The kiss is a furtive one, stolen away from a day in which the both of us are so busy we hardly have a moment to breathe. As his hands fumble to lock the door of his office behind us, I am already pressing him against it, arms wrapped around his neck, my lips seeking his desperately.
The lock clicks shut and he turns his full attention to me, kissing me back while he rips my cravat off and tugs aside the collar of my shirt. His mouth moves to my neck, kissing every inch of exposed skin he can find, all while his hands run across my body longingly.
I gasp and tangle my fingers in his hair, asking breathlessly, “How has your day been?”
“Tiring and productive. You?” he murmurs against my skin, his kisses turning relentless, punctuated by his teeth and soothed by his tongue.
“It was not so bad since I knew I had this to look forward to,” I reply. “You are always the best and brightest part of my day, Hubert.”
He stops and gives me a strange, disbelieving look. Then his lips return to mine, as if to spare himself a reply. Or perhaps the kiss is his reply. It is always a guessing game with him, and sometimes I do not have the energy to play it. Sometimes I just decide to let a kiss be a kiss and enjoy the warmth of his mouth and the familiar, smoky taste of coffee on his tongue and the way he moans softly when I suck on it.
Even though I know we do not have time, my body moves of its own accord to press closer to him, my leg slipping between his as I pin him back against the door, drawing a muffled noise of frustration from him somewhere between a growl and a whimper. And even though he also knows we do not have time, he still grabs my hips to pull me even closer, grinding against my thigh until I can feel my own arousal mirrored in his body.
Getting increasingly more carried away like this has become a habit of ours that is as exhilarating as it is tortuous. Ever since that first kiss in the library a month ago, these similar stolen moments are all we have had. But the more this intimacy and intensity of affection grows between us, the more inadequate this agonizing dance of ours becomes – orbiting each other constantly, in each other’s radius for most of the day but never colliding.
Because we have reputations to uphold. Because there is a war on. Because we cannot let anything distract ourselves from our responsibilities.
I break away from the kiss to look at him intently, sliding my knee up the wall a bit until he is practically riding my thigh and his eyes have taken on a hungry, pleading light even though his face remains fixed in its typical composed expression. No matter how far I push this boundary, I have never gotten him to break and ask of me what I want so eagerly to give.
But this nonsense has gone on long enough now and I shall have to take matters into my own hands.
“What are my chances at being able to have several hours of your time tonight without interruption or distraction?” I ask, visibly catching him off guard, which is no easy feat. “I know that we are trying to avoid there being any talk. But surely someone of your skills in subterfuge could orchestrate spending the evening in my chamber without anyone being the wiser. I would like to have some true privacy.”
Hubert pushes my hips away, freeing himself of the trap of my body pinning him against the door. A faint flush has spread across his cheeks and his voice is hesitant and uncertain as he says, “As impulsive as you are in other aspects of your life, I was under the impression you were… old-fashioned in your views on matters of intimacy.”
“I am very old-fashioned,” I say with a smile.
“I am not courting you,” he reminds me, “nor could such a thing ever be a possibility for me at a time like this. Surely you understand that.”
“It is not a promise of courtship or anything of that kind that matters to me.”
“Then what does matter?”
“Intentions,” I reply firmly.
“And how exactly would you define your intentions?” he asks.
I grasp his jaw in my hand and pull him close for one last kiss, then answer, “Come seek me out tonight and I will make them clear.”
It is a bold gamble, for I can see that confrontation of our situation makes him clearly uneasy and he suddenly has that shifty look about him like he might just warp away instead of replying. Up until now the change in our regard for one another has been but an unspoken understanding, with the emphasis being on the unspoken part and far less on the understanding , for I still do not know what his true feelings for me are. Our friendship I have faith in, as well as the fact that he enjoys my company. And his physical desire, of course, is obvious – very obvious at the moment. But anything further remains a mystery to me.
If he is not going to do me the courtesy of making his intentions known, then I shall have to take the plunge first and proclaim my own.
“Tonight?” he echoes.
“Nine o’clock. My quarters. Do not be late.”
He swallows nervously and nods. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Our time has long since run out and we will both have to hurry to make it to our next meetings in time, so without another word to each other, we leave, each of us straightening our collars and smoothing out our hair as we go our separate ways.
My next engagement for the day is with a stack of paperwork that has just been delivered to my desk and as I sit down to sort through the reports, knowing they are due in half an hour’s time, I struggle to focus. Heart pounding, I read over the first paragraph, attempting to sweep all other thoughts from my head. But after several minutes, I find that I have read that same paragraph over and over again with not a single whit of comprehension or retention.
