was rather impressive.”

 

“We thought you were dead,” says Bernadetta anxiously, like she’s still not convinced he isn’t about to die anyway. “Petra went after you on her wyvern, but you were both buried when the mountain collapsed. It took us hours to dig you out.”

 

“Petra,” Hubert repeats, his chest clenching. “Is she–”

 

“–she’s fine,” Linhardt reassures him. “Her wyvern shielded her from the worst of it, poor creature. You, too, but you’d already been stabbed, shot, and poisoned by then, so you were going to be a mess either way.” 

 

Hubert nods, turning his head gingerly so he can look at them. He wants to ask about Thales, but it’s still unclear to him how much they know. Biting back the question, he attempts to sit up, and both of them immediately move to assist him.

 

“How are you feeling?” asks Linhardt, when Hubert is settled back against the pillows.

 

“Alive,” says Hubert, leaving it at that. “I assume thanks to you.”

 

“Certainly not just me,” says Linhardt. “As I said, it was Petra who kept you from being crushed. Caspar and Edelgard and Ferdinand dug you out, mostly, and Bernadetta here alerted us that you needed assistance in the first place.”

 

Hubert feels the blood drain from his face as he pieces together that apparently the entirety of the Strike Force, including the Emperor herself, saw fit to come after him. The wastefulness of it nauseates him.

 

“I’m sorry,” Bernadetta blurts out. “I know you said not to open your letter for a week, but sometimes your codes are really hard to break, so I thought I would just get a little head start. But then it went faster than I thought, and I got carried away, and everything you’d written sounded so scary. I didn’t know what to do so I showed it to Edelgard because I thought you would be the least angry if it was her, of anyone, and she said that–”

 

“–Bernadetta,” Hubert interjects, far too tired to address even half of that. “It would be better if you forgot what you read. But I’m...not angry.”

 

He’s also not surprised that she didn’t follow his instructions. On some level, he realizes, he might have actually expected her to disobey them, even counted on it. 

 

“You’re not?” says Bernadetta uncertainly. 

 

Hubert is spared having to reassure her (or think too hard about his own actions) when a new voice cuts in from across the room.

 

“Hey Lin, I’m starving, gonna drop by the kitchens. Can I bring you anyth–oh, hey, Hubert!” 

 

“Hello, Caspar,” says Hubert, trying not to flinch at the volume of it all.

 

“Next time you go to pick a fight with an underground death cult, make sure you invite us ahead of time, okay?” says Caspar, walking over to sit on the arm of Linhardt’s chair. “I’d rather smash heads than pick up rocks any day.” 

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Caspar grins.

 

“Good to see you’re back in action.”

 


 

Hubert is not, in fact, back in action. He falls asleep when the three of them begin to debate the merits of Enbarr’s kitchens vs. Garreg Mach’s, the sound of their conversation lulling him back into the void. 

 

When he next awakens, it’s dark outside, and Petra is sitting cross-legged in the chair Bernadetta had previously occupied. They talk briefly. Her injuries are just about healed; two of his agents survived; he slept for four days after Hrym, mostly due to the effects of the poison. She asks if he’s hungry, which he isn’t, and she accepts his condolences for the death of her wyvern. 

 

“I am not regretting my actions, Hubert,” she tells him matter-of-factly. “My heart has much gladness that you are still here.”

 

“Mine does, too,” says Hubert.

 

He’s surprised to realize it’s the truth.

 


 

Lady Edelgard comes to see him the next day, bringing a tray with porridge, fruit, and pickled fish. When his hands shake too badly to feed himself, she insists on helping. So in a turn of events that leaves Hubert absolutely mindless with indignity, the Emperor of Fódlan spends her morning spooning blackberries and gruel into her retainer’s mouth. 

 

When he’s digested enough of his shame, she informs him of the outcome of his strike on Shambhala. 

