Word count: 4800 (10 to 38 minutes) | Rating: T | Fire Emblem: Three Houses Spoilers| Characters: Hubert von Vestra and the Black Eagles Students (and minor OCs)
Alister had always been among the slighter boys of the Hresvelg line. His twin, Armida, shared more of Lady Edelgard’s constitution than he did. Their comparison was only made simpler by the one year between the twins and the younger Edelgard. Somehow, Alister had outlasted his twin sister in the experiments regardless. Hubert waited by the cell door, watching his diminished, pale form asleep on the cot. His hair was nearly indistinguishable from his skin even in the dim cell.
The inhuman creatures who invaded the Enbarr palace undercroft and warped it for their sinister ends had decreed that Alister was no longer useful for experimentation. His identity had eroded way to a meaningless swirl of his own recollections and the past evidently stored within the Crest they forced upon him. They told Hubert very little directly, but he had excelled in espionage for many years by then. He rarely required telling to know.
Therefore, when he uncovered their plans to dispose of Alister as indifferently as one would with expired supplies, Hubert inserted himself into the plan. His father refused the very thought but was outmatched by Solon. His conclusion was that it would be beneficial for Hubert to execute a child of House Hresvelg. Whether for mockery, leverage, or simply to cause him pain, Hubert couldn’t say. Neither did it much matter. He achieved what he aimed to: a merciful passing for a descendent of the Imperial throne from someone who knew him well.
Alister’s sleep was not restful if his breathing was any indication, yet it was better than none at all. Hubert could afford to allow him that much. For what must be done next, any amount of waiting was acceptable.
And wait he did. The poison had already dissolved into the warm Hresvelg blend tea, and cooling would not reverse that. Beside that plain porcelain teacup was a sweet bun, which Hubert had been careful to instruct the palace cooks in making for Lady Edelgard. The recipe came from Faerghus through Hubert’s burgeoning network. Knowing Alister’s sweet tooth as he did and being confident it was unchanged, he was certain he would enjoy the light meal as his last. No sense in making him nauseous from overeating in his final moments.
“Ngh,” Alister groaned, tensing in his sleep. There was no pillow and merely a sparse sheet beneath him to clutch in the thralls of whatever plagued his dreams. Illness claimed Armida; madness had come for Alister. Twisting to face Hubert and drawing his legs in, he forced out a breath as if he’d been kicked. “No, ah—”
He startled awake, panting for a while until his breathing steadied. Only then did he squint into the shadows beyond the bars and see Hubert with the silver serving tray.
“Who…? Ah, yes.” Alister’s shoulders gradually fell, and he took a minute to get himself seated at the cot’s edge. He lifted his head to examine him as a familiar stranger. “Hu…bert…?” He was unsure. Inquiring. Still, it was the most lucid he’d been in days. A fortunate state of mind for the arbitrary day of execution chosen by his captors.
“Yes. You must be hungry,” he ventured, lifting the tray as a gesture. There was little chance he wasn’t, but that wasn’t the true question. Hubert had to be sure his clarity was lasting before he entered the cell with him. In his bouts of madness, Alister was inhumanly strong and blindly aggressive. Hubert could manage that but preferred a comfortable end for him. Failing in his defense of Lady Edelgard’s family… The least he could deliver was a peaceful and painless death.
“And you snuck food down here for me? You must be very quiet.” Alister was quiet himself, lowering his gaze to the floor. “Did you get some to the others?”
“Of course.” He had, in some cases. At least recently, although not tonight.
“How is she? That girl who shared my birthday?” Armida’s name was lost to him while her connection to him endured in the barest sense. Considering their closeness as twins, that lapse in memory proved the devastation that blood reconstruction surgery could visit upon the psyche. Not for Lady Edelgard, of course. She retained perfect awareness throughout this depraved cruelty. That outcome being the better of the two was telling.
“As well as could be expected.” He’d been informed of Armida’s passing twice before to unmatched despair, at which time Hubert resolved to omit that fact in future inquiries. Twice was too many as it was.
