The council chamber’s double doors loom at the opposite end of the hall, where Hubert and Ferdinand cross paths. Ferdinand brightens as he holds out his elbow.
“Allow me to escort you,” he says.
“I should think the Prime Minister ought to be escorted,” Hubert says, even as his body says yes. Ferdinand’s pout does not befit their upcoming audience.
“Not when he is also a noble knight of Adrestia.”
“And when he stands opposite one who also served?” Hubert lifts his own elbow to hover inches beside and above Ferdinand’s.
It is not duty, not that Hubert has ever untangled that from matters of the heart. Only a pull, one he’s never felt for another, to lock arms in place and ensure their shadows intertwine. Not to trap, not to throw away the key. Simply because they can.
Squash instinct. Deny desire. Even if Edelgard has told him to forget his training, he can’t. It doesn’t matter whose hand slides behind whose elbow, so long as the fussing stalls it.
A cleared throat drives them apart. “You realize you both could have been across the hall by now,” Edelgard says from behind them. How long did their buffoonery hold her up?
Hubert bows. “As you say.”
Ferdinand’s bow, quicker and deeper, almost has them knocking heads. “Edelgard! You are looking especially handsome today—”
“Yes, yes. The meeting begins in five minutes.” She waves off their attempts to escort her, leaving their outstretched hands at a stalemate. Hubert straightens.
“Come, we have wasted enough time.” He sweeps down the hall with his arms at his side and Ferdinand scrambling after.
Hubert knows Ferdinand’s schedule. Twenty-five free minutes after the meeting, ten of which he will spend following up on it. When others have left the chamber, Hubert bends to whisper in his ear.
“You may join me for tea, if you wish.”
His lips know the proximity as well as he knows the guards are watching. He leaves upon Ferdinand’s agreement.
Twelve minutes later, the tea is cooling, and Ferdinand escapes a noble who held him up. Hubert arranges the flowers Ferdinand keeps him in supply of, the only burst of color in his office—yellow, today. Once they are alone, Ferdinand reaches for the coffee grounds. Hubert bids him sit. They have already done this dance once today.
Thirteen minutes to watch every muscle in Ferdinand’s face stretch in the steam. Despite the incorrect timing, he praises the blend and the cup and the pouring, ever the diplomat. Hubert keeps to himself and yearns for something he can’t articulate.
As always, Ferdinand reaches, and Hubert offers his hand. They clasp over the table, unacknowledged, while Ferdinand gossips about the noble who tried to speak with him.
“They are not the first to ask for my attention at tomorrow’s ball,” Ferdinand says.
“They will likely not keep their position much longer. You have better options for currying favor.”
Ferdinand frowns. “I might have thought of such things, were I not spoken for.”
Objections tangle on their way to Hubert’s mouth: your duty comes first, my duty comes first, we are not a public couple. Not that people don’t whisper. It is only that nobody dares speak up, where Hubert is concerned, and he finds no reason to encourage them. These thirteen minutes are his and Ferdinand’s alone.
Their hands ground Hubert at the table, away from balls and gossip, and he does not waste a minute detailing any of this.
Ferdinand’s thumb strokes Hubert’s knuckles, as it sometimes does, and Hubert’s other fingers busy themselves with his cup. Open palms bring punishment. Thumbs jammed under nails bring incentive. The repurposed weapons aren’t new, but Ferdinand always carries true intentions, and Hubert lets him be the one to carry them out.
With a minute left, Ferdinand brings their hands to his side of the table. He replaces his thumb with his lips, the kiss courtly until it stays, neither progressing nor ending. Hubert thinks to touch his cheek but doesn’t.
Ferdinand drops Hubert’s hand with a sigh, their movements again separate. “Thank you for the tea,” Ferdinand says. There is something Hubert should say or do, beyond cleaning up the table, but he can’t think of it.
On the morning of the ball, Hubert receives a missive. It is short, the parchment lacking perfume, but its elegant handwriting makes the sender clear.
My dear, it begins. Hubert takes a minute to brew coffee. It is too early for him to be someone’s dear.
He returns to his desk with a cup and the note.
I hope I shall see you tonight, and that you will reserve a dance for me.
He commits both the contents and the shape of it to memory before burning it.
Even when their days orbit each other, it is not uncommon for them to send letters. Some work-related, others compliments, as Hubert promised. Ferdinand’s fit the proper form for an admirer. Hubert either writes his heart in code or the most declarative statements. The in between alludes him.
You performed admirably in yesterday’s meeting is not a suitable response. So code it is.
