Most people have ample time to make fools of themselves during their adolescence and throughout those years to learn through trial and error how to navigate the nuances of romance. But I spent the first eighteen years of my life too busy being trained for my future to give thought to my present. And right on the cusp of adulthood, I promptly threw myself body and soul into a war that demands my time as much as education demanded my youth. At the age of twenty-three, a different Ferdinand von Aegir in a different world would be settled and married by now, likely even expecting a first child.
But I, this Ferdinand von Aegir, at the age of twenty-three, am a fool.
A fool rendered floundering and bewildered by the simple act of an unexpected kiss. Well, to be more precise, most of my bewilderment comes from how Hubert instantly fled upon the excuse of urgent business to attend to and has not deigned to so much as look my way again, let alone speak to me. Urgent business… I would think Hubert, chief spymaster and strategist, could think of a better lie than that!
“I do not have perfect understanding of all of your courting customs, but it seems that you are complicating everything very much, Ferdinand. It does not need to be complicated.”
I stop brushing Litha and give Petra a distraught look. “It is complicated, though! Everything with that man is complicated.”
“He has confessed his feelings for you. What are these complications? He kissed you! Why are you not having freedom to kiss him again? You are making no sense to me!” she exclaims and I glance around the stable worriedly.
“Ssh!” I say. “Someone might overhear you.”
“The sun is barely rising. No one else is awake,” Petra replies.
“Still…” I trail off and sigh. “He did kiss me, yes. But we have not spoken of it since and I worry… What if it-” I sigh again, rather pathetically, and wrap my arms around Litha’s neck for comfort as I give voice to the thought tormenting me. “What if he regrets it? What if it was only a momentary lapse of judgment? How am I supposed to know what is going on in that unknowable mind of his?”
Litha snorts and tosses her head, nudging my shoulder with her muzzle as if to tell me to stop hanging on her and cheer up.
“What should I do?” I ask Petra beseechingly.
She stops brushing Mabon and considers my plea for a moment then says, “If I were you I would not be worrying. I would go up to Hubert and say, ‘You make my heart happy,’ and I would kiss him.”
“It is not that simple!” I insist.
“It should be,” she says.
"It should. But it is not."
“Does he?” she asks.
“Does he what?”
“Make your heart happy?”
I nod morosely. “Yes.”
“You are not looking happy.”
“Because he also makes me furious, with all his cryptic words and aloof gestures and… No, I should not claim that it is entirely his fault. I am mad at myself because I am paralyzed by indecision.”
Petra pumps her fist in the air and says in a rallying tone, “You are Ferdinand von Aegir! Nothing ever is paralyzing you! You will have courage and get your victory!”
I smile finally and give her a grateful look. “You are right. It is unlike me to be so hesitant.”
She nods and busies herself saddling Mabon. Even though he is technically Hubert’s horse, Hubert never has the time to exercise him properly so Petra has taken to joining me on my early morning rides to give Mabon the run he needs. As a wyvern rider, she does not have a horse of her own but dearly loves creatures of every kind and is a delightful riding companion. Lately she has become a confidant too, which is very kind of her for I am sure I wear upon her patience frightfully.
“You must be steeling yourself,” Petra says. “Practice the words so you can be speaking them with confidence. You can’t back down when you have nerves.” After she is done saddling Mabon, she walks over to Litha’s stall and says, “Give it a shot, Ferdinand.”
“Yes. You must be ready! You must tell him today.”
I swallow nervously and nod. “Today.”
“Yes. Now say it. I will pretend to be Hubert,” she says and hops up onto a hay bale so she is roughly the same height as him. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glowers down at me firmly and says, “Say it.”
I clear my throat and turn to face her. “Hubert.”
“Ferdinand,” she replies in a gruff, deep voice. Her remarkably good impression of Hubert would have Dorothea and Edelgard in stitches if they were here. “Is there something you are wishing to say?”
Litha nudges me impatiently.
“Hubert,” I say again. “You…”
Petra raises her eyebrows.
“You make my heart happy,” I finish. “May I kiss you again?”
A smile breaks across Petra’s face and she claps her hands. “There! That was not so hard, was it?”
“It was terrifying,” I answer.