“I don’t suppose you have the keys?”
“I do.” Hubert held open his cloak to reveal the black keys on his belt. Normally, they were not so accessible. It scarcely mattered when he was visiting the cells of the undercroft. He was the sole person there with restricted access.
Kronya meant to make his acquisition of the keys into a game of some sort, as she derived the most amusement from tormenting him, but Thales had strictly forbid it. Not that the vile creature himself was present at the time. Solon enforced the decree more from impatience than any true loyalty. Even slight devotion couldn’t be expected from these twisted beasts.
“You do?” Raising his head again at last, Alister appeared almost hopeful. An ache stirred distantly in the depths of Hubert’s heart at the sight. With a deliberate breath, he quelled that sentiment. There would be time for remorse when the deed was done. It was one matter to wait so Alister could rest and another to give Solon a chance to reverse his decision while Hubert labored over his feelings. “No point in escaping, is there?”
“…I’m afraid not.” The disorientation and lapses in his own memories caused by the experimentation did not lend him strong stability even within his own cell. Alister would likely be overcome by madness in this very hallway even if he were released. Or worse, slaughtered in his escape attempt by the very same despicable creatures that Hubert shielded him from.
His thoughtful pause was brief, and he held his gaze on Hubert by coincidence alone. He may as well have been a stretch of wall for the exhaustion in Alister’s eyes.
“Could you come in with me? Stay while I eat?”
“Gladly.” He steadied the tray with practiced skill as he turned the key in the lock. It moved smoothly, well-maintained in its misuse against the Hresvelg heirs. There was no table in the cell, not with the lone overturned crate acting as a seat for Alister’s impromptu guest. Even necessities such as that were at the silent insistence of Hubert. There was no one else with access to these cells that would move any semblance of furniture into them.
“Thank you,” Alister sighed, scooting back to rest against the wall. His haggard state left him with little energy when he was consumed by the power of the Crest rewritten in his blood. Unlike his twin sister, his symptoms were understated aside from his colorless hair. Closer examination showed he struggled to keep his eyes open, and his nails were especially brittle. He was less fit than he had been — hardly a surprise on account of the twins never keeping still for long — but he retained some of his usual bearing as he crossed his legs and smirked.
“The honor is mine.” Hubert knew his company didn’t have enough memory of him to recognize that as stiffly formal, even by his standards. That presented him the opportunity to express anything to Alister he might wish to say before there was no other chance to. Hubert sat on the crate and set the tray down on his legs for convenience. Barely into his teenage years, his height was more awkward than useful as of yet. It had its moments, such as long legs serving for a stable surface. The bun from the platter was sticky to the touch from its honeyed glaze as he passed it to Alister with instructions. “Eat this slowly.”
“What is it?” True to his core nature, Alister accepted the offering anyway, seeming to test the spongy texture not typical of denser Adrestian pastries.
“It’s sweet. I don’t care for it.”
“I can take it off your hands, then,” he flashed a weak grin and took a small bite. “Mm. It’s a light flavor.” Encouraged by that, Alister bit off more.
“You’ll make yourself sick.”
He wouldn’t be able to come back another time to lay Alister to rest. Solon gave him this date, and Hubert knew better than to expect an extension in light of their wrongful prisoner’s sensitive stomach.
Alister rolled his eyes despite doing as he was told and picking off a smaller bite. He rolled the piece between his fingers for a time, slipping into another distant stare.
“I keep seeing these memories… over and over when I sleep. There’s a canyon, red and rich with life until it just rips apart with blood. People are screaming. When it’s quiet, I hear the echoes.” He brought the denser bit of bun to his mouth as though it were bitter. Hubert held his tongue, although he was one of few who knew of the event. “And it just—it breaks me. They’re people I know. My people, I can feel it.” Pushing the flat of his palm against his chest, Alister grimaced. He and Armida alike had been ruled by their hearts. Even corrupted by experimentation, that remained.