He purses his lips as he readies his quill. Even if Ferdinand is his dear one, his heart, he cannot bring himself to write the words. The endearments sit on a list of things he can’t reciprocate. Then again, Ferdinand can’t reciprocate the assassin Hubert apprehended in the night and gave an especially painful interrogation. Or perhaps he can. Hubert is constantly putting too much past him.
With that in mind, and an absent smile, he writes:
Also a knight of Adrestia,
The hand off will occur near the potion seller at your earliest convenience.
Destroy this immediately.
- He who guards from the shadows
As promised, Hubert positions himself by the drinks, to the obvious discomfort of those who know his penchant for poison. Only the glimmer of chandeliers spikes the crystal goblets; he already magically tested Edelgard’s drink. She doesn’t hide out with him as they used to, whispering their observations about everyone else. It was never a game, but it feels like one compared to watching his emperor take her rightful place on the floor.
Edelgard marches past her many propositions to Dorothea, who stands off to the side, wielding a wineglass as a prop. She clearly meant to play that role for longer, but she lets Edelgard guide her under the lights, as befits a star. Only Hubert could recognize the tension in his emperor’s stance. He smirks at how many disgruntled people stand at both sides of her choice, even as he studies them all for malice.
A step behind Edelgard, Ferdinand nonetheless fends off his own crowd and arrives, slightly breathless, to proffer his hand. Hubert sweeps his gaze over Ferdinand’s blood-red brocade, too covert for Ferdinand to drink in his admiration. With that indulgence, he accompanies Ferdinand to the floor.
“Since I made the invitation, is it all right if I lead?” Ferdinand asks. His lips twitch as his voice lowers. “Oh he who guards—”
“The point of a code name is to keep it private.” Before Hubert can reduce himself to pouting, he says at a regular volume, “Of course.”
He rests his palm over the epaulette on Ferdinand’s shoulder, their other hands fitting together. The rote waltz does not show off Ferdinand’s footwork, but it gives them freedom to remain close, not having to worry about when or how or where to touch. Warmth soaks through the layers of fabric at Hubert’s waist. It is enough to threaten inebriation, even though he won’t drink a drop.
Too many eyes follow the ministers, more than Hubert can follow in return, especially with Ferdinand’s burning singular focus. Perhaps otherwise they would remain in an embrace after the song’s end. As it is, Hubert thanks him with a bow and retreats to his post.
He ignores trays of stuffed dates and wrapped oysters. Were he a different sort of minister, he would have to consider the other offers that come his way. He is glad not to. No matter how cutting their jawlines, how intelligent their eyes, or how well fitted their suits and gowns, nobody else at the ball affects him. It has been so at every event in his life. The only difference is that he notices the nape of Ferdinand’s neck, revealed by an elegant hair ribbon; and the crinkle of his laugh; and the way his own attention always returns to Hubert.
At his less distracted, Hubert watches for threats to Edelgard. None arise, though not all of her companions please her as well as Dorothea, who stepped aside after that first dance. No doubt a partner with fewer obligations would keep Dorothea in their arms; no doubt she would prefer that. At least she and Ferdinand twirl each other in a manner that draws all eyes, a lively song sending them across the room with a pair of smiles, his wide and hers indulgent.
Afterward, she dodges another nobleman by retrieving a drink. Hubert steps aside to give her space beside him.
“Ferdinand would keep you occupied again, should you need it,” he whispers. She slides a hand between the wall and her delicate braids.
“I take good care of myself, but thank you. Shouldn’t you be giving him another dance soon?”
A pleasant thought, and inadvisable. Hubert cannot remain vigilant from the middle of the room, with Ferdinand shining adoration on him.
“We both have our roles to play,” he says. Her brow pinches.
“Hubie, sometimes I can’t tell if you two are already married or still waiting to court each other.”
“I can’t see what that has to do with you.”
“Some people actually express their feelings. We both know dear Ferdie is one of them, until he has to explain himself to the right person.”
Frowning, Hubert checks for eavesdroppers before leaning closer. “He has spoken with you?”
“Friends do that. Not that I get as much gossip as I would if he wasn’t sweet on a spymaster, mind you—which is a little ironic, when you think about it.”
Hubert’s concern unwinds into fondness. “He knows his duty.”
“Yes, yes. All I’m saying, still as a friend, is that sometimes it’s easy for people who are close to assume they know how someone feels. Or assume the other person knows how they feel.” Her gaze travels to Edelgard, her wine glass tipping. She straightens it and turns to wink at Hubert. “I’m sure the Emperor’s spymaster can figure out how to use that little nugget?”
“I take all intelligence seriously, yes. Thank you.”