She shakes her head at me and returns to Mabon, leading him out of his stall. But when Petra stops dead in her tracks and stares over at the stable door, I follow her gaze and feel my heart jump into my throat.
“Good morning, Hubert,” Petra says to the familiar shadow lurking in the doorway half-silhouetted by the pale dawn light.
“Is this ungodly hour really considered morning, let alone good?” he asks, casually strolling over to Mabon and reaching out a gloved hand to stroke his neck.
Mabon, who was at first quite apprehensive of Hubert, has now become fond enough of him that he nickers happily at the touch. The soft little sound warms my heart. You can always tell the true nature of a person by the way their horse feels about them. I know my own changed perception of Hubert is not wrong when Mabon shares it. In truth, I trust his wise opinion over my biased one far more.
“You are kind to exercise him for me,” Hubert tells Petra.
“It is giving me great pleasure to ride such a magnificent creature,” she replies with a smile.
“Would you mind if I took your place this morning?” he asks.
“Not at all!” Petra says. “It will give me time to make breakfast for Dorothea.”
Hubert nods respectfully at Petra and she walks away. Before she leaves the stable she pauses and shoots me a very pointed look over her shoulder that makes me blush in embarrassment. But I square my jaw determinedly and nod back at her.
I am Ferdinand von Aegir. I will have courage and get my victory.
She smiles then leaves, abandoning me to Hubert’s grim presence.
“Well, I… we should…” I falter, because awkward silence is ever my undoing. I clear my throat and say, “Let us be going then.”
As I swing up onto Litha’s saddle, Hubert mounts Mabon and nudges him into a trot, leaving the stable without a backward glance. Litha follows her brother Mabon of her own accord and I let the reins hang slack, too distracted by my racing thoughts to focus on guiding her anyways.
“Do you have a destination or route of some kind for these excursions of yours?” Hubert asks as we pass through the gates of the monastery and out into the open land surrounding it.
“A route? Oh, um-” Why am I so flustered? This will not do at all. “Not particularly,” I answer. “Petra and I sort of… We just ride.”
“Yes but where?” Hubert asks.
Hubert pulls out a small pocketwatch and checks the time then says, “I have an hour and a half. That is not enough time to go everywhere.”
I know he is mocking me and I give him an annoyed look, feeling unreasonably agitated. Possibly it is because I am beset with the words “You make my heart happy.” running over and over again through my mind, sounding more ridiculous and impossible to say with every absurd repetition.
“Shall we venture towards the woods?” he suggests. “I think I prefer the trees to being out here in these open plains.”
I believe I give some sort of answer, though I know not what, for he nods and turns Mabon towards the nearby forest. Litha follows along without me needing to ask her to and I take a moment to chastise myself into regaining my wits.
As we ride, I study Hubert as discreetly as I can, for I cannot make heads nor tails of the puzzle of why he is here. There is a reason Petra is usually my morning ride companion. Although Hubert has reluctantly become quite attached to Mabon, he never gets in the saddle unless absolutely necessary and I certainly never see him awake at this hour. As he has put it many times before, “Both I and my work are suited best for the shadows of night.”
Curiosity turns to appreciation and I forget why I was originally examining him, my attention carried away by the enrapturing sight of him in the morning mist and breeze, his cape billowing out behind him, his tousled hair curly in a wild, charming way I have never seen before, his pale cheeks flushed from the chill in the air.
Although he is not fond of riding, he is by no means an unaccomplished rider and he sits with poise and command in the saddle, a degree of strength evident in every movement that some might be surprised at given his slim mage’s build.
Hubert might not wield a sword or axe but I have no doubt that his many-layered uniform hides a steel-strong, lean-muscled body that could-
I catch myself before I let my discourteous imaginings go any further. It would certainly be disrespectful to let myself think about how those shoulders of his might tense and how the ridges of them would feel so pleasing if I were to run my hands over his bare skin as he was propped up above me, pinning me down against the ground. A single, henceforth unmentioned kiss does not give me the right to imagine those hips of his pressed against mine and those clever, deft-fingered hands of his-
I reprimand myself severely and look away from Hubert, forcing my treacherous eyes to stare out at the horizon instead.
“I would have come along on your morning rides far sooner if I knew it was the only context in which you are silent,” Hubert remarks and I finally allow myself to glance back at him.