By happenstance, Alister returned to the present to dwell on Hubert with glassy eyes and a trembling sigh.
“I get these other visions, and they feel real, but they’re not mine. They’re not me.” This time, he broke to tear off another piece of the bun and ate it almost from spite. This pace was better for him, even if he’d finished nearly half already. “I can half see their faces, catch a few words… I’d have dinner at this—”
With a frown, he glanced to the ceiling to remember his dreams. Hubert was well aware of what he was going to describe. He knew the table and family dinners better than he knew the various methods to kill an enemy in the dark.
Marius and Verona, the youngest and with common interests if contrasting personalities, talked among themselves when they failed to assert themselves in conversations of the older Hresvelg children. Edelgard was not so content to be overlooked and devotedly spoke with the two eldest, Laverna and Edmund. The twins riled up Berwyn and Reynard, who scarcely needed the provocation to act out in tandem. Lady Anselma and Emperor Ionius IX took turns reigning in whoever required it. Henrietta, the most inclined to maternal instinct, occasionally intervened where her parents did not. Margaretta reliably kept out of the mess altogether, however, she could be persuaded to converse now and again.
Hubert sat near Edelgard as always. The Hresvelg family was vast and loving, full of character without an ounce of seditious ambition.
He would never see them all gathered there again.
Hubert set his jaw and gripped the tray ever so slightly tighter as his permissible tell in Alister’s company. He noticed nothing, naturally. Gesturing with his hands to show the size of the table they both envisioned, he continued.
“This long table, and every seat was full. At least ten people all gathered around for a meal. It feels like—that was home too. It can’t be, it just can’t.”
Alister groaned, pressing the knuckles of his free hand to his forehead as his legs bent closer to his chest from primitive fear. Conflicting identities warred in his skull, and he was inevitably the victim of their feud. That fate could only be staved off with fleeting distraction.
“No need to trouble yourself with them, then.” Hubert kept his voice measured in his reply. He’d trained in doing so for years, and the earlier leniency afforded him more discipline where he needed it most. It would be a disgrace if he couldn’t speak with the necessary finality to imply there was no other choice but that which he gave.
“How…” Alister stalled by eating another piece, larger than the last but still of a suitable size. Equally tenuous and distraught, his brow staying furrowed while he chewed. Pain flickered across his eyes with a wince when he did elect to look at Hubert once more. “How can you be so sure?”
“Do you have any doubt the canyon is your home?”
Biting his lip, he turned the bun over in his hands and carefully examined it—a random inquisitive habit that influenced Hubert’s prior decision not to lace the bun with poison.
“…No.” Hesitation aside, he spoke with conviction and appeared to relax. Enough to take a small bite directly from the bun without comment from Hubert, even.
“Then it is.”
“But why can’t I remember it all?” He took out his aggression on the bun with a fierce bite, however aptly sized. Again, Hubert did not advise him to slow down. There wasn’t much bun left to prevent him from eating and to do so would only be stalling for his own benefit. “I can feel something hidden in my mind. I’m not imagining it.”
Alister had no way to know the missing information wasn’t in his mind, but his forced Crest, and it was rapidly driving him insane. Unstable. Hubert looked to the innocent-looking tea on the tray set on his lap. The surface was steady. It did not reflect the insidious tremor of regret and remorse already laying siege to his resolve. But there was no way to save Alister. No cure for his ailment. None but what lurked in the depths of that plain porcelain teacup. Hubert would do what he must to support the Hresvelg line, however abhorrent or deplorable. He swore that in the cell his father had hurled him into when he was captured after his attempt to flee to Fhirdiad. Regardless of if he wished there were another course of action, Hubert von Vestra would take on any task to best serve this family he held as his own.
“You’ve been through an ordeal, and you’re not finished with it yet.” He lifted the teacup and saucer from the tray, calm and sympathetic to the fracture in Alister’s psyche. The reassurance was vaguely worded so as to prevent another metaphorical collision in his brain. “It’s expected for there to be consequences.”
