“Hubert?” he calls, knocking on the door of the washroom tentatively.
When I don’t reply, Ferdinand walks in, taking in the pathetic sight of me sitting on the floor of the shower, head clutched in my hands. But I am too exhausted to get up and switch off the water, even though the magic seal heating it has long since sputtered out and it has turned cold. The frigid stabs of pain from the water are one of the only things tethering my mind to the present.
Ferdinand sighs when he sees me and walks over to the shower, tugging aside the sheer curtain and turning off the water. I want to snap at him to go away, but the words die on my lips before I can muster the energy to speak them.
“Saints, you are freezing!” he says, and there is no protesting when his strong hands pull me to my feet and guide me out of the shower. Numb both physically and mentally, I stand still and close my eyes, barely registering the feeling of him drying my shivering body off with a towel.
Somehow I end up in bed next to him as he tries to warm me up. He takes my hands, which have been clenched into fists the whole time, and slowly pries them open, examining the fresh trails of magic burns snaking up from my fingertips to my wrists, charcoal and violet, hot to the touch still even though the rest of my skin is cold as ice.
“What have you done?” he murmurs.
I assume he is talking about the burns until I feel healing magic tingle across my skin. Opening my eyes, I look down to see him fusing up tiny cuts on one of my hands with his feeble healing spell. Then he grabs a handkerchief from the nightstand and dabs away the traces of blood across my skin. I must have scrubbed them so hard in the cold water that my skin cracked.
Something rears up in my subconscious, cruel, ugly, defensive. I yank my hand out of his and sit up, facing away from him.
“Leave me,” I growl in a harsh voice that doesn’t even sound like my own.
“No,” Ferdinand replies calmly. “Give me your other hand.”
“Leave.” This time the word has less intensity, hardly more than a whisper.
He gets up and walks over to my side of the bed, kneeling down on the floor and taking my wounded hand forcibly, applying the healing spell. His hair is a lion’s mane of bedhead and I realize I must have returned very late into the night, too lost in my own mind to be aware that I had woken him. I can see the strain in his manner from lack of sleep, tightening the lines of his frustrated frown. I have worried him, hurt him, kept him awake, but he is undeterred, tending to me with stubborn gentleness. The fool. He should save his concern for other things, more important things, like himself.
“What happened out there?” he asks. “I thought you were only on a mission to gather intelligence.”
I can’t find the words to reply and to my relief, he does not repeat the question. It is his lack of demanding that eases down some of my walls and gives me the will to tell him.
“They took another one of my people from me,” I say in a hushed tone, some part of me paranoid that even here, in this meticulously warded room, they will overhear. But the paranoia is pointless, for they will already know by now. And the attacks will continue, darken, deepen, strike closer to home until they have broken my resolve. “One of my spies in Rusalka. She was a maid here when we were schoolboys. I caught her stealing a textbook one day to try to educate herself. She was terrified, assuming that I would turn her in and get her fired. But she had a sharp mind and I offered to teach her instead. Intelligence like that should not go to waste simply because she was the daughter of a gardner. During the war, she entered my employ as one of my spies. I gave her the position in Rusalka so she could be close to her sister there. It was supposed to be a safe, relatively inconsequential one.”
Ferdinand finishes healing my torn hand but does not let go of it. Clasping it in both of his, he stays on his knees, looking up at me attentively, listening without any distracting comments or questions.
“They had no reason to take her,” I continue. “The only reason they killed her and replaced her with one of their own is to spite me, to flaunt their power in my face, because somehow they found out she had been in my employ for the longest and that I trusted her. I didn’t want to believe it to be true, but the signs were all there. Finally it became inescapable to realize that it wasn’t her anymore, but one of them . They must have wanted me to know, to drive the knife in deeper.”
I stop my story there, for there are some things I cannot speak aloud, even to Ferdinand. There is no need for secrecy for the latter part of the story; it is not confidentiality that prevents me, but rather a visceral choking feeling that rises up when I even consider putting it into words.
I killed Nella – no, not her; the thing that had stolen her aspect, which is an important distinction I must continue to remind myself of. And as she died, I had watched her body transform into that of an Agarthan and I had breathed a sigh of relief because whenever this happened and they took someone from me, there was always the small but terrifying thought that maybe I was wrong and I wouldn’t know until it was too late, that someday I’d be kneeling in front of the body of someone I believed to be an imposter and their corpse would not turn into one of the pale, twisted Agarthan bodies. It would just be theirs and I would be wrong. Irredeemably wrong.