“If you believe me to be some chattering nuisance, why are you here accompanying me at all?” I ask.
“Why indeed,” Hubert replies, if one could even consider it a reply.
I spur Litha into a canter and plunge over the crest of a hill and down its slope towards the forest, leaving Hubert in our metaphorical dust. But either Hubert or Mabon must take that to be a challenge for soon they are bearing down the hillside towards us and outpacing us.
Litha whinnies in protest at the idea of losing and I say, “Well then, let us show them how it is done!”
She quickens her pace eagerly, flying past them as the terrain evens out. In a fury of hoofbeats, racing breaths and a victorious, “Ha!” we burst through the tree line and leap over a fallen log. Litha slows to a trot within the confines of the narrow forest trails but she looks smug and satisfied with her victory.
I lean down to stroke her neck and murmur praises at her fleetness and grace. Her brother Mabon is an exemplary creature but no one compares to my Litha.
“Show off,” Hubert mutters as he catches up.
“I am beginning to think you suggested the forest trails because you know you cannot best me on the open plains,” I tease.
He stiffens in annoyance – a subtle movement not unlike a crow ruffling its feathers, given his turned up black collar and all the windblown shocks of his hair.
“Is this how it is to be? Am I to be mocked, challenged and goaded even before I have drunk my coffee in the mornings?” he says.
He is looking at me angrily but all I can do is stare back at him, rendered speechless by all that is implied by the words “Is this how it is to be?”
I want to cry out “Is what to be?” but I will not make a fool of myself! So I face forward and focus on the trail.
But it occurs to me, yet again, that it is likely inescapable that I will make a tremendous fool out of myself. From what I have observed, most people do in the initial blush of their first loves.
And I have never been in love before. What trivial experience I have with physical intimacy has been confined to a single meaningless and relatively chaste one-night tryst that I subsequently regretted both for its meaninglessness and its chasteness. For all intents and purposes, that kiss in the library yesterday might as well have been my first and this silence hanging between Hubert and I, so full of inexpressible expectations and questions, is a distressing puzzle I am unequipped to parse.
The rules of noble courtship I read in books in my school days do not apply to men like us. But the empty, desire-fueled flirtations of soldiers seeking pleasure and companionship feel equally inappropriate.
I hate feeling so out of my element, though! How infuriating it is to not know the way forward and to be at a loss for the proper etiquette!
Risking a glance over at Hubert, I see that he is staring off into the woods, avoiding my gaze as diligently as I have been avoiding his. He does not seem particularly pleased to be here with me, nor does he have the purposeful air about him that he usually does.
And yet he says nothing. And I say nothing. And this wretched distance between us remains uncrossed and unaddressed.
When we come to the river, our horses stop to take a drink and I swing down from the saddle to stretch my legs. Hubert does the same but instead of wandering over to me, he lingers awkwardly beside Mabon, petting his neck and gazing with faraway eyes and a tense expression into the sparkling water.
The exertion of riding and the steadily growing warmth of the morning is causing my jacket to feel sweltering and my skin sweaty. With Petra, who is so unhindered by convention, I would normally take it off and untie my cravat as well, walking about in my shirtsleeves like a boy. But such informality feels strange around Hubert.
I shift uncomfortably for a minute as I pace back and forth along the bank, then I realize that Hubert’s perception of me cannot possibly get any lower than it already is. Either he is fond of me like I have come to recently believe or he loathes me still like I used to think. Seeing me in my shirtsleeves will not change either opinion, I am sure.
Yanking off my cravat and jacket, I drape them across Litha’s saddle. Hubert glances briefly at me with a surprised look but does not comment and his attention returns immediately to the river. On a reckless whim, I pull off my boots and socks as well and roll up the legs of my trousers.
“What on earth are you doing?” Hubert asks as I sit down on the edge of the bank and dip my feet in.
I sigh happily at the feeling of the water swirling around my bare skin, cool enough to have a refreshing bite but not so frigid as to be unpleasant. The constant weight of armor and stifling pressure of so many formal layers makes simple delights like this a cherished treat. Petra and I often end up going for a swim whenever we ride beside the river.
“Enjoying myself,” I answer. “That is the purpose of this hour as much as it is also exercise.”