 

Thales is unquestionably dead: Byleth took the liberty of removing his head when the Strike Force recovered his body from the rubble. The city itself lies in ruins beneath the rocks, though Linhardt is already campaigning to excavate it as a research site. And although some number of Agarthans are presumed to have escaped or been absent at the time of the collapse, they pose no threat to the stability of the Empire without their technology.

 

“It’s over, Hubert,” says Edelgard. “The Church, Those Who Slither in the Dark – Fódlan belongs to its people, now.”

 

He can’t help but mirror the relief and wonder on his lady’s face, thinking of all the sweat and blood and grief that has brought them to this point.

 

“What did you tell the others?” he asks her, his own voice still weak. “About Arundel, and the path we’ve walked.”

 

Edelgard takes a deep breath. 

 

“I told them the truth.”

 

He stares at her, eyes wide.

 

“Your Majesty–”

 

“–I made the decision to trust them, because they made the decision to trust me,” she says. “They entered into the war with the Church on my word, fought and killed and buried their soldiers and friends on their faith in our cause.”

 

He bites back a half-dozen objections, fear coursing through him.

 

“I know you think they won’t understand,” says Edelgard. “I know you worry that we jeopardize the future by revealing too much of the past. But I believe in them. And...I do not want to repeat the mistakes I’ve already made.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Of course you don't,” she says, looking frustrated – with herself? Hubert feels a pang of worry. “Because the matter concerns you , and you don’t seem to consider that I have any obligation to you at all.”

 

“I am your servant,” he says reflexively.

 

“You are my friend, Hubert,” Edelgard presses, leaning over to cover his hand with her own where it lies on his bed. “And I let you create this distance between us, let you regard yourself as a means to my ends, because you said it would protect us, and because I thought that to ask your love on top of your loyalty was one demand too many.”

 

She looks anguished now, her hand tightening over his.

 

“But I see now that it has been nearly twenty years and I have failed to make you understand that I love you, not as a useful servant, but as my dearest and oldest friend, whom I consider family in all ways but blood.”

 

The word love on her lips leaves him feeling sick to his stomach, like the space between them that he’s so carefully created is collapsing in on him, burying him, suffocating him. 

 

“Losing you would devastate me, Hubert,” she says, her voice fervent. “Not because I rely on your talents, though they’re numerous and extraordinary, but because I rely on you. You could resign your post, never pick up a quill or a tome again, do nothing but sit in the gardens and take coffee with Ferdinand every day until you’re both withered and senile, and I would still want you at my side. You are a tremendous asset to the empire, yes. But you are unconditionally precious to me."

 

Hubert swallows, overwhelmed. After a moment, Edelgard releases his hand, sitting back in her chair.

 

“I know this is difficult for you to hear,” she says with a sigh. “And I'm sorry to make you uncomfortable. But I have let my fear of your discomfort keep me from correcting this error for far too long. And from what I understand, you've let your fear of your discomfort keep you from a great deal of things.”

 

Trying to show he understands (and to stave off the rest of this conversation), Hubert attempts a half-bow where he sits. It’s awkward, physically speaking – and by Lady Edelgard’s expression, not at all what she wanted in a response  – but he finds he can’t produce words over the lump in his throat.

 

“All right,” says Edelgard finally, rising. “I won’t torture you any further while you’re already invalid, Hubert. But this isn’t the last time we’ll speak of this.” 

 

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he mumbles. 

 

She exits the infirmary. 

 

Left to stew in his mortification, Hubert wonders grimly if Claude is in need of a spymaster.

 


 

Manuela and Linhardt keep him under observation a few more days, during which Hubert entertains a rotating cast of his allies (friends?) at his bedside. Lady Edelgard has forbidden him from having any work sent over, but the others see to it that he’s kept occupied. Dorothea brings him books of poetry and conducts the occasional dramatic reading; Ashe and Lysithea bake him sweets that he doesn’t have the heart to reject; Bernadetta teaches him to cross-stitch. Linhardt and Caspar argue a lot. Hubert supposes that counts as entertainment. 