It has not happened yet, for I have careful processes I follow to determine if someone is an imposter. But someday it could. I am human and I make mistakes. Failure is always a possibility, no matter how many measures I take to prevent it. And in this shadow war against Those Who Slither in the Dark, more than any other war I have fought, a single error can have devastating consequences.
Ferdinand realizes that I have said all I am capable of saying right now and he raises my hand to his lips. Then he closes his eyes and leans his forehead against it. After a moment, he takes a deep breath and looks up at me. “I am sorry.”
I nod. “As am I.”
“Can you sleep for a few hours?” he asks, slipping back under the covers next to me.
“I will try.”
He gives me space to get comfortable and once I have found a position to rest in, he moves closer, his body wrapping around mine, one arm tucked securely across my waist.
When we first started sharing a bed, that feeling of being clung to by him poked at an instinctive panic of being trapped. I used to wait for him to fall asleep, then carefully move him off of me so I could lie on my own and breathe easy at last. I am not sure when, but somewhere along the line I started returning to his arms after a while. Now I do not even bother to leave them, for I have come to associate them with safety. Now it is difficult to sleep free of the weight of his body against me and without the calming rhythm of his breathing as he rests his head on the pillow right next to mine.
“I am here, for anything you need,” he whispers. “Do not hesitate to wake me.”
The only reply I can manage is a kiss on his cheek, but hopefully it expresses my gratitude nonetheless.
The exhaustion of fight and travel take blessed control of my body and I drift off to sleep despite my fear that I would be afforded no such mercy tonight.
I awake with a warmth and life inside me that fills up the empty shell I was last night.
Edelgard told me once that unbearable things become bearable in the morning, if we can just survive the night. Wise words.
Blinking open my eyes, I focus on the sight of Ferdinand sleeping beside me. A narrow shaft of sunlight is falling across him from a gap in the curtains, setting afire the gold of his hair and illuminating the splash of freckles across the skin of his shoulder and arm that is tucked above the covers.
He would tease me if he caught me watching him sleep, but I can’t tear my eyes away from him. For a moment, I am merely captivated by his beauty. But then a cold, sickening dread twists in my stomach as an unsettling sense of jamais vu overtakes me. Heart starting to pound, I study him as if I am seeing him for the first time, committing every single detail of him to memory. I should know every inch of him with confidence, but looking at him now, I question everything.
Did his earlobes always stick out just slightly like that at the edge? Has he always had that scar under his jaw? Wasn’t it lower down on his neck?
The more I stare at him, the more unfamiliar he looks until I begin to panic.
I take for granted that I know him well enough to spot an imposter. Could I be blinded by love for him? Is it a weakness in identifying him, not an advantage? Have I become too familiar with him and stopped studying him, stopped being vigilant?
“Ferdinand,” I say, putting my hand on his arm and giving it a shake. “Ferdinand, wake up.”
He squints open one eye blearily. “Mhm?”
“Wake up. Please.”
The urgency in my voice stirs him and he sits up, yawning and rubbing his eyes. “What is the matter? Did you not sleep?”
“Tell it to me,” I say.
“It. Say it. Please. I need you to say it for me right now,” I insist and understanding dawns on him.
“The girl who delivered messages for the pegasus post,” he says. “Say mine.”
I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding and answer, “Your literature tutor.”
It had started off as a stupid conversation Ferdinand had provoked one afternoon, asking about the first person I had ever fancied. In order to finally shut him up, I’d told him the story of the pegasus girl and received the un-asked-for story of his first crush, some damned tutor he had been hopelessly in love with during his schoolboy days before he came to the academy. Although it amused me, the conversation had felt like a waste of time until he had laughed and said, “I’ve never told anyone this before.” That was when I realized the value of it.
These secrets, too trivial and stupid to have been spoken to anyone else, became our code for moments like this when I need to reassure myself that he is real.
He smiles faintly as he sees my body relax with relief, then he leans in and presses his lips against my forehead. “I am yours, dearest. Your Ferdinand."
Slipping my hand behind his neck and tangling my fingers in his hair, I kiss him abruptly and passionately, my dread retreating before a feeling of love so intense it hurts. His mouth tastes of sleep and his movements are slow and clumsy, but I can’t bring myself to stop kissing him and after a moment he wakes up enough to match my enthusiasm.
He pushes me down to lie on my back and moves on top of me, kissing my neck so intently it makes my breath catch. “No one,” he whispers against my skin, “can replace me.”