Hubert stares at me in incomprehension for a moment and I ignore him, kicking my feet back and forth and watching Litha nuzzle about in a patch of buttercups.
“Do not eat those,” I tell her. "They give you a stomach ache, remember?"
Litha snorts indignantly, asserting that she remembers no such thing.
“How many times must we have this conversation before you believe me?” I ask her.
To my relief, she relents and leaves the flowers alone.
Hubert walks out of my frame of view then I hear his footsteps returning. When he comes over beside me and sits down, I glance at him in shock. Gone is his many-buckled coat, his cape and his tall leather boots. Dressed down to a loose, white linen shirt and pants with the legs rolled up to knee like mine, he tentatively puts one foot in the water, grimaces at the cold and yanks it out.
“Not for the faint of heart,” I say quietly with a small, teasing smile that visibly irks him.
He dips both feet in the water and shudders a bit. “What about this is enjoyable to you?”
I could quip back at him, but the peaceful river and the woods, rich with the scent of dew-soaked earth and pine, is weaving a sort of calming spell over me that pulls sincerity from my lips. “Nature is not meant to be merely observed, but experienced. Perhaps it is my country roots speaking, but I believe we humans are not meant to be always shut away in castles and bundled up in clothes. It is good to touch the dirt and feel the water and air on our skin. It is… healing.”
Hubert listens without judgment and when I am done speaking my piece, he nods thoughtfully. “I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense.”
Glad that he understood my sentiment, I give him a warm smile and although he does not quite return it, his expression softs a little and he glances down at his feet in the water.
“I fear I am not an apt companion for such excursions like these then. Perhaps I shall not join you again. I would not wish to dampen your pleasure. I know how scarce and fleeting moments of freedom are right now. These morning rides of yours are sacred to you in a way, it seems.”
“They are,” I reply. “But your presence does not make them any less so. In fact, you-” make my heart happy. "-are a far more pleasant companion than you give yourself credit for being."
My own boldness makes me feel a bit giddy and when he looks over at me with a searching expression, I have to hold my breath because every fibre of my being is pulling at me to lean in and kiss him again just as I did so recklessly in the library yesterday.
"Hubert, why are you here?"
"I should think the answer to that is obvious," he says, shifting restlessly.
"Nothing with you is obvious. Everything you say has a double meaning and I know there are schemes and stratagems behind every action of yours."
A faint smile ghosts across his lips, enigmatic as always. "I did not know you thought so highly of me as to read such depth of meaning into my words and actions."
"I cannot read any meaning into them," I argue. “Whatever you aim to accomplish by stalking me on my morning ride, I cannot fathom. You hate the morning, hate riding, and up until rather recently, I was fairly certain you hated me. You do nothing but confuse me.”
Hubert’s brow furrows in concern. “I thought coming with you would be a… gesture. You have invited me before and I have never made the time to come. I apologize if it has only caused you distress. That was not my intention.”
As he pulls his feet out of the water and stands up, I spring to my feet and catch his hand before he can walk away. He freezes at my touch.
“Did you mean it?” he asks without turning around to face me. “What you said to Petra in the stable.”
“You were eavesdropping?” I say angrily, letting go of him.
“No eaves need be dropped when one is shouting out their thoughts for all the world to hear,” he replies and it does not escape my notice that the hand I released has now clasped into a fist.
“I always say what I mean. I would never feign feelings I do not genuinely hold, nor kiss someone I do not feel affection for. Unlike you, my motives are plain and my emotions easy to read. You have accused me of obliviousness, Hubert, but I do not think it is foolishness on my part that causes confusion, but rather your own perplexing attitudes.”
“How obvious must I make a thing so simple?” he says, whirling around to face me. I expect there to be frustration in his expression but instead there is a strained look of concern. “I have sought out your company, your touch, your presence. I have dragged myself out of bed at this goddess-spited hour in a vain attempt to share in something that brings you joy. I am not a demonstrative man. You know this of me. But actions speak louder than words they say, so I am here, act by act, trying to speak.”
All my exasperation bleeds away as I gaze into his eyes. Normally so cold and analytical, they are alight now with a fervor that takes my breath away. It occurs to me in a heart-plummeting way that he is here before me – a vision of disarrayed, bewitching perfection with his mist-soaked curls, bright eyes, and body temptingly clad in the thin shirt that would make it so easy to feel him were I to take him in my arms – and yet instead of marveling at the dream-become-reality that is seeing him like this, I am instead arguing pointlessly with him. How very typical of me! How foolish and futile.