 

Only Ferdinand doesn’t visit, and Hubert can’t blame him, though he finds himself hoping with every new shadow in the doorway.

 

The day he’s released, Dorothea insists on escorting him back to his chambers.

 

“I’m terribly bored now that Petra’s gone back to Brigid,” she says, as though he doesn’t know she has dozens of more interesting things she could be doing. “And someone has to make sure you don’t keel over, or at least witness it when you do.” 

 

“How kind.”

 

They walk – slowly, because Hubert is still in some pain and quite stiff after a week of bedrest – and make conversation about inconsequential things. Finally, they come to the halls of the Imperial Household, past the ornamental archways that lead to the Emperor’s wing, until they’ve reached the simpler architecture of the Minister’s chambers. Hubert’s heart leaps at the prospect of a door between him and the rest of the world, one whose opening and shutting he can control. But before he can escape, Dorothea stops him with a hand on his arm.

 

“May I offer you some advice, Hubie?” she says.

 

It’s not a question, so he doesn’t answer. 

 

“I don’t presume to understand everything that goes on in that devious mind of yours,” she says. “But I like to think that knowing you for six years gives me some idea of how the gears turn.”

 

He waits, bracing himself.

 

“You think of yourself as a very rational person,” says Dorothea. “Pride yourself on it, even. You think that by ignoring all the messy subjectivity that comes with having feelings or wants or attachments, you can turn life into some sort of grand calculation and guarantee the outcomes you want.” 

 

“Yes, well,” says Hubert defensively. “I’d say that tactic has served me quite well.”

 

He doesn’t remind her that it has won them two wars and a new world order, because he shouldn’t have to.

 

“It’s served the Empire quite well, sure,” says Dorothea. “But as for serving you... it doesn’t take a tactical genius to see you’re quite a miserable man, Hubert.”

 

He bristles.

 

“I hardly consider myself miserable.”

 

“You hardly consider yourself, period,” says Dorothea. “And for a while, I thought it was because you really were a heartless golem, or at least that you only had a heart where Edie was concerned. But that’s not true, is it?”

 

“Apparently you are an expert on my inner workings,” says Hubert stiffly. “So I’m sure you’ve prepared an answer.”

 

“You remember the littlest things about everyone,” says Dorothea. “Like when you gave Ashe those seeds from Duscur for the greenhouse in Garreg Mach and he nearly cried. You’ve given me two of the three best birthday gifts I’ve ever received, Hubie.”

 

He opens his mouth to explain the strategic use of such gestures, but she shushes him.

 

“You buy exotic sweets for Lysithea and rare books for Linhardt when you travel. You learned Dagdan dice games during the war for the times you and Shamir kept watch together. You pass notes with Bernie like you’re tittering schoolgirls, and you keep all three of Ferdinand’s favorite teas stocked in your office. But after six years and a war – two, apparently – the only thing any of us know to get you is coffee, because you’re so intent on playing the role of this...this repressed, ascetic gargoyle, skulking around in the shadows and avoiding reciprocity like a little joy will melt your stony excuse for a heart.”

 

“Gargoyle?” Hubert repeats, spluttering. 

 

“It has nothing to do with your face,” she says, making him immediately suspect it does. ”The point is, on some matters, removing emotion from the calculation doesn’t improve your accuracy at all. And I know you hate to be wrong, Minister.”

 

“I’ll take that under advisement,” he says, wondering when this unforeseen third war started, where all his allies conspire against him to pick apart his brain like faulty clockwork. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m sure there is quite a bit of work waiting for me.”

 

She lets him go, but not without pressing a kiss to his cheek and pulling him in for a long, heartfelt embrace. He returns it awkwardly, and gives a sincere attempt to find the gesture comforting. 

 

He’s trying. He really is.

 


 

The trays of his inbound work tower are less full than he expected they’d be. Either Lady Edelgard has been ordering the Council to make fewer demands of him, or someone has been pilfering files from his desk.