Reaching for the cup and leaving the saucer behind, Alister thought nothing of taking a sip straight away. The bun was light but doubtless better with a beverage to wash it down.
His mouth twisted into a disappointed pout. “Mm. A bit cold.”
“Forgive me.” Whether for the temperature of the tea or the present circumstances, the necessity of what he’d done… Hubert alone knew. He would bring that to his grave with the same tenacity that he upheld his fealty to the Hresvelgs in all matters. To include the courtesy of a humane death the survivors need never know the cause of.
Polishing off the bun, Alister examined the hall beyond Hubert thoughtfully. He seemed most like his former self with a renewed glimmer to his eyes. Truth be told, Hubert was glad for the parting glimpse. He didn’t want to remember another Hresvelg as he did Armida and the others claimed by these atrocities.
“It’s strange. Not the tea,” he added, fortunately not realizing how incorrect that addition was, “but these memories that aren’t mine and those that are missing.”
“Did you want to discuss it?” Hubert was all too aware that he would be at eternal rest before he finished. It was, as they said, the thought that counted. Whatever Alister wished to do, he would assent.
“No. I feel like I shouldn’t.” He offered an empty smile, washing that away with tea. A hard stare took its place and Hubert braced in preparation. The shift was subtle yet informative.
This was not how the memory of that evening went. Alister had drifted off with ease, his head falling against his chest mid-sentence. Hubert caught the cup before it shattered and returned everything where it belonged in the kitchen to leave no trace of what he’d done. What he’d been forced to do. He contained his grief to his quarters, long since capable of silencing his sorrow.
“I should be asking why you would kill me.”
“Hm?” An insipid chill entwined with his ribs, seeping into his chest, but he refused to let it show on his face. This was where the dream would turn to nightmare; Hubert knew that. None of this was real. He could exert his will on it by extension. That tactic hadn’t worked to date, and still, he never failed to reach for it.
The smooth stone cell warped as its edges, consumed by invasive clouds of a nameless black entity one could dismiss as shadows. Not Hubert, feeling his head begin to spin from the precognitive panic, but surely someone could.
Alister’s irises vanished to solid white eyes reminiscent of Thales, and black sludge bled jaggedly from the corners like scars. Hubert tried to command his legs to move, to stand and take him away from this cell to anywhere else in the confines of this familiar nightmare. It would change nothing. That Hubert refused to surrender to his fate acted a testimony to his character rather than any effective undertaking. Despite it all, he stayed locked in his seat on that crate with a useless tray in his frozen hands.
“Why? I barely knew your name,” Alister’s voice layered with one that was assuredly not his own, an experience as horrific as watching Tomas dissolve into Solon in Remire. Yet a nightmare remembered within a nightmare was still not enough to free Hubert from his own mind. “But I trusted you. You made me feel safe, and you used that to murder me.”
He clutched at Hubert’s collar, dissolving any reasonable chance at evasion. The faint scent of sweet buns lingered on those hands and churned his stomach.
“They would have—”
“Killed me anyway? Is that what you’ve told yourself?” He threw the teacup at the unforgiving floor, scattering porcelain among dirt and who knew what else. A recognizable dark energy swirled around him to engulf them both and further trap Hubert. His breath came in short bursts of harsh gasps or thin mockeries of air. This lack of discipline was doubtless reflected in real life as he continued to sleep within heinous dream he deserved. “You enjoyed it. To defeat the monsters in the shadows, you made yourself even worse than them.”
“You don’t understand.” Fear, so foreign and distant to Hubert, fringed the edges of his words in whispers. He felt the tears on his skin in the dream—nothing more—as his heart was pincered between dread and remorse. He had to wake up. There were Dagdan techniques to simply will it and wake. It had been done. Hubert just swallowed hard and found himself talking to this false vision of Alister against his better judgment. “I had to.”