What in heaven’s name am I doing?
I step forward and grab his face in my hands, kissing him abruptly.
He sways for a second, knocked off balance, then he steadies and wraps his arms around my waist, tugging me closer. Pressed up against his chest, I can feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt and the solid, satisfying reality of his body so close to mine. His arms tighten around me as he tilts his head to the side and leans in to kiss me deeper, which sends dizzying thrills of excitement through me so strong I briefly lose all comprehension of where and who I am. All I can focus on is the feeling of him .
He breaks away too soon – I could have kissed him for hours – and says, “I want you. I do not know how much more obviously I can express that.”
“I want you too,” I say with a breathless laugh of joy.
“But you do always-” he begins but I interrupt him with another kiss, until he pulls away to continue. “-make everything-” I reach one hand up to grip the back of his neck and yank his head down so our lips meet again. “-so unnecessarily compli-” He gives in for a moment, kissing me passionately, then breaks free to gasp, “Damn you, Ferdinand von Aegir! All you do is demand I talk then not let me get a word-”
“You will only make everything unnecessarily complicated,” I say, enjoying how appalled he looks at having his own interrupted words repeated back to him.
This time he kisses me. But this time it is different.
This time his hands are tangled in my hair and his tongue is parting my lips and slipping into my mouth to move against my own, exploring, teasing, arousing, turning the kiss into something intimate and messy and heady as strong wine. Never in my life have I been kissed like this and never in my life have I felt such euphoria.
I hear quite an indecent moan and realize instantly with great embarrassment that it is my own. But the sound only emboldens Hubert and he kisses me even deeper for another long, rapturous moment before stopping for breath.
He leans his face against my hair, pressing his lips to the side of my head, and whispers, “Have I made myself clear?”
I could continue to emphasize that my distress has been perfectly warranted given how he bolted out of the library yesterday. But the feeling of his body in my arms and the way he nuzzles my head and neck, trailing kisses here and there, robs me of all my argumentative spirit and all I can do is sigh like a lovestruck fool and say, “Unmistakably.”
Litha whinnying in the distance draws me back to reality and I look over Hubert’s shoulder to see her wandering away to eat more buttercups despite her full knowledge that they are forbidden.
“Wait! Come back here!” I call, pulling out of Hubert’s arms to chase after her. Litha, impertinent little filly that she is sometimes, keeps on trotting away and Mabon follows her, swayed by her wicked influence.
“Litha!” I take off after her, but I am a little distracted and dizzy and my bare feet slip on a patch of moss on the riverbank. Before I can regain my footing, I find myself careening wildly off-balance. With an undignified yelp, I hit the cold water and plunge beneath it for a second before flailing back up to the surface.
I see a shimmer of light as I drag my dripping wet hair out of my eyes and when I can see clearly, I turn and see Hubert holding the reins to both our horses, looking smug.
“You could have used that warp spell to rescue me, you know,” I say, attempting to haul myself out of the water and onto the muddy bank but slipping again.
“And let the horses wander off? That would be irresponsible,” Hubert replies, a smile twisting the corner of his lips that I know is entirely at my expense.
I fancy I had cut rather a dashing figure moments ago when he was kissing me, but now I must look absolutely ridiculous.
“Need a hand?” he asks, strolling over without any apparent concern as I sputter on the riverbank.
“Yes, thank you,” I answer.
When he bends over, holding out his hand to assist me, I am seized with a wicked impulse. Before I can think the better of it, or really think at all, I grab his hand and yank him towards me. I briefly register a look of shock and fury on Hubert’s face before he falls and knocks me back under the water.
For one concerning minute, I am unsure whether he is just flailing about because he is a terrible swimmer or whether he is honest-to-Sothis trying to drown me. But after a bit of wrestling, thrashing, kicking and splashing, we end up returning to the surface and catching our breath. As Hubert coughs and splutters in shock, I laugh. He launches a fire spell at my head but I duck below the water in time and only feel a wave of heat above me.
When I come back up he has calmed and is treading water, staring at me with a look that certainly signals my impending demise.