 

When Ferdinand appears with a stack of proposals and communiques for his review, Hubert knows it’s the latter.

 

“I had hoped to feel confident enough not to even ask your eyes on them, but many of these matters are more in your field of expertise than mine,” the Prime Minister says apologetically. “Still, I hope it saves you some time in the end.”

 

“I’m sure it will,” says Hubert. “Though once again, you seem to have found a way into my office without my consent.”

 

Ferdinand pales.

 

“A joke,” Hubert clarifies quickly. “That was a joke, Ferdinand. I’m grateful the Empire’s affairs haven’t stalled in my absence. Though I’m going to have to give Ashe a position testing the work of the imperial locksmith, at this rate.” 

 

“Edelgard gave me the key this time, actually,” says Ferdinand, smiling ruefully. 

 

“Ah. I should have known.”

 

Ferdinand lingers a moment, fidgeting with the lining of his cape. There’s an awkwardness in the air, perhaps inevitable with their last conversation hanging over them; Hubert opens his mouth to bid Ferdinand to speak his mind, but Ferdinand starts talking at the same time and they both fall silent, waiting for the other to go on.

 

“I should thank you for saving my life,” says Hubert eventually, breaking the standoff.

 

Ferdinand shakes his head.

 

“Petra and Linhardt deserve that thanks, not me,” he says.

 

“You have all been quick to share the credit for my survival,” says Hubert wryly. “Almost like it is blame and not credit, that you’re still stuck with me.”

 

He gets what he’s after – a quiet laugh, a crease at the corner of those amber eyes. He wants more.

 

“I suppose if you’d left me in the mountainside, you’d have to find someone else to see to all this,” Hubert continues, gesturing to the stack of files Ferdinand has just handed over.

 

“Yes, that was certainly foremost in my thoughts as I dug through the rubble,” says Ferdinand, playing along like he can’t help himself.

 

“Though now that Shambhala has fallen, you’ll have to suffer through my presence in more Council meetings,” Hubert points out. “I hope you’re prepared to defend your ideas more rigorously, now that they’ll have my full focus.”

 

“I look forward to it,” says Ferdinand, smiling.

 

“As do I.”

 

The silence that follows is somehow sweet and uneasy at the same time, the two of them  staring at each other from across Hubert’s desk. 

 

“I should go,” says Ferdinand finally. “The husband of the Albinean chancellor is due in a few hours. I’m supposed to show him around Enbarr to convince him it is safe to encourage travel here now.” 

 

“May our streets be imminently congested with wealthy Albinean tourists,” says Hubert, waving a hand, as if he has any authority to dismiss Ferdinand. “Good luck, Prime Minister. Thank you again for not leaving me to die when we both know you had every reason to.”

 

Ferdinand looks like he wants to say something to that, and Hubert is hoping he will. But in the end he just wishes Hubert good luck in turn and disappears.

 


 

Over the course of the next few weeks, Hubert focuses on integrating himself back into the work of running the Empire, rather than routing its enemies. He secures an arrangement with Morfis to receive magical aid in restoring the arable lands of Bergliez and Aegir, and takes on a project to assist Minister Hevring in establishing a more transparent audit system for the Treasury. He still maintains his spy network, of course, but it’s more about keeping Lady Edelgard informed and less about figuring out whom to murder, now. 

 

He and Ferdinand fall back into old patterns, tea and coffee and the joy of ardent debate. Hubert tries to live up to Edelgard and Dorothea’s hopes for him, steering less carefully and waiting for Ferdinand to seize the till and guide them into more open waters. But now it’s Ferdinand who keeps their conversation confined to matters of state and principle, even as Hubert baits him again and again, seeking to be pushed past professionalism. Eventually, Hubert begins to wonder if he did miscalculate, if after all the years of torment he subjected Ferdinand to from their time at the Academy up until now, it’s simply too late.

 

He supposes that would be more than fair.