I run my hands across his back and wrap my legs around his hips, closing my eyes and enjoying the solid feeling of him on top of me, the way it demands me to believe that he is real and here and mine.
“No one,” he continues, punctuating each phrase with a kiss, “can fake the way I love you.”
“I know,” I reply.
“No one,” he asserts, his tone fierce and his mouth unrelenting as he kisses, bites, sucks on my skin, sending thrills of excitement through my whole body.
“You don’t have to prove it,” I say.
“Is that a challenge?” he asks, glancing up at me.
“No, that is the opposite of a challenge. I am saying that I believe you and-”
He interrupts me with a kiss, fervent and overwhelming, and I give in to him completely. There is no dissuading Ferdinand when he gets set on something, and I have no desire to stop him anyways, even though it is nearly seven o’clock and I should be starting on my work for the day. I will gladly work twice as hard to accomplish what I must if it means I can stay in bed with him for another hour and surrender without distraction to the euphoric feeling of him moving across my body, leaving the occasional mark where he lingered to lavish attention on a specific inch of skin.
“Do you want me?” he asks, pausing as he reaches my hips.
“I should think the answer to that is obvious,” I say, for even his wandering kisses and bites have already gotten me half-hard.
“I am not sure what state your mind is in right now. I thought I should make sure,” he replies.
I prop myself up on my elbows to look down at him, combing my fingers through his hair and brushing it out of his eyes. “Right now my mind is only on you.”
Ferdinand smiles at me – a calm, intimate expression, not the brash, dazzling grins he wears in public. It is brighter in his eyes than on his lips and it makes my heart jump into my throat, for the emotion it evokes is so strong I do not know how to express it. I nearly push him off of me and onto his back so I can fuck him instead, but I know he wants to be in control right now, so I let him continue what he has started.
“Good,” he replies. “Focus on me.”
I want to tell him there is no danger of my mind wandering, no matter how weighed down with grim and anxious thoughts it was a few minutes ago. But I briefly lose the ability to form words as his lips catch the head of my dick and he slowly takes it all the way into his throat. No teasing, no hesitance; he starts out intensely, reducing me with mortifying swiftness to a heedless, moaning mess.
The first orgasm comes before I know it, mere minutes after he starts. It is impossible to have any self-control in the face of his relentless passion. Gripping a fistful of his hair, I hold it behind his head so I can see him clearly as he goes down on me, overwhelming me with the feeling of the slick, chokingly tight pressure of his throat around my dick as he takes me so deep he buries his nose into my skin.
His eyes are closed and his face flushed brightly, thin trails of saliva dripping down across his mouth and jaw. But as he feels my body seize up with the start of the orgasm, his eyes flutter open and he looks up to meet my gaze, staring at me with obvious satisfaction. I can’t look away from those captivating eyes and I can’t restrain the cry that escapes my lips as I come hard and hot and uncontrollably in his mouth, causing him to choke for a second before he regains control of his gag reflex and continues fucking me until the orgasm has run its course.
When I finish, heaving for breath and still staring in amazement and adoration at him, he slips my dick out of his mouth and looks at me with that same soft, beautiful smile again. It takes on a hint of teasing flirtatiousness as he makes a show of licking the come off my dick and lavishing it in one last moment of attention.
Then he sits up, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and says, “Turn over.”
“That was an appetizer to the main course,” he says. “I am nowhere near done with you.”
“Ferdinand, we have work to-”
“I said turn over.”
I raise my eyebrows at his assertiveness, challenging his right to order me around. But he does not back down. After a moment I decide to let him have his moment of control and I obey. Immediately, he is covering my back in kisses and his fingers are tracing slow, tantalizing circles around the rim of my asshole.
He leans in, his warm chest pressing against my back as he continues to tease me with his fingers, and whispers in my ear, “I love you, and more than anything in this world I want to make you happy.”
Ferdinand, for all his boldness and lack of self-consciousness in bed, cannot talk dirty to save his life. He has learned to simply speak from his heart instead of trying to be seductive and I find the simple things he says to have a much more satisfying effect than any of the husky, sensual things other people would murmur.
“You do,” I reply breathlessly.
He continues to stay propped up on top of me after he grabs a bottle oil and slicks his fingers. And he nuzzles my neck, pressing affectionate kisses here and there as he fingers me. The gentleness of the sensation is a mesmerizing contrast to the hungry intensity with which he moves his fingers, thrusting and stretching and stroking across the spot that makes my body jerk and shudder beneath him and makes me have to bury my face in the pillow to muffle the increasingly loud whimpers and moans he draws from me.