With a sharp, distorted laugh, the nightmare’s Alister began to fall apart. Hubert could hear his teeth creaking as they extended to fangs in his mouth, and strips of human skin fell away with sickeningly wet sounds as they hit the floor. Taut black sinew and hard bone plating sat exposed beneath that layer of shed humanity. Viscous strings of inky substance hung from his new form. Hubert could do nothing as he was reduced to nothing but a demonic beast in the shape of a teenage boy he once knew as well as his every breath. Alister, who loved the turn of spring to summer most of all, who feared water and little else, who favored angelica tea, mocked by this travesty that his mind conjured for Hubert’s warranted anguish.
He blinked away another tear and felt his equilibrium reeling in spite of his remaining immobile.
“Had to, he says!” Alister hissed in his face with the cloying sick smell of poison and decay. “You may fool everyone else, but we know the truth, you and I.”
Releasing his collar to smack the tray aside, smashing the cup saucer and empty plate that sat on it, Alister grabbed onto Hubert’s arms. Only then did he come to his senses and try to wrench free—too late though it was. Slick black essence bubbled down Alister’s arms and up Hubert’s own, carrying abject horror with them. In the span of a blink, it spread under his rolled-up sleeves and out of sight. Hubert knew best that honest fear was at its strongest when unseen. His training as the heir to House Vestra rendered him resistant rather than immune to its effects.
He pulled his arms inward and twisted to break his grasp, even pushing back with his feet for additional leverage. Alister held firm. The monstrous procedures gave him a strength betrayed by his relatively frail stature. It was simply a matter of seconds before that toxin reached Hubert’s chest and corroded its way into his heart.
“You call them wicked and wretched when you didthis to us.”
Hubert woke sharply, panic spilling over into consciousness. He laid with a thin sheet coiled around his legs, effectively trapping his sleeping self. He rested his head back onto the pillow and exhaled in disappointment. Points to his subconscious for creativity, then.
“Finally,” Linhardt drawled, yawning. “You had me worried.”
He snapped his eyes open once again, and the dark surroundings dawned on him. Linhardt looked perfectly prepared for sleep aside from watching Hubert with a surprisingly attentive stare. An evening chill hung in the air, neither close to dusk nor dawn. Canvas walls hung around him over sturdy posts. They were stationed in the field, and a nearby river unexpectedly flooded their intended camping site. Not all of the tents could be put up as a result. In light of that, the generals of the Strike Force agreed to sleep in the same one that night. Linhardt chose to set up his bedroll near him because Hubert was quiet and still. Tonight notwithstanding.
And if he was awake… Hubert sat up and scanned the tent to see his former Black Eagle classmates, now generals, in various states of alertness and all with concern on their expressions.
“You—” He began unwinding the sheets from his legs to preoccupy his attention. Anything not to see the pity in their eyes. “Should have woken me.”
“We tried,” Dorothea answered from her place by the tent’s opening with Petra. Perhaps it was habit or exhaustion that gave her words a vaguely melodic lilt. “Your nightmares are even more stubborn than you are.”
She’d intended to tease him in their usual way, but it made a poor mask for her worry. Over him. Hubert waited in tense silence and frowned at the wrinkled sheet now laid flat across his legs. Briefly, the was reminded of the tray and the sweet bun. That smell associated with the end of the dream. By sheer willpower, Hubert buried that nauseated sensation in response.
“Hey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all get ‘em sometimes.” Caspar chimed in and stretched, no different in tone than if he’d gotten a full night’s rest. Nothing short of an ambush boxing in their forces could feasibly exhaust Caspar. Naturally, he set up his spot on the opposite side of Linhardt.
“It—it’s true.” Resolute regardless of her volume or lack thereof, Bernadetta contributed to his defense as well from her comparatively secluded bedroll.
An addition to a process he despised entirely. None of it was necessary. All of his allies should have been sleeping for the journey ahead and battles to come, not waiting in the night for his moment of weakness to pass. He curled his hands into fists against his legs. Hubert never should have permitted them to be burdened in such a way.