 


 

Late in the Wyvern Moon, on a drizzly morning, he’s paging through his journal in pursuit of a list of titles he’s given Linhardt for past birthdays when he comes across something nearly forgotten: the notes he made before arriving at Shambhala. They are, far and away, the most raw and personal words Hubert has ever put to paper, and he feels embarrassed just to read them, as though they’re someone else’s deep and shameful confession and not his own.

 

He considers destroying them. As far as he knows, no one has ever cracked his personal code, but it offends his sensibilities as a spymaster to have such exploitable sentiments in writing. 

 

But then he thinks of the way the corners of Ferdinand’s eyes still crease in genuine affection when they greet each other, even though there’s something sad to it now. He thinks of the self-doubt that has dogged Ferdinand since they were children, all the insecurities Hubert exploited, cultivated to his own ends. He thinks of every time he’s put Ferdinand on the frontlines while he hung back by Lady Edelgard’s side. He thinks of every scar those tactics have left on Ferdinand’s stunning, sun-kissed person.

 

And so he rips the pages out, scrawling the key to the cipher at the top of the first, and slips them into the middle of a stack of papers he’s prepared for the Prime Minister’s review.

 

It feels like standing on the parapets, blind and dizzy with fear. But this time, Hubert doesn’t climb down.

 


 

He tries to put it from his mind. He occupies himself with preparations for his upcoming trip to Fhirdiad. He gives input on Minister Bergliez’s proposal to turn Garreg Mach Monastery into a war memorial (a reasonable idea, but far too soon not be seen as a slight to the former Kingdom and Alliance territories). He agrees to meet with Dorothea and Manuela about an idea to establish schools of music and dance, focused on common Fódlanian folk traditions, to help replace some of the cultural functions the Church once served. 

 

He’s in the middle of that meeting, nearly a week after he slipped his heart into the middle of a stack of regulatory drafts, when there’s a somewhat frantic knock on the door of their conference room. 

 

“Ferdie,” says Dorothea in surprise when she opens it. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” 

 

Ferdinand’s eyes shoot right past her to land on Hubert. Hubert freezes. 

 

“I– ” Ferdinand begins, seeming out of breath. “I need a word with the Minister, if you don’t mind.”

 

“We’re nearly wrapped up here,” says Manuela, reaching out to point a manicured finger to another place on the map before them. “If you’d give us just a –”

 

“–we can finish up later,” says Dorothea pointedly. “Come on, Manuela.” 

 

She practically pulls her fellow diva upright, shepherding her towards the door. Hubert doesn’t know if he’s being saved or abandoned.

 

As they make to leave, Ferdinand enters, crossing the room hastily, until he’s standing on the opposite side of the conference table from Hubert. Now that he’s closer, Hubert can see that he’s literally trembling, his breathing shallow and quick, his eyes wide and a little wild. Concerned, Hubert stands, opens his mouth to inquire if he’s all right, and is cut off when Ferdinand reaches for him.

 

Manuela’s surprised “oh!” is the last thing he hears before every sense narrows down to the feeling of Ferdinand’s mouth on his own, the tang of southern fruit on his tongue, the smell of leather and primrose in his nose from Ferdinand’s morning ride. Ferdinand has practically dragged Hubert across the table, strong hands fisted in his lapels; Hubert falters with what to do with his own hands for a moment before he threads them into Ferdinand’s hair to satisfy a years-old curiosity. 

 

It’s exactly as soft and fine as it looks, even through his gloves.

 

When Ferdinand finally lets him go, both of them open-mouthed and breathless, it’s all Hubert can do to keep upright. He stares at Ferdinand dumbly, drinking in the blush on his freckled cheeks and the warm depths of his blown pupils.

 

“Hubert, I –” Ferdinand says suddenly, stricken. “I hope I did not–”

 

Hubert leans forward quickly to kiss him again, and Ferdinand’s noise of surprise quickly melts into relief. It’s less frenzied this time, Ferdinand’s thumbs brushing tenderly against Hubert’s sharp cheekbones as their lips move against each other. They pull away at last, lingering close despite the table still between them.