I silently chastise myself and manage, through superhuman effort, to finally turn my mind away from the memory of the pressure and heat of Hubert’s body against mine and instead focus on the mundane but extremely important minutiae of weaponry expenses for our soldiers.
How the interminable day passes, I cannot say. I accomplish all the tasks on my docket but by the time I retire for the night to my quarters I can not honestly remember a single one of them.
Glancing at the clock, I see that it is a quarter to nine and my heart skips a beat. Dashing over my closet, I throw open the door and examine my meager wardrobe despairingly. Aside from my typical red and silver armor, I have only a pair of riding breeches and a few wrinkled shirts with a weatherbeaten coat to wear when doing physical labor or going for a ride in foul weather. I have nothing, absolutely nothing , that could be considered even by the slimmest margins suitable for a date.
Years ago, this wardrobe used to be full to bursting with outfits carefully chosen and professionally tailored. But wartime long ago beat my vanity out of me and aside from keeping my armor meticulous, I have little time for any other thought about my appearance.
After a moment of agonizing, I decide to strip off my armor and settle for wearing the tight black trousers and white collared shirt that form the inner layer of the outfit. I am what I am, and there is naught much I can do to change that at this late hour.
Keeping an eye on the clock, I prepare the tea and coffee and try to keep my hands from shaking lest I spill the coffee grounds as I measure them.
Eight fifty-five. Hubert usually arrives early to places, but I do not hear his footsteps in the hall. That is probably to be expected, though. He will most likely warp in so as to avoid anyone observing him coming to my quarters so late at night.
Nine o’clock. I filter the coffee grounds from the pot lest it over-steep and take an experimental sip to make sure I have brewed it to his liking.
Five past nine. He is late.
Ten past nine. It is unlike Hubert to be late.
A sharp rap on the door startles me and I race over, nearly tripping over my feet in my eagerness. Forcing some dignity back into my manner and pasting a casual, unconcerned smile on my face, I open the door.
But it is not his tall, dramatic figure darkening my doorstep. It is merely a servant boy holding a letter. I thank him and take the missive, closing and locking my door as he runs off. My heart sinking, I walk over to my bed and sit down on the edge of it, breaking the wax seal on the letter and opening it up. The paper is blank – typical of Hubert – and I reach into my nightstand and withdraw the small vial he gave me some time ago. Spreading a tiny bit of the liquid over the page, I watch it draw to life the hidden ink and reveal a surprisingly long letter.
I raise my eyebrows, my shattered hopes rising up from the ashes. Dearest?
‘Yes, dearest – a strange but hopefully not unwelcome word coming from me. Considering the fact that I once attempted to pay you a compliment and it startled you so thoroughly that you commanded me to put it in writing next time, I have decided to abide by your wishes in the hope that written words will convey my sincerity in a way that my dour visage and wry tone oft fails to.’
The memory of that unexpected conversation brings a small smile to my lips and I read on, astonished and curious.
‘It is no secret that there are aspects of my life I cannot change, even should I wish to. My loyalty, my priorities, my ambitions – these belong irrevocably to Her Highness and the path that I am bound both by duty and devotion to walk with her. From birth my life has been bound to hers, and until lately I have never given much thought to what I would do if I were to be given a second life to live wherein I was free to pursue my own desires.’
The hope that sprung to life at the opening of his letter slowly withers as understanding of where this train of thought is going settles over me. This is why Hubert has declined to deliver this message in person. To read the coming rejection in his company would have been cruel indeed.
Bracing myself for the inevitable conclusion, I forge on.
‘I have thought these things were obvious enough they could go without saying. But I know you, Ferdinand; I know that behind your importunate confidence lies a host of doubts and fears. I do not wish to add to the burden of those doubts by leaving you unsure of my feelings for you. So if you will bear with this attempt that seems so stilted and ineffective to convey what I wish to tell you, no matter how many times I crumple up my page and start over from the beginning, I will make clear to you several hithertofore untold truths.’
After this are several scratched out lines, too blotted with ink to make out. He must truly have agonized over his wording. But the letter continues valiantly and what he says next makes my breath catch.
‘First and foremost, I have come to find words such as “affection” or “regard” pale and lacking. The truth of the matter is simple and I no longer wish to skirt around it. I love you, Ferdinand. And before I write another sentence, I need you to understand the earnestness and ardency with which I use that word, for it is not one I say lightly. Indeed, I do not believe I have ever used it to describe my attachment to someone before. I love you. There, I can breathe a little easier now. I love you and, presumptuous as it might be to admit this, I believe that you love me too. I cannot fathom what reasoning, if any, you have for such a feeling. I am not by nature a lovable person. But even if I do not understand why, I still sense that you do return my feelings. You are too easy to read to hide such a thing. And although I consider such reckless openness a dangerous trait to have, in this one specific context I am grateful for it.’