“I was trying to help you,” he seethes. “You wretched, ungrateful, vile-”
Swimming over to him, I grab him by the waist and kiss him. His lips are cold and wet and he is shivering slightly in my arms, but after a moment of stiffness his resentful willpower breaks and he throws his arms around my neck, kissing me back with the hunger of a man starved for touch. Even as desperate for him as I am, his passion overwhelms me and I have to break off the kiss to catch my breath with a nervous chuckle.
“Look at the pair of us,” I say. “What a shocking sight we are. Come, let us dry off.”
It is a clumsy and undignified scramble onto the bank but once I am up, I reach down and help Hubert out of the water. He stands before me, dripping, bedraggled, still equal parts furious and fond, and I swear I have never loved him more than I do in this moment.
“Do you not feel refreshed? There is nothing so enlivening as a dip in the river on a spring morning!” I say, setting to work wringing my hair out which is no small endeavor.
Hubert trudges over to a spot of sunlight and sits down on the grass in it, attempting to shake the water from his hair. With a long-suffering sigh, he lies down on his back in the patch of sunbeams and says, “I am never coming with you again.”
Settling down next to him on the grass, I fix my eyes resolutely up at the sky because if I allow them to wander over to his body, with his soaked clothing clinging so tightly to his skin as to leave little to the imagination, it will be the death of me and if I stare any more at him than I have already done today he will surely notice and then whatever will I say for myself?
The two of us are silent for a while, basking in the sun as it dries our cold bodies. Then at last I say very quietly and very sincerely, “Thank you, Hubert.”
“For not hitting you with a lightning spell in the water and leaving your paralyzed body to drown?” he asks.
“Well, yes… but no. Thank you for coming here with me. I know you have not enjoyed it, and although I never wish to be the cause of your misery, I am touched nonetheless by the gesture of friendship.”
I steal a glance at him and see the barest hint of a smile on his lips.
“I have become strangely fond of the special brand of misery that is enduring your company, Ferdinand,” he says. With a yawn, he closes his eyes and adds, “Am I correct in assuming you are not so adverse as to the misery of my company as well?”
Tentatively, because I am still floundering as wildly as Hubert did in the water when it comes to knowing what is correct and what is not for these unforeseeable circumstances I find myself in, I take his hand and intertwine my fingers with his. He does not pull away and I enjoy the small, intimate connection to him bridging the distance between us.
Maybe being a fool is worth it if it means I can be with him like this.
“For once, my dear friend, your assumptions about me are not wrong,” I answer. “I have also become fond of your wretchedness.”
He smiles – a real, full smile this time, and ah what a rare and beautiful thing it is to behold – and says, “How fortunate.”
Worried that Litha will resume her insatiable quest for buttercups again, I get up and walk over to her, giving her a brief, stern talking to then taking her reins and leading her back over to Hubert along with Mabon.
“Let us walk while we dry off. If we laze about too much the horses will wander off again,” I tell him.
He heaves another sigh and stands up, brushing the grass from his wet clothes. “Very well.”
Together, we stroll back towards Garreg Mach, walking slowly, talking lightly, and stealing pleased glances at each other whenever we think the other is not looking.
I feel like a boy, eager and stunned, but I also feel like a man: certain. I may not know precisely what is happening between us, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that it brings me joy and that I will strive to be worthy of it and to fight for it, whatever it may be – friendship, love, or any such relationship in between.
I could say this to him right now, of course. But Hubert has a skittishness about him still like a spooked horse and I decide to leave some things unspoken today so that they may be said later with greater emphasis.
For now, I will hold his hand as we walk and marvel at how he lets me. I will meet his eyes when he smiles at me and smile back, finding my relief in the reciprocation of my feelings I see in his softened gaze. And I will enjoy this moment for all it can offer, no matter where it leads or how it ends.
“Hubert,” I say.
You make my heart happy. “I would be extremely pleased if you would come with me again sometime, provided you can spare the time.”
“Does my grim presence not infringe upon the experience for you?” he asks. There is a touch of humor in his voice and yet I think I have come to know Hubert well enough to hear the very well-hidden hint of self-consciousness as well.
Giving his hand a squeeze, I say, “Not in the slightest. Indeed, my heart feels very light right now, not grim at all.”