 

“I take it you decoded my note,” says Hubert hoarsely. “Or else suffered a bout of madness.”

 

Ferdinand abandons propriety, climbing up on the table so he can seat himself on its edge before Hubert. 

 

“The former,” he says, pulling Hubert to him. Hubert finds himself standing between the Prime Minister’s strong legs, Ferdinand’s head pressed to his shoulder, his face resting against his sternum.  He can’t imagine it’s comfortable, what with all the darting and buckles on the front of his jacket, but Ferdinand doesn’t seem to mind.

 

“I see,” says Hubert, dazed. 

 

“It was...quite beautiful, honestly,” says Ferdinand, into his chest. “Once I realized what it was.” 

 

Hubert allows himself to rest his cheek against the top of Ferdinand’s head, bringing up his arms to wrap around his back. It’s the first time he can remember that someone has held him and his impulse hasn’t been to pull away.

 

“I have to ask, though,” says Ferdinand. Suddenly, his voice is quieter, almost worried. “The way you write, Hubert...it’s as though you think death is just around the corner.”

 

Hubert strokes his hand up and down Ferdinand’s broad back, surprised at how comfortable this feels.

 

“When I wrote those words, it was,” he says.

 

Ferdinand pulls back to look up at him, concerned.

 

“I wrote them on the road to the Underground City, originally,” Hubert explains. “For myself.”

 

“But that was…” Ferdinand says, brow furrowing. “That was over a month ago. And I had just...in your office, that night…”

 

He trails off, avoiding Hubert’s eyes. 

 

“I know,” says Hubert, feeling his own shame. “I am sorry, Ferdinand. I was afraid.”

 

“A reasonable feeling,” says Ferdinand, clearly trying to be considerate, even as he struggles to understand. “You were going to face a formidable enemy.”

 

“No,” Hubert says, realizing how foolish he sounds, how much more foolish he’s about to. “I – yes, of course I was afraid that I would fail, afraid of death. But if I must be honest with myself, that is not why I turned you away. I was afraid of...of this.”

 

He gestures towards the two of them, the way they’re tangled up in one another.

 

Ferdinand stares at him like he’s lost his mind. Maybe he has.

 

“It...contradicts my understanding of things,” Hubert mumbles, curling a lock of Ferdinand’s hair around his gloved finger. “That after everything I’ve done, every way I hurt and insulted and used you, you would bear me anything but hatred.” 

 

“Hubert,” breathes Ferdinand, expression softening as he reaches up to lay his palm against Hubert’s cheek. 

 

“And I can’t imagine a just world where a man of my deeds is allowed to live to old age,” Hubert continues. “Much less for him to know happiness or – or love.”

 

Ferdinand draws in a sharp, soft breath as Hubert trips over the word. Hubert knows his face must be scarlet. 

 

“But I am trying not to be so...mathematical about such things. Because whether or not it is reasonable or fair that you want to be at my side, it is also what I want. And wiser minds than mine have counseled me that this should be enough.” 

 

Ferdinand is looking at him with the most exquisite softness in his eyes. Hubert feels drunk (or at least, what he imagines being drunk feels like, having never been).

 

“It is enough,” says Ferdinand, lifting himself to press a chaste kiss to Hubert’s lips. “And I want quite a bit more than to be by your side, Hubert.”

 

The shift in the timbre of his voice sends shivers down Hubert’s spine. Before he can come up with a retort, Ferdinand has pulled him down for a deeper kiss, hands dropping to Hubert’s hips and pulling them flush. Hubert’s eyes widen briefly before he shuts them and gladly submits.

 

By the time they leave the conference room, Hubert is quite late for his meeting with Lady Edelgard. But when she takes in the look on his face (and perhaps the way his shirt is a little rumpled, or his hair a bit out of place), she doesn’t seem displeased at all. 