I stop and reread the paragraph several times before proceeding, so stunned by the sincerity of his words that I can hardly believe them. He is right; if he had spoken this to my face I might have been too shocked to offer a proper reply.
‘Now that you know the depth of my feelings for you, I must tell you one more thing: as long as this bloody path stretches on before me, I do not have a life to offer you. Even after the war, there are fights that I must face and responsibilities I must fulfill. I cannot in good conscience offer you any promises. I am left with only one thing that I can offer, and I am painfully aware that it is not enough, that you deserve more.
‘I can love you. I can give you every spare moment I can find, every shred of my energy and devotion that is not demanded by my duties. And I can assure you that should a day come when we have peace and I have a chance at that second life of my own, I can state to you an honest intention to spend it by your side, should you allow it. In short, I cannot offer you anything other than what I have already given and what you have already grown impatient with. I would apologize for causing you such disappointment, but this should have been a foregone conclusion you were aware of from the beginning.
‘I wished to follow this letter with the promised visit tonight to hear from you your intentions now that you have all the facts at your disposal to decide them. But I have been called away on urgent business and know not when I will return. I sincerely hope you will use the time until our reunion to consider with objectivity the inadequacy of my offer and the fact that your wisest course of action truly is to refuse it and seek out a lover who can promise you a future less darkened by uncertainty.’
Although it is an inappropriate reaction, my first impulse is to laugh. Did Hubert really pen a long and earnest love letter with the intention of convincing me to reject his love? That is truly Hubert’s special brand of madness.
Still a little numb with shock, I start over from the beginning and reread the letter several more times until I have clarified the response I would give in my mind. Then I jump to my feet, tug on my coat, and race to the stable on the far-fetched hope I might catch him before he departs.
But I have no such luck and I know better than to ask around about where he went and when he could be expected to return. Hubert’s comings and goings are either unknown to everyone else or too secret to be disclosed.
I try to resign myself to waiting, but I hardly make it an hour before I am already pacing back and forth in my chambers, nearly mad with impatience. Waiting has never been my forte, after all.
Snatching up the letter, I read it another time until I swear I have every word memorized.
“You damnable man!” I swear quietly. “How could you say such things then leave?”
It is several hours before I settle enough to lie down in bed and attempt to fall asleep. But I toss and turn wretchedly, my mind full of declarations rehearsed to the point of absurdity and my body tormented by the memory of our kiss earlier. I can still feel the warm glide of his tongue across the bite mark on my neck and the way his hands had clutched so hard at my hips I half-expected there to be bruises when I undressed.
And most haunting of all is the way his breath had hitched as I pressed closer and the way I had felt him grow hard as I had pushed him to give in and finally escalate our kisses to more than longing hands grasping at each other and hungry lips exploring only the chastest bits of skin. My body burns at that memory and at the things I cannot help but imagine would have happened if he had come to my room tonight as he had promised.
I have felt the firm ridges of his muscles under his clothes, belied by his lean frame. I have marveled at how attractive he can be in moments where his grim mask slips and I get a glimpse of the man underneath. Although it feels discourteous of me to imagine him in a more intimate context than I have yet seen him, I cannot help but wonder what secrets his body holds and how satisfying it would be to explore them and learn every line, scar and curve.
And more than that, I long to see a version of him more genuine and stripped of the layers of reserve that keep his emotions hidden from me. I want to see him lying beside me on the sheets, sweaty and out of breath, smiling at me softly without a hint of self-consciousness. I want to hear him laugh without worry of being overheard and I want to hear him groan with pleasure without thought of impropriety.
With these imaginings filling me with restlessness, it seems like an eternity until I drift off to sleep. And I still bolt awake at dawn to dress and rush to the offices in Garreg Mach and the cardinal room to see if he has returned. But no one is there, for even Edelgard and Byleth are still asleep at this early hour.
There is nothing to be done but throw myself into work before I let my impatience drive me out of my wits.
Bolstered by this determination, I set fervorously to work as if my life depended on the swift and thorough accomplishment of every task on my list. And in this ridiculous state, a full day passes, then another excruciating night, then another day.
But on the third night of Hubert’s absence, I find myself reading his letter over and over again and abandoning my resolute composure to fall apart with impatience again.