“No one thinks less of you, Hubert.” Edelgard reached out gently for his hand, blackened by sustained use of dark magic. Not so far as to travel up his arms, mercifully. Her hand over his was admittedly calming. He relaxed somewhat and unfurled his hands.
“In Brigid, it is common to be keeping bad dreams far away by… Your people aren’t having a word for it.” Petra stopped to consider her options in the limited lexicon of Fódlan, tapping her chin. “With togetherness.”
“Ah, an excellent suggestion!” Ferdinand maintained enthusiasm at impressive levels, as ever. His place of choice was with Petra and Dorothea, no doubt in an attempt to provide reinforcements by the tent’s entrance if need be. His eagerness to be of use in all possible circumstances had only amplified with time. “We are already in one tent. There is space yet to sleep closer together.”
“I’m—not sure what to make of that.” He’d never even slept in his parents’ bed as a child. Starting that with his fellow generals now as an adult… Hubert meant no offense to her customs, but he couldn’t be sure how effective that proposed strategy might be. Although the thought didn’t unsettle him as much as he estimated that it could. Looking to her, he finished his explanation. “I don’t typically permit others to be close.”
“Come on, Hubert, it’s just us!” As usual, Caspar made an excellent point Hubert hadn’t considered. There wasn’t anyone else he would even entertain testing this particular theory with. His grin was palpable in the atmosphere more than seen and some motion in the dark suggested he was pointing to Linhardt. “When I can’t sleep, I always go to Lin’s room and end up sleeping like a baby.”
“Mm,” Linhardt agreed, already dragging his bedroll closer to Hubert’s with as little effort as possible. His hair was in a loose bun to keep it out of his way while he slept and made the unplanned journey simpler, to his credit. Hubert found he was marginally uneasy with the closeness for reasons he couldn’t define. A greater portion of his thoughts were on Edelgard’s hand on his while Linhardt settled into his newfound spot. They weren’t touching, but his presence was close enough to sense and distinguish from the others on instinct. There was an aspect of that familiarity that Hubert confessed to himself was something of a consolation.
“You don’t have to, but…” Bernadetta trailed off, staying put for her own comfort. She had matured enough to establish her own boundaries while acknowledging that others’ laid elsewhere. He could not see her clearly at that distance but would be willing to guess that she had a timid smile for him. “Maybe it’ll help?”
“There is only one way to be sure,” Ferdinand encouraged, his ponytail thrown over his shoulder as he brought his roll closer as well. If Linhardt could do so, Hubert certainly wasn’t stopping any of the rest.
“You are always ready to be protecting us, Hubert.” Petra added as she made her trek across the tent’s floor to the circle swiftly forming around Hubert. “Now, will you let us be keeping you safe?”
There was nothing to be gained from denying the unspoken decision he’d made. Any apprehension he may have felt could be attributed to a lack of experience, as any uncertainty tended not to agree with him. But the predominant sentiment towards their togetherness, as Petra phrased it, was one of comfort. These were people he knew since their time at the monastery. They had saved his life, and he had done the same as well. Any one of them would fight to the very end for the better life they dreamed of. Most of all, for one another.
Hubert took a bracing breath and laid back down on his roll in the midst of his closest companions. “I suppose it’s worth the attempt.”
“There’s our Hubie,” Dorothea half-sang, settling into her bedroll within their new formation.
“Sweet dreams, Hubert.” With that wish, Edelgard gave his hand a soft pat and withdrew it to her own space.
The mixture of their combined presence and some extent of personal space did have a soothing influence. He felt the hazy draw of sleep resurfacing, and this time, without the customary threat of another nightmare lurking beneath.
“Thank you.” The gratitude he felt was beyond the scope of those paltry words. If he was fortunate, the next dream would grant him a chance to devise suitable means of expressing that appreciation to his colleagues in turn.