It might be appropriate to feed her information in return, perhaps that Edelgard references her every time they pass a rosebush, but loyalty binds him to secrecy. Both of their attentions stray elsewhere, and despite Dorothea’s warning, he assumes they know each other’s priorities.
So it surprises him when she says, “I would never live it down if Ferdie knew I told you this, but you’re lucky, Hubie. I hope you know that.”
“I do,” he says softly, “and I do not betray my informants.” Her posture relaxes.
That night, after ensuring Edelgard is attended, Hubert catches Ferdinand on the way to his chambers.
“May I have the honor?” Hubert asks, offering his arm.
Either an evening of dance and diplomacy has sworn even Ferdinand off negotiating, or he is happy to slip both hands in the crook of Hubert’s elbow. Hubert finds himself walking with more care.
At the door, Ferdinand’s touch lingers. “Would you care to stay?”
It isn’t an unusual invitation. He agrees without much thought.
Once inside, Ferdinand chats about the people he spoke with, from friends to more dubious types. His poise slips as he peels off his gloves and loosens his collar. Hubert intervenes to unfasten Ferdinand’s broach before moving on to his coat buttons.
“Ah,” Ferdinand manages, “You do not have to—that is…”
Hubert freezes at the near-purple shade spreading down Ferdinand’s throat.
“I meant no disrespect.” Hubert’s tongue feels heavy. Helping someone in and out of uniform has only ever been routine.
Ferdinand dips his head and steps back. “I should bathe. Please, make yourself comfortable.” He scurries off, and Hubert tries to put it from his mind.
He removes his own jacket and settles on the sofa to review his spies’ notes. A guard found poison on a prospective guest, and a server overheard what could be a nefarious deal. Beyond that, all is routine. He has stayed up in this room many nights to strategize with Ferdinand, keeping coffee and a mountain of folders in reach. Occasionally, the same happens in his own chambers, but they hide things of a different delicacy than the doilies on Ferdinand’s coffee table.
Not that Ferdinand shares everything, it seems. What has he deemed for Dorothea’s ears alone? Is he truly so unhappy? Perhaps courtesy or commitment prevents him from admitting Hubert has fallen short.
A hand rests on his shoulder, and he flips his notes over on instinct. “You should get some rest,” Ferdinand murmurs. Another common occurrence, though usually it’s well into the night when one sends the other to bed.
Later, he intends to say. He prefers not to waste more time asleep than necessary. For all Ferdinand paces through the day, Hubert has sparked rumors of a ghost wandering the halls at night. Let them deter the spies I must root out, he said when Ferdinand mentioned it.
He looks up, and his response vanishes without a trace. Ferdinand leans over him, a crimson bathrobe tucked around his shoulders and curls tumbling around his neck. It would make him vulnerable were his physique not on display. To think Hubert silently mocked partygoers who went tongue-tied in Ferdinand’s presence. Not that they were treated to the soft set of his mouth, the shadows beneath his jaw, or the scar crossing the dip of silk.
Ferdinand’s hand, its nicked and calloused skin bare, lifts from Hubert’s shoulder. Hubert rises with it like a puppet. He just barely remembers to stow his notes.
For someone so concerned with decorating Hubert’s space, Ferdinand hasn’t replaced the portraits he removed, giving Hubert nothing to distract himself with on the walk to the inner chamber. Ferdinand toes aside books on the floor and halts.
Despite borrowing each other’s quarters, they’ve never gone to bed together. Hubert has climbed in with Ferdinand already asleep, position rigid from military years; he’s gone to bed alone and woken to rumpled bedding. Once, nightmares woke them both, and they rose together for a cup of tea.
They stand now beside the bed. As always, Ferdinand reaches, but he catches himself, drawing an arm across his robe. The air between them crackles with uncertainty, caught in a dance where one could choose to dip the other at the risk of dropping them.
It doesn’t suit Ferdinand, who always forges a path forward, whether or not he could reach a chasm. Hubert has stuck to his life’s work, but Ferdinand’s willingness to fumble is evident in the crochet hook on his bedside table (an emergency weapon, Hubert thought, but its end goal is a hat for Bernadetta). Surely he would be free with his affection.
It’s easy to assume.
“Are you not comfortable with this?” Hubert asks.
“No! I mean, I am. Why do you ask?”
“You are holding back.”
“I am holding back? I am the one who takes your hand, who asks for a dance, who…” Ferdinand inhales, clutching his robe. Hubert crosses his arms to stop from picking the books off the floor, or anything else to allow a breath of his own.
“A logical delegation. You seemed to know what you were doing.”