Finally, I climb out of bed and pull my coat and boots on. If I stay in this silent room a moment longer I shall lose my mind and set fire to it. Even though it is past midnight, I jog out into the dark monastery grounds and let my feet take me wherever they want, for my thoughts are too distracted to come up with a conscious destination.
Only the faintest patches of moon and starlight manage to filter through the clouds blowing in across the sky and it is nearly pitch-black outside. Before I know it, I find myself heading towards the monastery gates. Bounding up the stairs to the battlements two at a time, I walk along the wall until I come to a part overlooking the road. It is utter foolishness to keep watch, but I cannot bear to be cooped up and if I am to seek out fresh air, I might as well enjoy it from a parapet.
I sit down on an overturned crate, then jump back up to my feet and pace around, then lean against the railing and scan the perimeter for any signs of movement. In this restless manner, I pass the time for an hour or so until I notice that a fine rain has begun to mist down from the clouds.
I ignore it and continue my pointless watch until my coat has been soaked through. Only then do I finally face up to the silliness of my situation and decide to return to my quarters for a cup of tea to warm up.
But as I turn away and walk towards the stairs, a glimmer of magic catches my eye and I whirl around to see a shadow materialize from a warp spell. My hand strays instinctively to my side to reach for a weapon until I realize I am unarmed. But then the figure clarifies and I see that it is Hubert, his cape tugged by the wind and his wet hair hanging in tangled, dripping curls across his face.
“What are you doing here?” he asks and his tone is so guarded I cannot discern whatever thoughts and feelings lie behind it.
“I could not sleep,” I reply lamely.
“So you decided to sit in the rain in the middle of the night until you fell ill? What kind of lunacy is that?” he snaps, grabbing my arm and marching me towards the shelter of one of the watchtowers a little ways away down the wall.
“Hubert, do not treat me like I-” But the rest of my sentence is drowned out in a peal of thunder.
Ducking under the stone roof of the watchtower, we find two guards waiting within it, taking a break from their patrol. At the intimidating sight of Hubert glowering, soaked and black-caped, they hustle out of the tower to keep watch somewhere else.
As lightning flashes outside the window and a rumble of thunder reverberates through the stone walls, Hubert lets go of my arm and turns to look at me with his expression drawn tight in a firm frown but his eyes bright with emotion.
“You imbecile. Why the hell would you sit out here in nothing but thin trousers and a battered old coat? Don’t you understand the importance of maintaining your health so that you can continue to fight and how utterly unforgivable it would be to be out of commission for such a foolish reason?”
As he berates me, he sweeps off his cape and wraps it around me, then he takes off his wet, muddied gloves and reaches out with bare hands to tuck the dripping hair out of my face and tie it back in a knot. Stunned by both his anger and his gentleness, I struggle to find the words to reply and stand there mutely and awkwardly as he cares for me.
All these hours I have spent rehearsing what I would say when I saw him again, and now all of my carefully chosen words abandon me.
“Are you going to say anything for yourself?” he demands.
With a choked gasp of frustration, I throw my arms around his neck and kiss him passionately. His lips are cold and his wet hair drips into my eyes, but I could not care less. I step forward to press closer and he backs up until his legs knock into a table. He stumbles but I catch him and lift him up to sit on the edge of the table and move to stand between his legs. With one hand cradling the back of his head and the other gripping his thigh, I kiss him until I am breathless and a bit dizzy from eagerness and longing.
“Ferdinand-” he begins but I speak at the same time and interrupt him on accident.
“I received your letter.”
His eyes widen and even in the dim glow of the torch hanging on a sconce on the other side of the watchtower I can see apprehension written across his face. “Ah,” he says. “I hope you have thought over what I said carefully and not disregarded my warnings with your typical recklessness.”
“I have done nothing but think it over since you left!” I exclaim, my voice coming out a little louder than I intended. Calming myself a bit, I add, “And it has not dissuaded me from my original feelings towards you in the slightest. In fact it has strengthened them considerably.”
He swallows nervously and waits for me to continue.
Cupping his cheek in my hand, I stare into his eyes fervently. “I love you, Hubert von Vestra. I do not love a misconception of you, nor some idealistic hope of what I want you to be. I love you , and I will take you the way you are, with the limitations that entails. I do not require of you more than you can give. All I want is to love you and to be loved by you in any capacity you offer me. Those are my intentions.”
I smile in satisfaction as I finish my declaration, relieved that I was able to get the words out as I had practiced them in my head. And to my profound joy, Hubert smiles back at me. It is a small, subtle expression, but it is undeniably genuine and beautifully free of any irony or self-consciousness.
Slipping his hand behind my neck, he leans his forehead against mine. “I do not deserve you,” he whispers against my lips. “But I will try to.”