 

The den of the Minister of the Imperial Household is dim, despite the winter light against the back of the curtains. Hubert sits at his desk, back bent over a sheaf of pages dense with a self-consciously elegant script. In his hand is a quill pen, and on his brow is a gentle furrow as he scratches through a few lines, marking a correction into the margins in his own precise hand. 

 

“Really?” says Ferdinand, frowning as he leans over to see what Hubert has struck through. “I thought that part was rather eloquent.”

 

“The Dagdans don’t appreciate eloquence,” says Hubert. “They appreciate directness.”

 

“I suppose that follows, in my admittedly limited experience of Dagdans,” says Ferdinand. 

 

He reaches for his teacup, only to find upon drinking from it that it’s actually Hubert’s coffee, and makes a face.

 

Hubert finishes the page and flips to the next, eyes flicking through, pen poised for further revisions, but it escapes unscathed. As usual, Ferdinand’s speechwriting is better than his own. Why he even asks him to proofread anymore is a mystery. He writes as much in a note at the bottom of the page.

 

Ferdinand picks up the stack and scans over what Hubert has just written, rolling his eyes fondly when he realizes what it says.

 

“The snake sings again.”

 

“I thought the point of putting your praises in writing was to avoid that comparison."

 

“It is too early in the morning for consistency, Hubert.” 

 

Hubert bites back a smile, leaning back in his chair and reaching for his coffee. 

 

“Late night, Prime Minister?” 

 

Ferdinand fixes him with an unamused look, settling himself on the edge of Hubert’s desk. He’s half-dressed in his breeches and a loose, unlaced nightshirt, hair still mussed from sleep (and other things). His grumpy expression grips Hubert with a horrible fondness.

 

“So,” says Ferdinand, sourness melting away as he sips his tea. “I’m to give the opening address at ten-thirty, after which the ambassador will have a private reception with Lady Edelgard. Can I count on you and Dorothea to entertain the rest of the delegation during that time? I need to prepare some things for the forum in the afternoon.”

 

“You can count on Dorothea to entertain them,” says Hubert. “You can count on me to be present, providing no amusement whatsoever, but keeping the proceedings orderly.”

 

“I find you quite amusing, I’ll have you know,” says Ferdinand. 

 

Hubert scoffs.

 

“Yet you regularly pay to be amused by Dorothea, and you expect my services for free.”

 

“Those are quite different,” says Ferdinand, blushing like Hubert hoped he might.

 

“I should think so,” says Hubert, “or I believe the Brigidian armada would be at Enbarr’s shores by next week.”

 

Somehow Ferdinand ends up in his lap, and their preparations for the summit with the Dagdans are derailed for a while. But they manage to assemble their papers and their personages in time, parting with one more kiss and a promise to meet for tea in the evening when the official dinner has concluded.

 

In many ways, it’s not so different from what came before it. Hubert still works too much, and still feels restless when there isn’t something useful for him to be doing. Where Ferdinand is concerned, the two of them still take tea and coffee nearly every day, still compete to be the most useful to Lady Edelgard, and still argue enough to drive their friends and allies to drink. Even the burgundy armchair Ferdinand once dragged into the office at Garreg Mach has made its way to Hubert’s study in Enbarr somehow. 

 

But some things are new. Bernadetta now manages his networks in the former Alliance, growing more skilled by the day. In addition to his regular meetings with Lady Edelgard, Hubert now joins her for dinner or a stroll through the palace gardens at least once a week in an unofficial capacity, sometimes joined by Byleth or one of their other friends. And though his first instinct is still to serve, he is learning to accept the service of others, sometimes.

 

And of course, his relationship with Ferdinand is not exactly the same. It’s something they figure out together, day by day, the same way they figured out how to win a war and enact Lady Edelgard’s vision for a better world. Hubert doesn’t always remember to be gentle (but as he’s discovered on a number of heart-stopping occasions, Ferdinand doesn’t always want him to be). They still fight plenty and Hubert is still terrified and humbled by the admiration he finds when he looks into those earnest, expressive eyes. But he’s learning to suspend his disbelief.