Ferdinand flushes. “It is more the case that I know what I would like to do.”
“Then is there a problem with you doing it?”
“Potentially many! I do not wish to do anything you would find unpleasant. Quite the opposite.” Ferdinand scratches his red ear. Tongue still heavy, Hubert falls back on what he knows.
“Shall we draw up a list, then?”
Ferdinand perks up, again a diplomat. “An excellent suggestion! With perhaps terms for—wait, no, that is missing the point slightly.” He drops to sit at the edge of the bed, arranging the ties of his robe. “Darling… Hubert, I cannot always be the one who reaches.”
“Is the result not the same?” For all their banter, Hubert hadn’t thought it mattered who initiated something.
“Not as such. How am I to know what you do and do not enjoy? What you desire? If you…” Ferdinand draws into himself, and not even the sword at his bedside can make him invulnerable.
How like them, to harbor the same fears.
Carefully, he sits beside Ferdinand and reaches for his hand, running a gloved thumb over bare knuckles. It is different for Ferdinand to curl fingers around him and slump against his side.
“Forgive me. I did not intend to make you feel uncared-for,” Hubert says.
“You do not need forgiveness, nor must you do anything you do not wish to. You can speak frankly with me, Hubert. Partner to partner, not minister to minister. I just want to know what you want.”
Such an odd thing, still, for someone to tell Hubert in earnest. While he thinks, he tries something he’s at least received, fitting Ferdinand’s fingers to the curve of his lips. The skin feels both rougher and softer than he could have imagined.
“That is a difficult question to answer. Until recently, I never so much as desired to touch anyone,” Hubert says.
Ferdinand searches him, seeming to come to an understanding when he smiles. “There is no shame in experimenting. Touch me as much as you would like.”
“A dangerous invitation, when I do not even know how much that is.”
“I do not think that shall be a problem.” Ferdinand’s skin matches his robe, his chin dipping from the strain of his smile, and the extent of what he’s offering hits Hubert like poison numbing his veins.
He releases Ferdinand’s hand. Ferdinand’s eyes follow his every movement as he slips off his gloves, revealing the sweat gathered in his palms. It is one thing to follow a path Ferdinand charted, another to be granted a full exploration.
He does not start with skin against skin. Instead, he loops his arms around Ferdinand’s back, running his hands between the small of it and his shoulder blades. The sensation, both soft and taut, goes some way to soothing Hubert. Ferdinand closes his eyes and exhales, his tense muscles relaxing minutely beneath the touch.
Hubert’s deepest instinct flares. He rests their cheeks together to whisper in Ferdinand’s ear. “Tell me what you need. Anything, it shall be yours.”
Ferdinand pulls back, his face creased. “No. That is not how this works, Hubert.” He winds his arms around Hubert’s neck until their foreheads touch. “Tell me.”
Hubert snorts. “Of all the hypocrisy.”
“All right, all right.” Ferdinand’s laugh summons Hubert’s smile. “Then if it is agreeable to you, I would very much like a kiss.”
With only an inch between their lips, it is easy to close the gap—or it would be, if Hubert’s stupor hadn’t made him forget noses. Another laugh from Ferdinand makes it impossible to live in the misstep. Hubert tilts to fit against him, and there is no more laughter, only spreading warmth as hands slide from nape to hair, and from shoulder blades to sides.
As ever, Ferdinand makes himself known. Sighs, gasps, twitches, every tell Hubert uncovers as Ferdinand’s galloping pulse becomes his target. As much as you would like. He could learn everything. Of all his morbid knowledge of bodies, how had he never known skin at the throat’s hollow got so hot?
How is Hubert so hot?
He wrenches himself away. At Ferdinand’s concern, Hubert keeps a loose hold on his partner’s waist and wills a steady voice. “That is enough for now.”
Ferdinand’s lips have become as red as the rest of him. There is more Hubert could have given, but Ferdinand untangles his fingers from Hubert’s hair and smiles. “Thank you.”
Part of Hubert wants to run, to cool down by himself. The side of Ferdinand’s hand trails Hubert’s cheek as it drops. He does not quite lean into it.
“We should rest,” Hubert says.
Ferdinand lies down, a military man as always, though he relaxes more than usual into the mattress. After putting out the candles with a snap, Hubert sheds another layer and lays his knives on the bedside table before climbing in. He sleeps on his back, too, always ready to spring up in case of an attack.
Some lovers hold each other at night, wrapped in each other’s limbs like a second blanket. He does not incapacitate them so. But he shifts close, connecting their shoulders and wrists, simply because he can.