“Are you ready for me?” he asks after what feels like an eternity.
“Yes,” I gasp into the pillow.
“What was that?” he says, emphasizing the question with a sharp thrust of his fingers.
“ Fuck! Yes,” I answer. “Yes.”
He readjusts my hips, propping a pillow under them, then he lines himself up and slides in slowly with a groan. When he is fully inside me, he reaches up to grasp my jaw in his hand and turns my head to the side so he can kiss me. His lips and tongue are still wet and sloppy from going down on me, but he kisses me with such bewitching tenderness I hardly notice.
I moan into his mouth as he pulls out carefully then pushes back in, sending a wave of sensation sweeping over my body. Once more, twice more, a third time and I am losing my mind with impatience at how slowly and gently he is moving. As a rule, I do not beg and I try to keep the words to myself for as long as I can. But there is no holding them back after a minute.
“Please,” I gasp. “Harder. Please..”
“Patience,” he says and I snort. When is Ferdinand von Aegir ever patient ?
As if guessing my thoughts, he gives a short, breathy laugh and thrusts a little rougher and quicker, making me see stars.
The swelling ache of pleasure burns within me, yearning for more, chasing desperately after the peak that is growing so, so close. Ferdinand adjusts his hips and quickens his rhythm, the slap of his skin against mine now mingling with his own gasps, groans and stammered fragments of words. He is never a quiet lover, and I would not have it any other way.
“So close,” I breathe and he shifts off of me to kneel and clutch my hips in his hands, tugging me back and forth in sync with his thrusts, deepening the angle and intensity. The change breaks through the last of my restraint and I come, the orgasm rippling through my whole body all the way to my curled toes.
As I clench around him, Ferdinand cries out and finishes along with me. His movements slow as we both come down from the high and as I slump down into the sheets, he gently eases out and moans.
I lie still for a moment, catching my breath and allowing my mind to leisurely drift back to reality. Once I am confident I can move again, I get up and stagger over to the washroom to clean off. When I return, Ferdinand is sitting propped up against the headboard. He gives me a satisfied smile, his eyes wandering across my body fondly. Then he pats the sheets in front of him.
As I sit down, he tugs me to sit between his spread legs with my back against his chest. Wrapping his arms around my waist, he buries his face in my hair and kisses the back of my head.
“Do you know how loved you are?” he murmurs.
I let my head fall back to rest on his shoulder and close my eyes, my body feeling more relaxed and my spirit more at peace than I have in a long time. The energy of his presence is a warding spell of its own, because in this moment, I feel like nothing can touch me. The fears and doubts that tormented me earlier are held powerfully at bay by the simple warmth of his body and the feeling of his head leaning against mine.
“Was that satisfying for you or were you only trying to please me or make some kind of point?” I ask.
He makes a low, quiet mmm noise and presses a feather-soft kiss to my temple. “Very satisfying. But I was indeed trying to make a point.”
Enough clarity returns to my hazy mind at last that I manage to think of an actual reply and say, “If only you articulated all your opinions with such eloquence.”
He laughs. “Would I win more arguments?”
“Alas, if only I had less honor and was willing to stoop to such ignoble tactics… How much easier my life would be and how much harder yours would be.”
I shift to lean my forehead against his neck and he strokes my head, idly running his fingers through my hair.
“I do not have the luxury of trusting anything,” I say out of the blue in a more serious tone. “But I trust you.”
“I think that is an even greater honor than earning your love. I am humbled by it, Hubert. I will endeavor to deserve your trust,” he replies with equal sincerity.
And he is right. It was not an easy choice to let myself fall in love with him, but trusting him was more challenging still. I trust Edelgard, and I trust myself. I never expected there to be another. But that is the beautiful thing about Ferdinand. His presence in my life is something I could never have predicted. The depth of feeling he engenders in me is profound and unfathomable. The way our relationship changes and evolves day by day cannot be foreseen and it cannot be replicated.
He is one of a kind. And that is exactly what will keep him safe from them .
Humming softly, Ferdinand lets one of his hands wander, sliding across my stomach and hips and thighs, tracing unconscious designs with his fingertips and stopping from time to time to linger and massage. I allow my attention to follow the trail of his touch and leave all other thought behind. And for a few more minutes until we get up and start our day, we both indulge in the blissful respite of each other’s presence.